Did you know that if you pop open a manhole in mid-July and throw Pop Tarts down to the festering sewage and hundreds of scattering cockroaches below, the insects won’t chaotically swarm to get a nibble of your generous donation? In fact, they’ll just slowly creep up the sides of the manhole with their antennae going berserk as if to say, “Are you trying to insult us with this high-fructose junk?”
Also, sewer cockroaches are much larger than your average, run-of-the-mill roaches. Much larger.
It’s wisdom like this that I was fortunate enough to gain through my internship at Electro Scan, Inc.
In the summer after junior year, it is highly recommended that a student attend an academic summer camp, take on an internship or do something meaningful to give them an edge in the college application process. I suspect that admissions officers and college counselors hope that students like me will extract some valuable life lessons or receive great, transformative wisdom about the work world.
Well, during orientation, I learned not to jump in puddles on the street ever again because there’s fecal matter likely swirling around in there. That was some pretty impactful knowledge if you ask me.
By now you’re wondering, “What kind of an internship was this?” or “Am I going to get gangrene from jumping in all those puddles as a kid?” I know the answer to only one of those.
Electro Scan, Inc., designs and manufactures probes that detect leaks in non-conductive sewer, water and gas pipes by emitting a band of electricity. When a probe scans a pipe, electricity escapes through any leaks, pinpointing the defects.
That’s right! I joined the industry of sewer pipe condition assessment! It’s a glamorous world where “your number two is our number-one priority.”
But how did I get wrapped up in designing the 24-page semi-annual newsletter for such a company? My dad is the CEO and founder, my mom is a managing partner, my uncle is the chief tech officer, one of my cousins is the director of marketing, and my other cousin is a field technician. Ah, the sweet glory of nepotism.
Actually, my dad was initially opposed to my interning, and I had to go through the same rigorous application process as the other interns: turn in a resume, write a cover letter, get interviewed and be measured to see if I was small enough to fit in a manhole.
My dad started roping the family into Electro Scan when he came out of retirement in 2011. Leading up to that, he was in between starting a caramel corn company – based on my grandma’s caramel corn recipe – or returning to the software industry. If he had chosen differently, I’d probably be writing about how I learned to use an industrial popcorn processing machine during my internship at Chuck’s Chewy Chunks of Corn, Inc.
Instead, on my very first day, I was sent across the country with fellow intern Marigot Fackenthal, ‘17. (My other fellow intern Emil Erickson, ‘17, had been sent to San Jose at the time to receive software training, so he was with Marigot and me only in spirit.)
After a red-eye flight from Sacramento to Arizona to Philadelphia, we arrived bright and early at the American Water Works Association’s Annual Convention & Exposition. Oh wait, only I showed up bright and early. Marigot had passed out in her hotel room and turned off her phone, so she trudged down to the convention closer to noon.
When Marigot finally showed up and after I had begged and pleaded with my cousins to not fire her on the spot, we were told to check out the other booths.
One person talked to us about how he had bought some of NASA’s satellites that had once monitored Mars and then programmed them to monitor Earth’s pipe networks.
Another man taught us about pipe bursting. We would later find out that the man noticed our easygoing nature, our bloodshot eyes and our ignorant, silly questions and came to one conclusion: those kids are stoned. He told my cousin about his suspicions later that night, and she passed the message on to me.
For the record, I wasn’t. I had just stayed up for about 30 hours straight and was starting to crash.
Now, up until this point, Marigot and I had been welcomed into every single booth with open arms. Even Electro Scan’s competitors were giddy to explain the difference between vitrified clay pipe and ductile iron pipe. And then one man changed that.
We stepped into a new booth and began searching for clues about what exactly this company sold. The signs were the same at every booth: “Pipe System Diagnostics,” “Pipe Management and Renewal Solutions” and “Integrated Pipe Infrastructure.” So we approached someone for help.
“Hello!” Marigot said to a short, bald man named David. “We’re looking for more information about the-”
“It’s really inappropriate that you’re here,” David cut her off.
“Uh, what?” Marigot said. “We’re just interns.”
David pointed to the logo on her shirt.
“You guys are with Electro Scan, right?” he asked, getting more fed up.
“Yeah, so you really shouldn’t be here.”
I was nearing my 32nd hour without sleep, so I was pretty zoned out as this conversation was happening, but I finally jumped in.
“We’re just confused about how this works,” I said.
“Well, we do our thing, and you do your thing,” David said as he turned away.
I should note that at the time I was not hacking into his computer – and Marigot wasn’t destroying his display – so David had no reason to suspect we were trying to infiltrate his company and tear it down brick by brick. Come on! It was my second day! Those kinds of plans don’t form until the fourth or fifth day.
Regardless, we retreated back to Electro Scan’s booth and told my cousin about the ornery little man.
That was just our first taste of this dramatic industry. Imagine the movie “Mean Girls” but replace the preppy teenagers with 70-year-old, mostly male executives. Their feuds are real and just as nasty as the sewer pipes we inspect. Jealousy is a real motivator when it comes to this field. Some engineers and managers are always trying to exert their superiority, sometimes through blunt sexism, or snuff out their competitors’ business through sneaky tactics.
I was lucky enough to be interning for a company that tries to rise above all that.
On our way back from getting kicked out of a booth, we saw that dozens of people were hanging out at Electro Scan’s booth, drinking free beer from our keg that looks like a fire hydrant. People asked me about my dad while lounging on our couches and eating Cheez-Its. Others took selfies with the keg and invited us out to dinner.
Just based on looks, Electro Scan is not your typical business, and I think that’s in part due to the atmosphere that my dad has built.
When my dad starts any new hobby, his attitude is more of a “Let’s just give it a whirl and see how far we make it.” In my opinion, that attitude continues with Electro Scan. Sure, the company is competitive, the staff works like crazy, and all the employees are bona fide geniuses. But they’re also just fun to hang around with and can laugh at themselves.
Then again, I might be biased since I’m related to half the employees and am hoping for a raise.
For the rest of the summer in the office, we made pancakes, went to Leatherby’s across the street, ordered pizza, rode a mechanical bull at the state fair, created a corny video for a convention competition and pasted a picture of the head of one of the employees on a 32-ounce bottle of Tapatío.
I can only assume that David’s interns sat quietly and twiddled their thumbs all summer as he ranted about Electro Scan’s audacious attempts to spy on his company.
—By Sonja Hansen