Joe Beaver works in eight-second increments, typically no more than 24 seconds per day. In an average year, Beaver might work as few as 100 days. Reflexively, one is tempted to say, "Nice work if you can get it," except that you probably wouldn't want this work. The pay is irregular and low, the chance of crippling injury persistent and high. And, if you're the world's best, which Beaver is, you get to wear a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate.
On any given day, as I strap myself into my Honda Civic, Beaver straps himself onto the back of an incensed 1,500 lb. bull. As an active member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), Beaver spends his working hours in a precarious search for balance between adrenaline overdose and the need for medical care.
Not long ago, rodeos were the collective efforts of local enthusiasts who gathered to celebrate a fabled and fading way of life. Now, there's change on the range: The roughriders are regulated. Today, the PRCA sanctions 800 rodeos every year and has close to 12,000 members, 5,000 of whom are active competitors chasing $25 million in prize money.
For years, the competitions were tracked manually. Roving secretaries sat in hot, dusty stands armed with pad and pen and recorded what they saw. In the late 1980s, an attempt was made to automate the process on PCs emulating the AS/400. It failed. Tracking multiple events with multiple competitors in multiple cities was, not surprisingly, a multitasking challenge. Kevin Ward, PRCA's MIS director, recognized this fact when he was hired in 1989.
Enter the AS/400, I'm baited to say, in a ten-gallon hat. Well, not exactly. This AS/400 would get lost in a ten-gallon hat. It's the portable-smaller than a briefcase, with the power of a full-sized system. Ward's idea was to equip each secretary in the field with an AS/400 Advanced Portable that could communicate with the AS/400 Advanced System 310 at the PRCA's headquarters in Colorado Springs.
"The only drawback," said Ward, "is that the units are not equipped with pop-up screens." A finicky grievance, he admitted, but one he wishes the developers would remedy. Ward's solution was to connect IBM ThinkPads to the portables, providing the necessary screens. PRCA's scorekeepers could thus employ the AS/400 as a standalone system while exploiting the power of multiple sessions and AS/400-to-AS/400 communications.
It didn't take Ward long to figure out that there just wasn't a whole lot of rodeo circuit software on the retail shelf, so he hired Phil Schwartz to roll his own. As applications development manager, Schwartz discovered the task to be far more challenging and complex than he initially anticipated.
For one thing, the secretaries were responsible for much more than simply recording event results. They collected entrance fees from competing cowboys, were responsible for the assignment of rodeo stock, and tracked rankings through the rodeo's eight events. After each go-round, they would calculate the prize money due competitors, and they were even required to act as timekeepers for some events. During the summer, there could be as many as 30 rodeos per week scattered across the country. Calculating national rankings and keeping them current was akin to herding cats.
All of that paled, however, next to the volume of rules governing rodeo competitions.
"Not rules, per se," amended Schwartz, "but exceptions to the rules." There are 100 pages of irregularities to contend with. Where regulations were concerned, "don't fence me in" seemed to be the dominant rule. Individual rodeos, for example, often used different formulas to calculate prize money. "The ability of the secretaries to download site-specific information from our headquarters' AS/400 was key to maintaining accuracy," Schwartz noted.
At the beginning of a competition, which may last up to a week, the secretaries download relevant data from the headquarters' system in Colorado. Each evening, they back up their day's work to the host AS/400. If problems occur, Ward and his staff can access a field system and even patch through from one remote system to another while the secretaries are working. "One of the great advantages," added Schwartz, "is that software upgrades happen automatically." If an update is required, the secretaries are notified when they log on to the host AS/400, which then effects the necessary changes.
"Another critical consideration for us is reliability," said Ward. The portables visit some pretty remote places, and the secretaries often work in computer-hostile environments. "When the units are returned to us for service, sand and dust just pour out of them," laughed Ward, "but we've never had a failure."
"No bull?" I heard myself reply.
Then, in what was unarguably the best line of the interview, Schwartz added, "They smell real bad, but they run great!"
Currently, PRCA has 11 portable AS/400s, six of which are in the field at any given time. Ward plans to acquire another 20 units over the next several years "to make each of the PRCA's secretaries self-sufficient."
PRCA's success is all the more remarkable because, as Ward recounted, "many of our users had never even seen a computer before." Ward held training classes to introduce the new technology but would get calls from people in the field who, in spite of the training, were initially mystified. "We would say things like, 'plug the thing with the blue screen into the rectangular thing,'" he recalled. But the AS/400's user-friendliness soon put the secretaries at ease and now, said Ward, "they come to us with ideas for improving the system." One such idea would allow secretaries, using a homegrown AS/400 application, to cut checks for the winners-an idea likely to find support among the competitors who must pay their own travel expenses, their own entrance fees, and their own medical costs.
For those of us who lost interest in cowboys after Trigger died, it is perplexing why an otherwise normal person would climb aboard a bull and subject his body to a frontier version of a small thermonuclear explosion. I put that question to Schwartz. "Adrenaline rush," he answered without hesitation. Now, I like a good rush as well as the next person, but riding a bull seems excessive.
"Would you do that?" I asked.
"I don't need it personally," Schwartz said.
I also asked Ward about the animals, since one of PRCA's functions is to ensure the humane treatment of rodeo stock. "The animals," Ward assured me, "never work more than eight seconds per day, and both the PRCA and rodeo stock owners ensure no harm comes to them."
The theory, as Ward explained it, is that the animals will not be mistreated because they are valuable. A good horse or bull may have a 10-15 year career on the rodeo circuit and be worth $20,000, so its owner will not abide abuse. And it is true that a valuable animal, like a valuable car, typically gets good treatment.
So I went to the dictionary. Webster defines humane as "characterized by tenderness, compassion, and empathy...." A challenge, to be sure, with a strap on your genitals or Joe Beaver on your back.
Happy trails to you.
Victor Rozek has 17 years of experience in the data processing industry, including seven years with IBM in Operations Management and Systems Engineering.