Working a UNH-IOL Plugfest

Every few months, the UNH-IOL hosts plugfests to allow participants to collectively test their devices in an industry environment. For those who haven’t been lucky enough to attend one, a plugfest is a multi-day event where our vendors come together to test their latest products, make sure they can all work together, and nip any problems in the bud early. I’m here to talk about what it’s like working at one of these exciting events.

Before the plugfest starts, we have some setup to do. The UNH-IOL student employees prep all the tables, put any devices that arrived early in place, and make sure everyone has power outlets and network drops. The setup is an important part of every plugfest, allowing a quick and easy testing experience for our participants.

Once the participants arrive, one of the first things you notice is the variety of different devices. All the vendors have their own unique style and it shows. While the participants are getting set up and making sure everything works as expected, it’s a good chance for the student workers like myself to say hello and get to know participants. Everyone is happy to talk a bit about their devices and the new technologies they’re working on, but soon it’s time for the main event.

After setup, things pick up quickly. The job of an UNH-IOL technician during the plugfest is to verify and record the results produced by the vendor testing, so you’re often bouncing from place to place as the different devices finish up at different rates. Sometimes you get the chance to sit with one attendee as they perform a batch of tests. This is always fun, as you get to make some connections and learn about the technologies you use every day from experienced engineers. There’s also a break for lunch, which is catered and always delicious.

Because there are so many different vendors, there’s a strict schedule that defines who tests with what partners at all times. Some of the participants are cable vendors, so there’s a lot of switching connections every time the test partners are changed. As a tech, you spend some time labeling the cables with tape at the start to save a lot of time tracking them down later, which also provides a nice way to track the cables used with each test in the reports at the end.

Once things wind down, it’s time for data cleaning and reports. On the last day, everyone finishes up their last-minute testing and starts heading back home, hopefully with new ideas and ways to improve their devices. The techs do some quick cleanup, then we take a look at all the data collected to make sure no mistakes or oddities slipped through. While the data is currently cleaned and made into reports by hand, there is a student-run project underway to automate most of the process. Once that’s complete, a lot of the post-plugfest work will become faster and easier. This means faster reports, better results for the vendors, and making our process easier for students.

While the Coronavirus meant a few of our latest planned plugfests were canceled, we are working hard to figure out how we can keep delivering the same testing services while still staying safe. Whatever form our plugfests end up taking, I’m confident that our solution will be something that continues to be fun for the student employees while being a great opportunity for vendors, and I can’t wait for the next one!

Cornelis Plomp
Mechanical Engineering, 2022