Typewriters, word processors and desktop PCs are considered dinosaurs relative to current technological standards, but for Michael Legatt, these old school basics represent the springboard to a successful and multifaceted career. Ever since disassembling his family's new computer when he was in the second grade, Legatt, a senior human factors engineer for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the entity that manages the power grid in most of the state of Texas, has pursued the study of human-computer interaction in a unique and roundabout way.
“I come from a different background than most of my colleagues at ERCOT and in the power industry,” the 32-year-old husband and father of three observed.
Born in the Bronx and raised in White Plains, New York, Legatt began the first of his professions in high school, performing IT, networking and software development for his school district.
“The school district had some students with visual system difficulties,” he said. “We found that, for some of them, it was easier to read white text on a black background as opposed to black text on white. It set me on the path toward looking at the way we receive information from our technology, rather than just the way the technology sends information to us.”
While pursuing his undergraduate degree in psychology at Baruch College, Legatt managed to turn an internship into a job on Wall Street, designing quantitative equity-analysis software for Lightstone Capital Management. His software is being used for research and stock selection in several investment vehicles as well as helping to design values-based investments for those interested in keeping their investments in compliance with their religious and ethical principles.
“Back then, new computers often worked at double the speed of their predecessors” he said. “Instead of making Wall Street traders' jobs easier, we saw that the increased computer speed made their stress levels even higher. Their new expectations of things happening faster went beyond the capacity of their computers, and many of them saw increased health problems as a result. This further interested me in the relationships between people and computers.”
This growing interest led to a master's degree and then a Ph.D. in clinical health psychology with a focus on the neuro-psychology of visual attention from the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology/Albert Einstein School of Medicine.
Legatt may have been content to remain on his chosen career path if not for an event that affected an estimated 50 million Americans and Canadians: the 2003 Northeast Blackout.
“I was home at the time and had just started a load of laundry,” he recalled. “Seconds later, the power went out. I thought I had blown a fuse, but it turned out to be much bigger than that.”
Calling on his experience as an amateur (ham) radio operator, Legatt assisted as a network controller in New York's Westchester County Emergency Operations Center, ensuring communications flowed properly between various groups that could no longer communicate with each other.
“This pivotal event got me interested in the power systems world,” he said. “It became clear to me how reliant we are on our electric infrastructure. Later, it was concluded that a large part of the blackout was due to the human factor. The operators could not see the big picture on their computer screens.”
Instead of ignoring this problem, Legatt decided to put his skills as a visual attention expert to a different use. He and wife Caroline swapped roles (he was an at-home parent at the time), packed up their family and headed to Texas. There, he landed a job with ERCOT, collaborating with his colleague and mentor, the late Gary Macomber, to develop a prototype for a monitoring and visualization system to be used by the organization's control room operators.
“ERCOT decided to develop this prototype into a core systems application,” said Legatt. “We called it the Macomber Map to honor Gary's memory. For the past two years, the tool has been used to give operators a high-level view of the power grid and to provide additional problem-solving support.”
In addition to his work at ERCOT, Legatt uses his psychology background and power engineering control systems expertise to design control room interfaces for Advanced Fusion Systems, which is involved in the protection of the power grid from geomagnetically induced pulses arising from solar storms, advanced environmental remediation systems and fusion power generation systems.
Legatt also is pursuing a graduate degree in power systems engineering from University of Texas, and looking at the reliability and market-oriented aspects of charging electric vehicles on ERCOT campuses.
Undeterred by his busy schedule, Legatt has no plans to slow down professionally or personally.
“I am fortunate,” he said. “Not only am I doing what I love and working with really great people, but I can go home at a reasonable hour and spend time with my wife and children. No matter how much work there is, family comes first.”