on tuesday afternoon, i called in to a conference call describing the deployment. it was a big mess. almost everyone who spoke up demonstrated themselves as being utterly incapable of listening or following instructions. for starters, we’d all been told that the call would be at 3:00PM EST. i think just about nobody here in tennessee was able to determine that it would be at 2:00PM our time, as evidenced by the fact that ten or 15 people joined the call exactly one hour late. the presenters could have easily told us everything we needed to know in 30 minutes, but some people needed to have the same stupid points hammered into their heads over and over again. and they also had to waste time on pointless diversions, ask questions about things like timesheets that were outside the scope of the conference call, etc. the call lasted two full frustrating hours. that experience made me think i’d be walking into an epic disaster.
the first stage was at 4:00PM friday night. the building i was trying to find looked exactly like every other in the gigantic office park, so it took me a long time to figure out where i was supposed to be. it was a nameless, faceless financial services branch, the exact sort of place that inspired the movie office space.
since i’d gotten lost trying to find the right office, i was the last one to arrive, 30 minutes late. the guy in charge of the deployment gave me a glare of reproach that seemed all too familiar. i had to work in places just like this, back before i proved myself to be a programming ghod capable of making the big bux.
the guy’s title was “tech lead.” he was very tall, but he had a way of standing with his shoulders stooped and his neck twisted that subtracted an inch or two from his height. unsure of himself, unpredictable, surly, sprinkling vague threats into every other sentence. he drank too deeply of the kool-aid of despair, and GigantoCorp stole his soul.
despite the tech lead guy acting like i’d just kicked his dog, it didn’t matter at all that i was 30 minutes late. the other four guys had been twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the office’s regular employees to go home so we could get to work. we were sitting around a table in a cramped conference room. most of the chairs were filled with file folders, so not everybody had a place to sit.
“what do you guys do when you’re not doing temp jobs like this?” i asked. none of us had talked socially before that, and it seemed nobody wanted to go first. finally, an older white-haired guy spoke up. “i’ve been out of work for eight months,” he said. he used to work at a different financial services company doing “computer stuff.” one guy said he’d just gotten a job at a place that does computer training, and that he had showed up that night only because he said he would, same as me. a kid of about 22 or so said he’d formerly been a sysadmin at a non-profit org, and he was trying to get his own company going. an older heavy guy said he used to do onsite support and installations for minicomputers, and that he currently did not have steady work. i told them i’d just gotten hired full-time doing programming at a company in the music industry, and that i’d agreed to do this temp job before i knew i wouldn’t need to.
at that point, and much to my surprise, i was starting to enjoy myself. despite the scary experiences with the conference call and the tech lead, i liked all the other guys i was working with. they were competent and committed. over the course of the night, i saw evidence that all of them were trying really hard to do a good job. the 22-year-old kid has a lot of energy and curiosity, and thinks computers are fun, the same as i did when i was his age. most of the guys were underemployed and having problems, so we swapped stories about recruiters and coworkers and the downfall of the tech industry. the older minicomputer guy lamented about how the work-at-one-company-for-40-years-and-ret
then, reality set in. we were supposed to run this program on 20 or 30 new desktops and laptops, which would pull down the company’s suite of apps across the network. in the conference call, we were told it would take about 25 minutes on each computer. in reality, it was taking a minimum of two hours, and as long as four hours. some computers would sit there dead for up to two hours, not making any progress at all, so we’d reboot them and try again. most times they’d do even worse after a reboot, and we’d be instructed to reimage the hard drives from scratch, which would take another 45 minutes.
a few computers did manage to pull down all the apps, but they had their own problems. lotus notes wasn’t running as expected, there were mysterious printing errors, some mapped drives were missing. we were supposed to report problems to the tech lead, which we did, but they mostly didn’t get fixed. our local guy would pass them up the chain of command, then he wouldn’t hear anything back for hours. it got to a point where he made it obvious he didn’t want to hear about any more problems.
and so begins the complaining, finger-pointing, second-guessing, and speculation. some of the guys resorted to voodoo in an attempt to resolve problems: MAYBE IT WILL WORK IF I USE A DIFFERENT NETWORK CABLE THIS TIME. for hours and hours it was one step forward, two steps back.
we were supposed to be finished with the whole project at 1:00AM. by 3:00AM, we had completed less than half the computers. the higher-ups were not giving any indications as to when they might let us go home. by 4:00AM, everyone involved was sleepy, cranky, and listless. mutiny was in the air.
at 4:30AM, the tech lead called an impromptu meeting. the decision had come from upon high: one guy had to stay long enough to finish four more critical computers. everybody else would be free to go home for the night. the tech lead asked who wanted to stay.
we all got quiet. i was pretty sure who was going to volunteer. i was right: the 22-year-old kid offered to do it. “unless one of you guys really wants to!” he said, sarcastically. he’d already been talking about pulling an all-nighter, because we were expected to be back the next day at 9:00AM. the room breathed a sigh of relief. “you took one for the team,” i said to him.
i remember when i was like that. young enough to think that my “selfless dedication” to a soulless corporation was a sign of character, or would get me noticed, or that it made me more committed, or whatever it was i was telling myself. i guess you’ll have to learn the hard way, kid, the same as i did.
many of us had expressed doubts about coming back at 9:00AM the next day, after they’d kept us so late. the tech lead had undoubtedly heard the talk. just before we left, he adopted that ugly threatening tone he’d used so often in the previous ten hours. he said “everybody can give me your timesheet tomorrow. without my signature on your timesheet, YOU ARE NOT GETTING PAID.” ooh, really? not getting paid? please don’t hurt me, mister big bad tech lead! you are so AWWWSUMM.
three of us were in an elevator on the way out. the guy who just got a job doing computer training said he didn’t know if he’d be back the next day or not. the older guy who has been out of work for nine months said that he would, although he didn’t sound very happy about it. i suppose he doesn’t have any better options. i didn’t tell them whether i planned to come back or not, but i already knew the answer. hello, i just got a full-time job making six figures. i might have done it anyway, because i’d agreed to take the job earlier, but any company that treats their employees that shabbily gets no respect from me.
i slept until 1:00PM today. i woke up with every major muscle group feeling pinched and contorted. i haven’t felt so weary and defeated in ten years, at least. i found the timesheet i’d printed out earlier and threw it away. if the recruiter who got me into this emails me again, he’s going into my spam filter. one good thing came out of it: i got the phone number of the computer training guy. he is wickedly funny and clever, i liked him a lot. i think i’ll invite him to lunch.
you know what i’m going to do one of these days? i’m going to sponsor a “find yourself” program. i’m going to go get some kid, twenty or twenty-five years old, who’s wasting away at some nasty fast food job, having his soul sucked out, with no prospects for the future. then i’m going to tell him to quit, and i’ll pay all his bills for two years, and give him a modest salary. his job will be to figure out what it is he really wants to do with himself. he can spend his time in a band, or taking sailing lessons, writing, volunteering, working with children or drug addicts or homeless people or alcoholics, whatever. i’ll need to engineer a couple of trips out of the country, because there is nothing more effective for widening your horizons and making you think about all the hidden assumptions you’re applying to yourself.
if it didn’t work out, and the kid wasn’t able to transition any of his interests into a paying gig, it might be jarring, having to go back to the soul-destroying jobs. it’s not so bad if you’ve never known anything else, but once you’ve tasted freedom, a return trip will teach you the exact contours of how those places are eating you alive.