Wednesday, February 14 2001
Things continue to get weirder and weirder at my workplace. Linda reported in for UK development duty this morning just as I was about to attend the first meeting for my first post-UK project. I didn't really have time to do anything except show her the machine she'd be using. Remember: I'm not supposed to be spending any time working on the UK site at all, yet suddenly I'm Linda's boss. She's really sweet; the only Valentine I got today was a CD she gave me wrapped in Merry Christmas paper.
What a difference a project change makes! Suddenly all my co-workers are female, even the one other developer (she's the hot chick whose fellow team members, including her boyfriend, were all canned at the beginning of the year). This does not mean, however, that I'm actually going to have fun on this project. More on this later.
But superimposed on all of this was the need to get Linda up to speed while tidying UK things that no one else is qualified to tidy. I couldn't just hire Linda and then abandon her with things in this state. I'd brought the project to this point and it was still in no condition to be passed off to anyone without a certain period of introduction. Nonetheless, the word from the UK CTO was pretty clear. As much as she wanted to continue assigning me tasks, she had been strictly forbidden from doing so. It was crazy, demoralizing and surreal. I half-expected security to show up and escort Linda out of the building because her hiring had suddenly been deemed invalid. The only confidence builder regarding her employment was the rapid response of Information Systems in assigning her an email address and network password. I'd sent them an email saying "You may remember her from such positions as 'Sr. Director of Community Development'."
The one true godsend of the day was auto-accident-injured UK developer Neil, who came out of convalescence for the day to show Linda what was what in the UK site's code. His right arm is in a sling but he can still type with it. Yes, he's right handed.
For lunch, Linda, Julian, Neil and I went out to the Lazy Daisy on Pico and 23rd. (I never much like eating there but Linda sure likes the place.) Most of what we discussed was the Kafkaesque surreality of our corporate situation. I told my colleagues that it seems I must have bad workplace birthday karma. Here it is, Valentine's Day, two days before my 33rd birthday, and my work-a-day world is being torn apart at the seams. A year ago, I was two days away from being canned, and still somewhat unaware of my fate.
In the afternoon, I attended a second meeting with the young women who work with me on this new project. The goal, I've learned, is to make a set of dynamic front pages geared towards subsets of the membership who are then to be bombarded by advertising. It's all about allowing marketing and sales to quickly adapt to events in the news, changes to advertising realities, and that sort of thing. I haven't been working on such crassly commercial projects in a very long time and am a little rusty on the ugly compromises necessary. I'd forgotten the whimsy and technical ignorance of these sales people. Suddenly I find myself having to throw out everything I know about database rigour. In their tools, my co-developer explained, it's all about text fields that sales can blithely fill with messy HTML, image tags, you name it, whatever they can sell. The bottom line is all that matters. In these troubled times, when revenue is The Goal, sales people run the show. This isn't the sort of direction I want my career to be taking, but it's something the company sees as its only salvation. Lucky for me, my work will be concentrated in the making of publishing tools, which is a much better place to be a developer than, say, the user experience. That's the province of my co-developer. I noticed today that she has a slight stutter and facial tics and I thought they looked good on her. She's so hot she needs something to make herself a little more approachable.
Tonight I'm having Neil, Julian and Linda over for beers and perhaps some pizza. The UK CTO told me to take Neil out and expense everything, and Linda suggested we just hang out at my house. That way we can even smoke pot if we want to. Let's expense that too.
But who doesn't want to be a dumbcharger?
(God keeps His famous children irrespectable.)
I walked down to Smart and Final and bought a shopping car full of groceries in preparation for the party. I thought I'd just wheel the groceries out of the parking lot and the block or so to my house and abandon the car there on the sidewalk like all the elderly people do. But Smart and Final has a technological solution to the troubles caused by the likes of elderly people and me. The moment I wheeled my cart to the edge of the parking lot, an electronic brake snapped shut on one of the wheels and it became impossible to roll. So I had to carry my stuff from there, which was kind of rough because I was carrying two 12 packs of bottled beer, a gallon of grapefruit juice and a four pound bag of corn chips, the "universal condiment substrate." I began to wonder if the name "Smart and Final" was some sort of reference to their ingenious technology for preventing shopping cart theft. It seems like the sort of adaptation that would be essential to running a supermarket in the Los Angeles environment.
Julian was the first to arrive. He and I smoked some pot and I immediately got all fucked up because I was already starting to buzz on another drug: dexedrine. I'd done another somewhat more effective attempt at canceling its time-release properties. To do this successfully, a reader informed me, one must first grind up the dexedrine granules and then dissolve the resulting powder in a fluid. I used regular water and the resulting fluid was flavorless.
Julian and I got to talking about some really strange things related to the passing of information between clusters of databases (as our networked computer topic was quickly subsumed by the cell-organ-animal-ecosystem metaphor of biology). Later I asked Julian what it was like being a project manager for the Data Systems group. To help him frame his response, I suggested that he compare it to the task similar people have in, say, the meat-packing industry. The differences were pretty fundamental: in meat packing, the product is produced at a high rate of speed that can be easily predicted. The factors that affect this speed can even be predictably tweaked. With the development of a computer program or website, on the other hand, the code sits there and is assembled over the course of months by teams of highly-paid experts. The predictability isn't there and the uncertainties are often vast. A meat packing plant and a software development shop seem to be situated on either end of a wide production continuum. Given the slow labor-intensive nature of software development, a piece of code must be worth an awful lot of money once it is completed. Its only virtue as a commodity at that point is that it is pure information, and like any pure information, can be copied extremely cheaply.
Later when I talked to Linda about this same subject, she wanted to argue with me about my contention that programming was an entirely unpredictable creative process. She asserted that if everything was specified beforehand, then programming was "a lot more like painting by numbers" and the timing could probably be predicted well within a useful tolerance. That's all well and good miss smartypants, but I've never yet worked on a project having properly detailed specifications, not even any of yours!
The conversation with Linda actually happened on the drive to Neil's place. I'd invited Neil to my house but (in my typical absent-minded style) I'd completely forgotten to tell him my exact address. So, after I first suggested he get a cab, Linda said she'd pick him up.
Later there was this prolonged episode that featured me trying to order a couple pizzas, the first pizzas I had ever ordered since I broke up with Bathtubgirl. Some of these basic urban life skills are not like riding a bicycle and it's possible to get rusty at them unless you practice them occasionally. There's a whole protocol involved. First I had to co-ordinate what pizzas to get with the varied desires of my guests. We had two quasi-vegetarians in our midst (Linda and my housemate John), but of course Linda is used to being the only vegetarian so she seemed to think she had unilateral dictatorial powers over what was on her pizza. And so what did she want? Plain cheese with extra sauce, easy on the cheese. That didn't sound particularly exciting, so I asked her if she wanted any vegetables at all and she indignantly stressed that she'd already said what she wanted and that was extra sauce. Then there I was, with an actual phone to my ear, ordering the pizza. When I told the pizza girl on the phone that I wanted to pay by credit card, she wanted to know all the credit card details straight up. I was pretty outgoing from the dexedrine, so I said something like, "That's very sharp, that's a very good business model!" To this, the pizza girl said, "We try." Then later she called back because my card number was invalid so I had to re-read her the number. A digit she thought had been a seven had actually been a one. I felt it important come up with some sort of an explanation, no matter how absurd, so I said, "I talk with a lithp sometimes. Oh, and I have another speech impediment too, so perhaps they happened at the same time when I was saying that particular digit."
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