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November 13, 2009 / justerik

A complicated birth.

Today, we went into labor.

The office has become purgatorial. The cold and gray of November seep through the doors and windows, mix with the fluorescent blue-white of monitors and sickly yellow of incandescent lamps. We all stare at each other blankly. The company is running out of money – some of us have been laid off, others have hours cut. The rest of us are waiting for the axe to fall. There has been no rhyme or reason to who stays and who goes. I could easily be next. Worse, someone else might be. Someone more in need of the money, more capable, more passionate about software development. Someone who can type.

There is no reason for me to be a software developer. It’s completely nonsensical. When people I went to high school with hear I work for a software company, they give me the strangest looks and say “huh”. At my peak I was in charge of the entire development division here. If it wasn’t sales, I was in charge. “How did you wind up in charge of a software company?” people ask.

“Oh, you know. Path of least resistance.”

Not that I was particularly good at being in charge. I burnt out twice, once quitting simply because I didn’t have the balls to ask for a vacation, once to finish a psychology degree I didn’t want any more than the job. I came back both times for essentially the same reasons. I ran out of money and didn’t think I could get a job at the Wendy’s.

My boss doesn’t know what I do for him. In theory I’m a computer programmer, demoted at my own insistence the last time I was rehired. This is a laughable notion. I write code the way alcoholic novelists write prose, with much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth, every line a battle for my soul. This is hardly efficient. My boss treats me as a sort of half manager, asking me to sit in on every meeting, and checking in with me on the status of projects I’m uninvolved in. A girlfriend who keeps coming back.

Trying to describe my actual role, my coworkers call me a fluffer. My job is to keep everyone’s dick hard. I’m the number two guy on every project in the company. We don’t have a lot of staff, so I’m also all the jobs that we don’t actually pay someone for.

Lately, all of my energy has been invested in one project, designing it to be easy and powerful to use. There are piles of discarded ideas on my desk, dozens of drawings in notebooks. At one point the primary programmer on the project was getting as many as ten emails a day from me. Move this, and rearrange that, and could that be a slightly different gray? For once my alcoholic writer had a job it could handle. Yes, it’s a piece of software, but in a sense, it’s also art. We’re trying to create an experience that flows from moment to moment while varying the same essential theme, like a symphony. Only instead of ending in a flurry of bombastic timpani, we end in a flurry of electronic mail.

The metaphor for software development is a pregnancy. Chris, the programmer, is the mom. He does a majority of the work, and knows every inch of the software more intimately than I ever could. I’m the dad. All I can really do is make things comfortable for Chris and fret. We’ve been circling our due date for a while. All that has remained on the todo list was a small number of minor improvements and fixes, but no one really knew when our baby would meet the world.

And then the company started crashing down around our ears. The need to have something snazzy with which to pump money out of people means minor improvements, any improvements in fact, would have to wait. Ready or not, that baby had to come out now.

I should be excited, or maybe nervous. But the circumstances have made me contemplative instead. I’ve worked very hard on this project. I’ve worked very hard (some days) for this company. But I’m not proud. I’m disgusted. My poor little alcoholic writer has been chained to a task that he doesn’t really love. But like a dog with a shoe, he’s gnawed away, making the best of something ultimately unsatisfying. I’m 5 years older than I was when I started this job, and in no way better for it.

We’ve gotta get out of this place. If it’s the last thing we ever do.

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One Comment

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  1. Jessica / Nov 13 2009 10:42 pm

    Incredible…!

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