NOVEL EXCERPT: from THAT PLACE AND THAT TIME

Java House became more of a sanctuary to me as Crux took up more and more of my time.

After two months I was at my desk at eight and didn’t shut the door to my office until six or seven. I worked more than I ever had at anything. My head was in my monitor ten hours a day, five days a week. Twice I went in on Saturday to put in another six hours. I had eyestrain, but so what. The nonstop hum of the box at my feet and the winding patter of the dot matrix printer made me tense. But that was no matter either. I was on the cutting edge of the Technological Revolution. I’d never felt so responsible and dedicated toward anything, not even in college, where I felt tremendous pressure to do well, if for no other reason than to justify the amount of money I was borrowing and spending to give me a shot at the future I now had. Before I arrived at Crux I hadn’t known what it meant to be a part of something, to have my work reflect so much on the work of others, to have other people depend so much on what I did.

The testing project Mark gave me to get acclimated was over; it would, I hadn’t known, and he hadn’t said anything, help me with what came next.

Mark kept me on Pipeline with Doug, its Project Leader. I joined two other coders, Larry and Jeanne, and Paula, the lead Systems Architect. Instead of testing its menus, I’d build the context-sensitive Help Windows that users would access for overviews and step-by-step assistance when they were working on a particular area they were having trouble with, or that they’d need a bit of guidance to complete. Testing, it turned out, had added an important knowledge base for the information that would go into the Help Windows.

The title next to my name on the organizational chart was Help Windows Developer. Doug mentioned there were only five of us among the four-hundred-and-seventy-five Crux employees.

He was in my office, sitting in my guest’s chair, and said with a lift of his eyebrows, “You’re in a select group. And by the end of the day you all might be six of five-hundred.” A little laugh followed this that had some meaning to it, though at the time I hadn’t been sure what it was about.

I’d find out soon enough: I had a lot of work ahead of me, and I was responsible for all of it. Crux’s other five Help Windows Developers had their own projects to work on. We communicated with each another by electronic mail, or internal memos, passing suggestions and comments back and forth that might answer a question about content, or supply new knowledge on visual presentation. But Pipeline was all mine, as Doug’s little laugh implied. With one-hundred-twenty-four windows that users would call up, all needing to be tried out again and again, all needing to be described in as a few words and diagrams and examples as possible, it would be a prodigious task.

The windows would also have to be simple enough so the most unsophisticated user, a computer novice, wouldn’t be intimidated by the explanation; in those early years of software development these issues were still being thought out and applied on a rudimentary level. It would be a challenge. While I’d worked with the programs that built Help Windows, nothing I’d done at my previous jobs prepared me for the amount of attention my work would get at Crux. I wouldn’t be able to keep an anonymous profile, as I’d been able to at them, and that sometimes I’d have preferred to continue.

“I don’t understand how can you work like this?” Doug joked about the strict order I kept my office in.

“No, it’s the other way around, I don’t know how you get anything done,” I said about the chaos he worked in.

In his office, papers, empty soda cans, and food-smeared styrofoam lunch cartons covered all of surfaces and even areas of the floor. “Tell me the last time you found what you needed without spending at least ten minutes looking for it?”

“I found something today without much of a problem. It only took five, that’s all.”

“What? You’re chair, you mean? You found you’re chair in five minutes?”

“Okay you win this one,” he said. “And if that’s the way you feel, then you’re not invited to come in anymore. Stay out.”

I said, “Seeing as we usually only talk about work, I won’t miss it.”

The order I was able to keep my office in during those early weeks ended once my new project was underway. Clutter, Doug had kidded, was its new arrangement, chaos and disorder in the midst of working on something that demanded the most strict logic, the cleanest, sharpest presentation. I was living as my teammates did. Hard as I tried to find a place for the endless printouts of information, memos, articles torn out of computer magazines, backup floppy discs, after a few long weeks under pressure to get something done, they covered every available square inch of my desk, my table, and the top of my bookshelf. It was like an emerging landfill. When room ran out on them, they piled up on the floor until I carried them to the blue recycle bin down the end of the hall.

Then, before I got back to my office, more paper would come at me as if it was falling out of the sky. Minutes of a meeting I hadn’t attended but had been word processed by Mark’s assistant and left in my mailbox; a block of specifications I might need to plagiarize some sentences from, given to me by Doug, who was glad to relieve his own office of them, with a note he’d print in black marker to make sure I saw it: THIS LOOKS LIKE INFO THAT MIGHT INTEREST YOU. Endless forms and numerous folders. So many there wasn’t time to be neat. The work was filling so much of my life that even when I wasn’t there I was thinking about it. If a word or an idea came up when I was walking to Java House, or making coffee in the morning, I’d be sure to jot it down in the small spiral notebook I kept in my back pocket just for that purpose.

It may seem that I was overwhelmed, but it was the opposite. I was happy and energized, honored to be in the midst of something important even if it tied me to my desk, my telephone, the software applications I used every day. Despite all of the activity around me, emails sent to me, Larry, Jeanne, and Paula stopping by to say hello, to ask a question, or to see if I wanted to have lunch, when the door to my office was closed I felt central and solitary. The hours I was there were spent in intense focus. Each day I outlined examples in yellow pads of paper that would aide users with what they wanted to do. Each day my eyes squinted at the small text on the terminal’s 14-inch screen. Each day my fingers tapped the keyboard as I described Pipeline’s functionality, and then ran the program that transformed the information into a file that would be linked to the software. Each day I checked over what I did the previous day to make sure the information was accurate, then I’d revise and recompile it. When Doug and the other programmers made a change to the functionality, even a minor one, I’d revise and recompile it some more. It didn’t take long for me to feel like one of the masses helping to build the temple to represent an era that wouldn’t remember a single detail about me.

Everyday there was more and more to do: respond to questions, send status reports to Mark and Doug, note changes the developers were making and incorporate them in the files I’d already built, or print them out and set them aside in manila folders to include in the ones I hadn’t yet got to. Three or four times a week Doug led meetings with the developers and testers, or Mark would lead it if he’d called it. Nothing was ignored. Every second of my workday was accounted for in the sense that there was twice as much work to be done than time to do it in. I could have spent eighteen hours a day there and still felt there was more to accomplish.

That was my job. I did what was asked of me. It was what I wanted and sought. I became used to the routine; it fixed me in the world. The weeks flew past. Outside of what went on at Crux, nothing spectacular happened. At the end of the day I looked forward to going to Java House to eat a Greek salad with Eugene and anyone else I knew who might be there. If it were late, seven or eight, and there was no one to talk to, I’d sit alone and read a book that John or Eugene had suggested, that they told me I had to buy. Once a week I bought a tin of Sobrani to smoke as I drank French roast and flipped the pages, offering them to Eugene as payback for bumming them from him all the time. Later, when I got home, I watched the local news on the television and drank beer until I fell asleep. And then there were nights I was too tired to detour to Java House and went right home. This happened more often the further into the project I got.

(2002)

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