Code and Test and Trivia

December 10, 1999

The shear curtains acted not as a light block but actually as a refractive lens. The sunshine was still orange, his favorite part of the morning, and the curtains lit up orange as if on fire, and cascaded that amazing life-giving color into every nook and cranny of his factory assembly line room.

He didn't rise, except to pull back the shears and open the window, staring out at the sunrise still near the horizon. The orange color was tinting everything from the cars in the parking lot, to the light poles, the telephone poles, the gaudy neon signs and the garbage dumpster, hidden from view at ground level by a six foot redwood picket fence but laid out before him now like a grotesque sculpture.

He turned to pick up the TV remote, laid back down (pulling the covers over himself tightly) and listened to the mechanical symphony of sounds as the garbage truck arrived to perform the multi-ton ballet put on every other morning. The morning news shows were consistent, and he watched all five simultaneously. The weather would be smashing today, sunny and clear, and each had the same lead news stories about the ongoing saga of the plane that crashed off the east coast now two weeks ago. If it goes according to schedule, it will be mentioned each morning for three more weeks, then once in three months, then a Sunday newspaper section will mention it six months after that, then one night three years from now he will be sitting in a hotel room watching cable or PBS and a Science inquiry, or Nova, or Discovery Channel newsmagazine will be doing a documentary expose on it. Today, it is grieving relatives and navy boats, bobbing in the sea hopelessly searching for the black box data recorder.


At 6:45 he sat up, stumbled naked to the shower, and was finished and brushing his teeth with 6:49 on the clock face. Into his clothes, bringing his coffee mug, he was out the door at 7:10 after watching the news headlines on all three national morning shows (how do those people yuck it up at this hours). Down to the lobby for the free coffee, out to the car, drive through (which one today?) for a greasy egg and bacon on a bun sandwich washed down with free coffee. Ten minutes later we was going over the tracks, into the gravel parking lot, in the door, up the stairs, through the maze of cubes, and into his personal cell, booted up for e-mail with a quick look, 7:42 this morning, running 12 minutes late.


He had finished the seventh of the data conversion programs but was again being denied support by the DBA. How could this company be spending thousands of dollars per day for his time, then have this goofy beach-brat be 'too busy' or 'checking on' getting privileges assigned. How many times had he said he was on the 'test system' and would simply like Root privilege? Oh no! He might sit around and spend hours trying to break into the live system. Simple minds have simple fears, and it would be 1pm before his data files were restored for his test. He could have keyed the data in by hand faster.

Of course, the first pass died, and the second wrote output data mercilessly. The third try was fine, all the way through the user interface. Of course, he had had to hard code over two dozen settings, but there would be time later in the week to make that all table driven. A couple of projects ago, he stayed behind and had to do that for each and every script written by his project teammate, the one that 'kicked out the code' then 'blew out of town' so he had to be the one to 'clean up the mess'. He would have time, no he would MAKE TIME to fix all of those settings so nobody else would have to. He would do that tomorrow afternoon, after the user signoffs.

One last look at the so-called 'specs', really just a now-tattered pile of screen shots, stained with coffee and amended with ink, first blue, later felt tip, until agreement had been reached. It always felt so strange to hold up a screen shot next to the screen, and ponder why it was that reasonable and intelligent people paid him money to do this job. Why? Why did he come to this stinky town and sit in a mouse hole among mouse holes and write conversion programs and user reports and program extensions? Why did it have to pay so well?


He had took a leak and stopped by the lunchroom to pick a tub of lunch out of the machine (ummm, Banana-Strawberry) and was reading E-Mails and eating the yougurt amid piles of printouts when she popped into his cubicle. "Can we start a little early?", she asked pleadingly. "I got snagged into a two-hour product meeting at two and I don't want it to affect our time".

  How could it be? How could she be so sweet, so kind, so considerate, and so respectfu of him? What whould life be like if each user could just be half as perfect as Jan Stapleton?

Jan was middle aged, and beautiful, and silly, and smoked (phew!). She had been with the company almost 6 years, and found a way to take things one day at a time. She knew what she wanted, and she knew when she didn't know. When he gave her some printouts to review, with a date to be completed, she would drop by, just like today, always half a day early. And always delighted to see him. And always pleasant and sincere, and funny.

They had gone to lunch once or twice (and sat in the smoking section) and she had lead a very plain and simple life that she managed to relate in hilarious and insightful ways. She was, in every way, a delightful diversion to an otherwise awful week, awful project.


She took the 'guest' chair out of Rami's cubical, and made the schoolgirl in trouble look about when Rami would find out. She rolled it half into the cubical, half in the aisleway, and he snugged up against the side desk and rearranged his papers and his markers and his stack of so-called specs, the ones marked up with Jan's famous green felt tip. He self conciously licked his plastic spoon clean of yougurt and trashed it and the little empty tub. Then he smelled the dank cubical air, now scented with the sweet smell of hyacinth and the stale odor of Virginia Slims. He closed his eyes and took a moment to focus while Jan set and reset her chair and finally departed for a refill of weak coffee.

They sat together, methodically walking screen by screen, and she smiled and laughed and they both made fun of the other review sessions (with Mike from purchasing and Hector from receiving). Somehow Jan knew how good she was and how good she was for him. And they laughed together, and giggled, and did foreign voice impressions of team members too busy to take an interest in the future of the company, the system, their jobs. The hour passed in minutes, and the stack of paper shifted from "In" to "Out" and the bullet list numbered three follow ups. Then they sat back, and smiled, and Jan suddenly opened her eyes wide and looked at her watch and stood up and was gone. And his day was done.


In twenty minutes the three fixes were applied, and Jan was done. He had left voice mail for Mike and for Sheila, and neither had called back. He called them both again, and left them messages again, then wrote them both E-Mails cc'ing the project manager. But he was done. It was only 4:20, but there was nothing left to do so he logged out of the system, and logged out of E-Mail, and turned off the lights and stacked up his papers.
  He walked down the hallway and peeked into the conference room and everybody was in attendance at the two-hour product launch meeting. Nothing would get done until tomorrow, so he left a note on Rami's desk, and walked out through the maze of cubicals and down the stairway and through the retro-lobby (finally back in style again) and out to the gravel parking lot. The whisp of the tank farm filled his nostrils with acerbic sulfer and gravel dust. Sadly, he was coming to consider these smells to be part of 'home'.

Copyright, 1999, All rights reserved

Written: December 1999
First Upload: February 4, 2000
Last Update: April 22, 2001