Make 'em Laugh
November 29, 2000
“Now look,” my mentor told me from the other side of the world via the miracle of email. “Listen and learn,” she said.
“They don’t want to hear about your boring little life hunched in front of a little screen in a little cubicle, writing and testing and debugging dreary little programs for a lumbering obsolete low-tech mainframe. Bits and bytes and bugs don’t make it in the new, fast-paced world of desktops and laptops and notebooks and radio controlled hand-held, satellite-fed globe-spanning, walking, talking miracle machines,” she told me.
“Your only hope is to get ‘em interested and make ‘em laugh, and what on earth is there about a boring mainframe programmer to laugh about.”
I deleted the email and began to turn off the PC, making sure to hit all the little X boxes, bringing everything to an orderly conclusion, tucking the surge protector neatly under the desk. I knew it would power up in the morning, tell me I’d got mail, play me a little tune.
Hey, even if I yank the plug out of the wall in mid program, or hit the off-button while it’s still talking to me, it’ll power up next morning. It’ll tell me, more in sorrow than anger that I should treat it properly, it’ll scan its hard drive, fix itself.
I looked down at the off-button, almost invisible on the sleek case.
“Mainframe programming was boring?” I asked myself. “Is that what they think?”
I suddenly remembered what happened to the off button on a long-gone IBM360 machine in the computer room of a well-known Los Angeles aircraft company. And after all these years, I was able to laugh about it.
The big red button
They let us into the computer room in those days. They didn’t know any better. Management, I mean.
I wandered in late one evening to pick up a program listing. The off-button was in a glass box, bolted to one of the thick square columns that held up the building before the computers were moved in, and which now got in everyone’s way. The button itself was mounted at eye-level, in a protective glass case. It was huge, painted red, with a big sign that said “DO NOT TURN OFF.”
Naturally, no one other than a crazy person would even think about it, since it took a week to get a mainframe up and running properly in those days. I knew that all my co-workers and I were solid upright non-crazy citizens because it had taken me four months to get a security clearance, and the FBI had checked me out thoroughly.
The computer operator, a huge guy, was sitting in front of the computer, drumming his fingers on the metal desk, mumbling to himself. I couldn’t find my printout, so I tapped his shoulder. He leapt up with an oath, banging the desk, and I swear the big computer shuddered.
“What?” He asked me furiously. I told him.
“No.” he said. “Is bug.”
His startled oath had been in Russian, and I had learned Russian in the Air Force. I told him so in his own language, and asked him what the problem was.
He looked at me suspiciously.
I tried to explain what I wanted, and he started to shout “Is bug! Is bug!”
The computer was obviously in trouble.
The plot thickens
He seemed to know very little English, and I wondered how he could have gotten the job. He was becoming more and more agitated. I learned that he had arrived in L.A. from Moscow three weeks before. This was the height of the Cold War, and he must have slipped across the border somehow.
We stood in the computer room trying to communicate. Outside, through the plate-glass windows, I could see cabinets marked ‘Secret’ and ‘Confidential,’ and engineering drawings littered some of the desks.
“Is bug!” he kept repeating. “Is no print!” This was becoming serious. He was waving his hands and shouting.
“How did you get this job?” I asked in English, since the Russian translation was beyond me.
The answer to this had by now become a lot more important than the printout. The guy was straight out of the USSR, spoke almost no English, and didn’t appear to be able to operate the computer. He looked at me in total incomprehension. His eyes watered, his face was purple.
“Bug, bug,” he was yelling. “Computer no good!”
I was desperate to make him understand. I needed to know how he had wandered unprepared and undocumented into this job when I, a legal, law-abiding experienced computer programmer had spent four months filling forms, getting fingerprints taken, being investigated. He didn’t understand. He seemed to feel that if he yelled loud enough, I would understand.
“Calm,” I thought. “Simple words and sign language.”
I stepped back and pointed to him.
“You,” I said, “work here. Three weeks.”
“Me,” I pointed to myself, “four months. FBI clearance.”
I might as well have said KGB. He went white. He staggered back with a roar.
“No FBI, is bug,” he said in panic, flinging his hand out for emphasis, and I knew, with an eerie certainty, just before it happened, that his huge fist would smash the glass, that the big red button would be rammed irrevocably down, and that he would crash against the rapidly dying mainframe like a harpooned whale.
Just another crazy mainframe programmer
That’s what happened. It wasn’t quite the end of the world, but an alarm went off and the security guards came.
The big Russian was sitting in the operator’s chair when they came, his head in his hands, bits of glass on the floor. They treated him gently.
“Is bug.” He kept repeating.
“Him.” He pointed to me. “Is FBI.”
I never saw him after that night. I presume they fired him, but I’m not sure.
The security men called my boss, who was just about to go to bed. I tried to explain when he arrived, rumpled and in slippers, but he suspected that I’d been playing a cruel joke on a poor immigrant. He couldn’t understand why I had pretended to be from the FBI.
He was never really at ease with me afterwards, and I was denied entry to the computer room and moved into a dim corner cubicle, where I shuffled papers for a few weeks until declared redundant.
My boss no longer saw me as a solid, sober citizen. I had pretended to be from the FBI. I had sneaked into the computer room late at night, and had harassed the computer operator.
I was just another of those crazy mainframe programmers.