'Round the Water Cooler
Janaury 23, 2001
We have one of those robot cafeterias in our building. It’s a strange-shaped enclosure, left over after the architect designed the big outside offices of the managers and the rabbit-warren cubes of the hoi polloi. It contains coke machines and food dispensers, and there’s a little sink and a coffee machine, cupboards for plastic eating utensils and Styrofoam cups and cleaning materials. There are a few rickety tables and chairs with bowls full of salt and pepper packets, so, at a pinch, we can eat and talk there.
And, yes, there is a water-cooler, up in one angled corner, close to the coffee machine. The cafeteria is where we eat when we can’t afford to lunch at a restaurant, and where we meet when we want to take a quick break. So I guess you can say that, in our building, we still do congregate ‘round the water-cooler.
I usually spend my time there in a dazed stupor, especially right after New Year, waiting for the coffee to kick in. A few days ago, in order not to appear a complete zombie, I decided to take part in the conversation. I prepared to join in with one of my devastatingly penetrating remarks like, “uh, pass the sugar, will you.”
I usually follow this up with “traffic was pretty good today,” or the even more interesting, “traffic was pretty bad today.” Then I really hit my stride with the some fascinating remarks about the weather. This gift I have for sparkling conversation intimidates my co-workers and they cover it up by pretending to ignore me.
Into the Rabbit Hole
Well, I started to listen for a suitable opening into the conversational fray, but, unknown to me, someone had substituted decaf for the regular morning jolt. I slipped into a dream while listening to my computer nerd colleagues as they talked about work and the world and office politics. It seemed to me that I was waking up after a 50-year snooze at my desk (pretty long, even for me).
My dark gray suit was neatly pressed, my tie was straight, and my shoes shone like mirrors in the sun. I was a respectable office worker from the 1950s. There was a cup of tea on the table in front of me.
I looked around in horror at the untidy rabble with their outlandish clothes and strange words. I somehow knew that the guy with the long hair and dirty tennis sneakers was my boss. It occurred to me that in the last 50 years the red tide had overwhelmed us and that I now lived in a workers’ paradise. All the real office workers were toiling in labor camps, or worse.
“What happened to the dress code,” I challenged. “What sort of an office is this?”
A Turn for the Worse
A young lady approached and perched on the table, showing entirely too much leg. She was tall and polished and colorful, not at all like your average secretary.
“When are we going to start unit testing the liability sub-system, Fred?” she demanded of my boss. “We’re supposed to start regression tests next month, we don’t have any proper flow design specs set up yet, and,” turning to me, “what about the interfaces? I need a data model, or at least dataflow diagrams by next week. And what the hell are you dressed like that for? Going on an interview?”
She uncoiled and swept away, leaving me to gape in amazement.
“Better get on it.” Fred told me, “or we’ll all be out of a job.”
“She’s the boss?” I asked, amazed.
“I know,” he replied irritably. “Don’t be funny. How long will it take to have those dataflow diagrams complete?”
I thought about my last project, 50 years ago. I had been three months into it, and I almost had my program tested. I hoped I could find the old punch cards. Someone at the next table was working on a tiny terminal, a laptop PC he called it. I’d have to learn how to read the cards into this thing. I couldn’t see any slots big enough to take them.
“Well,” I replied judiciously, “if I start tomorrow, I can do some reading. I’ll write down some specifications and get them to a secretary for typing, so by next week or so I’ll be able to start on the dataflow diagrams. Whatever they are,” I thought to myself.
“Very funny. She’s going to need at least the dataflow diagrams by next Monday. I’m going to need a memo on your progress by Thursday evening. Make sure you email me.” And they all started talking about something called NASDAQ.
The Mad Tea Party (with apologies to Lewis Carroll)
The table seemed to have gotten quite large, but we were all crowded together at one corner of it. My colleagues were all poking me with their elbows.
“Have some wine,” Fred said suddenly.
All I could see was tea and coffee. “I don't see any wine,” I told him.
“There isn't any,” someone said.
“Why did you offer it?” I asked angrily.
“Your hair’s too short,” Fred said, staring at me. “Anyway, what time is it?”
“Twelve-thirty,” I answered, and then defiantly, “January 2nd, 1951.”
`Fifty years wrong,” Fred sighed. “I told you the program was wrong. Not enough hardware, too much middleware, and really weird software.”
I was really puzzled. His remark seemed to have no meaning, and yet it was certainly English.
“I don't understand,” I said, politely.
Fred shook his head mournfully. “It can’t be 50 years wrong. I’m going to Italy this summer, and then St Petersburg.”
The Mangled State
I pinched myself, and my head started to spin. They looked like bums, they dressed like bums, and they all spoke in tongues. Yet Fred was talking about a holiday in Italy, and visiting St Petersburg afterwards. Wasn’t that Leningrad, in the USSR? My head began to spin as they crowded around, getting noisier and noisier.
“Machine in the mangled state. Completely unreasonable deliverables… integrated solutions using middleware like MQ. Even the Standard and Poors are down a few percentage points, got to get into equities. 401k for me.” They were all looking at me, wild eyes and wild hair and wild clothes spinning around, as they rose up about me like a crazy pack of playing cards in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’
“Deadlines, deliverables, Dow Jones and Dice,” Fred shouted at me.
“We network on Netscape so clever,” the chorus sang. “S and P, Software, Sybase and SAP, on the Internet highway forever,” they concluded with a deafening roar.
I woke up with coffee dripping off the table onto my jeans.
“What a nightmare,” I gasped.
“What?” someone asked.
“Uh, traffic was pretty good today.” And they pretended to ignore me as usual.