Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thoughts on the Move, the Power of Personal Space, and The Importance of a Stupid Acrylic Dolphin

I have not changed jobs in 29 years. I was hired in 1984 by a small engineering firm as a software engineer to do mathematical modeling and software development for unexploded ordnance detection. I became lead software engineer, then lead engineer, then project manager. For a while I was quite successful at writing my own proposals, bidding and winning my own work, leading a team to build the equipment, doing the survey, processing the data, and writing the final report. Then, in 2005, the small company, which had grown to not-so-small over the 21 years, was bought by a ginormous corporation. They closed the Newton office and, due to their own incompetence, moved me and my small group into an oversized 12,500 square feet of warehouse space in Waltham. But I was still writing winning proposals, so it was good. Hell, it was great -- I could buy as many cars as I wanted and the warehouse would swallow them all and still have room to park a tractor-trailer inside. Seriously.

Then, with the downturn in the economy and the cutbacks of government spending, research money for UXO detection became harder to get, and my hit rate in writing winning proposals dropped like a rock. I voluntarily cut myself back to part time to avoid getting laid off. But with fewer billable hours for both me and my group, we weren't generating the overhead necessary to cover the rent on the warehouse. Upon getting back from Dry Prong over Thanksgiving, I learned that a decision had been made to close Waltham and we needed to be out by the end of January. I found industrial space in Woburn that's 1800 square feet. So over the past month we've been preparing to downsize and move to one eighth the square footage.

Along with other things, this means the end of the 4.5-mile-each-way commute I've had for 29 years, and the beginning of a 20-mile-each-way jaunt. But, I thought, I don't need to be up in Woburn every day -- only when I have to work with physical hardware. If I'm just doing computer stuff I can work from home, which I'd occasionally done for years anyway. And, I thought, if I was working from home, I didn't need to move my cubicle to Woburn -- one less thing to move. I could just set up a table when I needed a computer up there.

Going to 1/8 the space isn't as bad as it sounds. The Waltham building was always four times as big as it needed to be, and thus had a lot of empty space, so it's not like we had to put eight pounds of shit in a one pound bag. I donated our ground penetrating radars -- developed for land mine detection applications under contracts that ended in 2001 -- to a colleague at Northeastern University who consulted for us.I threw out a ton of stuff. 

And I left everything else behind for the liquidator. In these moves and closures, an odd sort of economics takes hold. Here we had a large building with electronics, equipment, machine tools, and furniture. We had liquidators come in and bid on it. I thought the company I work for would earn pennies on the dollar for the equipment. Wrong. It COSTS the company money. The liquidator calculates what the leftover equipment is worth (and they've very concerned that you'll cherry-pick before they get it), and subtracts that from the cost of disposing of stuff that isn't worth anything and leaving the building in broom-clean condition. People are often surprised when they hear that when a company closed, everything went in a dumpster. The reaction is "how could they do that? What a waste." But if you think about it, it doesn't make economic sense to pay me my salary to put items up on eBay unless the return is greater than the cost. 

Now, we've all had the experience of organizing things and winding up with odd leftover piles. I have a song about it:

When I organize the office
Or clean out my top drawer
The bills go in the folder
But there's stuff that's hard to sort
Here's some cufflinks from my father
Here's a tape from my old band
Here's a fountain pen from high school
When I used to write longhand

Here's a birthday card from Lisa
Here's my old UMass ID
Here's a clipping from a magazine
That reviewed my CD
These things can't be filed or organized
And can't be thrown away
So I put them in a box
With other stuff that I must save

Irreducible... fragments of a life
Irreducible... it's a wonder what survives
Irreducible... these pieces I can see
Irreducible... must mean something to me

Sometimes I open up these boxes
And let them take me back
I don't clean them out or second-guess
I leave everything intact
As I look across this cluttered house
From the mundane to the grave
I think about these memories
And wonder what to save

Irreducible... fragments of my life
Irreducible... it's a wonder I survived
Irreducible... greater than the whole
Irreducible... breadcrumbs to the soul

Granted, this wasn't my house, but the same dynamic took hold. I can be both entropy in motion as well as meticulously organized, depending on which need is greater. Here, organization was paramount. I dutifully sorted everything in my office and my lab into boxes with labels like long serial cables, short serial cables, RS232 hardware, USB devices, office supplies, etc. 

These days I rely heavily on archived e-mail and don't file many paper documents, but as I found important pieces of paper, I placed them in a manila folder. Then I remembered -- I had a whole file cabinet I hadn't looked at in years. I rifled through it and pulled out a few original documents that existed only in hardcopy, and a folder of personal memos.

In this archaeological dig, as I was able to see the bare surface of my desk, I exposed the personal objects that have been in my office for over 20 years -- photos of the family, a root carved into a fish I bought on the Vineyard when Maire Anne was pregnant with Ethan, a sliding MC Escher puzzle, one of those oil-and-water things that you flip over and watch bubbles bounce down a flight of stairs. I flipped it and watched the bubbles do their little walk. I thought, this is silly, I should just throw these things out already. But I didn't. I put them in a box. With other stuff that I must save.

As this process winds all the way down, the only things the objects have in common is that they have nothing in common. Between the framed photos, keys to locks I'll probably never use, the desk toys, and other last-moment bric-a-brac, I had three boxes labeled "last stuff out of my office."

And then I noticed the knee-high under-desk filing cabinet. I hadn't used it in years. I slid open the top drawer and found mainly the detritus of office living -- tops of pens, staples, paper clips, a pack of PostIt notes, and whatnot. But then I saw two old health care ID cards. I looked at them closely. They had my social security number printed on them. Gee, I thought, good thing I looked. Let me dump everything out and make sure there's nothing else in here that could cause identity theft.

I pulled out the drawer, and there, all the way in the back, was the tackiest vacation trinket you've ever seen. It was a pen holder in the shape of a flat acrylic dolphin, clear but with beach sand and small shells embedded in it. It said "Greetings from Jamaica." My son Kyle brought it home for me when he went there with my mother.

I instantly burst into tears.

I placed it in the last "last stuff out of my office" box, and filed away this utterly surprising reaction for later analysis. (Yeah. I know. Mister left-brained engineer has a bolt-from-the-clouds right-brained emotive experience, and "files it away for later analysis." Don't you just want to slap me? I do. Sometimes I think a good hemorrhage would do me wonders.)

The absolute last thing out of my office was my computer, a heavy engineering-sized desktop with a big monitor. Decision time -- where would this computer go? That question is subservient to this one: Where would I set up my office? I'd already decided that would be at home, right? I thought, well, I have my personal notebook PC, I have my work notebook PC which I always bring home with me, and now there's this big desktop. What, am I going to put all three of these on the dining room table? Makes no sense, right? Right. The big computer goes to Woburn. Thus, my "office" goes to Woburn. But I'd already made the decision to leave my cubicle behind. Again, I thought, no problem, I just need a table. I'm an engineer. I'm a functional guy. Just need a surface.

The space we're moving into has about 1500 sqf on the first floor that we're setting up as storage, machine shop, and dirty assembly area, and about 350 sqf on the second floor designated to be a clean assembly area. The move was like a tidal wave, with me in Waltham directing the outgoing trucks, and an employee of mine in Woburn managing the inflow. I didn't plan thoroughly enough, and even if I did, stuff doesn't always come in in a useful order. So shelves and cabinets went where they went, and stuff rapidly got unloaded onto those shelves because it had to go somewhere. When I arrived in Woburn to look at how it had been set up, I couldn't visualize where I, where my office and lab space, would go. Of course, my employee very adroitly set up where his stuff would go -- he's better at that than I am, and he was right there to direct stuff into its resting places.

Over the next day, as I organized Woburn, I still couldn't quite visualize how I would work there. Oh, sure, when I'm fixing equipment or building electronics, there's a bench set up for me, but I was having trouble seeing where I would set up a table for... other work. It took me a while, but I realized the problem.

Cubicles, for all the ridicule they take, do provide an environment. They define a space as yours. They provide vertical surfaces to pin the pics of your family and your "hang in there baby" poster. And even if you don't stick anything on the walls, the walls provide borders for the desk. They allow you to put things on the desk and shove them all the way to the corner and not have them fall off. Things like staplers. Like tape dispensers. Like a root carved into a fish. Like the Escher puzzle. Like the bouncing blue droplets descending a flight of stairs. Like... the dolphin.

I burst into tears again.

I looked at the three boxes labeled "last stuff out of my office," and realized that nothing in them matters a whit, nothing is of any importance whatsoever, but the issue I'm struggling with centers around where the stuff in them should go because that stuff makes a place feel like it's mine. I realized that I was wholly unprepared to relegate these boxes to my basement, or to storage in Woburn, not to be opened again except to reminisce. 

Trying to deconstruct the "office question," I realized that I set events in motion in a way I did not appreciate by not moving a cubicle over to Woburn.

As to why the dolphin in particular has become such a talisman, the simple gift of an eight year old to his father, politely received upon giving, dutifully taken into work and put on the desk, lost, utterly forgotten without a second thought, unearthed from the back of the top drawer of a file cabinet, now seems to be imbued with deep magic from before the dawn of time. It has become precious to me. I start to cry whenever I think about it. It has become...


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hack Mechanic Memoir Status

Hi everyone. If it's not too shameless a self-promotion, I wanted to provide an update on the status of the book. Bentley Publishers is very close to having a publication date and the ability to pre-order. They've set up a Facebook page for the book where you can "like" The Hack Mechanic and check on the publication date and my speaking schedule. The FB link is:

For these early speaking engagements, since the book isn't out yet, Bentley is setting up a system where, if you come hear me speak, and take a photo of the two of us and post it to the FB page, and then order the book from the Bentley web site, Bentley will cross-reference the pic with your order and have me sign your copy before it goes out.