Silicon Follies

Chapter 11: Liz descends to the engineers' level

Published April 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Even after a few weeks as Barry's assistant, Liz couldn't shake an obscure feeling of discomfort. She had little justification, only a nagging intuition. But there was no denying his avuncular manner would occasionally slip into something a little too familiar. He didn't seem to recognize professional boundaries, either -- he asked her about her age, her personal life, her dating history. And sometimes his smile seemed to converge with a leer.

She had given him the benefit of the doubt so far. Most of the time it was a non-issue, anyway; Barry's attention was monomaniacally focused on WHIP.

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Liz sat in a conference room with a dozen other "Terans," each listening attentively as Barry dispatched the items on the meeting's agenda. He stood at a whiteboard and created inscrutable diagrams with extravagant gestures: a tangled knot of sweeping arrows and bullet-points.

His attention settled on Liz. She tried not to wince. "Liz," Barry directed in his signature market-leading tenor, "you're already familiar with the WHIP effort, as I recall."

Liz blushed, remembering her infamous e-mail debacle. "Yes, Mr. Dominic."

"Well, we're moving into the VC recruitment phase any day now. We've drafted a number of documents -- 'white papers' -- describing the technology and market opportunities for our venture capital prospects. It's critical that we communicate this opportunity in language they can understand. 'Venture capital' is a real fancy name, but they're just bankers on testosterone. Remember that.

"I want you to edit them for the first WHIP pitch. We need them by next week, Wednesday latest. Probably be good if you meet with the engineer who wrote them, in the interest of technical accuracy. I'm relying on you for clarity and style."

Great, Liz thought. Another afternoon wrestling with some nerd over subordinate clauses and predicate nominatives. She really dreaded her trips to the lab.

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Engineers generally had serious control issues, and nothing brought them out like the threat of collaboration. Editing their work was like tiptoeing through an emotionally charged mine field of grammatical crimes. Move a prepositional phrase or break up a run-on sentence and you were likely to strike deeply at their essential maleness -- namely, a need to do everything themselves. It was one of those acts that could elicit disproportionately extreme reactions of a peculiarly masculine kind, like taking away the TV remote. Multiplied by 50.

Never mind that engineers had a palpable disdain for anyone non-technical. Anyone without a BSEE or other heavy hacker cred was the Enemy, sent by the forces of evil to obfuscate the real issues and sap productivity. Never mind that engineers were far more advanced in eroding productivity on their own; between the Web, MUDs and the alt.humor Usenet hierarchy, it was a wonder anything was ever delivered on schedule. The problem was, these time-incinerating activities were superficially indistinguishable from real work. Most managers couldn't tell the difference. But engineers liked to take credit for all good things while deflecting the responsibility for all bad things to elements outside their own sphere of influence -- and that included evil, nontechnical "droids," as they called people like Liz.

This disdain wasn't just reserved for nontechnical peers and managers, either. They vented their arrogance at directors and company officers, too. But such were the perks of the privileged caste: If you were any good, management was nearly infinitely indulgent, because programmers were absolutely necessary to the operation. Yes, techies were usually profoundly emotionally underdeveloped. Yes, they were prone to tantrums, outbursts and generally antisocial behavior. But they were in short supply, as they themselves were so richly aware.

Consequently, they were completely insufferable. Nothing is worse than a child -- virtual or otherwise -- who knows he's indispensable; children are at their best when they know they're absolutely expendable.

But what really grated on Liz was the prevailing assumption that anyone on the technical side must automatically be a genius. Her experience had been quite to the contrary. Weeks of untangling and rewriting engineers' documents had led her to wonder how any of them had escaped college with a degree. Many, she later learned, had not; if you could master the right technical arcana, you could skip all the other steps -- like reading, writing and matriculation. Companies like TeraMemory would hire you anyway, solely on the depth and strength of your relationship to a slice of silicon and its litany of logical instructions. Critical thinking -- outside of a narrow proficiency in solid state logic -- wasn't high on the list of qualifications.

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Liz carried this apprehension on her journey down to engineering. Her journey took her past the "glass house" -- the harshly lit, window-enclosed room where the corporate servers and datacores lived. It was like an aquarium for nerds. The raised floor made for a slightly below-ground-level view, subliminally suggesting those inside were taller -- and more important -- than those outside. She made her way through a forest of cubbies in engineering. Most all were decorated in variations on a single theme: male adolescence. There were lots of toys -- rubber dinosaurs, cartoon action figures, several jumbo inflatable Godzillas. Life-sized, luridly colored plastic parodies of assault rifles and grenade launchers -- loaded with harmless foam projectiles -- also figured prominently.

Liz pondered the semiotics of this workspace: totems of hostility. Agents of unmediated force. It was a museum of the psychology of impatience and instant gratification. If these were the leitmotifs of technical culture, she ruminated, well, that would explain a lot.

But what really took her breath away was the sartorial savagery. Ripped jeans, garish athletic shoes, heavy-metal concert T-shirts, bright blue hair, nose rings, studded leather accessories -- worn by men well over 30. This, it seemed to Liz, stepped well over the boundaries of the adolescent and into the psychopathic.

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The numbers on the cubicles indicated she'd nearly reached her destination. After a few brief detours, she located it. She peeked inside with apprehension. She saw a slim, clean-cut and -- by engineering standards -- unthreatening young man. Handsome, even. Younger than she was expecting. No nose ring. No punctures of any kind, in fact.

"Paul Armstrong?" she ventured.

"Yes. You must be Liz Toulouse. I've been waiting for you. Welcome to the monkey house."

By Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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