Silicon Follies

Chapter 47: The contractor's contractor -- migrant labor on steroids


Thomas Scoville
August 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The engineering crisis at Whip had precipitated a significant extension of working hours. In fact, Paul hadn't left his cubicle before 10 p.m. in more than a week. The toll on his personal life was beginning to mount; this evening, he had reluctantly canceled a theater date with Liz.

She had cheerfully regrouped, inviting a girlfriend in his stead. She pretended not to be hurt, but Paul well knew otherwise, especially since season tickets had been his idea in the first place. It was the same old Silicon Valley story: As the Machine became more insistent, its human servants found it increasingly impossible to maintain any pretense of an actual life.

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Paul didn't like what he was becoming these days -- joyless, project-obsessed, irritable, pathologically goal-oriented. But there was something else bothering him, too: a free-floating anxiety, a submerged apprehension. He wrestled with it, but couldn't name it.

He stopped for gas on the way home from work. It was then and there -- around 11 p.m., at the Exxon station on Shoreline -- that his feelings started to clarify.

Paul gassed his sedan and glanced over at the scruffy-looking man in the next fuel bay. Their eyes met for a moment. Paul looked hastily away; the man seemed willfully unkempt, maybe disturbed in some way. There was also an obscure aura of hostility about him. Paul didn't want to provoke him.

Too late. The man spoke anyway: "Hey, punk. You're up way past your bedtime."

Paul stiffened, and glanced up from the gas pump with apprehension. But the scruffy guy's grin didn't indicate any real threat. In fact, he seemed remotely familiar.

"Jim Skidmore," the man grinned. "I taught you everything you know about tranlogs and commits, remember?" He made a dramatic, sweeping gesture with his arm. "Back in the days when Tandem boxes roamed the earth."

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Paul held out his hand in greeting. Jim was right. It had been an age ago.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Jim was a contractor's contractor. Smart, razor quick, super-experienced, he had been the biggest repository of technical trivia Paul had ever seen. He was an absolute engineering wonder; he cut right down to the heart of the stickiest digital puzzles with lightning speed. And he seemed to thrive on the pressure, teasing out bankable results well under deadline, on projects that management had pronounced terminally behind schedule.

He was a little ruthless, too: Like many master contractors, he had a quick temper and a mean streak. He also had zero tolerance for anyone below his level. There were two kinds of people in his universe: people who knew less than he did -- whom he dubbed "kooks," "idiots" and "losers" -- and people who knew as much as he did. The possibility of anyone knowing more was one he did not feel compelled to entertain. He was a true mercenary, attacking requirements and obliterating milestones with a cold, bloodless efficiency. In the end, Jim always delivered. Managers loved him for that.

Paul had worked with him years ago, on a particularly hairy database engine port. Jim had been project lead; it had succeeded largely due to his expertise. His hourly rate, Paul had learned when a manager's phone conversation had escaped over the cubicle wall, was three times his own. This seemed to him fair at the very least; Jim was the sharpest knife on the team by far.

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Since then, Paul had thought of him from time to time, assuming Jim had maintained this lucrative trajectory towards some far-off digital Olympus. Which was why Paul had not recognized him as he was: whiskered, bedraggled, aging quickly in the flat, jaundiced light of the sodium vapor lamps.

"Hey, long time no see. What are you up to?" Paul asked.

Jim ran his fingers through his thinning, stringy hair. "Same old, same old. You know."

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"Living around here?"

"Only in the loosely bound sense of the word. Here and there," Jim reported, a little uneasily. "I split up with my girlfriend, and I've got three clients -- one here, one in the East Bay, one in the city. I move around so much, I'm camping out in hotels, mostly. That way, I have no extra overhead when I go on vacation," he smiled optimistically.

There it was: He was probably the highest paid itinerant worker on the planet. Paul wondered what Jim did with all the money, but couldn't think of a discreet way to ask. He decided to let the conversation play out on the path of least resistance.

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"You actually take vacations?" Paul asked with playful skepticism. "That sure wouldn't be in character. You ever have plans to get out of Dodge and take a break?"

"Not with my clients. They're already pissed I won't give them more time than I do." He paused, then erupted cheerfully: "Bah, you know me -- work, work, work. I'm a work machine. One of these days I'll figure out how to slow down and enjoy it." Then, playing his own devil's advocate: "Yeah, and maybe one day pigs'll fly, too. But hey -- I'm still young."

His last comment struck Paul like a rock. Jim had been well past the prime of youth when the two had toiled shoulder to shoulder. Now tufts of white hair were beginning to stick out of his ears, and his eyebrows were acquiring Merlin's peaks.

In Jim's tale of a life deferred in cubicles and hotel suites, Paul could hear the sound of slamming doors. The same sound, now that he came to think of it, he was beginning to hear in his own.

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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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