Sunday, 28 August 2011

Enter the Dragon

When I rolled up at Tigerland on my first day, wearing my brand new suit, there was another lanky young guy hanging around outside the front doors looking uncomfortable in his office clothes. Being razorminded deductive prodigies fresh from our nations shining institutions of tertiary education, we quickly worked out that they'd hired two graduate programmers, and we were both starting on the same day. My new colleague told me his name was Guthrie.

We went up to the office. Amos came to meet us at reception. He was wearing jeans stained with battery acid and a t-shirt. "You boys won't be needing those suits around here," he said. I had my tie off before he'd even shown us to our desks.

Guthrie and I would be sharing an office with Amos and Meggs. There was no door, and the wall facing the corridor was all glass. It was like being in a very small and poorly-lit fishbowl.

In the office next door was another programmer, Jing, who Meggs told us was also a programmer. "But she only writes test scripts,"  said Amos, dismissively. There was one other programmer, Robert, who occupied the next office along, but he wrote small applications for clients and was not part of the team. The four of us in the Fishbowl were the team; everybody else was inconsequential. Marketing, we were told, was the Enemy.

The first task that Guthrie and I were given was to unpack and set up our computers, which were delivered not long after we arrived. Guthrie was quite excited about it. I was less enthusiastic. Before long we had the  computers put together, and Amos instructed us to install the latest version of Windows NT Workstation.

I'd never used NT before and had no real idea of how it was different to Windows 98. I didn't much care either, until we started having problems. Neither Guthrie nor I could get the damn OS to install properly. After a day of stuffing around, Meggs gave us a different set of CDs to use and told us to install NT Server. Server went on with no problems.

I immediately had another problem. My network card didn't work. I had installed it myself and I was worried that it was my fault, but Amos just gave me a new one. The new one worked fine. Two days had passed and I'd barely managed to get my computer up and running.

My heart wasn't in it. The Dragon had promised they would call me that week with an offer and I was fretting about how I would be able to break it to them that I was already going to quit.

I came down with a flu. I hadn't been sick in the five preceding years when I had been at University, but less than a week in the office and I felt as if I'd been run over. Guthrie and I were given access to the source code and instructed as to how the version control system worked. Neither of us had used version control software before, but, we were told, even if it had, the experience would have meant little. The version control software in use at Tigerland had been written by Meggs and bore only superficial resemblance to the solutions in use throughout the rest of industry.

In the mornings, Meggs would give us long show-and-tell lectures about the design of the application, the transformative path he was taking it down, so it could go from being a simple client/server system to a multi-tiered enterprise system, "just like a real one." I was sick that I wasn't taking much of it in; it was all I could do to stay awake. Guthrie claims that one lunchtime he caught me crashed out from exhaustion in an empty office, but I have no recollection of the event.

Guthrie and I were not allowed to program just yet. We were set exercises in using command line utilities to search and replace in the code base using grep and a variety of homegrown tools (again, most of them authored by Meggs). The sort of tasks that are probably familiar to any UNIX programmer of the day, hacked and kludged into a windows environment. Amos decided that these exercises would be competitive, although I think we would have both learned faster if we'd been allowed to work through the problems together.

The cumulative solution to all of these command-line problems was intended to reformat the whitespace in the source code, which Meggs had recently decided had to be absolutely regular. Guthrie and I each reformatted half of the codebase (alphabetically, by file name). After making sure  that everything still compiled, this was the first time that Guthrie and I were permitted to check any code into the repository.

"Congratulations," said Meggs. "You're now officially programmers."

Neither of us had actually written a line of code, but we had certainly had the importance of procedure and code- cleanliness drummed into us.

Meanwhile, the Dragon still hadn't contacted me. I didn't have a mobile or private access to a phone in the office, so I wound up sneaking out of the office a couple of times during our morning coffee breaks to use the phone box on the corner. It was a week before I managed to raise my contact there. She couldn't tell me why, but there was no offer in the pike. I needn't have worried about how Tigerland would take such a quick resignation, because it looked as if I would be staying there indefinitely.

It was less than a year until Y2K and its accompanying crash. In the fallout from that, the Dragon would shut down its Melbourne offices entirely. In later years, I learned that nobody knew exactly why the Dragon had built the Usability Lab that had failed to employ me in the first place. Apparently it never saw a single day's use.

I was fated for a career in the coding trenches, it seemed. I was disappointed that I wouldn't have the Dragon on my resume, but at the same time, I think I was a bit relieved. I was a programmer with a lot to learn, and it seamed as if that Meggs was going to be a good person to learn from.

Now, finally, I thought I knew what would happen next.

No comments:

Post a Comment