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The Death of a Titan

Posted by n_alex on October 25, 2003 at 12:17 PM PDT

On January 6th, 2001 I woke up and went to work as normal. It was a cold Friday and I was looking forward to working on a streaming MP3 jukebox server I'd been building with Flash and Java. I had no idea what was going to happen that day.

I worked for a company called marchFIRST, which had only months before boasted a roster of 10,000 employees around the world. I remember the early days very well. I was hired by an enthusiastic creative director and flown to Chicago for a week-long orientation seminar. When I returned I was brought to the new offices, which crowned the top three floors of a new highrisein a nearby suburb of Minneapolis.

The place was magnificent. We had hexagonal "cubes" made from brushed steel with sheer white cloth walls between them to facilitate communication. I was a part of a creative team with 30 employees. 30 brilliant designers, a handful of whom were also skilled Presentation or client-side developers. I was among those rare crossbreeds who could travel between the creative group and the Java developer team downstairs, which also boasted about 30 developer seats.

Supporting the creative and development teams were a contingent of information architects, writers, producers, HR personnel, strategy, and marketing specialists. All of the different groups held each other up. The Minneapolis office had about 140 people altogether.

I remember the energy of that place. It was immense--impossible to explain if you were not there. We were the absolute cream of the international crop when it came to delivering corporate services. But trouble had set in very early in my tenure. The company had cooked the Q2 books in 2000, relying on "accrual" accounting methods to keep up their price-to-book ratios. A lot of the "profit" they put on the balance sheet was outstanding, and the Dot-commers who made up our client base would never be able to pay their bills. The Minneapolis office was working on Tremor.com for Procter & Gamble, and were raking in money hand-over-fist, so we thought we were fine.

But if you chop off enough of the beast's heads, the body is certain to fall with it.

In Q3 marchFIRST fell short of analyst's expectations and worse. It came to light that they'd mislead the public in Q2 to the tune of 50 million dollars (or something incredible like that) and dug a deeper hole in Q3. The "C-Level" people in the company had dumped their stock and resigned by the time the news came out, but I'd only been there a few weeks and didn't have any stocks invested in the company (and still didn't know up from down when it came to finance). The stock price plummeted from $30.00 to about $0.10 over the course of a couple of weeks.

And everything was quiet in the office for a couple of months.

That Friday morning when I went to work, my managers were in a meeting, and when they came back around 11 or so, they looked stricken. There was a group of about 20 people quietly talking over by their desks. I went over and learned that one of my managers (the better of the two, in my mind) had been terminated and was asked to pack up her desk and leave immediately. I was shocked.

Then I learned they were going to do the same to about half of us that day. My initial shock turned to silent terror. Nobody said anything. We all returned to our desks and tried to think about anything other than who was next.

A little while later, the telephones at our desks began to ring. One at a time people answered their phones in a quiet voice, stood up and marched in silence to a room somewhere on the other side of the office. About ten minutes later they would return, white-faced, and begin to pack their belongings.

I can't do justice to the nerve-racking terror of that day. Whenever anyone's phone rang, you thought it was yours, because sound carried so well through the office. Grown men and women were choking down the fear, but everyone was alone that day. We had been profitable, we'd pulled long hours and burned the midnight oil to make this company successful. How could they disassemble a team of this caliber? I couldn't believe it.

Eventually my phone rang. I took my licks, gratiously accepted two months of severence pay and got ready for the Freefall. I've been consulting for many years, and returning between gigs to the Freefall is the nature of the business. I could go back to being a Merc, I told myself. I turned in my equipment and left marchFIRST.

But what happened to me? I didn't return to the IT business that spring. I didn't go back to the freelance life or become an IT mercenary the way I'd once been. I had eaten the team rhetoric and swallowed the hook. And when they yanked the hook out and tossed me back into the pond, I took it much harder than I thought I would.

I stopped looking for jobs and decided to go back to the University in the summer. I became a hardcore introvert and stayed up for days reading Nietzsche, teaching myself J2EE, listening to international politics on the BBC. Needless to say, it was a long, dark spring. And it didn't get better in the summer, when I moved in with some friends. Or in the autumn, when I couldn't afford books for my classes, or anything but the most absolute meager diet. I didn't accept another job until December of that year, by which time I'd burned off most of the anger, frustration and bitterness I felt for the entire IT industry and all of the destructive greed that had nearly eaten me alive.

I started working at an IT helpline for the U of MN at a very meager hourly rate, and came home from work each day feeling that I'd genuinely helped the community, given something substantial back. All day long, all I did was help people fix their computers, or get their email or some other trivial thing. But it seemed like magic to them. It's strange, but I learned that giving something simple to real people, where I could clearly see the results each day gave me more of a sense of accomplishment than I'd ever felt bringing home the $4,500.00 paychecks.

That's about the time I quit my studies of computer science and begun studying literature and literary theory in school. You think Josh Bloch knows about languages? Try reading Jacques Derrida sometime. You want to learn about architecting or codifying a concept in an information system? Deconstructive analysis can teach you more about systems architecture than the Java Language Specification, or any book on java certification can. Ever seen that "code poet" shirt? There's more truth in that phrase than in most books on programming.

All the technical training in the world hadn't prepared me for the day my company and my ideals about the industry came crashing down around me. I had to realize there's more at stake than what first appears. Our industry and culture is one of engineers, we are those who build. But we don't just build software systems, because you can't live in your software. My friend Dain Sundstrom told me earlier this year while I was helping him move out of his house that in his heart, he's "really just a carpenter." My good friend Russel Colliton takes that a step further--he actually has a woodshop in his basement. And the time is fast approaching when a new wave is going to hit our US economy and take our livelihoods with it out to sea. Now, as carpenters, we either have to build an ark, or we'll have to rebuild our lives when the storm breaks.

And that day is coming. It's going to make that January seem like this June. Sound fatalistic? It is, but I'm optimistic because it can be fixed.

Like any complex system, our economy has bugs. Huge bugs. Critical, terminal bugs. Our monetary policy is trending toward a Weimar Republic-style infinite loop. You could call it a "Cash Overflow Error". There are also bugs in our heads, particularly about our notion of the "good life". But the general character of our community is strong and smart enough to hack this system, figure out its flaws and work to refactor it.

There's more to life than bits and chips, and coming to terms with that helped me flesh out my understanding of my place in this society. Being in the belly of that titan when it fell back to the earth seemed like the end of the world, but there is more meaning waiting out there if the same should ever happen to you.

A final quick note--I don't recommend Nietzsche as a post-collapse starting point in the search for meaning, but Walter Koffman's preface in the Viking portable edition is a priceless introduction to western philosophy.

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