This is a eulogy for Larry, eight years too late.
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I was an innocent young Ivy League graduate with an engineering degree and no idea what to do with it. I took the first job offer I got: with Oracle, the database company in California. They had no idea what to do with me. They threw me into a three-week crash course in databases, then let me pick what group I wanted to join. I chose Tech Support.
Tech Support had no idea what to do with me either. I was assigned to the desktop team. They gave me a PC running Windows 3.1 (a very long time ago, remember!), and told me I had to resolve a certain number of customer tickets each week.
The transition from college life to the Real World had been a difficult one. No longer were there letter grades to tell me well I was (or wasn’t) doing! I had no objective way to compare myself with other people and objectively see if I was screwing up! But suddenly this closed ticket count took that place in my life and became the measure thereof, and I worked hard to get that number high and keep it at the top of the weekly department report. There were no company incentives for this, of course; as long as the quotas were met, upper management didn’t care about individual performance. I cared, but nobody else did.
Especially Larry. Larry didn’t care at all.
Tech Support tends to have a high turnover rate. The human psyche typically can’t stand being blamed for problems outside one’s control day-in-day-out for more than a few years at best. So most of the people in our Tech Support group were young, just starting their careers. Larry stood out because he was old – in his mid-forties, at the time. I had never been a peer with someone more than twenty years my senior. He was laid-back, friendly, always looked slightly rumpled – at the time I thought he was what Jeff Bridges’s character in the movie Tron might have become later in life, but looking back on it now, it’s obvious he was a professional slacker. His number was usually near the bottom of the weekly department report. I remember asking him about this once.
“I don’t care,” he replied. “I’m gonna take a smoke break.”
Larry taught me what a “smoke break” was. I had thought it was one of three ten-minute breaks each day, as laid out in the Employee Handbook; but no, apparently it means “whenever you feel like” and “however long it takes.” I don’t smoke, but it turns out that smoking isn’t even required during these breaks. Basically they were excuses for him to step outside and complain for a while about whatever customer (or manager) was giving him a hard time so far that day.
The idea of griping about company business on company time was strange and new to me. I joined him on a few of these smoke breaks (being careful not to stand downwind of him so that I didn’t smell like a clove for the rest of the day), a few at first, then more regularly as time went on and I saw that I wasn’t getting in trouble for them. Management either didn’t notice or, more likely, didn’t care. And Larry talked about all kinds of things of which I had very little knowledge (basketball, liquor, women and divorcing them), and then when we felt like it we returned to our desks and got back to work. I was conscientious; I was still at the top of the department report most weeks, but I didn’t care about it quite as much any more. It was no longer my measure of self-worth. It was just a number.
And I want to say I discovered that Larry secretly did care about the numbers, at least as far as they were relevant to his own goals; but no. He never cared.
. o O o .
Larry wasn’t the kind of person who made good decisions in life. I was thinking about him recently, so I used the magic of the World Wide Web to look him up. I only found two hits: a police report from 2007 about his arrest for running a red light and hitting an empty school bus while drunk; and then, a few months later, his one-line obituary.
. o O o .
Last week I was packing up to leave at the end of a long day at the office. I said goodnight over the cubicle wall, then hesitated when my neighbor didn’t reply. “I’m sorry,” he said without looking up. “I need to run these tests before the code gets released to QA tomorrow morning. I think there’s a bug we missed. I’m taking my wife to a show tonight, but as soon as we get home I’ll log on remotely and work on it.”
I asked him, “Because otherwise QA will find it and open a bug report?” He nodded. “Then why bother? Go enjoy your show and get a good night’s sleep.”
Now he looked up at me. He’s twenty years my junior, but times like this I know he doesn’t believe that with age comes wisdom. “It’ll make us look bad for missing it. Don’t you care?”
“This is why we have QA and a two-week staging cycle,” I told him. “And the tests have missed this bug because the test server has been broken; that’s the consequence of losing Systems Engineering headcount. And you’re better off fixing this in the morning when you’re fresh. There will always be bug tickets to work on. Yes, I care about the team, I care about the project, but right now you should care more about you.”