I’ve always been somewhat compulsive about putting things in order. I remember as a kid waiting in line at stores, I’d pass the time by sorting and rearranging the products on the shelves – much to the amusement of the adults who felt I had a promising future as a stock boy.
As I became drawn to the technology field, computers in specific, that trait has been something of a blessing and a curse. Yes, I can take chaos and make order of it, and in fact that’s how I get myself familiarized with files or lines of code or whatever, but I have a habit of doing that when it’s not asked for or called for. Ailing computers have died because I decided to try to find and delete trash from the hard drive before just making a backup copy of the whole thing. I’ve annoyed friends and loved ones by trying to bring a kind of order to their files which were arranged by their kind of chaos. Changing computer code for change’s sake sometimes breaks it, and while that helps me understand and improve the code, people usually aren’t as happy as I am about it.
I’m facing that at work right now. Our project is brittle and fragile, consisting of several years’ worth of work adding new features and fine-tuning the details, but nobody who’s still employed here knows the bulk of what’s there or how most of the older stuff works. As I go through and try to clean it up, it breaks sometimes in unexpected ways. I see this as necessary growing pains, as the alternative would be to fear touching any of the legacy code and let it keep accumulating like layers of sediment. My manager doesn’t completely agree with me.
This is a familiar scenario. The other night I got to thinking about one of my first jobs, during summers in high school: GE (General Electric) Astro-Space had offices nearby, and I got a job with the team who was working on figuring out payload requirements and interfaces for the upcoming International Space Station (then known as “Space Station Freedom”). For example, given a particular position on one of the space station trusses, they had to figure out how much power a payload was allowed to draw, how much heat it was allowed to give off, that sort of thing. I wasn’t involved in any of that; instead, I was tasked with coming up with a HyperCard stack to document and sell the project. High-level stuff, and really a precursor to the world-wide web. It was a Mac program that, for example, showed a drawing of the space station and let you click on section of it to bring you to another card with more details about that section, with text information you could scroll through. In hindsight it was really charitable for them to hire on a kid like me to do something like this, but I guess it really helped them to look flashy and high-tech where most of their work consisted of spreadsheets and calculations.
There were a few times when my manager asked me to make certain changes and I resisted because I thought I knew the better, cleaner, more orderly way to code it. I was just a headstrong kid back then. I wish I could go back and apologize to him for thinking I knew better – and to thank him for that opportunity, way back when.
But this is the age of the Internet! He should be findable, shouldn’t he? His name was Joe Giannovario. He was a tech head and a Mac fan; I remember he had a Mac IIci on his desk and he was really excited the day he got a CD-ROM drive for it and could listen to his CDs. So I went looking to see if he had left any footprints online to track him down. I found some papers he had authored in the early 1970s; he was a chemical engineer. Really difficult work, especially back then without a personal computer to help. A few mentions of him as a reference on some NASA documentation, but otherwise, not much. Until I found a connection: there was a Joe Giannovario who had been the editor of a model railroading magazine titled “O Scale Trains” (http://oscalemag.com/); could it have been the same guy?
That was confirmed when I found his obituary. After he retired from working on the space station, he went on to become a much-beloved editor of that magazine, and when he died of lung cancer a few years ago, many people had expressed their condolences.
A few weeks ago, in the early evening when I was walking the dog, I found some neighbors standing in the street. “The space station is about to fly overhead,” they said, so Jill and I stood outside and waited with them, and sure enough, we spotted the gleaming speck as it made its way across the sky. I love that there was this thing with which I’d been involved and so many years later I can still see it up there. I have Joe to thank for that.