Code Worriers

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that a sufficiently advanced technologymight look like magic to a people unable to fathom its intricacies.Well, that day arrived for me when I traded my electric typewriterfor a personal computer. I'm computer illiterate, and so the softwareon my Macintosh--when I think about it at all--seems to work like anoccult charm, or maybe a curse. I'm writing this paragraph inMicrosoft Word, and I have only the foggiest notion of what's goingon in the imperceptible interval between my keystrokes and theemergence of pixels and phosphors onscreen. Something to do withbinary incantations buried deep within the molded plastic crate of mycomputer--ghosts in the machine. But I don't feel too bad about myignorance. So complex is the art of writing computer code that noteven its creators can apprehend the whole of their creation.Take Windows NT, the computer operating system unveiled by MicrosoftCorporation in 1993. At the time, it was the most ambitious andcomplicated PC software program ever devised. With more lines of code(5.6 million) than a 3,500-page unabridged dictionary has words,Windows NT was, like few other human artifacts, beyond thecomprehension of any one mind. As G. Pascal Zachary points out inShowstopper!, his new book about the birth of Windows NT,neither the "end users" who relied on NT as the software nervoussystem of their personal computers and workstations, nor theindividual code writers who cobbled together the discrete swatches ofthe program, nor the project leaders who glued the many pieces ofnumerical instructions together, nor even Bill(ionaire)Gates--Microsoft chairman and conceiver of the project--couldunderstand NT in all of its aggregate, dizzying complexity."It becomes like some sort of mystery or spirit to people. It's likethe face of God," Zachary tells me on a recent afternoon in Berkeley,California. "One person can't comprehend it, can't describe it."Ambitiously, NT stands for "New Technology," but it could just aseasily connote "New Testament.""You don't have a situation anymore," says Zachary, "where a SteveWozniak [Apple Computer co-founder] can simply go into a garage ,'3 and make something. Even for small companies, it doesn't workthat way." The technology has become too elaborate. "Even somethinglike the After Dark screen saver involved quite a few people."The effect of these complex new forms of labor on so-called"knowledge workers" is the most intriguing aspect of Showstopper!, which chronicles Microsoft's campaign to developa "portable" operating system--one with the flexibility to run oncomputer processor chips of various makes (a prescient move, giventhe to-do over Intel's defective Pentium chip). Although NT's debuttwo years ago amounted to something of an anticlimax, sales sincethen have been gaining momentum steadily. InfoWeek recentlyreported that to date, NT has shipped to the tune of a million units.An analyst at Dataquest in San Jose, California forecasts that by theyear 2000, NT sales will have reached $22.6 million. ClearlyMicrosoft is counting on NT--intended for large networked computers--to work in tandem with the company'slong-awaited Windows 95 interface.The New Information AgeFocusing on the most ambitious project of perhaps the most ambitiousinformation-age company, Zachary has chronicled in miniature atransformation that's going on in pockets all over the country. FromRedmond, Wash.--the Elysian sweatshop for Microsofties--to the budgetMecca of Austin, Texas, to the original Silicon Valhalla betweenHighways 101 and 280 in California, a new kind of work is reshapingsocial, economic, personal and maybe even spiritual landscapes--forbetter and worse.Economist Peter F. Drucker forecasts that by the year 2000, highlyeducated, highly specialized knowledge workers will make up at leastone-third of the American work force. The peculiar demands of theirwork, however, will be unlike anything previously encountered in theworkplace.As Drucker wrote in The Atlantic Monthly last November, in the"knowledge society," companies will need highly specialized,well-compensated knowledge workers "far more than knowledge workersneed them." Yet at the same time, the complexity of the work willplace a premium on organization: How else to piece the sundry partstogether so that they actually work as an organic whole?Following the Microsoft NT project from conception to shipping,Zachary found all of these symptoms of the New Information Age infull bloom: well-compensated workers (the Microsoft campus harborsmore paper millionaires than any other spot on earth) who enjoy anemployee's market for jobs and a measure of workplace autonomy andorganizational anarchy. But there's a flip side to the chip, a costly"overhead" to this new style of work: crushing deadlines, long workhours, neglected personal lives, high divorce rates, the race tostave off knowledge obsolescence as the technology races forward.Why should we feel sorry for these well-paid white-collar workers whohave chosen to pursue careers that seem to rewardobsessive-compulsive behavior? Microsofties and Silicon Valley codedrones are the prototypes for future workers in any increasinglycomplicated, increasingly competitive field. "To me, it's a harsherwork than the classic 40-hour work week," Zachary says. "Itexacts more from you in the workplace now. They're getting a biggerpound of flesh from you. The people who consciously decide to work 40hours [a week] are put on the sidelines."Coming from Planet Berkeley, Zachary's abode, these opinions aren'tall that unusual. But given that he's a technology writer at thestaid Wall Street Journal, well, they start to sound a bit likeheresy. Zachary, who got his start in the alternative press at thelegendary Berkeley Barb during the late 1970s before moving onto the Portland, Ore., Willamette Week, has been around SiliconValley long enough to know the turf.During the mid-1980s, when Silicon Valley had its heyday, he editedthe San Jose Business Journal. At the San Jose MercuryNews and later at the Wall Street Journal, he routinelyangered Apple Computer's core leadership with his critical coverageof the cult of former CEO John Scully, whom Zachary describes as "anempty suit."The Microsoft Widows ClubMicrosoft brass--who tolerated Zachary's observation of the five-yearNT project (after all, you snub a Wall Street Journal scribe atyour own risk)--probably aren't all that pleased withShowstopper!'s airing of their company's private dirty laundry.Zachary zeroes in on the human flotsam and jetsam that the NTproject--with its harsh leadership, unforgiving deadlines and sheertechnological difficulty--left in its wake.A klatch of "abandoned" wives referred to themselves as the MicrosoftWidows Club. One father told Zachary that his young son spoke ofgiving up all his toys, if only it would make Daddy spend somequality time with junior. Heart-rending result: Dad postponed hisSunday commute to the office. Another congenital workaholic avoidedhis wife's disapproving glare by stashing a laptop computer in thebathroom, his covert home office away from home. Then there were theinevitable burnouts. After several years of dedicated work, a codewriter named Walt watched his productivity slack off; he holed up inhis office playing computer games all day. His co-workers referred tohis affliction as "Waltzheimer's Disease." As one colleague put it,"It seemed like one minute Walt was essential, and the next minute,he was garbage."The biggest social misfit of all was the project's leader, DaveCutler, a brilliant, if loutish, cross between a drill sergeant, aprogramming genius and the Incredible Hulk. (He threatened to crashthrough walls if code writers didn't straighten up and fly right.)Zachary refers to Cutler as "the Methuselah of software."Unlike most barely postadolescent Microsofties, Cutler came to thecompany at the seasoned age of 46, full of piss and vinegar. Acoarse, temperamental former high school football star with ananal-retentive's passion for detail, Cutler had been a programmingwizard at Digital Electronics Corp., where he developed severalimpressive operating systems.On the NT project, his was the quintessential management byintimidation, but his brilliance as a code writer and his willingnessto roll up his sleeves and do the same work as his underlingsearned him sometimes grudging and often adoring respect.Bug FeverSo I asked Zachary--who on his personal letterhead proudly labelshimself an "unterrified democrat" (with a lowercase "d")--if thereweren't a humane alternative to the postmodern digital sweatshop,where the rewards are ample, but the tensions can be even more so.His response was a bit surprising, more that of the Dow Jones footsoldier than the Berkeley Barb firebrand. Unfortunately, heexplains, the severe conditions of high-tech work seem to beingrained into the very nature of the technology--like siliconembedded in a wafer. "The products that they work on have a shortlife cycle," he says. "So there's always these incredible deadlinesand a real sense that if you miss these deadlines, somebody reallypays for it."Programmers also know that their knowledge is ephemeral. "Each cycleof new computer languages and new computers forces them to relearn alot of the basics of their job," Zachary says. "On the Windows NTproject, they were using some new programming tools to write theoperating system, so it was almost like trying to write a novel andat the same time invent a new language."This constant sense of job insecurity, says Zachary, may explain "whyso many of the people in their 20s and early 30s at these high-techcompanies seem so frenetic and seem to have missed so much aboutwhat's going on in everybody else's life."Another source of psychological torment in the high-tech workplace,according to Zachary, stems from the paradox of unattainableperfection. Although code writing is an act of imposing quantitativeorder on the chaos of the computer, programmers--a detail-obsessed,perfectionist lot--can never entirely banish the disorder inherent ina system as complex as the average software program.Writes Zachary: "In a world of ambiguity and conflicting opinions, inwhich definitive answers were in short supply, the computer's powerto separate between good (it works) and bad (it doesn't) had ahypnotic appeal for code writers." Trouble is, the devil's always inthe details--usually in the endless stream of mocking bugs."Bugs define the life of the programmer, and, in larger terms, lifein general," Zachary says. During the five-year course of the NTproject, code writers had to confront a mind-boggling 30,000 bugs peryear. "And each correction spawns its own errors," says Zachary, "somaybe 5,000 to 10,000 of those could have been errors from bug fixes.I don't envy these guys, because it's such an exacting occupation,and the mistakes are all so public." Even worse, "Everyone knows whatbugs you're responsible for," Zachary explains. "Not only is itobnoxious, it's an existential reminder that the code writer isimperfect. In a sense it's like the great white whale--they'reconstantly after this perfection, but it always eludes them. Itintroduces a sense of humility and exposes your shortcomings" tocolleagues in a very obvious way.Apart from the problems that emerge from the inherent complexity ofthe technology, Zachary sees the ultracompetitive market itself as afactor complicating the already problematic workplace."Microsoft's more harsh than most high-tech companies," Zachary says."And this was a harsh project even by the standards of Microsoft. Butyou see elements of this at a lot of technology companies."Learning to Say NoThough the Microsoft way may produce more scar tissue, and workersmay have shorter half-lives there, for the bottom line it's clearly awinning formula. Zachary attributes that success--costly in humanterms--to the company's young leadership, to its high proportion ofsingle men in positions of power, and to the fact that most of itstechnical managers are promoted code writers. Women on the NT projecthad an especially difficult time navigating the boy's-club atmosphereat Microsoft, which they felt treated them as second-rate personnel.Consequently, they formed a group and electronic bulletin board(named for programming pioneer Grace Murray Hopper) and won a fightto banish pornographic pinups from the workplace. It may have been aminor victory, but Zachary sees the Hoppers as a prototype forresistance and reform in the post-union workplace, a way of battlingthe insensate character of the marketplace."The traditional labor issues have mutated in this scene," he says.Knowledge workers "don't generally agitate over wage anymore. Wage isa private matter, and it's typically satisfactory to people. Theproblem is job security and working conditions. So how do you get atthose issues outside of a union framework? There are ways," he says,and voluntary associations within companies are just one way."It's become a pretty cruel world when it comes to business andjobs," he notes. "We've seen companies in the same boat as Appledisappear in a few years. The technology business is a painful andmessy one. More and more organizations are opting for these harshersolutions, because kinder, gentler ones didn't work.Looking for a suitable metaphor, Zachary says, "It becomes a kind ofDarwinian experience, that the nice guys get driven out of the game,and you're left with the rough, tough Dave Cutlers out there runningthings. Apple, because it had this proprietary, sort ofself-contained system--the Macintosh--they were able to givethemselves a little bit of a buffer; they had no real competitors.But that's starting to change, and I think life will become harsherthere, too."Given the vicissitudes of the work itself, the real question is howto make this kind of workplace tolerable for the individual. How canemployees strike a sane balance between the demands of the job andtheir sanity? "When do you say no?" Zachary asks, beginning to soundlike the Berkeley agitator again. "What are the forms of resistancethat are open to you? People resist in different ways: They quit,they switch jobs. Those are the easy ways to resist. But how do youresist within the job itself? I see more workers drawing the line,saying, 'This isn't a temporary thing, it's a permanent crisis situation.' And the employers are grudgingly startingto acknowledge that the workplace has changed, it's become hectic.The lines between personal lives and professional lives, between workand play--we can't tell them apart anymore."Maybe, suggests Zachary, more companies need to start offeringsabbaticals, extended periods for workers to recharge after finishingan intensive project. "After the first version of Windows NT shipped,a lot of the team members lay around for about three or four months."After the second version of NT shipped last year, many team membershigh-tailed it out of Cutler's demanding province, or left thecompany altogether. "They had nearly 150 openings," Zachary says."And there weren't people lined up to just jump into these jobs,because people elsewhere at Microsoft know that this is a nut-busterof a product and that Cutler is a harsh guy. So I think in some ways,Microsoft is starting to face up to the question: How can you sustainsuch a harsh workplace?"With any luck, maybe you can't.

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