I met Fred, an old friend of mine, for dinner the other night. I hadn’t seen him for years but he looked 2o years older. Swelled and shrunk down all at once.
He said he was trapped. He’d taken a lucrative job at a small, very specialized financial services company. The job, they’d said at the time they hired him, was top secret, and funded by a deep well of cash skimmed from the pockets of the most forward looking VCs in silicon valley. When this new industry launches, they said, he’d be writing the software that made it run.
We’d just started eating and he was well into his 3rd beer when he got to this point.
The time scale, he said. It’s a detail that should have been explored more closely during the interview process. He conceded this as a failing on his part while ordering his fourth beer. He didn’t blame the company.
The company was only only two people, it turned out. He was the third. I’d be on the ground floor, they said. So again, sort of right. More right then I thought they meant, anyway.
The two other people he works with are an exotically beautiful secretary and an elderly lawyer, who is the owner and CEO of the company. The two of them, he says, seem to be having a torrid affair, but they hardly speak to him so he’s not positive. He says he often has difficulty deciphering human interactions.
I tell him it’s a occupational hazard.
He joined 3 years ago. When he first got there he’s discovered that 99% of the code had already been written by an Israeli consultancy that was now out of business.
The project, he finally confessed in a stage whisper, was accounting software for asteroid mining companies.
There was only one piece of the code left to write. One class. One method in that class, actually.
public void amortize (RocketShip ship)
He’s spent the intervening years writing and rewriting that class to keep up with actual and postulated tax laws, bracket styles, and languages in the comments. Most of the comments, as well as variable and method names, he’s migrated to Sanskrit, but has lately been experimenting with encoding the works of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland into variable names throughout the codebase.
You’re trapped, I said. You’ve got a couple kids and a mortgage and you’re trapped. This is not a unique situation.
That’s not it. My kids are teenagers and don’t talk to me, and if the house burnt down tomorrow, with my wife it it, I’d dance a jig.
It’s that I think that I’m dead, he said, finally, wiping away the last of his meal and spilling his eight beer. I’ve entered a kind of purgatory and I’m afraid that if I quit my job they’ll notice me and move me on.
Not up, he said, reaching for the check just a little slower than I did. Why would I go up? What have I done? Don’t you have to do something, to go up?