January 14th, 2005

Red stapler

Office Space Was a Documentary

I have an odd relationship with the movie Office Space, odder than most people's.

When the movie first came out, I ignored it. Modern screwball comedies mostly don't work for me. I'm not all that fond of Mike Judge's work. I'd seen the original series of cartoons that it was based on, the ones about the character of Milton and his humiliation at the hands of his manager, and I'd mostly hated them. And what's more, I don't go to see a lot of movies, probably not more than four to six per year, so I actually need a reason to go see a particular movie, and I just didn't have one for this one. So it came, and went, and I didn't think twice about it. Eventually it came out on DVD, and hick0ry was all over me to watch it, but my reasons still held, so I kept blowing him off. Then I found myself working at a place where all of the front-line supervisors, and most of the employees, were huge huge huge fans of Office Space, and kept making inside jokes from it. So out of self-defense, and because I can't stand not getting a joke, I grudgingly borrowed a DVD copy and watched it. And was promptly blown away, far more than even the most enthusiastic fan among you. You see, I recognized it. Not Milton's story, not the lead character's exact story, but I recognized every other detail in that movie.

If you have seen Office Space, you may have thought of it as being a lot like Dilbert. A lot of the early Dilbert strips were based largely on Scott Adams' experiences at (if memory serves) Pacific Bell, but a lot of it came from conversations with friends, then emails from fans, and so Dilbert became basically the generic awful-office cartoon, with little bits of this and that from awful companies all over the country and around the world. You know, like you thought Office Space was. Ah, but you're wrong. That's an actual company. I know. They wanted me to work there. No, I know what you're thinking, and I'm not delusional, and I'm not projecting my own issues on to the canvas of the movie. There are just too many of the details that line up. I wish I could tell you the name of the company, but there's no way I'm going to remember it, and at this late a date I probably can't even find it with a Google search. You see, there were a lot of companies in that particular business niche at the time, and after I got fired from MasterCard, there were about a dozen of them that were desperate to hire me. All of them offered to pay my relocation, and offered me a 50% salary increase over my already fairly impressive $48k/yr salary from MasterCard. Only one of them was from Austin, Texas, though, and the urban landscape in that movie is unmistakable to anyone who's seen even pictures of the real Austin, Texas. (If one needs more proof, let me point out that Mike Judge is from Texas; the only place he would know that would have that particular job would have been in Austin, the "technology capital of Texas.")

I turned them down flat. For one thing, I was in the middle of a complicated and mildly risky real-estate deal that would have been seriously jeopardized if I left St. Louis. But with that kind of money, I could have had a lawyer look after that, and the recruiters reminded me of this on a regular basis. How regular? Two and three times a day, most weekdays. You see, they all had a job that they very desperately needed filled. It was the same job every time. I knew that job. I knew how to do it, I knew I could do it, I knew people who'd had similar jobs. That last part's the catch: I knew too much about the job to fall for their seductive offers. I'm glad I didn't, too. They were offering me "Peter Gibbons' job," and I knew long before the movie Office Space came out just how awful that job is.

Peter Gibbons, the character played by Ron Livingston in Office Space, was a software quality analyst for a consulting firm in Austin, Texas, that was heavily involved in Y2K conversions. And, just as the recruiter for the actual company told me, their original client list had been largely in the banking and savings & loan business, and through referrals from past clients they were making big, big money doing Y2K conversions for banks and S&Ls.

What is a software quality analyst? Only the worst job in North America. I'd rather work fast food. You see, it's like this. Systems analysts and business managers design software. The programmer teams write it and (to an extent) debug it. The resulting product consists of at least a hundred, and often as many as several thousand, pages of what looks like especially cryptic modern poetry. The job of the SQA department is to read, by hand, all thousand of those pages, every single line of it. In most places, they don't even let you read it on screen; for obscure industry reasons, it must be read and marked up on paper printout. The Software Quality Analyst is not looking for bugs in the software. He is not verifying whether or not it will work. He is verifying that it is formatted according to company guidelines. The variable names must follow the company's data dictionary standards for how to name variables. The lines of code must be indented to standard company indentation rules. The spaces around the various operators must be there, or not be there, even though the spacing has no effect, according to the company's standard for when there should be spaces and when there shouldn't be. In computer programs, "comments" are notes in more-or-less plain English that are embedded in the code, saved along with it, to provide helpful hints to the next programmer to work on this program as to what was done, and how, and why. They don't have an effect on the way the program runs. The software quality analyst's job is not to make sure that those comments are correct, only to make sure that there are comments everywhere that the company standard says that there must be comments and that they are formatted the way they're supposed to be. It is, as I say, quite possibly the worst job in North America, and I say that even after having read this year's list of the worst jobs in science. Because they must have at least some understanding of what the code says and what properly formatted code looks like, it must be done by someone with a bachelor's degree in computer science. But the job amounts to proofreading gibberish. It has always paid about 50% more than any job in computer science that has comparable education and experience requirements ... and still, hardly anybody lasts a whole year in it.

And the worst part of this was that they were calling me about this during the exact time that the movie Office Space was set ... in 1999! When I asked those recruiters what the company was going to have me be doing after December 31st, they said, to a man, "We're a successful and growing consulting firm, we'll have plenty of work." They were lying. They knew it. They hoped I didn't know it, but I'm not that dumb. I knew that as each and every one of those Y2K projects was completed, most of each project team was going to be laid off. The "lucky" few would be transferred to projects that were running late (in blatant violation of Brooks' Law: "Adding personnel to a late software project makes it later.") But by the beginning of January, every single person at every single one of those firms who'd been working on Y2K conversion was going to be unemployed. And that is why everybody in Office Space is obsessed about when the layoffs are going to begin, and in what order.

You thought this was a generic office? Why did you think that? You have to have noticed, you must have noticed if you ever went anywhere near a restaurant in 1999, that the character of Joanna (Jennifer Aniston) was working at TGI Friday's? That wasn't a generic "experience marketing" bar and grill, that was a particular one: exact same uniforms (with the exact same obsession with buttons and gewgaws and other "flair" that was supposed to conceal the fact that your waitperson was exhausted from a long week of hard work and convince you that they were having fun), decor only modified enough to make it possible to get film cameras in and around the characters conveniently -- for crying out loud, same red and white striped awnings! So if you noticed that the restaurant business in the movie wasn't just any generic chain restaurant but one particular one, did it occur to you to wonder if the office job in question might not be just any generic office job? Well, it wasn't. It was, in fact, one particular office job at one particular firm, and one I count myself very, very lucky to have not been caught in.

Postscript, added later: A TPS Report, by the way, is almost certainly a Time and Productivity System report. All consulting firm employees, even the salaried ones who technically don't have to use a time card, have to report what project each 15 minutes of their day should be reported to. Back in the early 1980s when Project Management software first became available, someone came up with the idea of modifying those forms so that people would also report what phase of each project each 15 minutes was spent on; that way the software could track how many man-hours had been spent on that phase and could thereby attempt to predict how close to being done that phase of the project was by comparing reported man-hours so far to forecasted man-hours until completion. Then as various productivity improvement fads swept through the system, most notably Total Quality Management, the word "productivity" got hung on everything, especially every report. Management cares a lot about TPS Reports because they determine how the client gets billed for a project in progress. Bottom level managers like Bill Lundburg care a great deal about even finicky little details like using the right updated version of the cover sheet for the TPS Report because having them all be identical makes it quicker for him to copy the cover sheet details into his own email or TPS data entry screen so that he doesn't have to actually read your report to make his report to upper management. Does this mean that real jerks like Bill Lundburg don't also take advantage of minor screwups to reassert their authority over people they feel inferior to, say, people with more up-to-date degrees, by making them feel stupid? Oh, no, you betcha that they do that.

And for those of you who've never used any of the HP LaserJet printers that an LCD display in addition to warning lights, "PC LOD LTR" means that the Paper Cartridge is either empty, or loaded with legal-size paper, so for this print job to go through you need to LOaD LeTteR sized paper.