Tech Life No one cared if I did nothing

Crazy Charlie’s Window

Second year of UCSC. Decades ago. A predilection for Domino’s Pizza and a fundamental misunderstanding of how credit cards worked left me in a financial hole. I needed a job, any job, and the School of Social Sciences offered a job aligned with my computer science degree, lab technician.

A solid interview with a prompt job offer. This is going to be easy.

No, this is going to be boring.

The lab technician role was among the lowest rungs on the Social Science ladder. My boss was a tenured professor who was somehow protecting grant money by hiring a minimum-wage lab technician. Her description of the role during the interview versus what she described on my first day had little intersection.

“Make sure the lab is tidy. Make sure the terminals work. And whatever else you want to do. You have a storage room where we store old terminals and other random hardware. You have an office. It used to be Crazy Charlie’s. It’s a mess.”

The lab was a large basement full of rectangular tables, each with two terminals on top. I never saw a human use the lab in my first two weeks on the job. The pre-PC terminals were heavy and ugly. A quick assessment revealed that 50% of them refused to turn on.

And that was the good news.

The storage room was long, perhaps twenty-five feet deep, with ceiling-high racks on both sides. These racks were jam-packed with discarded terminals, cardboard boxes full of who knows what, random bits and bobs of technology, and then just random crap. I could get halfway to the back of the room before being stopped by overwhelming clutter. My assessment: random humans had been leaving and piling random crap in this room for a decade.

And that wasn’t the worst news.

My “office” made the storage room look tidy. The prior occupant, described to me by multiple people as “Crazy Charlie,” had apparently been a hoarder, and this office, roughly half the size of the computer storage room, featured a stunningly diverse set of detritus. If I squinted, I could see a desk somewhere under all that junk, but I couldn’t see the back of the office nor much of the side walls. The ceiling appeared intact.

There was no guidance on what to do with the office and storage room. Just the basic “keep the lab tidy” guidance and nothing more. Part-time gig. Twenty hours a week if I wanted. 10 hours required. While she did not say this, I felt my boss knew I was a college student; this was a college job, and she was giving me permission to phone it in.

Keep the lab tidy.


Two Treasures

It was January. The gig lasted through the school year. The first week, I did what was asked of me. I kept the lab tidy, which meant I spent an hour shuffling around the lab and confirming that the working terminals worked. For the non-functional terminals, I tinkered. Flipping switches on the back of the devices meaninglessly. Oh, look. Now it works. I wonder why. Twice, I went into the storage room to assess the chaos. Twice, I left after five minutes, feeling overwhelmed.

The second week, I did even less tidying. I’d discovered MTrek, and since no one seemed to care, I played MTrek on the terminal. No one noticed because no one was there. As the week came to a close, it was clear:

  • No one was expecting anything out of this gig.
  • No one cared how I spent my time.
  • No one cared if I did nothing.

But I do.

The weekend after the second week, I arrived at the basement of the Social Sciences building at 6am and emptied the contents of the storage room into the hallway. If you were walking through this hallway at the time, you would assume a nerd junkyard had exploded.

My goal with this strategy was to get a sense of everything collected in this space. The categories ended up being:

  • Garbage to be thrown away immediately. No obvious value. This was 40% of the crap.
  • Terminals. Lots of terminals from many years. The functioning ones were kept, and the others were flagged for recycling. Note: I had no idea if recycling was an option, but filling the garbage bin outside the building with dead terminals seemed bad.
  • Documentation. This was the first treasure. Someone had deliberately organized documentation for the terminals. They’d collected this documentation and labeled the front of manuals to clarify which documents described which terminals. Suddenly, the lab wasn’t full of random crap, but terminals I now understood how to manage.
  • Esoteric hardware. The deeper I went into the storage room, the more random, interesting hardware I discovered. There was a punch card computer complete with punch cards. There were odd measurement devices. From their placement and how they’d been stored, it was clear these machines had been placed here for safekeeping.
  • Knick knacks. Someone had kept a collection of Coke bottles. Like the esoteric hardware, these bottles were here for a reason that I would never understand but could tell existed.

With the hallway strewn with my discoveries, I performed a deep clean of the storage room and then moved saved items back into the room, keeping a handwritten log of each item and, if applicable, a count. Working terminals were labeled as such, non-working, too. Documentation was sorted and placed in a filing cabinet. Esoteric hardware and knick-knacks were carefully placed as before — in a quiet, dark place of honor.

I finished the storage room purge late on Saturday night. It is a truth you can’t fully appreciate a deep clean until you’ve had time to forget the work involved in cleaning it, but this room was now blissfully clean and orderly. I could walk from front to back easily. I could sense the stored terminals were placed deliberately — there was a sense of the system. And the knick-knacks, the strange hardware, gave this room no one cared about a sense of playful mystery.

I originally planned to spend a few hours in the storage room that weekend. I spent 10. As I went to sleep in my dorm, smelling of dust and sweat, I stared at the ceiling and decided to finish the job correctly.

The Office

The garbage factor in Crazy Charlie’s office was twice the amount in the storage room. At some point, someone had decided to use this office as a place to put garbage that somehow wasn’t garbage yet.

Dozens of trips to the garbage bins outside of the building. After I filled one, I walked around the building until I could find another. Unlike the storage room, there were few clusters of interesting items. Some terminals revealed themselves, as well as additional documentation, but mostly, garbage.

Once I reached the back of the room, I discovered the second treasure. Someone, sometime, had built a set of French windows on the room’s back wall. The windows opened… to a blank concrete wall. Against that wall, inside the windows, there sat an empty leather satchel1.

Crazy Charlie, I assumed, had built French windows in his dark basement office. A window to nowhere. Perhaps this is why they called him Crazy Charlie?

You Know What’s Crazy?

Calling people crazy. It’s ignorant. It’s cruel. It minimizes humans rather than supports them. It demonstrates a profound absence of empathy.

In my weekend of purging the storage room and the office, I’m sure I was wandering around a small, interesting part of Charlie’s mind. Someone who was trying to preserve the knowledge about these terminals by saving and organizing this documentation, someone who was keeping interesting hardware, someone who liked Coke bottles, and someone who wanted a view.

You know what else is crazy? Wasting your time. The reason, decades later, I frequently think of this unpaid weekend adventure sifting through a year of garbage, hardware, and knick-knacks is because it is when I discovered the compounding non-obvious value from doing exceptional work.

No one saw the tidy office or the storage room for weeks because they’d given up on those spaces. It wasn’t until Week #4 when my boss brought her flaky terminal to the lab and asked for help. I walked her into the pristine storage room, pulled a working terminal off the shelf (there were four), and told her what switches she’d need to flip to get it to work on our network.

“What happened here?” she asked.

“I cleaned it up.”

Week #6. Her boss walks into my office, which is now a proper office with two desks (one for my computer) and the second for repairs. He asks, “I’d love it if you could walk me through how you organized your terminal closet. We have one on the third floor that needs help.”

I grabbed the red binder, which had the up-to-date inventories of the lab, closet, and office, dropped it on the desk, and asked, “How can I help?”

Week #10. The head of the IT department for Computer Science walked into my office, looked around, grinned, and said, “So. You’re the guy.”

Charlie’s Window

The Computer Science department offered me a gig the following year running all of the labs in their main building, but I’d already decided on a part-time gig at Symantec, which turned into a full-time role that turned into a career.

During my junior year, I ran into my Boss walking across campus, who told me, “You know that punch card computer you found in the supply closet? It was only one of the three built and the only one remaining. It belongs in a museum.”

Week #3. I sat in my tidy office, spinning in my chair, staring at the empty French window frame and wondering why Charlie had built it. Inspired? Sad? What’s the back story? Part of me wanted to ask my boss about his backstory, but I never did. What I did was buy a poster of Yosemite’s Half Dome. I carefully cropped the poster and placed it behind the window.

A proper view from a dark place.

And a job well done.

  1. The empty leather satchel. Yeah, it’s still a total mystery. 

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4 Responses

  1. Erik Brown 3 weeks ago

    Beautifully written story, Michael. Have you read The Soul of a New Machine? I bet you’d like it. This reminds me of it somehow, but I can’t explain why.

  2. Robert Lamb 3 weeks ago

    Great story! Thanks for sharing it. I like how you take what started as a small story and made it engaging and, yes, poignant. You also made it relevant and informative by bringing in the timeline of how it affected those around you and your career.

  3. delfina 6 days ago

    this made me tear up… thank you!