SciQuest — Anonymity
I worked at SciQuest a couple of years ago when nobody had ever heard of the company. Most of the time I was out at customer sites training people to use our software. It was easy enough work and it kept me away from the office most of the time, which is how I like things.
I remember once they sent me out to this community college in Fremont that was just getting off the ground. You have to remember that this was back when the economy was still doing well, or well enough that people were still spending a lot of money on such big projects. The place was funded through private donors, and they bought a sizeable piece of land on Mission Boulevard near the edge of town. I remember hearing about the place in the news once when they broke ground, but now they were ready to go.
When I arrived they introduced me to a fellow named Hawkins who was going to manage the college's procurement division. Hawkins took me to one of the campus' shiny new classrooms. There were rows of desks with outlets embedded in them that faced a table will all kinds of multimedia equipment piled on top of it. "We're still installing some of this stuff, " Hawkins told me. "Everything will be ready for the fall."
Hawkins was probably about my age, which is to say that he no longer a young man. He was bigger than I was, and his face was slightly moist with sweat. "You look like you've been busy, " I said as we sat down at one of the desks.
"I don't get much sleep these days, " he said. "The worst thing is the indecision. You know, we have a board that decides what kind of equipment they want us to use here. But they don't really know what they're talking about. It's up to me to take their ideas and turn them into some sort of concrete reality. You know, find the technology that they're looking for. And then they change their minds all the time."
"That's not an uncommon problem, I find, " I said. "We work with lots of colleges. You'll get some higher-up who will read about something in a magazine and decide that his school needs to get their hands on whatever it is that has him or her so excited."
"I used to teach a class in a tech college in San Francisco, " Hawkins told me. "This was years ago. The place closed down a long time ago."
"It looks like you've got plenty of money here, " I said.
"People are pretty excited, " he told me. "I don't know. They give tours, you know. Sometimes it's local media. Or maybe it's a donor and some of his pals. Those are the worst ones. We all have to remember to thank the guy for being so generous. I mean, don't get me wrong. I'm happy to have the work."
"I can't stand that stuff either, " I said. "You get it all the time at SciQuest, except that it's clients dropping by. I try to duck out before they get there, but that doesn't always work. I remember once there was this guy who ran a little bookstore in Palo Alto. You know, he was old and rich and basically this was his way of retiring. He was into science fiction and that sort of thing, and he certainly didn't need a system as powerful as the stuff we offer. But, you know, he worked in tech all his life and he knew about us through some connection of his. So the thing is that we had to sit there and listen to all his stories. And this guy talked like he'd been off fighting a war all this time. Everyone had to laugh at his jokes and congratulate him on achieving his dream. His dream was to open the bookstore is what I mean. He made sure to keep telling us that. So the thing is that I'm trying to find an excuse to leave. You know, we were all sitting in our meeting room listening to this guy and I had to get out of there. So I'm waiting for him to stop talking so I can get up and shake his hand and tell him that I have to get going. But he never stopped talking long enough for me to make my move. This went on for hours. It was horrible."
"I have to meet with the board twice a week, " Hawkins said. "It's a bunch of old rich people just like that. I guess it's a good thing that they've built this place. Though sometimes I wonder."
"There's lots of colleges around here, " I said. "It's a booming industry."
"I just remember I used to teach this writing class, " Hawkins said. "This was back when I was in San Franisco. The place was a tech college, but then someone got it into their heads that we should be teaching a general writing course. You know, it wasn't just technical writing. We were going to teach them how to write fiction and poetry as well."
"That's a strange mix, " I said.
"The CEO there said he had this vision, " Hawkins told me. "You know, it was a small enough place that he could get us all in one classroom and explain this vision to us. He said that he believed that in the future everyone was going to want to express themselves artistically. You know, he thought you'd work at your regular job and then spend your free time painting or writing or whatever. He had this whole theory about population growth and the need to feel acknowledged. He thought that anonymity was going to become something like a sickness that you'd want to get rid of."
"He's probably right, " I said. "I think that's happening even now."
"But he was really fiery about it, " Hawkins said. "I don't think I'm making this clear for you. I remember he said that in the future nobody would have any real friends. 'Get used to being by yourself, ' he told us. You know, he thought that people would be moving around so much from place to place and job to job that we wouldn't really get to know anyone. 'Don't think about starting a family, ' he said. He actually said that. He thought family would be irrelevant in the future."
"It doesn't sound like he was a very happy person, " I said.
"I don't think that was the case, " Hawkins said. "He was all excited by this. I think he thought this world he invented in his mind was a great place. 'Anonymity is the enemy, ' he kept on saying. That was the only problem. You had to fight to make sure people knew who you were. 'People who get lost in the crowd will go insane, ' he said. It was the strangest thing I've ever seen in my life. You know, he was a quiet guy normally. I'd see him in the hallway and we'd nod and smile. I was just another part-time teacher. But this was a special meeting he'd called, and it was like he had all this bottled up and then suddenly he had to get it out."
"There are a lot of zealots in tech, " I said. "People who think they understand the world and who believe that they were put on this Earth to reshape it."
"I have to admit the class was interesting, " Hawkins said. "I made it fun. I'd get people to write stories using bullet points. You know, I'd mix things up. So I'd teach them how to list off information from a technical writing perspective, and them I'd get them to write a story using the same format. That wasn't in the curriculum, but nobody was paying any attention. The students all thought it was great. You know, it was a small class. I mean, who is going to learn fiction from a technical college? But the people there were willing to go along with my crazy ideas."
"At least you had fun with it, then, " I said.
"So how long have you been at this job?" Hawkins asked me.
"Nearly a year now, " I told him.
"It must get old fast, " he said.
"It's all right, " I told him. "For a while I was out of work. It was a tough time. For a while I was living in a rooming house in Oakland. I found odd jobs where I could to make ends meet. I don't want to go back to that."
"I can imagine, " Hawkins said.
"I worked at Adobe before that, " I said. "I'd come out of college and got a good job there, but I hated the place right from the start."
"I knew someone who worked at Adobe, " Hawkins said. "He didn't talk about his job much."
"My problem was with my manager, " I said. "He was one of those guys that went mountain climbing and put up pictures of himself on the walls in his office. That made me hate him instantly. So the thing is that I was always in trouble because I wouldn't listen to him or maybe I'd criticize him in a meeting and use some inappropriate language. The thing is that I couldn't control myself. I can't quite explain it."
"You were younger then, " Hawkins said. "It's hard to understand the things you did when you were young when you look back on them."
"I guess so, " I said. "The thing is that I was clearly the one causing problems. There wasn't anything in particular that he did that was particularly offensive. It's just that I'd get to work and I'd be tired from the commute and I'd see him in his office and it would ruin my day right off the bat."
"Sometimes people rub you the wrong way, " Hawkins said.
"Nobody ever made me as angry as he did, " I said. "It was those pictures. Him and some old friend of his and they'd be in their climbing gear on top of some snowy peak. It made me sick looking at those pictures. I can't even tell you. Finally it reached the point where these people from HR told me that I had to alter my behaviour or face disciplinary action. Of course I didn't change my behaviour, and they let me go."
"At least you've bounced back, " Hawkins said.
"I'm not so sure, " I said. "Something about those years still haunts me. I'm still an angry person. I wasn't angry so much before."
"I think I know what you mean, " Hawkins said.
I don't know what happened to Hawkins. That college shut down after operating for a year. The economy hit the skids and that was it. SciQuest let me go soon after that. You know, I think they knew that I wasn't the most enthusiastic employee. Enthusiasm is what everyone wants out of their employees. But sometimes we can't deliver.