A Travellerspoint blog

October 2010

End of the Big Nerd Ranch, and Return of the Nerd

As an integral part of my computer geek past disappears, my computer geek future reopens!

overcast 10 °C

Kanata lays low across the landscape, a glass and steel enclave of high-tech fortresses with short, ultra-green grass and small perfectly trimmed trees. Large 4 lane roads run straight like arrows across the cornfields that separate the mirror glass buildings. Satellite dishes and PBX boxes mix into the natural landscape, like a new bred of bush, and soon become the resting place for weary birds confused by all the windows. Artificial ponds spurt water into the air outside entrances canopied by glass pyramids. Parking lots full of new, shining cars stretch out in concentric circles from the fenced compounds called "campuses" by the employees. The buildings are surrounded by small stands of trees, enclosing them in a forest-like atmosphere. The air is clean, fresh, free of the big city problems of smog or pollution. Standing at the farthest parking lot at the MicroStat Technologies "campus," facing the forest, but glancing back to see the full parking lot, and beyond that, the 5 story, black-glass building, I feel like a cowboy, standing on the edge of a new, wild frontier.

HiTech. What a fabulous word, so futuristic. We all speak a new language now, shorter and more direct then the old language my father spoke. We've eliminated the waste, replacing long words and phrases with three letter acronyms, pronounced with implied vowels. We've combined words, creating single words that used to take quadruple the syllables to say. Email, ATM, DOS, PC, HP, CNN, ESPN. It's fantastic, new, faster communication for our new faster world. Sometimes I feel like I am a pioneer of NewSpeak, just like 1984. Except no one drags you away in the middle of the night to room 101. It's all the gain without the pain. I love HiTech.

I wrote that in 1995. It was the opening two paragraphs of a novel I was working, back when I imagined myself the next Douglas Coupland. The novel (which I never finished, and re-reading now what I did complete I realize is pretty rubbish), about a software coder working at a company that created communications satellites, was heavily influenced by my experience working at Bell Northern Research in Ottawa.

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Bell Northern Research was the research arm of communication equipment manufacturer Nortel (also known as Northern Telecom). Nortel was for a time one of the most valuable companies in Canada, and was a world leader in communications equipment. As internet companies became more and more valuable through the 1990s, Nortel, along with other companies that provided the underlying structure of the internet, grew in stock market valuations and in prestige. It was assumed as the internet grew exponentially, the need for the infrastructure that powered it would follow suit.

Two things smashed that vision, though. Firstly, the internet bubble burst, and the underlying need for architecture dried up. Secondly, compression algorithms continued to reduce the amount of bandwidth required to send information through the internet, which meant that telecom companies had projected much higher need for telecoms equipment than turned out actually to be needed. After 2000, Nortel started a long slow slide to oblivion, with the company now in the process of selling off all its business units and hard assets.

Back in 1992 and 1993 when I worked at the Carling Campus of Bell Northern Research in Kanata (just outside of Ottawa), the future still seemed quite bright. The campus on Carling Drive was a huge, set of connected glass buildings that let in tons of natural light, and was centred around a 7 storey atrium, topped with a glass pyramid. The buildings on campus were surrounded by nature, both man-made (including a lake) and natural (like the forested area bordering the property).

The campus had everything a young software engineer could want. A cafeteria with multiple choices for lunch. A small set of shops to fulfil your desire for munchies, drinks or the occasional pharmaceutical need like aspirin or cold remedies. Running tracks, a gym, bike racks and multiple softball fields, along with 5 different softball leagues depending on the level of competition you wanted to face.

Rents in the Ottawa area were pretty cheap, so I had a nice one-bedroom top floor apartment overlooking Crystal Bay and off into the Gatineau hills. I used to ride my bike the 30 minutes to work every morning, lock it up in the many bike racks (patrolled often by campus security), and grab a shower before heading to my cubicle. As all good software companies, we dressed casually. Jeans and t-shirts, or shorts in the hotter summer months. People who wore suits seemed like suckers to me. I felt more like an artist than a business person. Creating software was like snatching ideas from the ether and making them real. Michelangelo had marble. I had Unix and C++.

The Campus had a buzz about it as folks in the hallways discussed topics like optical technology, packet switching and asynchronous transfer mode. So many smart people, talking about smart things. Bell Northern Research – BNR. We called the campus the Big Nerd Ranch as a joke. Deep down, though, I was proud of working there. It wasn’t a nerd ranch, it was at the centre of the communications revolution that was bringing the world together. It was the heart of the global village. The campus - it felt futuristic.

That future was not to be. Not just for Nortel, but for me as well. Just a few years after I wrote the opening lines to my great (to ever be unfinished) novel, already the jobs of software engineers and computer programmers were leaving North America and heading overseas. I moved “up the value chain” and got into management consulting, concentrating instead on how technology could solve business problems, rather than creating the technology myself. Jeans and t-shirts got traded in for shirts and ties. The “art” of creating software became the “analysis” of solving business problems.

I really don’t miss the life of a coder very much. By the time I gave up coding in the late 1990s, I was pretty sick of it. It turns out it wasn’t really art, but more of a grind. Hours were incredibly long, and I started to develop a tick in my eye from all the strain of staring at computer screens endlessly. I also started to feel quite removed from the heart of the companies I was working for. IT was an enabler of the business, but it didn’t drive the business. Moving into areas where I was advising sales, marketing and customer care felt a lot more connected with the company’s goals and vision.

Given that I don’t much miss being a programmer, I was surprised that I was felt sad to read that the Nortel campus was sold this week to the Canadian Government, who are looking to house the Department of Defence on the site. While I haven’t been back to Ottawa in years, my last visit probably occurring in the 1990s, I still imagine that the campus hasn’t changed since my time there. It was – in my mind – an image of an alternate reality where people were still trying to hook up the world and provide a new, glorious connected future.

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- - -

Ironically, as the location of my past life as a computer programmer ends, my future as a tech geek somewhat returns. I have changed jobs yet again (my fourth position now in the UK in the last four years. An unfortunate consequence of the ongoing near recession that we are experiencing). My new job is with a software company, where I will be doing project management. Maybe it won't be the future I quite imagined back in the mid-1990s, as like almost all software companies are development is done offshore, but I'm back in the world of high tech, this time worrying about how to roll out our software across companies with locations around the world. It is a mix and merge of responsibilities I had in my job as a software engineer and that tasks I performed in management consulting. And while I get to return to a life of wearing jeans and t-shirts to work, I won't have to stare endlessly at computer screens all day, so hopefully the tick in my eye won't return.

The future may not be what I thought it would be in the past, but it is here nonetheless, and it isn't too bad.

I've seen the future, and it will be. I've seen the future, and it works.
- Prince, The Future

Posted by GregW 02:59 Archived in Canada Tagged landscapes armchair_travel Comments (1)

Toronto: A Global City or My Home Town

sunny 16 °C

Writing about London as “a global city” recently got me thinking about Toronto, and why I felt I couldn’t become “an international citizen” while still living in Toronto.

One can’t read much about Toronto before hearing it linked to multiculturalism. The City of Toronto has a webpage celebrating the diversity of the population, and the last census revealed that 49.9% of the population was born in another country. It is a city with a rich diversity, and one can easily hop around town to experience various cultures - from China to Italy to Greece to India all for the price of a TTC day pass.

Monument to Multiculturalism, Union Station

Monument to Multiculturalism, Union Station

As an example of this, I recall the fourth of July, 2004. On that day Greece was playing Portugal in the final of the UEFA Euro 2004 football (soccer) tournament. I decided to go and watch the game with folks who had a vested interest in the outcome. The only question was whether I should head over to The Danforth to watch in Greektown, or head over to Ossington Avenue to watch with the Portuguese in Little Portugal. I ended up choosing the larger Greek population, and celebrated with the local Greek population on a closed Danforth Avenue after Greek won one-nil.

Toronto is very multicultural, but frankly so are many cities. What is it about Toronto that makes people equate it with multiculturalism more than other international cities?

Pico Iyer addresses this in the book The Global Soul: Jet-Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home which I read recently. In a chapter on Toronto entitled “The Multiculture,” he writes:

The first time I ever met the word multiculturalism was while reading an essay of Jan Morris’s, about Toronto, from 1984, in which she described meeting the word herself for the first time in a city that seemed to be built around it. The singular promise of Canada, for her, lay in the fact that it was no Promised Land, hand no torch-bearing statue, no vision of a City on a Hill nor constitution guaranteeing the pursuit of happiness. Canada seemed to her a vast and all-accommodating open space, “all things to all ethnicities,” with “Canadian nationality itself no more than a minor social perquisite, like a driving license or a spare pair of glasses.”

I think Jan Morris, whom Iyer quotes, was definitely on to something. The Canadian identity is a bit of a blank slate, without much of the history of European countries, nor the underlying ideology of self-made individualism that defines the American identity. Canadianism mixes the social collectivism of Europe with the Individualism of America. Being Canadian is about being an individual as part of a collective, but allowing others in that collective to be who they want to be. So one can easily come to Toronto from Delhi, and experience both the comforts of India in local shops, restaurants and clubs, and also the international experience that the rest of the city can offer.

I wrote in my recent blog entry “The Global City vs. This Other Eden,” that “I didn’t move to England looking to take on some new national identity, but rather to take on an international identity. I don’t want to be English and Canadian (or British-Canadian, if such a thing exists). I want to be global.”

If I wanted to be global, why then couldn’t I stay in Toronto and do that. After all, there was much opportunity to get out and experience other cultures. There was opportunity to be part of the global world in my work, and even in my personal life. Why did I have to leave to become a “global citizen?”

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The answer, I think, lies in the consciousness with which I was living my life in Toronto. I was born in Toronto, lived there by the accident of birth rather than through a conscious choice to move there. As much as I wanted to see Toronto as the future, as a wide open outward looking place, the fact was Toronto was my history and wasn’t my choice. I was connected to Toronto as a locality, the physical place where I grew up. As global and multicultural as the city was, I was never able to shift my perception of the place as being the place town where I live.

I was unable to see the wider world contained within Toronto from within my own world. 

And so, perhaps unfairly to Toronto, I had to leave Toronto to be able to see the world contained within a city.

Some day I will probably return to Toronto - not just as a visitor but for good. I wonder if I will see the global, multicultural city or if it will still be the town in which I grew up.

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Posted by GregW 15:30 Archived in Canada Tagged books migration_philosophy existential_migration Comments (0)

Just Outside The City Gates

Brick Lane and the East End versus the City

semi-overcast 12 °C

I headed over to Tower Hamlets today to go to the HYPER JAPAN festival. Unlike the Matsuri festival that I went to last year, which is focused on traditionally Japan, HYPER JAPAN seems focused on current, modern Japan. Especially, it seems, Cos Play, the special Japanese desire to dress up like Manga, Anime or Video Game characters.

I was just really going for the chance to eat some of the great Japanese food on offer. Unfortunately, I arrived and found a very long, long line up for those without tickets. I felt bad that I hadn't booked tickets, until seeing the line up for those that bought ticket ahead of time, which was as long as the line up for those without tickets. After 30 minutes of hanging out, and moving 10 feet in a 150 foot long line, I finally decided to give up on waiting, and headed over to Brick Lane to get some food.

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Brick Lane has some great food options. From high end restaurants to delis to food stalls, Brick Lane is able to feed all budgets and hungers.

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Brick Lane is in the east end of London. If this was back in the 1600s, the East End would exist just outside the walled city of London. Nowadays, it is the border between zone 1, 2 and 3 of the Transport for London Oyster zones.

The East End, in the borough of Tower Hamlets, sits beside the City of London. The borough of Tower Hamlets and the City (of London) have long lived beside each other, but have often faced off against each other. The East End of London is one of the most dense areas of London, and one of the most poverty stricken areas of the capital. The City of London, on the other hand, is where all the investment bankers and corporate raiders work. The two areas exist beside of each other, both visible from each other area.

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That one of the poorest and densest areas of London can look up and see the glass and steel towers of the City - the work place of some of the richest people in London and one of the richest areas of London - is part of the experience of living here in this city. (And - of course - any city. All cities bring together those on all ends of the income scale).

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After eating a cheap but tasty burger, and getting offer a blow job in exchange for a "cup of tea" (which made me wonder how much cups of tea cost out in the east end...), I headed home.

I didn't get to see Japan today, but did get to see a bit of the the city of London and how we all fit together here.

Posted by GregW 10:47 Archived in England Tagged events Comments (0)

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