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