Other People’s Layoffs, part 1

When I got laid off that first time, I was a newbie in my field and thought I would not be able to find work as a contractor, or consultant if I was trying to sound impressive. Really, I was qualified to be a hired hand, working at someone else’s direction, a round peg in a round hole. I wanted to be that round peg because I entertained notions of a fabulously free work life where I could take vacations when I wanted, travel, and basically pick up contract work, and drop it, like stitches. Didn’t work out that way, but that’s another story.

I thought that contractors had to have a lot of experience, because I was naively confusing them with consultants, and was happily surprised when I got a contract at a famous dinosaur-that-is-no-more, in Burlington. We worked on mainframe computers with dumb terminals, with light-green-on-dark-green monitors, the space bar causing the blinking cursor to travel down the numbered lists of options, the Return key closing the deal. They might even have been labeled “Return.” Had the industry standardized on “Enter” then? We clattered away on keyboards that were big and heavy yet also hollow-feeling, and rackety.

Nothing was beautiful. I remember the plastic of all those terminals, keyboards, printers, and photocopiers, as a sickly greenish-beige made even less lovely by the chilly fluorescent lighting.

I walked into a shell-shocked department that was reeling from a series of layoffs. A strange thing can happen during the chaos of layoffs: long-term people can be let go because their project has been cut and their skills are not transferable, while at the same time, the same department may hire a contractor or two because other work needs to be done, and the skill set has to be hired from outside. That’s what happened with me. I joined a group of people adjusting to the loss of several coworkers. No one was unkind, but the woman with whom I shared a cubicle was opinionated, aggressive, awkward. Not actively unkind or malicious, but the situation was still hard.

To recap: I’d abruptly lost my first, intern-level job in my new field, in a group and with a manager that I loved. I was nowhere near ready for that experience to end. I landed a temporary job at another company that was struggling and contracting, heading down the pathway that would lead to its demise. I walked into a department that was simultaneously mourning, worrying, and reconstituting itself.

Everyone knew that the microcomputer (the desktop computer like the IBM PC and Apple) was going to do to the minicomputer what the minicomputer had done to the mainframe. In fact, one morning in the cafeteria line, I heard an older guy say, “You know, if I was setting up a new office, I’d go with desktops. I wouldn’t go with our stuff.” There were a few chuckles. “Guess I’d better not say that too loud.”

Companies did move into desktop computers — they were all we’d had at my first company, which was a young start-up. For decades onward, companies invested in desktop computers: hardware, operating systems, and software applications, and continuously maintained them. They were cheap individually, and they offered great flexibility, but they required constant maintenance. They were expensive that way. I wonder if they were, ultimately, less expensive than larger systems. Now, of course, with cloud-based services we are consolidating back to centralized systems. Many of the programs I use today are cloud-based; they are not installed on my hard drive. For a good 30 years, they would have been.

I worked at the wounded dinosaur for 8 months, and then my contract was not renewed.

December 13, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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