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“This is really important. I need this at the top of your list.”
The boss-man looks haggard. He’s definitely not been getting enough sleep. And, judging by the look in his eye, he knows exactly how silly of a request he’s making. He’s still gotta make it. He and I aren’t the only ones on this call, and the boss-man has boss-men of his own to appease. That’s life.
“We’ll take care of it.” The Yapper is the only guy physically in the room with me. All those suits in suits are only present by video. The Yapper looks nervous, vaguely like a chihuahua on guard duty. So, basically normal. You don’t get a name like “The Yapper” if you don’t remind people of annoying little dogs. He isn’t the brightest guy they ever sent upstairs but he knows enough to not interrupt the boss-man when he’s delivering an ultimatum. We’re stuck with it, and no use moaning.
At this point the meeting is basically over. I glance at the clock; there’s twenty five minutes still scheduled. There never was a meeting that didn’t expand to fit the time allotted. For all the ways we’ve innovated, — Mankind’s first orbital factory! — we’re still a slave to the pathologies of corporate culture. They’ve made their point already. We’ve got the message. Now it’s time to wait around while people make themselves feel important by talking.
Exactly thirty-two minutes later I close out of the virtual meeting room. I look at the Yapper. He looks at me. “Well;” he asks “what do you think?” Smart man; he’s the new guy, I’ve been here forever. Despite the impression I may leave you with from time to time they really don’t send idiots upstairs. No, the idiots are reserved for the management slots on the ground.
The central fact of life up in orbit is (I hate to harp on this again) the cost of shipping materials. It costs so much money to haul anything up out of the gravity well that they really can’t afford to send anything extra. First and easiest place to cut mass requirements, you keep as many people as you can out of space. When you absolutely need something done in person you ship up the best possible person for it. Manufacturing in orbit means your machine operators are actually Ph.Ds and world class engineers. The guy who runs the machine also fixes it when it breaks and invents his own upgrades. They also scrub the thing down as needed. When you’re saving on janitorial staff by paying Ph.Ds instead you have a different perspective on necessary personnel. That means all the suits stay downstairs.
“I think it’s a lot of effort for very little reward.” He asked my opinion; he gets it.
“To be perfectly fair shift-to-shift communication is something we could stand to improve. After all, we’re the front line on all kinds of issues. You can’t do that kind of work without effective communication.” You also don’t get a name like “the Yapper” without a tendency to run your mouth. But hey, they could have launched him into orbit burning nothing but his stack of diplomas so he gets to be the foreman. Sorry, ‘Personnel Facilitator.’ I think we get more than our share of corporate speak jargon because it doesn’t cost any extra in reaction mass.
“And they want our input on setting up the system, which really is decent of them. I think we’re going to give this one our honest best effort. After all, Tompkins and the Wild Man did bring this issue to a head.” In a way he’s right about that. On the other hand…
“Those two are an issue; that doesn’t mean the rest of us are having a problem.” Those two are always an issue. Having to live and work in close proximity up in orbit with nowhere else to go? Cabin fever doesn’t even begin to describe it. This whole thing spawned from an argument out of a game of chance. I don’t know how precisely it ran, but those arguments are all the same. Some point of the game leads to two people believing they own the same sum of money.
That dispute wasn’t a problem, the way it made ’em react to each other is. The Wild Man was coming on shift, and Tompkins off. They were both working on the sputter line. That thing’s always a pain in the neck. You can get the job done with it, but it’s finicky and given to all sorts of stupid problems. Now, on a terrestrial manufacturing floor the poor stiff running the thing would be told to deal with it and maybe the problems get ironed out over time. This being the near side of space, the guy running it is the sort of engineer who can rebuild it himself, and Tompkins in particular had helped design this thing back on the ground. Rather than just run production Tompkins had torn the whole thing down, made some changes, and sewn it back up before shift change. So far so good.
Then the Wild Man comes on. “Is it working?” “Yup.” They aren’t on speaking terms, so Tompkins doesn’t mention the work he did, and the Wild Man doesn’t stop to check the program. The machine was in perfect working order, the active program was still screwy. Net result, all and sundry coated with a thick layer of indium. Waste of resources, damaged product, lost time, and the Wild Man spent the rest of his shift scraping excess indium off of the chamber walls. That, an interminable meeting, and an interminable project now.
“I think you should spearhead this initiative.” Saw that one coming. “With your general knowledge of the whole process and…” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tuned him out at this point. He’s got plenty more to say, I’ve got no need to hear it.
“Don’t we already have one of those?” Delta-V doesn’t sound too impressed. Not that he’s ever a bucket of enthusiasm, but I’ve been working with him long enough that I’ve learned to grade his scowls. Delta-V prefers to deal with things; communication falls under the category of ‘people’, which he considers irrelevant.
“Three. Three that duplicate it’s function generally, four more that cover parts of the plan, and one, call it one and a half ways people actually communicate but aren’t, strictly speaking, documented.” It’s always the undocumented procedures that are the most useful. The ISO auditors want to make sure the job gets done by the manual. We just care that the job gets done.
“If we’ve already got some, why do we need another communication system?” Fair question. Delta-V gets his name because we all joke he’s good for nothing but reaction mass. There’s a certain amount of bite to those jokes; at some point or another we all want to fling him out the back end of a rocket. But when the man’s got a point he’s got a point.
“Because it’s something we really could stand to work on. Because having eight tools for a given job is a sure sign that none of ’em are doing it. But mostly because the dirtsuckers downstairs asked us to, and they’re the ones paying the bills.” Grousing and carrying on is one thing, but you still gotta do the job.
“Okay, okay, so what all do you want me to do?”
“You get started on the programming. Start ripping useful features out of the previous shift-to-shift communication tools. If we’re gonna have another one that gets ignored at least let’s make it a good one. Oh, and one other thing. Give me a graph of uptime/downtime over the last shift. Color code it red and green. I figure if the Wildman had seen blotches of red all over the last shift he might have suspected something was up.”
“So, I do all the work? Isn’t this your project?”
“The brass wants user input. You wanna go around soliciting comments from all the other guys?”
Didn’t think so.
“The last one didn’t have enough green. I hate that yellow color scheme.” That mix of yellows really was hideous. Good point, but not terribly useful.
“What’s wrong with the way we do it now?”
“I’ll tell you what we need. Boobs. You slap a killer rack or two in there, the guys’ll pay attention.” Yeah, thanks for your input. I’ll definitely pass that one along to the bigwigs downstairs. I’m sure they’ll just love it.
“All these machines have monitors already. Why don’t we deploy the thing to each machine, and have the communication screen keyed to each machine it’s on? That way you don’t have to click through menus or dropdowns or anything.” That… that’s actually a solid suggestion. Wouldn’t have thought it from Guillermo, but he’s shifty that way.
“Look, I’m sorry, okay? Is that what you want to hear? I already spent a shift reprocessing globules, you don’t have to rub it in.” The Wildman is about as helpful as I expected.
I’m sitting at my workstation, getting my thoughts into order when the Yapper swings in. At least this time he didn’t catch me snoring. Much as I suspected, he wants to talk about the new shift communications tool.
“Where are we at?” It’s been a couple days, the Yapper wants an update.
“Well, I’ve got Delta-V working out a mockup now. I told him I want an automatic update on machine uptime from the past shift. He’s got it for about seventy percent of the machines, the last couple are tricky to define. Shouldn’t take him long for the rest.”
“Delta-V? You sure he’s the right guy for this?” By which he actually means “you really think that jackwagon will get the job done?” He is a jackwagon, but there are things you can trust a guy like that to do, and do well.
“Look, I code, and you code, and heck, everybody up here writes code as they need it. But Delta-V? He’s a virtuoso. He’ll whip up something that’ll work on the first try, and get the job done.” Soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew that I had made a mistake. Too late now.
“We don’t need it to ‘work on the first try’, all we’re providing is a proof-of-concept. They’ve got coders on the ground to do the work. I know you guys don’t like me repeating this, but (…)” They do have coders, but guys on the ground are, by definition, not guys up here. If it’s their code then we’re going to have a harder time messing with it as the need occurs. Can’t say that though, if they were going to take ‘we’ve got this’ for an answer they wouldn’t be insisting on this project in the first place. The Yapper has me caught here.Time to hit the panic button.
“Well, I’m never one to encourage siloization, but in the spirit of promoting intradepartmental synergy and facilitating lean quality optimization I tasked myself with three deliverables for this project. First, that it meet all applicable standards and quality metrics. Second, that it implement the latest-and-greatest cutting edge state-of-the-art technologies for optimal results. And finally, that this represent a best-of-both-worlds juncture between world-class results and man-on-the-street usability.”
I slip out the back while he’s still trying to work out if all those words add up to any sense at all. I use corporate jargon the way a squid uses ink. I spout buzzwords to squirt out a cloud of confusion to avoid danger. The trick is to convey absolute sincerity; if they get even a whiff of sarcasm the jig is up.
I’ve got stuff to do. Got some more orbit hobbits to interview.
“Howsabout we grab one of the old ones and tell the dirtsuckers it’s new?” Tempting.
“You realize nothing’s going to come from this, don’t you?” Yes, yes I do.
“Nevermind that, you spoke with the dirtsuckers? Whaddaya know? I got a lotta money riding on Executive Roulette!” Executive Roulette is a pool bet on which management type gets fired next. Some guys are always hunting for hot tips.
“I’ll tell ya what was screwy on the last one; if you wanted to attach a picture you couldn’t just copy/paste it or nothin’; you had to save the file and re upload it as an attachment. Total waste of time.” He’s not wrong about that.
“Remind me again why I give a crap?”
“Remember when they wanted us logging things minute by minute to avoid waste? That worked real well.” Oh yeah, I remember. Not even going to bring it up, for fear that someone dirtside will get a bright idea.
“So where are we at?” The Yapper needs another update. The boss-men at large are always asking him for one. l could have had that foreman job, but the truth of the matter is I don’t need all that.
“Well, the design is coming along nicely, and actually the code isn’t far behind. We’ve run into one serious problem. To make it easier on the poor working stiffs we’re building an interface for all the machines out on the floor. You’re working a machine? Everything you need is right there. Saves a lot of time looking things up. Trouble is, about half the machines out there have touchscreens.” Don’t take that bit about “poor working stiffs” too seriously. Given the number of people who can do this job, the living in space away from the most interesting ways of wasting paychecks, and the absurd prices our batteries command, any of these guys will drive Ferraris when they get back dirtside.
“What do touchscreens have to do with anything?”
“You can’t type easily on a touchscreen. At least not like you can type on a keyboard. A lot of those machines have, at best, the operating system default on-screen keyboard.” A royal pain to use. Not a big deal when the longest thing you’re typing in is a password.
“How much do you expect people to type?” He see’s where I’m headed with this. I think. Might as well spell it out.
“We need comments. The easier it is for the guy out there to actually describe something the better discussion we’ll get. Pictures are great, but you can’t convey something only using photos. We need people to actually say things, and to do that it’s got to not be a total pain to say ’em.” The first picture is worth a thousand words. The thirty second is worth about negative sixteen hundred.
“What’s the plan? We can’t exactly ship up keyboards.” One pound of keyboard costs enough in orbit to make your most reckless accountant blink. If we actually need a physical object they’ll ship it up, but for something like this they’ll see if we can do without.
“Delta-V’s got some sort of open-source cellphone keyboard that he’s working into his design. The keyboard software isn’t that bad; integrating it into the various industrial controls machines to deploy it is a real hassle.” I think it’s open-source; wouldn’t be the first time Delta-V’s internet friends have given us a less-than-legitimate software package. I’ll let the law dogs worry about that problem.
“Sounds good. How long do you think it’ll take you to get something up and running?” Three days.
“About another week, week and a half. I’ve still got people to interview.”
“Look, I’m shoulder deep in this machine here. Can you come back at another time?”
“It should contain a separate category for safety concerns.” Thanks, but no thanks. The problem with calling out safety concerns separately is that you’ll get half a dozen scattered entries. Then people will forget that that category is there. You’d need a certain volume of safety incidents to keep it alive, and thankfully we just don’t have that many.
“Hey, check this out, I’ve got just the thing for you!” Adderall seems agitated. Then again, Adderall always seems agitated.
“Oh yeah? Whaddaya got?” Never hurts to ask. Okay, it frequently hurts to ask, but sometimes you learn useful things that way.
“It’s a little something I’ve been working up. It’s the bastard love child of AutoCAD, Photoshop, and MS Paint!” With a lineage like that, what could possibly go wrong?
What he’s got, it’s actually very impressive. He pulls up a blank sheet on his tablet, and starts finger painting on it. He draws a line, and as soon as he’s started drawing it shadows show up on the screen. Tap here to double the length, tap here to make a square with that as one side, tap there to make a circle on that radius. There’s a toggle to force his lines into straight up/down or left/right configuration. When he stops drawing one line and starts another it gives more options, attaching to the ends or middle of his last line, complete with an angle measurement. Couple simple color change options, one tap to start drawing a line, double tap to fill an area.
He’s drawing a house. Not a terribly complex house, but recognizable. Lines in black, then a red roof. Fills the windows with blue. He decides one of his earlier lines isn’t in the right spot so he goes back and highlights it. The whole line gets selected, and he stretches it into a new position. Takes another look, and grabs a corner. All three lines joining at that spot stretch and skew as he wrangles that corner into position. When he’s finished he’s got a decent looking sketch, complete with lengths and angles.
“I call it ‘Cocktail Napkin!'” he exclaims proudly. It’s a fine piece of software, he’s got a working sketch in just a couple minutes.
“That… that’s pretty cool!” I allow. “Ship a copy over to Delta-V, we’ll shoehorn it into the final product.” A way to quickly make accurate sketches? That’s a valuable tool right there. I’m glad I stopped to talk with Adderall. Even though his exclamation points tend to be infectious.
The other guys though…
“Needs more dinosaurs.” To be fair he’s not wrong. Probably won’t happen though.
“Can we get it to take verbal commands?” Maybe next iteration, or one further down the line. That’s it’s own whole can of worms.
“Why don’t we use this old one? It worked perfectly well before.” Perfectly well is stretching a point.
“You realize nobody’s going to use this, right?”
The next time I see the Yapper we’re already done. Delta-V worked out his compatibility issues. We managed to include Cocktail Napkin in the user interface. The thing works well, and we’ve submitted it to the dirtsuckers for evaluation. Heck, we’ve already gotten people using it, even occasionally when we’re not shoving their noses in it.
“What’s this I hear about you ignoring feedback?” Shoot. The Yapper’s got a bone to pick.
“Look, have you heard the sorts of suggestions I got? Most of these things they don’t need to be sent downstairs.”
“It’s not that; I mean the other way. You got the recommendations from the ground yesterday, but Delta-V says he hasn’t heard squat from you since then. What gives? I know it’s difficult fostering a spirit of (…)” Oh, okay, not this batch of numbskulls; that other batch of numbskulls.
“Oh, right. Did you read the recommendations?” Gotta be careful about that.
“They seemed perfectly fine to me.” He can smell a trap, but he’s got no choice but to spring it. While I’m asking him I’m pulling up the notes we were passed.
“Oh yeah? Lemme read off a couple. ‘The green and blue color scheme doesn’t match company colors.’ Who cares? ‘Interface design should be conducted with the best lean practices in mind.’ Here’s a good one: ‘Show’s insufficient sensitivity to the differently-abled.’ You see any differently-abled folk around here? Think they’re coming up on the next rocket?”
“They can’t all be bad.” He’s running defense and he knows it.
“Yes. They are. ‘Please allow users to specify personal pronouns.’ Look, I ran this past every roughneck up here, and I got a handful of good ideas out of them. Heck, Adderall’s contribution came out of left field and that’s making it a heck of a better product. But off of the ground? Not a one. Here’s the least harmful: ‘Consider switching to a sans-serif typeface.’ Yeah. I’ll get right on that.”
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.” He’s valiantly trying to regain the initiative. “We’re going to disable the active version, and jump back to the old systems. You’re going to reply to all the suggestions, not just pointing out what they did wrong, but offering compromise solutions. And then we’re going to keep going back-and-forth with the guys on the ground until we’ve got something acceptable to all. Frankly, (…)” I had an idea he’d go this way. Lucky me, I had prepared for it.
“I’ve already removed the old systems from the network. We can’t go back now.” I didn’t actually delete anything, but he doesn’t need to know that. It would weaken my bargaining position.
“Really? Shoot. Okay, we’ll keep the new system, but you’re breaking that to the higher-ups.”
“Yeah, you leave that to me.”
Three days later we’ve got our next meeting with the boss-man, and all the other management types. The rings under the boss-man’s eyes have grown, and his expression is, if possible, even more grim. When the Yapper catches sight of it his mouth quirks a corner up in a tight smile. He thinks he’s won. I keep a poker face; it’s unseemly to gloat openly. The only way they’ll remember our little project is if there isn’t another crisis-of-the-week pushing it out of people’s forebrains. Soon as the bigwig attendance is confirmed the boss man starts in.
“This is really important. I need this at the top of your list.”