Friday, January 21, 2005

Different voices

At my last job (there’s that last again) I was in an office filled with ‘typical’ programmers – a bunch of plain old white guys. (Am I allowed to say that? Guess so, it’s by blog). All male. All white. All going (or about to go or will eventually go) pudgy and grey. At most of the places I have worked the programmers were all male and white. I don’t know why – it would seem to be a good profession for anyone. But that seems to be the way it started and the way it still is.
My first programming job was for Xerox Corporation, back in Rochester, New York (long time ago). This was back when Xerox built computers – they had recently purchased Sigma Data Systems, and the computers were still called Sigmas. Mostly sold to colleges, a really good system for students. The group I was in moved applications from old replaced systems onto newly purchased Xerox computers. After a salesman sold a computer to a company to replace their Brand I(bm) computer they then tried to sell our conversion services. So I learned a variety of applications for a variety of new customers.
There were about twenty people in our group. At first the only woman was our manager’s secretary (back then it was not ‘executive assistant’). She was not very intelligent. We called her the SnowPaque Queen. Back then all letters were typed (before word processing – yes that long ago) on real Xerox (of course) typewriters. If you made a mistake in typing you either retyped the whole letter or you used product called SnowPaque or WhiteOut, which was just white paint that came in little bottles with a brush in the cap and was painted over the mistake. You could then type back over the WhiteOut and fix the error. Her letters had so much paint on them that you could almost peel a layer off with the letter on it, leaving the paper behind. She was fortunate in that originals were filed and everything that went out was a copy (a XEROX copy of course). But in looking at her there were two obvious reasons why she worked there – physical attributes being more visible than mental abilities. And her job was not very demanding, so she had a day to do a letter.
Under pressure our boss eventually found and hired a woman as a programmer. Large companies were under mandates to expand cultural diversity, though it wasn’t called that then. This new programmer had three things going for her: female, black, and a Spanish surname. So she filled in three spots on our diversity form and percentage wise brought our group into compliance on her own.
Well, she ended up being a lousy programmer. Our boss would have been happy if she just sat at her desk, but somehow she felt she had to do something. Whatever she tried to do she always ended up messing things up on the computer. Usually she deleted many man hours of programming work that then had to be redone. (yes, man hours – no woman hours or person hours then).
Eventually the rest of us grew tired of having to redo things and offered great protests to management. Our boss had a great difficulty in getting rid of her, having to justify the loss of diversity to so many company committees and departments. I don’t know if she was ever let go, as I was transferred out to California to start a new branch of our group. But that’s another story.
Back to this place. Well, here we have diversity. Out of ten programmers there are several women and several non white faces. One of the analysts is a woman from Australia, and the programmer across from me is Indian. (no, not Native American, he is originally from that country in the far east called India). I’m sitting here listening to their conversation, one half in that female Australian accent and the other in the lilting Indian accent.
It’s just a lot different than I am used to.
Meanwhile one of the financial analysts a row over is talking to himself again. He does that quite often. He kind of whispers, but in a more vocal manner. Sounds kind of like the voices coming out of the TV on science fiction shows where you talk to the dead via electronic means. Every time I hear him I expect a little girl to crawl out from under the bed. (ok, ok, so you didn’t see Poltergeist, ignore this part then)

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