The Thinker

Slip Sliding into the Past

For nine years, I worked in the bowels of the Pentagon. Okay, maybe “bowels” is not the right word. I rarely went into the basement, that deep, dark and mysterious place. In the Pentagon basement, rats were not too difficult to find and all sense of direction was lost. It was a dark and horrid place. I worked on the third floor near the A (innermost) ring, which was a challenging enough place to work. Among other things, it was very noisy and constantly about eighty-five degrees. The Pentagon was designed before air conditioning and personal computers. With hundred of PCs on all the time it felt like an oven.

I still find it hard to believe that I spent nine years there. If there is one building in the world where I wanted to work least it was the Pentagon. I had been there before. It was a confusing maze of dilapidated halls chock full of military guys wearing lots of stripes, stars and medals. They had short tempers, short hair and seemed to specialize in rushing frantically from meeting to meeting. While defending the nation was important work, at its core their mission was finding very lethal ways to kill other people. It was not an easy place for this liberal to work.

I ended up in the Pentagon because I wanted the security of the civil service again. I started my career with six years working for the Defense Mapping Agency. Eventually I got restless and decided to try the private sector. I worked for the Democrats but in 1988 during one of their periodic budget woes, I ended rather abruptly laid off. To make ends meet I scrambled and took a contract job. For three months, I worked as a subcontractor at the Department of Labor. However, with a new house I could not afford unemployment or even underemployment for very long. The civil service at least had the virtue of having a steady paycheck. I found the Air Force at a job fair in Tysons Corner. The Air Force in the Pentagon was hiring. It took them less than three months to reinstate me as a civil servant.

Perhaps I should have suspected something. No doubt, my still active security clearance weighed on their decision to hire me. Still, it felt too fast and too easy. By government standards, they filled my position at something approaching breakneck speed. Thus, January 1989 found me everyday boarding the 5N bus from Reston to the Pentagon.

For nine years, I worked in the Pentagon. I shall not name the organization. We directly supported the Air Force staff in the Pentagon with software systems. Our work was mostly classified. My particular niche was to support a decision support system written in a programming language called PL/I. It helped the Air Force figure out where they were going to place all their aircraft over the next five years.

For all the difficulty and hassle of working there, it was quite a learning experience. I sharpened my programming teeth in the Pentagon, working up from journeyman programmer to lead programmer to technical leader. For a civil service job, it could be very stressful at times. Taxpayers have this image of civil servants sitting at their desks tossing paper airplanes around. In this job, at times I was running a system that kept me on call in the middle of the night. I reported to Colonels who did not take any excuses and had very short fuses. I learned a lot about my ability to deal with stress (not very well). I came to both admire the officers running around the place and loathe them. I admired their confidence and ability to get things done. I did not like the way they moved from job to job every couple of years. They rarely understood the culture of our organization. To get good performance appraisals they had to look like they were changing things big time. Therefore, it seemed we were always in constant reorganization mode. Some years it amazed me that we got anything done at all.

Nevertheless, the Air Force in the 1990s was well funded. I got lots of training. Whether I wanted to or not I learned all about software engineering. Moreover, because I was talented, I was eventually assigned to do some cool stuff. In the mid 90s, client/server architectures were all the rage. I was running a hip project written in a tool that now seems as antiquated as COBOL called Powerbuilder.

The military came and went every couple of years but the civilians hung around, like lamprey to the hull of a ship. The civilian workforce there ran the gamut from every taxpayer’s worst nightmare of a civil servant to mediocre to talented to incredibly brilliant. In general, there were those who did and those who did not. Moreover, there were those with talent and those who could only write spaghetti code. Mostly we maintained legacy classified systems that ran on Multics (and eventually) IBM mainframes.

I left seven and a half years ago. Since that time, I have not given the old organization much thought. I’m been busy moving on, working next for the Department of Health and Human Services and for the last seventeen months or so with the U.S. Geological Survey. However, I did find from time to time that I missed certain people with whom I had worked intimately. In particular, I missed my boss John, Steve, Ray and Diane. In the early 90s, we formed a very effective team. We also worked very well together. Moreover, we knew how to kick back together. For example, on Fridays we would escape to a Shakey’s Pizza place in Annandale for lunch. There you could get all the pizza you could eat for less than $5. What a deal.

The golden years were few. We move on and largely lost touch with each other. Ray retired. Diane took another job. Steve and John took jobs elsewhere in the Pentagon. Except for one retirement luncheon six years ago, I had not seen any of them until today.

I was one of the last people to get training in the obscure art of programming Multics computers. Through, I found a guy who I used to work with. He kept in touch with others from the Pentagon (he had moved on to the private sector). He passed my email address on. When a former boss of mine announced his retirement, I got an invitation to attend the luncheon.

For about a week, I pondered whether I wanted to open up that part of my life again. I worked with a great team for a few years. I also spent the last few years of my time there working in a different branch. There I was the squeaky wheel. In that new branch, I was not well liked. Eventually the project manager I worked for threw a temper tantrum. I was thrown off her team and sent back to do mainframe programming, which I loathed.

To say the least I was upset and hurt. Not surprisingly, soon thereafter I shopped my résumé around. By 1998, I was out of the Pentagon and working for the Department of Health and Human Services. I knew if I went to this luncheon that I might encounter some of this bad karma again. Did I want to blow them off and lock out that part of my past? Or did I want to venture back after seven and a half years and maybe say hello again to some people I had grown to like?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I attended my old boss’s retirement luncheon today. I was a bit nervous. Seven and a half years is a long time. I would remember faces. However, could I remember their names? My worry was specious. I was hardly the only person returning after many years. One man attended who had retired in 1988. For the most part, I also remembered the names of the people who were there too.

My old boss John was there, two grades higher than when I last knew him. That alone justified coming. He now manages hundreds of people in a very demanding job. (Since he ran on adrenaline, I figured he was right where he belonged.) I was amazed for in sixteen years he had not aged a day. Ray was also there. He had retired more than five years earlier. It was as if not a day had passed. We greeted each other warmly. Alas, neither Steve nor Diane was there. Diane had hoped to come but apparently did not make it. I do not know if anyone had even bothered to track down Steve. Yet conversation resumed naturally, as if I had not spent more than seven years of my life elsewhere. It seemed a bit odd.

And my nemesis L. was there too, as I expected. If my stomach was tightening, it was because of her. My most enduring memory of her was her screaming at me when she threw me off her team. Today we greeted each other cordially. In seven years, she had moved from project manager to the director of the whole office. This is an amazing accomplishment. (When I left she had only a high school education.) Her screaming fit at me aside, L. filled the mother hen role in the organization. Her specialty was people. While she obviously failed in establishing a healthy working relationship with me, she had worked her social charms (and hopefully competence) into the director’s job. I complemented her on her promotions and she politely inquired about my current employment.

As for the retiring guest of honor, I was glad to see my old boss Bill again too. Bill is a plainspoken man, and he took the time to take me aside. “Mark,” he said. “You were screwed by this organization.” He told me the story of how the nascent system I had led floundered after I left. To this day, it remains an expensive mess that does not meet the customer’s requirements. He said because I was not available a contractor had to be hired to write a functional description of the system. “You could have written it in a week.” Yes indeed. It was good to hear these words from Bill. I felt validated at last.

I did not hear similar words from my former nemesis L. However, I found her behavior a lot different. Maybe it came from having much more responsibility. She seemed more deferential toward me than I remembered. She talked about the vacancies in the office and encouraged me to stop by the office sometime and chat. With no malice in my voice, I told her I did not think that was likely to happen. Yet I could see her wheels turning. Perhaps she was thinking, “If I could get Mark to come back, he could fill a key role.”

On the drive home, I contemplated the idea of returning to that organization. I must confess after so many years that it felt comfortable jumping back into that culture. The nine years I spent there remains the longest time I spent at any one job in my career. It felt a little like going home to Mom and Dad’s and sleeping in your old bedroom again. Knowing L., I suspect I will hear from her in the coming weeks. If she does I suspect she will be sounding my out on whether I might want to return to working for the Air Force.

I cannot see myself trading in my current job for the hassle of a security clearance and commuting into Arlington every day. Although I am a fairly new employee at USGS, I already realize that I am at last where I should be. Every job has its stresses including my latest one. Nevertheless, USGS feels like the place where I should have begun my federal career. It is at USGS that I want to pour out my talent until I retire. I do hope that I hear from L. anyhow. I think she has regrets for past behavior and wants to tell me directly. Perhaps then, this old wound will fully heal.


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