Friday, April 25, 2003

Unhappy Anniversary

    Clarissa: Pretty sad anniversary, huh?
    Cratchit: What do you mean?
    Clarissa: Didn't you realize? Today's Solstice Day.
    Cratchit: Oh God, it is, isn't it. Remember how things used to be? We'd have that big party... seems like all it took to make us happy in those days was a ride on a roller coaster and a couple of drink tickets.
    Keith: [Dreamily] And then we'd go watch the Follies. Sometimes for hours, and hours, and hours...
        --Scene from SCO's distant future, depicted in "A Solstice Carol", SCO Follies 1998

As near as I can figure, the tradition began in 1983.

SCO was a tiny little startup, just starting to make a name for itself selling XENIX, a version of UNIX that ran on PC-compatible hardware. Its founders, Larry and Doug Michels, had wanted to start a, quote, "fun, little company," and they'd been wildly successful at it. Immense quantities of work, sixty hour weeks, but man, the place was fun.

Well, Christmas time rolled around, and the company decided to throw a big party at the Cocoanut Grove (a party hall next to, and run by, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park). Good food, lots to drink, live music, and they rented out part of the park so people could ride the Giant Dipper as many times as they wanted. Fun had by all. But, due to the religious diversity of the company, and perhaps in an amused nod to the liberalism of Santa Cruz, the idea of calling it a "Christmas party" was discarded, and instead it was dubbed the SCO Solstice party.

The party would become an annual tradition... well, for some value of "annual". The next year, Christmas was just too busy a time, so the party was pushed back to January. The year after that, a trade show interfered with January, so February would have to do. And so on, until by around 1990, the "Solstice party" was being held, fairly consistently, on the last weekend of April, and there, at last, it stuck. Who cared if it was closer to the equinox? Solstice was a great name; why change it?

But I digress. I was speaking of the first Solstice, when a group of employees thought it would be fun to borrow the risers the band would be using to play dance music later on, and put on a little show for their co-workers. A couple of skits, a few song parodies. Loosely based on Star Trek. It wasn't particularly rehearsed, I'm told--people walked onstage carrying their scripts with them. I'm sure it was very amateurish. But hey--the audience had been drinking heavily; they didn't care. It went over well, and began another annual tradition: The SCO Follies.

I suppose a lot of companies probably have talent shows at their company parties; that's not unique. But I doubt if any other company ever did what SCO did: They started paying real money for the things. The first Follies show was on borrowed band risers, but by the time I joined the company in 1988, it was a full-scale multimedia rock-musical variety show, performed on the main stage at the Cocoanut Grove, in a 1000-plus-seat auditorium, and it had a $15,000 budget.

Was it really surprising? Nah. SCO was, at that time, located in a funky old building on Mission Street that felt (and smelled) more like a dorm than an office. Posters and pictures and jokes covered every wall. Laser Tag tournaments were held in the hallways at night (when most of the engineers were usually still working). Afternoon meetings usually provided beer and wine. There was a free "Stargate" video game, a sauna, and a big redwood hot tub in a shady courtyard, and the company's stated policy that there would never be a dress code of any kind meant that nudity, both in and out of the hot tub, was considered perfectly acceptable--and was fairly commonplace . For a twenty year old hacker/hippie like me, the place was a dream come true. I would have paid them to let me work there.

But I didn't know about the Follies at first. I was hired a month after the '88 show, so I'd been there nearly a year before I saw what I'd been missing. Some friends and I had started having a regular jam session on Wednesday nights in one of the bigger offices, using whatever instruments happened to come to hand; we called it the SCO Cacaphonic Orchestra (the misspelling of "cacophony" was deliberate). One day someone suggested we bang together a few tunes for a show that was happening in a few weeks, and I was too much of a ham to turn that down.

I was a bass player in those days, but there was a better one in the band, so I switched off to the drums, which I didn't remotely know how to play, but no one seemed to care. I borrowed a snare and a high hat from my best friend, practiced for twenty minutes, and then went to the rehearsal the day of the show.

It was chaos. There were thirty or forty people running around, practicing songs and dance moves, setting up the video projector, doing sound checks, making changes to the script in the middle of the tech rehearsal, for god's sake. An all-volunteer, consensus-driven project, it was like there were thirty directors. It was the most shamefully disorganized fiasco of a production I had ever seen, and I loved every single second of it.

And you know what? It was good. We're not talking Broadway, here, but for a bunch of techies messing around at a party, it was terrific stuff, with flashes of genuine brilliance (among them, the first-ever performance by a band Newsweek would one day hail as "lesser-known"--Deth Specula.) I still have a videotape of that show, and every time I watch it I expect to cringe for sixty solid minutes, and every time I'm surprised how honest-to-god funny it is. It couldn't possibly work, but it did.

So the next year I was assistant director and co-writer, then for a few years I did comedy bits, then I played a starring role. Eventually I became the director, and one of the principal writers, and I did that for seven years.

There were times in there when things got really rough at SCO. The Mission Street building closed, and the promise that they'd install a hot tub at the new office was broken. A gigantic wave of layoffs hit. The CEO resigned under fire after a sexual harassment lawsuit, and apparently overreacting to a fear of further lawsuits, the company tried to impose ridiculously straightlaced and paranoid rules--even shutting down its USENET news feed because someone might read smut and sue SCO for it. The company went public, began making almost all of its decisions in a desperate effort to please Wall Street, nearly always failed. I'm not saying there weren't good times too, but it was rough, and I often thought of leaving... and I always decided not to leave, and a big part of the reason was that at SCO, I was part of a troupe of players, and that was just too damn great to give up.

The Follies grew and changed. Bart Abicht, who preceeded me as director, proposed that we drop the variety show format and try to put on a real musical with a coherent story. It went over big, so we did it again, and again, weaving the stories as metaphors for the things we dealt with every day, whimsically casting the day-to-day tribulations at a rinkydink software company as great comic dramas: The "Phantom of the Operation", formerly an engineer, now horribly disfigured, battling against an evil vice president who is secretly working to destroy SCO. A fun-loving employee turned hateful, disillusioned executive who relearns the true meaning of SCO after being visited by the ghosts of SCO past, present and future. A marketeer with brains, a salesman with a heart, and an engineer with social skills, who all join Dorothy and go off to see the Wizard to have those things taken away.

For all the problems that SCO had (and, sometimes, caused), I will always honor them for this: Even at the worst of times, they never even considered dropping the Follies. We were an institution at that company. We added real value, and our execs were bright enough to realize it. We were like bards, in a way: By turning life at SCO into songs and stories, even though they were absurd, we explained SCO to itself, and brought people together. We were the bearers of a true corporate culture.

But, well. In August 2000, the company ran out of luck. We'd had a great couple of years in there, as people upgraded systems in anticipation of Y2K, but after that was over, our sales dropped through the floor. Hemmhoraging money, SCO made a deal to sell its operating systems business to Caldera Systems, a linux shop in Utah.

And that was pretty much that. I wanted--we all wanted--to transplant the Follies meme into new soil. We put on one of our best shows ever the following April (a takeoff on "Fiddler on the Roof"), and Caldera's CEO, Ransom Love, was there. He was a nice guy. He loved the show, told me it was a spectacular idea, wanted very much to see Caldera pick up the tradition. Two weeks later the merger/acquisition was complete. Six months after that it would have been time to start planning the next year's show... and no one would answer my mail about setting a budget.

I can't deny, it's been a hard time, and they've needed to save money. I can understand why a bunch of guys who weren't here through the company's formative years wouldn't think it was a priority. It's not a priority.

But I mourn anyway. It's been two years now, and even if the money became available, the Follies would be nearly impossible to resurrect. Most of the crew that put the shows on has left or been laid off--including me, pretty soon. Something that must have been unique in the corporate world is gone. A totally home-grown genre, a genuine indigenous theatrical tradition, dust in the wind.

It would have been this weekend. As I type these words, it's 10:30 PM. I'd just be wrapping up the Friday night tech rehearsal, sending the actors and singers home, having a last conference with the producer and stage manager and sound designer, heading home for a fitful night of sleep before the two dress rehearsals tomorrow morning. At 7:55 PM, I would have gathered everyone involved in a big "love circle", held hands, blown off steam with some group yelling, given them some last words of advice, told them I was as proud of their hard work as if I was their dad, told them I loved them, and sent them off to put on the Best Damn Follies Show Ever. 8 PM the show would have started. It would have been this weekend.

But, instead, I'm just going to drink a quiet toast. To the 200-odd people who've helped put on Follies shows over the years. To the thousands of employees and ex-employees who attended the shows and laughed and cheered even when they themselves were being ridiculed. To a company that never entirely lost its sense of humor until it was struck a fatal blow. To Larry and Doug and the many others who built that company. To the hope that somewhere out there, something just as wonderful is waiting to be found and brought to life. Cheers.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2003

On my journey

So I thought I'd post a little rundown on the sequence of emotions and thoughts that run through your head when you get laid off, if you're me:

Phase 1: Temporary stupidity
What the fuck? But... but... My fifteenth anniversary with the company is next month! They couldn't have waited a month for my anniversary?! I want my damn fifteen year plaque!!

Phase 2: Brief return to rationality
Boy howdy, that is a reeeeealllly stupid thing to be thinking about at a time like this. Come on, Evan, get your eye on the ball. Better read all this stuff about severance.

Phase 3: Fullblown jitters
Wait a minute, I can't follow this. What did that last paragraph say? [Reread paragraph] Wait a minute, I can't follow this. What did that last paragraph say? [Reread paragraph] Wait a minute, I can't follow this...

Phase 4: Denial
Say, I'm surprised I'm taking this so calmly! Wow, look how calm I am! I'm so calm!

Phase 5: Giddy fretfulness
Might as well start calling everyone I know who has a job in Santa Cruz and see if they can get me a job at their company! There is nobody hiring in Santa Cruz. Might as well call anyway! Give up, you're gonna have to commute. Maybe my friends who are doing the startup will get funding soon--I know they'll hire me! Oh yeah, there's a good decision--plan your life on the basis of some venture capitalist's whim, very bright.

Phase 6: Anger
You know what? That present they gave me after we shipped the last release sucked. It SUCKED! That present was a fucking INSULT! Fucking fuckers. Fuck.

Phase 7: Bargaining
Wait a minute. There is no possible way this company is going to get along without me. I'm the only one who's been here long enough to remember why things are done the way they are. I'm the only one who knows how the packaging and installation code work; they won't be able to ship the next release wihtout me. This is a completely stupid decision. They'll have to change their minds. Maybe it would help if I offered to take a pay cut and work a four day week...

Phase 8: Manic activity
I'm gonna work on my friends' startup project--the sooner they have a working prototype, the sooner they get funding, and the sooner they get funding, the sooner they can hire me! Oh, I should also work on the open source PPPoE implementation I started a while ago! Say, wouldn't it be neat to build a solar oven for the back yard? Hey, I know, I'll start a blog! Maybe I should update my resume or read the severance paperwor... naaaah.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Hello America!

Hi, my name's Evan Hunt, I live in Santa Cruz, and apparently I have an ego the size of a planet. I can't think of any other reason I'd imagine people were interested in reading an online journal of mine, and yet here I am, starting one up. Life is full of little mysteries like this.

Here's some stuff to know about me: I'm married, for eleven and a half years now, to the scintillating Wendy, my first girlfriend, love of my life, and coolest person on earth. I'm daddy to Ben, eighteen months old, best baby ever, don't even get me started, just suffice it to say there's never been another child as cute, smart, funny, strong, or generally and in all ways admirable as mine, and what do you mean "biased"?!

Fatherhood has taken the place of most of my other hobbies; there's just no time these days. But in other years, I enjoyed writing and directing plays, acting and singing, playing music (guitar, harmonica, some piano), writing songs (mostly parodies but some originals), bicycling, flying small airplanes, serving on the board of a local community theatre, and teaching and performing improvisational comedy.

I am passionate about politics, of the strident-liberal variety, guilt and all. Also about intentional community and cohousing, though I don't live in such a community myself (yet), renewable energy and conservation, technology of all sorts, film, theatre, and architecture, principally so I can complain about it, because good God, American architecture sucks, but I digress.

What do I do for a living? Well, that's an interesting question, right there.

I'm a software engineer. A system programmer. I work on the UNIX kernel, the TCP/IP stack, network utilities. Give me an RFC and I'll implement it for you. I've worked for the past fifteen years for SCO (The Santa Cruz Operation, later acquired by Caldera Systems, later renamed to The SCO Group). I know you linux geeks out there are a little ticked off at SCO right now, but it's been a very good place to work.

I'm on a closeknit little team of about six to eight engineers (depending on how you count) and we're responsible for every aspect of the SCO OpenServer 5 operating system. There just aren't enough of us to specialize in anything, so the job is endlessly various. In addition to the things I described above, I handle packaging and integration software and system administration middleware and user interfaces, I port open source packages, I fix bugs in the X server or the compiler, I maintain all the web browsers and make sure in-place upgrades work from one release to the next. Lately I taught the OS how to deal with USB floppy disks, PCI parallel adapters, and Mozilla. It's a fun job.

And I just got canned, y'see.

Well, I mean, maybe. We'll see about that; yesterday I had a two-week transition before my job ended, and today they asked me if I could stay for the rest of the month. Next week, who knows, they may decide that laying me off was a bad idea in the first place and let me stay (I can hope). If not, I may still end up working here as a contractor, like a dozen or more other former employees who somehow still come to work every day. Or I may find a dream job somewhere else! Or I may be out of work for months. Or years. I really don't know with any certanty what's going to happen. Hence the name of this blog.

And it's weird for me to be processing this. I've been here for fifteen years. I was twenty years old when I started. It's been my whole adult life. It's not every day you let go of a fifteen year job and go do something else; maybe I should write about it as it happens and see if it emerges as an interesting story. Hence the existence of this blog.

No doubt I'll spend a lot of time ranting about politics or enthusing about solar power or drooling about how adorable my son is, too, but the reason I'm sitting here typing this right now is that I want to keep some record of this period of freaked-out uncertainty dropped into the middle of a life previously notable for a fairly unusual degree of stability. I'll try not to whine too much; I'm well aware that people in Baghdad have it a lot worse than I do right now. But it's the story I have to tell today.

Hope it's not too dull for my legions of reader. Toodleoo, now.

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