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Crunch Time

There's no such thing as a free launch

By Annalee Newitz

I'm somewhere between South San Francisco and Silicon Valley. If I were a bird, I could see great loaves of fog rising over the hills to the north, and a thin gruel of smog cooking over the suburban enclaves to the south.

But I'm not a bird. I'm in a Muzak-saturated office building. I'm working a crunch-time, eight-day copy-editing contract at a wee startup trying to launch its web-based doodad, which will one day (hopefully) become an e-commerce thingamajig.

I'm hired on Wednesday. We're supposed to launch on Monday. We have a lot of back-end, a lot of soft drinks, and possibly three web pages out of the 10 or 15 we'll need. The company has never had a copy editor or writer on staff--ever. All the words on the website have been written by the CTO, the Senior Designer, or Gatorade-addled engineers.

On Wednesday, I arrive bright and early by startup time (10:30). It turns out that I have no desk and that "they"--even with only 17 employees, there's always a "they"--want me to work on my own laptop. So I can't really get networked until "somebody" buys me an ethernet card.

I also discover that my manager, the Senior Designer, is whimsical in the extreme. "So, where should I start?" I ask the back of his Dickies shirt.

"Nub," he replies.

"What?" I ask, sinking into the quickie chair-and-desk arrangement the CEO put together for me in the spot where a blow-up Darth Maul chair used to sit.

"Nub." The Senior Designer leans back. "I have to hear that sound. Where is it?" He begins looking everywhere for the Webmaster, who shares the back room with us. We're separated from the engineering pen by a wall, which allows us to work in a sort of peace. But the Senior Designer doesn't want peace--he wants Nub. He explains that Nub comes from the Webmaster's computer speakers. "When his speakers are on, and the fridge starts cooling off, it causes this burst of interference that makes this strange noise every two minutes--it sounds like ... Nub. It drives me crazy, but when I don't hear it I go crazy."

OK. Eventually the Webmaster arrives and hooks me up with an ethernet card. He turns on his speakers. Every few minutes, over the smooth techno beat he's playing, we can hear Nub.

Evenings, the company provides us with dinner: Togos, Chinese takeout, Thai takeout, pizza. An engineer plays South Park on his computer. I toy with the office pinball machine. If we have food and games, we'll stay at work longer.

By Friday morning, there's a pinball technician in the office. The Senior Designer and Webmaster slept next to their computers last night.

At 3am, they filled a yellow sticky note with a detailed list of pinball machine bugs. I briefly consider changing the sentence structure of "Bonus light is dimming."

When I finish all the most important text Friday evening, the Senior Designer hasn't created the home page yet.

"Will you really be launching on Monday?" I ask.

"Sure, sure, sure," he mumbles, looking at his screen blearily.

"Oh my gooooosh, look at that!" groans the Webmaster. I step closer to see what they're watching. It's the closing minutes of an auction on eBay.

On Monday nothing is happening.

"Did we launch?"

"No no no, that was just to get us going. We'll launch next Monday."

Waiting for a launch date is like waiting for the End Times. There's a lot of scary buildup, and then nothing happens.

I'm starting to enjoy working here: there's a lot of joking around and listening to music; people seem relaxed. But on Tuesday, the CEO tells the Senior Designer to redesign the entire site.

"We don't like this blue swish thing at the top. It looks stupid," he says casually. The Senior Designer is in shock. Redoing the blue swish will mean ripping out a chunk of every single page.

The Webmaster, who is very protective of the Senior Designer, gets into a shouting match with the CEO. I pretend to be extremely focused on my work.

Finally everyone chills out. The blue swish stays. Our Webmaster, who is normally very quiet, has shown a very cool side of himself I didn't know he had.

"I don't feel like I have any job security here," says the Senior Designer softly.

"You don't," I quip cynically, and instantly regret it. I like this place and I wonder if the Webmaster, who lives with the CEO, knows anything about my future at the company. I ask him.

"They hired a full-time copy editor last week. So we'll never see you again." He shrugs and goes back to eBay.

"There goes your job security," says the Senior Designer.

It won't cost you anything to send Annalee Newitz email, violently disagree with her or write her love letters at [email protected]

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From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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