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Live Work

Of cheap futons and 14-hour days

By Annalee Newitz

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a cramped office space in a city on the California coast somewhere between San Jose and Marin. It was jammed with computers, routers, hubs, monitors, nonergonomic keyboards, pseudo-ergonomic office furniture, printers, faxes, telephones and empty cardboard boxes that were still stuffed with chunks of foam-core molded into the perfect shapes for cradling large pieces of hardware. I suppose you could call this company a startup, but it had none of the hallucinogenic, dizzying fun/work that you find in a true startup, where people believe wholeheartedly in their product.

The company was called Worklive, and it was not a dotcom, although its whole business plan depended on servicing dotcoms. The VPs thought calling themselves Worklive.com would be too frivolous, as if they were merely putting a bunch of pretty colors on the web and calling it commercially viable. No, their plan for Worklive was militaristic and spartan. They wanted hard work, and no goofing around.

So they went outside the country for their tech labor. Eastern European engineers seemed like a good solution--they were what Worklive's VP of Marketing would call a "human value-add." They were easy to find, eager to please, and because they wanted to get out of their various countries in any way they could, they possessed that ineffable air of desperation that makes for the best kind of contractor. Worklive didn't even have to get work visas for their contractors. On a 3-month vacation visa you could get a lot out of someone, workwise.

Worklive had been set up in a building where people used to live, and therefore it was incredibly easy to put these 3-month contractors up without having to stick them in corporate apartments. The top floor of Worklive's space contained bedrooms, bathrooms with showers, kitchens and even a washer and dryer. Around 4 or 5am, when the contractors finally stopped coding and needed to grab some sleep before the 10am dev meeting, they would climb an old, metal spiral staircase to get there (a very retro-industrialism 1980s sort of "art loft" touch, the HR lackey thought to himself when he had the Ikea futons brought up).

The Eastern European contractors were compensated handsomely for their 12- to 14-hour days. Every lunch and dinner they ate was free, purchased from one of the many upscale American/ethnic restaurants in the vicinity. They had access to a couple of company SUVs for those late-night snack runs, and a 3-month stint at Worklive could pay up to 60,000 U.S.

Worklive did not promote bonding between contractors, or between contractors and regular employees. There were no company picnics. But when you get enough people living together, a little unauthorized bonding is bound to go on. That's how Vaclav got to know Michael, a regular employee, an actual U.S. citizen. It started on the steps outside Worklive's chrome-and-glass doors, where they decided to swap cigarettes in an odd moment of cross-cultural communication.

After that, Michael started inviting Vaclav to hang out at his house, where there were always groups of geeks playing Dreamcast or watching bad sci-fi movies. They were Vaclav's age--mid-20s--and pulled in the kinds of high salaries that were typical in the American cities where Vaclav had worked. Vaclav hardly considered himself a politico, but he sometimes caught himself wondering what it would be like to live the way these guys did, without ever worrying that the local economy would suddenly implode or the bombings get out of control again.

And then, more idly, he wondered whether he'd get to one of those all-night San Francisco dance/sex parties he'd been hearing about forever. No, he'd probably never get to one--too much work to do. The servers were always crashing. And the code always needed debugging.

At a certain point Vaclav realized that he couldn't allow himself to think about what he might have done outside work, because there was so much work to do. Speculating about his life outside the walls and salary of Worklive was ridiculous. It wasn't as if he couldn't have extended his visa or taken one weekend off--it was just that nothing he did in the U.S. seemed real. He was working, not living, and every day he needed to focus on earning enough cash to set up something nice for himself when he finally went home.

Vaclav supposed that he did have a choice, but he just couldn't afford to think about it.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who notes all characters, events and places described here are fictional. She can be reached at [email protected].

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From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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