Sunday, August 09, 2009


On not working into an office

After Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, 35 years ago yesterday, he cleared out his desk[1] and left his office for the last time 35 years ago today. For me, that experience happened 23 weeks ago, plus a few days. It’s never the same, of course: I was in my job for about 26 years longer than he had his. On the other hand, he was president of the United States, and I’m just a computer software researcher, so I think that balances things out in a sense.

Anyway, the point is that I cleared out my office and put things in boxes. And I’m now working from home, and not going to an office.

And, so, there are those boxes — four, to be specific. Four boxes full of my office stuff. I have not looked in them for the last 23 weeks, plus a few days.

My office was full of a lot of things accumulated over the years. I had posters on the walls, and certificates, which I took with me — I had a lot of other certificates that I wasn’t displaying, and which I just left there. I had drawers full of office things: pens and pencils and Sharpies®, rubber bands, staples, paper clips. Diskettes. Lots of old diskettes. I left most of all that, too. What did I ever need with that many pens and pencils, anyway? Why do we let this junk collect in our desk drawers?

I had books, and I took some with me... but I left many of them. Some were old computer manuals that had been obsolete for ten years. Some had been obsolete for ten years, ten years ago. But even among the others, well... we’re moving ahead so quickly that a book teaching leading-edge concepts is overtaken quickly by others that are published at the leading edges of other, sharper blades. And we get most of our current technical information on the Internet now, where it can be updated rather than made obsolescent.

I did keep some, though, which are timeless. The “Bat Book”, for instance (Hi, Eric!), in case I should ever have to configure Sendmail in future. But it’s still in its box — one of the four, I don’t know which.

When I get down to it, I realise that of all I’d collected over the years, from the flowchart and HIPO templates, to the IBM 370 reference cards, to the empty CD cases that I couldn’t manage to toss away, to that drawerful of diskettes that... well, I haven’t had a computer that even has a diskette drive in several years... of all that stuff, I need none of it.

And, yet, I miss my office, and the things in it. It’s nice not to have the commute. It’s nice to save the gas and the wear on the car, and it’s nice to come out of the shower and go right to the computer and work. But there was something about going to the office that a home office doesn’t provide. I don’t get to have coffee with friends in the morning, no lunch in the cafeteria, no trappings of the business around me. I can call on colleagues just as easily as then, with email and IM and Skype — some would tell me I could use Twitter to my advantage, as well, but I’m not convinced. But it’s different.

I remember many times looking into the office of a newbie, as he sat there with a laptop computer on a plain brown tabletop, the walls beige and bare around him, nothing else in the room, just the newbie in his chair, with the laptop and a telephone, and thinking how stark and spartan and sad that looked. I wondered when he’d feel a need to personalize it.

Now I see that none of that stuff is necessary at all. I just need the computer... well, that and a cup of tea. The rest just served to make me feel that I belonged there.

Maybe that was the problem with it, and maybe that’s why the newbies don’t bother.

[Thanks to James Thurber for the title.]

[1] Right, he surely had someone else actually do the clearing out, but you know what I mean, here. Stop that.


The Ridger, FCD said...

At your home you don't need anything but a bed, table, set of dishes ... it's all to make you comfortable where you are, make it yours. Necessity has little to do with it in the physical sense, only the mental one.

My own office is full of pictures, those little stuffed birds, and various knick-knacks and souvenirs... I spend more time there than at home, if you discount the hours I'm asleep.

lidija said...

Well, but of course! We all need to feel we belong or else what's the point? Speaking of which, I need to pack my boxes soon :)