punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

365 days ago...

I walked out of the new Dulles expansion building of AOL without my badge for the first time in nine years. I was a bit nervous, but glad to go, because the AOL I knew and loved was like an empty shell. I can't say AOL was a horrible place to work, and in fact, I enjoyed most of those nine years, but like any job, it had its ups and downs, and the downs were starting to go deeper and deeper, and become more and more tiresome. When I left, I had 5 different bosses in less than 8 months, 2 of whom were let go. I had been through nearly fourteen major layoffs in nine years. I nearly got laid off twice because my job got outsourced, but managed to hang on due to my crafty social engineering. AOL had layoffs no matter how good or bad they were doing. There was no rhyme or reason.

One of the groups of people hired after me lost their teacher in mid-class due to a layoff. Someone came in, and said to the teacher, "Kevin, can I see you for a second?" Kevin excused himself, and went out of the class. Minutes passed. Then about an hour passed before the students really became worried what might have happened. It was obvious by the activity outside the classroom that something was going down, and when people started to wonder if they could leave and get a drink or something, someone they didn't know rushed in, went, "Uh... hey. Um... look, your teacher is ... has been let go. We're going to find someone else for you guys, so sit tight, okay?" I recall one of the students saying, "This is AOL?"

Yeah. That was AOL. And here's just a few random oddball stories I can finally tell.

My jobs:

96-97: Tech support, promoted to Mac specialist, promoted to callback specialist, promoted to Beta Devlopment, promoted to Beta Lead before we got laid off
98-99: Managed to keep job, but as Call Center Programmer
99-01: International Help Desk
01-04: Wardialing programmer, analyst, and Linux administrator (testing our lines) before I got laid off
04-05: Managed to keep job, AOL Infrastructure Unix administrator before I finally left

AOL had a news-making 5 million dollar contract with US Robotics to outsource their call centers from USR modems. I was in charge of that project. I arranged most of it, got toll free lines set up, generated agent lists and groups over the span of three call centers. I had gotten to the point where I was going to "hand off" the project to the lead guy named Al. Al, who had been in daily contact with me, suddenly vanished. After about a week, I sent him some e-mail going, "Um... we have agents just sitting there, taking generic tech calls, wondering when we're going to start this puppy." The e-mail bounced. I went to his desk and found it empty. I went to HR, and it turns out he's been laid off. I asked, "What about the USR project?" "What USR project?" "You know, the big thing we had going, spent $2 million to set up, added like 100 agents and managers, set up in three call centers?" Blink, blink. Sorry, USR. I think eventually we did take calls for them, but the layoffs were that unplanned.

Layoffs were always scary.

I learned a lot about corporate bullshit. I was tired of it. I was tired of the half-lies and illusions, of the paradigms and buzzwords, and I really didn't like how my employment was not related to my job performance in any way. I saw good people get laid off or fired, some due to petty political squabbling, and others due to complete ignorance. When I started, AOL didn't have a lot of ignorant jerks, but when I left, a lot were in management like bloated ticks. By the end, I was so frazzled and confused, I could barely do my job because I had to abide by two standards: the documented standard and the reality standard. This became so apparent when I became an official Unix admin, because I realized just how sluggish the behemoth of the AOL/Time Warner structure had actually become. Like being an admin through molasses. We weren't allowed root access on our own boxes, for instance; it was often a fireable offense. You had your own login with limited admin access, and to get root access, often you had to go through hoops and online forms to get a 15 minute window.

Nate asked once if I left AOL because of him. I told him the sorta-truth that it was partially because of him, because I saw this as a strain on our friendship. But really, through all his bad management, the only thing he can claim is he was the last straw on a pile of straw threatening to break my back. You don't work corporate IT because you love computers: you work because it's a job. You have to make compromises in your moral and logical sensibility to just adapt and keep you mouth shut, but the underlying instability of my employment was really what made me leave. I can play the corporate game, but just like I felt after nine years of retail: I didn't want to play anymore. I took my fucking ball and walked the hell home.

But I will always have the good memories. I had a LOT of good bosses. Morris Patterson and Dennis Saylor come to mind. I also had so-so bosses, and some bad ones, but it's over, so I won't mention their names to be fair. I think some of them were thrust into a management job they didn't even want. I have a lot of fond memories of coworkers and laugh sessions, late night dinners, Quake over the LAN, and some friends I made and kept even to this day. While the hours of the International Desk was gruelling and probably took two years off my life, I will never forget the great people I met from Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, and Japan. That International Desk had to be, by far, the best job I ever had at AOL, and if I live to be 100, I will never forget Bob Reynolds, the head of AOL Australia, screaming, "That's AUSTRIA, you IDIOT!" to a UUnet tech who tried to convince us Sydney was not a city in Australia, but Vienna and Salzburg were. I recall how, during a test queue where my boss and the head of Member Services were monitoring my calls to see how the customers were handling a growing trojan problem, one of the customers, upset that she discovered her son had been downloading porn, screamed while beating him, "I am taking this computer and sending it to your sister in Vanderbilt!!" and how my boss was in tears because he was laughing so hard (the head of member Services later remarked, "I am glad I am not that kid right now..."). I recall when some anonymous secretary for a bigwig at Warner Brother called in, frightened to death that she screwed up her boss's laptop, and I fixed helped her it, and she was so happy, she used her clout to find me and send me a HUGE gift basket with free fruit, toys, and Warner Brother videos. I had great late night chats with the TPM desk, then later the NOC. I learned just because I don't smoke doesn't mean I shouldn't hang out with the smokers; that's where the important gossip happens.

I miss "The Sound of the Internet," a white noise one can only hear in a wardialing lab where hundreds of modems are dialing, connecting, and disconnecting. It's soothing like ocean waves.

Then there were some not-so-nice memories, some mixed, but they defiantly stayed with me all these years.

I knew about the CompuServe layoffs after the buyout. I knew 800 people in 3 buildings would be laid off at the end of 30 days, and not to tell them. But we had to program all the systems for a shutdown because they were selling everything off, which was really hard to do under the admins' noses, many of whom had been there since the 1980s. The head of the call center, a really nice guy named Chris, asked me one day, "Are they going to lay us off?" I had to tell a half truth, "They never usually let us know that stuff." Then he said, "Because for the past few days, they have had all these guys touring the place, talking about buying up all the surplus." I paused. I'd be fired if I told him. "Do you know ANYTHING about this?" I answered, "no matter what anyone told me, I'd think that was a bad sign if I were you." I never told him, no matter how many times he asked. He had a family and kids. He got laid off, and I think I will spend a year in hell for that stain on my conscience.

I fucking ran DMOZ for a while. I was the first admin who gave a shit in years about that system, and the only admin to go into the DMOZ IRC room and spoke with the volunteers who ran all the administration (but I wasn't allowed to say who I was). I was the one who finally convinced AOL that it was hacked and being used to hack Google page rankings, and I wrote the scripts that stopped them. God, I have been waiting to say that for a YEAR! I sure hope they found a permanent fix besides my "top 25" shell scripts.

The whole 9/11 thing unfurled while I was at work. The UK Help desk told me the Pentagon had been hit. Japan told me that it was terrorists. It was Aaron Tung in Hong Kong who said the first building collapsed. When CNN went down, people n the data center were adding new web caching machines at the rate of about 8 an hour. They'd plug them in, image them, and within seconds of going online they maxxed out at 400,000 connections. The NOC covered up their windows and left a sign to watch from the gym's weight room TV. That was where I first saw the huge smoke columns and the replay of the second crash; on a small TV bolted up near the ceiling.

I programmed the AOL call centers from 1997-1998. During the huge Florida brush fires in 1998, the Jacksonville call center was filling with smoke. I said we should shut down the call center because the smoke would damage the computers. The head of the call center begged me not to, and I remember the pleading in his voice, "Don't shut us down. They don't pay us if we don't work! That's why we all had to show up for work today, even though the edge of the fire is literally at the end of our parking lot, and they won't let us park because the fire engines need the space! [cough cough]" That and my brother-in-law Fran's death will always be connected to that cursed hell-hole. In my universe, Jacksonville would be depopulated, all the people and animals relocated to better places, and then the whole place should be torched to the ground, buried, torched again, paved with concrete, and then a foot of new topsoil on top of that to make a park that people were only allowed to drive through and never stop.

Twice, I was not paid for a month because payroll screwed up. I started to keep a two-month buffer in a savings account after the second time. Each time was fixed with a hand-written check, which I had to go pick up at the Dulles office. Payroll hours? 12-4, Tue-Thu. Sometimes the window was not staffed. When payroll was staffed, they were protected by a ring of incompetent, non-English speaking personnel.

I self-taught myself Perl and Linux under the Reston roof. AOL paid for my RHCT, and probably a total of several months of training. I came into AOL knowing little more than how to install an ISA card, and came out knowing how to strip a computer to its basic parts and rebuild from the circuit boards up. AOL taught me self-healing programs, keeping things simple, and why smart monitoring is the cure to potential calamity. AOL also taught me the best programming will not always win, and how many companies are one "hit by a bus" incident away from losing an entire department.

When I started, the Pentium 90s were the top of the time, Windows 95 was only a year old, and Mac had system 7.5.1. When I left, 3.2ghz machines were the top of the line, Windows XP was a few years old, and Mac had OS-X 10.1.

When In started, AOL was the new up-and-comer in a dot com boom. I watched it become a powerhouse until it bit off more than it could chew with the Time-Warner merger. Six years later, the stock still hasn't left the teens.

But AOL stock that me a nice house. Luckily, I sold before the stock dropped from $90 to 10$ a share. My stock had split so many times at that point, my buying price was less than $2 for some grants, so even when I left in 2005, those grants that matured still made me a profit when I cashed out, even after taxes.
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