Bureau of Control on Fri, 9 Oct 1998 10:29:27 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> the shop floor

I work in the network operations center (NOC) of a major internet provider.
Its name is unimportant because its way of doing business is probably not
unique. The NOC is where we watch our company's internet backbone 24 hours a
day, 7 days a week. The layout of the NOC suggests the bridge of the Starship
Enterprise, but the business logic of today's privatized internet makes it a
factory floor. Like my father who spent twenty years at a refinery in East
Texas, turning out bales of synthetic rubber, I answer to a foreman. The
rubber, like data packets, flowed 24 hours a day. How did my segment of the
internet industry, the industry of Trekkies and cyberpunks, turn into another
boiler room, and so quickly? In oil and aerospace, the transition from
wildcatters to wage slaves was measured in decades. At my company, it took
three years.

For most of its 11 years, the company stayed small. In 1996, in order to expand
globally, it contrived to be bought by a larger company. The company grew up,
the stock options dwindled, and beer was banished from the NOC.  The parent
company ruled with a light hand until this summer, when we in the NOC were
downgraded from salaried engineers to hourly technicians, because that's where
operations people fit into our parent company's (long-distance telephony)
scheme of things.

In my last job I learned to spot the deadly warning signs of corporate middle
age: exodus of mavericks, emphasis on credentials, adoption of urinalysis
("pre-employment screening"), "metrics," and (the absolute bottom) Total
Quality Management. My company has manifested six of these.  The only way to
stop it is to stab it with seven crucifix-handle daggers in a church...oops,
wrong movie. But it's better than the one I'm living now: a one-way trip to

An operations center is a simple concept. Information about the network flows
in. Computers make sense of it. People act on it. A NOC can be as small as a
half-dozen workstations or as large as NASA's Mission Control Center, where I
worked before coming to this job. We work in shifts, reporting on problems,
troubleshooting them, and handing the tough ones to the next shift. Many
organizations that handle large data streams--NASA, the FBI, the NSA, telephone
companies, the U.S.  military, etc.--use some sort of NOC. My father, late in
his career, oversaw the rubber refinery's operations from inside a control
room. The rubber was piped in, in a slurry, was extruded, dried, and baled. All
this was presented to him as a lighted flow diagram; our network is displayed
on our wall as a giant cat's cradle.

Managing a complex network or process requires someone who can react quickly to
a variety of problems that often happen all at once. At the same time, an
engineer must stay in touch with the customer service department, telephone
technicians, and engineers in other NOCs (some problems, like routing, often
require cooperation between nominal corporate rivals), and anyone else who has
an interest in the problem or can help fix it. Good telephone manners and an
ability to quickly get to the point are a must.

When I started working here, the company was run by gnomish old-school computer
gods or hairy cyberpunks. The founder had invented a basic protocol for dialing
into the internet. One pasty-faced geek hid behind harsh email personas,
Oz-like, to intimidate the demobbed military types who staffed the NOC (and
still do). But the weirdos cashed in their extremely generous stock options or
ascended out of the NOC and became magical friends (systems engineers), to be
called when a problem was too complex for the NOC to handle. The founder went
into semi-retirement and bought a Star Wars X-Wing fighter he keeps in a
hangar. The cyberpunks cut their hair. Now there are distinct castes: Morlocks
in the NOC, perky Eloi in Sales, chameleons in middle management, and a CEO who
wears stylish black.

Not that our people were especially eccentric to begin with, compared to their
counterparts in Palo Alto or Seattle. Our people come out of the military,
telcos, and unnamed govenment agencies. At least half of our engineers have had
Secret clearances (some had Top Secret access), which means they know about Rex
84 and the Secret U.N. Symbols on Road Signs For Their Army To Read When They
Go Marching Through Georgia, but have never taken LSD. They play the online
stock market, watch stock car races on TV (and worry that NASCAR champion Jeff
Gordon is gay), and eat at Taco Bell. This isn't California. No one went to
Burning Man. East coast geeks don't have to stock up on guns, ammo, and monster
trucks in anticipation of Y2K-bug-induced chaos, because they've already got
plenty of all three.  Politically, they're right-libertarian, which means
they've got nothing personally against abortion, so long as their tax dollars
don't pay for it.  That is, they vote for all but the most embarrassing

NOC engineers are like the technicians who worked at the oil refinery with my
father--their skills and connections got them into the NOC, but can't get them
out, especially now. Aside from the experience I mentioned earlier, I also
learned a few tricks from bumming around the internet.  I'm part of a group of
six friends who followed each other here from Texas.  My father's co-workers
got their jobs from relatives or friends, and often came out of the oilfields
or the Navy. But when the company grew, it put more emphasis on credentials
needed to be hired or promoted. It's still possible to get a NOC job without a
degree, but more work experience is required than before. Like a lot of people
here, if I were applying today, I might not get in. The company encourages
those of us who don't have degrees to get them. The degree doesn't help you
very much in the NOC, but it's your only ticket out of there. When we were
downgraded to technicians, we were told that we could still move to an
engineer's slot without one, but the job postings say otherwise. At the
refinery, management offered a similar career path for the operators, but it
wasn't really an escape.  Most of these guys were well into their thirties and
forties when the program was offered and would be looking at retirement by the
time they got their degrees. The NOC may be a Sargasso Sea, career-wise. I've
got two years of internet NOC experience; the next level requires seven.

The company announced in January that it was raising the door price by one cup
of urine. Existing employees are exempt. I don't know if the company recognizes
how far it can go or simply doesn't see the need. Since corporate HQ is in the
conservative Deep South, I suspect the latter.  For practical purposes, then,
it's all academic. But it's another sign, like a slight shift in the wind. I
have a hard time getting my co-workers to see the problem of mandatory drug
testing, until I remind them that it extends control over employees 168 hours a
week, while paying them for only 40.  Aha! An argument that makes sense!

Metrics--management by numbers instead of by people--has reared its ugly head.
I've had a hand in it, providing statistical analyses of the types of problems
the NOC has encountered, how long it took to solve them, and so on. It's a pain
in the ass. Querying the ticket database takes a nimble hand and running the
numbers and making a report often take up a whole day, time I could be adding
to my skill base. It's my own fault--I volunteered back when it was a simpler
job and now I'm the only one who's taken the trouble to learn how touse the
database program. As a civilian surrounded by ex-military I should have caught
on to the first rule of soldiering: Never Volunteer. Metrics also play a role,
I suspect, in the doling out of annual raises. In my last job, the budget for
raises was fixed. If someone got a great raise, everyone else competed for the
remainder. It was a classic zero-sum game: it is not enough that I succeed but
also you must fail. I can't say for certain this is the case, but the
signs--pre-printed self-evaluation forms, stated limit on raises, coincidental
letters of praise from the CEO--are there.

And now I await the arrival of Total Quality Management, Empowerment,
Re-Engineering, or whatever they'll call the beast when  management lets it in
the door. TQM (also known as Time to Quit, Man), is the sign that the last
scintilla of slack has been extinguished. The company wants you to work harder
for less pay, and wants you to like it. Marxists might call it a new
Ideological State Apparatus; I call it crapping on my head and telling me it's
a hat. A guy I work with was at a company that required workers to not only buy
into it, but to do Total Quality analyses of their jobs on their own time or
get bad performance reviews. Any meaningful (to the worker, at least)
suggestions were ignored. How long before the rough beast slouches here? I give
it a few months, tops.

There's a certain logic that drives a company in this direction, or at least
lays out a path of least resistance. After a certain point, the company's
management loses its taste for excitement and craves respectability (and the
tall dollars that accrue). The quickest route is reliability, for which the
company will sacrifice erratic talent or shave off its rough edges. The company
grades everyone superior, satisfactory, or watch yerself, bub. It may still be
a nice place to work, but it's no longer the place to get rich, make a
difference, find yourself or do anything else that doesn't exactly suit the
company's purpose of reliably providing ever higher returns to its

This wasn't supposed to happen in the "way new" industry, but it did.  The only
"way new" aspect is the rapidity with which the process took place.  So I'm
trading smutty observations about the Clinton/Lewinsky affair with my fellow
NOC workers while the televisions show "Hardball with Chris Matthews"
(thankfully with the sound off) or the baseball playoffs. I gotta make like
Huckleberry Finn and light out for the territory. But where is it?
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