Ellen Ullman began her IT career in 1980. As mine began in 1983, there was a certain amount of cross-over and familiarity with the situations she describes in her 1996 memoir Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents, republished by Pushkin Press in 2013. I won’t go into detail here but I do recommend this books for IT afficionados. It is funny in a knowing-smile kind of way and normalises the parallel universe that is a life in IT (in the sense that someone else is using the vocabulary that is every day to an IT office.) It also made me reflect on career choices and the paths she chose that I didn’t. OK she had a head-start on me and was located in Silicon Valley while I was in Europe and certainly not on the bleeding-edge. But I could have gone freelance and I could have chosen not to become a non-technical manager. Using Ullman’s analogy, I settled for marriage.. Whereas the footloose and fancy-free contractor is free to adventure where she will, taking advantage of the many start-up stock-options, accruing great wealth and losing it again in various market crashes. I shall now assume that the losses where recouped, allowing Ullman the time to turn her many talents to writing.
Even though Ullman was (remains) a high-flyer, I recognised many situations. Chuckled particularly about the meeting when she was asked to produce an intranet and needed to – in my terminology – “wing it” to the project sponsors. Intranets may now be taken for granted, but it’s still the case that IT people have to give a confident impression of knowing what they’re doing. Research and the manuals come later and every day is still a learning curve. I liked too the description of the special “herding cats” skill set required of IT managers when dealing with programmers … But we’d best move on swiftly. I still have staff and you never know who might be reading this.
Discussing Ullman’s second book and first novel, The Bug (2002), should place me on safer ground. Coming to it straight from the memoir, it’s obvious that this is a fictionalised account of some key experiences from the early days in the development of graphical user interfaces. Some experiences in the memoir are directly transposed to the novel which has as its main antagonist, UI-1017, the 1017th bug discovered in the development of a user interface, which takes over a year to eliminate. During which time, management of the start-up company is transferred to the venture capitalists, rivalries between the programmers and the despised testers come to a head, and the technical lead is driven to despair. Professional angst unleashed by the bug is parallelled by torment in his private life. Imagine if you will a double helix downward spiral and I can only be thankful that the most elusive bug I had to fix was found after only 10 working days of combing through a 300 page COBOL programme. It was a proverbial missing full stop. So efficient in its havoc-creating capability and yet almost invisible. Like the tester who finally nails the fictional bug, I had my EUREKA! moment in the office that day too.
In her afterword, Ullman explains her approach. System workings are described using simile and metaphor which are associative in nature, rather than precise. A certain degree of accuracy has therefore been sacrificed in the interest of making systems comprehensible and interesting to the non-technical reader. There are lots of reviews on Amazon suggesting that she has succeeded. I felt that the novel got bogged down in technicalities at times but that these became more fascinating as the conclusion approached. As an (ex-)techie I was interested in the technical resolution. In the end more so, than in the human dilemmas. So, although I enjoyed the novel, I can’t with hand on heart recommend this to a general literary reader – even if there is a very creative application of Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies. I think we’re firmly in the region of cult novels here. Nothing wrong with that and if you like to mix your IT with fiction, this is the book for you.
Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents / The Bug