Days of Wine & Dine (Part 2)

hammockThe folks at Midtown Magazines kicked me upstairs to join Wine & Dine‘s web development team. Boy did I hate that. In Editorial we scorned the Dev group. And now I here I was, one of the scorned. 

But once I got used to the filth I found Devland immensely relaxing, like an old hammock. You could come to work wearing a hoodie and your pajamas, and no one would complain. It’s Liberty Hall, folks! You can do what you like! You can sleep at your workstation, and no one will complain. Got a meeting that’s interfering with your nap schedule? Don’t worry, one of your colleagues will wake you up or even cover for you!

There was only one hard-and-fast rule in Devland, and even that wasn’t terribly hard or fast. You had to make it to Scrum. Scrum, or more properly SCRUM, was the morning ritual wherein you’d stand up with your coworkers in a circle, and tell about what you’re working on. Are there any impediments? Do you need help? Confess it all to your Scrummies, so they can vouch for you when you screw things up. If you didn’t make it to Scrum, you had to pay a dollar. The dollars went into a biscuit tin. Once or twice a year we’d open the biscuit tin (there’d be a couple hundred dollars there) and have a nice big Chinese dinner, or we’d take it to a basement dive in the Village called Fat Cat’s, and blow it all on beer and skittles.

All those carping, mean-spirited things we used to say about the devs when I was down in Editorial—how they were lazy, intransigent, didn’t give a Holy Fuck? Dammit if that wasn’t all true! Indeed! Oh ye of little faith, why did you doubt?

I had made it to the Promised Land. Praise de Lawd!

tormeIt Wasn’t All Velvet. I was the only front-end developer in the department; that is, the only person who actually coded webpages for Wine & Dine. (Fly + Buy, our sister publication, had a front-end person, but she got to stay in Editorial. Fly + Buy‘s online editors wouldn’t dream of exiling her to Dev Hell!) There were a couple of other “heads” allotted to front-end development, but they never got filled, so I was constantly doing the work of two or three people.

At first this was because we had lost our departmental director, and we couldn’t hire any new developers till the new director came in. Now, this took a good six months. (Seems there was some problem with the background check.) Then, when the new director finally arrived—let’s call him “Narwhal”—it turned out he didn’t want to hire any front-end people.  Narwhal just didn’t like the front-end, all that frou-frou designy stuff. Front-end people weren’t even real programmers. They did HTML and CSS and maybe jQuery, which is Javascript for Dummies. What Narwhal liked were back-end black-hole projects that involved lots of data services and searching and sifting… projects that took up thousands of programming hours and lots and lots of code review and refactoring. Projects that the readers of Wine & Dine might never be able to appreciate, but which would be good talking points for Narwhal the next time he went job-hunting.

narwhalNarwhal traded in our two empty “front-end” heads for a couple of back-end programmers. I do not remember them clearly, but I believe they were mutants from the planet Zod, and that Narwhal had met them through the online-video-game community, or some such. These luminaries lasted six months or a year, par for the course; during which time they coded a little, ate a lot, and played loads of online games and video tutorials.

Back at the ranch, I was still doing all the front-end coding. Sometimes I had to work weekends. (No overtime.) Frequently I was the only one in the office, even on weekdays. If it snowed a little, or rained a lot, the other devs stayed home; most stayed home anyway on Wednesdays, and on Fridays during the summer. Our clients from Marketing and Editorial would pay the department personal visits, and find that I was the only one there (other than perhaps some East Indians way in the back, and nobody quite knew what they did). I’d try to solve emergencies if I could, made some phone calls if I couldn’t. If the problem didn’t get solved, I got the blame. It didn’t pay to be the only person in the office.

detective-doogie-howserMeet the Kids. My three closest friends in the Dev group were all in their twenties. There was my boss (let’s call him “Russ”), a wraithlike Ruby on Rails programmer from Texas. All Russ ever wanted to do was code, code, code, and hang out with his baby daughter and geneticist wife. They lived up in Yorkville, which was not too bad for Mrs. Russ, who worked at Rockefeller Institute, but it was a helluva hike for Mr. Russ who had to come down to Bryant Park every day. He rode his bike when weather permitted; this was the quickest option. (Ride over to Engineers’ Gate at 90th and Fifth, enter the Park, go down to the Seventh Avenue exit, ride to 44th, go left one block, put the bike in the Hippodrome bike rack. Twenty-two minutes!)  

Russ was immensely likable and laid-back, so the higher-ups were continually promoting him and tossing him new responsibilities he didn’t want. Eventually he’d had too much; overwork and a wonky GI tract were killing him; so his wife took a post-doctoral fellowship in San Francisco and they got the hell out of Dodge. (They’ve been very happy ever since.)

brown-haired-girl“Glynda,” a Ruby girl, was one or two years out of a small college in Boston, having grown up in Pittsburgh PA and Hopkinton MA. Glynda helped migrate Wine & Dine from its old ColdFusion home to its new Ruby on Rails scaffolding. She was also the expert on our new Rails-based job-tracking system, Redmine. Beyond that she didn’t have much to do, other than some junky work that got tossed her way. She resented it, gritted her teeth over the fact that Devland was always going to be a boys’ club, and moved on out, exactly two years after she arrived. Glynda lived in or near Park Slope, had a corgi dog and a young husband, and a blog. She spent much of her time at work writing her blog. It was called something like, “The Life and Times of a Female Software Engineer.” Had it not been for Glynda, I might never have known that there was anything odd or exceptional about a self-described “female software engineer.” I always assumed that most women avoided devland simply because it’s yucky.

And then there was “Jeremy Preen”… a most curious soul.

quiffJeremy Preen was in his late 20s, half-Jewish, half-Italian, with recent roots in both Boston and in Brooklyn. Other people might describe Jeremy as a highly narcissistic gay guy, but I wouldn’t. He was just a little over-the-top, like someone who was trying out the role of a narcissistic gay guy. Lots of people try out different acts in their twenties, and when they realize they look silly they can move on and try something else. It’s not like getting a tattoo. Anyway, Jeremy’s act involved spending a lot of care on his high, pointy quiff of hair, which cantilevered out and and curled over his forehead like an awning. He managed somehow always to have exactly three days’ beard-stubble on his face.  He dressed year-round in long, pointy-toed shoes, tight black jeans, and (except during summer) a short “bum-freezer” pea-coat. He bore a passing resemblance to the young Laurence Harvey. True to form, he had no idea who Laurence Harvey was.

Jeremy was one of the most deceitful and devious people I ever met, although I would not recognize that for many months, deviousness being what it is. He was the sort of person who would sabotage your work to make you look bad, or remove you from some event’s e-mail invitation list, and cluck his tongue in sympathy when you wondered why you were left off. Whether he did these things out of spite or mischief or secret vindictiveness, I never knew. With his purring, sinuous, catlike demeanor, he generally kept himself above suspicion. Once he entered an online video contest, for which the prize was a $5000 travel certificate. A couple of days before the contest closed, he figured out how he could cheat and win by entering thousands of extra “votes.” He told Glynda and me about it, and encouraged us to help him in his dirty quest. Jeremy “won” the prize, and I congratulated him on his cleverness.


In sex, age, appearance and moral sense, Jeremy and I were as unlike as could be. Yet we had some things in common. We called ourselves web developers, but we weren’t programmers; and in a department where nearly everyone else was a programmer, that made us stand out. We’d ended up in the Dev department for similar reasons. We’d both been something like “floating temps”; until one day when the company org chart had a great big convulsion and we got blown over to Dev. Dev always had extra money and extra chairs.

In a roundabout way, Jeremy was the cause of my coming Midtown Magazines in the first place. He had sold himself as a superstar-guru but was actually quite inept. He had mastered of art of appearing knowledgeable, picking up all the latest tech buzzwords and expounding loftily about the latest fads. “I can design, develop, strategize and execute!,” says his online bio. “I founded two companies!” This self-promotion got him hired as a contractor to work on some specialized marketing sites for Wine & Dine. But the work was beyond his capacity, so he showered the marketing folks with oozy charm and lofty double-talk, and found some other “work” to do, work befitting his talents. That is, he went to meetings and talked grandly to managers outside vendors. After a while Midtown Magazines realized they still needed an in-house person to work on those marketing thingies. That’s where I came in.

Jeremy’s single example of web development, the thing that got him hired, was a kind of blog site where one can register and post recipes. Or at least you could, presumably; it appears to have been broken for a couple of years. Even when functioning it was outrageously bare-bones; so minimalist that I sometimes speculate that the marketing people must’ve read it as edgy, disruptive, brilliant; Dada in Blogland. (But no, they wouldn’t have been smart enough to make that mistake.)

Jeremy preen masterwork

travelandleisure3As I noted before, Jeremy’s real métier was office-socializing. It gave him the opportunity to charm people who might be useful to him. (Diametrically different from me; I hate meetings, and the idea of manipulating people or buttering them up makes my skin crawl.) Likewise Jeremy was adept at getting “face time” with anyone who happened to be above him on the totem pole. Jeremy was so good at this, and so persuasive, that he eventually got Narwhal to create a brand-new managerial-level job, just for him. No longer a mere contractor or Marketing coder, Jeremy would now be the UI/UX (User Interface, User Experience) “Channel Manager.” His heavy responsibilities would include holding meetings with the people in Marketing and Editorial, and talking to the outside UI/UX consulting firm that had been engaged to redesign our online magazines.

This was a masterstroke on Jeremy’s part. Like me, he had perceived that Narwhal didn’t like developers who weren’t back-end programmers and online-video-game players. The solution was to define himself as something else, something important-sounding but vague (who really knows what “User Experience” means?), a role that would let Jeremy to spend his time doing what he did best (go to meetings and manipulate people), while getting other people to do the coding and heavy lifting. The fact that Jeremy had little experience with UI/UX (he was as lame a designer as he was a coder) cannot have been a fatal deficiency when talking to Narwhal, who knew even less, and was as easily impressed by shiny new buzzwords as any wide-eyed, pink-cheeked marketing bunny.

How Jeremy Sealed the Deal. What finally did the trick was when Jeremy told Narwhal that making him a manager would be a positive step for “diversity.” The hidden corollary to this was of course, If you don’t give me this job, then you are not in favor of “diversity.” 

gayinthevillageAnd so Narwhal was persuaded. He couldn’t stand up to this “diversity” cant. He was himself some kind of nonwhite: negro, red Indian, a touch of something else. Narwhal had been recruited, circus-style, from across the country precisely to fulfill somebody’s wish to have a Person of Color at the department-director level; particularly a P.o.C. like Narwhal, who had a B.S. from Stanford (to which he had no trouble gaining admission, being an in-state, affirmative-action applicant).

Narwhal liked to say he was a libertarian, and I don’t think he approved of special pleading for trendy minorities; but of course he wasn’t coming from a position of strength. Moreover, Narwhal had the clear impression that the people in Editorial and Marketing all loved and admired Jeremy. He had this impression because, well, Jeremy gave him that impression. It was a very salient point that they liked Jeremy, because they didn’t much like Narwhal. And so it was announced, shortly after the New Year, that my lazy, dishonest colleague Jeremy would now be Manager, UI/UX. Whatever that was. A couple of months later, Russ and his family moved to San Francisco, and Jeremy became my boss.

Cathy Charlton, my old boss from Editorial, shook her head in wonderment and dismay. “He’s so . . . young. You watch out.”

She was sensing trouble ahead, but I thought she just disliked Jeremy.”Oh, we’re good friends,” I said. “It’ll work out fine.”

She shook her head again. No, no, no. Disaster loomed.