I don’t know why I always pick February to get melancholy. It’s not a mid-life crisis. Unless you count the fact that it’s been happening for more than half my life now, obviously…maybe you can trace it back to the time I found out the night before I turned 18 that I wasn’t going to be going to Vanderbilt as an undergrad after all. Which is another long story – I could have, but I couldn’t, but…that’s for another time. Anyway.
I guess in 2007, it was the result of having been away from DC for almost a year and a half and just plain missing my crew. I’m pretty sure that’s part of it this time, because I’m facing some situations not entirely unlike what I’ve been through before. See if this sounds familiar, Rifles of the EUS: manpower cuts, exhortations to work smarter, managers who cover their lack of technical acumen with the mantra of “customer service” and eventually turn into lawyers for the end-users, inexplicable additional project that reek of make-work, and a belief that firemen should be fighting fires every second of the day, even if you have to set them yourself.
Fortunately, it’s not like it was before. For one thing, I’ve been doing this for twelve years and I’ve seen all this before. For another, I’m older, wiser, and probably more senile. There may be some chemical influence, I couldn’t say. Long story short: I stay firmly in what we used to call Phase Five, and everything holds together.
But it’s no EUS.
The name itself was a fluke. We had an NT server running under a desk that we were using as a repository for useful tools and file space to back up over the network if a machine needed drastic treatment. And the infrastructure group – consisting mostly of reclassified mainframe operators who had been handed books on Lotus Notes or Windows NT or Netware, because Towers Perrin decided that they were already making the same money as server admins – decided they should take that machine over. Some quick thinking by our top guns led to the declaration that it was an archive, not a server, so hands off – and we even labelled it EUS_Archive, for End User Services. And just like that, we had an identity.
I know I’ve said it before, but it’s true: we were the fucking lords of the earth. Need Lotus Notes on 1600 computers? And domain repairs on another 1200? And viruses cleaned off all the PCs? And all in a month? Users call the help desk, but the help desk called the EUS. We went through a lot of manpower in the go-go 90s, when you had to staff the help desk with Hooters waitresses hired at $50K a year because everyone more technical was getting $80K elsewhere, but there was that hard core that barely budged for many years. When one of us left, it was always moving up – and it was always with regret at leaving the team.
I’m gonna make the donkey blush, I know, but I’m going to say it anyway: nobody could have managed us but the guy who was our lead. He did a lot of director-level work on a lead-tech salary, he led the charge and held the line straight (just barely, sometimes, but he did; there were times our crew would have looked good on a box of Borax), he was technical to close a bunch of tickets himself and to know whether a tech was bullshitting him or not, and he wouldn’t ask anybody to show up at 6 or stay ’til midnight without he was right there alongside, ripping out token ring cards and cursing people who never vacuumed under the desk.
He also had to ride herd on a lot of egos. More than once, somebody cracked that we would sit five-wide around the table at the coffee shop and not a person sat there who didn’t think they were the greatest tech at the table. Our best guys had a lot in common: technical curiosity, institutional memory, more tenacity than an Oatman jackass, and a dangerous excess of personality. Plus I’m pretty sure we all liked a drink or seven. If we didn’t know something, we’d damn well figure it out, and we’d have a good time doing it.
Another thing, too – after the first few months, we started hiring only guys we knew. If we had an opening, the first move was to ask in the team meeting if anybody knew someone looking to make a move. That’s how we were able to lose guys like the Casman and the Lyon King and Ronny-Ron and replace them with guys like T Banga and EZ-E and the Blockster. Anybody we hired had somebody who could vouch for their skills and would put their own rep on the line that their guy could pull his weight. And it paid out, big time. We sustained a level of excellence for the better part of a decade that most places could only dream of. Most of our guys could cover three corners of the two-by-two matrix of Mac and PC hardware and software, work fast, innovate, charm the users, catch the troublemakers, snuff the fires, and best of all – be dropped down in the middle of a world of horseshit only to ride out on the pony.
For the most part, too, we were all friends. We went to lunch in groups of six or eight or ten – at first for self-defense against users who were facing an average 9-day wait time for PC software support (you try servicing a thousand Windows NT 4 machines with two techs and no domain or admin tools), but later because that was just how we rolled. We went out after work – whether it was prime rib in 1998 or karaoke in 1999 or Irish pubs in 2001 or Christmas parties whenever we could get somebody else to pay for them, we were there drinking other people’s booze (and how we avoided getting arrested a couple of times I’ll never know). We helped each other move. We were in each other’s weddings (and bachelor parties). There are kids in Virginia who know me as “Uncle Donkey.”
That’s the consolation now when the work goes south, when eight problems pile up at once and each is more urgent than the last, and the new boss who should be keeping the trouble at bay is instead asking me to fix his laptop which he broke. By all rights, I should be losing my shit – the way I did in the old days more than I should have – but I don’t. Instead, I lace the Docs tight and go to work, with the memories of a pantheon of demigods riding shotgun. And that shit gets settled.
We may be scattered to the four winds now, but we were stars once. We still are. Just because we’re not side by side doesn’t mean we’re not still shoulder to shoulder.