In the spring of 1998, after five-and-a-half years working on a PhD in poetry, I finally admitted to myself I was never going to finish. This truth had been a long time coming—I was a terrible academic, and very unhappy—but I'd been loath to acknowledge it because I had no Plan B.
How had it come to this? My parents, descendants of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany, were part of our family's first generation to climb out of poverty and leave New York City, motivated by white flight and boosted by the post-war economic boom. When, in the sleepy South Jersey suburb where we landed, I showed a propensity for schoolwork, I was assured I would go to college wherever I wanted—don't worry about the money, we'll find a way. I took them at their word, picking Sarah Lawrence, which in 1985 offered the second most expensive undergrad degree in the country. With a second mortgage for them and loans in the low five figures for me, we managed it. The debt has been hard to shake, but in retrospect I got off relatively easy. A generation later, my loans might have been ten times as much.
I enjoyed my time at Sarah Lawrence, but as senior year approached, the flaw in our design became clear. We'd assumed that with a degree from a good school, my new life—consisting of an interesting career, more choice, more money, and less worry—would simply unfurl before me. But I'd neither sought nor received career counseling, and I had no idea what to do next. When my advisor suggested I apply to universities offering the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, I pounced on this proposition in a "nature abhors a vacuum" sort of way.
The advisor meant well. He too had been a working-class kid, the first in his family to go to college; he felt the academic path had been good to him, and wanted the same for me. So, ignoring a few warning signs—such as the fact that I had no interest in classroom teaching, refused to complete reading assignments that bored me, and found much academic discussion abhorrent—I applied to, was accepted at, and attended the MFA program at the University of Florida.
It was a bad fit, but I managed to squeak out a diploma. Then, after a gap year, I headed west to attend a PhD program. At that point it would have been smarter to cut my losses, but the academic path at least offered forward momentum, and I still hadn't come up with anything else.
So now it was 1998. And as my doctoral exams drew near, I began having a recurring thought: "Well, if this doesn't work out, I can always kill myself." I am usually an inveterately cheerful person, but as the weeks passed, the suicidal ideation occurred with increasing frequency.
I was in Salt Lake City. Though not exactly Seattle or Silicon Valley, Utah's Wasatch Front did have a thriving economy in 1998, and particularly a growing tech industry. Several of my fellow students had already abandoned academia for the private sector, often landing at tech firms where they parlayed their language art skills into positions in marketing, technical writing, or instructional design. So when I saw a flyer from Evans & Sutherland hanging on the English Department bulletin board one day that April, inviting grad students to apply for a part-time tech writer position, I grabbed it and ran to the closest computer lab before someone else could nab the job.
In the interview I demonstrated an inability to distinguish among an operating system, a word processing program, a search engine, and a network drive; nonetheless, they hired me.
The E&S offices were located in Research Park, a 320-acre plot directly east of the main University of Utah campus. Nestled in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, the park housed several dozen companies and research facilities, mainly in the biotech sphere.
Though I'd been a student at the U. for almost six years, I'd never visited Research Park. I didn't own a car, so would be riding the bus to work. Fortunately, there was a stop right in front of my new workplace. E&S was spread across a couple of buildings; the tech writing team was in the larger of the two, a modernist rectangle made of bricks the same color as the buttes behind it. Inside was the futuristic space of my dreams: warrens of stark cubicles, glass-sheathed conference rooms, sweeping views of Emigration Canyon.
In 1998, E&S had more than eight hundred employees, the majority of whom worked at Research Park, with outposts scattered around the U.S. and overseas. The tech writing group I was assigned to was small—fewer than a dozen people. There'd been more in the past, but they'd been let go during several waves of downsizing that started in the early '90s—the most recent being just a year earlier, in 1997. During the boom times of the 1980s, there'd also been a cadre of graphic designers, but now we were down to just two of those as well, their talents reserved for only the biggest projects. Otherwise, writers were expected to produce their own illustrations.
Each writer was assigned one or more product lines to cover, and we all shared responsibility for maintaining the document library. Thanks to the library, I finally learned what a network drive was—the documents were stored on one. I also learned about ISO 9000, a quality management system companies doing business internationally rely on to assure prospective clients they're following the same standards—using the same language, so to speak. A good chunk of the library consisted of ISO 9000 documents. The most interesting of them contained a list of the countries we couldn't sell products to.
I was assigned to the REALimage unit. REALimage represented a departure for the company. Founded in 1968 by two University of Utah professors, E&S is often described as a pioneer in the field of computer graphics. Internally, the company had an even grander view. E&S didn't say it had contributed to the computer graphics industry, but rather created it.
To support this claim, we might look at the company's many patents covering anti-aliasing, vector graphics, image rendering, rasterization—all the algorithmic techniques to force tiny square pixels to mirror the world's curves. Or we might look at the students who passed through the U's computer science program, where David Evans and Ivan Sutherland continued to teach into the 1970s as they grew their company. Their protégés would later found or hold key positions at Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Industrial Light & Magic, Pixar, Xerox PARC, Adobe, Atari, Apple, and Novell.
These students were drawn to Salt Lake by the professors' premise that graphics would improve human interactions with computers. In 1963, as part of his Ph.D. work, Ivan Sutherland had created Sketchpad, which was both the first computer drawing program and the first program with a graphical user interface, or GUI. In 1968, he and one of his students developed the first virtual reality head-mounted display system, dubbed the Sword of Damocles. It was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling before use. Later, David Evans would explain his fundamental idea in launching E&S: computers were meant to be simulators, replacing actual objects as realistically as possible in any situation where creating a simulation would be cheaper than using the real object. For instance, when training pilots.
In a 2015 retrospective of the company, Utah commentator George Chapman opined that if not for E&S we'd all still be typing text commands into DOS prompts to interact with our computers. That's probably a bit of argumentum ad speculum—even if Evans and Sutherland had never existed, there's a good chance somebody else eventually would have remembered that humans prefer pictures to text, and developed a GUI. But the fact remains that in our timeline, we have the computers we have—not to mention the phones, movies, even the cars—thanks in large part to E&S.
In pursuit of this vision, E&S became both a software and a hardware company. Its software developers worked continually to improve the speed and quality of graphics across platforms. Its hardware developers created the simulators Dr. Evans had imagined, ideal vessels to run the new graphics-based software.
The earliest customers for these products were military markets—first in the U.S. and then in other countries, which were fair game as long as they didn't appear on the naughty list in the document library. There were commercial applications, too—E&S flight simulators were soon used to train civilian pilots as well as military aviators.
The company saw peak growth and profitability in the 1980s. But the end of the Cold War, with its corresponding reduction in U.S. military spending, was a blow, as was increasing competition. Starting in the early '90s, the company experienced losses. In its attempt to return to profitability, it looked to diversification, and REALimage was part of this strategy.
Historically, E&S products had been big, but REALimage was small: a semiconductor chip that would allow customers to build their own simulators—or even to run graphics-heavy applications on regular PCs.
I had never seen a semiconductor chip in my life. Fortunately, the product was in its third generation by then, so there was already a manual I could build on. I went slowly, reading every word, studying each illustration, until gradually the product's purpose and personality began to reveal themselves to me.
Before I started at E&S, I'd been acquainted with one of the engineers who worked there. He wasn't on the REALimage team, so our paths didn't cross much, but after about a month he visited my cubicle to see how things were going. He brought along a friend—we'll call him Mike. A few days later, I ran into Mike in the company cafeteria, where I awaited my turn at the pasta station. We chatted briefly before I slurped down my bowl of noodles and returned to my desk. That afternoon, Mike came to my cubicle, alone this time, to offer me a homemade brownie. Just before five, he swung by again to pick up his now empty Tupperware—I guess he knew that brownie would never make it out of the building. He said he remembered what it was like to not have a car, so if I ever needed a ride I should give him a call.
The next morning, Mike reappeared at my cubicle bearing a homemade enchilada. By this point, I was pretty sure I was being flirted with. I didn't mind. I was thirty years old and single, and had found the academic dating pool as poor a fit as its career prospects. I was ready to fish in a new pool.
After the chicken enchilada there was dinner and a movie, then dinner and a romantic hike up one of the local canyons in the rain. On the walk back down, through the deluge, Mike told me all about his girlfriend, whom he'd been seeing for a year. Evidently, she was spending the week with her ex, something she did periodically—making me either a distraction or an attempt at revenge.
I was indignant at this dating foul, but my anger was quickly subsumed by the anxiety about my job. So, although I spent the rest of the rainy weekend venting to friends about Mike's douchey misdirection and obviously dysfunctional relationship, on Monday I set the incident aside and returned to work with a renewed sense of purpose. I even stayed cordial toward Mike when he continued coming around, though there were no more excursions outside the office.
Twice I saw a female employee—a different one each time—catch sight of us chatting, then cringe and hurry off in another direction.
"No, wait!" I wanted to call after them. "He's totally dicking me around, too!"
They weren't from the tech writing team, so I figured they must be project managers, or perhaps engineers. I would have loved to talk to them about working in a male-dominated field, to find out what they could teach me. But I had no idea how to approach them to start that conversation.
For reasons unknown, Mike's torment of me didn't end there, though it took a new and more pernicious form. As the weeks passed, he continued to appear occasionally in the entrance to my cubicle.
"How's it going?"
"Oh, hey! Fine."
"Good, good. Have they offered you a permanent position yet?"
"No, not yet."
"Any idea why?"
"I don't think they're authorized to hire a full-time writer right now. I gather money's sort of tight."
At this point, his glabella would furrow and he would tilt his head. "My team manager says our project is growing. In fact, we're going to be hiring a tech writer soon."
This was a much more effective form of torture than inviting me to dinner without mentioning he had a girlfriend. Although I kept it breezy around Mike, I was actually very distressed since I hadn't been offered a permanent position yet. When I was hired, I'd been told it was a strong possibility, and I'd quickly grown to count on the idea. But as the weeks passed, the option seemed to disappear.
On some level, I knew it wasn't personal, but still I fretted. I'd spent almost nine years in graduate school, at the end of which I had a Master of Fine Arts diploma and virtually no transferable skills. E&S was the first thing I'd come up with on my own that suggested a possible alternate career path. I was desperate to succeed. But fate—as represented by E&S's balance sheets—had other plans.
It's possible Mike's supervisor really told his team they'd be hiring their own tech writer soon. It could have been a strategy to motivate his team to work harder. Or maybe the supervisor hadn't said such a thing at all, and Mike was just a sadistic bastard. I don't really know what was up with them.
Elsewhere, the company was in crisis. We'd just shipped the first copy of our brand-new image generator, Harmony, and it wasn't going well. Reading between the lines, I deduced that E&S had promised this simulator to a military client, probably as a response to a Request for Proposal or bidding war, long before it had been built or even specced out. Then the team had to scramble to finish it by the self-imposed deadline, with steep financial penalties if the product wasn't delivered on time.
We managed to have something out the door on schedule, but word on the street was the hardware and software weren't playing well together—there hadn't been adequate time to troubleshoot them together in-house. And so, as a special added bonus, and for no additional charge, the first Harmony customer had received its very own E&S engineer as well.
In other words, one of the hardware guys had been sent along to babysit the simulator. I didn't know where he was, Europe or Asia perhaps—anywhere, really, except one of the countries on the naughty list. According to the grapevine, he wasn't happy.
Shortly after Harmony and its sitter shipped out, my boss took several of us to see it—or the prototype, anyway. It looked exactly like a refrigerator—one of those sleek, stainless steel models. Think of your PC chassis, that hollow body full of "open the door and see all the people" components. This was just a much bigger version.
When I returned to my cubicle, one of my neighbors, a hardware engineer, told me the Harmony out in the field wouldn't stop overheating. The babysitter's solution was to keep adding fans. He'd added so many the refrigerator case was running out of room, and the client complained Harmony was too noisy to use. I liked imagining this Harmony, as full of fans as a maple tree is of samaras, susurrating like a beehive.
E&S had always been better at R&D than sales and marketing. This was evident even in their product names, which had started off lugubriously literal—Line Drawing System, Picture System—and then, after the retirement of David Evans in the early 1990s, veered sharply into doublespeak with the Symphony product suite, which included Harmony as well as a pared down version called Ensemble. In theory, the creative touch should have been welcome; in actuality, giving such names to products made for war games was an exercise in Orwellian irony.
Harmony's disappointing release was a harbinger of things to come. For a while I worried I would lose my part-time job, until I realized I was much too puny for there to be an advantage in firing me. I was completely invisible to the C-level employees who were frantically rewriting the org charts, looking for ways to cut costs.
Once I understood this, I set out to learn as much as I could. The rest of the tech writing team was incredibly kind, offering me tips and making sure I stayed afloat. My supervisor, who in addition to his full-time E&S job served on the board of a trust at the university library, hired me to do some freelance copyediting work for them; and, during one slow afternoon at the office, a senior writer invited me to her cubicle and spent hours teaching me how to create functional graphics, information that would prove useful for decades to come. They knew what I needed better than I did, and provided it.
After I'd been there a year, I began applying for permanent tech writing positions elsewhere. I was fortunate to be hitting the market just then, as there was a rash of positions opening up. By paying close attention to the want ads and reviewing websites, I was able to watch the tech writers in the community move from one company to another, after which an ad for their old job would appear. Finally I received an offer from a company down in Murray, a Salt Lake suburb, after its writer left for a consulting firm in a different suburb.
I would stay at Qqest for eight years, during which time I made good friends, met my future husband, and learned the difference between an operating system and a search engine. But before that, I attended one final quarterly meeting at E&S.
They'd been holding such meetings for decades. When things were going well, everyone would get a mini cooler, or a t-shirt or mug. There was no such swag this time. Instead, we heard a presentation from a new employee, a consultant. His mission was to return the company to profitability, which he would do via yet another re-org.
Inevitably, re-orgs meant layoffs. Therefore, everyone in the room was extremely uncomfortable—everyone except the consultant, and me. I was immune because I'd realized my future wasn't with E&S, and, though I hadn't received another offer yet, I could feel it out there, waiting.
The consultant was having a great time. He gave a long, rambling speech full of marketing jargon. Then, near the end, he delivered his money line.
"We just need to optimize the handshake," he said. "If we optimize the handshake, everything will be fine."
I was sitting with my graphics tutor. I glanced over to see how she was taking it.
Her face was stony. When she felt my eyes on her, she leaned closer. "I went to high school with that schmuck," she muttered. "They're paying him more in a month than I make in a year."
If you visit the E&S website today, you'll read about a company that does computer graphics displays... for planetariums. This isn't an entirely new direction—the planetarium product line goes all the way back to the late '70s, when E&S developed a projection system called Digistar. In the early '90s, the second generation of this product was released, followed by a full-dome system in 2002, after which dome projection became the company's primary focus. The simulation business was sold off in 2006. The newest set of E&S patents cover methods of projecting images onto a dome surface, or panoramic displays—a surprisingly peaceful outcome for a company whose earliest successes were all about war machines.
In 2001, two years after I left the company, I heard from one of the REALimage engineers. The team had never been assigned a new tech writer after I quit, so the engineers had been maintaining the documents themselves. Now E&S was getting ready to sell off the REALimage business unit, and they were hoping to spiff up the manual a bit to help with presentations.
I agreed to do some freelance work for them. When they sent the documents over, I was startled at their condition. The E&S standards had been so imbued in me—the ISO 9000 standards, the document library standards—that it was shocking to see this piecemeal version that had evolved.
At my first meeting with the engineers, I referred back to the library. They all looked at me wearily. The library didn't exist for them anymore. They were on their own, cut loose from everything that had seemed so monolithic and indomitable just a few years before.
"Don't worry," I said. "I can fix it. It'll be fine."
Title image "Semiconducted" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.