02 Minnesota 2002

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June 2002

I parked my rusty 1987 Pontiac Sunbird at the back of a nearly full parking lot. It was only 8:30 a.m., yet the temperature was already in the eighties and I was covered in sweat. I stepped onto the steaming asphalt and walked past a row of late-model cars toward the two-story office building where I worked as a software engineer. There were no signs on the facade, but everyone in town knew that this was IBM's sprawling Rochester, Minnesota campus.

I swiped my company ID badge and the door unlocked with a click. A refreshing breeze of cool air hit me as I stepped inside. I walked upstairs and continued down the building's long main corridor, nodding to some colleagues. Like me, they were clean-cut men in their twenties with pasty white skin – the majority of our exposure to light came from the glow of our computer monitors. Despite the building's air conditioning, we were all dressed in shorts and t-shirts. IBM used to have a formal dress tradition, but today only executives and job candidates still wore business suits.

Leaving the main corridor I walked down a smaller hallway toward my office. The ambient light grew dim now that I wasn't near any windows. I was entering a time capsule – the Polaroid photographs of employees tacked onto a cork bulletin board, notes about a defunct project scribbled on a whiteboard and kids' drawings taped onto doors were more than a decade old. Even the map of the world that hung on the wall looked antiquated, with brown shading and serpents lurking in unexplored oceans.

My officemate Paul was hard at work. He was a married man in his forties with three teenage daughters. We said “good morning” as I rolled my chair out from under my L-shaped desk, which occupied a corner of the office. In the opposite corner, Paul's space mirrored mine.

I switched on my monitor and got to work. For the past few months, my teammates and I had been writing a software application that would automatically run thousands of tests overnight. Before leaving work the previous day, I had started the program on fifty or so Linux and UNIX systems that were sitting in a lab. The results mostly looked good, but the application had frozen on a few of the computers. There didn't seem to be any pattern to which systems had frozen. I might need all day to debug this problem. At least my office was air-conditioned.

* * *

In the spring of 2000, while I was finishing my degree in computer science at a small university in my home state of Wisconsin, the dot-com bubble had burst and the stock market had crashed. The nation was heading into a recession just as I was putting together my first résumé. Many technology companies had begun to downsize, but IBM was still hiring new college graduates. When they offered me this job, I jumped at the opportunity. I had avoided becoming another unemployed twenty-something and was about to start making “real” money.

Soon after moving to Rochester, I learned that the city wasn't all it was cracked up to be. It was built like a suburb full of big gray houses with expansive green lawns and white picket fences. I had seen this layout when I had visited the city for my job interview, but I had figured that with a population of nearly 100,000, there must be a decent nightlife for young professionals. On the contrary, downtown became a ghost town after dark and the closest big city, Minneapolis, was ninety minutes away. Nevertheless, I made several friends at IBM and settled into a quiet life of working, watching movies and playing video games.

I was broke when I graduated from college, so instead of buying a house, I moved into a small apartment and kept my old furniture. When I got my first paycheck, I wasn't sure what to do with the windfall. I bought some new clothes, CDs and video games and still was able to put some of it away, with the thought that someday I would buy something big with the money.

Over the next two years, I grew accustomed to the monotony of working for a big corporation in a small city. I joined a softball league, went to backyard barbecues and took some short vacations. This stable and financially secure life was exactly what I had hoped to achieve while growing up. But I had a disconcerting feeling that I couldn't shake: after working so hard to get here, I had settled for a mediocre life.

* * *

I opened a log file containing timestamped information about one of the frozen applications and sifted through page after page, looking for anything suspicious. Could I have overlooked a deadlock scenario while writing my code? Had the network gone down for a second or two in the middle of the night? Was there a bug somewhere in the external code I was accessing? Whatever the problem was, I had to solve it soon. Our deadline was coming up and my team was counting on me.

I quickly found the exact time the application had frozen, but I still didn't see any obvious problems during the preceding moments. Despite the log file's immense size, I needed more information. I added some debugging code to the program, restarted the frozen applications and went for a cup of coffee.

The coffee shop was next to the cafeteria in the center of campus. The buildings were connected, so I walked through an air-conditioned main corridor, happy to avoid the heat. I passed dozens of other employees in the hallway, mostly middle-aged men who had been with the company for decades. I was twenty-four, and despite the recent wave of new-hires, I was still among the youngest at the company. With my tall, lanky frame and baby face, I was regularly mistaken for a high school student. Most of my co-workers on the Rochester campus were married and had children. They seemed happy, but I was bored out of my mind. Was I the only one?

When I returned to my desk, I sipped my coffee and monitored the output as the applications churned away. It could take minutes – or hours – before one of them would hang again. I was frustrated with my slow progress, but there was nothing to do but wait.

I leaned back in my chair and looked through my door to the antiquated map of the world in the hallway. The United States was in the center – the most important place on the planet. Nobody I worked with ever questioned its orientation, but it seemed strange that Asia was cut in half. The mapmaker had reconciled this by including the entire Indian subcontinent on both the map's left and right sides.

Maybe India's actually the most important place on the planet.

While gazing at the map, I daydreamed about my travels. In high school I had gone to Mexico City with my Spanish class. In college I had returned to Mexico to study for a summer in Xalapa, a small city near the Gulf Coast. A year ago I had gone on a ten-day package tour to London and Ireland. The rest of the world was still a mystery to me. I hadn't even seen much of the United States beyond Yellowstone National Park, the Smoky Mountains and Florida on family vacations while growing up. The map reminded me how much was out there, waiting for exploration.

Maybe I could plan a trip for the Fourth of July. Independence Day was nine days away. It fell on a Thursday, and everyone in the company would have a four-day weekend. I wanted to do something exciting, but it would be difficult to find a travel companion for some far-flung destination on such short notice. I wondered if I could travel somewhere by myself. Would I get bored? Would it look weird?

Returning to the task at hand, I saw how useless it would be to stare at the screen, waiting for an application to freeze. I decided to set up a meeting with my teammates – if we could discuss the problem together, maybe we could figure out a solution.

Why am I so stressed out? Is it really over this stupid program?

As a kid, I had assumed that adulthood would be an adventure. Once I finished school and got a “real” job, I would be free to do whatever I wanted. The possibilities were endless! But now that I was here, work was consuming my life. When I came home at the end of the day, I was exhausted and didn't have the motivation to take on any new projects. I didn't even have a hobby. I was going through the motions of life, but I wasn't living. How could I make life more interesting?

I should buy a car! I had been getting a lot of flak lately for continuing to drive my Pontiac Sunbird. It was fifteen years old, and so rusty the driver's seat was no longer attached to the floor – it wiggled back and forth like a rocking chair every time I switched gears. The radio hadn't worked for years. When I pressed the gas pedal too hard, the transmission slipped into neutral. It was as if the car was talking to me: “Slow down sonny. I'm gettin' old. And so are you!”

“Why are you still driving that piece of shit?” friends would ask. “Can't you afford something nicer?”

I could, but my Sunbird still ran. In my only rebellious act to date, I was determined to drive that car until it died. Even now, I didn't want to replace the 'Bird. But I did want to impress my friends and add some spice to my life.

How about a sports car? That's exactly what I need! But where do people even buy sports cars?

I ruled out going to a local dealer – their markups were huge, and there wasn't likely to be a wide selection available in Rochester. But the internet had an endless supply of cars for sale. I browsed through eBay and saw that there were sports car auctions happening around the country. I could fly somewhere over my break and drive home in my new car. This was a perfect plan!

I checked out a few Mustangs and Camaros, but they weren't exotic enough to justify the effort. I considered buying a Ferrari, but quickly abandoned the idea – the cheapest ones that still ran cost more than I made in a year. Then I searched “Corvette” and narrowed the results to cars that were between five and ten years old. I was captivated by a black car in pristine condition. I ogled its elongated hood with sleek curves, removable roof and four signature taillights.

The car was in Houston, Texas. I was already daydreaming about driving it along a sinuous mountain road with the top off, down-shifting and slamming the gas while flying around hairpin corners, feeling the breeze run through my hair, hearing the engine purr with pleasure.

I thought: A Corvette is exactly what I need to jump-start my life. I'll drive it across the country, see new places, meet new people. And this car will command respect.

I took one more look at that shiny black Corvette and placed a bid.

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