Old Home Café: The Next Generation

By Edward Floden, based on characters and situations created by William D. Fries, Jr.

Episode III: Farewell To The Cube

(Originally published in The Legend-News of 2002 November 6.)

Previously, in Old Home Café: Jonathan Bach, computer geek and tourist, drove around western Iowa one week. While stopped in Pisgah on a Saturday afternoon, he noticed that the famed Old Home Café was closed and up for sale. He also noticed a lady driving a black BMW. That lady was Avis Granelli, an unemployed accountant who was in town to visit her parents for a few weeks. She saw Jon as he sat in his car, but his presence was less important than her getting home.

The next Monday morning, at 8:30, Jon Bach was 450 miles away from Pisgah, back in the cramped confines of his cubicle at The Medium Software Company, which was located somewhere near Chicago, Illinois. He was waiting for Microsoft Outlook to crash, as it did every morning about this time, when it attempted to deal with the hundreds of spam messages that Jon found in his mailbox.

Without warning — but with much expectation — the regular “This application has performed an illegal operation” alert appeared, and Jon restarted Outlook. When the application was back in operation, he found that 527 messages had accumulated during his ten days away from the office, but that only 29 of those messages were not spam. In other words, a typical harvest. Jon began to read and respond to the relevant messages.

Today was The Big Day. The new technical support web site was scheduled to go live at 3 P.M. Jon had been campaigning for such a site for four years, and he had been constructing it for the past eight months. It should have been available three months earlier, but territory squabbles between Marketing and Technical Support and Development had delayed its introduction. The techs who answered the telephone calls for support were hoping that TMSC’s customers would begin to use the web site as their primary source for help. Fewer telephones calls would make for happier techs.

As Jon answered his mail — flag this message for later action; delete this one, because I don't care; answer this one because it's from management — he thought of the last-minute actions that he needed to do before 3 o’clock. Number One, he needed to…

“Hey, Jon.” Herb Caplan, a graphics designer who sat three cubicles away from Jon, had waddled over to Jon’s cube and helped himself to a Tootsie Pop from the jar on Jon’s desk. “Did you read the news?”

Jon paused the typing of a reply and asked, “What news?”

Herb was smiling; no, smirking. This news was probably bad, and Herb liked to deliver bad news. “Didn’t you read the message?” asked Herb. “Check your mail.”

Jon clicked back to the Inbox’s list of messages and scanned through the senders and subjects of the unread ones, looking for something important. He found it, sixth message from the end, from the “Web Oversight Committee“ with an ambiguous subject of “Technical Support Web Site”. He opened the message; and as he read it, his enthusiasm for his work rapidly diminished.

“The WOC has decided,” it said, in a tone of pompous authority, “that the opening of the TechnoCare InfoBase shall be postponed indefinitely. The Legal Department is reexaming the possibility of TSC liability if the information on this site contains admissions that our applications have issues.”

“TechnoCare InfoBase?” asked Jon, quizzically. “I'm assuming that they’re referring to the database?”

“Yeah,” said Herb, working his way toward the center of a cherry-flavored Tootsie Pop. “They gave it a name while you were gone. Marketing thought that ‘Technical Support’ wasn't snappy enough.”

Jon stared at the message. “I thought that Legal had made a decision on our liability. They gave us a weasel clause, uh, ‘disclaimer’, that they said was sufficient to keep us out of trouble. Now they're worried again? Damn it!” He slammed his fist onto the desk, causing the occupants of nearby cubicles to look his way in wonder. “I’ve been trying to reduce the workload of the techs, and this news will probably cause a mutiny! Who made this decision to halt the roll-out?”

Herb nodded at the message. “Scroll down and look.”

Jon brought the bottom of message into view. The signature was that of Dan Rotense, the manager of the Technical Support Department, and Jon’s immediate supervisor. “Dan’s been helping to push this project!” cried Jon. “His support was the reason that we managed to get Marketing to admit that such a site was needed. What happened?”

Herb bit into the Tootsie Pop. Twenty-seven licks to get to the center. “Better ask Dan,” he said, slowly backing away from Jon’s desk.

Jon popped up and looked over the cubicle wall, toward the supervisor offices on the west end of the room. Dan’s door was closed, but the light in his office was on. Jon considered sending a message to Dan, but decided instead to confront Dan face-to-face. He walked to Dan’s office and knocked on the door.

Dan was facing his computer display, studying a spreadsheet. “Come in,” he said, without turning around. Jon entered and stood to Dan's left. After a moment, Dan turned towards his guest. “Morning, Jon. What’s up?”

“You’re delaying the web site roll-out,” said Jon.

Dan paused before answering. “Temporarily.”

“Why? All the questions about its content had been answered weeks ago. Company Legal said that we were covered. And what’s with this ‘TechnoCare InfoBase’ name?”

“Beats me,” said Dan. “All I know is that last Tuesday, while you were gone, Legal contacted me and told me to put the site on hold. As for ‘InfoBase’, well, Marketing wanted some term that they could trademark.”

Typical Marketing fluff, thought Jon. But the name was irrelevant. “We were planning to announce the site on Wednesday morning at the trade show in Houston. How long will its opening be delayed?”

“We’ve cancelled that announcement,” said Dan. “And I don’t know for how long we’ll be holding back. Could be a week, could be a month.”

“Why?” Jon was shocked. “We’d discussed all of the possible problems which we might encounter, and we worked around them. Why are we delaying now?”

“The best answer that I’ve got is a wild guess,” said Dan. “Management — not myself, obviously — feels that our competitors may use the information on our site to show potential clients that our software is buggy and unreliable.”

“That's stupid. Microsoft admits the existence of bugs in its software, and…” Jon stopped, realizing his gaff. “Sorry. Bad comparision. Five-hundred pound gorillas don’t care about the opinions of the ants. I guess that we’re not heavy enough.”

Dan smiled. “Gee, you’re not bitter.”

“Much,” agreed Jon.

“In the meantime, until we get the site back on track, take a couple of days off.” Dan turned back to the spreadsheet that he’d been studying.

Jon didn’t leave. “I just got back from a week off,” he said. “Remember? You signed the absence request.”

Dan shuffled through a small stack of papers at the corner of this desk until he found the request. “Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Well, take a few more days. I’ll take care of it.” He tossed the request back onto the pile, and swept his hand towards the door. “Go.”

Jon sighed. “I don’t need a few days off. I want my web site up and running.”

“It’s not going to happen, at least soon. C’mon, take a break,” said Dan. “Please.”

Jon turned and walked out of Dan’s office and back to his desk. As he passed the cubicles of the techs in the call center, he heard a whispered “Rumble, rumble, rumble. Mutiny, mutiny, mutiny”, proving that at least one tech still had a sense of humor.

By the time that he arrived back at his desk, Jon had made a decision. Working for TMSC had been good: he had a few dollars in his bank account, and now was the time to do something with them. He pulled his Handspring Visor PDA out of its case, and referenced the notes that he’d made last week during his trip to Iowa. He was looking for a telephone number, the one that he'd seen on the sign in the window of that closed cafe in Pisgah. He found the number and dialed it.

“Good morning, Centennial Real Estate. I’m Margie. How many I help you?” asked a bright voice.

“Hi, Margie. I’m Jon, and I’d like to discuss a property that you’ve listed…"

In our next exciting episode: Moving Day!

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