Working in Real Life

Fragments Held Inside

My parents have been in town over the past week, the first time since 2017. We’ve been doing all of NYC’s great parks and islands and museums, via lots of ferries and bikes and walks. We saw a retrospective of the incredible ceramics of Toshiko Takaezu at the Noguchi Museum. She made grand, fully enclosed pottery shapes, often with sound-making fragments held inside.

As we traveled around New York, we’ve also been talking about the shift towards hybrid and remote work, and how the large changes in work culture over the past few years might play out.

  • What it’s like to start your career in a remote-only workplace?

  • What are the long-term implications of that?

  • What was it like to work ‘in public’ for the first time?

  • What is it like to make friends at work?

My early work years were defined very much by being in-person, and being close around amazing folks who helped shape the way I think about work.

My first job is as a designer at Dare, part of the BBH mega-agency, in 2004. We are just 12 of us, in a small studio in Berners Mews in London, in the corner created by Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street. At the time, this street is a shortcut alleyway for motorbike couriers and a popular place for drug users to shoot up.

Berners Mews, London

When I arrive I am seated randomly, like the first day of school, next to Louis. We make websites and animations and all the online things that brands want in 2004, which are mostly to make things exciting and flashy. I make flash animations dance for Unilever deodorant brands. I make every ad format by hand for travel companies. I create and export thousands of gifs of slightly different sizes for Ecommerce marketplaces. My desktop is stacked with files called something like Travelocity_Egypt_150x300.gif.

Louis is a brilliant programmer and multidisciplinary artist. He introduces me to the music of Nick Drake, and Jim O’Rourke. We buy a rotisserie chicken for lunch, and sit in Russell Square in the sun, tearing short tubes off a fresh baguette and stuffing pieces of chicken inside with arugula and too much tarragon. We go to my first ever yoga class, my first true exercise for perhaps two years at this point, and over the course of 90 minutes my body stretches into a kind of ecstatic release. I feel amazing. Louis works intensely, deep in multi-month projects building fantastic and complex constructions, and is the first person to really talk to me about programming.

Back in the summer of 1986, our BBC Micro is a beautiful beige box of a computer, now iconic. A cassette tape player is attached, allowing you to load a tape of a game, and for it to play out the code over an analog cable straight into the computer, the bits and bytes transferred via sound. If you listen to the sound yourself, it sounds like a garbled scream.

At around this time, my father buys a computer game for us to play together. Except it isn’t actually a game, it’s a book. A book of BBC BASIC code that you must copy, pages and pages of dollar signs and exclamations and brackets and GOTO and square brackets and punctuation symbols so obscure I have never typed them before. The ~ tilda, the — em-dash, the {curly brace}. You must read from the book and type out the code, character by character, into the computer, making sure to save your progress frequently. And then, if you have typed every character of the 48 pages perfectly, you can run the game. Maybe.

The game we will build is a text-based role-playing adventure where you navigate through a mystical world of fantasy beings. Excitedly, I read through the verbose descriptions of the game world, wondering whether I will fall foul of wizards, or tumble off a cliff into a churning whirlpool, or vanquish monsters, triumphant. I am excited to create this world and inhabit it. Vivid and dramatic illustrations show how powerful and immersive this world will be.

My father and I make valiant attempts to type out the code, taking turns to operate the keyboard and read out the dense instructions, every line having to be double-checked. We are in the early days before scripting languages, when we have to speak directly to the microchips in their own tongue. We have not taught them to speak our own. Clearly the whole endeavor will fail if we mistype one character. It is thankless work, especially when lines from the game appear in plain text amidst the nonsense code, collapsing all of the potential jeopardy. “YOU FAIL TO SEE THE MACE FLYING TOWARDS YOU AND YOU ARE STRUCK IN THE HEAD”. We manage around 45 minutes of coding each time, ending the session with weak reassurances to each other like “that’s probably enough, isn’t it.” 

Of course my dad and I never complete the game, the burden too high, the game’s payoff diminished by its slow reveal during our labor.

Louis and I sit next to each other through the summer, our bulky CRT monitors throwing off heat. He teaches me how to think about code, introducing me to Object-Oriented Programming and principles from Java and C# and how all this stuff might fit together. We sit next to each other and talk all day as we build. I am happy, coding and talking and learning non-stop, and taking on more and more over-ambitious projects with my new skills. The agency starts to give me the weird, quirky, difficult stuff.

Our agency hires dozens of people and moves to a larger office on Great Titchfield Street. The place is freshly painted in a minimal white, across multiple floors, barren of decoration. The publicity materials we send out are stark, and use photos of the masses of cables and chargers and other ephemera under desks and in closets.

I am taken to my first client meeting. There are fifteen people gathered around the table. The first time I will have to open my mouth in public as an employed person is as we go round making introductions. Creative Director from Razorfish. Brand Director from AKQA. Account Lead at Syzygy. It seems a horrific test for the junior, the new and the shy.

I am Rob, a designer at Dare. My name is Rob, and I’m a designer at Dare. I’m Robert, from Dare. I’m Rob, and I’m at Dare, and I’m a designer?

The word ‘Rob’ is awkward to start, the letter ‘r’ blends with the ‘m’ of ‘I am’ and slurs into the ‘s’ of ‘My name is’. The word ‘Dare’ is difficult too! The ‘eah’ ending in British English like trying to live sketch a moving cave opening, unsure if the walls are convex or concave, where the cave ends and the wall begins, how deep the cave is. Daaare. Deah. Dayuh. Duh. Dayer. Deh.

This is a lot to manage. It’s my turn. I say ‘I’mrrrobfromDayahhhh’, face bleeding crimson and hot by the end of the sentence, horrified. The focus moves on. Somehow I survive.

I am given the job of designing and coding an email that will apparently go to millions of people. I come up with a long, long email, that scrolls, inspired by the Ellesse ads from the 80s featuring spinning and looping mobile phones in parabolas, arcs that show every facet of the device. They are playful, causing the reader to scroll and scroll before revealing the payoff. They are innovative, maybe. I explain the concept to a room of people.

Afterwards, Mike, who is one of the smartest people I know, and also at the time one of the scariest people I know, ponders with me whether my idea is good, or is a torrent of horseshit. Neither of us can tell. I test the email on Microsoft Outlook. It seems to look fine. We send it, and many more like this, to millions of people.  

As Louis is mid-way through his projects, sometimes he will disappear for several days at a time. This is before the time of ever-presence expected at work, of Slack always on, of an iPhone making emails and texts as present in the mind as the weather. It is still possible and permissible to be Away, to have zero contact sometimes. But we start to grow concerned.

We go to drink at the pub in the square next to the office. Daniel and I go for raids of design shops in Soho. We go to Mr Jerk on Wardour St., where I gorge on curry roti. We avoid the chaos of Oxford street by cutting through Great Marlborough St., close to the somehow-always-alive-but-never-making-a-profit Liberty. We pop into Marks and Spencer’s, freezing as always, for sushi, overpriced mini salads, sweet chili sauce, the staff wrapped in fleece against the chill. I go to watch live shows, and watch rappers at the record shops in Soho, bringing a pint across the street to El-P who is freestyling in a store crowded with entourage and fans. I feel metropolitan and cool.

Louis hasn’t been in for weeks at this point. There has been some kind of brief contact with his friend Flo, our talented and unconventional Creative Director. We are very behind now on Louis’ project. Discussions are held, mostly behind doors. It doesn’t affect my work, but I miss my friend. 

Because of our award-winning work, all of us at the agency are gifted the latest phones from Sony Ericsson, which are some of the first in the world to have a tiny plastic stylus which you slide into a slot on the case, and a tiny color touch-screen. They are fascinating and terrible and slow and amazing.

Matt and I are working on an ambitious interactive virtual gallery project for yet another phone with yet another experimental design and superior camera, the S700. I have painstakingly modeled the scene in 3D. Normally the output would be a flat bitmap or a video file, but we are trying to output the file to a vector, something light and pliable enough to function in our 2004 world of slow internet and weak processors and progress bars and finicky browsers. 

The software successfully renders our gallery, but leaves horizontal grey error lines literally everywhere, scattered across the floor of the virtual gallery. Digital dust and flashing. We experiment for days, but it does not seem possible to eliminate these messy artifacts automatically, and so I start the slow process of manually deleting the lines from each frame of the animation. It is painstaking, but also has the rare joy of being mindless. We work late into the night. We work the whole weekend, gradually eliminating the lines and chipping away the rock to reveal this beautiful gallery as a real thing. We order complimentary office pizza and drink complimentary office beers while we wait for more renders, content to be fooling around and making cool things. 

After 9 PM, Matt and I lean out the office windows looking out over central London and rest our Beck’s bottles on the ledge, dangerously. We make crank calls, using an Arnold Schwarzenegger soundboard containing audio from his movies, soundbites that puzzle the folks on the other end of the line, like “I’m a cop, you idiot!” and “My name is Thomas Aquinas”. We use an actual Yellow Pages to find our victims. We call pizza places. We call fried chicken shops. We call anyone who is open. I make an international call to my best friend Jeff from high school, all the way in St. Louis, Missouri. This is the one that makes me laugh the most, and feel good when I drop the soundboard and start talking. Jeff is a long way away, my last view of him at the airport, going home, lugging a second hand military duffel.

A morning soon after, we find out that Louis has taken his own life, at home, discovered by a friend. 

That week I go for more drinks after work with Mike, in the busy square, a bustle of suits and casuals with pints and gins and tonics. I am trying to get the stupid smartphone to work, with its stupid stylus and stupid lagging screen and stupid scroll wheel. I am sick of this. I take the SIM card out. I throw the phone on the ground and stamp on it. I kick it away, and it goes skidding across the square, frictionless, the hard plastic and concrete providing a zero-drag material so that it slides for miles. I take the bus home. Saint Louis.

So what am I saying here? I’m saying that early work days can be a pivotal time. That folks you work closely alongside can be massive influences on you, even after your formal education is over. That you can easily miss someone from 20 years ago. That it is hard to make serious lifelong friends with a purely remote work life. That meaning often comes not from the work you do, but how you do it. So do it fully, and do it well.

I coach CEOs, founders and executives on how to reach their full potential, become great leaders, and scale strong, impactful companies. It works.

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