The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 13 Jul 2006

Someone else's mistake
I don't always screw up, and here's a story about mistake I could have made, but didn't.

Long ago, I was fresh out of college, looking for work. I got a lead on what sounded like a really excellent programming job, working for a team at University of Maryland that was preparing a scientific experiment that would be sent up into space in the Space Shuttle. That's the kind of work you dream about at twenty-one.

I went down for an interview, and met the folks working on the project. All except for the principal investigator, who was out of town.

The folks there were very friendly and helpful, and answered all my questions, except for two. I asked each person I met what the experiment was about, and what my programs would need to do. And none of them could tell me. They kept saying what a shame it was that the principal investigator was out of town, since he would have been able to explain it all to my satisfaction. After I got that answer a few times, I started to get nervous.

I'm sure it wasn't quite that simple at the time. I imagine, for example, that there was someone there who didn't really understand what was going on, but was willing to explain it to me anyway. I think they probably showed me some other stuff they were working on, impressed me with a tour of the lab, and so on. But at the end of the day, I knew that I still didn't know what they were doing or what they wanted me to do for them.

If that happened to me today, I would probably just say to them at 5PM that their project was doomed and that I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole. At the time, I didn't have enough experience to be sure. Maybe what they were saying was true, maybe it really wasn't a problem that nobody seemed to have a clue as to what was going on? Maybe it was just me that was clueless? I had never seen anything like the situation there, and I wasn't sure what to think.

I didn't have the nerve to turn the job down. At twenty-one, just having gotten out of school, with no other prospects at the time, I didn't have enough confidence to be quite sure to throw away this opportunity. But I felt in my guts that something was wrong, and I never got back to them about the job.

A few years afterward I ran into one of those guys again, and asked him what had become of the project. And sure enough, it had been a failure. They had missed the deadline for the shuttle launch, and the shuttle had gone up with a box of lead in it where their experiment was supposed to have been.

Looking back on it with a lot more experience, I know that my instincts were right on, even though I wasn't sure at the time. Even at twenty-one, I could recognize the smell of disaster.

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