Why Am I Here?

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 1996

Frequently in the course of an ordinary business day I ask myself the canonical question, “Why am I here?” I don’t mean to invoke the cosmological question, just the minutia of daily life as we exercise our limited options in the professional work environment.

Usually when I ask myself this question, there is a reason prompting my subconscious. Whatever I am doing, I suddenly realize that I would be better off doing something else. It’s not that I don’t believe in free will, but most of the time we’re on tracks that are hard to jump. I always tell myself that one morning I can just get up and decide not to shave, go to work, or follow through with any of the things on my calendar -- but that’s only theory. In practice, I can’t. I am, alas, completely programmed.

I don’t spend much time regretting being programmed, but being an engineer, I tend to worry about the efficiency of the program. It’s the same sort of urge that compels me to discover new ways to incorporate parallel processing in my morning rituals of dressing and getting breakfast. Like, can I do something useful with my left hand while I’m brushing my teeth with the right? (Does anyone else have this problem, or am I the only one?)

So I have this urge to look at the code that runs my realtime business life, and to do a profile to see where the cycles are being spent. For one thing I get stuck in a lot of loops of the form “if (meeting is in session) (be there); else(lose job). Some of these loops represent time well spent, but too often I look around the room, count bodies, and multiply by the loaded cost per person per hour. I almost always get a frightening number. For a lot of meetings any positive number would be frightening.

Other times I encounter that dreaded go to command. Programmers know to avoid it, but life is something else. Go to far_away_city; do something_you’d_rather_not_do. I find myself giving a talk somewhere, and suddenly wondering “Why am I doing this?” I look out at the audience, and I get the strong feeling that many of them are asking themselves the same question. We’re all stuck in some concurrency lock. I’m fulfilling an obligation; they are acting as stuffing. In turn, I am often acting as “stuffing” myself for all kinds of occasions. That is the way the world works.

A friend told me recently of going to a city across the continent to give a technical talk. On arrival he called the organizer to check on logistics for the occasion. “How many people do you expect?” he asked. There was a perceptible hesitation before the host murmured, “Three.”

“Three?!” screamed my excitable friend. “I come all this way to talk before three people?! I’m leaving right now!”

“Wait!” said the organizer breathlessly. “I can get more. Let me call you back in an hour.”

An hour later he called back with the good news that there would now be possibly as many as five people attending the talk. My friend left immediately without giving the talk. I admire his courage; it’s not often that we are able to execute an unless statement in our exception handling code.

When I related this story to a colleague, it prompted him to confess a similar incident. He was on a vacation visit to his native country when he got a call from an engineer there asking him to give a talk for the local technical community. He protested that he was on vacation, but was eventually persuaded by the usual powerful argument -- the one that goes “you’re so famous, and represent such an important institution, and here you are, and poor us....” Who among us could resist?

My colleague was concerned at the time that no one would attend his talk. It is, of course, the foremost fear of every speaker and organizer. One day I expect to show up somewhere, and find no one there but myself and a greatly embarrassed organizer. I even checked around with associates, but no one will admit that it has ever happened. However, in this particular case it seemed a reasonable fear, since the country involved is not known for a high tech research environment.

As it turned out, his fears were groundless. There was a sizable and friendly audience, and except for the absence of questions, the talk went well. He had all but forgotten the occasion when a few years later he got a call from the engineer who had persuaded him to give the talk. The engineer was in New York, and wanted to meet for dinner. After a pleasant dinner, the engineer cleared his throat. “I have a confession to make...,” he began. This is, of course, an inauspicious opening remark.

“No one turned up for your talk,” he blurted. “We recruited people from the street by offering them free food.”

Well, there are some things you’d rather not know. I am often recruited with the bait of an important audience. On one occasion I declined an invitation to speak, only to be told sternly by my secretary that the governor of Virginia would be in attendance. “All right,” I said, “I’ll speak, but take my word for it -- the governor of Virginia will not be there.”

She insisted that the organizers had solemnly promised the governor’s attendance. I replied that my experience was that organizers always promised the governor of Virginia, but that when the time came, the governor would have more important things to do. Governors, and people like that, are not bound by the same programs as you or I.

Needless to say, there was no governor of Virginia attending the talk. For years afterwards, whenever I was asked to speak somewhere my secretary would smile and say that the organizers had promised the governor of Virginia. I have yet to see this governor. He or she may actually exist, but for the purposes of an audience, they may be considered VIPs, i.e., Virtual Important Persons. Presumably these VIPs never question why they are doing whatever it is they do.

So think about it. Why are you here right now? I mean, reading a stupid essay like this. There must be some better use of your time.

Robert W. Lucky