I walked into the office a little after 7am and noticed all the lights were off. Our office space is lined with windows along two of the walls and there was enough sun starting to stream in that I debated whether the lights were really needed or not. I hesitated, not long enough that anyone watching me would have noticed anything, but certainly long enough for my mind to race back more than a decade.
In 2000 the office looked very different. It was a newly renovated space and we were the first occupants to move in. The cubicles were open, spacious and uniform except for one in the corner, just outside the manager’s office. “Bill’s cube” is how it was known to all of us who called this little corner of the University home. It had walls on three sides and was the most private spot on the floor that didn’t actually have a door.
Bill was our senior system administrator. He was known around the department as being one of the smartest people you would ever meet. Bill had the uncanny ability to read a book and be able to recall the information instantaneously. Whereas most of us mere mortals would remember we “had read something about that somewhere”, Bill would have the information readily available in his encyclopedia-like mind.
Bill was *the* source for information on our systems. You needed to know anything about how a system had been built, how it had been configured, what it did, or who used it? Bill was your guy. “Talk to Bill” was the most common answer heard around our area.
Bill and I both started our work days around the same time. We were always the first two into the office. We had a system worked out with the office lights. Now, I call it a system, but “unspoken” system is more accurate. We never talked about it, we never planned it, and we both probably would have ever denied such a thing existed. In a weak moment we may have admitted it was a “routine”. You see, Bill’s cube was in the northeast corner of the floor and my space was in the northwest corner. The office lights were controlled by a bank of four switches near the main door, one for each quadrant of the office.
Whether Bill or I were the first to arrive in the morning, we would only turn on the bank of lights for our area of the floor. It was a subtle way of signalling the other whether or not we had arrived yet. A decade ago I was a young Desktop Support tech, still very wet behind the ears and nervous about my role. I can still recall the distinct feeling of comfort I would get when I would be walking across campus in the morning and I would look up to our floor and I would see the lights on in the northeast corner. It was like a beacon in the fog. There was a air of calm knowing that no matter what the day had in store for us we would be OK because we had Bill.
It’s been a long time since Bill worked with us. He moved down east with his wife and family in May of 2001. I know the exact month and year because once he knew he was leaving he started putting as much of his institutional knowledge as possible down on paper. That black binder, labeled “Bill’s Docs – May 2010” on the spine still occupies a place in my office. The information it contains is now obsolete and only of interest to the current generation of system administrators as a historic antiquity, an object of curiosity rather than the sum of all knowledge it was for us all those years ago.
That plain black binder servers as a reminder. In the most tangible sense it manifests itself in my constant reminders to the team that “If it isn’t documented it doesn’t actually exist.” But in a more important way it transcends our systems and stands as a metaphor for our entire lives. At some point all of us will move on to some other place and the things we leave behind will carry on without us.
That first Monday, coming into work I remember looking up at the northeast corner of our floor and seeing it dark. There was no Bill. I walked in that day and sat down to work. There was no Bill coming in a few minutes behind me to flip on the light in his quadrant. Half an hour would pass before someone else walked in and, unaware of the symbolism, turned on the lights for all three remaining quadrants. A new era had begun.
Many things have changed in the decade since Bill left. The office is no longer the sparkling new area it once was. More cubes have been moved in over the years and they don’t match the old cubes in colour nor style. The carpet is worn from the years of desk chairs being rolled over it. All the people who were on that floor with me ten years ago have moved to different locations. I no longer occupy a spot in the northwest corner and I am no longer that raw rookie.
I snapped back to the present. The brief moment of hesitation behind me, I flipped the switch for the southeast quadrant into the “On” position. I chuckle to myself, wondering if somewhere out there, walking across campus is one of our younger staff members thinking “Oh good, Dan is here today.”