Defense Detractor

So, you’ve finished the assignment given to you in record time, record in that you’ve managed to squeeze three hours of work out of a project that would take an untrained chipmunk thirty minutes to complete.

That leaves five more hours in the day.

So, hot-shot, what do you do? What do you do?

Do you ask for more work?

*snort* Yeah, right.

No, you do what any red-blooded American would do: you goof off. You start up an exciting game of Freecell, surf the Web for porn, read a magazine, or—if you’re really desperate—you hide in a bathroom stall for the remainder of the day.

But imagine a world where Freecell isn’t installed on any computer, where security has forbidden access to the Internet, where books and magazines are not allowed unless they are related to work, where even going to the bathroom involves so much bureaucracy you might as well wait until you get home.

Welcome, my friends, to the wonderful world of Defense Contracting.


Contracting is a form of temporary work: you’re hired for a limited amount of time to clean up the messes that your predecessors made and all of the permanent employees hate you. On the other hand, you make a little more money than a temporary employee (you are a skilled chipmunk, dammit) and you get a cool title such as “Junior Associate Second-level Systems Analyst.”

“Contracting” should never be confused with “consulting”: in the latter, you’re paid obscene amounts of money to go to a floundering company and tell everyone that they were stupid to do everything the way they did; instead, they should do everything your way (where “your way” is something you pulled out of a magazine on your commute to the job site). Consulting doesn’t require presence (unlike temporary work) or skills (unlike contracting); all it requires is enough friends to act as bogus references for spectacular project failures at other companies.


I was an employment virgin when I graduated from college back when video games were big hulking cabinets found in the mall. I seriously believed that with my spotless academic record and big-name school diploma I would get a job worthy of my skills and knowledge.

OK. You can stop laughing now.

What I ended up in was a company that I’ll call “Paralysis,” a defense contracting company specializing in the support of ancient MVS mainframes.

What would a self-confessed Unix elitist do in a company maintaining IBM mainframes?

About $32,000 per year, which was $32,000 per year more than what I was earning as a freelance bum.

Paralysis was hired by the Department of Defense to handle their new satellite control system that was being deployed on Unix workstations. Because they needed to install software on machines with which they were unfamiliar, Paralysis hired a half-dozen new grads at rock-bottom prices to do the work.

You really can’t blame them; after all, their specialty involved installing software on MVS mainframes, an effort that required a dozen people working long hours into the night, relocating code, allocating disks, calculating overlays, planning swapping strategies, sacrificing goats, &c, &c.

How difficult is it to install software on a Unix workstation?

Type tar xvf /dev/rmt/0 and wait.

Untrained chipmunk. Thirty minutes.

They hired six people to do this job.

I tried explaining this to my boss. (Oh, how naïve I was back then!)

“This job will take a single person thirty minutes per day.”

“No, it won’t. You have to load and place libraries.”

“Nope. That’s done by the operating system.”

He’s starting to get nervous.

“What about relocating code?”

“Also done automatically by the operating system.”

He’s now shaking visibly.

“Scheduling overlays?”

“Done by the OS as well.”

He’s now completely terrified, as well he should be. He told the DoD that this job required 300 man-hours per week.

“You’ll have to find something else to do.”

“Like what?”

“Anything. Just make sure nobody sees you goofing off.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of Defense Contracting.


I doubled the size of my private technical library bringing in computer-related stuff to read, taught myself Ada™ and SmallTalk programming, toyed around with Motif and PostScript, and in general found enough “pseudo-work” to fill the bleak, joyless hours spent in that room painted IBM beige #16.

There were certain perks, however. One was the fact that I couldn’t use the toilet without an armed guard performing escort duty. The planners at the job site, in a moment of genius, decided to place all of the toilets in a secure area of the building. The upshot was that all of my “daily duties” were clocked down to the minute. (“You spent 4 hours in the toilet yesterday.” “Bad case of the runs, sir.”)


After about six months of waiting for it to get better, I came to the realization that it never would. I started going home early so I could watch “Batman”; and being the naïve youth that I was, I recorded my early departures on my time card. After a month of no complaints, I stopped returning after lunch. Eventually, I only came in on days I was expected to perform an install. That was the breaking point for Paralysis.

“What do you think you are doing? You put down 3 hours on your timesheet last week.”

“I’m being honest. You’ve given me less than an hour’s worth of work per week, and I’m not going to waste my time sitting around doing nothing.”

“You’re being honest? You’re not supposed to be honest. This is the Department of Defense we’re talking about here.”

I quit right then and there.

(Ada™ is a trademark of the United States Department of Defense.)