** n.b. this was intended to be the Christmas installment, but Christmas got a bit busy. It is a slight departure from the usual tales - less tech, more disasters and a guest appearance by Roderick David Stewart ...
“Is your passport valid and do you fancy a trip?” This is a phrase that many young, energetic employees long to hear from their boss. Why yes, my papers were in order and he just needed to tell me where to go (which happened a lot in our office). I had cornered the market in configuring 3174 terminal controllers (used for connecting groups of 3270 terminals to the mainframe) and now our Zurich office needed to expand. More desks equalled more screens.
Arriving in Switzerland I was slightly perturbed to find that our branch was located above a shoe shop on a busy shopping street. When I expressed my surprise to the local staff there was laughter. “But we are on Bahnhofstrasse, the most expensive street in the whole of Switzerland, it is the only place to do business! And that shoe shop, don’t go in. You’ll never be able to afford the shoes and, if you do, you will never want to wear any other kind!” Warned off even trying on local shoes, I busied myself installing the hardware and delivering the warm green glow of terminal screens.
The local staff took me out for dinner and dropped me off at my hotel. The next morning I headed down to breakfast. On the buffet table there was a large, sculpted ice swan. Orange juice ran down a spout and, suitably chilled, into any proffered glass. I could get used to this. The hotel was the Schweizerhof, a 5-star establishment at the very top of Bahnhofstrasse. I stayed there twice before our secretary (who was new to the job) realised there were various bands of employees and only senior staff should be lodged at the Schweizerhof. On later visits I had to slum it in a 4-star place, just off Bahnhofstrasse.
My return visits were necessary as the office overflowed from the confined space above the shoe shop and into several more rooms above a chocolatier. Eventually it was realised that Zurich (and several other branch offices across Switzerland) now needed their own local mainframe. Bahnhofstrasse, clearly, was not a suitable environment for such a beast.
By chance we found a datacentre that an insurance company had recently vacated. The only problem was that it was well into the countryside, down the western side of Lake Zurich and a 30-minute drive from the city. The building was in a light industrial park of approximately 10 units, nowhere near any town or village. We moved into the last unit in the row and shared an outer front door with a business that serviced skis. Downstairs the insurance company left us a ready-made area where a mainframe and communications equipment could easily be accommodated. Upstairs was an office suite with a small kitchen and views over a parking area and adjacent meadow. On the far side of the meadow was a small farm which housed several pigs and a few dozen chickens.
Initially I played no role in the installation of the datacentre. My colleagues built and configured the hardware, installed communications lines and got the place ready to go live. An emphasis was placed on automation; the site was to be as “lights out” as possible. To this end, CA-7 was installed and would run the bulk of the work. Environmental sensors were also added; should anything unusual occur then an alarm would be raised and the relevant staff informed.
Now we just needed to recruit somebody to sit there, 9-to-5, to handle the daily operations. A classified advert was placed in the local Zurich newspaper; it ran for several days without response. A larger ad was published, still no takers. Eventually a half-page splash appeared, pleading for somebody to step forward. The only applicant was a gentleman who insisted that he would need 3 months’ of annual leave.
This is where I came in. I was familiar with Zurich and had been tasked with documenting the datacentre and producing a daily checklist of tasks. Why not work in the Swiss datacentre while I was completing these documents? We would surely find local staff sooner or later (very much later, as it transpired) and I would be on hand to train any new recruits.
On my first day back in Zurich a local colleague drove me out to the datacentre. I got an access card and a guided tour of the premises. He drove me back, which was just as well as I had no car and, anyway, I could not drive.
Installed in my 4-star hovel, I set about organising myself. On my first night there, the phone rang at 01:00 am (this was the phone in my room, being the early 1990’s this tale predates ubiquitous mobile telephony). The night shift leader in London reported that a dial-up line used for critical payment instructions seemed to be dead. Could I pop out to the datacentre and have a look? I jumped into action. There was a taxi rank by the railway station and I handed the driver the address on a piece of paper. He was not entirely sure where our target destination was. After a one-hour meandering drive, between my very basic German and his very basic driving, we managed to find the datacentre. I charged in. The windowless machine room was underground. I found the errant modem, pulled the power, waited 10 seconds and switched it back on. I phoned London; they were already seeing the data flowing through. I had saved the day – and on my first day too!
I headed back up the stairs to the office area and out of the front door. The taxi was nowhere to be seen. I found myself standing in a darkened industrial estate in the middle of the Swiss countryside. Back in the office I searched for the number of a taxi firm, to no avail. I rang London again. Luckily the shift leader rapidly located the number of a limousine company in Zurich – would that do? Yes, it would.
It turned out that we had an account with this firm as they had been used to shuttle our managers out to the datacentre in the preceding months. Remarkably quickly, a stretch limousine appeared outside the datacentre. A smartly uniformed driver appeared and asked if I was called Mark. Yes, I was the only person ordering a stretch limo on that particular industrial estate, at 03:30 am.
The driver introduced himself as René. We motored our way into Zurich and he asked if I would need to book them again. I explained that I would be attending the datacentre on a daily basis, with the (hopefully infrequent) need for an emergency callout at night. In that case, René suggested, I should use their firm.
The next day I called my boss in London and pointed out my transportation issues and the fiasco with the taxi. He said that there was a railway station some distance from the datacentre but that he knew it wasn’t easy to get from there to the datacentre. Working on the premise that I should only be there for a couple of weeks’ he agreed that I could use the limousine service for my daily commute.
Thereafter, René would collect me as I finished my breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I would position myself at a table where I could see the “limousines only” parking berth and, as soon as my driver arrived, would skip down the steps as he held the car door open for me. The other patrons soon began to wonder who this sophisticated young Englishman was. I enhanced the aura of mystery by always appropriating two boiled eggs from the buffet, wrapping them in a napkin and taking them with me (the datacentre had no food supplies and I wasn’t going to spend any of my money on such luxuries).
I quickly completed the documentation. Too quickly, as it turned out. I ran out of things to do and was reduced to staring out of the window. The office area was slightly elevated, about half a floor above ground level. From this position I could see out across the small parking area and meadow to the farm. Two large pigs provided the main entertainment, one pink, the other brown. On one particularly exciting occasion they both escaped and proceeded to fight their way across the pasture. The battle only ended when the farmer appeared and stopped them before they reached the main road.
I grew slightly despondent. People would call from London but the topic of conversation would often turn to how the pigs were doing. In the midst of this monotony, René became a welcome distraction and our journeys together gave me the rare opportunity to talk to somebody in person. Regular as clockwork, he collected me at 17:30 and deposited me back at the hotel. He was a fount of knowledge on all things Swiss, from where to buy the best chocolate to which were the best mountain resorts. Every now and then a much younger guy, called Ralph, would be my driver. Ralph didn’t say much, I wasn’t even sure if he spoke English.
One point where I did manage to contribute was with the dodgy dial-up modem. Without explanation it would hang, maybe once a week. We would reconfigure the settings but it would soon seize up and require manual intervention. Late night visits became routine.
One Thursday afternoon I was sitting in the office area. The building was completely clad in dark-blue mirrored glass. Looking out I had a clear view, but external observers saw nothing but their own reflection if they tried to look in (unless you came into the shared hallway and glanced through the airlock door that secured our office). I noticed that the limo was waiting in one of our parking spaces. But it was only 5 pm, which was a strangely un-Swiss deviation from our normal schedule. However, having completed my duties for the day I decided to take this unanticipated opportunity and vamoose.
René was pleased to see that I was able to leave early. He apologised and said that he needed to get to another client after me. He seemed a little excited. “My next passenger will be Rod Stewart.”
“Old Rod? Say ‘hi’ to him from me.”
“Really? You know Mr Stewart?”
I laughed. “Of course, all us guys from London know each other.”
René “hot legged” it away after dropping me off. I bet Rod was at the Schweizerhof.
The next morning it was silent Ralph who collected me. I guessed that René was still out on the town with Rod. Some guys have all the fun, eh?
But René (sans Rod) was waiting for me after my working day ended. However, he sat resolutely in the driver’s seat and I had to open the passenger door myself. This bizarre and unprecedented behaviour continued as he avoided saying hello in response to my cheery greeting.
After driving 15 minutes in complete silence I figured it was time to venture a query; “René, is anything wrong?”
René exploded; “Wrong? Wrong? Well if you can say that having a very embarrassing professional experience is wrong then, yes, something is most wrong!”
“Is this anything to do with me?” I asked, completely mystified.
“Sir, I collected Mr Rod Stewart last night …”
“And I told him that it was my great pleasure and honour to drive a good friend of his self around Zurich. When he asked who, I told him your name.”
“And it seems he has never actually heard of you, not even when I wrote your name down on a piece of paper for him to read.”
I resisted the temptation to brazen it out and claim that Rod’s memory was not as good as it used to be. “You see, in Britain we have the tendency to use sarcasm as a way of telling little, small jokes …”
“Oh yes, I am hearing of this, what you are calling ‘the lowest form of humour’!”
“Well, I have always considered it something of an art form.”
“I was very much so embarrassed. I doubt Mr Stewart will choose to use our service in the future.”
As another pal of Rod’s once said, sorry seemed to be the hardest word. I felt it best to keep quiet and the journey concluded in reproachful silence.
The next day was Saturday and I had developed a weekend routine where I would walk down the eastern side of Lake Zurich, through the area known as the “Gold Coast”. My boss had asked that I didn’t travel too far away, just in case, and these long walks were a good antidote to being cooped up in the datacentre. Back at the hotel I had a message waiting from London. A new modem was being couriered to the datacentre to replace the flaky one. The only time it could safely be replaced and tested was on a Sunday morning; could I get there for 09:00 am tomorrow?
I immediately called the limousine service. The lady there told me that René was unavailable and Ralph could only collect me later, getting me to the datacentre at 10:00. No, this wouldn’t do, my operator’s code of honour meant I had to be there at 9. And was René really unavailable, or still sulking about the incident with Rod Stewart?
I didn’t have time to waste. I remembered my boss mentioned something about a small train station, not too far from the datacentre. I had seen the station as we drove by, it was probably little more than a mile to walk. I headed to the main Zurich station and quickly established that the train took 25 minutes and ran from early on Sunday morning. I could get the 08:00 am service and be at my desk well before 9. It may not be the downtown train - and I definitely wasn’t sailing - but I would not let the side down.
Bright and early, the next morning I got the train out into the countryside. Alighting at the last stop (or the “Endstation” as the announcement helpfully pointed out) I was the only passenger in sight. Forest ran in every direction with several paths leading into the woodland, but these were no more than hiking trails and none of them heading in the direction of the datacentre. I then noticed a bus stop, hurrah! However, with it being a Sunday morning I would have to wait 90 minutes for the next one.
No problem, I would just have to walk alongside the road. There was no pavement and it was one of those rural roads that the Swiss seemed to enjoy racing along while they anticipated hurtling round the next corner - but I was determined to complete my mission.
As I walked up the lane from the station, I felt the first drop of rain. Not any old standard drop of rain - a big, fat, juicy dollop of water which landed squarely on the top of my head. No worries, I had a kagoule with me and it was 100% showerproof.
Out onto the main road I started to march along. The rain began to get heavier; looking up I saw that the sky had suddenly turned very black. I sheltered under a tree for a few minutes but realised that it was not actually providing much protection and, anyway, I did not have time to waste. The rain then intensified and started to shred the leaves on the trees and scatter debris onto the road. My kagoule had long since given up being showerproof and I was soaked. Was it too late to turn back to the station? No, I was surely now closer to my workplace and I struggled onwards.
The deluge was now biblical; drains by the sides of the road became inundated and the tarmac flooded. I was edging along a slippery grass bank that bordered the road when I heard the sound of a vehicle approaching round the bend. The delivery truck, if he saw me, didn’t slow down. Despite me being a metre or so from the road, the solid wall of water produced from under his wheels peaked at shoulder height and nearly knocked me off my feet. I stood there choking, gasping and thinking that Rod Stewart, possibly, should take some of the blame for this.
I could not have been more sodden. Even inner layers of clothing were now wringing wet and my jeans clung to me and started to chafe. Walking up the slip road to the industrial estate I could not manage full movements and my gait resembled C-3PO as I tried to avoid any friction in my joints.
Stepping into the hallway I saw the small parcel waiting for me. Well at least the modem was dry. I picked it up and lumbered through the air-lock security door. I staggered into the kitchen and gingerly removed my kagoule, which quickly made a large puddle on the floor after I draped it on a chair. Looking around I could only find a tea towel with which to dry my face and hands. I shambled into the office area and glanced at the clock; it was 09:00 precisely – despite everything I was actually on time!
Through the window I could see the rain apocalypse continuing. The farmer was wrestling with the gate to one of the pens, it suddenly released and water gushed out. One of the pigs made a break for it (possibly using the front crawl) and the farmer tried to corral it back.
There was a system console in the office area and it showed a tape mount outstanding. I cautiously descended the spiral staircase into the machine room and squelched my way across to the tape drives. It was at that point I remembered that computers don’t like water and humans aren’t that keen on free-range electricity. I went back upstairs and got the tea towel. The farmer was still flailing and fighting to get the pig back in the pen.
Back in the machine room, I mopped my footprints off the floor but, as I moved around, I just left small pools behind me. We had a desk in the machine room for the master console and a phone. I sat down and took off my shoes and socks. Every fourth or fifth floor tile had dozens of ventilation holes. Maybe the draught would be enough to dry out my clothes? No, after a couple of minutes it was clear that the air was too cold and the air-stream too feeble.
Looking up I noticed the large air-conditioning unit. These monsters lined the walls of the datacentre and where what made all the racket as they sucked air through the room. Maybe this could help? I pushed the chair up against the unit and stepped up to see how this thing worked. Inside there was a large sloping metal mesh, backed by sponge foam. The air was still basically cold but it was being sucked in at an incredible rate. The only problem was that the mesh was covered in a layer of dust and fluff. Well, better dusty shoes than damp ones. I took my socks and shoes and placed them carefully on the mesh. They clung rigidly to it, as if the machine would devour them if it were not for the protective cover.
Back upstairs I resumed my vigil from the window. The farmer seemed to have things under control to a certain extent. He was now securing loose window shutters, however the rain continued to batter his broad-brimmed hat and cascade down his long overcoat.
My problem now was that the conditioned air in the office and machine room was making me seriously cold. There was no obvious source of heat and I did not know how much longer I could stand there with my teeth chattering. Thinking of it, where were my London colleagues? I had been onsite for nearly 20 minutes and there had been no phone call. I knew I couldn’t miss the call as the external line rang in both the office area and downstairs on the phone at the operator’s console.
Ping! Another tape mount request popped up on the console. I padded downstairs and did the bidding of the computer. Time to check on the progress of my socks and shoes. I jumped up onto the chair and inspected the top of the machine – the socks were now bone dry and the shoes were very nearly there too! It could have only been 5 or 6 minutes at the most. Attacked by nature, save by a machine! I made a sudden decision. I delicately peeled off my clothes (down to my underpants, anything more would have been plain weird) and arranged the soaked items over the ventilation area. With my jeans, sweatshirt and T-shirt I completely covered the mesh (my shoes were still there too). There wasn’t a square inch left free, it was as if the unit had been designed with my emergency in mind.
It was now definitely too cold to linger in the machine room. I went back up to the office and got the tea towel to rub myself down (making a mental note to replace it as soon as possible). I decided to call the London office, but there was no reply and I started to think of acid put-downs that I could use once they deigned to call me – “what time do you call this” or “forgot to set the alarm clock, did we?” Yes indeed, in my rage I would not hold back.
The farmer was now nowhere to be seen and, likewise, the livestock seemed safely sheltered. All was quiet on the porcine front. I, for my part, had invented turbo-charged clothes drying - albeit with the aid of a piece of hardware costing twice my annual salary. Not bad going, especially considering how badly my Sunday morning had started. I was so happy that I danced a little jig of triumph, tea towel on my head. Nobody could see in through the mirrored windows, so it really wouldn’t have mattered if I had dressed up as Carmen Miranda and salsa-ed through the executive suite.
Such was my happy reverie that I hardly noticed the vehicle pulling into the carpark. However I stopped mid-boogie when I saw that he chose one of our 2 allocated company spaces. “Hey mister,” I thought “that is clearly labelled for us, get your own spot!” I pressed up against the window to watch him scamper from his car, around the corner to the front of the building. I held back, perhaps he was employed in the ski workshop and would enter via our shared hallway. In that case he would, briefly, have a view through into our office and he might, briefly, see me there in my briefs.
I cautiously peered around the corner from the far end of the corridor that led to the airlock door. To my horror, the man was already shuffling through it. Somehow he had opened our security door! Putting the integrity of our data first (and recalling as much war film dialogue as I could muster) I stepped out into the passage – “Nein! Es ist verboten!” The man looked understandably perplexed.
“Was? Was ist verbot?”
“Es!” I threw my arms wide to indicate the general area around me. “Raus! Raus!” I pointed back over his shoulder. He looked behind himself and then back at me. Confused, he started to talk German that was way beyond my Sunday afternoon viewing habits. “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” I demanded.
He initially shook his head but then said, “ah - Jah!” Frowning with concentration, he cleared his throat and loudly announced - “feed the birds, tuppence a bag!” He looked pleased with himself and nodded as if he had just proven a point. I started to fear that I was dealing with an escaped lunatic, however, at this point I did feel that my lack of clothing was somewhat undermining my authority on the matter.
I was standing next to the doorway that led to the spiral staircase and down to the machine room. “Ein moment, bitte”, I said, using a phrase that I had picked up in the last few weeks which vaguely seemed to mean “can you just give me a second?”
I flew down the stairs and across the computer room. He followed, prompting me to spin round and insist “Nein!” accompanied by arm gestures to emphasise the point. Oh, sonny Jim, once I get my clothes on you’ll be sorry, you’ve picked on the wrong computer operator today! I shot across to the a/c unit and, as I approached it, got the first hint that events were not quite as unconnected as they might appear. There was a control panel on the front of the air-conditioner with a large power switch and some LEDs. I had never seen these lights display anything other than benign yellow or positive green. Now the panel was a field of angry flashing red.
I would have to worry about that later; for now I just needed to get dressed. I scooped up my garments and disappeared behind a modem rack (I felt some modesty was in order). Pulling on my clothing I discovered only the groin area of my stone-washed jeans remained damp, however it wasn’t the time for quibbling over minor details. As I dressed I could hear the intruder muttering, “ach, hier ist die Problem …” Looking around the corner I saw he was now in front of the aircon and tapping at the panel. Oh no, this was too much. You take our parking space, invade our datacentre, trespass in the machine room, now you have the nerve to touch the hardware!
As soon as I finished dressing, I marched out to confront him. It was then that I noticed he had a briefcase with him, containing screwdrivers and various other engineering tools. He started to talk rapidly. After a minute I realised the conversation involved something called a “Klimaanlage” – whatever that was – and it seemed to cause him some amusement. Before I could think of something to say, the phone at the console desk rang.
It was my boss from London. “Hi, I didn’t think you’d be there yet, but I’m glad I caught you.”
“Yeah?” I mumbled.
“We’ve got alarms going off on the environmental stuff in the datacentre. It’s weird because we’ve not had any issues before and now we get two at the same time.”
“Really, which two?” I heard myself say in a somewhat disconnected monotone.
“One for excess moisture, the other is a blockage on the intake for the air-conditioning machine.”
“Yes, right, I see …”
“Anyway, this is just a heads up ‘cos we’ve got all this stuff remotely monitored and it sets off an alarm here and also calls out the local Swiss firm who do the engineering support for us. One of their guys will be on his way and he should be with you in the next 20 minutes or so.”
“I think he’s here already …”
“Really? That was quick, great service, eh?”
“Yeah, terrific …”
“Are you ok? Your voice sounds a bit strange. Never mind, I’ll give you a shout later when we are ready to start the work with the modem stuff.”
I put the phone down and indicated to the engineer (who seemed to accept my sudden lack of hostility with good grace) that I was going back upstairs.
Five minutes later he joined me in the office area. He ignored my “I don’t understand German” spiel and rattled through his findings. I picked up the gist. Clearly the air conditioning unit wasn’t designed as an ersatz clothesline and completely blocking the air intake had, predictably, caused issues. Likewise, the amount of water that I had dragged in with me had triggered alarms. Fortunately, my proactive role in events appeared to be missing from his written report; neither did “gratuitous nudity” show up (although I wouldn’t know it if it did and I figured there would be a very specific German phrase for that activity).
He made a call to his office and boldly reported that “all is OK!” while looking at me with a big smile on his face. He went to get a coffee from the kitchen and returned to look out of the window. “Britisch wetter – very rain!” he demonstrated his mastery of English in a way that I could only dream of when challenged similarly by German. I watched as he drove out of the carpark, taking my dignity and a carbon copy of his report with him. The rain continued to teem down and the parking lot now had several streams gushing across it.
Where were my colleagues? It was now 09:45 and there had been no word on the actual job in hand. At least I could put the new modem in place and be ready for when we could test it. I did this and got a coffee and slowly sat down (the damp groin area of my jeans was still causing some discomfort).
Eventually, just after 10:00, the phone rang. It was my colleague from the network team.
“Hello Mark. Ready to get that annoying modem replaced?”
“Ready and waiting … in fact, waiting for a whole hour, if you don’t bleeding-well mind!” (I told you I’d be angry).
“What? Didn’t they tell you to get there for 9?”
“Yes they did, and I was here at 9 on the dot and I’ve been waiting ever since.”
“So you’ve had to wait …” he paused to check the time “… two whole minutes?”
“No, one hour. One hour and two minutes - it’s 10 o’clock now.”
“No, it’s 9 o’clock. Be there at 9 o’clock, that’s what you were told.”
“9 o’clock Swiss time?”
“No, 9 o’clock UK time …”
“Which is …”
“… 10 o’clock Swiss time,” he helpfully completed my sentence.
Glancing out of the window I could see the weather had changed as abruptly as it had 90 minutes earlier. Suddenly there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun shone brightly.