The Big Printer

This is the story of “The Big Printer” which was named so, because of it’s relative size. It was big, compared to it’s neighbors who were rather small desk printers, that became network enabled – mostly against their own will.

The company I worked for at the time started up small, with a few technology savvy founders who wanted to create an office of the future – open plan, no cubicles, ubiquitous wireless coverage and paperless workflow. At least that was the plan. You have to keep in mind that when I say technology savvy, I mean “Business School” technology savvy. This really does not have the impact on the story, but I don’t want you to get the idea that the founders were technologically minded people. They were simply unafraid of computers, and sort of knew their way around Excel. Of course if you would ask them what kind of browser they were using, they would be stumped for a while and then say they think it’s a “Dell” or something like that. That kind of people.

Anyway, they had a pretty good idea for a modern office. Except the wireless of course – that was kinda silly, but back then Wifi was cool, and no one except us technocrats actually knew how crappy WEP was. Also, they saved a considerable amount of money by choosing not to wire up the office. As a result none of the desks had network ports in them. Since the operation was supposed to be paperless, no network printers were set up. The two or three people who needed to print stuff daily simply had a small printer on their desk. Their IT consisted of someone’s 16 year old nephew who was “good with computers”.

But it worked well for them. In fact the company was doing so well, they started growing and attracting new talent. I’m sorry… Did I said new? I meant old. Walking with the dinosaurs old. The young ambitious founders started hiring experienced veterans of their industry – established, notable, senior people with impressive credentials. Folks that wouldn’t even give their company a cursory glance few years before were now sending their resumes in bulk. It was great for business, but not that great for their little office setup.

Before they knew what happened, the open plan was nixed, and cubicles rolled in. They were a lovely color of gray to minimize amount of fun that could be had in them, and extended height to maximize solitude and feeling of abandonment. Around the same time their “everyone at the company picks up their own damn phone” policy was changed to “you are going to talk to our ditzy secretary, and wait on hold until we deem you worthy enough of our attention”. The big shots could not be bothered picking up the phone.

And of course the office was no longer paperless. Most of the newly hired senior professionals did not actually ever own a computer. In fact they were amazed that such a thing as laptops even existed. It was like sorcery to them – they were used to an idea that computers were large machines that took up an entire room, and had lots of fragile and expensive vacuum tubes. Using one of these was simply not something they were willing to do. Luckily this did not affect their job performance – they just kept doing things the way they did them for the last 30 years or so. They would have one of the secretaries, administrative assistants or interns print out all the relevant documents and deposit them on their desk in the morning. Then they would mark them up with a pen, and hand it over to someone for data entry. And since they were a hand picked elite group of specialists in their field, no one really minded. Everyone was happy to have them on board. Well, except the interns, and the administrative assistants who came to resent the “non-technological caste” for all the extra busy work they piled on them.

The corporate culture became completely dominated by these senior employees, most of whom could afford to throw their weight around, and quickly got promoted to positions of relative power within the company. The core founders still had the decision making powers, but more often than not they listened to the wisdom of these battle hardened veterans – or simply chose to accommodate them to keep them happy. They also needed bunch of tech-drones to support these people, teach them how to turn on computers, and explain that Excel is not going to devour their souls if they press the wrong key. That’s how I ended up there.

Needless to say there was lot’s of additional printing to be done. One of my first jobs there was to re-purpose a bunch of HP desk printers into something that could be plugged into the network. Naturally none of these devices had network cards, but we got around that issue using cheap wireless Linksys print servers. That worked for a while, but as the company kept expanding, and the printers aged it became clear that they simply could not keep up with the volume of printed pages this formerly paperless office was churning out every day. They needed something that could handle volume – but they did not want to spend money on a high end printer. So we simply had to step up maintenance on the existing printers.

It was a sight to. Our printer cubbyhole was like Battlestar Galactica fleet – a rag tag group of oddly shaped lumps of plastic in every shade of beige and gray. Each accompanied by it’s own little blinking wireless print server. Each using a different type of toner and a different type of rubber rollers that had to be replaced at least once a month. And if any one of them was not currently printing something, it meant that it either jammed or ran out of toner and had to be serviced immediately. In fact, lack of printing noises from the direction of the printer array was almost always an indication that someone is about to completely lose their shit, and give the entire office a dramatic monologue on how their time is precious, and how every second of “this technology bullshit” is costing company like millions of dollars or something.

Then one fateful day, one of the original founders became the hero of the office. He showed up late one day, and said he needs every able bodied male employee below that age when you start getting to have back problems from lifting shit, to go down to the parking lot with him. We scrambled downstairs to see what was going on, and there it was: the “Big Printer”. It was haphazardly hammed into the back of his pickup truck, secured by a single piece of frayed yellow nylon rope. Half of it was sticking out the back, and a red handkerchief was tied to one of the paper trays – the instantly recognizable international sign for “Yo, don’t ram my shit with your automobile, bro!”

Task of the day: get this gigantic chunk of beige plastic, with million of pointy paper trays, and weight approaching a metric shitload and a half, out of the truck, and up the “Retarded Spiral Staircase of Certain Doom” into the third floor office. Time to completion: probably below six hours. The word “fuck” was said many a time that day. In fact, I believe we broke some record for rapid-fire cursing on a office building stairway. We only broke one paper tray in the process, which I thought was a considerable success.

Where did the printer come from? No one really knows. Some say it “fell of the back of a truck”. Others claimed it was purchased on the cheap at some auction. Yet another version said it was gotten for free, from an “acquittance” who had to liquidate his company, and leave the country for some entirely legal and non-suspicious reasons. Yet another said it was a lone survivor of a flood, sold at a deep, deep discount due to very minor water damage – some sticky brownish stains on one side. Though I always preferred to think that these stains were dried up blood of the printer’s last victim.

The big printer was great. It made copies, it scanned documents, id did color, it could be easily networked and it made everyone happy. Whats even better is that it was made for volume printing – so it would spit out fully printed pages about 10 times faster than any of it’s neighbors. It did take a while to spool up, and calibrate in the morning but that was just something you dealt with. Every single person in the office thought it was an improvement… Except one lady who sat two cubicles over from it, and only used it like once a week for color printing.

Basically, this is what would happen every single time: she would open her 100 page document in word, hit the print button then immediately jump out of her chair and make a dash for the printer. Actually, it was more like a frog-leap, a hop and a skip considering she was literally like 5 steps away from the device. She would then wait exactly 5 seconds, and if her document was not in the output tray yet she would take a deep breath and then yell out at the top of her lungs:

“LUKE, THIS MOTHERFUCKING PRINTER IS BROKEN AGAIN!”

Then she would make some huffing sounds, and march back to her desk mumbling under her breath. Every single time I would get up from my desk, walk across the isle to the printer area to see if perhaps this time it was a jam, or perhaps some error message on the LCD. It never was though. Almost invariably, the printer would start spitting out pages around the time I reached it.

You have to keep in mind that Word usually takes a few seconds to prepare a large document for printing. Windows spooler service usually takes few seconds to place the file in queue, and then it takes some time for it to be transferred over the network. All of this adds up. Especially if the network is held together by duct-tape and good intentions, the way ours was.

So every week, I would watch her document print out, collect it and then bring it over to her desk. She would shoot me a big smile, and thank me for the help, acting as if she never emitted that blood curling angry screech that could have been heard two towns over. One minute she wanted me, and everyone else withing 10 feet of me summarily executed on the spot, next minute it was “Oh, thanks for fixing it! Good job.”

Recently I have met someone from that office. Apparently the Battlestar Galactica printer fleet is still there, and so is the Big Printer. Apparently the non-technology caste still rules the land, but they all have laptops on their desks now. They hardly ever use them, but at least they are no longer frightened by them. So far only one of them claims that Excel devoured his soul after pressing the wrong key. And the crazy lady still yells at Luke every time she tries to print something, even though no Luke has been working there for years. The guy who “fixes” the printer for her these days is Dhaval, but apparently she never noticed.

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3 Responses to The Big Printer

  1. nitro2k01 SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Mac OS Terminalist says:

    I somehow get the feeling this was a law firm…

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  2. StDoodle UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Wait, you like the “open” design concept? I’ve been putting a lot of thought lately into getting more cubical walls for myself at work. I can’t stand having other people watching me over my shoulder.

    Also, as a CAD-monkey, you don’t even want to get me started on printers… ;)

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ nitro2k01:

    I will take the fifth on that in order to protect the guilty and/or innocent. :)

    @ StDoodle:

    No, not really. I don’t actually mind cubicles. But I’m an antisocial introvert so I figured that if I hate it, then extroverts must probably like it or something. :P

    I actually mentioned this to illustrate how quickly and utterly the vision of the founders was pounded into the ground. It was something they liked, and designed their office for. When I arrived, a haphazard array of un-wired cubes was already in place, so I never really experienced the open plan layout they started with. I heard stories about it though – and how awesome it used to be (supposedly).

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