The While Condition

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“Do you have a minute”? I heard a voice ask, and I looked up from my desk to see Steve, the division staff scientist, standing in the doorway of my office.

“If you’re busy, I can come back, but I’d like to talk with you for a minute about this,” and he indicated some sheets of paper in his right hand.

“Sure, please come in”.

In my years with the company, I’d attended many of the same meetings as Steve, yet I couldn’t recall him visiting my office before. He placed the papers on my desk and sat back in the guest chair on the other side of my desk.

“The way you handled the timing conditions within the constraints of the current model is impressive. It’s somewhat like my initial idea for handling the issue, though I think your approach was even better.”

Uncertain of what he was referencing, I picked up the papers he’d placed on my desk and I tried to smile while I skipped past the company logo and title block to the line “Engineer:” My name was in the block though I hadn’t recalled ever seeing this piece of code.
“Oh”, I laughed slightly and sighed. “It looks like someone copied a header from one of my files, pasted it into this and forgot to change the engineer name”.

Steve looked somewhat bewildered and I reached over to my computer to pull up the file in source control. “Let’s see who checked this in and left my name in the header.”
I found the file checked into the core flight control algorithms, but I felt a sense of confusion when I saw my name in the electronic log, the only engineer to have touched the file, the only engineer claiming to have put thought, time and effort into its creation. Yet I couldn’t remember ever seeing, much less creating the contents.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized, “you see, I’ve been on medication, I thought you might have heard.” I felt my voice trailing off and my face turn red and I was sorry I had made any reference to my illness, something I promised myself I wouldn’t do at the office. I just wanted to live and keep doing my job normally, even though some days seemed lost in a fog.

Steve looked back at me with a sympathetic expression and as he rose from the guest chair, he told me he’d come back later.

I picked up the pages left by Steve and began to read through the lines of C, the good old standard for embedded software, and I recognized my style: the organization, the naming conventions, even down to the detailed comments, sometimes overly detailed for some of the other engineers in my division. The logic used to resolve the timing problem was clear and impressive.

But I kept coming back to the comment of the primary while condition: “There are only two possibilities: yes or no”.

While true, that was a strange comment, even for me. Why did I write that?

Minutes later, Steve returned with a second packet of printouts. As he handed me the packet, he pointed out “Look, I saved this from your review. You presented the design. I was there”.

I began to feel small pricks of sweat on the back of my neck as I flipped through the design packet. There were requirements, design, a plan for testing, even the sign-in sheet, converted to digital format, and at the very top of the page “IPT Lead”, there was my signature. The contents of the packet looked like my work, but it couldn’t possibly be my work. There is no way I forgot creating something like this.

“I am so sorry. I have been so busy, I guess I somehow forgot about the meeting.” I smiled while I shook my head and hoped I sounded convincing.

“Well, congratulations on this. It’s really some nice work.” As he stood up to leave my office he mentioned he would pass a positive word about my timing module to our director at their next meeting.

But I had lied. I had no recollection of design preparation, a review meeting or writing an arguably brilliant piece of software. The work looked like mine and felt like mine, but it wasn’t mine. I knew it wasn’t my work, yet it had to be my work. Was there any other possibility? For a moment, I could only stare at the strange comment above the primary while condition.

I shut my office door and could feel my heart pounding as I sat down at my computer and navigated to the division network. The design presentation was captured on the project drive, authored under my name.

The doctor had warned me that minor hair loss and mild nausea are to be expected while taking this dosage of chemotherapy. I had prepared myself for those things, but not the fog, the dulling of sensation where dazed minutes seemed to lapse into hours.

My hair is falling out at the temples and I found myself compulsively running my fingers through my hair again, revealing another wad that has pulled away from my scalp. I tossed it into the wastebasket with a shaking hand and I could feel hot tears of frustration building up in my eyes. I looked at a photograph on my desk from my last vacation: October, a simple landscape, a vacant pier reaching out into a North Sea inlet. I remembered the moment I took the picture, late afternoon, the sun shone warm and bright, contrasting against the dark, frigid water. I could see myself in the reflection in the glass covered frame.

I willed myself to get back to work and as I turned to face my computer, I glanced back at the picture one more time, and just for a second, I saw the reflection smile.

About the Author: 
Barbara Anderson is an embedded software developer. She lives in Indialantic, Florida.