Live from Cincinnati

It’s been a long day.

It all started about a week ago. One of our clients, whom I’m afraid I cannot mention, had a problem with the website we developed for them. Actually, it wasn’t the client so much as it was our so-called partner in crime.

Critical Mass typically designs the front-end — all the pretty pictures and clicky things — of a website. Typically, someone else does the back-end — all the junk that deals with the ecommerce and database. This isn’t our idea — it’s usually the client’s. We don’t much cotton to that process; it lends to more problems than it’s worth. That’s how I ended up here in Cincinnati.

We provided one of our stunning works of art to the client, who then turned it over to the backend developers (whom, again, I cannot mention). The firm is large, and we assumed technically savvy. We should know better.

They fubared the site. Lemme back up — they tried to merge our site with their backend, and then claimed that our “monkey shit JavaScript” didn’t work. That’s a load of bally-hoo — we wouldn’t have shipped it if it didn’t work. Then we got the email that drove most of us in Web Development off the deep end…

We develop our sites with the most recent developments in HTML, including JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). One of our favourite tricks is to build everything in “layers” — small pieces we can stack on top of each other. It makes the site very flexible. This technique is what was causing the backend consultants grief.

The backend (using a system called Dynamo) wasn’t working with our layers (specifically, a tag called a “DIV”). So they decided that we could no longer develop using DIV tags, and had to build everything with tables. Uhhhhh, no.

We thought this was a load of crock from the moment we first heard it. We knew that our code was solid — we’d built several sites using Dynamo and DIVs, and never had a problem. So we told them that. They didn’t exactly listen. I wrote up a small quasi-manifesto (with some contributions from Adile, my partner in crime in my first project at Critical Mass). I figure that’s how I ended up here.

On Friday, just after lunch, Nancy (the account manager for this particular client) drew me aside and asked if I would go to Cincinnati and clear this mess up. Big responsibility. No, I wasn’t the best choice — there are others in the company who were far better suited to this problem — but I was the best choice of the available people.

Simply put, there were about five people Nancy would have sent. Two were far too tied up on projects to pull off. One was, well, we were worried that they would back down and give into the consultant’s demands to convert the entire site to tables. Another would have been ideal, but would probably get into too many arguments to be truly effective. That left me. Being between projects, and having some experience with Dynamo and DIVs, I got fingered to go.

This morning, I was running around like a madman, trying to tie up as many loose ends as possible. The flight still hadn’t been booked (nor the hotel), I hadn’t packed (owing to a lack of a suitably-sized duffel bag), I needed to set up email forwarding, get files copied to the laptop (which had only just returned from Cincinnati), I had to square away rent (just in case I don’t get back before the beginning of the month), and I had to pay a couple of bills. All that before 11:00.

I left at 11:40 for the airport. The flight was at 2:05 on Northwest Airlines. I would fly from Calgary to Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I’d catch a connecting flight to Cincinnati. (Oh the joys of the airline hub.) I arrived at Calgary airport in sufficient time to check-in and get lunch.

I’ve never flown Northwest before. I don’t like American airlines in general, and I wasn’t too keen on having to take one. But when given no choice, you take what you’re given. That’s why when I found out that my ticket automatically upgraded me to First Class, I didn’t refuse.

I didn’t check any bags — I prefer not to, just so I don’t have to deal with baggage pick-up at the other end. Customs was fun. The game was “Let’s See If We Can Freak Geoff Out”. The questions came fast and hard, and I responded just as quickly. Then I goofed. When asked for the duration of my stay, I said I hoped to return on Sunday. “Hoped.” Bad choice of word. This brought up a whole issue of why I wouldn’t be coming back on Sunday. That escalated into the purpose of my visit, and what exactly was I doing there. I figured it would snowball into “Why can’t an American do this?” — luckily, it didn’t.

The flight was late, by about 30 minutes or so. Soon we were called, and I walked down the gangway to our DC-9. I can’t tell you the last time I’d flown in a DC-9, only that it’s been a very long time. I had 3C, and the adjoining 3A, all to myself. Wow. Big seats. Nice service. Free booze. Too bad I’m trying not to drink (I get dehydrated enough as it is on planes without having alcohol).

It was about three hours to Minneapolis. During the time, we were served lunch — a chicken sandwich. But in First Class, the sandwich is nice and hot, with yummy cheese and grilled peppers. It comes with a nice little salad, and an Italian rolled ice cream ball.

I like First Class.

You also get a GLASS glass for your drink, instead of some goofy plastic cup. It really does make a difference.

We arrived in Minneapolis around 5:45pm (local time). I was supposed to go to Gate 7, where I’d catch my connecting flight at 7:00. So of course, we came in at Gate 64. Figures. I hiked across the airport (and boy, is it a big airport), and found my way to Gate 7. There, I plunked myself down, and continued to teach myself Dynamo. (Not having a manual makes it kinda hard.)

Around 6:30, I began to wonder why Gate 7 didn’t have any sign up for my flight. Gate 8, which was leaving for Green Bay at 7:15, had its sign up before I got there. I started to wonder. So I asked.

Attendant: “Yeah, your flight is leaving from Gate Sev… er, they’ve moved it.”

Me: “Where to?” (I already knew the answer. Murphy was standing right behind me.)

Attendant: “Gate 82.”

I’ll tell you one thing — I’m glad that I started working out (although I’ve been a little lax in the past week or two). By the time I got to Gate 82, I was winded. Of course, I was hiking at a serious pace to get there on time.

Flight 8530 was being operated by Mesaba Airlines. I haven’t heard of ’em, either. Frankly, that worried me, too. But as it turns out, they just operate Northwest’s regional flights. Supposedly, Cincinnati is regional from Minneapolis.

We flew an RJ-45, er, 85 (sorry, techie joke there). I’ve never heard of an RJ-85, I don’t even know who built the silly thing. It looks kind of like a cross between a Harrier Jumpjet and a 747. Very strange. Holds about 69 people. Flies like a kite — sways all over the bloody place.

The meal was another sandwich — turkey, this time. No ice cream, though. We got a gourmet cookie instead. Whee. This time I had a rowmate, a guy from Cisco Systems. We engaged in hearty conversation in the last 20 minutes or so of the flight, recounting our views of Digital Equipment, and how we realized that they were doomed long before Compaq bought ’em out.

I’d forgotten how humid it gets out here (in the East, that is). Calgary is dry — it’s like walking through a lake out here (comparatively speaking, of course). I sweltered the entire way downtown to the Omni Netherlands.

Nathan, who’d only recently returned to Calgary from here, complained that the Omni’s rooms were “small”. I could easily hold a small concert in my room. I hate to know what he thinks “big” is.

Well, I’m off to bed now. I’ve got a long day tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that. It’s going to be a long week…