For most of my ten or twelve weeks there, I manned a single station in a back corner of the clean room. People would wheel up boxes of wafers to me. I would pick them up with a pen-sized wand that ended in a vacuum tip to clamp the back of the wafers, and load them into a big domed contraption on a mechanical arm. Then I’d push the arm into a machine that looked a bit like an oven and disconnect the dome inside of the machine, and turn the machine on. The machine spent twenty minutes coating the wafers with a micro-thin layer of aluminum. While it did that, I’d unload a second dome that had already been through the “oven”, load the second dome so it’d be ready to go in, and wheel the processed wafers off to their next destination. It was important to be careful. If a wafer broke while it was in the machine, all the wafers inside it would get bits of the broken one on it and they’d all be ruined. If you forgot where you were in the cycle and accidentally ran the same wafers through the machine twice, they’d all be ruined. I don’t think I ever did those. I’m pretty sure I did break a wafer or two. That happened to everyone.
It was a very simple job. I remember it being at once tedious and soothing. I often had ten or twelve minutes between loading and unloading while the wafers were getting coated, and I’d entertain myself by drawing cartoons and writing bits of stories in blue pen (pens were allowed in the clean room) on wax paper sleeves (ordinary paper was not). Some times I didn’t want to draw or write, and I’d just sit, bored and waiting for the next dome to finish, for my shift to end.
For all that it was dull, in its way I really liked that job. I was making something. Yes, I was a tiny mindless cog in an enormous machine. No, I didn’t even know what the significance of my station was, why the particular micro-thin layer of aluminum that I put on the discs mattered or how this helped to turn them into computer chips. But I trusted that it did. Maybe it was tedious and easy and anyone could do it, but it was nonetheless important that somebody do it. It was part of the process that made computers. It mattered, in a concrete and measurable way.
For the last thirteen years, I’ve worked for a bank, doing what is technically referred to as Loan Stuff. I do not make loans. I do not produce the documentation for loans. I do not do filing and I do not process payments. I do Stuff.
I write reports, quite a bit. I am much better at my job than my predecessor was, and not quite good enough at it to do it well. It is surprisingly hard to do it well. Numbers are slippery things and they keep trying to elude me when I total them or categorize them. I check for errors in our system and I fix them. When a loan officer or a customer or another member of my department asks “Why did this happen?” I am the one who explains it.
If I think about it, this is important work too. I believe in the value of the banking system, of letting individuals and businesses lend the bank money (in the form of making deposits to checking, savings, and CD accounts) so that the bank can lend the money to individuals and businesses to buy homes and cars and expand operations. I believe in using money to make money, in lending people some capital so that they can get things that are useful to them in making or saving money so that they can pay you back. With interest. So that everyone is better off in the long run. And I am part of this large operation that does these things. I am the part that makes sure we are doing it correctly and in accordance with the agreed-to terms. I make sure our directors have complete and accurate information about what we’re doing. I help auditors and regulators understand the state of my bank. This is all as much a part of the process of putting capital to work as putting a micro-thin layer of aluminum over wafers is a part of the process of making computers. Except that my part in the process at the bank is far more complex and much less routine and automatable. Some times it’s even less tedious.
Yet sometimes I miss that summer manufacturing job. I miss making something real, and not just pushing pixels around to make something as intangible as an idea.