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A Ziff-trospective, Part III: Oakbrook Terrors

West of Chicago, there’s a spot where interstates 294, 290, and 88 all come together. Just west of that interchange, on I-88, is a toll plaza. If you look to the south as you’re driving by, you’ll see an extended-stay corporate hotel. And behind that hotel you’ll see a low, sprawling orange building with a glass canopy over the entrance.

If I were to estimate the amount of time I spent in that building…well, let’s do it now. I went to work there every day for almost four years. Call it 7500 normal working hours. Now add an extra 40 to 60 hours a month to account for deadlines, for around 44 months. Yeah, that’s about what I expected: ten thousand hours is a pretty fair estimate. To do that all at once you’d have to work for about 14 months straight. Without stopping to sleep.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. Some of my fondest memories happened in and around that building. I made some dear friends. I learned some important lessons. I met my wife during this time. I laughed a lot. I ate some really spectacular take-out.

But you stay in any place long enough, you’re gonna get a little crazy.

WELCOME TO THE FUTURE
Last time
I implied that the Lombard shenanigans didn’t stop with the move over to Oakbrook, and to a certain extent that’s true. But it’s also true that lots of things changed for the better. For example, I got a new computer. When I started at Ziff I was working on a Macintosh IIsi (OK, technically I was sharing a IIsi with Nelson Taruc), a machine that had already been discontinued for three years when I started using it. It had a blazing twenty-megahertz processor and a staggering one megabyte of RAM.

What it did not have was a CD drive. Or an Ethernet connection. Hey, I’m lucky it did color. So the new machine I got, which if memory serves was a PowerMac 6200, was a pretty big step up.

It was also right around that time — this is late 1998, remember — that we were allowed to use the Internet. This was a big plus because for the last year or so we had only inter-office e-mail — no Internet access whatsoever. And for my first year and a half or so we didn’t even have that. If you had something you needed to disseminate through the group you would print out a memo, walk around the office, and hand-deliver it to everybody.

Remember that this is the company that published PC Magazine, Computer Shopper, and about a bajillion other technology-focused magazines. Have we all meditated on the irony? Good.

Other things improved, too. The new office, having been custom-fitted for our use, boasted a few pretty sweet features. One was a full-time demo room, complete with 50-something-inch TV, surround sound, and tiered seating. Before this, game companies would demo games at whoever’s desk was available.

We got a tricked-out lunch room, with actual tables and chairs, and a refrigerated vending machine that I bought way too many Lunchables and microwave chicken sandwiches from. It had a solarium which led to a brick patio with picnic benches, where Gary Steinman and I would play chess and the smokers would congregate on warm summer deadline evenings.

We got a suite of arcade machines, from a new hybrid Blitz/Showtime machine to a pair of linked Hydro Thunder sit-down cabinets. (I believe I still had the high score on Ship Graveyard when we left that place.) We got a network, so we no longer had to tote SyQuest disks around the office on deadline. And we got swanky new cubes that, probably not coincidentally, could not be moved or otherwise resized.

And then we got an electric skateboard.

ZERO TO DISFIGURED IN HALF A SECOND
This was not the first wheeled transport we’d employed within the building. Earlier, as part of some questionable game tie-in, some company had sent over a bunch of Razor scooters. Since the office sprawled across a single level, these were actually legitimately useful as quick transportation; you could scoot over to the print area to grab proofs and then scoot back to your desk in record time. And if we occasionally built ramps to jump over people lying prone on the ground, or gathered up half a dozen scooter pilots to race laps around the building, well, who could blame us? What else did you expect us to do on deadline? Make magazines or something?

Anyway, at some point before the launch of the original Xbox, the guys at EGM went up to Microsoft to look at the system. The way I heard it told, someone in the Xbox division, someone fairly high up, if memory serves, used an electric skateboard to get around the Microsoft campus. And I guess the EGM guys were so obviously taken with this concept that as a gesture of appreciation Microsoft sent one over.

Now, understand that this was not a toy. This was a fairly massive device, probably about four feet long and heavy as all get-out — maybe 30 pounds or so. It was controlled by a handheld trigger device similar to those used to pilot high-end remote-controlled cars; stand on the board, squeeze the trigger, and the thing moves. Wait, let me change the emphasis there: Squeeze the trigger and the thing moves. It only did maybe 10 to 15 MPH or so — you could ride your bike faster — but it wasn’t about the speed, it was about the acceleration. See, this surprisingly heavy machine could hit top speed in about a fifth of a second.

Picture, if you will, standing perfectly still atop a fairly small device as it moves from a dead stop to 15 MPH forward in less than a second. It’s like having a rug yanked out from under you. By a motorcycle. Watching people try this thing out for the first time was like riding a candy cart down into a bottomless mine of amusement. Even if you were prepared for the controller’s sensitivity, it was very, very easy to squeeze the trigger hard enough to take your (or someone else’s) life into your hands. So for the first week or so that this thing was in the office, half the staff had bruised tailbones.

To everyone’s credit, up until this point we really had been doing a fine job of keeping the new office in good shape. I joked last time about whether a more professional environment makes people behave more professionally, but I do think it can. Working in that office, I think we all felt more like grownups and less like anarchic college students, and we were doing a pretty good job of keeping this place looking pretty nice.

But very quickly, marks and dents started showing up in walls. Tire marks started showing up in carpets. Cube walls near the open space in the EGM area — the space that was most often used to try out the skateboard — started to get a little wobbly from people running into them. We could have resisted, I suppose, but come on. It’s an electric skateboard. How do you not play with it?

Of course, I suppose we technically didn’t have to put Crispin in a football helmet and shoulderpads and ram him into the rows of metal chairs set up for a meeting. Maybe we didn’t really need to experiment with mounting chairs on the skateboard and tooling around the office in a recumbent position. I suppose it wasn’t strictly necessary to tow people around on wheeled office chairs. But, you know, you get a brilliant idea, you gotta try it out. If you don’t risk permanent disfigurement on an electric skateboard, you’ll never learn just how far your neck can bend without breaking, is what I always say.

Even so, one deadline evening things did get a little out of hand.

BLACKOUT IN THE RED ROOM
Toward the center of the office was a space we all called the Red Room. Picture the room in your office that has the copy machine and fax machine and office supplies, only lop off the walls at about six feet so the room opens to the industrial ceiling far above. Now stick it in the middle of a sea of beige cubicles and paint it blood red. I think someone thought it was stylish, but to me it always just seemed like an odd place to have to go to make copies.

Anyway, this room was one of the few places in our part of the office where The Suits could be relied upon to visit regularly. Normally they’d stick to Administrative Row and leave us to our videogames and scooter races, but everyone needs to make copies now and then. My point here is that there were places in the office where we could reasonably expect damage to go unnoticed by anyone who would care. This was not one of those places.

Which is why it caused such a stir when someone — someone who specifically requested I not name him here, so let’s call him Art — mounted the electric skateboard, yanked on the trigger, and fell on his ass while the metal beast smashed at pretty much full speed right into one of the corners of the Red Room.

In case I’ve not sufficiently related the power of this thing, I’ll describe the damage: horrific. The skateboard struck at just the right angle to tear the entire corner of the wall off like an overgenerous hunk of string cheese. The bottom three feet or so of the corner was demolished, down to the studs. You could peer into the interior of the wall. The skateboard had actually bent the metal in the stud.

Arty turned so pale I thought he might pass out. Here we were in this new-ish office, in a very central location, and he’d done some damage that contrasted very well with the bold colors of the walls. But then something interesting happened. Rather than abandoning poor Arty McArtguy to his likely fate of impending unemployment, the entire office (well, those of us who were there at that late hour) rallied around him. Plans were laid. Color samples were painstakingly assembled from the debris. A contingent was directed to head to Home Depot for a tub of spackle, some chicken wire, and paint.

Not long thereafter, we had assembled a work space around the blast zone. We molded chicken wire over the gaping hole. We slathered on spackle. We went and played Hydro Thunder for a couple hours while it dried. Then we painted.

It looked good. Not great, but good. The sharp edge of the corner had been restored, and it matched its mate on the other side of the wall. There was just one problem: We’d been in the office long enough that the walls had picked up a fairly significant and indelible coating of dust from the open ceilings. And here was this brand-new, blazing-red paint right on the corner everyone would walk by. It would be as obvious as a zit on prom night. So here’s what we did. I think this might have actually been my idea, and if so I’m pretty proud of myself: We took the remaining paint chips from the incident. We ground them up into a fairly fine powder. And then we blew the powder onto the wet paint. It instantly blended in with the older paint. Genius!

And how did we do? If you read the comments from my previous entry, you already know. Our receptionist Laura wrote, “I know about it…but never did find out where the repair was actually done.” Success!

LOOK NORTH, TURN LEFT
But all things must end. In June of 2002, I was getting ready to drive to Ohio for a week’s vacation with my girlfriend when I got an IM from my boss, John Davison. “I need you to be in the office on Tuesday,” he wrote. “For a meeting. It’s very important.” But he wouldn’t tell me why.

This was irregular. But John was not the type to make bizarre requests lightly. So I drove back from Ohio on a Tuesday morning and walked into an all-hands-on-deck meeting, where it was revealed that pretty much the whole damn office was being relocated to San Francisco.

San Francisco, the place I’ve wanted to live since I first visited at the age of 13. Sometimes things just have a way of coming together, you know?

But we’d be losing a lot. Many of our friends and colleagues couldn’t or wouldn’t make the move due to positions being eliminated, family obligations, and/or a simple desire not to leave the Midwest. We’d also be leaving behind the sprawling megaplex of office, which meant no more scooter races or electric skateboards or cavernous lunch room with en suite arcade.

Never again would I hear Stratty McStrategyguy try to impress the temp receptionist by talking about his run-ins with UFOs and his wrestling of alligators. Never again would Clueless Editorial Director Guy try to convince us that losing half the staff of EGM was like losing an arm, but that’s OK because “we’ll just grow another arm” (or, for that matter, call me into his office and give me such an odd talking to that I was convinced I was being fired, when in actuality I was getting a 15-percent raise). Never again would signs be posted warning of caustic urine disintigrating the walls in the bathroom; no more Hydro Thunder challenges would be issued; no more cowboy hats would be burnt out on the patio.cowboy_small

This was the trademark headwear of my first boss. He was…not a great boss.

But a new office awaited, in a new city. So one August day, my girlfriend and I squeezed ourself into her VW hatchback with our three cats and a bunch of suitcases, hit I-80, and drove west and west and west. A lot of really wonderful stuff was in front of us. In the next few years, we’d get married, I’d get promoted, we’d take many spectacular drives around the Bay Area. A lot of new faces would come through Ziff’s doors. And a lot of faces would leave — including mine. There was a lot to look forward to.

But damn do I wish I’d taken pictures of that skateboard crash.

Next time: Gambling and gluttony on the high seas, the Greatest Commute Ever, and the rise and fall of RadiOPM.


Comments

1

1: Jamison on March 10, 2009 at 5:33 pm


So, right as I was buying Metal Gear Solid for PS1 you finally had internet jacked into your office? SHOCKING!


2

2: c.bake on March 11, 2009 at 1:02 am


What a great read, Joe. Thanks for writing this! Definitely brought back some fond memories.


3

3: Laura on March 11, 2009 at 8:02 am


This was awesome Joe!
I couldn’t wait to read the part about the wall repair !
I’ve always wondered and you guys obviously did a great job because I never knew where it was … AND I LOOKED HARD :) Now I can rest in peace with this question finally answered. All I remember was finding the pile of supplies on my desk and then wondering what/where it was…and what kind of wrath there was gonna be. This was on the eve of a “town meeting” if I recall correctly. I was stuck between two worlds at Ziff…between you guys and “executive row” (as you put it) …felt like I had be “the Mom”….telling the kids the “rules from Dad” and then sometime trying to “protect the kids from Dad” :) Great memories !!


4

4: Laura on March 11, 2009 at 8:08 am


Does anyone remember the incident that broke the glass out of one of the pictures on “executive row”?
There were two pictures ( a set )..one had the glass broken out of it..then it was simply hung back up on the wall as if nothing had ever happened. I’ll never forget when it was spotted by a “higher up” (no names named). That person was livid and wanted to know what/who did it. No one ever fessed up. :)
I suspected chair races in the middle of the night..especially since there was a little slope in the hallway that would make for a nice little “hill”

OH, and regarding the electric skateboard…I have vivid memories of Crispin flying through the parking lot on that.

I do have some pics somewhere..If I find them,I’ll post them. Remember the fan who camped outside when we were moving …w/ a “Goodbye EGM” sign?


5

5: Joe Rybicki on March 11, 2009 at 4:22 pm


I know nothing about any broken glass. <.< >.>


6

6: pamela starr on March 14, 2009 at 3:36 pm


Enjoyed the story!


7

7: Shoe on March 17, 2009 at 11:47 pm


Awesome story. My favorite part:

“Remember that this is the company that published PC Magazine, Computer Shopper, and about a bajillion other technology-focused magazines. Have we all meditated on the irony? Good.”

My god…I never thought about it or made that connection. “Irony” is right….


8

8: Justin on March 30, 2009 at 12:46 am


I can only imagine the nostalgia you guys feel when you think about the old magazine. I used to read that thing cover to cover every month. I’ve never really gotten over the discontinuation of it, and hearing about stuff like this makes me smile.