You could hear no breeze in the tops of the trees bordering the edge of this 5 acre plot. The only motion in the atmosphere around seemed to be the waves of heat rolling off of any exposed surface, distorting the visible edge of everything so that we seemed almost in a hazy dream land. My hands moved automatically performing one of several yearly adjustments on the grapevine in front of me; adjustments that were crucial to the quality of the harvest but right now seemed trivial compared to the travails of performing them. On an acre of vines planted this way there are exactly 545 vines; that meant that on this 5 acres my coworkers and I had to repeat this operation 2725 time in the blazing sun. After these 5 acres where done there where 50 more, or somewhere around 27250 more vines to go.
The vines were arranged in rows about 8 feet apart and at this point of the season meant that they formed a curtain of foliage about 6 feet high and effectively blocked you from seeing much else than the far off ends of the rows and the blazing sun above. Through this curtain of foliage in both directions I could here a persistent rustle mimicking the sound of my own work. Today the normally ubiquitous low hum of talk was absent; lost is the hot vapors that swirled around us. The grapes don’t develop properly without the proper sun exposure and air movement and so today I had led our team of 6 out into this field to make those adjustments.
We all reached the end of the rows around the same time and looked in vain for a little shade under the vines to sit in while we guzzled more water. Looks of exhaustion marked everyone’s sweaty, beet red faces. Looking behind me at the long line of row yet to go and then back at our group I was thankful for their determination to get to this point but wondering how we would meet the challenge ahead of us. We started making small talk and laughing together a bit. This was the summer where “Gangnam Style” was going viral and in jest one of the team started the song on his cell phone. There in the grassy area between the end of the rows and the edge of the woods and delirious from the heat and the absurd difficulty of it all, we broke out into an impromptu dance party while the tinny cellphone speaker belted out this unique specimen of k-pop. After this unexpected interlude and laughing heartily at each other and ourselves we met the challenge ahead of us and plunged into the next rows to begin again. The fate of that vintage and whether we met our quality goals are foggy in my memory, but what stuck with me was the bond that team formed in the crucible of these experiences. Those people and what we experienced will be vivid in my memory for much longer than the things that otherwise seemed so important at the time.
Now I work in software, but I see vestiges of these dynamics there as well. The crucible is not environmental (usually) but complicated technical challenges and lofty goals of other sorts. The importance of these human connections remains something that inspires me. To be honest, the feeling is not nearly as intense as when you are experiencing harsh physical challenges together as a team; that is indeed a special feeling reserved as a reward in proportion to the suffering incurred. But the patterns are there, and the impact that we will have on those around us is real.
Early in my career as a software engineer there were people who were willing to be there for me as I struggled to find my footing in a new industry. As I progressed in my understanding, there were people who were much more experienced and were willing to help me form my own insights and greater understanding. I feel like I am finally in a position where I feel reasonably confident as I continue to learn and face new challenges and in this new position it is a great joy now to be able to be that person that can help others in their own quests for understanding.
One tradition that I particularly relish is gathering around a table with our various brown bag lunches and talking about life. Not work talk, just being humans together. For better or worse, we are all going to leave marks on the lives of our coworkers. It seems to me the presence of these connections that come from being individuals that are brought together to work towards a common goal contribute in a large part both to our success as a team but also and perhaps more importantly they will leave lasting impression on us as people.
All the work that we are doing now will fade away. The grape vintage will be consumed, the difficult new addition to the app that is so critical today will be destroyed tomorrow. Even the team we are working with now will likely look different or cease to be at some point. The more enduring mark is not found in the product of the work that we are doing today, but in the marks we leave on the people around us and through them on the world around us while doing this work. I am inspired by those that have recognized this and left their mark on me; and in turn I am inspired to keep this awareness and think about what kind of marks I might be leaving on those around me.