Death of an office

I found out about this a bit ago, but my old Samsung office was bulldozed and replaced recently, which is strangely nostalgic. I took an electronics class last year with a guy who worked at the architecture firm that did the new building, and heard all about the grand scrape and replacement.

I started working there in the fall of 2008, when Silicon Valley was very different. It was only a few years ago, but it was after the crash, and nobody was hiring. Traffic has nearly doubled in the last five years, and this was before that boom started. I was living in LA when I got hired at Samsung — I’d been spamming out resumes for months, and it was one of the few pings I hit. Tech writers are usually last in/first out, so it wasn’t easy landing something then. But I did, and I moved to South San Francisco, and started the 101 commute every day to San Jose.

Prior to moving here, I had specific mental images of Silicon Valley, mostly formed by living far away from it, romanticizing the idea of working in the heart of the technology world. Twenty years before, I idolized these Bay Area companies like Apple and Sun and NeXT and Silicon Graphics, and thought about what it would have been like to work in one of those office parks in Palo Alto or Mountain View. And I’d been in the Bay Area twice for work related things, once in 1996, and again in 2006. Both times, I remember driving on the 101 and seeing the big headquarters of these tech giants and wondering what it must be like in those buildings, hacking code or plugging wires into servers in an air-conditioned machine room.

When you spend time in San Jose, you see the obvious new construction, the giant glass and steel buildings that have popped up everywhere. It seems like half of them belong to Cisco, and the other half belong to companies you’ve never even heard of. Because a company like Fujitsu might make the hard drive, but a dozen other companies made the little pieces or sensors or wrote the patents for the storage technology. I eventually learned a little more about these companies, either because I had coworkers who came from them, or because everyone had this ubiquitous cartoon map of Silicon Valley with icons of every big tech firm on it.

What fascinated me more was the layer under that layer, the old San Jose, the scraps and remains of the city from the Seventies and earlier. You’d occasionally see little bits of it peeking through: a Chinese restaurant that never remodeled; an apartment building that never got gentrified into condos; a back side of a building that never got repainted. I had a strange nostalgia for this era I never saw, like when Atari was still king and still had factories in Sunnyvale cranking out 2600 consoles. Or there used to be plenty of computer stores, back when people wire-wrapped and hand-built their 8-bit machines from bare chips and boards. I’d see vestigial pieces of that, like when I’d go to Fry’s Electronics and see more than just shrink-wrapped Dell Laptops for sale.

So Samsung, or at least the division I worked for, was in this series of brick buildings on First and Tasman that looked like every generic two-story medical office building built in 1974 you’d find in a Chicagoland suburb. There were three near-identical buildings: a big one with a lunch room, conference areas, and a reception hall full of display cases of new technology Samsung invented or whatever. Then there were two other buildings, totally identical, of just offices. I worked in one of those.

My building was shot. It looked like this old Seventies Silicon Valley, with wood trim and bright red brick and a vibe that screamed 1978. And I don’t think anything had been updated since then. No two acoustic ceiling tiles were the same shade of yellow, and the desks looked like they had been hauled out of a storage facility from the Mad Men era. I later found that management of the various Samsung labs took great pride in how little they spent per employee, each one trying to get as low of a per-seat investment as possible to maximize profits.

I basically lived in that office for the year and a half I worked there. I’d go in early to beat the traffic, and often end up stuck at my desk until well after dinner, or later. I was close to the dozen or so people on my team, because we went to war together. We ate every meal together, went to endless meetings, worked on our projects for hundreds and thousands of hours, and spent forever in that dreary, fluorescent-lit cube farm.

And then I left. I got another job, which I wrote about here a long time ago. Then I started working from home, and never spent any time on the peninsula or in the South Bay anymore. And I didn’t think much about that place until I’d heard about it being demolished.

The new building is very typical — I feel like Samsung saw the new Apple spaceship campus going up, and said “Oh yeah? Well, check this shit out…” and threw together their own monstrosity of a headquarters. It’s supposed to be a hip new open-concept thing, and it looks like an East German propaganda headquarters. The building takes up every square inch of the footprint of the old place. I always think of SV campuses as having a laid-back look with landscaping and thick green lawns and big parking lots and trees, then the building, a hundred or two feet from the road. But this is like inches from the sidewalk. And the last thing you’d want there is an open plan, because everyone spends all day screaming in Korean on their speaker phones.

And it’s weird, but some of the strongest memories I have of that place are pacing around that parking lot on my cell phone. I could never take calls at my desk, so any time anything important happened, I went downstairs and walked around the lot with my phone in hand. Like I remember talking to my dad when my uncle Mike died, and I have vivid memories of that conversation, walking back and forth among the sea of identical Hyundai cars. I also remember sneaking out to have phone interviews with other companies when I was planning my escape. The parking lot is now gone, but every other building on the street has the old layout, which makes the new building look even more strange.

I was also talking to a coworker about the fate of our team. We worked on a developer program for a phone OS that does not exist anymore. The site is gone, the team is gone, and every trace of every thing we shipped has vanished from the web. I don’t think anything of consequence was ever developed from our SDK. The entire division is technically gone, since Samsung Telecommunications America merged into Samsung Electronics America. Ultimately, this happens with everything in life. But it happened so fast here, and that’s par for the course.

Above all, I’m mad I didn’t find out about the demolition. I would have loved to take a few swings at that place with a sledge hammer. Oh well.

Share