The difference between work in the USA and former Yugoslavia
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 3 10:50:53 MDT 2001
[From newly released paperback version of "Gig," a collection of
first-hand testimonies about different jobs that is in the tradition
of Studs Terkel's "Working."]
You have to somehow translate real world into numbers.
I escaped from Sarajevo during die war. In Bosnia, my company did
software engineering and programming, and for two years we had joint
project with U.S. company. So when I came here, I started work of the
same type that I did before. With this profession. I was highly
It's amazing how computer is actually the same through all the world.
All people, all software engineers, use the same programs, the same
programming languages. Technically, there is no big difference
between working here and working in Bosnia or anywhere in the world.
All software is dictated by U.S. market and U.S. products. All
programming language words are from English. So there wasn't change
of work, although it was sad to leave Bosnia.
I am engineering software since 1984, I didn't intend to do this,
actually. I graduated with electrical engineering from the University
in Sarajevo and at that time computers weren't very widespread. In
1979, for the entire university, we had just one old computer with
sixteen kilobytes of memory. There was no other computer. [Laughs]
But when I took my thesis for graduation. I try to solve simple math
problem using computer and it all started with that. My first job was
in the Department for Mathematical Modeling and it was more
mathematics, but with development of software for computers, the
programming became bigger part of job. Soon, programming became my
whole job instead of mathematics.
Ninety percent of my career has been working with electric companies,
because of my original training as electrical engineer. It's really
important to have background in the area that you are working in.
Let's say you arc producing for chemical industry, you must
know-something about chemical process, chemical reactions, so you can
understand die problems. So for me, I studied power lines. I blow-how
electrical companies work. And I know abstract thinking, so I can
translate the real-life problems that the companies have into
That part--the abstract thinking-is the creative part of work.
Because you have to translate real world into numbers. For example.
in words you might ask: "It takes two hours to drive from A to B at a
speed of fifty miles per hour. So what's the distance from A to B?"
To put that in mathematics, you designate one variable as speed,
another as time, then you have to state that speed times driving time
is equal to distance, so you can calculate distance, speed, and
time-if you know the other two values. And this is how you model this
problem to solve it.
Now let's say you have to figure out an estimate for the next five
years how much power is going to be used in all of Minnesota, and how
it is going to be transmitted, which is something I'm working on
right now. You have to find the amount each plant will generate at
every point of time and how much energy will be transmitted through
electrical lines. You roughly plan how much production each plant
will have for five years. Then from the five-year period you
formulate one-year periods. Then one month periods, one week, one
hour, and me last step is from second to second. With each step you
get more precise. And to solve this kind of thing there is not just a
program that does it all for you. You use mathematical formulas to
arrive at the results, and you use computers, but you must first
formulate for yourself a good description of die real behavior of the
entire system. So for that it is not just mathematics. You have to
know how things really work.
It is hard to talk about this work. It is hard to do it, too. The
best tune to work is when it's quiet, from ten at night till two in
me morning. Because sometimes, well, [laughs] almost always, it's a
frustrating job. You know, it's easy to use finished product, like
computer games or Microsoft products, but the process to completing
software is very frustrating. It is sometimes even pretty easy to
write a program, but to make it so the users who will use the program
cannot do anything stupid or cause some problems you have to imagine
every single thing the user could do on keyboard. That part takes
almost all of time. And it is a very boring time.
Most days, what I am doing is actually looking at screens full of
numbers, trying to find what number is wrong. I am testing over and!
over again to find point where something is wrong. You can't hire
this out to somebody with less skills, because there is no way to
explain what you want. The average project lasts for three or five
years. It's very complicated, and there are only a few places in the
world that do this, so not many people understand, and it's much
harder to explain than to just do it by yourself. It's lots of
solving small mistakes, lots of complexity. It's okay, but it's hard.
I work many, many'; hours sometimes. For many weeks.
Sometimes I think about my work and my life in Bosnia and I have
double vision. From one point it looks terrible, from another, like
paradise, In Sarajevo, we worked forty hours per week, but was
included one hour for lunch, so it's thirty-five, really. And
actually | [laughs] first hour we spent drinking coffee and talking.
Then we worked for one or two hours. Then we got hungry and started
talking about lunch, where shall we go, what shall we have. And that
lasted for half hour. Then we go to lunch. After lunch we bought the
coffee, drink coffee and talk another hour and also work for, let's
say two hours. And after that everyone became tired and we start
talking about what we are planning for that evening. [Laughs] So,
actually we worked for four hours. Four hours working day was limit.
We got less done, definitely. And the reason that this was possible
was that pay was not earned--it was determined by politics. To buy
social stability the government paid workers even if the productivity
and results of work wasn't so great. It sounds crazy when I know what
the difference is here. But it was a nice life.
I also felt really secure there. I walked through die streets any
time day, night, and I didn't fear anything. It was smaller city and
we didn't have to drive car. Anything related to doctors and health
was absolutely free with no co-pay. Education was free. Retirement
was provided. Your company after several years bought the home for
you, so we didn't have mortgages. We had four weeks paid vacation and
there was, I don't know exactly how many holidays, but more than here
But the cost of everything was that it couldn't last. We were somehow
special position of Yugoslavia between NATO block and Russian block.
There was hell after everything stopped, and you know, when war
started, the price was very high. At the end it was really terrible
and a lot of people got killed and expelled. Now there art refugees
worldwide, sad part. It was happiest moment in my life to escape from
After six years in U.S., it looks unbelievable. We had a big party on
Fourth of July and there was thirty people or so and we are all happy
and party lasted from the morning till late at night. The American
Dream, I discuss it with my friends. Every one of us has been in the
U.S. very few years and everybody was somehow already well
positioned. We own homes, have cars. Somehow, even in a short period,
we succeed to have a decent life. Some started with low-pay job, but
succeeded to find the ladder. So American Dream is still alive. But
also big difference between life in Bosnia and in U.S. In Bosnia we
all live more closer to each other, we visit friends more often, we
have more close relations with family, with aunts, uncles, mothers,
fathers, than here. . ,-
When you work for ten or twelve hours a day, there is not much left
for real life, you know? There is talk about free markets, but
[laughs] somehow I think it is just for big companies, not for the
people that are working for them. You know, there is freedom to
change job from one company to another company. But there is no
freedom to get something real, like four weeks of vacation instead of
two. It is somehow self-understanding that you have to work more than
eight hours per day. A friend of mine, a younger person than I, just
finished university and is looking for first job. A good offer was
made but the situation was sixty to eighty hours per week working.
It's too much. There is no time to go see a movie, read a book, find
a wife or husband, raise a child. I used to read two or three books
per week in Bosnia, now if I finish one book in one month I am happy.
I really miss that part of my time. Now I don't even remember the
names of writers that I like.
Capitalism is without any doubt more efficient. It can generate you
know, wonderful products and everything else. The cars in America are
much better than cars in former Yugoslavia, the home are better. But
somehow the time spent working and buying ever thing--it takes too
much of life.
I keep comparing. I don't know how many people here know that
anything different could exist from their everyday experience. I have
friends, Americans here--they don't even know that they are missing
something. They think that happy hour every Friday somehow is the
highlight. In former Yugoslavia we had completely different
experience without capitalism. So to compare, it is two-sided
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 09/03/2001
Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org
More information about the Marxism