Silicon Follies

Chapter 13: Executive pep talk -- managing for total chaos.

Published April 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Despite her apprehension, Liz had been disarmed by Paul's easy manner and sympathetic personality. Editing his white papers had also proved without hazard; he had a firm grasp of the written word and good instincts for creating organized, coherent documents. They hadn't required much work, which was a welcome change.

His professional demeanor was out of the ordinary, as well. Though he had the same pride and attention to detail as did other engineers, he didn't seem as highly invested in being an expert, or in being right all the time. In particular, he seemed to be aware of -- and to actually welcome -- Liz's point of view. Finding such cooperation in an engineer was a minor miracle in itself.

And he seemed to care about words. His mechanics were solid -- he actually diagrammed one of his sentences for clarification -- and he gave an unusual degree of consideration to tone. He was a chimera: a literate techie.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Which was why Liz was not unhappy to find both she and Paul had arrived a few minutes early for Barry's weekly WHIP status meeting. They took chairs across from each other at the conference room's long table. Liz took the opportunity to express her gratitude for Paul's work:

"I can't tell you how much of a pleasure it was to edit your writing," she commented. "It was all pretty clear and balanced. Well thought-out, and really gets the WHIP vision across without getting overly wrapped up in detail. Moved nicely, too."

"Thanks, but don't let it get around," he said with a grin. "It'll hurt my credibility with the guys in the lab."

"Don't worry," Liz assured him with a smile. "Your secret's safe with me. You do seem a little out of place, though."

"Well, I wasn't always a nerd. I started out as a liberal-arts type in college -- though I've aggressively concealed this on my risumi. Hiring managers don't like it. Non-technical outside interests. Bad sign."

Liz's curiosity was provoked. "What did you study?"

"Journalism, mostly. Dalliances with English lit, creative writing, philosophy. It was all a cover for my naive dream of becoming a novelist and winning a National Book Award. Silly me."

"Not silly. I'm impressed."

Paul began to feel a little self-conscious. "But enough about me," he deflected. Then, continuing with a theatrically self-important grin, "What do you think of me?"

"Oscar Wilde. I love that line."

"Me too. I wish I'd said it."

"Oh, you will, Paul, you will."

He blushed a little, and twinkled.

Liz twinkled back. And, despite her weeks of adverse conditioning to engineers, she found herself being ever so slightly intrigued.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The usual crowd began to gather in the conference room. Paul and Liz retreated from their conversation and concentrated on meeting points and Filofaxes.

Barry was the last to enter, carrying a laser pointer in one hand and a palm computer in the other. Usually he sat down for a minute or two and traded a few shots with his lieutenants, but on this particular morning he burned with righteous fire. He jumped up to the head of the room and began scribbling on the white board: "WHIP Management Objectives," in red and double underlined.

"Good morning," Barry intoned, with a gravity Liz found immediately suspect. "I've been doing some strategic planning for our project directives, with the benefit of some outside perspectives." He dropped the name of a well-known, flamboyant management guru who was currently inhabiting a slot on the New York Times' nonfiction bestseller list.

The room's attention sharpened. Barry paused dramatically, and embarked on a rambling diatribe about the "new economy" and WHIP's role in its vanguard.

"I expect the WHIP project team to embody the values of the new organization: provide value, embrace the radical technology edge, exist in a state of continuous innovation, and manage for historical change. Tera is a market leader, and we're changing the paradigm for the new economy. We're a matrix organization, and the matrix organization is results-oriented. It depends on trust, communications and teamwork -- there's no 'I' in 'team' -- and giving 110 percent."

It was clear Barry had made a recent trip to the well of corporate inspiration, as he did from time to time. Barry's pleasure in bingeing on the latest management hype was exceeded only by the pleasure he took in disgorging it upon the troops. Amazingly, Liz noted, everyone seemed to enjoy it.

Everyone but her. The tortured language, trendy catch-phrases and pointless neologisms always made her cringe. But today Barry was filled with the Holy Spirit; sitting through this meeting was going to be torture.

Barry wrote the phrase "Thriving on Chaos" on the white board -- this time in blue, circled several times -- and turned back to his enraptured audience. Liz braced for another fusillade.

"Our spontaneous organic coordination will allow us to create cross-functional teams to implement our vertical integration with the leading edge of cross-networked, knowledge-based enterprise. Thriving on excellence is our core quality -- we're managing for total chaos."

Barry beamed triumphantly. Liz felt like screaming. She bit her lip as a precaution.

From across the table came a barely audible sigh. Searching for its source, she saw Paul Armstrong, elbow on the table, chin on palm. She passed him a tentative, furtive glance. Discreetly he looked back, and momentarily crossed his eyes, a covert expression of exasperation.

Liz experienced a sudden sensation of relief; she wasn't alone. At least one other person was choking on Barry's smoke. Paul had vindicated her with a single exhalation.

She was starting to like him.

By Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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