Silicon Follies

Chapter 49: Layoff -- Candy gets taken out with the trash


Thomas Scoville
September 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Sept. 1, 1999

Microsoft, Whip Technologies announce partnership

Microsoft and Whip Technologies have signed a statement of intent for a partnership valued at $780 million based on Microsoft's closing price of 102 1/4 a share Wednesday.

The partnership has the potential to create a contiguous end-to-end Internet and e-commerce cross-company product spectrum combining back-end transaction platforms with front-end portals and information appliances.

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Building on its new E-services mantra, Microsoft on Tuesday unveiled an E-speak technology that enables creation, deployment and connection of E-services that will interact with each other spontaneously. In essence, the technology could serve as the universal tongue of networked communications. Whip Technologies' Wireless High-density Internet Protocol (WHIP) is the logical foundation for those services, Microsoft executives assert.

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As TeraMemory's wizards of finance had predicted, the announcement had halted the slide in stock price. With the mere proposition of this unholy conjunction, they had managed to shore up the eroding confidence of the investing public.

It would take a few weeks for the board to negotiate the details of the Whip/Microsoft partnership. They'd have to move it along aggressively; any backtracking or second thoughts would not be received kindly by the market.

In the meantime, Barry was going to do anything and everything in his power to thwart the deal. He would sooner tee up his own testicles than buddy up to Bill.

Regaining his power of veto -- and his pride -- would only be possible by recapturing his controlling interest in Whip Technologies Inc. And the only way to do that was to engineer a sharp rise in TeraMemory's stock price to previous highs. To that end, everything -- and everyone -- was expendable. Barry wouldn't hesitate to tread on any obstacle in the way. His own people would be his first stepping stone.

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None of the employees of TeraMemory Inc. would ever know the true motivating force behind the sudden slash and burn. To them, it would look like any other layoff in the valley: bad quarterly reports, declining profit and loss statements, management's pledge to regain competitive edge, a return to profitability, blah, blah, blah.

The cycle of dissimulation would begin in the usual way: with management congratulating itself on its stealth and discretion. Their plans were perfectly concealed. No employee would know, the executives assured themselves, until the morning the pink slips flew. Until then, industry would continue within nominal specs.

Of course, they would only be fooling themselves. There is always a kind of corporate telepathy that precedes a layoff. The very moment the bean-counters seized upon the idea of a reduction in staff, a mysterious tremor would radiate. People just know.

The rumors would begin to circulate instantly. Lower management -- project leaders, section managers and such -- would immediately clam up, communicating only with each other, and only in furtive whispers. This would only accelerate the speed of hearsay. And as the higher-ups would become more circumspect, so the writing on the wall would become bolder.

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Then would come The Fear. Nervous, hunted looks would be surreptitiously swapped at staff meetings. Productivity would decline as reams of risumis scrolled discreetly from copiers and laser printers, their owners anxiously standing at the ready to whisk them into manila folders milliseconds after the toner had set. A generalized air of panic and corporate introversion would settle in. Cryptic oaths and gallows aphorisms would appear -- mysteriously unattributed -- on conference room white boards.

As always, it was the people at the bottom of the food chain who were the least discreet; the grunts were the only ones to grumble openly. And for good reason: They had the most to lose. Although they were the least well-paid, they lived closest to the edge. And management's swift sword always seemed to cut from the bottom up. By the time the rumors had filtered down to the mailroom -- and for all the hype about ubiquitous electronic communication and paperless offices, Silicon Valley info behemoths still maintained large, healthy mailrooms -- the covert anxiety had thoroughly saturated the organization. Of course it would manifest itself through the channel of least resistance.

The blade swung and the deadwood tumbled. A series of tearful vignettes in coffee lounges and parking lots followed, as if the newly unincorporated staff were being exiled from their own families.

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This transposition of family and company was an understandable mistake; when you spent most of your waking hours with your project team, and your family -- if you even had one, in the land of the unattached male -- became strangers, it was easy to misplace your affections. Of course, management encouraged this confusion with its rhetoric of corporate paternity and its declaration of the kind of loyalty otherwise reserved for blood relations.

But they were all mistaken. This wasn't a family. This was a business. Management's commitment -- however sincerely pledged -- didn't extend past the balance sheet.

That it all happened in Web time didn't make it any easier; in fact, it made it kind of surreal. One moment, you were a member of a "dynamic, cutting-edge team of dedicated professionals," with milestones, meetings, project plans and goals. The next, after a perfunctory homily from the CEO (always about sacrifice and "new beginnings") and a pat on the fanny from HR, you were a faceless non-entity with a fresh risumi and a voucher for a national career placement firm.

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But, hey -- this was Silicon Valley; of course we'd all find another job, and soon. But it was the vertigo, the dissonance: If we'd really spent the last 18 months of our careers changing the world, then why did we suddenly feel so much like a copy of last year's release, and one with a broken seal at that?

The essential people -- engineering's upper crust -- would never get cut, of course. The irony was, they'd leave anyway. Nothing telegraphs the impending death-spiral of a business like a layoff. And in the land where the cycle from Next Big Thing to yesterday's news was ever tightening, the engineering hot rods had become terrifyingly light on their feet. Every month a new, once-in-a-lifetime start-up opportunity rumbled through the valley, and they weren't about to be caught flat-footed, left behind and choking on the dust of yesterday's protocols.

They often wouldn't bother to announce their departure. A signing bonus, double salary and a fresh NDA would galvanize an exit in a way that left no room for reflection, conscience or goodbye. Never mind loyalty. Once the guru's True Believer spell was broken, loyalty became a hypothetical construct, an irrational number. Let the grunts and marketing bots go down with the ship. The senior engineers were off to chase alternate futures in parallel technical universes.

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One of the terminations seemed curiously misplaced: VP of Sales, Western region.

Candy Sawyer was strenuously wrestling a presentation out of PageMaker Pro when her assistant plunked the manila inter-office memo pack on her desk. Probably reassignments among the underlings in her region, she glossed.

Something about the way her assistant crept off gave Candy a curious feeling. She dropped the mouse and opened the envelope. A flash of pink complemented her "cherry vermilion" nail polish stunningly.

Today, all her hues would be leaning towards crimson. "That bastard," she shouted, more color-coordinated by the second. "I'm not being laid off. I'm getting dumped."

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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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