Silicon Follies

Chapter 53: Paul flames out; Liz and Laurel cash in.


Thomas Scoville
September 15, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Sept. 15, 1999

#include

void main { 
 assert(despair); 
 drop(straw, camels_back); 
 return NULL; 
 exit; 
}

Paul didn't sleep well that night. The specter of Contractor Jim haunted him like some geeky Silicon Valley parody of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be.

He dragged himself stoically into work the next day, tired, bleary-eyed and determinedly refocused on an array of slipping project deadlines. Not to be derailed, he had put the previous night's apparition out of his mind; Paul always kept his denial close at hand, a ready fallback position for those pesky ambushes by jack-in-the-box doubts.

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But ordinary, run-of-the-mill denial could not stand up to Paul's new, industrial-strength misgivings. Especially not after what would happen today.

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His manager had called an emergency project meeting. It seemed the new Microsoft partnership came with strings attached: They had submitted their own wish list of features to be rolled into WHIP.

At first Paul and his project team tried to play it cool, but the tenor soon rose to panic when it became clear that Microsoft's requirements would bring a new dimension of chaos to the already hellish swamp of bugs, defects and spongy design from which they were only beginning to emerge.

Software engineering was hard enough even when the specs weren't constantly changing beneath you; coding to an ever-expanding list of requirements asymptotically approached impossible, and was an excellent recipe for complete mental breakdown to boot. It was frustrating and stupid, like trying to shoot jackrabbits with a howitzer: Taking aim took a lot of energy; it was good policy to establish stationary targets.

The prospect of accommodating yet another of management's redirections filled Paul with a crashing despair. Of course he'd been in this position before; even veteran programmers are often overwhelmed by the complexities of tangled code and creeping, unmanageable designs. But it had never gone so hard with him before today. He felt like he'd rather be anywhere else than here, in his cubicle, in the inner sanctum of Whip Technologies Inc.

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Paul took a deep breath and recited the contractor's mantras: "Bill by the hour. Worry one day at a time. Concentrate on issues inside your sphere of control."

All to no avail. Today was Paul's day to plunge into the pit of terminal digital hopelessness. He hastily typed an e-mail to his PM:


To: jsacerdoti@whip.com

From: parmstrong@whip.com

Subject: Flamed out

Boss-man,

I'm declaring myself officially fried. Because if anybody revises the spec one more time, I'm going to go completely postal. No offense, but this Microsoft thing is going to sink you, IMHO. Just remember Java. That's the Redmond way, right? Obfuscate and conquer.

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So in the interest of public safety and the greater glory of Whip Technologies, I'm terminating my contract.

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Guerrilla Gourmet's client du jour, "Beanietech," consisted of a number of college-age males who had improbably succeeded in persuading some hapless investment bankers to sink millions of dollars into a network of Beanie Baby auction sites. Venture capital was really scraping the bottom of the barrel these days, apparently.

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Never mind that there were already a dozen other players in the very same game. Beanietech's competitive edge -- as the coltish, fresh-faced founders eagerly and simultaneously explained to Vero -- was that their Web site featured streaming audio. That, they explained, would make all the difference. It would be huge, bigger than Yahoo.

After six months of Silicon Valley catering jobs, Vero had heard it all before. "You mean, these 'Beanie Babies' can talk to you?" she had asked innocently, then winked at the girls as the nerdlings earnestly launched into their marketing spiel. She had made a thorough study of the collective psyche of the young male infopreneur, and she knew how to push all the buttons.

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Later, after the Brahmins of Beanietech retreated to their workstations and the women of Guerrilla Gourmet packed up, Vero made a surprising announcement.

"I am tired of the land of go-go," she said, out of the blue. "I'm thinking of going back to the Continent."

Liz put down her stack of platters, punctuating Vero's declaration with a thump. "Really?" she asked, a little hurt. "You don't like us ugly Americans anymore?"

Laurel's reaction was at once less emotional and more practical. "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, Vero. Can you give us a little lead time to find alternate employment? There's this little matter of rent ..."

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But Liz, ever the humanist, derailed the economics and went straight to the underlying motivation. "Vero, why the sudden change of heart? What's made you homesick?"

Vero gave her a curious look, midway between sad and sheepish. "I'm thinking that this place -- this Silicon Valley -- is too strange for me. I'm not sure I will ever get used to it."

"How is it strange to you?" Liz prodded, beginning to suspect a strong case of transcultural vertigo.

"This place is all about money," Vero began to explain, "and this give me a kind of -- ennui. Back in France, we do not care so dearly about it. Other things are as important: family, culture, eating, mealtime.

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"Here the money makes people blind in a way. This makes me sad, and I'm tired of always struggling against it. Like these people here -- these 'Beanie-techies,'" she said, rolling her eyes a little ironically, "they might even become wealthy, but for what? Because here you lose your happiness, your appreciation of life.

"Besides, sometimes life gives you a little hint, you know?" Vero gave them both a mischievous look. "A miracle, almost. A sign from above. Yesterday -- I think life is telling me to go."

Liz and Laurel looked at each other, puzzled, then Laurel turned skeptically to Vero. "Exactly what kind of divine intervention are we talking about here?"

"Network Synergy Solutions!" She laughed with uncharacteristic lightness.

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"They finally paid their bills?" Laurel asked, unimpressed.

"Well, yes -- or no. Anyway, I cannot take credit. You did it. Tuesday."

"I did not," Laurel countered. "I barely got out of bed Tuesday."

"Ah, but you are the one to tell me when they were swallowed up by some big company, and so maybe their worthless stock is not so worthless after all."

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Laurel's eyes grew wide. "You're kidding."

"No, no, really," Vero said seriously. "It is so confusing. I don't understand this place -- big money appears out of nowhere, and then disappears into nowhere -- anyway, I go downtown, to a stockbroker on University Avenue. He says yes, he will pay market price, less transaction fee.

"At first I think it is a mistake. But, then he says no. He gives me a check for $188,407." She looked at them smartly. "Oh -- and 52 cents. Au bon marchi, you think?"

Liz and Laurel gasped simultaneously.

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"I know, I know. It's crazy, you think? Pretty good for fixing a few lunches. A hundred times what they owed."

Then, Vero took a more philosophical turn. "I am thinking, this is nice. I like the money. But it does not make me so happy that I want to stay. There is more to life than the marketplace. Maybe you Americans can learn that sometime." She tossed her bob, a blond Louise Brooks. "But for now, let's do the American thing, and 'get down to business.'" She produced two envelopes, one for Liz, one for Laurel, on which each of their names were written in Vero's florid continental penmanship.

They contained checks for $62,802.51. Vero, a true European social democrat, had done the most un-American thing possible: She had shared the wealth.


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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