Monday, June 30, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 22

Chapter 22

The insistent trilling dragged Stephen out of a deep, dreamless sleep.  It took several groggy moments before he identified its source as his cell phone.  He carefully cracked one gritty eye open and checked the clock beside his bed: 6:04 A.M.  His groping hand found the phone, which came up easily.  Apparently, he had forgotten to plug it in last night.  He swiped a finger across it and drew it to his ear.  "This had better be an emergency," he said by way of greeting.

"Mr. Connelly?" a grimly official voice queried.

Stephen sat up straight, wide awake now.  "Yes?" he answered carefully.

"Sorry to wake you, sir.  This is Bud Jenkins from United States Homeland Security, sir.  Do you know a man who goes by the name of," he paused as though reading from a form, "Ricardo Abdul Moshe William Gunther Fredric… um, this looks like some collection of consonants and a couple of clicking noises… Bremerton Nilsson-Martinez?"

Stephen paused while his still-drowsy brain processed the string of names.  Then the first and last names registered.  "Oh, you mean Ricky!  Yes, he works for me."  A horrible realization dawned on him.  "You said Homeland Security?  You’re not calling from the airport, are you?"

"Yes, sir, as a matter of fact we are.  Mr. Nilsson-Martinez arrived this morning on a flight from Denver and was detained for questioning.  He tried to pretend that he didn’t speak English for a while, but he gave that up when we offered to buy him breakfast in return for some cooperation.  He ate three whole omelets, sir, on your country’s tab," Bud added disapprovingly, as though he suspected this to be part of some free government breakfast scam.

"That certainly sounds like Ricky.  Can I ask why was he detained?"

"Suspicious behavior, sir.  He arrived wearing a burqa -- "

"Bisht," Stephen interjected.

"Excuse me, sir?"

It’s called a bisht," Stephen sighed tiredly.  "I told him not to wear it to the airport."

Bud’s voice was cold.  "I resent the implication that Homeland Security would target an individual based upon his style of dress, sir.  At any rate, he was wearing a bisht and acting confused.  He also kept tugging at his clothing and fiddling with his head covering, as though unfamiliar with how to wear it."  He paused for emphasis before saying, "As though it were a disguise.  He was immediately tagged by security agents within the terminal as a possible threat.  We followed him to baggage claim, where he picked up and discarded three identical black travel bags before settling on a fourth and attempting to leave the terminal with it.  At that point, our agents moved in and apprehended him for questioning."

"He sounds like an average jetlagged traveler to me, if an oddly dressed one.  What did you suspect him of doing?"

"That’s what they all want us to think, sir," Bud replied with a world-weary air.  "We suspected him of smuggling, acting as a scout for a terrorist team, or filming an exposé on alleged Transportation Security Administration abuses.  Regardless, we felt that it was prudent to detain him and determine his business in Los Angeles."

Bud paused again, and Stephen could tell that he had returned to reading his form.  "Once the suspect started talking, he told us that he was here in Los Angeles to work as a user interface developer for an online talent search application.  He told us that it was his job to, quote, ‘give them the glamour of Cindy Crawford before she had children.’  He added that Sergeant Dick would be angry if he was late and that his friends would have to do pushups.  He also said that he could see why Stu didn’t trust airport security, and asked us how much change we stole per day from the X-ray machines.  Frankly, Mr. Connelly, we found his story hard to credit and more than a little ridiculous.  He stood by it, though, and insisted that you could corroborate it."

Stephen shook his head.  Bud had just neatly summarized the past several months of his life, and he was right:  it was ridiculous.  "Sadly, Bud, it’s all true.  That’s what we’re working on, and you can watch for its debut during the Oscars if we ever finish it."

Bud grunted doubtfully.  "Well, sir, I’m afraid that I’ll need you to come down to the airport and sign some paperwork stating that you vouch for Mr. Nilsson-Martinez, and then we’ll release him into your custody."

Stephen sighed again and levered himself out of bed.  "I was afraid you were going to say that.  I’ll be there as soon as I can."

"Terminal 4, sir.  Just ask at the information desk and we’ll come and get you.  You wouldn’t be able to find our office on your own."

Stephen dressed quickly and rushed out the door, barely remembering to grab his room key and cell phone as he left.  While he waited impatiently in the hotel lobby for the valet to run through the soaking rain and retrieve his car, he called Jack.  "Ricky’s been arrested."

"Drugs?  I knew that would catch up with him eventually."

"What?  No!  He was detained by airport security.  They think he’s either a terrorist or a smuggler, or possibly a TV reporter."  Jack’s words finally registered in Stephen’s brain.  "Hey, why did you think it was drugs?"

"No one can be that messed up and that mellow at the same time without some sort of pharmaceutical aid," Jack replied.  "I was kidding, though.  Mostly.  What can I do to help?"

"Nothing right now.  I have to go down and fill out some paperwork.  It’s not clear to me how that proves that he’s not a terrorist, but as long as it gets him out I’ll take it."

"Watch your back, kid, and be polite," Jack growled.  "You don’t want those Homeland Security goons to get jumpy, and I don’t want to have to explain to Jenny why you were shipped off to an undisclosed location for several years."

"I’ll keep that in mind," Stephen said.  "Car’s here.  I’d better go."

"Give me a call when you have him."

"I will."  Stephen dropped the phone into his pocket, tipped the soggy valet, and jumped in his car, giving the convertible’s roof a wistful pat as he did so.  Will this rain ever stop?


45 minutes later, Stephen was only halfway to the airport and growing more tense by the moment.  The annoying thing about LA’s rush hour, he thought, leaning forward to rest his chin on the steering wheel as he inched forward through traffic, is that it goes in all directions.  Everyone seems to be going everywhere, all the time.  While he sat, he checked his voicemail.  No messages.  Next, he considered calling someone at the office to tell them that he would be late.  Checking the clock on the car’s dashboard, he realized that neither Frank nor Kelvin would be up yet, and since Stu had no phone in his apartment, that left Mark.  Stephen thumbed the speed dial for Mark’s cell phone.

"Hello?" a contralto woman’s voice answered.

Surprised, Stephen stammered, "Oh, sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number."

As he was hanging up, he heard the woman say, "No, that’s OK, St -- ."  Keeping one eye on the road, he double-checked the number and confirmed that it was Mark’s.  Hmm, maybe he changed phones.  At least it’s a Massachusetts number, so I probably didn’t wake anyone up.  As he looked, he noted that his battery was running low and he had rushed out of the room without his charger.  He turned the phone off and tossed it on the passenger seat.  He’d try Frank or Kelvin later, when he was sure they would be awake.

The traffic lightened momentarily near Marina Del Rey and Stephen dashed for the Sepulveda Boulevard exit to take the back route to the airport.  Fifteen minutes later, he screeched to a halt in front of Terminal 4.  He jumped out of the car and ran toward the terminal, only to be stopped by a police officer.

"You can’t leave your car there, buddy," the officer called, pointing a gloved hand at a sign that said, Active Passenger Loading Only.  No Standing.  He advanced on Stephen, apparently ready to herd him back to his car if he proved difficult.

"I’ll just be in there for a few minutes.  You see, one of my colleagues has been detained by security and they want me to come and sign him out."

The cop smiled grimly.  "You think that’s going to convince me to let you leave your vehicle parked in front of the terminal?  If you leave it there, I’ll have no choice but to assume that there’s a bomb inside it and have it towed out to a remote part of the airfield and detonated.  I would also have to shut down this part of the airport, inconveniencing tens of thousands of travelers because of your unwillingness to follow directions.  Now, you don’t want to cause that kind of fuss, do you?"

Stephen groaned and ran a hand through his hair, remembering again that he hadn’t showered yet.  "All right, all right," he conceded, "I’ll drive around to short-term parking.  I’m going to present my parking receipt to the security desk, though, and ask them to validate it."

"Good luck with that," the cop said, "and have a nice day, sir."

I’d have a much nicer day if I could get through it without having to deal with another cop or security officer, Stephen thought sourly as he leapt back into his car and pulled away from the curb.  Twenty minutes later, he ran into Terminal 4, looking around for the information desk.  He found it and announced himself to the woman behind the counter, who seemed unimpressed by the fact that he was there to retrieve a friend from Security.  Apparently, this was not exactly a rare occurrence.

"It usually takes them a while to get down here," she said, popping her gum as she spoke.  "Most people just sit down over there to wait.  You want a magazine or something?"

"No, thanks.  I’ll just stand."

She popped her gum again.  "Suit yourself."

Stephen waited anxiously, not comforted in the least by the woman’s matter-of-fact response to his situation.  He had a growing sense of anxiety about this morning and his chances of quickly and peacefully extracting Ricky from the clutches of Homeland Security.  What if they decide that I’m an accessory to whatever they imagine he’s doing and decide to keep me here for questioning? he thought.  Great, now I’m nervous.  They’ll pick up on that right away.  It’s what they’re trained to do, right?  They’re definitely going to think something’s fishy.  I might as well just put on the orange jumpsuit right now.  Will my beard grow in full or patchy, I wonder?

Seeking a distraction from these increasingly wild thoughts, Stephen fished his phone out of his pocket and realized that he had forgotten to turn it on again when he got out of the car.  When he did so, he was surprised to see that he had several voicemail messages waiting.

The first message was from Mark, still sounding hoarse.  "Stephen, I think that you called me just a few minutes ago.  Listen, I need to explain about the voice you heard when you called, and I’d prefer to talk before we get to the office.  Can you call me back, please?"  Stephen smiled as he listened.  Was there a lady in Mark’s life?  No wonder he’d been so eager to protect his weekends!  He could hardly wait to give Mark a hard time about his new friend.  Respectfully, of course.

The second message was from Thomas.  "Um, Stephen, you should call Richard right away.  He’s really worked up about something and keeps yelling, ‘Where is he?  Where is he?’  I don’t know why he’d be so upset about you coming in a little late, but maybe he’s just looking for a reason to take over the team again.  Anyway, call him, please."  Stephen rolled his eyes.  It didn’t take long for Dickie to start looking for ways to get me in trouble with ‘Poppy.’  I’ll have to deal with that as soon as I get back.

The third message sounded like a crank call.  A hoarse voice whispered, "Stephen?  I need your help.  Call me as soon as you can."  The caller left a number that Stephen recognized as a CouldBU extension, though, so if it was a prank it was a poorly planned one.  Puzzled, Stephen saved the message and hung up.  He was about to dial when a burly man in a uniform approached him.

"Stephen Connelly?" the man wheezed, clearly winded from his walk.

Stephen locked his phone, the number forgotten.  "That’s me.  Are you Bud?"

"No, sir, I’m Gordon.  Bud’s inside the terminal.  Would you follow me, please?"


Gordon turned and walked slowly toward the security screening area, talking over his shoulder to Stephen as he went.  "Our main office and holding area are inside the terminal.  It keeps us closer to the jetway, but it has the added benefit of sending everyone through security before they come to us.  We also have an external area for talking to airport guests who haven’t passed security yet, but since your friend got through in Boston," his tone suggested that he didn’t think much of the screening procedures there, "we decided to keep him in the internal area."

"I don’t suppose you have an idea of how long this will take, do you?" Stephen asked.  "I just got a message from my office and it sounds like there might be a problem there that I’ll need to address fairly soon."

Gordon led Stephen past the envious stares of the passengers waiting in the long security line to a special lane, marked Restricted.  "If everything’s on the up-and-up then it shouldn’t take long at all, sir.  Please remove your shoes and any metal items you might have and step through the metal detector.  I’m sure you know the drill."

"Of course."  Stephen emptied his pockets, throwing his phone and keys into a bowl and sending them through the scanner.  The ritual was somehow less soothing today, feeling less like an act of benevolent governmental protection and more like an invasive search.  He reminded himself forcefully that he had nothing to hide and, therefore, nothing to fear.

"Thank you, sir," said Gordon as he came through on the other side.  "Now, as soon as you get your shoes back on, I’ll take you to the interrogation – er – reception room."  He smiled briefly, though with little humor.  "I still have trouble with the new terminology."

They continued through the terminal, past the ubiquitous chain restaurants and airport bars that made it nearly impossible for jetlagged travelers to separate one city from another.  One bar had several televisions blaring, though it was too early for any sports other than a replay of a European soccer match on one of the 24-hour channels, which was dutifully shown on one screen.  The other TVs were all tuned to a cable news station, and as they walked by the words "Santa Monica" caught his attention.  He slowed and craned his head to see the screen.  Shaky footage indicated that they were seeing a feed from a news helicopter, showing an aerial view of a sprawling office building with several police cars drawn up in front of it.

Something about the scene pulled Stephen to a complete stop.  Gordon walked on for several strides before realizing that he’d lost his charge.  He turned and retraced his steps while Stephen strained to hear the newscaster’s words.

"That looks like my office building," Stephen said as Gordon joined him.  He called to the bartender, "Hey, turn that up for a minute, would you?"  With a glance at Gordon’s uniform, the bartender hurried to oblige.

" -- word of this breaking news from our affiliate in Los Angeles," said a smooth yet mildly excited female voice.  "Police have received word of a bomb threat in this building, which houses the production offices of several independent movie studios as well as the headquarters for a local taco restaurant chain.  We have few details at this time, though police received a tip that security video showed a bearded man entering the premises early this morning with what looked like a homemade explosive device.  Homeland Security has also been alerted and is exploring any connections between this threat and international terrorist organizations.  As we know, there have been reports of increased ‘chatter’ in terrorist communications networks in recent months, which might indicate a pending attack on US soil or American interests abroad."

"Ah, I wouldn’t worry about this, even if it is your building," offered Gordon.  "We get one or two of these a month around here."  He leaned in close and spoke confidentially.  "It’s all this sunlight.  Makes people crazy.  I grew up in Minnesota myself, and we never had problems like this.  Nope, no bombings or crazy stuff like that.  Lot of suicides, though," he sighed, "especially in the winter months.  Not enough sun, that.  Yep, you need just the right amount of sun, that’s for sure."

Stephen ignored his rambling as best he could and peered at the screen, trying to find some detail that would confirm whether this was indeed the CouldBU office building.  As the shaky camera zoomed in on another police car pulling in behind the building, he noted a strange-looking machine leaning against a railing.  He lunged forward and leaned over the bar, examining the object as closely as he could before the camera moved away.  The closer look confirmed his suspicions.  That was Stu’s recumbent. The hoarse voice on his voicemail came back to him.

"Oh no, Stu, what have you done?" he moaned under his breath.

Gordon leaned on the bar next to him, his coffee-laden breath filling Stephen’s nostrils.  "Friend of yours?"  He examined Stephen thoughtfully for a moment.  "Your friends and mine seem to have a lot in common.  We may have to talk a bit more than I thought before you and Mr. Nilsson-Martinez leave.  I’ll leave that decision up to Bud, though."  He laid a hand on Stephen’s shoulder.  "We should go, sir.  It doesn’t look like anyone at work is going anywhere for a while, so let’s go have a chat."

The security office was nearby, conveniently located, Stephen suspected, near the coffee shop and a small bakery kiosk.  Gordon led him down a nondescript hallway to a door at the end.  If he hadn’t known better, he would have assumed that it led to a maintenance storage closet, and in fact the rooms that lay behind the door did have a lingering smell of wet mop about them.  The first room was small, barely large enough for a steel-framed desk and two uncomfortable-looking guest chairs.  The wall beside the desk held nine security monitors, each flicking from one camera view to another every few seconds, but none at the same time.  Just looking at it gave him a headache.  An overweight man in an ill-fitting TSA uniform sat behind the desk, sipping coffee while he stared at the screens.  He glanced up disinterestedly when they entered, but quickly waved them through and returned to his survey of the video feeds, taking a noisy slurp of coffee as he did so.  Gordon indicated that Stephen should precede him, so Stephen squeezed past the video watcher and through the door in the far wall.

Ricky sat between two hard-eyed men in too-tight suits in the dimly lit room, his robes gathered in his beefy fists.  Another man sat in front of him in the only other chair, leaning back with his arms crossed, studying Ricky silently.  He turned his head when Stephen and Gordon entered, but didn’t rise.

"Hello, Mr. Connelly," he said in a voice that Stephen recognized from the phone.  He managed to make even that basic greeting sound as though it were being read from an official operating manual on how to greet the supervisors and/or friends of suspected security risks.  "Thank you for coming down on such short notice.  I hope that you had time to grab a bite to eat."

"No, actually, I didn’t.  I drove directly here so that Ricky wouldn’t have to spend any more time as your guest than was strictly necessary."

"I would offer you something, but Mr. Nilsson-Martinez has eaten everything we had on hand for today."  Bud paused as though momentarily confused by the tangent before regaining his mental place in procedure.  "We’ll get you on your way as quickly as we can, sir.  We just have a few questions, a few forms to fill out.  It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours."

Momentary panic gripped Stephen.  Within a couple of hours, his entire team could be arrested, blown up, or shot by overzealous members of the Los Angeles police department.  His mind racing, he said, "We don’t really have that kind of time.  You see, I just learned that there’s a bomb scare at the office where the rest of my team is working right now and we need to get there right away."

Gordon, who had not yet been able to squeeze his considerable bulk into the crowded room, poked his head around Stephen’s shoulder to add, "He seems to think that one of his team members might have something to do with it, Bud."

Stephen raised his arm slightly, just enough to bump Gordon’s nose and force him to withdraw.  "I never said that.  I am, however, very concerned for their safety, and I can’t do much to help them from here.  So if there’s a way that we can skip some of the documentation, or perhaps take it with us and send it back later, then I would really appreciate it.  These are clearly extenuating circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?"

Bud leaned back further in his chair, which creaked alarmingly as the front two legs left the ground.  "Extenuating circumstances?  We don’t really care for that phrase around here, Mr. Connelly.  Most of the time, ‘extenuating circumstances’ is someone’s way of saying, ‘I have a perfectly reasonable explanation for how those five kilos of heroin ended up in my lower intestine.’  And usually, you know, they don’t.  Have a good explanation, that is."  He peered at Stephen, as though hoping that he would break down and confess to a plot against America on the spot.

Something inside Stephen snapped.  The lives of people he cared about were at risk and he didn’t have time to waste waiting for this hopped-up security guard to decide that he wasn’t a threat to national security.  Drawing a deep breath, he said coldly, "If anyone is going to be making explanations after this event, Mr. Jenkins, it will be you and your airborne collection of Keystone Cops.  My firm has a stable of lawyers on retainer who will be drooling when they hear about this clear case of racial profiling.  I haven’t bothered to call them yet, because I was hoping that we could deal with your mistake quickly.  They have a tendency to get… overzealous, and I didn’t want to spend another couple of years embroiled in a case with them.  You see, the problem is that they never want to settle.  Always go for the jugular.  To tell you the truth, I think the senior litigator just likes to see his opponents cry after he crushes them.  I find it a little distasteful, but then, I’m not a lawyer."  He tried to gauge the effect of his words on his audience.  Bud was listening, though not exactly looking cowed yet.  The two men standing behind Ricky had stiffened at the mention of airborne Keystone cops, so he could only assume that they were air marshals.  He sincerely hoped that he never had to share a flight with either of them after this was over.  Meanwhile, he charged ahead, fully committed to his course.

"I assume that one of those TVs out there in the front room gets cable when no one’s looking, so you might have a sense of what Boston lawyers are like.  We’re talking about the real ones, though, not the skinny women lawyers who worry about turning 30 and sing in the bar downstairs after work.  These are guys who will do anything to win a case and have two publicity firms of their own to make sure that the whole world is watching while they do it.  How many more embarrassments can Homeland Security take, Bud?  How many grandmas have you felt up in the past week in the name of ‘random searches?’  Better yet, how many Latinos, Indians, and Arabs have you dragged into this sweaty little room because they looked like your picture of a terrorist?  Shall we find out together?"

Now it was working.  He could see the doubt in Bud’s eyes, the discomfort in the stance of the air marshals.  He had also heard Gordon’s wheezing stop for a moment at the mention of the grandmothers.  That must have hit a twisted nerve.  It was time to close the deal and get out.  "I’m going to give you two choices, Bud:  either you let Ricky go with me now or I will call down the full wrath of Brinkman, Goldstein, Farmer, and Gray and their assorted PR firms upon you.  Within hours, you’ll have so many attorneys crawling all over you that you’ll need a court order to take a dump."  He waited for a moment, watching a bead of sweat run down Bud’s forehead.  Ricky sat in stunned silence, and Stephen silently prayed that he would stay that way, at least until they were out of the room.

"What’s it going to be, Bud?  Do we go, or do I make the call?"  Stephen’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and he slapped a hand down to silence it.  Not now.

Bud sat up straight and stared at Stephen.  For a moment, Stephen was afraid that he was going to call his bluff, but then Bud slouched back down again.  "There are still discharge procedures to be followed," he muttered sullenly.  "We need the paperwork completed properly, per regulation."

"Send it to our attorneys," Stephen replied, fishing a card out of his wallet and handing it to Bud.  "I’ll contact them and tell them how helpful you’ve been in clearing up this whole misunderstanding.  They’ll follow up with you and ensure that all regulations are followed to the letter."

Bud glanced down at the card briefly, then placed it in his pocket and nodded.  "It’s a little irregular, but I think we can do that."  Now that he had made his decision, he seemed eager to have both Stephen and Ricky out of his office.  He stood up.  "I apologize for the misunderstanding, Mr. Nilsson-Martinez.  I’ll show you out and we can grab your bag on the way."  He squeezed past Stephen, pushing Gordon backwards to make room for them to exit.

Stephen looked at Ricky, who was still seated, and jerked his head, indicating that it was time to go.  Ricky jumped up, grabbing his robes to keep from tripping over them, and hustled after Bud.  Stephen nodded to the air marshals, who only stared impassively in return, and followed.  Once they had all maneuvered past the video monitors in the anteroom and out into the hallway, Bud reached for a large bundle of keys at his belt and unlocked another door.  The door opened to reveal a small storage closet containing Ricky’s bag.  Bud grabbed it and handed it to Ricky.

"There you are, sir.  Once again, my apologies for the mix-up.  Obviously a case of mistaken identity, but I’m glad that we were able to straighten it out."  It was clear that Bud was already rewriting the report in his head.  Stephen suspected that no paperwork would ever be sent to the address on the business card he had handed to him.  "Good luck with that other… situation, and I hope everything turns out OK there."  And that, if anyone gets sued, it’s them and not me, his eyes silently added.  He shook both of their hands and turned back to his office, shutting the door firmly behind him.

"Let’s go," ordered Stephen.  "We need to get to the office ASAP."

"Why, what’s going on there?" asked Ricky as they started to move.

"Talk later.  Walk now."

Ricky shrugged, clearly glad to be going anywhere.  "OK.  Hey, all that stuff you said in there:  do we have a bunch of lawyers on retainer?"

"I’m sure we do," Stephen replied, chuckling.  Now that they were in the clear, a giddy relief was washing over him and he found that he was shaking a little bit.  "They’re probably more of the intellectual property and patent type lawyers than the bulldog litigator type, though."

"What about that card you handed him?  Was that real?"

"It was a real attorney’s name on it.  I gave him my tax attorney’s card.  I’ll have to make sure to call him and tell him that he might be receiving some paperwork from Los Angeles airport security."

"Wow," Ricky marveled, "you lied to Federal agents."

"I did not lie," Stephen corrected him.  "I redirected.  I got him thinking about the consequences of his actions instead of yours.  The decision he made as a result was his own to make."  He spotted a Starbucks ahead and veered toward it, with Ricky in tow.

"I thought we were in a hurry," Ricky said.

"We are," Stephen responded, reaching for his wallet as he signaled for the largest available cup of bold roast.  "But I haven’t had any coffee yet, and I have a feeling that I’m going to need it."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hollywood.bomb, Chapter 21

Chapter 21

On the way to the airport, Stephen stopped by the office to gather a few things.  He was just stuffing the last items into his bag when a swishing sound alerted him to Ricky’s approach.  Looking up, he said, "I won’t bother to ask how your vacation went, but please tell me that you won’t go through security dressed like that.  What is that, a burqa?"

Ricky looked down at his Bedouin garb and then back at Stephen disdainfully.  "The burqa is the head covering for women, Stephen.  This," he gestured grandly to his robe, "is called a bisht.  And this," he tugged at the collar of a long tunic that hung nearly to the floor, "is a thob.  These are the traditional clothes of my people, which protect us from the desert heat.  And why shouldn’t I wear it?  If I want to honor my Muslim forefathers and prepare for Ramadan, I don’t see why I should let those TSA fascists intimidate me."  He shook his head as he settled a checkered headscarf over his hair and began to fuss with the band.  "I still haven’t quite got the hang of this keffiyeh, though," he muttered.

"No.  This is where I draw the line," Stephen insisted.  He had visions of Ricky being dragged off to a windowless room inside Logan airport, loudly declaring his rights to the onlooking crowd.  "I need you to make it to LA on time, not spend several hours in questioning and miss your flight.  Honestly, I’m starting to think you enjoy the body cavity searches!"  Ricky smiled, sphinx-like, but continued to fidget with the scarf.

"I mean it, Ricky.  I understand your desire to connect to your past -- if not your fervor -- but you need to be practical here.  You have a responsibility to get over there and finish the project, and you can’t let your hobby get in the way of your job.  Now please, change into something more…Western, before you go to the airport.  You can wear it in the office in LA if you must, but you have to get there first."

Ricky stood glaring, arms folded across his chest.  Suddenly, Stephen was painfully aware of just how large and solid those arms were.  There was no turning back now, though.  He tried a new tack.  "Ramadan doesn’t come for, what, six months?  Can’t you practice being Muslim later?"

"It’s never too early to start being your true self, Stephen," Ricky said stolidly.  He still had not uncrossed his arms, and he was working one hand, clenching and unclenching it as though it needed some exercise.  Stephen had never seen him so resolute.  Watching those beefy fingers flex, he decided that perhaps wisdom dictated compromise.

"At least take off the head thing.  Maybe they’ll think you’re a Moonie."

Ricky kept his eyes locked with Stephen’s as he slowly reached up to remove the keffiyeh.  "Fine.  It itches anyway, and it makes my head sweat.  I’m keeping the rest, though, even if it does cause me some inconvenience.  This is important to me, Stephen, even if you think it’s silly.  I wonder:  what do you care about enough for it to be worth the inconvenience?"  Stuffing the headscarf into a hidden pocket, he turned on his heel with a swirl of robes and left.

Stephen grunted in irritation and shouldered his bag.  What do I care about?  How about completing this project without getting anyone killed?  That’s inconvenience enough for two people!  As he waited for the elevator, images of Jenny and Sarah came to his mind.  The real question is:  is this project worth the cost to them?  He sighed heavily, shifting the bag’s strap to a more comfortable position.  Great, now I’m sad and annoyed.

He wouldn’t have worried so much about Ricky’s latest costume if they were traveling together, since he was usually pretty good at explaining his coworker’s eccentricities to security people.  Once, he had even gotten him onto a flight to Dulles wearing only a grass skirt by explaining that they were on their way to perform a fire-juggling act for members of Congress.  Without coverage, though, Ricky had a tendency to get into trouble.  He couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t as excited about his new discoveries as he was, and he generally knew just enough about his newfound culture to cause international incidents.  Closing his eyes as he rode down to ground level, Stephen mouthed a silent prayer:  Just get him there, Lord, and I’ll go to Mass all summer, even when the air conditioning breaks down at Our Lady’s.

 The flight was uneventful, and when he arrived in LA late that afternoon, he hurried to the rental lot, hoping that he would be able to miraculously stay ahead of traffic and get to the office before everyone left for the day.  As he pulled onto the 405, Stephen mentally downshifted his driving functions into collision-avoidance mode, fished his phone out of his pocket, and hit the first speed-dial.  When Jennifer answered, he said "Hey sweetie, I’m in."

"Really?  That was fast."  Jennifer sounded dreamy and distracted.  It was probably feeding time.

"Yeah, I guess we caught a tailwind.  Speaking of which, it looks like my luck with rental cars has finally changed.  Listen to this!"  He held the phone up in the air so that she could hear the wind roaring past.  "I got a convertible!"

"Did they feel sorry for you after all of the other screw-ups or did they confuse you with someone else?"

"Don’t know, don’t care.  I’m just happy to finally have a car appropriate to the setting and I’m choosing to take it as a sign that we’re finally going to be put out of our misery."

"Careful what you wish for."

"Yeah, you’re probably right.  Still, it feels like my luck has changed.  Uh-oh…"

Jennifer was instantly concerned.  "What?  You didn’t just hit someone, did you?  You know I hate it when you talk on the phone and drive!"

"No, it’s not that.  And besides, everyone’s on the phone here at all times.  I’d probably be in more danger if I had two hands on the wheel, because people would be swerving closer to see what I was doing."

"Then what was it?"

"I think I just felt a raindrop."

Twenty minutes later, damp but otherwise unharmed, Stephen pulled into CouldBU’s parking lot.  He wiped water from the clock in the car’s dashboard and checked the time:  4:45.

"Good, I should catch them," he muttered as he raised the car’s roof and climbed out.  "Not much chance they’ll get to leave early."

Before he had traipsed more than halfway through the maze of corridors to the main reception area, Stephen heard voices.  As he hurriedly wove through the labyrinth toward Thomas’ office, the voices resolved into chanted words.

"21!  22!"

"Come on, you sissy!"


"Move, maggot!"


A long pause, then a hoarse voice that he recognized as Stu’s said, "I don’t think he can move.  Shouldn’t someone at least turn his head so he doesn’t smother in the carpet?"

Stephen broke into a run.

Moments later, he slid to a stop at the door to Thomas’ office.  The desks had been pushed aside to make a space in the middle of the room, where Timothy lay gasping for breath.  Richard stood over him, clearly prepared to begin yelling again if he thought it would help.  The rest of the engineers stood around the room watching, the CouldBU team on one side and the ADD team on the other, some standing on desks to get a better view.  It was clear that they had picked up where they left off on Friday and that no actual work had been done all day.  Given the current seating configuration, it wasn’t clear that they could have sat down to work even if they had been so inclined.

"I’m fine," Timothy said in a weak voice.  "I can do one more."

"Damn right you can do one more, pretty boy," Richard yelled, flecks of foam spraying from his mouth onto Timothy’s back, "and five more after that for lying down on the job!"

"Hey!  No one calls him pretty boy except me!" Thomas shouted, but he subsided when Richard’s glare swung his way.

Stephen knocked on the doorjamb.  "Hi, everyone.  I’m not interrupting anything, am I?"

"Just a little disciplinary action," Richard replied, rising from his predatory crouch to run a hand over his stubbly head before reaching to shake Stephen’s hand.  "Mr. Pascal here was late in delivering an assignment to me."

"Mr.….?  Oh, you mean Timothy," Stephen said.  Timothy waved weakly from the floor.  "And what’s the going price for late deliveries these days?"

"25 pushups.  We’re not only building discipline here; we’re building strong bodies as well."

Stephen grinned weakly.  "Well, as long as they can still lift their arms to type, I suppose.  Hey, do you think that you and I could talk for a few minutes?"

"Certainly, just as soon as Mr. Pascal completes his penance."  Richard turned back to Timothy, who was already pressing himself back to a wobbly starting position.  "Where were we?  Ah, yes.  24!"  Timothy shakily lowered himself down again.  "25!"

Looking over Richard’s head, Stephen tried to catch the eyes of his team.  Frank was avidly watching the drama before him, but Kelvin was clearly bored and Stu looked queasy.  Then Stephen realized that Mark wasn’t in the room.  He looked around, even leaning through the doorway to peer into the corners, but Mark was nowhere to be seen.  Catching Kelvin’s eye, he mouthed, "Mark?"  Kelvin responded by twirling his finger next to his head.  

Stephen frowned and mouthed, "He went crazy?"

Kelvin shook his head and began to say something, but at that moment, Timothy finished his 30th pushup.  Thomas and Craig rushed in to help him to his feet, shooting glares at Richard once his back was safely turned.  Radiating satisfaction, Richard rose and led Stephen out of the room.

"Now, what did you want to talk about?"

Stephen looked over his shoulder with concern as Kelvin disappeared from view.  "Actually, I was hoping that I could talk to both you and Rod together.  Do you think you can reach him?"

Richard frowned at his watch.  "I’m not sure where he is at this hour.  Why don’t you just tell me what you have to say and I’ll relay it to him if I need to?  He has left me in charge of this project, you know."

Stephen was too tired to even bridle at the implication that he was no longer in charge.  In fact, he realized that it was true.  It was time to start changing that fact, though, before everything blew up.  As much as he would have liked to see Richard reap the fruit of his twisted labors, he couldn’t allow his team to be destroyed by this mess.  If swallowing his pride for the moment would protect them, he was willing to do it.  "I realize that, but there are some things that I need to discuss with both of you that will directly impact the project.  Can we at least try to find him?"

Richard gave a long-suffering sigh.  "I’ll see what I can do, though I hope for your sake it’s worth interrupting him on vacation again.  Let’s go to his office.  He prefers the acoustics in there."

Following Richard into Rod’s office, Stephen tried to decide how to make these two men understand the consequences of their actions.  He waited while Richard dialed Rod’s cell phone, mentally testing and discarding several approaches while the phone rang.  Finally Rod answered.


"Hello, sir, it’s Richard and Stephen.  We’re sorry to interrupt you, but Stephen insisted on speaking with you.  I told him that I could handle it, but he was stubborn."

"All right, all right, Dickie.  Don’t get your panties in a twist.  You’re still the man."

Richard smiled at Stephen, as though to say, See?  I told you.  "Thank you, sir."

"I don’t mind being interrupted, anyway: my wife dragged me to some musical here in New York.  If you keep me out here long enough, maybe they won’t let me back in and I can go grab a beer across the street.  What do you want?"

Richard took his usual place to the right of Rod’s chair, standing stiffly with his hands clasped behind his back while he waited for Stephen to explain himself.

Stephen took a calming breath and began.  "It’s about this new military approach to software development.  Look, Richard, I understand what you’re trying to do with the yelling and the corporal punishment and the strict discipline, and while it’s a… unique approach, it won’t work."  He paused, searching for an analogy that might help clarify his point.  "You think that you can run this software company like a boot camp, but if this really were a Marine post, these guys would hardly be top recruits.  If anything, they’d be the ones chaining themselves to the fence outside protesting military aggression."  Stephen thought of Frank and added, "Or in some cases, charging into the recruiting center with dynamite strapped to their chests.

"The point is, developers aren’t code-generating machines.  Software development is, first and foremost, a creative process.  You can’t just line them up, point them in one direction, and say, ‘Go take that hill.’  You have to let them see why they need to take the hill, what purpose it serves in the overall strategy, and what’s over the next hill.  If they don’t see the big picture then they can’t build something that accommodates it.  Keep this up and you’ll be lucky if all you get is bad code.  Do you understand that?"

Richard -- and Rod’s chair -- stared at him blankly for a moment before Rod asked, "What’s all this about dynamite, now?"

Stephen paused briefly and closed his eyes, savoring the Self-Blinding Moment.  Earlier in his career, he had been amazed by mankind’s remarkable ability to obdurately ignore that which did not fit its chosen world view; now he was merely amused by it.  At one time, he had considered writing a book on the subject, but the only title that seemed to fit was Blind Fools and the Companies That Follow Them, and he hadn’t been sure that the business world was ready for that.  Now, glancing down at a copy of Rod’s book on the desk, he reconsidered that opinion.

Giving up, he ran a hand through his hair.  "Stop yelling at them.  It won’t work."

"That’s strange:  I thought my approach was working," said Richard.  "They are cooperating and showing real spirit now.  There are no more insubordinate comments or jokes about my hair when my back is turned.  They have learned to respect their leader.  That seems like real progress to me."

"How much code has been generated in the past four days?" Stephen asked.

Richard stared at him blankly.  "Code?"

"Yes, you know:  the stuff that makes the application run.  How much progress have you made towards your goal of building a functional application by the end of February?  I understand that we’re on a tight schedule."  Stephen realized that last part was snide, but a man could only take so much.

"Well, to be honest, I am not sure.  We have identified some bugs, I understand, and have been working through those."

"So, no real progress since you instituted the 20 pushups per bug rule?"  Stephen asked innocently.  Careful.  Have to sound like I’m trying to be helpful, here.  He waited for a few moments as Richard worked his way through the implications.  Rod beat him to it.

"Are you falling behind?" he hollered into the phone.  "That’s exactly what I told you to stop doing!"

"No, sir, we’re just cleaning things up before we move on.  We’ll, um, make it up next week because the, um, code is cleaner."  Richard was struggling.  Stephen almost felt sorry for him:  it took years of project management experience before you could make plausible-sounding excuses for a project falling behind.  "I read…"

"Aw, crap!  The last thing I need is you trying to read!" Rod yelled.  They could hear another man’s voice speaking to him in low, urgent tones.  "All right, all right!  I’ll take it outside.  Sorry I disturbed all the dancing men in tights!  Hang on, boys, I’ve been told I’m disturbing the show."  

They waited a moment, until the sound of traffic came over the phone.  "OK.  I’m outside now.  Joseph’s balls, it’s cold out here!  Where were we?  Oh, right: Dickie was trying to read.  Listen, all I want is for this damn thing to be up and running when we told our investors it would be.  I don’t care how that happens, but you will make it happen.  Stephen, if you think you can get better results, go for it.  You get one more shot before Dickie gets to reopen the military academy.  Get it done, though, boy.  You understand me?"

Something unclenched in Stephen’s chest, a tension that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding since leaving Boston.  "Yes, sir, I do."


Richard’s jaw muscles were clenched so tightly that he appeared to have grown an extra pair of ears.  Still, he managed to get out a strangled, "Yes, sir."

"Good.  I’m glad we all had this talk, especially since it seems to have lasted long enough for me to get my beer.  Maybe I’ll have a bourbon, too, to warm me up.  Thanks for calling, boys.  I look forward to hearing that everything is back on track!"  Rod hung up.

Stephen smiled disarmingly at Richard, but the soldier refused to be disarmed.  "I hope that you are able to follow through on your promises, Mr. Connelly," Richard said in a low growl.  "I’ll be watching with interest to see how you fare."

Stephen’s smile widened to a baring of the teeth.  "I always keep my promises, Richard, especially those that I make to my team."  Turning quickly, he marched from Rod’s office, head held high.

Now I just have to remind them that they’re my team.


Stephen returned to find the communal office much the way he had left it.  The two teams still stood on opposite sides of the room, glaring at each other like rival gangs in a high school production of West Side Story.  Stephen almost expected them to break out into song and dance at any moment, though he sincerely hoped they would not.  He’d heard Frank sing at a company party once, and it was an experience he hoped never to repeat.  Stepping into the room, he glared at both sides equally.  

"Sit down."

"Why should we?" Frank and Craig demanded simultaneously, then stopped, each glaring at the other as though suspecting him of intentional mockery.

 Stephen raised his hand and ticked off the reasons, raising a finger for each.  "1. Because I told you to.  2. Because I’m bigger than all of you.  3. Because, if you don’t, I’m going to walk out of here, fly back to Boston, and not come back.  And on the way out, I’m going to tell Sergeant Dick that you’re all guilty of insubordination and need to be punished."  He waited, not quite sure that they would still listen to him, but not entirely certain that he cared.  After exchanging a few sullen glances, they all filed one by one to sit in a circle in front of him, perching on the edge of their desks.  He noticed with grim amusement that they still kept a space between the two teams, a minor rebellion in the midst of their acquiescence.

"A wise choice.  Connie, close the door, please, but check to make sure that Richard isn’t listening outside first."  After Connie had done so, he turned to the group of overgrown children in front of him, spearing each one in turn with his eyes as he spoke.

"Here’s the situation:  you’re all on a speeding train that’s quickly approaching the end of the tracks and I seem to be the only one who knows how to operate the brakes.  So, you can keep playing Programmer Boot Camp with Sergeant Dick until your arms fall off and this project ends in a flaming wreck or you can quit screwing around, work together, and try to bring it safely into the station.  Then you’ll have time for your side projects," here he glared specifically at the CouldBU team, "your gardening and bike rides," he looked at Stu, "your social life," Frank colored under his gaze (as did Connie, he noticed out of the corner of his eye), "and whatever you do to unwind," he concluded his round-the-room glare with Kelvin.

"I watch the Three Stooges," said Kelvin, "or I do calculus in my head.  It depends upon my mood."

"I’d say that I was sorry I asked, except I didn’t," Stephen replied tersely.  "I’m not done.  Not only do I want you to stop using Richard to take out your latent aggression on each other, but I also want you all to start working as a real team."  He turned back to Craig and Thomas.  "That means no more side projects during work hours, at least for the next month."

"Oh come on!  We have obligations to our new clients!" objected Thomas.  "What will they think if we can’t meet our deadlines?"

"What will they think when you’re sued for violation of your non-compete agreement and for trying to sell something that you developed on CouldBU time?" Stephen countered.

"You wouldn’t."

"I wouldn’t need to.  Think about it:  even Robert and Brad will figure out what’s been going on if you go live with a new product within a month of their own launch date.  And if they don’t figure it out, I’m sure that Rod’s cadre of lawyers will help them.  Do you want to get done early, or do you want to keep your new company?"

"But time to market, first-mover advantage…"

"Doesn’t matter if you have to give it all back to the lawyers," Stephen interrupted.  "The fact is, you’ll probably have a lawsuit on your hands anyway if you leave here on bad terms or start a new company hot on the heels of this company’s launch.  But if you can show that you gave your best effort to launching this product, that you delivered on your commitments, then even if it all goes up in flames, you can still move on in safety.  Don’t make it easy for them to take what you’ve worked for."

"Well, I suppose that makes sense," Thomas grumbled.  He elbowed Craig hard in the ribs.  "I told you we should have hired a lawyer this time."

Stephen turned to his own team.  "And you:  stop holding everyone to impossible standards and let them do their own work."  Frank opened his mouth to object.  "Especially you, Frank.  Have you ever looked at your own code?"

Now Frank did object, hotly.  "I don’t need to; I know it’s right the first time!  I have a knack for writing clean code!"  He turned to Kelvin and Stu.  "You’ve reviewed my code.  Tell him!  Clean as a whistle, right?"  Kelvin and Stu refused to meet his eyes.  "Right?"

 Kelvin spoke first.  "Well, I don’t know if ‘clean as a whistle’ is the term I’d use.  To be honest, you can get pretty sloppy during those late-night coding sessions, especially after the third or fourth Mountain Dew."

Stu nodded.  "I decided that it was just easier to fix the bugs myself than to try to explain to you that you’d made a mistake.  You don’t exactly take criticism well."

Frank sat back, stunned.  "Well, this is just great.  Thanks for the knife in the back, guys.  I’ll bet that you’ve had a great time laughing at me while you looked through my code.  Do you come in early to check it out so you can get your morning chuckle?  Better than Dilbert, huh? Bastards.  Well, let me tell you, neither of you is perfect, either.  I’ll bet that if I looked at your code, I’d find twice as many bugs per file than I have in mine."

Kelvin cleared his throat.  "Actually, I ran a comparison, and you generate 13% more bugs per file -- "

"You cold-hearted son-of-a -- " Frank lunged at Kelvin, but Stephen was ready for him.  His hand snaked out and grabbed Frank by the collar of his black T-shirt, cutting him off mid-expletive as his forward progress was abruptly halted.

"Excuse us for a moment, everyone," Stephen said, lifting Frank bodily from the desk and dragging him outside by the scruff of his neck.  He kicked the door shut with his foot and threw Frank against the opposite wall, where he leaned gasping for breath and rubbing his neck angrily.  Stephen paused for a moment to catch his own breath, and the two men stood in the hallway, panting and glaring at each other.

"That’s enough, Frank!  No matter how difficult this project gets, you don’t get to talk to people like that!  I don’t care how many Westerns you’ve seen; we’re not cowboys and this isn’t a showdown!  We’re consultants, this is our job, and you can’t do it by yelling at the clients or your own teammates!"

Surprisingly, Frank didn’t yell back.  He just stood rubbing his throat and staring sadly at Stephen for a moment before saying quietly, "But we are, Stephen, don’t you see?  We’re the closest thing to the cowboys that America has left.  There are no new lands to discover, and who knows if we’re ever going to get back to space.  Internet technology, this new landscape of the mind, is our only remaining frontier and we’re the first settlers.  We have to learn its rules and live by them, but we can still work with honor and take pride in what we build, because it’s never been seen before.

"Just like in the old West, though, the shopkeepers and the carpetbaggers are already coming in and trying to take it over.  These guys don’t have a clue about what they’re playing with.  They just want pretty pictures and girls walking across the screen so some poor gullible idiot will give them his money in exchange for a dream of fame.  They don’t even care if it works, as long as it looks good.  Where’s the adventure in that?  Where’s the joy of a job well done?  Where’s the honor?

"Robert, Brad, Rod, they’re all shopkeepers, and the worst kind.  They think there’s gold in them thar hills, but they don’t want to do the work to go get it.  They want to wait at the bottom of the hill for people to bring it to them so they can charge them to process it.  They’re parasites, Stephen!  We may have to build their shop for them, but at least let us take pride in the workmanship.  Don’t let them turn this site into some tumbledown shack in the middle of an electronic ghost town.  Make it worth building, at least!"

Stephen gazed at Frank for a long moment before answering.  "And where does slagging your comrades in arms fit into that imagery?  It sounds to me like your friends have been cleaning up after you because you’re too prickly to hear that you might not be perfect.  Is that part of the cowboy code, too, or does pride in your workmanship only apply to everyone else?"

Now Frank rubbed the back of his neck, averting his eyes from Stephen’s steady gaze.  "Yeah, I can see where you might get that," he said sheepishly.  "I’ll, um, go…" he struggled for the word, "…apologize… to them."

"Good idea.  While you’re at it, you might want to apologize to everyone else for being a general pain in the -- "

"Watch it, or I’ll tell Jenny and her mom.  We’ve been very close ever since I dried approximately fifty pots and pans at Thanksgiving.  Besides, being a pain is part of my charm."  He blushed slightly.  "At least, that’s what Connie tells me."

Stephen sighed.  "I’ll take what I can get."  He opened the door and led the way back into the office.  Everyone was more or less where he had left them, but relations seemed to have thawed between the warring factions.  Now they looked less like two gangs about to rumble and more like two teams at a Math Olympics competition.  Stephen was not about to leave anything undecided, though; a formal truce was called for.  

He clapped his hands.  "So, what’ll it be, gents?  Pushups at dawn followed by a death march or a team effort that just might earn you your weekends back?"

Murmurs of grudging assent rippled across the room.

"I can’t hear you!" Stephen bawled in his best drill instructor voice.

"Teamwork, sir!" they shouted back.

"Hmm," Stephen mused, "I’m starting to see Richard’s point."  Faced with a roomful of rolling eyes, he grinned.  "Just work with me and I promise not to punish anyone."  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Greg’s grin and added, "Unless you want me to.  By the way, where’s Mark?"

"I tried to tell you before.  He took a Mental Health Day today," Kelvin replied, referring to ADD’s answer to the floating holiday.  All employees received two Mental Health Days per year, which they could take any time that they felt the stress of the job was negatively affecting their health or performance.  There was no need to justify the time, though it was customary to notify the manager before disappearing.  "He didn’t say why, but I guess that’s why we have them.  ‘No questions asked.’  I promised him that I’d tell you."

Stephen shrugged.  "OK, that’s his call.  I hope he’s all right."  He turned to the rest of the room.  "I suggest that you all go home and rest your arms.  Tomorrow, we code!"

As he made to follow his own advice, Stephen glanced upward and froze.  He had forgotten about the cameras.  One was mounted just above the door, glaring down at him balefully.  He quickly glanced away and pretended to fiddle with his bag as he asked, "Does anyone know if they get sound, too?"

"The cameras?  No," Greg answered.

Stephen’s shoulders slumped in relief.  He could almost guarantee that Richard had been watching.  It was comforting to know that he couldn’t listen, as well.  Another thought occurred to him.  "Wait, how can you be sure?"

Greg rolled his eyes again.  "Who do you think they asked to help set up the video feeds?"

Stephen guffawed in disbelief.  "You?  I’m surprised they work at all, then."

 "Well, I had to play along to that extent.  But I told them we didn’t have the bandwidth for audio as well."

"Can I assume that you can tinker with the feeds, too?"

Greg grinned coyly.  "Maybe."

Stephen slung his bag over his shoulder and made to leave for real.  "I can’t believe they asked the person they were monitoring to help them set up the cameras."

Greg shrugged as he, too, walked out, giving the camera a little wave as he went.  "They may be diabolical, but that doesn’t make them geniuses."


The next morning, everyone returned to the office punctually at 8:00 A.M., brimming with new energy.  Gone was the acrimony and yelling, replaced by a shared unity of purpose, an "us against the world" mentality that has served technical teams so well for decades.  This team was ready to work and to deliver on the nearly impossible task laid before them.  They knew that they would likely never receive the proper recognition for their accomplishment, primarily because no one other than their fellow geeks would be able to understand what they were about to pull off.  They would know, though, and they would have the one thing that made the effort worthwhile:  the certain knowledge that they were infinitely smarter than the masters they served.

Gone, too, was a sizable portion of Mark’s trachea, judging from the huge bandage that he wore when he arrived late to the office that morning.

"Oh my… what happened to you?  Are you all right?" asked Stephen when he saw him.  The other engineers, already engrossed in their tasks and their various choices of music, failed to register either Mark’s appearance or Stephen’s reaction.  Connie and her assistant glanced up momentarily, but returned quickly to whatever they were doing, seemingly unconcerned.

"I’m fine," Mark replied hoarsely.  "Sorry I’m late; I had a little trouble waking up this morning."

"Could that have been from the blood loss?" asked Stephen half-jokingly.  Only half.

"What, this?"  Mark waved at his throat with studied nonchalance.  "I cut myself shaving, that’s all."

"What were you shaving with, a machete?"

 Mark laughed quietly, but then winced.  "Ha, ha.  No.  This was the only bandage that I had left in the apartment."  He turned away and hurried to his desk.  "I’m fine, really.  I need to get to work, though.  It looks like everyone else is getting ahead of me."  He sat down, dug his laptop out of his bag, and opened it, but then he paused to glance up at Stephen, who was still watching him with concern.  "Thank you for straightening everyone out.  I appreciated the opportunity for some exercise during the work day, but it was throwing off my swimming.  My chest was getting too bulky."

Stephen continued to study him.  "Yeah, now that you mention it, your chest is getting bigger.  Are you doing weights now, on top of everything else?"

Mark glanced down.  "You think so?" he asked excitedly, then moderated his tone.  "I’m not lifting, but I have been taking some new supplements.  I hadn’t expected results so quickly.  Anyway, I should get to work."

"OK…"  Stephen turned back to his own work, a status email to Jack.

Subject:  CouldBU Update
Things appear to be back under control here.  I got Rod to agree to give me one more chance to bring the project home and he ordered Richard to give me the room to do it.  After I read them the riot act, both teams seem to be working well together today, and I have them focused on delivery rather than the working conditions.  Those, by the way, are still one small step above a sweatshop, but I’ve seen worse.  That was in Kazakhstan, of course, during our brief and ill-fated foray into discount outsourcing.  At least they feed us more than once a day here. 
The requirements list is unchanged (sky-high), and I have no idea how we’re going to get it all done in just over six weeks and still leave time for testing.  The team might be working together, but they’re still under a lot of pressure (you owe everyone a case of beer when we get home).  I have to keep the marketing team from piling on any more changes between now and launch, or there won’t be one.  These are normal problems, though, and I can deal with them.  
I’ve been thinking about that story you told me.  You know, the one from your Polish grandmother?  You’re right:  I can’t worry about the things I can’t control, and now I need to keep my team focused on what they need to do rather than what almost feels like a series of deliberate sabotage attempts.  So I *will* borrow your lousy jack, Jack, and thanks for it.  I am going to keep looking out for more things I can get back under my control, though.  A Zen-like peace with your circumstances might make you a happier person, but I suspect it makes you a terrible project manager.  By the way, when did you gain this great wisdom?  Was it before or after you bit that client’s ear off?  
One more thing:  I’m hearing rumors of a potential power shift in the company.  With luck it won’t affect us, but experience with this crowd tells me that *everything* affects us.  Apparently, Robert is getting bored with this whole thing and wants out.  The all-day meeting in New York seems to have been the last straw.  Brad has too much of his parents’ money tied up in this, so he can’t leave, but the unofficial word is that “his daily responsibilities will be reduced," a nice way of saying that he’s not allowed into the building anymore.  He doesn’t seem to be fighting it, but neither would I if I had received a beat-down from a mime in front of my colleagues.  This leaves Chuck as the last man standing -- relatively speaking -- behind Rod.  My only hope is that everyone is so busy realigning their allegiances over the next month that they forget about us and allow us to get our work done.  This clearly falls into the category of Things Over Which I Have No Control, though, so I’m not worrying about it.  Look at me not worrying.  It’s like I was born to do it! 
I have a confession to make: on the flight out here, I composed most of an email laying out a brilliant argument to convince you that we should pull out of this project, precedents be darned.  I’m proud to announce that I don’t think I need that message anymore.  It looks like things are finally -- please hold while I find some wood to knock -- under control.  It’s nothing but a sprint to the finish from here! 
Talk to you soon,

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Not Seeing the Big Picture

Fair warning: the next person who shows me a pretty process picture and says, "See?  This is how you're supposed to work!" is going to get punched in the nose.  Or better yet, I'm going to sign them up for a visit from Cranky, the junk-punching elf (and if that isn't a service yet, I have a great startup idea for someone).

You've been warned.

It's not that I don't like a good process discussion; looking for better ways to build things is a good portion of my job, after all.  And it's not that I don't see the value in a good graphic.  Building software is an abstract process, and a good picture or analogy is a great way to take the abstract and make it real.  I understand these things and I value them, and yet I still have a visceral response every time someone trots out "The Agile Enterprise" pictograms or sends me their "Kanban Supply Chain in a Box" schematics.  At one point in my career, these pictures educated me. For a while after that, they amused me.  Now, they just irritate me.

I know this isn't an entirely reasonable response, but I'm not sure I care anymore.  I've spent the past twenty years listening to people tell me how my organization should work.  Heck, many times I've been the person with the pretty picture, telling other people the right way to do things, so I'm not innocent.  My hands are stained red with dry erase marker just like the next "expert's."  These pictures aren't even wrong, as far as they go.

Here's what bothers me: the pictures and the experts aren't wrong, but neither are they helpful.  At the high level, the only thing that's changed in the last twenty years is the naming convention.  I look at a "Scaled Agile Framework" picture today and I think, "Add a few gates and replace some of those bobblehead images with committees, and you've got the Phase Gate model that everyone was using at Fidelity 10 years ago.  Or wait, did someone just paste a few copies of the Staged Delivery model that I built at ATG in the 90s?  Maybe this is just a scaled-up version of the Department of Defense's general contractor process with different labels."  For someone who has spent 20 years trying to do things better, this can be frustrating.  When the pitch is coming from the mouth of someone who was still trying to figure out how to buy beer when I was already building e-commerce products, it's maddening.

Here's the deal, folks: we can relabel it, we can rearrange the parts, we can even apply exciting verbs, clever adjectives, and trendy nouns to the process, but work is still work.  No amount of marketing is going to make that go away.  There's a basic order of operations to building new things, a Generalized Theory of Productivity with laws that can't be broken, no matter how much you might wish to, and our lives would be a lot simpler if we all agreed to stop arguing about them and get back to work.

Allow me to elucidate (sans pictures):

1. You have to know what you want to build before you can build it.
Over the years, I've regularly had this conversation with people on my team:

Them: [Insert name of Agile expert here] says that we should be prototyping already.  Functional code is better than documentation.  All this sitting around and talking is wasting time and reducing our productivity.
Me: OK, what are you building?
Them: I don't know.
Me: An online payment app?  A business rules engine?  The Pyramids?
Them: Maybe I should go talk to my Product Owner.
Me: Good idea.

We want to skip steps, and we've been told that the old way of doing things, where everyone sat in requirements meetings for months on end, was wrong.  It was inefficient, and I'm glad that we don't operate on the theory that you have to be omniscient and cover every single possibility before you write a single line of code, but it also recognized this fundamental law.  If you run off into the woods without knowing where you want to go, you're more likely to be eaten by a bear than to stumble into a gold mine.  A little planning goes a long way.

2. You have to build something before you can test it, and when you don't test, bad things happen.
Another conversation:

Agitated Scrum Master: Why is QA always behind?
Me: Um, is the code done yet?
ASM: No.
Me:  I think I might have an idea...

In the old days, when PMBOK ruled the world, everyone had to wait until all the development was done, then everyone watched while the Quality Assurance team tested that code, then they told the developers whether it worked or not.  Much like those massive requirements sessions, we all hated this hurry-up-and-wait model, so we came up with something different.  We organized into sprints, and we broke those long phases into smaller ones.  Then we decided that sprints took too long, so we moved to Kanban.  Then we decided that waiting for someone else to test something before we knew if it worked was stupid, so we came up with Test-Driven Development.  Then we decided that testing things ourselves was inefficient, so we decided to Test In Production (yes, that's a thing: look it up) and let our clients find the bugs for us.

By themselves, none of these ideas are wrong (well, maybe Testing in Production), and if any of these practices help teams produce higher quality code earlier in the development lifecycle, that's great.  What they don't do is eliminate the need to check your work.  Testing isn't as fun as building, and building a high-quality product takes a lot longer than building a crappy one, no matter how you try to rearrange the work, but the end result is usually worth it.  It would be nice if more people realized this before their customers got their hands on the product.

Let me put it this way: if I sold you a house and said, "I haven't seen it, no one has stepped inside since the builders left, and we've had nothing but good weather since then.  The contractor seems like a smart guy, though, so I'm sure it's beautiful and will last you a lifetime," would you buy?  And yet I regularly see Agile process pictures with no mention of testing and I talk to people who believe that, if everyone is careful, quality is a given.  I'm not buying that.

3. Processes are clean.  People are messy.
We're getting close to the heart of the matter now, and starting to see why I've just about given up on the process gurus.  When it comes down to it, most people aren't motivated by pretty pictures, and those who are motivated by them frequently aren't terribly useful in real life.  People are more complex than those bobbleheads on the chart: they have their own motivations, their own strengths and weaknesses, and -- God help them -- their own ideas about the best way to do things.  They're messy, and they'll keep screwing up your pretty process.

I spent years struggling with this fact.  For at least the first decade of my working career, I was angry at the morons who couldn't understand why they should just do what I told them to do if they wanted to be happy.  People who showed every other sign of being intelligent beings became complete dunderheads with respect to my processes and methodologies.  When my process said, "Go left," they veered right.  When it said, "Stop here and wait for the others to catch up," they rushed ahead and messed everything up.  I suspect that Joseph Stalin had similar feelings; the difference between me and him is that he had more power and I eventually learned better.

I see other people go through this all the time.  They thrash around and get angry, they lecture their teams, they draw more pictures and point at them emphatically, then they storm off into the sunset.  Like Young Me, they're missing the point:

A leader doesn't point out an ideal path and then tell his people to walk down it.  A leader finds the right path for his people and then leads them down it.

The right process is the one that works for your team today, whether you've done it before or not.  That process needs to build on their strengths and account for their weaknesses, and you need to give them the grace to fumble through changes.  If the team is getting things done, then the process is right.  If the team is non-functional, then it doesn't really matter how pretty the process looks on the wall.

4. The details matter.
And now we have arrived.  My biggest complaint about the pretty pictures is that, in the end, they give me very little to work with until I bring them into my reality.  At 50,000 feet, all processes look pretty much the same: same sequence of events, same general skill sets, same chance of being correct in some way.  When you come down to earth, though, things get messy.  My organization can't adopt that practice because we have security restrictions that make it impossible.  Your team doesn't have that skill set, so unless you hire it or someone does a lot of reading you can't arrange people that way.  My clients are surprisingly uncomfortable with the idea of changing mission-critical systems without allowing them to preview the changes.  We tried that practice last year and it didn't work, so everyone hates it now.

Until you understand these details you can't make anything work, and you ignore them at your own risk.  Unless you account for the environment, no process is perfect, and many are downright dangerous.  To return to the house analogy, you'd be pretty stupid to build an open-sided grass hut in the middle of Antarctica, but I see people do the equivalent in their businesses all the time.  That methodology that worked amazingly well for the social media company that lived in "perpetual beta" until they were purchased by Google may not be the best idea for the bank that's handling sensitive financial information.  Your approach for managing a team of 5 people might not scale to an organization of 105, and insisting that any approach other than yours is "old thinking" might just be insulting to the other 104 people.

Details matter.  Environment matters.  Until your "best practice" fits in my world, it's just someone else's good idea.

So should we give up on change?  To quote the Apostle Paul: by no means!  Continuous improvement is essential to success in life as well as business, and learning from the experience of others is a far more efficient path to improvement than making all of the same mistakes yourself.  Just don't try to make their experience a replacement for your own.  Don't tell me how someone else said to do something, tell me how you're going to do it now. Use your own judgment, test ideas within the framework of your own environment, and recognize that there are no shortcuts to success.

If it would help, I could draw you a picture....