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!"

"23"

"Move, maggot!"

"24!"

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?"

"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."

"Dickie?"

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.

From:  PMStephen@add.com
To:  BlackJack@add.com
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,
Stephen
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