TIM PERKIS: WRITINGS
|RESEARCH -- a slightly fictionalized memoir.
In the year 2000 I was an underemployed computer programmer again, doing part-time contract work out of my Berkeley home for an eccentric and poorly-paying client. Then my friend Steve called me up with a way out of my current doldrums.
Steve had developed an enthusiasm for an obscure computer language called Urlang, had responded to a job offer posted in an online Urlang newsgroup, and was now being paid $120,000 a year to do some kind of research and development involving the language. Even though I had never heard of Urlang, and had no interest in such obscurities, he was pretty sure he could get me on at the same salary to work with him. He didn't have to push very hard to convince me to BART over to the city and talk to his new boss, Ranjit.
Ranjit was a young Indian physicist who had gotten himself hired as CTO (chief technology officer) of an Israeli business software startup I'll call SwapTech. SwapTech had, in the kind of lightning sequence that was common during the dotcom boom, opened up an office in San Francisco, acquired another small software company in Silicon Valley, and in turn itself been acquired by Horizontal, a much bigger and stupider company on the east coast. There seemed to be a lot of cash floating around after the deal, and they had given Ranjit, who played his arrogant but charming young genius role perfectly, free rein to work on some of his more out-there product ideas. He in turn was giving Steve -- and now me -- the same freedom, establishing us as a small research group asked to realize his ideas, come up with some new ones of our own, and build prototypes of them all.
Earlier I had spent a few years working at Interval Research, a lavishly funded but ultimately doomed thinktank in Palo Alto, and I had my own idea of what "research" meant: smart people, high salaries, sushi-catered meetings, and a lot of freedom to come and go without too much contact with business types. This looked to be a similar sweet deal.
At forty-nine I was by far the oldest person around there. The CEO and the rest of the top management were all around Steve's age of forty, and most everyone else were in their twenties. I'd been working for decades in high-tech, often part-time, trying to also keep my unpopular avant-garde music, uh, "career" going. I had noticed recently that more and more often I was the oldest person in the room. Where were all the people my age in high-tech anyway? Were they all in executive suites somewhere, or retired and living on Maui? Was I just incredibly lame to be my age in this field and not be a millionaire? I felt as long as I kept my balding head shaved and kept to my T-shirt and sneakers wardrobe I could probably keep getting work, working some hip eccentric hacker angle, but it was starting to feel more and more tenuous. This job looked like a good shot at some longed-for stability.
Steve and I had been friends for years, working together at a couple of different places, playing in bands together, sharing a sense of humor and intellectual friendship. Steve is a tall, intense guy, a former sculptor and carpenter with radical political opinions, a working class affect, and an array of hidden talents. I was friends with him for years before I heard him playing some Bach quite well -- I hadn't known that he played piano at all. And more years passed before I found out he was fluent in French, happening upon him one day reading an issue of Le Monde Diplomatique. He also somehow attracted physical disaster, having been in more accidents than all the other people I've known in my life put together: tragedies large and small involving bicycles, automobiles, powertools, cutting torches, molten metal and explosions.
On the recommendation of Steve's wife we hired Cassie, one of her recently graduated art students, to be our web designer. Quite stunningly beautiful, Cassie looked something like the young Catherine Deneuve. Even in sophisticated San Francisco she would leave a comical wake of male consternation as she walked down the street, including one smitten guy who ran a handtruck into a fire hydrant staring at her. She was completely oblivious to all this, though. Raised in New Mexico, where her untannable white skin had earned her the taunting nickname "Albino", she had miraculously escaped male attention during her teen years, enjoying instead the salutary effects of social ostracism, so crucial to the development of a rich inner life. In short, she was as geeky and strange as the most acne-ridden nerd. While kind and sweet to everyone, her own artwork consisted of obsessively detailed pencil drawings of little protoplasmic creatures being crushed in merciless machinery.
We three all hit it off immediately, and our little group felt more like family than anything else. The company was growing fast and space was at a premium, so the three of us were crammed into the office of the recently departed VP of marketing and let loose to gear up for a yet-undefined project wholly outside the concerns of all the bustling young business analysts and programmers around us. Most of the people who worked nearby had no idea what we were up to, but were impressed and somewhat jealous about all the fun we seemed to be having.
It became clear very quickly that SwapTech -- or rather Horizontal Solutions, as it was soon fatuously renamed -- was a disaster. The one product -- a million-dollar business auction system -- had never been bought by even one customer, which was no surprise, because it didn't work. Based on the theories of some brilliant Israeli college professors, it was fully buzzword-compliant with all the latest fashions in business software, but worked so slowly that it had no hope of keeping up with any real-world situation. A large roomful of young programmers toiled away at it, putting in endless unpaid overtime hours, doing God knows what -- we were careful not to learn too much about it, so we couldn't be roped into working on it. Most of these java kids had little idea, as Steve put it, "where the java came from", just knowing what buttons to push to test the little routines each was assigned to write.
We, of course, felt we were above all that, and taking a page from Ranjit's book of arrogance, were sure we could do something much better, revolutionary even, by just the sheer force of our intelligence and the magic of Urlang. Taking care not to become contaminated by what we saw as the stupidity all around us, we operated in our own world: Linux to their Windows, Urlang to their Java. And while all the 20-somethings seem to have accepted the idea that this Brave New Dotcom World demanded 60 hour weeks, we kept bankers hours at best, often working at home -- or just taking a day off -- if we didn't feel like getting dressed and schlepping in that day.
With all the recent mergers and acquisitions, the corporate organization chart had been left a patchwork of undigested fiefdoms with tangled chains of command, and indeed, with ethnic neighborhoods. Much of the software development -- like our group, and the java kids -- was controlled by Ranjit's clique of a half dozen or so Indians. But there was a parallel structure of Israelis with knitted kipas shuttling back and forth between San Francisco and Tel Aviv, whose function seemed to duplicate what the Indians were doing. There was also a set of golf-playing WASP types, Arthur Andersen refugees, who actually were generating the only income the company had. They had a completely separate business soaking large corporations, billing them several hundred dollars an hour to receive the business wisdom of college kids who had been on the payroll for a week or two.
There seemed to be considerable confusion about who was in charge of what, but there were advantages to the uncertainty and ethnic conflict. For example, the enthusiasm for mandatory drug testing from our oppressive corporate overlords back east was deflected by the religious objections of the Israelis, offering an unexpected reprieve for the California dopers that were sprinkled here and there in the java pit.
Our relations with Ranjit were very collegial and friendly, and we soon understood that he shared our analysis that the place was utterly fucked. In fact, he eventually confided in us his plan B. (Or was it the real purpose of setting up our group in the first place?) He saw us as part of the team that the Indians would take to the startup they had planned for after HS tanked, or sooner if the funding they were actively seeking came together. It all sounded very promising, the long-awaited opportunity to get in early on a classic Silicon Valley success story.
Unfortunately, at the same time, Steve was falling apart. He basically had had it with computer work. He started coming in later and later, putting in half days when he was there, never more than 4 days a week, sometimes less. His brief hours in the office were spent tinkering with his system; a Linux fanatic, he became ever less accomodating to the technical status quo, eventually refusing to read any memos distributed in Microsoft formats. As his radical political analysis of corporate America deepened, the whole adventure became more and more distasteful to him, and the pressure of defining one's own tasks, in a system he despised, just depressed him beyond measure. His effectiveness went to zero.
I was pissed, because frankly I was feeling this was a great job, and he was blowing it for all of us. I knew and cared diddley-squat about supply chain management and corporate procurement procedures, but even with my lifelong aversion to the corporate milieu, I was engaged. I enjoyed dreaming up stuff and building it, working with friends in a flexible environment for great pay, and was even exhilarated by just being in the city every day, enjoying the bustle of purposeful people and the sunset view from our 19th story office window. I was also enjoying my new friendship with Cassie, developed in all the mornings we worked together before Steve came in, and the prospect of the Indians' anticipated startup sweetened the bitter absurdity of the current situation with hopes for a lucrative future.
But I couldn't really blame Steve and his spiritual crisis for the mess things were in -- there were plenty of other flaws in the secret startup strategy. For one, Ranjit was the most unreliable person I have ever met. Like a deadbeat that owes so much money that his creditors are forced to trust and support him, he was so consistently unreliable that you just knew that there was no malice or calculation in it. When he stepped out for coffee, saying he'd be back in five minutes and not reappearing until the next day, he really had fully intended to be right back. Things were just moving so fast, he had so many responsibilities having nothing to do with us. Besides, weren't we just there to get free training in Urlang in preparation for the real thing, his post-Horizontal venture, and couldn't we do that quite well on our own? The meetings we were going to have, specifying in detail the grand world-beating products we were to develop, never materialized. The threadbare nature of his vast schemes started to become apparent, and the super secret startup started to look more and more like just another phantom among the others.
I don't know how these rumors work, but everyone knew Axe Day was coming a couple of weeks before it happened. Ranjit came into our office a few days before and let us know that he had been asked to pick a list of people for layoff, and he was giving us the unusual opportunity of choosing whether to be laid off or not. The choice was one of leaving now with a few months of severance pay, or going into the pit with the java kids, for a round of 60 hour weeks until the whole thing went kablooey, which seemed inevitable. We all chose to bail.
The big day itself was a familiar ritual -- I'd been through it all several times before. People love it when something happens, and there was the usual blend of exhilaration and fear, and the strange phenomenon of both those leaving and those staying pitying each other. Just as in the last place I worked, I noticed that the laid-off sales guys seemed to take it harder than the tech people, somehow immediately sprouting three-day stubble and hundred-yard stares. Maybe their professional-grade positive thinking had kept them clueless about the looming disaster, or maybe they were whacked by the thought of the crushing mortgage payments on their oversized houses, SUVs and watches. (I once got one of these guys' paychecks by mistake, and I was shocked to see how little he was making, compared to the way he was living.)
I had backups of all our work safely stashed at home, in case this turned out to be one of those heavy deals with goons who watch you clean out your desk and escort you out of the building. It wasn't like that, though. A grim-faced corporate overlord from back east was sitting in the severance chamber, alongside a local stiff-haired office lady type, as we filed in in groups of five or so to receive our ritual sendoff. The stiff-haired lady tried to give me a hug, of all things, after she had detailed the reasons why we wouldn't be receiving our stock options, even though the date for their vesting was past. All this was too distasteful to bear, and while I was quite glad to be getting out of there, I couldn't help having my little moment of resentment.
The big surprise that day was that Ranjit -- in fact all the Indians -- got chopped as well. This unexpected turn of events had us all giddy with excitement, and plans were made to get together soon for lunch, to plot the glorious future of the new venture. Like every other planned meeting with Ranjit over the previous months, nothing ever came of it. After five or six abortive phone calls and emails, I gave up on thinking that my association with him would bear any fruit. I remembered now the talk about how easy it was to arrange contract programming at a distance with firms in India, and concluded that even if they did get it all together, I probably didn't figure in their future plans.
This layoff for me was the beginning of a series of life-changing reversals of fortune: I had lost my six-figure job, was unable to find any new work, and within a few months the stock market crashed, wiping out my savings. Then I turned fifty. Welcome to the new millenium.
Since then, Steve's been working as a carpenter, and doing a lot of writing, in longhand. Email is no longer a good way to reach him. Cassie's gone on to some other corporate horror, which she is young enough to tolerate, and I eventually found some contract programming work.
I'd love to get into research again.