Bubbles in Silicon
“Are you sure he’s in there. I’ll be in hot water if he’s not.” Harry assured him that he was on a business trip with his boss and that they were due to eat breakfast this morning and fly back to Texas and that his boss had not surfaced, had not answered his phones.
The door swung open and they walked through the small lobby of the suite. Harry turned the corner first and was first to see Joshua Thomas’s body lying half off the bed, his head to the floor, his head above a pool of vomit – a rolled dollar note further from him, a small crumble of tin foil and a white dusting to everything left of the bed.
“I’ll call the manager.” Said the bellboy.
“No wait.” Harry took the guys forearm. “Let me check him first.”
“Sir, this is not good.”
“No kidding.” Harry stepped slowly through the appalling smell. Thomas’s chest was not moving. His knees were almost at his chest. One of his hands lay still in the vomit. Harry crouched and said, “Joshua?”
He reached out and touched Thomas’s shoulder, “Joshua?” Still no response, he took Thomas’s wrist and feeling it cold, looked up at the bellboy and said, “You’d better get the manager, and a doctor. He’s cold, stiff.”
Harry moved his hands to the place where a pulse should beat back against your touch but there was no such place or no such beat. He shook Thomas’s shoulder and said louder, “Joshua?” He did not know what to do with a dead body. Should he open the eyelids and look for a reaction in the irises, or was that for consciousness? Should he move him? He stood up and waited for help to come.
Harry walked across the room to the desk. It had a mobile phone beside a briefcase. The phone was scrolling text sideways, a message. Harry read it as it passed, “Thanks for a great meeting. We’ll call you.” Harry sat down at the desk. Thomas had killed himself.
Harry had first met Thomas in his three days of interviews for the pTalk company of Austin Texas. The p stood for porn and the talk – they made chat rooms. Of course this was the past and Thomas was going legit with the business. He’d bought a new name for the company, but I get ahead of myself.
Harry arrived in Austin on a flight from London. He was met by the kindest boss Harry had ever had. Slightly over-weight, getting on but you’d not notice and Jewish, clever to boot. The perfect boss - never satisfied but thought you were doing your best and liked you for it.
“Hi there. So you made it?”
“It was just a flight, Ed” His bosses name was Edward – Ed - Brooklyn.
“You’re going to love it here. Austin is a great town. So how was the weather in jolly old England? How are the kids? Laura is so looking forward to meeting Georgia.”
The kids were fine and Ed was already talking as if he’d got the job. Ed was now the vice president in charge of development, the same post he’d had in the last company they’d worked together in, in England. Ed had called and said he needed a safe pair of hands. Harry had smiled. But it was an open door and as someone said, always walk through open doors. Of course, have you ever tried walking through closed ones?
They climbed into his child wagon with a dodgy passenger door, ten years of detritus making archaeology possible and a grinding starter motor. Ed scrabbled for the ticket among the things on the dashboard and drove at the same time straight at the gate.
In those days you flew in to Austin over a surprisingly green heart of Texas. You circled the town and flew over the interstate to touch down just past it’s crash barriers. There were two carrousels and the car park was across the road from the terminal. Austin was a million people, studying, legislating, playing jazz, making software or building Dell computers, in a cedar, pecan wood by a lazy brook, they called a river. It had more highways than the whole of London, ten times its size and more its area. And in every quadrant of the town was shopping, eating and drinking, and of all those places that were quaint, unusually or slightly Texas, Mexico or Austin, Ed chose Denny’s to eat their first meal.
“You’re going to love it here. Not a smoke stack in sight. And the people.. Thomas has only hired the best.” Ed was proud, he bought that line, after all, he was a VP.
“So, what does Laura think, you building sticky fixtures for porn sites?” Having something to differentiate your website was key to getting clicks. Having something that would bring people back to your site, loyalty, was the new flavor and made your site ‘sticky’.
“Oh, we not really about porn sites. Sure a few of our customers are porn sites, but we have the BBC, Yahoo and Lotus as our main customers. I’ve not really told Laura anything about those porn sites, so perhaps…”
“Sure, I was only teasing you. I’ll talk about the future of knowledge and the exchange of noble ideas to Laura. I know Georgia wouldn’t be happy if she knew either. Harry hefted his teeth into his burger and squelched effortlessly through its layers, rolled the byte to the side of his mouth to start a Texan chew.
“So, tomorrow you’re going to meet the guys. I’ve lined up interviews for the whole day. Those going well, you’ll get to meet Wood and Thomas Thursday.”
The first day of interviews paraded Harry before the developers. They each had different interviewing techniques and Harry was glad to meet them individually. It started with a woman, large, Texan, but a face like an angel – a Charlie’s angel – TV commercial hair and an accent. She was a trained rocket scientist and wrote user interface software. “Have you used C++?”
Harry had, but she obviously had not. Her questions were practical and showed she’d never debated its finer points over a pint of beer at the pub. She moved on to Java, and Harry was new to Java. Then it was over. Was that it? She smiled. They stood and shook hands.
“Ed says you’re OK. I’ll have to agree with him. I hope the other’s aren’t too tough on you.” She turned for one last look as she left the room. Harry smiled at her. “Don’t get too comfortable”, she said as she closed the door on their gaze.
The next asked a standard interview question which Harry could not have answered had he not been to that same pub. He didn’t tell the truth, but relaxed and watched his interviewer. He was tall and he too had that accent. His name was Wayne Ford, and was not a happy person. He was a server developer and had talked the finer points of C++, so Harry engaged him, “Have you read the purple book?” This was short hand for a book about Advance C++. The guy knew all about it, so Harry asked for help with an explanation of changing the nature of an object at runtime. No bloody fool would use the technique; at least Harry would have been a fool if he had. This mellowed the interview, made it a lesson and enabled Harry to be open and interested.
The day went on and they either had a chat, wanted to know about England, or confronted, wanted to spar code and authorities. Harry had fun, his friends were far worse and his enemies in the past had helped him master an understanding of computing, of data, time and code. Ed picked him up for lunch, this time at some tray-shunting throw back to the fifties where you pulled your choices from Perspex boxes and paid at a cash register for food that was warm but not much else. He then picked him up at the end of the day and reported his teams verdict in the car to his house. “You did a great job. They think you’re wonderful – and you are. Laura will be home late, she teaches south of town and so we’re going to pick up supper and eat back at the house. If you were looking for home cooking, you’ll have to wait until you get home.”
Thomas was a perfect little man. He was small, perfectly proportioned, body weight and very expensive quiet clothes dressed his fitness. He had blond hair, short and a brilliant smile, and shook hands firmly, but not painfully. He welcomed Harry into his large office and offered him a chair at the meeting table, the other side of which was Alan Wood. “We thought we’d meet you together as the team have said such nice things about you.”
“They’re a great team.” Harry sat and Thomas moved round the table to sit next to his chief technology officer. Wood had long greasy brown hair, a round friendly face and heavy eyes, wore jeans and a t-shirt and drove a Ferrari at 24 years old that he likely paid more for on insurance than petrol.
“Have you done much internet coding?” Wood wanted facts.
Harry hadn’t and did not want to hide it. His last project was an e-mail program but he’d been given all the code to handle the internet.
“That’s OK. We have people already that can do that. We need someone to give us a real nice looking front end.” Wood was impatient. “Well, I hope you join us. I think I'll leave you with Joshua to talk the business side.” And with that he upped and left.
“I want to take this company in a new direction. The internet is going to be a business tool and we think we’ve found a opening. We think that telephone support centres are going to be a thing of the past. I have a Gartner Report that says if tele-centers keep growing at this rate the entire population of the United States will end up servicing.” Thomas gave a summary of his PowerPoint summary, since he was only talking to a junior future employee. But since part of the pay was going to be share options, he needed to set a value to them and so he did his mini-investor speech.
“It’s intersecting-highways so we’ll need partners. We’re the best at branded Internet communication, but we know nothing about telephony so we’re talking to the best – we’re looking for converted developers now.” This was a new language to Harry. Was Thomas poaching people from competitors? Harry was un-prepared; he’d not read Sun Tzu. It lasted ten minutes and Thomas finally put some figures on the table, something Harry could understand.
“I’ll need some help with moving.” Harry was looking down the column of figures. The salary was exactly what he’d earned in London and the options would make him truly wealthy, if they matured as Thomas envisioned. But Harry had no savings.
“I’ll arrange that with Ed. Let him know how much you think you’ll need. I don’t think that will be a problem. Do we have a deal?” Thomas stood up and Harry followed him. Harry put out his hand, Thomas shook it and Harry was out the door and returning to Ed’s office. Leaving Thomas’s office you traveled back through open plan brightly coloured and naturally lit offices, past sales, through marketing to the other half of the building. The building centered around a kitchen where company meetings were held and people could make themselves a three course square meal, chew on candy or guzzle any of seven flavors of coloured carbonated water – or a couple of colours of vitamin c enriched still water. But as you left the kitchen on the developers’ side of the building, the interior designers lost their sense of humour. The taller walls of this side of the building were at forty-five degrees to the outer walls of the building, and there was no daylight to be seen. Instead, huge gas lamps hissed in the tall ceiling space and the colours were dark, moody and the sense of oppression complete. In the center of the warren was a cube and in the cube sat Ed, his back to a planner and facing a whiteboard with the list of bugs in the current software.
Life for any manager is trying to make the connection between time and achievement and be right. They would ask you silly questions like “How long will that take?” To which you would reply, “I don’t know. I’ve never done it before. I could guess, but you’d hold me to it. So I’ll sulk until you stop asking.” Far fetched? Far from it. The other strategy was to guess, get it wrong and cause all sorts of problems down the wire. Well, surely if you broke it down, you could estimate the smaller pieces. No, since you’ll only know the smaller pieces if you write it, by which time how long it will take is of no importance. There are so many factors, styles, acts of faith and areas of ignorance involved in software that to say anything is just boasting, sham and very costly in the end – because even if you get it right one time, and some have – who’s to say you can this time. So Ed had stopped asking Harry how long things would take. He now asked how Harry would go about it, what he could do to help and let Harry know what his goals were. They traded features and developers until they had a plan and no one said anything about time. He knew that quality and features mean time – and that you could have two, but not three variables in that discussion.
Harry flew home to his family with a contract in his pocket beside a fat expenses cheque and a project spec. Georgia met him at the airport with the children. She stood there, the most beautiful English girl in the world with short curly brown hair, a worried smile, a blond daughter, a blond son and the smallest, a brown haired tiny version of Harry. “Did you get it?” She asked as she kissed him.
He took her kiss before answering, enjoyed it, as the children’s hands tried to prize them apart. “You guy’s ready to go to Texas?” He came down to their level. His daughter, the eldest was jumping up and down on the same spot, the youngest was hanging from his neck, pleased to see him. The middle child looked worried, he had a host of questions that needed answering before he’d agree and most of them would be shared concerns with his mother. This would require love.
They’d moved to a pecan wood just north of downtown, by late fall. The house was a small stucco building with a small square garden tall in rye grass and shaded by a tall pecan tree at the back, strong enough for a rope swing. They had traded a stand-up kitchen for breakfast bar and fridge that dispense ice and water. The house was empty and would fill piece by piece as time passed and Georgia became more comfortable. For now she shared her homesickness with Harry, alone. Their neighbors had brought pumpkin pie and homemade ice cream to welcome them their first night, and they all sat on the porch in the light of moon towers, tall lamps that had cast light though the trees the intensity of a full moon over Austin’s first suburb since the turn of the century.
The children went off to school in their second hand kid wagon and Harry went to work. He walked in early, or so he thought. Already the desks on the bright side of the office were peopled with eager sales calls and assessments of the previous weeks news service. Groggy developers drifted in and out of the kitchen seeking coffee or worse, Mountain Dew. Ed was at his desk and Harry looked round the door.
“Harry, great to see you. How’s Georgia? I’ve got excellent news.” Harry came into the office and took the visitor’s seat the other side of Ed’s desk and let him continue without interruption. “Joshua has really done it this time. He’s hired John Clair. Just like that. So now the team is complete. Of course, he’s not meant to turn up for a month, but he arrived last night and is coming in this afternoon.” Harry had no idea who Ed was talking about.
“Of course, you know John, he was on the DCOM team at IBM. So he can be the server Architect and you the client Architect and we are set.”
Harry smiled. “Great.”
The kitchen was overflowing with people, crowding from its corners, creating a forum, spilling from both its entrances into the opposite sides of the building. The talk was loud and Harry stood beside Ed on the dark side waiting for the meeting to be called to order. Jo Walsh from marketing stepped into the circle and called for hush. “OK people. Let’s get this meeting going. There’s plenty to celebrate and much to cover.”
He walked the agenda, calling speakers from the crowd and then picking a couple of birthdays for the week ahead, the company sang their celebration in surprising keys. Programmers cannot sing, no matter what they say. Now, tele-sales people, they can sing. The agenda was almost running out of items.
The hush swept quickly across the room as Thomas appeared and commanded everyone’s attention. He had timed it to perfection. They had listened to praise, laughed, heard from accounting how they really should keep the kitchen space clean, from legal to keep secrets of whiteboards from visitor’s eyes and in he stepped in short paces, hands in his pocket, full smile on his face, catching eye contact with key people, nodding. Placing a hand on Jo Walsh’s shoulder, “Great meeting, Jo. I could hear it from my office. Great.” Jo took to the crowd leaving Joshua standing alone in the forum.
“My father once said to me – ‘If you can fill each minute with sixty seconds' run - yours is the Earth.’ We’ve got a long way go. Don’t get me wrong what we’ve done so far is great. We are the best in our space.” Harry smarted. Joshua’s father had paraphrased Rudyard Kipling and stripped all mean from the poem ‘If’, leaving poor little Joshua with a marathon. To Kipling the minute was unforgiving and what’s more the father wished his son to be a man. “This month we hit our target, isn’t that right Jo? But we can see trouble ahead. We need to do more and the space we’re in today is accessible ground. So today I would like to introduce you to John Clair and Henry Wendel.” Thomas had emphasized their names, encouraging applause, catching Harry in the surprise of their gaze as much from having taken delivery of an extra syllable for his last name as for the welcome. “We’re starting a new project today, called bTalk and Harry and John are heading up the project.” Business Talk was conceived.
Behind Thomas stood a tall Indian, thin, with a large noble head and a face that shone through wire frame glasses and black jet hair. He took the attention with a smile of white teeth and down cast eyes. This was the first time that Harry had seen John Clair. He looked extremely clever.
“I’ve taken counsel on this. We mapped the terrain. We know who we’re up against. I want you guys to give these guys every support. Whatever they need.” Thomas was turning to each corner and looking for agreement.
“So people, we have not lost anything, but we are starting again. That’s it. Let’s get to it.” Thomas brought his voice back to normal and turned to Jo Walsh, grabbed Jo’s upper arm and up to his eyes said “Jo can you come to my office once you’ve wrapped up here.” He turned without waiting for a reply and left through the parting wall of people for his office, hands in his pocket, short paced and grinning at key people.
The meeting wrapped, people milled past and through and across the room in all directions. Harry walked through the thinning crowd to John Clair. “I’m Henry Wendel, but I’m called Harry.” He put his hand out to John, who took it without strength.
“John,” replied Clair. “Are we coders or troops?”
“I think we’ve just been made Lieutenants.”
“So, you are English and don’t pronounce the last e of your surname.” Clair’s English was polite, quiet and impeccable. He was asking questions with statements and Harry was aware that he’d have to pay endless detailed attention to keep up.
“I expect the Americans are right – they have might on their side.”
“Hey, that’s great. You two have met.” Ed was standing beside them looking like a proud father. Harry turned to include him, but John seemed off-hand. “Guy’s I’d like you to come and talk with Dwayne. We need to have our department meeting and I want your thoughts before hand.”
Dwayne was not a happy person. He likely had been before exhaustion and endless fine detail, mistakes and deliveries had washed it from him and with the anger manifest in his eyes it would be better described a scrubbed out of him. “You can’t have Julia. I have just three weeks left on this schedule and you want my interface partner to go half time. No way.” Ed, John and Harry found seats and never took their eyes from Dwayne.
“Shall we talk about this? There are some other points I want to go through before the meeting. I suppose we can start with assignments.” Ed was looking for some notes in the papers on his desk. Ed was flustered. He was not comfortable with anger and Dwayne obviously was.
“We won’t need Julia for a month.” John cut through. He held Dwayne’s glare and Harry looked to Ed. Ed looked questioningly back to Harry. It was Harry after all that would be leading Julia in the bTalk project and had asked for her in their planning. Harry nodded.
“Will a month give you time to complete your phase?”
“You cannot ask a coder that question, Ed. How about we review the situation again in say two weeks, see how it goes.” Harry tried to appease Dwayne by cutting across Ed – something he would apologize for afterwards - that is explain, rather than say sorry for.
“OK. Two weeks. But I tell you we have problems with testing. Marketing are insisting that we be cross-platform and there are no machines to test on and just one to code on. And Service is on our case about those changes for Ardent.” Dwayne was making a case for time, felt Harry.
Ed saw it too, “That deadline is fixed. Lotus will cut that disk with or without us.”
There was a silence filled with what Dwayne did not say. “How about those sgi boxes?”
“Give me a purchase order. I’ll sign it.”
Dwayne and Julia were Adam and Eve in a garden of multi-ethnic vagrants, in a city of talent, ego, ambition and cutthroat competition. He was a cowboy with boots on and she was his slim. They were both tired, overworked and climbing that final slope of details and blind-alleys which sent you back to the whiteboard cursing earlier optimism, seeming simplicities that were an illusion. She was foul-mouthed but smiling, sincere, while he looked at everyone but her with hatred and isolation. To her, he cajoled and re-assured, took away piles of complaints to correct with two fingers on a keyboard. She would touch-type her opinions and could care less who heard. Dwayne avoided Harry, and Harry gave him a wide berth.
“Don’t take any notice of him. He’s just a hick. It’s for him that I don’t get to work with a gentleman. Did you get a look at that problem I emailed you?” She had swivelled her high back chair to face him and crossed her legs at the knee, where she placed her hands with their long painted nails, and smiled.
“Yes. Sorry, I have not replied. It’s the threading. You’ll need another thread and sync the reply to the display.” Harry crossed to his desk and sat down, logged in and began to bring open windows of code in the screen. She skated her chair across the floor between their desks and swirled it round to beside his hot seat.
“I’ll what? I didn’t think this was a threading issue. It works fine on my box.” Her box held both client and server and the problem had come back from testing. Timing was the worst problem to solve as it could hide in most tools and be so hard to re-create.
“See. I put a delay here and was able to reproduce it every time. Luck, I guess.”
She looked at his code mystified. Harry wasn’t liberal enough with his commenting and his variable names showed a desire for a more symbolic language. Julia was a strict engineer, with a Microsoft background. To her code was memory addresses and un-readable Hungarian notation. But she was bright, quick and said, “Got it. Thanks.”
Harry had spent six hours for three words and the sight of a Texas belle whooshing back to her workstation. The fact that she hit her desk with the chair lost some of the grace. He’d won his first skirmish; he’d been useful.
Harry returned home that evening after the traffic as the light came up from behind the western hills, on its way down for the night. His exit from the highway led past an opulent new hospital, a new mall with empty boutiques, to the edge of the wood and its moon towers starting to cast their glow. He pulled up into the drive behind the kidmobile and turned off the engine. Light was pouring from every window of the house. Across the street their neighbour was an official in the state government and her husband a stock gambler. Their house had white painted columns that went all the way up past a balcony on the second floor to a pitched roof, shaded by an ancient tall willow. The balcony was screened, but the porch was not, and on the steps to the porch sat his middle child in dungarees being shown how to churn ice cream in a wooden maker of ice and salt surrounding a glass container of cream and sugar.
“It’s heaven.” Georgia was looking through the open passenger window. “Come, Jerry makes the best margarita north of the border. How was work?” She’d been drinking, was radiant and happy. Harry did not mention his success with Julia’s problem. Long ago she had made it clear that she did not wish to follow the minor dramas of coding, the details of his work.
“Is he making ice cream?” Harry put his arm round Georgia, having kissed her and enjoyed the taste of her breath. This felt like celluloid, worse - sepia.
“Ah! Love birds. Come on you two. There’s a whole pitcher to finish before supper.”
Harry never saw Austin traffic. He started before it clogged the highways in the morning, and returned home to a sleepy house long after it had drained away in the early evening. He told Georgia that it was a flavour of the American work ethic, prized by coders and exaggerated by dot com start-ups. He’d be as excited a possible with the children, go in a bit later at the weekend, and even take some Sunday afternoons off. Their dog arrived as airfreight and Georgia would recount long walks along canyons with dinosaur prints preserved in rock, washed by a trickling stream. That year heavy rains had washed down those canyons as Live News Tv covered its destruction to the coast. She and the children went swimming, to every park in the city and spent hours shopping and hanging out with the neighbours. Harry missed them, but Harry was running tired to keep up, exhausted by responsibility.
Work, serious, began in the boardroom. Its doors were flung open and the team walked in to sit around the large table. There were no windows and every wall framed a whiteboard. Alan Wood was sitting at the end by the door with a remote in his hand and opposite him a projector pointing at the far wall. They took seats around the table and Ed closed the doors and dimmed the lights. Julia’s “I love a light show”, was not picked up and hushed we waited for Alan to begin.
Over the next hour he accompanied slides with an explanation of what we were going to build. There was not a lot Harry did not know already, but this was the kick-off. Alan was almost bored. He seemed to convey a sense of cynicism. Julia later explained that to Harry, she recounted a string of passed missed deadlines and Alan being replaced by Ed, promoted to CTO and out of harms way. Dwayne had helped bring Ed in.
“So, by using the existing libraries we can get a head start and get this product out in record time.”
Harry wanted to call a halt to the presentation. But the whole team was there and that meant this was not the place to scream with fright. Using the old libraries, that had the bug list on Ed’s wall, was a nightmare and he was screaming with a hand on each cheek, his chin melting to the floor, his eyes bugged in fright. Sure, they were great products, and yes, logically bTalk was a variation on pTalk’s theme – but hell, margaritas and urine were both in the spectrum of yellow liquids, but one you would only drink at sea or in a desert when dying of thirst; Harry needed the other. Their fate was now locked to the previous projects and to make a success they would have to haul up the entire companies history to the new task. This was not going to take less time. Quite the opposite, it would take more.
Alan Wood completed his show, wished us luck offered an open door to his office at anytime, and left. Ed tried to give the same talk again, said things that suggested he was still mulling over many talks with Joshua Thomas, and soon followed Wood from the room.
We were alone, surrounded by clean whiteboards lit by florescent lights. Harry did not know what to say. John Clair broke the silence with, “Julia and Dwayne, perhaps you’ll like to give us a run through the key features of the existing libraries and we could map some features.”
“I’d like to help, but really, we should be getting back to our project. Perhaps, another time.” The room lost two more people, in fact, with lunch, other meetings and various commitments to other projects, the room emptied until Harry and John sat alone, across from each other.
Over the next two weeks the walls would be covered with marker inks in red, green, blue and orange. As ideas jelled on board gathered a list of items in black ink. The boards would be cleaned and process would begin again. One night, John’s wife called the office at four in the morning and found them still arguing about a timing issue. Her timing issue was more important and they went home to try again another day. John and Harry built a design, and respect for each other’s approaches to the world. John would not code until he knew every detail of what he would build; Harry would dive in a create plenty of interfaces to encapsulate his ignorance or haste. By the time they left the boardroom, Harry had a working proto-type and John a complete specification; they were both happy and exhausted.
How Joshua Thomas heard about the proto-type, Harry never found out. But he was sitting at his desk when Thomas walked round the corner. This was not a surprise. He would regularly walk among the people and chat. He seemed to particularly like Julia’s flattery and sought her out often. What made this a special visit was he had someone with him who Harry did not recognise.
“I’d like you to meet Harry Wendel, our interface guru.” Harry hated the term. He did not deserve it and his protests had no effect. “Harry, this is Alfred Lloyd – a fellow countryman of yours.”
“How’d you do?” The Englishmen shook hands and Harry new that Lloyd was from a world Harry had only seen with the arm of long ago girlfriends wrapped through his, on summer evenings of sport or winter nights of dancing. Harry was instantly a backroom boy not a scholar, an engineer not a scientist, a class below from a class-ridden country he called home.
“Could we give Alfred a demonstration of the proto-type?” asked Thomas, as if extending a glass of water to someone already drinking wine.
Harry paused, realizing that Lloyd must be someone really important or rich, likely both, to be shown the project so early on in development. Without protest, Harry brought his windows into order for a demonstration. It was late and Julia had already clocked off and gone to her dogs and un-employed husband in her natty little car. So he stepped across the office, typed her password into her box and launched the other side of the demo. He returned to his screen and having set up a simple, completely false scenario, turned to Alfred Lloyd and began to plaster the cracks and enhance the illusion.
“So you can see how we have a trace of every page the customer has seen.”
“Like breadcrumbs,” suggested Lloyd.
Harry swallowed. “Absolutely.” Not anything like breadcrumbs. “Just as breadcrumbs show the user where they are in the site our trace shows us where they’ve been. But that’s just the beginning.” The contradiction was filed un-noticed and Harry wished Lloyd would shut up and make this surprise visit less painful. “By tokenizing the products on that trail, we can propose cross-sells and things they have not seen in this part of the screen.”
“We could carry advertising for other people too, that would be another revenue stream,” interjected Thomas. It had to make money and not save it and Harry took the point. He’d been on the technology thread for too long.
“Of course, this is just a simple demo. The real thing will be customizable, the user able to place any of these components anywhere in their designs, branded, just as with our current products. In fact, we are using our current products as the foundation for this.” Harry nearly gagged at his own words being strangled by Wood’s earlier made imposition.
Through the entire demonstration Thomas never once looked at the screen or Harry, but spent his time reading Lloyd. Lloyd was directed, he watched the screen when Harry flourished, listened to Harry when he turned to him and was serious and attentive through out, terrifying.
When they finally left, Harry’s screen was a confusion of windows - proto-types, pictures, slides and code and Harry felt elated that Lloyd seemed to have bought it, and exhausted by the crafting of the fabrications, slight exaggerations, the seemingly spontaneous lies. As always, he’d fixed a bug during the demonstration and appeared a guru. No one seemed to ask the obvious question, what the bug was doing there in the first place, but rather were overly impressed seeing someone do what they knew they never would, that Harry knew they could if they had to. Later Jo Walsh thanked Harry for the show. Thomas never mentioned it. Alfred Lloyd would loose his investment of five million pounds sterling, and would not care; it was not his money, it was Harry’s pension.
“Ardent can go to hell!” This surprising tone came from the cube, Ed’s office. Harry was immediately concerned. Jo Walsh and the head of Services had gone into the cube not three minutes before and already emotions were running. Dwayne’s deadline had been missed and Services were not going to make their monthly target because Ardent would not pay until their features were complete, signed off.
“Dwayne gave him good warning. Ed just hid it from the board.” Julia said to her monitor.
She was still spending each morning going through bugs from testing on the sgi boxes. Testing had received the boxes late and the list was long. Julia had waited for their list, had let testing drive her development. This is something that happens when a developer looses their sense of carrot and fall back to be driven by a stick. Harry was concerned that Julia would bring this to bTalk. He’d mentioned it to Ed and together they had begun to request a larger team, to start interviewing again. But budgets were tight and so Ed was asked to sort out a shuffle of people between Services and Development, which made the Services department hostile, especially since Development were ruining the Ardent relationship.
Joshua Thomas walked passed Harry’s desk. “Hi sweetheart.” He called to Julia, all smiles and a wave. He did not wait for a reply or engage with her, but headed straight to the cube. As if the room could hold no more people, Jo Walsh came out and walked off in Dwayne’s direction.
“I tell you, he’s done it before. I give Ed twenty-four hours.”
“Are you referring to Alan Wood’s promotion to CTO?” Asked Harry.
“Dwayne is the guy. He is the products. Without him this place would be a circus of fast talking sales clowns without a fire truck.”
Harry and John had learned fast. They knew the feature set and had started to use the libraries, but they were arcane, had so much history, so many corrections, un-designed features that Dwayne had made or supervised. Julia had a point and Dwayne knew it.
Jo Walsh left the cube with the head of Services and everything went quiet. They separated and went in the directions of their different offices. Not much could have been said, for moments later Thomas walked out with his hand on Dwayne’s shoulder and they walked off towards Thomas’ office. Harry caught the silhouette of a short lively figure stepping quickly, looking up at a slow striding champion.
Ed came from the cube and in turn invited Harry and John Clair to his office. When they were sitting round his desk he reached a sheet of paper across for them to read.
“This is the request from Ardent.”
“I won’t do it.” Said John Clair and did not continue to read. “I was invited here to build a new product that I had talked to Thomas about for six months, not fix bugs.”
“John, I appreciate your position. Could I ask that you at least read the notes and let me have your thoughts on them? You have had time to get to know the library and your input could help.” Ed was not convincing.
“These are all server features, monitoring functions.” Said Harry.
“Yes, they want to monitor the internal communications within their company. They will distribute our client to every employee. It’s a big order.”
“A big brother. See, keyword scanning and connection frequency grid, with this they’ll get the gist of who’s saying what to whom.” As Harry spoke John began to read over his shoulder and relax some.
“This is ridiculous. All this information is already in the debug log.” Said John disdainfully.
“Really?” Said Ed, and paused to have a look at his own copy of the notes. “But they want real-time notification of alarms and Dwayne said that was why it need to be done in the server.”
“Certainly – but a client on the server with access to the log. Services could do this without a single change. Of course the log would become enormous, but you can roll it frequently, and the client could notify the supervisor.” John did not look up from the paper as he said this. He was scanning for gotchas.
Harry was impressed, smiled broadly in agreement and looked to Ed for a response. “Would you mind if I wrote that up and asked you to review it before I give it to Services?” was his response.
The meeting was over and Ed had just given himself more work having called them in to lighten his load. But he was happy because John had given him a loaded gun and he did not have to shoot himself with it.
The gun went off that afternoon and Harry heard it all through Julia and Dwayne’s gossip at her desk, about Services response, Joshua Thomas’ fury conducted via Jo Walsh and Ed’s getting it back both barrels for involving John Clair.
“I give him a month, now. I didn’t know Joshua knew so many words for asshole.”
“And did the sweetie,” for that was how Julia referred to CEO, “not notice that you missed this solution?”
“Look, with all the work we’re doing I don’t have time to look at all the dumb service problems.”
“You’re right. Look at the time. Time to go home. Do you want me to drop you in a pizza on my way back from aerobics? Or are you going to see your little college girl tonight?”
“Not tonight; we’re going to the opening of that new Chinese place, with Joshua. Double dating.”
“Well excuse me. La di da. You’ll be meeting VCs there soon enough.” VCs were Venture Capitalists and the next step from a sense of being the most important coder in a company was seeking venture capital as a Chief Technology Officer, starting your own dot com bubble. Harry was intrigued. Was Dwayne keeping Julia sweet? And was he not surprisingly close to the head of testing, after all the bugs and trouble he’d had? How far did Dwayne reach into the company?
That weekend Laura finally got to meet Georgia and the kids. Ed brought Laura to dinner and Harry had not gone in to work, had stayed home, had made a mess of cleaning up, and had realized how much Georgia missed him. In fact, Georgia had said she missed adult company, but Harry liked to think she meant him. So the lights were on, margaritas mixed in a larger pitcher full of ice cubes shot from the front of their American fridge. The dining table had a cloth on it, knifes, forks, plates and glasses – all new since they arrival – and candle sticks.
“When did you get these?” Harry asked through the half wall to Georgia in the kitchen. They had rust stains on them. The candle sticks were made of a mellow hew of wood turned in a lathe.
“They are reclaimed wood, from a Texas barn.” Replied Georgia as she brought more things to the table. “You should just like them. I don’t think we should talk about them.”
“How much did they cost?”
“I said we should not talk about them. It will just make you angry.”
“Oh, come on. I won’t be angry. After all, haven’t I said you should spend some of the money we are making – it’s your money too.”
“Four hundred dollars.”
Harry did a double take. No, he did not have time for so much movement. The candlesticks were elegant, and knowing that the stains were from nails or screw, rusted through many Texas seasons. No. Not four hundred dollars worth!
“We bought them at a gallery. Jane said they would be collectors items soon.”
“Debt collectors items. Four hundred dollars….” Harry did not have time to follow Georgia in to the kitchen and untangle the candles from what he’d encouraged her to do and what she’d actually done, her sadness and the opportunities that should have given her hope, because Ed and Laura were at the door and his youngest was holding it open for them.
“He’s so cute. I’m Laura and you must be Georgia.”
“I hope you’re not referring to Harry, since we were just building up to a weekend fight. I’m sorry. Hello. Harry is so happy to be working with Ed again and we really should have come and seen you before now.” Georgia was now the gracious hostess and hustled Laura into their spacious kitchen that led to the back porch, the pecan tree and its rope swing.
Ed and Harry were left in the dining room.
“Great candles!” Said Ed.
“Don’t go there! That’s what the fight would have been about.”
“No. They are collector’s items. But I guess I don’t pay you enough to be a collector, not yet.”
“Would you like a margarita? We could join them on the porch.”
“Perhaps we should let them speak and have ours on the front. I would like to chat about some stuff if you don’t mind.”
So the women and children peopled the back of the house and Harry brought margaritas to the front porch and sat with Ed in the dying sun coming from behind the giant willow across the street.
“Laura and I looked at this neighbourhood. It’s what the realters call quaint. Isn’t that right?”
“Coming from the third world, we thought we should ease our way into the land of the free. Georgia loves it here. It’s great.”
“I’m not sure how you’re going to take this. I think I’m being promoted sideways. I had a talk with Joshua Thomas Friday evening. I thought I should tell you since I am the reason you and Georgia are here.”
“What do you mean? Is this about Ardent?”
“No. The job is a poison chalice. Services can make time by asking us for features they don’t need. That makes them look good. Testing maintains a huge list of bugs and though we grade them the count never seems to come down. I report the bugs to each board meeting and Jo Walsh decided to chart them. We have no Severity One bugs this week and yet the list is still two hundred items long.”
“And our being late is not helping matters.” Harry was sad. As he’d expected, using the existing libraries was proving a nightmare. They were behind, even if you took into account that time was not a requirement.
“We have six weeks and have to deliver a completed product across the state border for accounting and legal.”
“We can’t do it.” Harry drank to hide his anger. Ed was here to soft touch him into bring John Clair along with a deadline. What Ed was asking was for time and features, which mean quality would suffer, the project would be run on a bug list, the project would be run by the stick.
“Well you have a choice. Either you deliver for me or I’m out and you deliver for someone else.”
“Or I could just pack and go home now.”
“No. That is not an option. This is your break. Your share options could set you up for life.”
“You’re right. But why six weeks?”
“We need revenue stream from bTalk this quarter. Joshua has said as much to one of the investors. He wants the growth record for the IPO. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like this any more than you do. It doesn’t have to work. We need to ship to a customer and Joshua has arranged with Ardent that we can ship them anything and they’ll pay for it, this quarter.” IPO is initial public offering, when a company seeks a listing on the stock exchange, the goal of every dot com bubble was to burst onto the NASDAQ. For Harry that would mean that his options would be worth real money, they would be shares and he could sell them.
“Ed you are being rude. Georgia has made us this greatest meal and you’re hiding out her with Harry.” Laura was a nervous woman, but she wasn’t nervous with Ed. And so they went back to the dinning room and sat down to eat.
A protocol change is when the information that comes from the Server is added to or removed from, changed. It can work the other way too. The information the client provides to the server may change in format, length or nature. When this happens either the server team or the client team have extra work to do to bring the two components back into harmony. Trouble occurs when a protocol change happens un-announced.
“Ed, we’re stuffed!” Harry was striding into the cube and did not sit down.
Ed looked up from his laptop and turned to Harry wanting to ask a consoling question, concerned. But Harry gave him no time.
“Someone… No let’s face it. Dwayne has changed the protocol and committed it to source control a week ago and there was no bloody notice, meeting, anything.”
“Aren’t you working on a branch?”
“No. He suggested we use the main library as he was only adding features or fixing bugs that would not affect the protocol. John said he would live with that and I did not see any problems.”
“Can’t we roll back and branch?”
“This was a week ago. He shipped it on Wednesday. You were there.”
“OK, OK. What’s the impact on you?”
Harry walked over to the bug list whiteboard, still full of coloured items and cleared a space beside the list. He drew boxes and lines, wrote inside the boxes and above the lines, put arrowheads on some lines, little crows feet on others, all the time talking Ed through the model of the client, all the time wishing Ed was more familiar with what her was talking about. He then drew little boxes wrote in them and drew long lines from the centre of their bottom edge to the bottom of the board. He linked the lines out in one colour, changed colour and came back, change back to the first colour… until the board was covered and the product had done it’s job. For among all the lines and boxes stood a little stick figure – software developers call the actor and this was his stage. Harry ended his talk by putting a sad smile on the actor’s face and gave him two eyes, the last of which made the pen un-usable, its tip driven into its body. Harry threw the marker pen into the bin beside Ed’s desk and waited for Ed to speak.
“You’ll just have to make those changes. I’ll do what I can. Let me speak to Jo Walsh.”
This meant Harry would be spending every waking minute for the next five days through the weekend, bringing peace and harmony between two married components whose only communication was the protocol. It carried everything between them and made the impression that each had of the other. Georgia would be less happy still.
During that five-day crunch – a time of little sleep, adrenaline tempers and all hands to the keyboard – Joshua Thomas called John Clair and Harry to his office. They walked in and took the two seats prepared at his meeting table for them. John reached for the water bottle and opening it poured himself a glass. From exhausted eyes he asked if Harry would like some. Harry took the bottle and poured himself a glass. Thomas sat down opposite them, placed a jewel case containing a CD-ROM on the table and shunted it across the table at them. John’s hand lit out and stopped it from going over the edge.
“What’s this?” Asked Harry.
“A week of Ardent’s internal email. You’ve both signed NDAs; I signed them. You are the only ones to see this material and I want the report as soon as you can get it to me – sooner.”
“We’re just fixing a protocol change. We should be able to get to this sometime next week.”
“But it’s email and not in our format.” Said Harry in his best technical accent intended for the mentally insignificant.
“This is key. Sooner.” Said Thomas in the same tone as before, unfazed.
John had not said anything. He opened the jewel case and looked at the spectrum of colours bouncing from the disk in the light from Thomas’ window, as if he’d not seen daylight or a rainbow before – almost child like. “You’ll have it in forty-eight hours. Do they know what we are looking for or is this just garbage to see what we do with it?”
“I think they have something there. It’s two months old, enough time to have ploughed through it.” Thomas’ reply to John suddenly made Harry an observer. They were talking at a different level, not software but business.
When they left Thomas’ office John took Harry outside the building, took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. John did not smoke. You could tell by the way his lips made special room for the cigarette, the way he held it, the way most of the smoke came quickly back out of his lungs and mouth.
“Harry, this is it. Don’t worry about the protocol. I’ve been waiting for this. I need your help. Can you write something to convert the emails into our stream and create ids from all the email addresses?”
“Sure, if we don’t have to do it for real. I can bodge as well as the next hacker.”
“Then let’s do it. I have some stuff I’ve not checked into source control, but it will need some work. Get your team to carry on and we’ll do a local branch and stuff this data into the programme. We have to find what Ardent knows in forty-eight hours. If we can’t they know we’re not there and we’ve had it.”
“But Ardent are going to take whatever we produce by the cut off. It doesn’t have to work.”
“Like hell. They’re our prime investor.” He ground the cigarette beneath his shoe. It lay there, half smoked, split from end to filter, its un-smoked tobacco open to the air.
The company picnic was that Sunday afternoon. Harry returned home to pick up Georgia and the children after lunch. He and John had run Ardent’s data through the programme that morning and John had the report with him. The children came running out to meet him as he turned the engine off in the drive. The eldest was in a beautiful dress, her hair up in a French plait, the boys were in clean pressed jeans, belts and polo t-shirts with sneakers and socks that matched-a pair not just similar in make or colour, paired in a hurry, paired by lonely hands, but identical. Their hair was combed with partings and they had all just been forced to brush their teeth – in short they were presentable angels.
“Mummy says we have to take swimming things. Is there going to be swimming?”
“And volley ball, and dancing. Will you dance with me?” Harry asked his daughter, taking each hand in his and admiring her. She was ten and would be beautiful when he had paid for her smile; compensated for the genes he and Georgia had given her.
They climbed into the car and Harry turned to the house. Georgia was standing at the door looking for keys in her handbag. She was in a sleeveless scarlet red dress with a collar that came up her neck and folded to points, a hem that floated out just below her knees. Her hair, too, was up and the curls rebelled unlike his daughter’s – she was splendid. She turned, having locked the door and caught Harry’s gaze, “You’re late. We’d better hurry.”
“You look wonderful. There’s no hurry. It only started half and hour ago. Do you have the map?”
“It’s all in the car. Seat belts children.” If she had smiled Harry would have seen that she was even more beautiful and the children would likely not have squabbled in the back as they followed the map and directions to the sports ground.
“You’re other left Harry!” She spoke with years of disappointment. “You’d have thought with a brain they’d want to import to America, that it could be connected to some social, human functions. No, just code, just bloody code.”
“I’m sorry. It confuses me. The map is upside down in your hands.”
“So listen to me. Trust me! Stop endlessly second-guessing. Children sit back in your seats. Stop hitting your brother.”
The car park was full and they squeezed into a space at the end. Georgia, Harry and the kids had to get from the sliding doors, as the other cars were too close to open the front doors. Georgia made final adjustments to the children gathered around her dress, but could not raise a smile from them. They were nervous. Harry came down to their level and found something to raise a corner of each mouth – a tickle, cuddle, mention of dancing, mention of volley ball. When he stood up he had returned to the level where such things would not have any affect. She was not happy. But as they all walked to the entrance, did her back change in relation to her shoulders, did her step become more pointed, was that a smile in her eyes –surely she knew how she looked?
Harry headed straight for John Clair, his family coming along behind him.
“Georgia, Texas agrees with you.’ John took both Georgia’s hands, much as Harry had taken his daughters hands at home. Georgia’s face was alight.
“It would be better shared. Do you neglect Debra?”
John Clair had children too, and they were already swimming. Georgia took the children and went in search of Debra and John’s family. She could tell that Harry wanted to talk to John.
Harry and John walked over to a crowd and waited by its edge. The crowd began to disperse. Shoulders were held, hands shook, heads came back in laughter and volleyed phrases dispersed it further. From out of the thinning crowd came Joshua Thomas.
“Let’s talk the other side of the swimming pool.” He said walking passed in the direction he’d suggested. Harry and John walked with him.
“Did you find anything?”
“I’m not sure, but I think it might be significant. The map is not very extensive and it could just be the small sample size.” John was not saying sorry, he was apologizing. He was proud. He knew the software worked. “Have you heard of a company called Solution Box?”
“Ardent are investing, via an intermediary. The communications flow out solely through a non-executive, Alfred Lloyd. And the prospectus was a word document authored on a machine inside our company – Dwayne.”
None of this web surprised or fazed Joshua Thomas. “Sun Tzu says you must kill who ever leaks and who hears a leak.” With that he took the report. It was not a subtle threat. “Ship your project – I’m going to set up a meeting. You have two months and we’ll demonstrate it to Microsoft. And Harry. This time, no bugs – no coding during the demo – these people can see a fake from fifty thousand feet. That’s a deadline, gentleman, meet it. Georgia!” She was standing there her hair lit by afternoon light and her expression a challenge, an enticement to danger.
“Joshua.” Georgia had addressed Thomas by his first name, something Harry had never done. Harry was again an observer, for Joshua and Georgia were not talking, she was inviting him to fight.
“Harry, you have not danced with your wife?” He was not asking Harry, and did not wait for a reply. “You will dance with me – your dress, your shoes, demand it; I demand.”
“Then I shall have to obey, for I would not be left here naked, since my dress and shoes would surely obey the one who paid for them.” Georgia sounded like Shakespeare to her host.
“He didn’t know.” Said John Clair as he and Harry watched Joshua Thomas take Georgia’s hand and walk her to the tent and its dance floor in the fading light.
“You must admit it’s a surprise. Dwayne is a pain. That delay was to start Solution Box. Who do you think will go with him?”
“Julia and the head of testing, I should think. Maybe Walsh, as well.”
“Jo Walsh? But he’s Thomas’ closest employee. He knows everything.”
“Precisely. And you can bet that tomorrow Dwayne’s next investor will be Joshua Thomas, and a fat severance check. The last shipment was a small bug fix. He’s done his job.”
“And a protocol change. I have to get back to work.”
“We both should. Debra will drop off Georgia, so we can take your car. We have a real deadline.”
Later that week the accounting deadline was up. The build was fixed in the early hours of the morning and as the sales team came in John and Harry were cutting the CD-ROM. Julia brought her Mountain Dew can to clank against Harry’s glass; she’d stayed the night to help. “Congratulations. You’re first American child.”
“I would say ours, but I am a married man, or at least was when I last noticed.”
“I had no idea you were a romantic Englishman. I would have tried harder. Don’t tell me, you love your wife?”
Harry did not answer as the tray holding the disk moved out from the box in front of them and John Clair came into the room as if he’d timed it.
“I’ll give that to Jo Walsh and we can all go home.” Said John, taking the disk from the tray and placing it in a jewel case.
The disk contained a programme that would work in two modes. The difference between them was a simple one hundred and twenty eight character string of text, and that manifested as the difference between ten thousand dollars and one million. For the ten thousand dollars your server would suggest products to your customers, would remember their name and what they were interested in, had bought and what problems they had with your products. For a million dollars it would build a matrix of people and products, secrets and any other corporate emotion or drama, would link by frequency and proximity, would describe the ebb and flow of ideas, thoughts and expression through out your company’s communications. Though far sighted then, such a matrix filters junk mail in most personal computer email software for free today. The problem was that it did not work, yet. Advent was paying a million dollars for the cheaper version.
“Just today off, then. Back at dawn tomorrow?” Harry got up and followed John from the room. He went to his car in front of the building and, as more employees arrived to take their places, Harry drove from the lot and headed for the highway. They would have to fix the bugs in the full version quickly as the longer they had it working at Ardent the more they would have for the show at Microsoft, and the previous sample had shown that they needed more than a week of data. Harry was driving against the traffic and made good time home. He passed the hospital. John had explained to Harry that Microsoft would want confirmation of a corporate secret that they were aware of from inside Ardent. With their programme working with a company nothing would be a secret. Data would pool in the programme and the knowledge would flow up the corporate tree like sap seeking sunshine and flow back as control, the biggest problem facing the boardrooms and executives everywhere. As companies became small marketplaces, collections of mergers and spin-offs, cross-investments and internal competition, executives had lost a straight line of control to the company’s products, delivery and customer satisfaction. Now they were expected to draw from a host of streams a profit that would keep their stock growing, improve their returns and failing that there was their parachute.
Harry went into freefall. Outside his house was Joshua Thomas’s Porsche. Harry drove into the driveway and sat without turning off the engine. He was paranoid – so he pulled up his shoulders, turned of the engine and stepped from the car. The front door opened.
“Great. Harry. Did you get the disk to Jo Walsh?”
“He left about a half-hour ago.” Harry looked to Georgia with a cautious smile. “Hi there.”
“I brought Georgia a guitar to keep her from being lonely while I keep you hard at work. Great job, by the way. Fixed the build. That’s great. Come see me tomorrow, we’ll plan the Microsoft meeting. Tell John.” These short addenda were fired at Harry as Joshua waved to Georgia, walked across the lawn to the street, around the back of his car, got in, revved the engine and drove off at speed.
Georgia stood in the door her hand around the neck of the guitar, holding it away from her slightly as if it were a gift, a dead-plucked chicken. “Are you home for the day?” She was wearing a Brookes Brothers shirt, jeans and white pumps. The shirts she had taken to wearing when Harry had worked for a company that had had a t-shirt revolution. Since then he’d worn t-shirts that spoke his code, his favourite products, the exhibitions he’d attended and the companies he’d work for. But she was standing there and he was surprised, surprised that through all his exhaustion and fear he felt desire, an emotion that would clash with the hard surface Georgia had grown since being left alone for so long.
“Can I make us some coffee?” Harry asked, following her into the house.
The next morning Harry went into work late, pulling up into his space in the parking lot at nine o’clock. He took his usual path through the building, past the cube. But he did not greet Ed as usual as Ed was packing brown cardboard boxes with his papers.
“What’s going on?”
“Harry. I’m moving office. I am now responsible for Intellectual Property and Legal.” Ed had been moved sideways.
“But we shipped- you shipped.”
“Hey. That’s OK. Something tells me that if I knew what you know, that I would understand better that both of us. But I don’t and one day you’ll tell me and we’ll marvel at the deceit and intrigue spun by power.”
Harry let his request hang and go unanswered. Instead, he picked up one of the boxes. “Go on, get to work. We can talk later”, said Ed, pulling the box back to the desk and not meeting Harry’s eyes.
Harry walked to his desk, leaving Ed to pack. As he sat down, he saw that Julia’s desk was tidy, her screen off. It made his think about her bantering about how long Ed would last as VP of Development. She had been right- Ed had lasted until she had left. Her desk, too, was clear. He got up and walked across the corridor and looked into Dwayne’s area. Clear. He went further over and walked into John’s cubicle.
“The rats have left.”
John looked at Harry, with a smile. “Will you mind working for me?” There were boxes by John’s desk. “I am the new VP of Development. Fewer levels of indirection – I will report to Joshua directly, and, of course, to the board.”
“Congratulations. I feel like I should go back to bed or wake up. That’s great.” Harry felt he was turning superficial. Inside he was seething at the injustice for Ed, and yet at some level he felt that John deserved the position.
“I have two ex-colleagues turning up this week. They will help fill in for Dwayne and Julia. One will help you, he’s not seen the code. The other has shared the code with me for a while now. That will give me space to do more VP work – reach out. Ed looked in too much. We need to look for partnerships. You’ll like them. They are Russian.”
Harry felt more junior each phrase. How long had John been working on this shift. Had he ever worked for Ed?
The Russian’s arrived on schedule and huge whiteboard sessions that made Harry’s head hurt, seemed to be consumed by them as if chess plays. They anticipated each feature of the design. They congratulated Harry on his use of interfaces, his layering of the library. They also made suggestions; un-swamped by the detail that Harry was ladling them. And so the loss of Dwayne, Julia, the head of Testing and Jo Walsh resulted in a jump in intensity, not a fragmentation, not a lack of energy.
Julia swept round the corner. “Hello, sweetie? Miss me?”
Harry stopped typing. She was dressed to kill. She looked rich. “Julia, what have you done? You look a million bucks.”
“Not far off, at least if you keep working my investment. I expect you to do your best now, be the gentleman for me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m just in to sign my paper. I vested last week and so my share options are locked in. You make it big and I’ll be in diamonds. So, you work for me now and I want you to do a good job.” She stroked his cheek.
“How’s Solution Box?”
“You know a lot. Well, I guess it’s no secret any more. Come and see us sometime. Dwayne will offer you a job.”
“Something tells me that Thomas wouldn’t like that.”
“I don’t know. Stranger things have happened. See ya!” And she walked back the way she had come looking back at him over her shoulder.
“Who was that?” Asked a low voice that rolled its vowels. “Can she code?”
The heavy lifting Harry had been doing since arriving in Texas had enabled him to get used to a pace of little sleep, hard word and strain. He had watched their code grow at a steady, often frustrating, lift. But over the next two week what was rising slowly from the ground with his and John’s efforts, flew up with the help of the Russians and the core of the advance product was complete, delivered and installed. The work did not stop there.
“How is the stream?” Joshua Tomas asked as he leafed through the first report. The programme had been gathering data, more data than they had anticipated.
“We’ll need another server.” John replied.
Thomas looked up with pleasant surprise on his face and read Harry and John’s faces. “We need to meet with Jo Walsh.”
“Jo?” Asked Harry. Jo had left with Dwayne to start Solution Box and Harry could not understand the connection.
“I want you two learning from his reaction to this report. He knows Ardent.”
When Jo Walsh read the report, they were sitting at a large round rosewood table in a private room at Crispin’s Chinese Restaurant. Before them were cold crisp iceberg lettuce leaves on white porcelain plates, beside oval dishes of stir fried hot meet filling speckled in red chillies, beside a small circular dish of clear vinegar in which floated small green chillies. Harry had moved a curl of lettuce to his plate, had place heaped spoons of filling within it, had lightly sprinkled it with vinegar, had rolled it’s edges to form a perfect package, had raised it to his lips.
“Get out!” Jo Walsh exclaimed. “The low down, dirty, just…” He’d run dry and Harry waited with the food before his mouth. Someone else was going to ask for an explanation and he did not want to miss it. But no one did, so Harry opened his mouth. The vinegar wakes your tongue, cooled by the lettuce, and as the lettuce breaks, your teeth feel the warmth of the filling. The filling is almost sweet, certainly oiled, and the salad of taste is made splendid by hunger and the waiting as the dishes are placed and ordered upon the table. Harry waited a moment and chewed. Here was subtlety, elegance and flavours.
Harry was the only person tasting the food before them. John was drinking a glass of still water, Joshua Thomas had prepared a lettuce parcel and Jo Walsh was still reading having pushed aside his plates to make a space for the report. Both John and Joshua were watching Walsh.
“We think it’s entertainment,” said John, as he raised his glass to cover the end of the statement.
“That’s possible. But who would you be giving this to to use?” Walsh was asking Thomas, despite the prompt from John. Thomas did not answer, and by the look in Jo Walsh’s face he did not expect an answer. They were reading each other, patiently working through back thoughts and pieces of each other’s lives to find the person that would need such information to become a sponsor of a whole new venture inside Microsoft, a king maker.
“But this is quite a package they’re talking about. A DVD, network access, graphics sub-system and a whole new bus.” It is hard to define what is a platform. To someone from marketing it is a brand, from engineering a coordination of separate components, to software a library, language and instruction set and to the people who count is a marketplace for competition, co-operation and a fight for revenue. That all these different interests could come together and become something greater than its parts, that is a platform – and what was forming around the table was that Apple were building an entertainment platform and that Ardent were part of the effort. Standing in the matrix of contacts and communiqués were the pieces of a platform and bTalk had brought them together.
“It would be a surprise, Microsoft building hardware.” But if you have someone I would say you have about two weeks before it becomes useless.” Walsh closed the report. “Apple will leak.”
John Clair drove Harry home from the meeting. He had not said a word since prompting Walsh. Harry sat in the passenger seat and watched in silence as the climbed onto the highway and raced over the city on the way to his pecan wood and its moon towers.
“Why would Microsoft want to build hardware?” Harry said to the window.
“It is a shift, no more. They won’t build anything; it’s just a new marketplace. They consider different ones all the time, like a lighthouse, they cast their cash, their favour in all directions looking for a ship to founder on rocks. They’ll seem to be saving it, but they’ll drag out the survivors and kill them on the shore, they’ll plunder the cargo and sell the hull for scrap. I’ve seen it.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you use a metaphor before?”
“Bitter lyricism. I need to know whom we’re going to meet at Microsoft. Joshua won’t tell us.” Harry took this to mean that John did not want to meet up with someone he knew, someone from his past.
“Harry.” They were outside Harry’s house. “Can you do something for me. I have to be out for the next two days. Debra needs to visit her mother. But could you do a triangulation between our log and Ardent again, like we did when we found Solution Box? Wouldn’t you like to know who we are going to meet. Let’s see if bTalk can find them.”
“That will be a fun surprise for Joshua.”
“Yeh. But don’t tell him. I want to be there when we show him.”
It was late and John drove off leaving Harry standing in the quiet of the street before his house. He walked across the lawn to the front steps. The sound of guitar strings plucked by awkward fingers, halting bursts of rhythm held him at the door. The music stopped and Harry opened the door. Georgia was sitting by an empty grate on a low stool beside their large green sofa. She looked up, her fingers extended round the neck of the guitar, her other arm over its body, a book of music open at her feet and her expression changed slightly for him.
Harry turned off his computer. He had a new report in a folder beside his keyboard. He would go home early today, he would be in time for the children’s supper. bTalk would be capable of two hundred varieties of report, each subtly different, by the end of the week. His role had changed. He was now a capable user of his own software and the team were connecting loose ends, tidying up and fighting the few small fires of hardware, networks and extending features. Harry was mapping concepts, searching for people and subjects to extend the grid. There were only a few days left, the meeting was scheduled and his plane tickets were in the top drawer of his desk wrapped in an itinerary.
Picking up the folder he walked to the cube. John was on the phone and so he mimed the report to his desk and waved. He wanted to hurry from the cube and tapped his watch at John and thumbed towards the door. John nodded and smiled in exaggeration. Harry left and the smile dropped from his face. He fumbled for keys in his pocket as he walked through the lobby and out to his car. By the time he was sitting in the drivers seat his expression was confused, anger in his eyes and sadness about his mouth. He saw himself in the rear view mirror briefly as he turned back towards the front from reversing out of his parking spot. Joshua Thomas’s car was not there. He stopped, realized he’d have to change his expression before he saw the children. The children. What would he do with them? His face became solely sadness. He drove from the lot.
Harry sat in traffic. The sun was out, the day was over and the night was not here. It was strange to be among people on the highway in slow motion. Harry felt impatient and let his anger rise. But he kept coming back to the children. He kept feeling empty. He pulled off the highway early and took to the long streets that would lead through interchanges to his neighbourhood.
He turned into his street. Children were playing outside houses, in the yards, on the lawns. They had basketball hoops to leap at, skates to fall from and some were on porches hunched in thumb racked crouches intent on little screens – game boys, active only in their hands and eyes. His middle child was such a cramped statue on their porch as he pulled into the driveway. His youngest rode past the back of the car on the sidewalk with a little girl. “Look at me, Daddy,” he called and veered onto the lawn. The little girl stopped and waited for him to come back onto the sidewalk.
Ed’s daughter opened the front door before Harry could. “Mr Wendel. My father was going to pick me up later. Should I take the bus?” She was surprised, and confused by Harry’s surprise.
“I could call you a taxi.” Harry suggested.
“That’s OK. I came by bus and its not late. Your wife will be back at eight. I’ve started the kids’ supper. You can have mine.”
It was a difficult meal for Harry. He was feeling like a stranger and the children were not comfortable. When Georgia did return, late, the youngest was the only one to run to her in unconditional love and fuss about her legs. The elder children turned to follow Harry’s gaze. “We need to talk,” said Harry, “Can you help me with bedtime?”
Harry knew the idea of bedtime. Before they’d come to Texas, he had been comfortable with it. He had learned to read aloud for the eldest children and they had travelled together through early evenings of Nania and Middle Earth from Dear Zoo and all of Seuss’s strange image of simple English made funny. But the teeth brushing and pyjama hunt was rushed this evening. The tucking in was hurried and distracted.
“You’re seeing Joshua Thomas.” The children were upstairs and not yet sleeping. Harry and Georgia were in the kitchen. She was loading the dishwasher and finding a glass for a child’s water.
“So.” The glass came down to the counter in punctuation. “What of it?”
“Do you love him? What am I meant to do?”
“Just keep working. It has taken you two months to notice.” Her anger turned when she saw how Harry was shocked and confused by the way the conversation had gone. “It’s nothing Harry. I love you. We’re a family. You’re just never here. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“What about the children?” That did not match her argument. “What about out marriage?” It was not the same marriage on both sides. “What about me? I thought you were in love with me?” Harry was not yet in the same conversation, he was new to it and Georgia had been here for far longer, alone.
“I do love you, Harry. I’m just having fun. You remember that? When was the last time we had fun. You’re a workaholic and I’m fed up with being alone.”
The breakfast bar was still between them. Georgia turned her back to him and filled the glass from the door of the fridge. “Things will change. The meeting is two days away. Then we can be together.”
“How did you find out?”
“bTalk. I scanned the company communications. He has other lovers, you know?”
Georgia smiled and left the room with the glass of water before her. Harry did not follow her. He was crumpled by confusion on a chair. When she came back into the room, having walked quietly down the stairs, she came over to him. “So do I.” And put her hand on his face. It burst rage at her and she quickly said, “You.”
His rage was subsiding like the sobs of a child, its tears his eyes that she avoided, its nose running his words that expressed confusion and powerlessness. Its clenched fists, like Harry’s, eventually relax and open to become hands. Georgia took Harry’s hand, she reached out to him and there it was, large, a sad weight in hers.
The kiss that could and eventually did follow was an unwrapping. She cajoled him, re-assured him. They had a family, and they had something that would come back. But she wanted to show him her new toys. She played her guitar and they talked. She ran to the bedroom and excitedly brought back a small packet of tinfoil.
“You must try some.” She unfolded the foil on the glass top of a side table. She had a razor blade and began to cut and scrape lines of clumping white power, neat precious lines. “Give me a the newest bill in your wallet.” And she rolled it and passed in back to him. “You know what to do. It’s a cliché until you feel it.” Her eyes were excited.
The little they had made Harry more talkative and she listened in quietly. He fetched their scotch and they drank with ice cubes from the fridge door clicking their glasses.
They went out onto the back porch and Georgia lit a cigarette and drank from her glass.
“Harry I want to talk to you about your meeting with Microsoft. I worry about you.”
“Worry? bTalk works. They’d be fools not to take it.”
“Harry, it’s more than a meeting about software. You’re a clever person. It’s about people, Harry. Not software.”
“Sure its about software. If they put this in Exchange, then there isn’t anything that could surprise a board, a true unique selling point. And we did it.”
“Yes, it’s amazing – amazing that in such a short time you and John could bring it off. But that’s not why you’re going to the Valley. Do you think they would have a meeting if they did not already know that bTalk worked?”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know. This is Joshua’s one chance. He’d be a prince.”
A Prince? Such language had no place in the home of the brave, of the free or the equal. American’s love to tell English people that their country is not a class ridden society – despite having boarding schools as old as any in Europe, clubs as exclusive as any on Pall Mall, families that have enjoyed generations of privilege from roots as old and corrupt as any noble manor of the shires. America is vicious about failure, and as much as it wounds it welcomes the new, the first chance, a break, an opportunity to fill out dreams, make them real and burst their seams with success. There is an under-class of the failed, the poor, the could-have been, and daily its citizen travel up into a new chance with a new crowd to try again. But the higher you go the fewer the players and Joshua was one step from the top. There would be no way back for Joshua, no second chance, he had no family as Ed had, nor Ed’s intelligence.
Just as the Victorians had nurtured the magnates of industry, the Internet had produced Earls, the princes of their age; and Machiavelli, still the handbook of courtiers, would have served Harry better than a library of volumes on C++ or Java. Georgia tried that night to bring Harry’s life of the past year into a new light. She tried to help him see Joshua and Jo Walsh, Ed and Dwayne, Julia in a play of power upon a stage unchanged by time.
It was not until he saw the message on Joshua’s phone that her words took meaning, the tragic contorted figure of Thomas half off the bed opposite. The meeting had been the software success that Harry had said it would. The four executives, their hosts, were impressed and told them as much after a cool reception. Joshua Thomas had strode into the building, up stone steps to a huge glass atrium, a lieutenant at each shoulder, the glass wall parted silently before them. He did not have to announce himself, there was no receptionist; he was expected and his host was waiting, they were on time, to the second.
The subject must have been a surprise, and the means by which bTalk had un-earthed it now seemed natural – not sophisticated, not a year of work and exhaustion – but obvious, simple. Just as a word, a simple collection of letters can hide a life time of complexity, detail, pain and joy, can within the folds of it sound mask us from our confusion, our losses and gains – the whole project became just so, complete. And their hosts acknowledged this by understanding the simplicity of what John and Harry described in their presentation. Their hosts’ names were on the report Harry had given John days before, recovered along with Georgia’s meetings with Joshua.
Joshua Thomas did not say very much at the meeting. He let John and Harry carry the detail. He had brought this concept to his hosts, had made his teams effort possible. He had envisioned this, had sought out the people and power to make this possible and now he knew he need say no more. He sat there without smiling, waiting, watching his offering unfold before them.
The coroner placed Thomas’s body in a black bag and zipped its length closed. Pictures had been taken, positions exchanged between strangers, pleasantries between those accustomed to meeting at such scenes. Harry was soon taken from the room to let it become a place of work. A young police office took his statement asking, “Sir, I have been asked to record the details of your relationship to the deceased.” Harry was his employee. No, he did not know him personally. No he did not know his full name, his address or his family. No, he did not know Joshua Thomas.
Harry took a taxi to the airport. He waited to re-schedule his return to Austin. John Clair had left them the night before after their celebration meal. He’d a friend in the Valley he wanted to look up. So Harry was not expecting him when he turned the corner and came straight to Harry. He was smiling and Harry suddenly was confused. How was he going to tell John about Thomas?
“It’s OK, Harry I know. Look, I’m not coming back with you. I’m staying here a few days. I want you to think about something. I want you to join me.”
“I don’t think I can do that. I did not see any of this happening. I’m going to take my family home.”
“It was great working with you. We did it, and I could not have done it without you…”
As Harry sat in the plane he wondered how much his naivety was what John Clair had needed most. Could Harry have changed anything? The text message on the phone had told Thomas that there was no further action necessary that they were talking to someone else. It did not matter that they were talking to John Clair; they were not talking to Joshua Thomas.
Harry was going to have to find Ed and tell him everything. He was going to have to tell Georgia.
He got to his front door, lit in night shadows, put his hand to the handle, and heard the sound of a cord from Georgia’s guitar. He opened the door and through it came, “Harry?”
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