It’s a wall of text, but I wanted to find a place to shoe horn this story somewhere and I guess it’s one of my last chances.
My first job out of college was absolutely perfect for me. I worked for six years at a very small dot com that did database consulting work for all sorts of people. Thirty or so young 20 somethings working long hours then going out for drinks after because we still liked hanging out together. I loved that job, and those men and women I worked with like they were my family.
I got to work with every sort of client imaginable. I worked with small libraries to catalog their medical journals. I worked with non-profits to track their incoming donations. I worked with big employers to track their benefits packages. I even got to work on WotC’s system for tracking and ranking players in their Magic the Gathering tournaments for a few weeks. It was a wonderful math-geek experience.
And then there was that time I worked for the devil for four months.
Phillip Morris, a company known for selling cigarettes had come to us looking for a developer to expand some reporting in their database system. I got the short straw. Every Tuesday for four months I boarded a shuttle from Boston to New York City to work in their office for two days, coming home Thursday.
This company was in the news a lot back then. Leaked documents kept coming out about what they knew and didn’t know about the hazards, the addictions, the marketing to kids. Several times I watched a news report and saw a reporter standing in front of the very doors I walked through to go into their building. Heck, if they had filmed at the right time they would have captured me walking in there, complicit and all.
What did their database system do, you might wonder? Oh, it tracked their political contributions. All of them.
For 4 months in the late 90’s if you wanted to know how much they contributed that judge, or that senator, or that president, I could have told you. Every dollar was accounted for at least 20 years in the past. Every dollar was weighed and balanced against the votes that person had done to measure their ‘return on investment’. All there in colorful graphs and reports that I was tasked to make more accurate.
I hated this client. I was sick to my stomach on multiple occasions. A 25 year old should not have an ulcer. I finally requested to be taken off this project from my boss. He boss was a nice guy, and listened and agreed, but only after the last round of fixes they had just given us were completed, since we already agreed to them. It was important to the company that we be seen as keeping our word. That made perfect sense to me.
I’m not going to lie, the next two weeks were not my proudest. I dragged my feet on the fixes. Probably spent way too long surfing the web or playing games, or chatting with my office-mate then I should. They got done, but I was in no hurry. A finally made to the last fix on the list.
If you’ve ever coded anything you’ve probably seen a funny phenomenon. Something big doesn’t work. You can’t figure out why. You spend hours, maybe even a day or two testing every detail, checking every line of logic, and rewrote half the code and nothing fixed it. Then, probably with the help of a second set of fresh eyes, the error is found. It’s a missing semi-colon, or a dash, or the greater/less than sign is pointing the wrong way. All that time for one simple fix.
Now imagine you’re not in a hurry, actively hate your client, and you’re halfway out the door. It took me almost a full week to find 1 character out of place. But I fixed it. I submitted my timecards with a twinge of guilt, and then put the entire ugly mess out of my head.
Then came the phone call. I arrived to my desk at 8am as usual one day to find my phone ringing. I hadn’t even had caffine yet and had worked til 10pm the night before on some other project. A bit bleary I picked up the phone. I can still recreate the call word for word.
“Robert? This is (name withheld) from Phillip Morris. I’m here in a conference room with my boss, Assistant Vice President (Whatever, the name I forgot) and 2 members of our legal team.”
“Oh? Good morning?”
“We’ve gone through your companies last bill to us. And I’ve gone through all the code changes you made and we see a huge discrepancy. Frankly, I think you’re trying to screw us and I’ve recommended we open a lawsuit against your company to recoup our costs, and everything we’ve ever paid you. Our attorneys insist that for the record we give you a chance to explain yourself. So please explain yourself. Now”
I stared at the phone. I can still tell you exactly what it looked like. It was beige, and had recently been cleaned by our friendly night staff, but they missed a spec of dirt (maybe a cookie crumb?) between the 7 and 8 buttons. The company’s logo was faded half off, probably from whatever banned cleaning chemical they used to scrub away germs.
I had screwed up. I had screwed up my job. I had screwed up my company. Everyone I had worked and cared about for the last few years would suffer because of this. I was alone in the office. No one to turn to. No one to ask. In my more mature days I would have known how to handle this. But my brain didn’t have any of that experience or (frankly) the backbone yet to stand up for myself. They set a trap for what they thought was a dumb kid, to go on the record while half awake when no one could help me
“Robert. May I call you Robert?” an unfamiliar voice said. It was probably one of the lawyers. “We’d like to resolve this amicably if we can. No need to make this too complicated. If you can just explain exactly what you did, for the record, and how long it took, we can move on.”
I can’t, I thought. Think. You’re a logical person. There must be a logical, orderly way out of this. If I do X, then this all goes away. What is X? What is X?! My brain called out for a solution.
There was no X. There was no solution. There was no straight path I could walk to get out of this. I was out of options but to just get it over with.
I began to speak. My words were immediately drowned out by a long, loud piercing wail. It seems, where logic and order failed me, Chaos had kicked down the door of the room and strolled in. And Chaos was all out of bubblegum.
“(expletive deleted)! Really? Now? Robert, we have to go, there’s a fire alarm. I’ll call you later.”
Four hours later I did indeed get a call back. Apparently walking down and up 24 flights of stairs had taken a bit of the fire out of his belly. He apologized for having to leave. He was the fire marshal for his floor so it was his job to make sure everyone evacuated. Also apparently it’s not easy to get the time of the companies 2 top lawyers and his boss and he said they wouldn’t be available again at the same time for a few days.
“Just forget it.” He said. “We’ll take care of the bill, but be very careful in the future.” In a veiled attempt at innocent conversation I asked him if they had a lot of fire alarms. “No, that was the first non-drill we had had in the ten years I’ve worked here.”
And then he was gone, and I never talked to him again. And I sure as hell never slacked off like that again.
I’m a coder. I’m an engineer. My brain looks for patterns in my job, and in my life. I’ve gotten very good at seeing them. Reflecting upon what happened I began to see slivers of a pattern. Other times at my lowest point the perfectly unexpected thing happened to turn everything around. The pattern was big. So big that it felt like trying to draw a blue whale when you’ve only seen the tip of one fin. But just as sure as you know the tip of that fin belongs to something, all these events did too.
Perhaps other people would have taken that a religious significance. I’ll be honest I didn’t. I took it to mean luck was real. Waves of change that could be called chaos ripple through the world to their own tides. I can’t think of a better word for all that then to simply call it…
If opening this Book takes us one more step in letting other people have their worst moments turned upside down by a stroke of luck, then we need to open this Book. It’s that important to every young person starting out in life who’s about to do something stupid to ruin everything that they get a second chance. Let Chaos kick down their doors and shake things up a little. They’ll be better off for it.