A fully occupied Toyota Prius passed the Washington Arboretum, started out onto the 520 bridge from Seattle to Bellevue and found itself becalmed in a sea of brake lights. Up ahead, it seemed like two drivers had tried to make their two energy efficient vehicles share the same space and only partially succeeded. Nobody was going anywhere for a while, and the stream of stopped cars on the floating bridge occupied a narrow space of calm, with wind whipped waves on both sides of the bridge belying the sunny sky above as they thrashed about.
Aboard the Prius, its carpool members spent a few minutes texting their respective teams to let them know they’d be late. They then fell to discussing the unpredictability of Seattle commute traffic and how their teams at Megathunk were dealing with the handover of the company’s CEO position to an artificial intelligence program that had started life as a productivity application with self modifying code. As with all leadership transitions, this one had people feeling skittish, although knowing that the new CEO could be simply deleted at any time certainly eased peoples’ minds a little.
“And this also, “said Marlow suddenly, “nearly became one of the dark places of the earth.”
All eyes turned to Marlow, who sat there staring absently out the window by himself. We had all joined Megathunk as developers but he was the only one of us who still cut code. The rest of us had fallen off into management or sales or one of the other fates that await developers who don’t love the challenge of keeping up with technology enough. Only Marlow remained a full time programmer after 3 decades at it. And where some find their meaning in shiny user interfaces, he was more given to scouting the depths of stack traces and tackling complex data problems.
“I’m not talking about the terrible rain and overcast we still warn visiting Californians about,” he continued. “I was thinking of the old times, the mid 1980s when Megathunk first moved to this area. Mind you, this was just a few years after the billboards were asking that the last person to leave Seattle turn out the lights. You couldn’t sell a house in Seattle to save your life. Redmond was a wasteland of rusted, abandoned bicycles, hunted at night by terrible bands of feral Shih Tzus. Real estate agents were dropping like flies, just before Megathunk moved here.”
“Mind, what saves us now is efficiency. GET THAT PRODUCT OUT NOW, even if it’s like the Star Trek movies now and you want to skip every other release of the OS. The conquest of the software market mostly means taking customers away from those with smaller customer bases and less staff than you to begin with. It is just robbery without excessive violence. It also means burning out your own people, not a pretty thing when you look too closely at it.”
Outside of the Prius, traffic was still stopped and only occasionally inched ahead. The thrashing water drenched our cars and occasionally threw small fish up onto their hoods. People were throwing them back, for now. But it was getting closer to lunch and I knew people wouldn’t be resisting free sushi that much longer.
“I suppose you fellows (and Nellie) remember when I first came to Megathunk . I had been laid off from Megadyne…or was it Dynoram? … for a few months at that point. Just as I started pestering relatives for leads because they were getting pretty thin, Megathunk recruited me because I had worked at Dynoram before they shut down and Megathunk acquired their remaining intellectual property.
“I still remember the interview process. It was a bit of a formality because the company needed me to help their team come up to speed on Dynoram’s code base but they still wanted to know what I was made of. I remember an unusual number of questions about Belgium and a very strange manager asking to measure my skull, saying that he would like to measure it again for changes after my first release cycle.
“In the end, I was hired and took an office in the old Dynoram building, which is fairly close to Megathunk though not in the same zip code. My office was in the old CIO’s office…he had been a nice enough fellow but he was quietly shuffled out when he became obsessed with the company writing its own operating system in XML. Now, Megathunk people came and went…there seemed to be a steady stream of security guards, programmers and mimes dropped off at the building all throughout the day.
“One day, I was suddenly summoned onto the main Megathunk campus. A Mister Kurtz, the team lead for the group tasked with leveraging Dynoram’s code was having some sort of “personal crisis” and they needed for me to go and get his team back on track. From my safe (if only slightly challenging) position working on the outskirts, I was being summoned to work in the very Heart of Darkness.
“It was a bleak October day when I arrived at the main Megathunk campus to take on this challenge. Despite the overcast, hordes of bicyclists had transported themselves to work via this two wheeled conveyance, riding the last bit at a slow speed, their bicycle locks clanking on their chains. These brutes were somewhat the worse for wear because of too many late nights with no sleep, eating chips and pizza and staying awake through the consumption of Mountain Dew. This had given rise to corded non-muscle around their abdomens. They locked their bicycles and then crawled into the bushes as if they expected to die there, only stirring themselves to get the day’s beverages when they realized they would survive.
“I was not really familiar with the Megathunk campus in those days, understand and as I fumbled my way through the halls, I became aware at one point that unseen eyes were stalking me. Shortly after that, I was suddenly bombarded with a torrent of Nerf rockets, which ceased only when a really large Nerf spear struck my guide and I began photographing our assailants with my phone. Finally, I reached my destination and was welcomed by a strange Russian developer in a Windows 98 release shirt
“You’ve come to talk to…HIM?” he asked.
“Well you don’t so much talk to him as listen to him. He is a great man and great men can be impulsive. Why, last week he demanded my last direct report for his team and threatened to have me fired when I objected…”
We reached Kurtz’s office at last and I was surprised to see what I taken for ornate decorations to be a row of skulls on a fence alongside his computer.
“It’s Halloween next week,” was his only response to the unasked question in the look that I shot him.
“I did not stay there long,” Marlow concluded. “Kurtz’s methods were quite unacceptable and counterproductive, not to mention legally actionable. His last report was a glowing review of his team that waxed eloquent and enthusiastic about their abilities and initiative. But it seemed that he had had second thoughts about this enthusiasm because there was a shaky scrawl at the bottom saying, simply ‘Terminate the brutes.”