Going to California

Life by the Valley — 4

When I got in the next morning, Mary threw that special task at me. It was an interactive security training application on a compact disc, and three minutes into it I was wondering if it might not be a trick, a test — it was that awful. Still, I kept plugging away at the training, given that I’d had to borrow a laptop from someone in order to run the thing. Whether or not something is specifically a test, it’s best to be thorough.

“Well?” she asked me after lunch, in her office. “What did you think?” A tall, Italian-esque man I’d never seen before was standing behind her.

“Um…” I said, glancing back and forth between the two of them.

“Spit it out,” she said.

That was my least-favorite thing for people to tell me. “It’s not that good,” I told her, then turned to the gentleman, holding out my hand. “And you are?”

“Ah!” he said. “Dario.”

Mary laughed. “Dario’s come on to help with the business side of things, isn’t that right?”

Dario made a good-natured noise.

“Oh, thank God,” I said. “I thought it might have been your product or something.”

Dario chuckled.

“Because it’s really bad,” I added.

“Bad?” he asked

“Ah, yes. It was bad.”

“There’s a big difference between bad and not good,” Mary said. “How bad?”

“Inconsistent level of detail — sometimes they talk about how lock tumblers work, sometimes very high level about risk management, then back down, then back down to say something about restricting access when people don’t need it. There’s no organization. It’s kind of a grab-bag. Plus, it looks terrible. A freshman graphic-design student could’ve done better. The interaction was slow, the interface clumsy. The writing was really horrible, inconsistent—”

“Tell us what you really thing,” Dario murmured, then he and Mary shared a laugh.

“Okay,” she told me. “Thank you.”

Phil came by my cube later on. “You settle on what kind of machine you want, yet?”

I showed him the Mac laptop I wanted. Two weeks before, I’d never dreamed I’d have one any time in the near future, and there I was having someone order it for me — the low-end model, but an excellent machine nonetheless.

He was leery. “You sure that’s what you want? Everyone else is using Windows, here. We’ve got some nice Sony VAIOs — you seen those? They are pretty slick. At least get a Windows laptop and put Linux on it, yeah?”

“This is what I need,” I said. “I have good reasons.”

He sighed. “Look,” he said, “if you need it, you need it, but it’s just a toy — it’s practically a brick.”

“Try hacking it,” I said. The original Mac operating system was, in fact, not a whole lot more than a toy, relative to a unix-based OS. The advantage of Apple having struggle through most of the 1990s, repeatedly failing to ship modern software for their machines, was a system that was almost entirely too dumb to fall for the usual modern tricks which let remote attackers take over your computer.

Phil knew what I was talking about. He smiled. “Okay,” he said. “You’re smart, I’ll give you that.”

“And there’s a version of Linux I can install if I have to.”

He walked slowly away, nodding, and I returned to finding places for things in my office. Late in the day, as I was assessing the layout of notebooks, software backups, and Yellow Submarine figurines around my desk, Doug rushed in.

“Do you have a minute?” he asked, nearing panic. “Of course you do. I have a report for a customer. They need it before the end of the day. It needs some editing. You can do it, right?”

“Sure,” I said. Doug thrust some fax pages at me, tightly spaced lines of small text. It wasn’t a mess, but it wasn’t great.

“Can I get the text?” I asked.

Doug made a scoffing sound and leaned in to watch me mark up the page.

“Who’s the client?” We kept the office dim, so I hadn’t noticed until he’d stepped forward how flushed he was. “The client’s in New York,” he said. “They have to have it by the end of their day. That’s now.”

“I’m hurrying,” I said, and I did. As I finished each page, I handed them to him. After every couple of pages he hurried across the office and stuck them in the fax machine.

Once the last pages disappeared into a plastic box, all whirring and beeping, he sighed, Doug sighed, his shoulders folding in again. He didn’t look great. I began to wonder how much I didn’t know.

“That was kind of a crap job,” he told me as we walked to his car.

I said, “Huh?”

“I was expecting you to re-write some of it. Make it better. We’re opening our own office in New York City for ISG—” That’s the Information Security Group, who we were. “—and we to do a lot better than that crap you turned in today.”

I wasn’t sure where that was going or what I had to do with it, but there we were at the car and Doug was rubbing his eyes, so I let it slide. He plucked a box of take-out from his back seat.

“Another offering to the mold god, I guess,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

“Yes, they do.”

As we pulled out of the parking lot, Doug asked, “Oh, hey: about that security training CD-ROM.” He chuckled. “I guess you didn’t like it?”

“It was terrible.”

“Well, did you see those two guys walking out of the office, maybe mid-afternoon?”

“Sure,” I said. There were something like 36 people working there, some on the lower floor but most on the upper level, though nearly half of the staff seemed to be travelling on any given day, en route to or from a customer site, or ensconced somewhere doing actual security work, plus a few folk finishing summer vacations. Even on my first week there, new people stood out to me in our dark, quiet office.

“You just cost them three-million dollars.”

“What?!”

Doug laughed. “Kroll was shopping for another security-training company, and we were close to buying the company owned by those two guys. Maybe only one guy owned it, and the other guy was a partner. Anyway, the point is they gave us their best sample for us to review, and whatever you said made Mary go back in and say, ‘No, no thank you.’”

“Holy shit!” I said. “I didn’t mean to cost those guys — I mean, it did suck. It really sucked. It was pretty bad.”

“You didn’t cost those guys anything, you saved the company three-million dollars.”

I watched the grotesquely overpriced clap-board houses glide past on the other side of window of the front passenger seat in Doug’s car.

That night, I met his girlfriend. She was pretty, no doubt, and at least kind of smart, the illusion of brains boosted by her faint British lilt. Grow up in the right place and Americans will think you know what you’re talking about, I suppose. But beyond whatever I couldn’t figure out was wrong with her, there was something wrong between the two of them, like they were talking to one another without actually listening to what the other person had actually just said. It was like the difference between two people dancing together, and two people who’d merely synchronized their choreography.

I didn’t actually like her that much, really. And I was starting to worry about my good friend Doug.

It was that evening, once I’d retreated to their guest room for the evening, that the yelling began. They didn’t build up to it, they just started at a good level of yell and kept it up for a while. Eventually, I fell asleep.

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