Going to California

Life by the Valley — 7.3

When we got to work, Matt stomped off on his own. I disappeared just before lunchtime, and when I came back I went straight to Phil’s office.

“I made a mistake,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he said. I didn’t have to be finely attuned to the British accent to hear he was being coy.

“With Matt,” I said. “I’ve seen him rub people wrong before, but this is a whole new level. Or maybe it’s I’ve never been leveled by him before. But he’s gone wrong, and people are starting to listen to him, and it’s going to be bad for the project.”

“You don’t trust him,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Does anyone else on the team feel this way?”

I thought about it. Most people were still charmed by him, but I’d been watching — with him talking so much, I had a lot of time to observe other people. A couple of the older, no-bullshit guys clearly doubted him.

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay,” Phil said, palms flat on his desk. “So you’re paying attention. That’s good. Here’s the deal: on Friday last week, your ‘buddy’ came in here and he told me that I had to stop you from doing what you were doing, right in your tracks. That I had to give him your job, and that you should work for him as his little helper.”

“What?”

“Now this morning, he went into Mary’s office and told her that he needed my job.”

“You seem pretty calm, considering.”

“When you know what you’re dealing with, you can afford to be calm.” He sighed. “It’s good you came to me.”

“What makes Mary think he won’t just do the same thing to her? What does Taher think?”

“He’s out, back Wednesday for the staff meeting.” I didn’t usually attend Mary’s staff meeting, but this time our whole group had been invited to give an overview of the project’s progress. It was going to be a big deal.

He narrowed his eyes at me. “This could be ugly. Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “This guy’s an old mate of yours right?”

“It’s already ugly,” I said. “Every morning and evening, he’s been the same cool guy I’ve always known, then at work he’s been some kind of crazy person. He has no money, so he’s staying at my place, and I’m paying for all his meals. This weekend, all he did was order me around and talk shit about how I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Phil looked at me for a long time as his face slowly softened.

“That is the worst thing you could have possibly said. I am really, really sorry that that’s what’s been going on. You should’ve told me much earlier and I’d have gotten it all sorted out.” He thought a moment. “Maybe that wouldn’t have been for the best, though. At least now it’s clear. You went above and beyond, you gave him every chance and he stabbed you in the back. He tried to stab me —”

“I’m really sorry about that.”

“Don’t you apologize, it wasn’t you. Better people have tried.” He leaned forward. “What I’m saying is you gave your best mate a chance, and he turned on you like a mad dog. I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll talk to Mary. Don’t worry. It’s going to be all right.”

I believed him. Two days later, we were all in Mary’s office. Matt was tapping his fingertips on the table, practicing some drum riffs. The Packet Storm product owner, Brad, couldn’t make it.

Taher came in and the meeting started. The engine team gave the technical side of the presentation, to positive head-nods all around. Then Mary introduced Matt to Taher as the consultant we’d brought in to speed development of the Web site through which the service would be offered.

“Let’s see it,” said Taher.

“It’s going to be a while before we have a site,” he said. “We have a whole lot of work to do before we put down a single line of code.”

Taher shot Mary a questioning glance.

“The site itself is not on the critical path,” Matt quickly said. “There are plenty more important—”

“Do you know,” asked Mary, “what ‘critical path’ means?”

“Well, yeah,” he said. “It’s all the biggest, most important things in the project.”

“No,” she said. “It’s the longest path of dependencies through the project. You can have small things on the critical path that don’t seem important.”

“Oh, yeah, I know that. I read that book in high school.”

Mary laughed lightly. “High school,” she said.

“What do you have so far?” Taher asked, clearly unamused.

Phil brought up the couple of screens I’d done before Matt had arrived.

Taher nodded. “Looks good,” he said. He smiled at the team. “It’s getting somewhere.”

“Thank you,” said Phil. I began to notice how no one was looking at Matt anymore. They never looked back, either, not the rest of that day or the day after, when meetings began to be held without him being invited. People didn’t stop to speak to him in the hall. Mary walked out her office and blew past our cube on her way to the door.

“Hey,” Matt called. She was gone.

I got Chinese food for us that night. The next morning I’d be driving him and his grotesquely enormous luggage to the airport. Phil had urged me to let the company put him in a hotel, but I’d declined. I wanted a chance to say goodbye.

“I just don’t get what happened,” he said, rocking back and forth and staring at the carpet. “Guys come out here and get crazy-ass jobs, they’re offered desks made out of LEGO and shit — I mean, they hired you. I don’t know what went wrong.”

“Did you tell Phil to give you my job?”

“That,” he said, “is bullshit. All I wanted was for the right thing to happen. Everyone would’ve been happy. Well, shit. At least I have the other two weeks.”

“I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

“I need that money — it’d better happen. God dammit.”

“Did you tell Mary you deserved Phil’s job?”

He got quiet. “Look,” he said. “I swear to you, I have no idea what happened, okay? Everything was going fine.” He stared at a spot on the carpet. “I just don’t know what could have happened.”

“I’m not sure I know what happened, either,” I told him, and that was the truth

The next morning I drove him to the airport.

“Enjoy your fucking quarter-million dollars,” he said, wrestling his luggage from the back of my car. He could’ve just lifted it and it would’ve come right out.

Over the weekend, I reached out to my old friends in Austin, hoping they’d tell me I’d been a fool for trusting him. They didn’t.

Rick’s response was emblematic of all the others. “Of all the people in the world, he did that to you? To you? After you defended him, for years? I never pretended to understand, but you loved that guy. And what you described is the saddest thing I have heard all year. It is the saddest goddam thing in the world.”

On Monday, Phil pulled me aside.

“Like I said,” he told me, “we’re all sorry about what happened. But you need to know that we trust you.” He told me they were giving me a raise. I’d been there three months, and after what I saw as having been a massive failure I was getting a raise that on its own was more than half as much money as I’d ever made at Steve Jackson Games.

Distantly, I knew I was supposed to feel good. But Matt had cracked what little confidence I had left. It was the exact opposite of why I’d had him out in the first place.

Over the holidays, a few weeks later, I’d call his step-dad, Michael, to say Happy New Year. He’d sound neutral, and I’d wonder what story he’d been hearing. After a minute, he’d hand the phone to Matt. We exchanged polite well-wishes, and to date we would not speak again.

I think it was the money. Money makes people do weird things. You have to be careful how you handle it. It’s like uranium: you keep it in a vault and don’t think too much about it or you’ll wake up after not long to find your skin bubbling over. Jim had never seemed to be focused on money, just by technical excellence, and there he was starting his own company. He had a better shot than most at changing the world. Doug, I thought at the time, had gotten caught up in trying understand why he hadn’t been as successful as some of the people he’d seen get rich, people who’d simply been at the right dumb place at the right lucky time. As one of the smartest guys I know, I think it was tough for Doug to make sense of the difference between some of the idiots we would see high-fiving each other, buying last-minute first-class tickets to Hawaii, versus himself and where he was. And the worst part is he was right. It didn’t and doesn’t make sense.

Austin had been going through the same exciting economic uplift as the rest of America, though the articulation of the boom was much larger and more obvious in California’s Bay Area. On the roads out here, the cars were even that much nicer. The people were more fit, and more well dressed. Not everyone was rich, but there was an air that everyone was moving up, or at least should be. And if you weren’t, then the difference between the aspirational energy you felt around you and the place where you saw yourself to be could be crippling.

Even a relatively modest and kinda scruffy guy a few doors down from me in the complex had a classic 1960s-era Jaguar. The dude did a lot of work on it himself — it looked awesome. He was a good guy, actually, a bit older than me and not strictly a techie — I forget what he did, but it was more your ordinary job. Still, he was friendly, if a little shy, like so many of us out there at the time, unsure of what our places ultimately would be in the world.

We lived close to each other for four years, and I’ve no idea what became of him. I don’t even remember his name. If we’d had Facebook then, I bet we’d still be in touch today, Like-ing each other’s vacation photos and commenting on one another’s links. But with that strange, euphoric energy binding us to that place in that time, when everything fell apart, as it would shortly, and the energy rushed away there was nothing to hold us all together. We crashed, all of us, and some of us never recovered.

A few of us just crashed earlier than others, is all.

Driving back from the airport after I saw Matt for the last time, I reached out to that place in my mind where I still held some part of his mother, my friend.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 7.2

I hit the snooze button on my internal alarm, figuring I needed to give him a chance, but it was too late. That week was like an extended nightmare. Matt was cool and funny when we were alone. When other people were around, though, he would either ignore me or make me the butt of some joke or other. I’d look surprised, and he’d say he was only kidding.

Leaving work on the second day, I asked him what was wrong. He said nothing was wrong, that I was taking things the wrong way.

On the third day, on the way back to my apartment, I asked him what his problem was.

“There’s no problem,” he said. “Here’s the problem, though: You need to stop doing what you’re doing.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Stop doing what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make a product when you don’t know anything about what your customers need. You gotta talk to people, to end-users and experts, you find out what they want and how they want it, then you design.”

“I don’t know if you remember, but I am an expert.”

“You are not.”

“Look, I know you were always hot about pirating software and all back in the day, but I was always more serious in hacking circles than you were.”

“You were not.”

“No, I was. I—”

“You might think you know a lot, but you’re not the customer. You’re not going to pay money for the service. You shouldn’t do shit until you find those people and find out what they need.”

And the worst part of it was, all other things being equal, he was right. But other things were far from equal.

“Sure,” I said. “But it’s super clear what we’re making here, and it should be super dumb to use or it’s not going to be successful. Besides, we have this meeting Phil’s been planning for next Wednesday. We need to show some basic version of what we intend to do if we’re going to win the chance to make something.”

Softly, he said, “That is the bullshit you tell yourself that keeps you from being successful. You already have the chance. Just follow my lead. Everything is going to be all right.”

“It doesn’t feel like you’re helping me. It feels like—”

“You brought me out here because I know how this shit works, and you don’t. I’m going to make it work, and you’re going to be happy. You have to trust me on this. It’s going to be okay.”

But by the end of the week, the other people on my team began turning to him when talk came up about the Web site, not to me. When I brought up the work I’d done before, he’d wave it away, laughing.

As we wrapped up work on Friday, Mary swung by to wish Matt a good weekend. She didn’t say anything to me. I saw Phil leaving, and he wouldn’t meet my gaze.

I put on some music and watched Matt eat the pizza I’d ordered for us while he crowed about how we were on top of the world, and wow, if only the people we used to know back in the day could see us.

For the weekend he wanted to meet up with some friends in the city, and he urged me to go with him, which is to say he wanted me to drive him. After watching him chat and laugh with his friends for about an hour, my mind began to drift, playing back our conversations. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that he was lying to me, but I’d known him half my life; I was finely attuned to when he was lying.

Then I had a calming realization. He hadn’t been lying to me: things really were going to be okay — for him. The crucial difference was that he didn’t care about me, beyond how I could help him.

My oldest friend had become a sociopath.

I stood up. “I’m gotta go,” I said. “You can stay, though.”

“Stay here?” he said, glancing at his friends. “How do I get back, motherfucker?”

“Take the train. The train’s awesome.”

“Oh, the train,” he said, nodding quickly. “That’s right! Well, yeah. Why wouldn’t I take the train? It’s awesome.”

I agreed. He stayed the night in the city, calling me the next morning.

“Hey, come get me,” he said.

“Take the train,” I said.

“Yeah, but who’s going to pick me up at the train, asshole?”

“You can walk to my place from the station. It’s a couple blocks.”

“It’s a quarter of a goddam mile, first, plus I picked up some sweet luggage from this antique place we went to, total old-school, huge-ass wonderful shit.”

“So take a taxi.”

“I don’t have any cash, you know that. Fucking come pick me up.”

I agreed to pick him up. I got there early. A few minutes before he was supposed to arrive, he called.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“At the station.”

“Well, you’re not at the same station as me. I had to get off the train early because the one I got on wasn’t stopping at your station. So get here. Jeez.”

He hadn’t been kidding, the luggage was not small. I had to put the top down for the taller piece to fit, and he had to hold the other one between his legs. He cursed at me the whole way home, and all evening.

“You have no fucking idea what you are fucking doing,” he said. “You just have to follow my lead and do exactly what I say. That’s all you have to fucking do.”

I stayed calm.

“You’re like that girl in Colorado. She is the most frustrating person in the world to talk to. She’s all like, ‘You always say things that hurt my feelings,’ and I’m like, ‘You don’t understand. I am just saying things. This is how I say things. It’s up to you how you choose to take it.'”

“But that’s like punching someone and saying, ‘Oh, that’s how I hug people, by punching them, so when I punch you, just think, ‘Mmm, he just hugged me, that’s awesome, I love hugs.'”

“Exactly,” he said. “You control how you choose to take things.”

“You mock up your own reactive mind,” I said, which was what the sign had said that was carried by poor Keith, the Scientologist protester, on my first day of work in Silicon Valley.

Matt thought about it. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. I should say that to her next time she pulls that bullshit on me.” He grinned. “That’s genius, actually.”

If I hadn’t already made up my mind, that would’ve pushed me over the edge.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 7.1

It wasn’t hard to sell Matt on the idea of coming out for a couple of weeks, especially with the chance it might turn into a real job. He’d spent the last three years in Dallas working for a killer design firm which had jumped on the Web side of things at exactly the right time. He’d left them a few months before to do his own thing, so he had the experience and he had the time. Even better, he was excited and grateful to help me out. I thought it might be a month’s worth of work helping me out overall, but given that it was early December I figured we’d do two weeks then and reserve two more weeks for a second trip after the new year. He’d be paid pretty handsomely.

In the past, Matt had gotten in some trouble when it came to people. Like I said, he could go a bit off the rails. Most of my friends back in Austin understood what I liked about him — his high energy, quick with his wit. But he had a flaw, common among us nerdlings, that he rarely censored himself, and he could be abrasive. One by one, he’d alienated most of my better friends. They liked him, they simply didn’t think it was worth taking the chance that it might be one of the bad times.

The truth was I loved him like a brother. He was the only person I’d kept in my life from the bulletin-board days, and we’d been through each other’s times, good and bad. Except for Matt’s effect on my other friends, he’d only ever been a positive force in my life. He was clever and he could always make me laugh. Worst case, even if he couldn’t get along with the rest of the team at Kroll, I’d be able to get some structure from him about how professional Web projects were planned and executed.

Really, all I needed was a bit of confidence. I needed an old friend.

Within a week I was picking him up at the airport.

“Goddamn,” he said when he finally pulled away from our hug. Matt was nearly a head taller than me, long-faced and lean, bushy brown hair puffing out around his maniacally grinning face. “I’m so glad to be off that goddamn plane.”

“I’m glad to see you, too.”

He grabbed one of his two bags and started walking off, then he stopped. Looking back at the other bag, he frowned and said, “Uh, like, could you get that one?”

“Oh! Shit, sorry. Sure.”

Once we got to my place, I began to talk about the situation at work and the job that needed doing. He held up his hand.

“Tomorrow,” he said with a smile. “It’ll all happen tomorrow. Hey, ah, do you have anything to eat? I’m a little light.”

“Huh?”

“Well, after I quit my job and moved to Colorado, the chick I was with up there turned out to be, you know.”

“I don’t think I do.”

“Dude, you know. You know. Anyway, I drove back to Dallas with this other girl, this stripper, and I was like, ‘Fuck me, this girl is H-A-W-T — hot.’ But she was no good, gave me herpes. Herpes, man.” Suddenly I thought he was going to cry. “My cock looked like a cob of Indian corn for two weeks.”

“What?!”

“Yeah. Then I had to get over that and everything, so this deal here is perfect. But I don’t get paid until after I’m done, you know, so I’m a little light in the cash pants right now.”

“Jesus,” I said. “Yeah, sure — that sucks, man, I had no idea.”

“Yeah, well.”

So I got dinner for us. All in all, we had a terrific evening. In the light of the energy and enthusiasm of my oldest, best friend, I began to relax.

The next morning on our short drive into work, he asked, “How much are you making? I mean, not in a year, but with stock and everything, for however long you think you’re going to be here.”

I had to think about it. “I really don’t know,” I said. “You know I never had a good relationship with money. I don’t like letting it motivate me. I mean, I know people out here who’ve made a lot, but it’s just what happened, you know?”

“No, I don’t know.”

“Throw a rock out the window and you’ll hit a bunch of people who feel strongly that they’re going to be rich soon, but really it’s a whole lot of timing and luck. I don’t think it’s anything you can helpfully plan for. I never thought I’d make even as much as I’m making now, so I get up every day and I think I’m pretty lucky. I’m happy. I know that feeling won’t last forever, but I want to hang on to it for a while.”

“But what do you want? How much do you think you’re going to get?”

“Mmm. What would make me satisfied? By the time all is said and done, I’d be happy with a quarter of a million dollars. It’s not that I have no ambition, it’s that anything more than that is like free money. I don’t want to be one of those guys who ever one time loses sleep that he didn’t hit the jackpot. You do or you don’t, and the only control you have is to keep yourself in the game.”

“I’m with you,” Matt said, staring forward.

When we got to my desk, I said, “So let me tell you what we’ve got.”

“First,” he said, “here’s the deal. Anyone asks you what I do, what do you say?”

“Uh, you’re the guy who’s going to help me get started on this site? You’re going to give me a good structured approach to building the elements, maybe code up some Javascript—”

“No. That’s not it. I am an Internet Strategist, get it?”

“Um, you mean like how a weatherman is, I don’t know, a meteorology prognostication consultant?”

“Internet Strategist.”

“As long as we get done what we need to get done, sure.”

“Okay. I—” Matt’s phone rang. “I’m here,” he told it. “No, thanks, I just needed some advice. I’m in a situation.” He looked off into space, holding me back with one upraised finger.

“I can wait,” I told him. He stood and walked slowly toward the reception area, mumbling into the receiver. He came back with a grin.

“Okay,” he said. “I have everything I need.”

“Sure,” I said. “Now, here’s the site design I’ve got so far—”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t need to see it.”

An alarm had begun ringing in my head — had been ringing since last night, only I’d been ignoring it. I sat up straight in my chair.

“We’re going to do this,” he said, smiling, “the right way.”

“Hello,” a voice said behind him. It was Mary. “Who’s this?” she asked.

Matt turned to her, beaming charm, shaking her hand. “Hi,” he said. She smiled.

“This is an old friend of mine,” I told her. “His name’s Matt. He’s here to help get the site off the ground faster. Matt, this is Mary. She runs the place.”

Matt shot a scowl at me, then turned back to Mary with a smile.

“I’m an Internet Strategist,” he said. “I’m out from Dallas for a few weeks — maybe longer, who knows. I’ve worked with a bunch of big names, but I’m happy to see what problems you’ve got here, see if I can help.”

“Huh,” she said. “You know, I’m from Texas as well.”

“Really? No wonder things seem so awesome here.” Matt turned back to me. “We Texas people gotta stick together.” Then to her, he said, “Where’s your office?”

“I’m over here.”

“Do you have a minute so I can ask you a couple of simple questions?”

“Sure,” she said, and they went off together, Matt closing her heavy wooden door behind them.

“What just happened?” I said to the air, even though I knew.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley – 7

In late 1999, the population of the tech industry was heavily skewed toward a dorkily geek crew. We’re a bunch of geeks, even today, don’t get me wrong. But the adults who’d been socialized before the rise of the Internet, before the mid-1990s, had gotten into computers because they were big, fat dorks —figuratively, for the most part, but dorky nonetheless. They were awkward socially, or they had grooming eccentricities. Speech impediments. You name it. But computing smoothed over a lot of that. In a large part, because it allowed tiny niches of very specific interests to recognize one another and come together, and to grow into something resembling a community.

I went to see a movie with Rob and some of his friends, one of whom was a slight man with a wispy beard. He cradled a stuffed animal like a baby, and it was only once the movie began that I realized it was a puppet, his left hand slipped inside so that it could respond to him when he stroked it. When something funny would happen, he’s glance at the puppet and they share a reaction.

Standing out in front of the theater after the show, after that guy had walked off to his car, I asked about him.

Rob rocked back on his heels, crossing arms over his small belly. “He’s a special one,” Rob said. “Have you ever heard the term ‘furry’?” I was still calibrating the subtleties of English accents, so I knew there was something compressed within what he was saying but I wasn’t able to unpack it.

“That’s a new one on me,” I said.

He traded glances with a couple of the other people there, most of whom looked away. Ah, I thought, he’s hoping someone else will explain.

“They…like stuffed animals,” he said. “Really, really like stuffed animals. Sometimes they have parties where they dress up in costumes. The costumes have been modified to allow —”

“I get it.”

“If you’re a furry,” said someone else, the only woman there, “it doesn’t mean you want to have sex with stuffed animals.”

“Yeah,” Rob said. “It might mean you want to have sex with someone dressed up as a stuffed animal.”

“Fuck off, Rob,” she said. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, which was geek for, “I’m sorry I lost my temper, please give me a second to pull myself back together.” Then she looked at me. “There are all kinds of words for all the different varieties of people who are into whatever it is that they’re into. Maybe you just like to dress up, maybe you like to fool around, maybe you’re into stuffed animals or toys or whatever. I doesn’t matter. It’s not really about the sex. Some people would just do anything to have a friend.”

That I could understand. As the days cooled down and the end of the year came near, I found myself looking for friends. Jim was looking to leave Yahoo and focus full time on the startup he’d soon be building with Doug, but his dreams of travel were still strong, and he had a ton of vacation time built up at work. This was important, because he also had a ton of stock that hadn’t yet vested. Sticking around another six months, was worth millions of dollars to him, but as hard as it was to hire good people, you still couldn’t totally check out and sail through half a year without getting fired. So he’d blocked out a good number of three-week chunks over the next four months when he simply wouldn’t be around.

I needed more friends. Specifically, I wanted a girlfriend, and this brings us back to the Mancini mansion.

At the time, the single, straight guy to single, straight girl ratio in Silicon Valley was something like 8:1. I’m not making this up — this was the number reported in the local paper. Once, an organization called something like “Single Women of America” had their annual convention about five blocks from my apartment, due to the density of relatively eligible bachelors. The year before, they’d met somewhere in Alaska. I poked my head in at one point. They had seminars lined up like, “How to Speak to Your Geek,” and “Star Trek: What You Need To Know”.

On one hand, I was shallow enough at the time that simply attending such a conference pretty much ruled you out as girlfriend material. On the other hand, there were parties at the Mancini.

At the time, and still today, the single, straight girl to single, straight guy ratio in San Francisco was not as badly skewed in favor of the guys as it was skewed toward girls in Silicon Valley, but it was skewed. Just like there was a complex web of relationships within a sizable group of geek guys, some of those relationships extended to a couple of women who lived in the city, who shared a complex web of relationships with a sizable group of women. The city girls and the valley guys sized one another up over plates of salmon and roast potatoes and bottles of totally decent wine.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t rich and I didn’t work for a well-known company. If I’d been back in Austin and I’d said, “Ah, yes, I was brought out here by an international private detective agency to do cool things I can’t talk about,” I’d have any single woman’s attention — if she didn’t think I was too full of myself to carry on a conversation, which knowing cool Texas women could very likely be the case. In the dot-com boom, it would be months before I’d register as someone interesting.

Not that I didn’t try. San Francisco was a 45-minute drive up to the end of the peninsula, and while some people simply found that an intolerable distance, I was from Texas. My internal mental yardstick of how far was “far” was different from most people. The fact that I was even remotely interested in the arts was enough to get me in the loop for when the city girls were going to live theater or see live music in a coffee-shop.

Something uncool happened on my second solo adventure up to meet up with this new group of people — there were guys in that group, too, of course, just like we had a couple of women in ours, so it wasn’t weird. I came out of the theater to find that my car’d been broken into: a window smashed, contents rifled, though it wasn’t obvious that anything had been taken. This was the same car that had been stolen and returned to me back in Austin. It had seen rougher times, but it upset me a lot more than I thought it should.

Driving home that night, I felt a dark cloud rolling in behind me. Elements in my mind that had been quiet for years were coming back online. My paranoia had found fresh fuel in my new life in California.

With my best friends either traveling, or still getting themselves back together after a long depression, by the time December rolled around I suddenly hit a pocket where I was spending a lot of time alone. I spent a bunch of money once a week at the comic store, and I ate Caribbean ribs as often as I could, but I didn’t yet think I knew people like Rob and Arturo well enough to reach out to them. I ha a hard time shaking the sense that I wasn’t dorky enough for my chosen tribe. I didn’t use Linux; I didn’t know C. I liked hanging out with Phil, who was very social, but he was my boss. So I felt a little stuck, not least of which because I could only push the dark cloud back so far on my own.

The long shadow of my relative isolation was especially unhealthy for me at work. As the only person on staff with any design skills, I’d begun working on the interface for our scanning service. If people couldn’t fire it up and see the results on a Web page then it didn’t exist, and for some reason the pages I’d spent more than a month building didn’t look “real” to me — they looked like a bunch of elements floating on a page, without anything tying them together.

Maybe they were okay. Maybe the paranoia was making me insecure. Probably. The larger problem was that if we didn’t start showing results soon, our boss would lose his political battle with the Packet Storm guy, and that would be a disaster. I’d only interacted with Brian, the guy in charge of Packet Storm, a couple of times, but he was palpably self-obsessed, and a tyrant. Phil had to win.

Doug said to be honest, so I went to Phil.

“I’m stuck,” I told him.

“Okay,” he said. I was going along with him down to Santa Cruz, where he was picking up a few diving tanks to test some different gas mixtures from the relative safety of his apartment complex swimming pool.

“I can put some pages together, I could even get big parts of a site up and running, but it’d all be handmade, everything custom. I’m under the impression that over the last couple of years, serious Web design people have developed a lot of process and procedure around how you build something maintainable. I can figure it out, but I don’t think we have the time.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I know a guy,” I said. “Nn old friend of mine. Really old friend. Like, I’ve known him half my life. We worked together for a summer when I was sixteen. He spent a couple of years at a big Web design firm in Dallas. He knows this shit inside and out. If we could bring him out for a couple of weeks under contract, it’d be enough to get me bootstrapped. I could take it from there.”

Four years earlier, that summer I went to Seattle, the promise I’d made Karynne as she lay dying was that I would look out for Matt, her son, my friend. He could get a little crazy, sometimes, and she’d consistently been the only one who could lead him away from the edge. I felt like it was my responsibility to save him.

“How much’ll it cost us?” he asked. I gave him a number. “Piece of piss,” he said. “And who knows, friend of yours, maybe he’ll get a job, yeah?”

“That could be cool,” I said.

“You trust him, though?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 6.1

But I shouldn’t leave you hanging over what happened with Doug.

On my first day at work in California, Doug had randomly picked a Caribbean restaurant on El Camino Real, between the road that cut over from our office and where Stanford began. They served an enormous set of ribs, with steamed vegetables, which was truly amazing. We’d taken Jim there, and he also fell in love with the ribs. After that, for a long time it was our go-to place for meeting up after work.

One day, after diving into a rib plate, I looked up and started laughing as the details of my day came back to me. I’d been powerfully hungry, given that I’d been too excited to get to work to bother with breakfast, and I’d been too excited about my research to have taken a break for lunch, so 7 PM saw my first meal of the day.

“What?” asked Jim.

“Crazy day,” I said, wiping the Caribbean rib dirt from my cheeks. I have no idea what they slathered on those racks, but it was other-worldly.

“Go on.”

“Well, I skipped lunch. And breakfast.”

“You had coffee?”

“Coffee’s not breakfast for most people.”

He nodded. Most valley dudes could accept coffee as a meal substitute. We would agree to disagree. “Go on,” he said.

“So we got Packet Storm back online — the Packet Storm guys did, anyway. My boss is still pissed that he didn’t get control of that project once it became a real thing, but I figured our scanning project should probably learn from all the content they’ve got there.” I leaned forward. “It’s a land mine. I mean, a treasure mine. I mean, a treasure trove.” I shook my head. “Jesus, I need to eat more often.”

“Sounds like you were right the first time.”

“That’s probably true. It’s no wonder Harvard took it down, though. It’s not just one land mine. It’s like a minefield, with a stack of flyers every twenty feet showing you how to make different kinds of mines. You wouldn’t believe the kind of stuff these tools can do.”

Jim looked up from a rib with an expression I took to say, “Try me.”

I leaned forward more. “Remember when they added microphones to Sun workstations? If a machine’s running a recent version of Solaris, I can remotely switch on the microphone without the user knowing. And listen. And they’ll have no idea.”

Jim nodded. “I remember that one. It was a little while back, wasn’t it? There’s a patch.”

“Sure, but not everyone keeps their machines up to date,” I said. Jim looked perplexed, but then he was one of the top system administrators in the entire world. Who wouldn’t care about computers and not keep up to date on their security patches?

“And doesn’t it only work across local networks?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “But there are a lot of unpatched machines out there.”

“Said the man who’s working on an Internet security scanner.”

“I don’t exploit the vulnerabilities,” I said, “I just revel in the horror of knowing what’s out there.” I laughed again.

Jim smirked. “Okay, what else?”

“Well,” I said. First principles. “There’s this guy named Doug.”

“Oh?”

I think it’d been a little over three weeks since Doug had come into the office. Earlier that day he’d called my cell phone.

“Greetings,” he said.

“Hey, good to hear from you. What’s up.”

“Oh, not much. The usual. I had a question for you.”

“Sure.”

“Are people…unhappy with me, there at work? You see, I got up this morning and found my cell phone no longer worked.”

“Your company phone?”

“Indeed.”

“Well,” I said, wondering how best to put it, “you kinda haven’t been around for…three weeks? Not answering your phone. I think people might’ve been wondering what was going on.”

“And what did he say?” asked Jim.

“He admitted as to how he didn’t have a great answer to that.”

“Huh,” Jim said. “Well, that sucks. I should probably drop him a line, see how he’s doing.”

“He’d like that.”

A few months later, when Doug’s ex-girlfriend finally moved out of the place they’d been sharing, she let him know when she was going to be out so that Doug could drop by and sort through all the him-related things she was leaving behind. There wasn’t a whole lot that he hadn’t already taken away, but he did discover a series of FedEx envelopes containing increasingly concerned questions from Tahir asking where the hell he was. The last one regrettably acknowledged their necessary parting of ways, after which I’m guessing they switched off the service to his corporate cell phone. Doug’s ex- had been signing for the letters and then shoving them under the bed without bothering to tell him that they’d been arriving.

Doug never returned to Kroll-O’Gara. Instead, he and Jim turned their full attention to building the peer-to-peer file-sharing system they’d call Mojo Nation, which would be the incubator for what we now call Bit Torrent. But that will take a while to happen. For now, back to my crash.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 6

Jim asked, “Can you start that salmon?” He pointed at a two-foot slab of pink fish flesh.

“How do you want it?” I asked, basically meaning, “No, I can’t.” He made an apologetic little expression, as if sorry to bother me, and inside of a minute he’d set it on a large foil rectangle, dropped some lemon slices on top, and folded the foil over, crisply creasing the edges before sliding it into one of the three grills in the backyard. Then he spun around back inside toward the kitchen, to finish preparing the soufflé in progress.

“Check on it in fifteen or twenty, would you?” he called back to me. I nodded, following.

In early October of 1999, the dot-com boom was only months away from the peak of its power. Yahoo’s stock price had soared up to over 192, from 105 a year earlier, and that was before a two-to-one split. Adjusted, the stock price had gone from 13 to 48, roughly 370% growth. Jim had come into Yahoo as part of the acquisition that created Yahoo Mail, and he’d worked tirelessly for years to make that service the valuable thing it had become, transitioning quickly from a technical curiosity to a crucial Internet service.

It was no surprise he was rewarded handsomely for it. What surprised and impressed people, especially people like me, was what he’d been doing with the money. He’d gotten his Emergency Medical Technician certification, working nights at a local emergency room as motorcyclists were regularly scraped off the road and brought into triage. He’d begun considering a stint with someone like Doctors Without Borders and taking a trip around the world, helping people where he could. In the meantime, he’d also taken chef classes and come out the other side as a more than decent dinner-party thrower, hosting little gatherings of between twenty and forty people every few weeks.

Jim had not been the most social of cats back in Austin. But in Silicon Valley, it was much easier for geeks to bond with random strangers, who were also likely to be geeks. It created an environment where people like Jim could turn to nearly anyone and talk about the recent updates to his favorite open-source mail server, and even if that person didn’t know anything about mail servers they’d probably be interested in why Jim was interested in the differences, and out of that you get a conversation. You didn’t have to start a conversation with a stranger by talking about the weather or your favorite sports team and then see where you could take it from there.

There was a distinct sense that we were all in this together, we were all successful to some degree or we wouldn’t even be there, we were going to be rich, we were finally being given the control we’d dreamed that we deserved through the entirety of our geek-oppressed lives. We were going to change the world. Hopefully, we could learn a lot and have some fun along the way.

And it’s no joke that the work was hard, so the fun was important. The place where Jim hosted his dinners was called the Mancini Mansion. It had a unique reputation in quiet little Mountain View, just off its suburban downtown yet a few blocks back from the droning strip-mall stretch of El Camino Real, that paved-over remnant of the Spanish Colonial-era. The mansion had once been the home of a self-made man, last name Mancini, an immigrant who’d come to California nearly a hundred years earlier with virtually no money but an amazing ambition which eventually led him to great heights. It wasn’t very far from a common Silicon Valley story, decades before the place became Silicon Valley.

The home Mancini built with his money was a five- or so bedroom home with a rooftop deck and a vast semi-circular driveway, with several palm trees, visible for blocks, towering over the whole place. It had been built across four normal lots, an enormous spread even when it was built. It was garishly decorated, and fairly well preserved, all things considered. Every room was unique. For example, one bedroom was set partly over a defunct hot tub.

When Doug had first moved to California, he’d worked a network admin job for Electric Communities, the early virtual worlds startup. When Doug got promoted, he needed someone to take his place so he’d convinced Jim to move out and take over for him. When Jim eventually needed replacing, a young Englishman named Harry had passed the opportunity to a school friend of his, Rob.

Rob and Harry had gone to Cambridge together. While Harry was the rail-thin, long-fingered anti-social type, Rob was the slightly more stocky, strong voiced, hyper-social type, though once you got them talking it was obvious how they could hardly be more alike or better friends.

Rob had eventually moved on from Electric Communities — the place was so ahead of its time that it crashed and burned years before the rest of the Internet startups — but the larger social circle which had grown out of the E.C. people would persist. Rob ended up working for Stanford’s research arm, S.R.I., and renting a room in the Mancini, where Jim ended up throwing his parties. Between the long indoor dining room and the patio tables, there was enough room to seat around forty people.

That night was my first time at the Mancini. We were celebrating Harry’s return to California. He had moved back to England a few years before, but somehow he’d heard about a job working on my team, and had flown out for an interview, which we all presumed was merely a formality. After all, you couldn’t hire remotely decent people for any amount of money, so moving a super-talented guy over from London was a no-brainer.

Personally, I don’t remember talking a lot that night, though I’m sure I did my share. I was dizzied by the nested social connections of how everyone had worked together previously at one or more companies. Keeping tens of new faces straight was a real challenge, no matter how similar we’d eventually discover we were. There was a reason that you could draw a straight line from Doug to Jim to Harry to Rob, and that was because they had a lot in common. No surprise we’d all get along so well.

But that’s today. Then, I was just trying to get through the evening. Another of their friends, Arturo, also seemed glad to meet me. He was from Mexico, though he and Harry had been at the same IBM internship in London. After Arturo made his leap from Mexico City to Silicon Valley, he pulled Harry over from London, who’d referred Rob to Jim. Like I said, it’s a tightly nested mess of people who liked one another.

Arturo was doing security things at Yahoo, where Jim also worked, further entangling the relationships. Jim caught us both in the hallway between kitchen and dining room and introduced us, telling Arturo where I worked, that I was a friend of Doug’s, and then walked away.

“Oh!” Arturo said. “You’re at Kroll. Where Harry’s interviewing.”

“Yes, it seems.”

“Huh!” He thought for a moment. “I’m a customer, you know.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You’ve done some security work for us.” He thought for a moment. “Do you know C?”

I know now, and I suspected at the time, that I could pick up C — which is, by the way, a computer programming language. I’d touched on it in college, before changing my major away from the Computer Science track, and I already knew enough about the security side of things that I probably could’ve faked my way into a job. I would’ve been granted stock, real Yahoo stock, the value of which seemed to be approaching escape velocity.

But one of the first things that Doug had told me, reinforcing what I already felt, was this: “Just be brutally honest about what you don’t know. One of the best things you can do is not be afraid to ask questions. I mean, you can ask too many questions, but be clear about what you do and don’t know. Start at first principles if you have to. The right people will happily tell you what you need to know, when you really need to know it.”

So I told Arturo, “I don’t know C. I’m more a designer than a programmer.”

“Ah,” he said, hands up in apology, backing away. “Ah, I see.” Then he paused, something close to confused. “But you know Doug?”

“Yes,” I said, happy to find a touchpoint we shared. Arturo tilted his head slightly, looking at me through heavy eyebrows. “Why?” I asked.

He took a shallow breath. “We worked together at E.C.” There was only a hint of Spanish in his accent.

“Uh-huh,” I said. There seemed to be a bit he wasn’t telling me.

“Where is El Doug?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” I said.

“Ah, a secret.”

“No, I really don’t know.”

Veiled curiosity gave way to the softness of concern. “Oh,” he said.

“At least I got my shotgun back,” I said.

He shook his head, clearly confused. Jim walked by, so I asked him, “Did you hear I got my shotgun back?”

He stopped in his tracks. “What?”

“I didn’t tell you about the shotgun?”

He laughed. “Somehow, no.”

“Oh.” I glanced to see if Arturo was still listening. He was standing patiently. “When I drove out last month, I’d brought everything I could fit in my car that I’d grief over having lost, like my great-grandfather’s old shotgun.”

Jim laughed again, almost nervously. “And how did we get here?”

“Ah,” I said. “Okay, first principles. So, there’s this guy named Doug.”

“I know him,” said Jim.

“Si,” said Arturo.

“He let me stay in his spare room when I first moved out here. I don’t even have any ammunition for the shotgun, but I’d tucked it between two bookshelves in Doug’s spare bedroom just to keep it out of my car once I got here. Then when I moved into my own place, I forgot about it.”

“So you saw Doug?” Jim asked.

“No,” I said. “This guy named Doug, he broke up with his girlfriend.”

“Oh,” Arturo said again. “I’m sorry to hear.”

“I think it was for the best, though I learned the hard way not to say.”

“Though you just did,” Arturo pointed out.

“Yes,” I said. “I’d been exchanging messages with his girlfriend for a few weeks, trying to meet up with her. She wanted me to come by her place and pick it up there so I could fix something on her computer.”

“I bet,” Jim said.

I sighed. “That’s exactly what I was afraid of.”

“So did you…fix her computer?”

“No!” I said, glancing around to see who else might have been overhearing. My “no girlfriends of friends” policy still extended to ex-girlfriends, especially recent ex-girlfriends. Especially her. Jim and Arturo were grinning. “I mean, no,” I said more like a normal person. “So I had her bring it to the office. It was almost a disaster.”

“How so?”

“Ah, well, she saw the danger well before I did, and called me from the parking lot. She said, ‘It occurs to me that your co-workers might become a bit worried if Doug’s ex-girlfriend walked in the front door carrying a shotgun.’”

“Oh, holy shit!” said Jim. Arturo put both hands up to his face in sympathetic mortification.

I nodded. “So like I said, I got my shotgun back.”

Jim smiled, then he turned to Arturo. “Your head’s looking okay,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Arturo, nodding slightly. His hair was closely cropped.

“He made a bet,” said Jim, pointing a thumb at Arturo before moving on to get some other piece of the dinner party together.

“A bet?” I asked Arturo.

“When I interviewed at Yahoo a little more than a year ago, one of the guys there said that he thought the stock would hit X value—” He held his hand up at roughly shoulder height. “—where X was a multiple of the stock’s value at the time. I told him no way, it would never happen. That if it ever did, I would shave my head.” He grinned like a boy and rubbed the top of his closely cropped hair.

“Wow,” I said. Then, not knowing how to respond, I said, “I’m sorry I don’t know C.”

He shrugged. “It’s very hard to find people,” he told me, then he waved, and made to move down the hall toward his original destination.

Before the end of the year, Yahoo’s stock would more than double again, going from 48 to 108, adjusted to today’s values. We had know way of knowing, overwhelmed by euphoria and lacking the precognition we enjoyed attributing to our fine selves, that this would be the high water mark. Everything after that would be a decline, and then a fall.

But in those final days of the first global Internet boom, we were at the top of our collective game — except for me, I felt. While the other great geeks of the age were toasting one another about having finally overthrown the shackles of nerd-dom and taken over the world, I’d soon begin sliding in the grips of what would be one of my deepest and longest lasting depressions.

Given that most everyone would be joining me within the year, you could say I was simply once again ahead of my time. Here’s what happened.

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Going to California

Life by the Valley — 5.1

In Neal Stephenson’s model of Silicon Valley as Lord of the Rings, if the corporate folk were Humans — doing the social thing, waging war against other corporate folk — and the engineers were Dwarves — working diligently when not bickering, sniffing out veins of gold in the hard rock through which we dug — then the third group of us, the consultants, were Elves.

They were Elves for several reasons. They were the one making the actual money, of course, so everyone seemed to defer to their opinion. But they were the ones who brought something like real magic to the table. The security consultants seemed to have gone places and done things beyond the ken of the average person. It would turn out that nearly everyone in the office had some terrible story in their past, some strange thing which had led them where we all were then, practicing information security for outrageously well-funded customers all over the world. But the consultants were on a different level. Unlike the other people around the office, I ended up being close to only a few of them, over the years. Most of them didn’t end up staying very long, especially after what would happened to us shortly. Still, the air of mystery behind their smiles made me wish I’d known a few of them better.

One guy had been twice been named employee of the month at the NSA. One guy could look at a sheaf of print-outs listing patterns of encrypted data and tell you how your encryption was weak. I’m not kidding. This other guy looked like an impoverished wood-paneling salesman nearing retirement, but one day in the kitchen when someone absentmindedly set his coffee halfway off the edge of the counter, he caught the falling cup without looking directly at it — with total grace, as though he’d been expecting it — and placed it securely on the countertop without drawing any attention. The cup’s owner didn’t even register that anything had happened. Quickly scanning the room, he caught me staring. My mouth was probably open. He grinned like a little boy who’d been caught playing a trick on a friend.

One day I came into the kitchen to find three guys sitting solemnly, nodding to one another. They were all Lear jet pilots, it turned out, and news had hit that morning about a disturbing situation. A Lear jet had deviated from its established flight path, following a straight trajectory in radio silence over an uninhabited area rather than angling off toward its metropolitan destination.

“Safest jets in the sky,” one of the men said quietly.

“Long as you don’t run out of air,” said another.

“You know they didn’t run out of air,” said the first.

“Of course,” the third agreed, smiling distantly. “And that’ll turn out to have been the vulnerability: you’ve got sensors checking for high levels of bad air, but not for low levels of good air.”

“It just went down,” I interrupted. “I heard it on the way into work.”

The first consultant nodded. “Over a forest,” he said. “I heard, too. They flew alongside it and saw the windows were all fogged up. If it’d been headed toward an uninhabited area, they’d have shot it out of the sky.”

“Slow cabin leak,” the second one said. “Takes away the oxygen, hypoxia robs you of your ability to think, everybody drops off to sleep.”

“I really hope everyone just fell asleep,” said the third, tugging a corner of his mustache.

“On auto-pilot,” said the first, “that bird’ll fly true ’till it runs out of fuel.”

Quietly, the third man said, “Could’ve happened to anyone.”

They nodded as one.

I enjoyed my little windows into the lives of the consultants, because they got to do the most interesting things. Rather, they had to do the terribly tedious bits that you wouldn’t have to pump up too much to turn into a gripping scene in an action film. It was still pretty tedious work, and maybe even because of the tedium, sometimes the consultants asked for help from engineering. So it was worth getting to know them, to let them know what you knew in case it ever occurred to them that they might be able to use someone like you.

Most of the consultants, and nearly everyone in engineering, were ten or more years older than I was. It was an interesting change from my previous office experiences, where people older than me had been the exception. The older people had a patience I admired. They also taught me to be tight-lipped about any sort of details that might expose what anyone was actually doing there, beyond general labels like “consulting” and “research”. The culture of the quiet secret was something I embraced with a tremendous sense of relief. Being free from the burden of worrying about what I should and shouldn’t tell people was a real gift, and it’s a sense I’ve kept with me, even today, at least about some of my own stories.

Other people’s stories, I can probably tell — at least a few of them.

Some board members of a Silicon Valley came to us with a peculiar problem. They had soft evidence which had led them to believe that their CIO and his director of Information Tech had become corrupt, and were taking terrible advantage of their power and authority. It wasn’t made clear to me how, only that they believed hard evidence was available on some old backup tapes. They’d tried a few different ways to get the tapes out of them without pushing too hard, but nothing worked. They came to us for another solution. They could offer the key to the tiny IT room where the backup tapes were kept, and one of them could arrange to a back door to be left unlocked for one night. That was all they could offer.

Impoverished wood-paneling salesman guy took the gig, and enlisted the help of one of the guys I worked with on the scanner project, Chris, who’d worked with that kind of backup mechanism before.

After entering the office through the back door — they parked a few blocks away and walked over, so that they wouldn’t attract attention by leaving a car parked behind the building all night, which was how long it’d take to copy the tapes — they walked quickly to the IT office and let themselves in. Once they’d locked the door behind them, impoverished-looking guy pulled out a handheld video recorder and made three sweeps of the room: one at eye height, one at waist height and one at knee height. The office of your average tech support guy might look trashed out, but those people are super sensitive to any minor changes in their environment. After spending all night copying the tapes, they played back the tape and made sure to tuck every pencil, every cable, every crumpled-up piece of trash exactly as it had been when they got there. Then they locked the back door behind them and turned the tapes over to our guys back in the office. That’s all I know.

One afternoon, late in October, three of the consultants were sitting around a table. Oh good lord, I thought, not another jet disaster. But no, these guys weren’t pilots. They were straight-up network security guys.

“My wife would never let me go,” one guy said.

“I have kids,” said another.

The third guy put his head in his hands. “Unbelievable,” he said.

I asked Mary what was up.

She shrugged. “Client has a problem,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“Something like a quarter-million dollars is going missing from their cash-machine network every month. They want it to stop.”

“What? Who?”

“South of here.”

“A South American ATM network is losing a quarter of a million dollars a month—”

“I didn’t say South America.”

“A Mexican—”

“I didn’t say Mexico.”

I thought. “L.A.?”

“South of the border. Look, forget about it. You’re not going.”

“I—what? You need someone to go to South Am—” I saw the look on her face. “—south of the border and catch the bank robbers?”

“No,” she said. “The customer doesn’t care who’s doing it. They only want it to stop.”

“So it’s South America.”

She waved the thought aside. “They’ve offered to have armed bodyguards pick the consultant up at the airport and escort him from the hotel to the bank every day. It sounds reasonably safe. I don’t see what the problem is.”

The problem, I realized right then, was that it was a very real situation. I’d been jumping out of bed every morning so I could dance my way ten minutes to a cushy geek job, and here were some guys who might get killed simply for recommending that a server get a security update. I don’t care who it is, if you take away a quarter of a million dollars a month from someone, they’re going to notice, and they’re going to want to know who you are.

“Huh,” I said to Mary, and I left it there. I shouldn’t have said anything in the office, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to blog about it at the time. Here it is fifteen years later, and I still had to think about whether I should tell this story. So that was when I began respecting the office culture. You simply don’t say anything you don’t have to say.

Quieting my chatty inner voice was easier than I thought. As a result, I spoke less, as well — at work, at least. In the meantime, a good number of other things had been going on, not entirely work related.

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