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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