Consultant

The much hailed Senior Consultant arrived for his first day of work in a blinding wash of holy light. We could barely see through the glare, but with sunglasses we confirmed that his feet did not touch the carpet, nor did he have to operate doorknobs. He did, however, have to sign an NDA. After this small ceremony at the front desk, a bearded priest someone had hired for the occasion of this, the Consultant’s advent, preceded His Grace with a low chant and a smoking, swinging censor. Small children cast flower petals before them, a dozen maids in white gowns (presumably virgins) performed interpretive dances of their passage, and a grizzled old man followed them all, uttering portents (it was the Ides of February, or nearly, and Mercury was ascending while the moon was in wane). Ropes of incense twisted in the air, and yet somehow did not trip the smoke alarm. The receptionist complained that she was slightly sunburnt, but it turned out that her acne had been cured, and Jonas the Sandbagger stopped limping (though he turned out to be allergic to jasmine).

The Senior Consultant’s reputation had been built up by management over several weeks to the point that any other mere Consultant could have been Tom DeMarco, Ed Yourdon and Barry Boehm simultaneously co-habiting the body of Fred Brooks, and he still would have been a letdown. We did not know where they had found the fellow, but there were plenty of rumors; he have been delivered from on high to a rock on a mountain, or sprung full-grown from a crack in a volcanic island, or discovered in a fantastically decorated sacrophagus in a hidden South American valley. We never found out which.

—-

We put down stupid schoolyard bets about his engineering skills.

“He could beat Sedgewick.”

“Well, anybody could do that.”

“Rivest?”

“Blindfold, with a foot in a bucket of ice, unless it’s crypto math. Then this guy would be toast.”

“Schneier?”

We all laughed. Anyone knows that Bruce Schneier can just look dangerously at any consultant on the planet and they will simply wither away, not worth the effort for Bruce to flex even the tiniest muscle in his weakest finger. An eyebrow twitch of certain death.

—-

The Senior Consultant was stuck in meetings of a deeply secretive nature with nosebleed layers of management all the first week, and apparently he had his own manner of arriving and departing, likely involving an angelic host and bodily transport through the ceiling tiles, because we didn’t see him again until the next week’s regular engineering meeting.

More rumors flew over the cubicle walls. We were all going to be fired. Management was all going to be fired. They were going to replace us with contract programmers from Outer FORTRANistan and run all of our software on wicker effigies of copies of IBM 360 computers stolen from still-radioactive nuclear test sites located in the heart of Mother Russia. The truly paranoid amongst us thought that our project would be cancelled and that we’d be farmed out to write Visual Basic apps for tracking shipments belonging to humorless Columbian drug lords, or else work on a web site for some sock-puppet Internet company.

It was worse.

—-

Meeting Standard Time is five minutes past the hour, at any company I’ve ever worked for. I was doodling in my notebook, Dave was reading something about databases, Tim was staring into space thinking about XML and making the odd face twitches he always made when he was wrestling with Standardese, and the Kid Pirate was multi-booting yet another stolen OS on his laptop. As the clock ticked to 10:06 we made a silent accord and gave it another five minutes. Ten minutes, fifteen. Finally, on the half hour and just as I was finishing an awesome drawing of a evil alien octopoid consuming and then retching up our SourceSafe server (don’t get me started), our boss and the Consultant entered the room.

Our boss: Mid-forties, growing a belly, going a little bald. Afraid of his own shadow, and never kept to a schedule or shipped a successful product in his life.

The Consultant, fully visible now that his aura was on “dim”: Obvious, obvious ex-military hard-core type, with a no-nonsense attitude that owned the entire room the instant he set foot in it. He kicked ass with only one foot in the door and the other one still in the air.

I thought, This guy has probably killed people with his bare hands.

I heard Dave whisper to himself, “… with his bare hands.”

We looked at each other.

He’s fucking killed people with his bare hands. And now he’s our real boss.

—-

We made polite introductions around the room. Doodler, Dave-who-doesn’t-do-databases, Tim, Boy Pirate, the Three Amigas, Testy Betsy and her H1-B entourage. Oh, and our bulgy little boss, who didn’t matter much before and sure didn’t matter now. Pleased to meet you.

The Consultant smiled and seemed to communicate something private to each of us with very small little nods as we went around the room. He might have been counting internally. He could even have been silently farting. Each acknowledgement of our existence summed us up completely; we were beneath his notice before and after our successive turns under his gaze. We were all equally unworthy. We might, someday, if we worked eighty hour weeks for the next couple of decades, be competent to write a ten line program in a company that he used to consult for. But until that day we were microbes, simple animated meat puppets whose sole purpose was to type the curly-braces and semicolons that sprang from his vast, unimaginably competent, nearly incorporeal mind.

Then he got busy.

The next hour was a hell of Powerpoint and jargon about project management and technologies that were referred to only by three and four letter acronyms, often amended with slashes and version numbers. I clearly remember two things. First, I wanted out of the room so that I could throw up in the fake plants outside. Second, I was pretty sure the very highly paid Senior Consultant –

“The release team takes the weekly tear-down schedule, commits to each of the items by converting work-points to task management action checks, and then delivers estimates to the ARTS committee. Of course we follow the ISO-9001 protocol you’ll find on the new web site.”

– no, no, not just pretty sure, I was completely and absolutely fucking sure that he –

“… flush the coherent semi-idempotent transfer modules, with the release system using standard RESTful posts through the front-end server cache system. Right?”

Mumbled assent, mostly from shock.

“Get to it, please.”

– was a total fraud.

We nodded dumbly as we filed out. I went to my desk, put my notebook down next to my mouse, checked my email, then went outside and threw up in a planter.

—-

“I did a web search on this guy.”

“So?”

“I don’t think he’s ex-military at all. I don’t think he’s killed anyone with his bare hands.”

“So?”

“Do you have any idea how much we are paying this bozo?”

We were eating lunch in the crappy little deli that our start-up incubator ran. It was a poorly lit cavern made of dark-stained anonymous wood. The tables were deeply gouged and stained with years of accumulated grease, and the chairs were lightweight wicker things whose favorite trick was to catch your heels and tip over just as you were sitting down on them. The owner of the deli had been serving mid-eastern food for decades, and the smell of deep-fried falafels was forever embedded in the room, at the molecular level.

Dave considered a limp onion ring. “Look at this onion ring,” he said, flopping it back and forth in his fingers. Greasy crumbs from it fell onto the scarred table top, where they merged with the rest of the table’s history. “It’s not a very good onion ring, but it’s what I’ve got at the moment, and I’m going to eat it.”

“So?”

He ate the ring. “This basket of onion rings represents all the marginal, just-making-it startups in the valley. Here, I represent a rapacious predator who used to eat at all the best places in town, way better stuff than rancid onion rings from Farjahd’s grease pit, but I am now reduced to subsisting on junk food in Falafel Hell. Chomp, chomp, there goes Xibitive, chomp there goes Quarktech, and I’m going to choke down ZetaTech now.”

“ZetaTech laid off half their people last week.”

“Q-fucking-E-dee.”

“Well, sure this guy is a predator. We knew that.”

“The question is, why did he fall from grace, and what has he got that makes all these little barely-alive companies hire him just before they go out of business?”

I thought about it for a while. “I know who to call.”

“I beat you to it,” said Dave. “They want to see us Sunday morning.”

—-

It’s no accident that Bub’s Pancake Diner is next to some of the most successful Silly Valley financiers; the food is plentiful, cheap, and the customers are the tightest cheapskates to be found west of the Rockies. The air in the place hums with deals, with terms sheets plotted out on napkins and client-server architectures drawn and re-drawn in permanent pen on the table cloths. One set of linens had been used to design what later became a billion-dollar networking startup. Rumor had it that at least one of the VC firms in the area regularly swept the restaurant for listening devices, but was too cheap to buy Bub’s a better brand of bleach.

The place was crowded, with a half-hour wait out the door, but we were spotted by a gofer and were led in right away. Our hosts were a pair of six foot skinny cadavers with identical fountain pens, black notebooks and cell phones. They had already ordered us banana waffles, which arrived as we sat down.

The cadaver on the left poured syrup for us while the right-hand cadaver started right in.

“We understand that you have trouble with Zotar Dwibble.”

Who?”

Left cadaver: “Some call him the Consultant of Doom.”

Dwibble?”

Right cadaver: “He doesn’t make his real name common knowledge. Usually he’s Zotar Ubermensch or Drago Darko something equally dreadful.”

Dave: “I can’t say that I blame him.”

Left cadaver: “He gets something on one of the founders or officers, then gets hired for a while. Usually he’s involved in the shutdown of the company, recommending his security staff for help in layoffs, or his friends for selling off the equipment and supplies.”

Right Cadaver: “He makes more money selling cubies and furniture than he does selling any of the computers, can you believe that?”

It was a rhetorical question, Left Cadaver: “Eat your waffles.”

We ate, and they continued.

RC: “We need you to do something for us.” From under the table he produced a small paper bag, labeled in elegant script. Whatever was in the bag was well-packed, with fine paper poofing out the top. “We want you to place this on the front desk, where he is sure to see it when he arrives tomorrow morning.”

Dave asked, “Then what?”

LC: “Then you can take the rest of the day off, and everything will be better in the morning.”

RC: “And, as you leave the parking lot?”

“Yes?”

LC: “As many wise faerie tales are written, don’t look behind you.”

The two of them stood up. “Feel free to finish breakfast,” they said, and left. Later it turned out that they had paid for the meal, but had planned to stiff the waiter.

—-

Tuesday morning we were milling around in the parking lot. The trucks had arrived very early, perhaps six in the morning, and were loading what remained of the company’s furniture. Most of the computers were a total loss; the building’s fire sprinkler system was plumbed with iron and when the alarm had cut loose it had sprayed ancient, funky and rust-laden water over everything. Two vans from “damage treatment” companies were open, with fans roaring, and big tubes going into the office itself. We could hear deeply depressing squelching noises.  All our data.  I caught myself thinking remorseful thoughts of the SourceSafe server.

No sign of the consultant, upper management, or even our boss. But someone “had heard” that we were supposed to stick around for an announcement. Dave and I got out our phones and started calling up friends and old contacts, getting interviews for our next gigs in order.

Around nine o’clock a woman we had never seen before stood in front of this group of forlorn people who no longer had an office to work in, clapped her hands and called for attention. She was in her mid 40s, wore a shabby jacked and jeans, and would not have looked out of place at a Wal-Mart checkout stand.

“Hello there. Hello, everyone. Can I have your attention, please?”

Dave hung up his phone with a grim look. I’d already gotten a couple of replies; nobody wanted to talk to us. It was like we were pariahs.

“I’m Dorothy, and I’m your new CEO. In about half an hour you’ll get directions to the new office. This afternoon you’ll meet with the other new company officers, and you can settle in. Do that fast, because the release is still scheduled for next week.

“If any police officers come to talk to you, please refer them to Mister Bragg, here.” She gestured at a small smiling black man who had suddenly appeared at her side. “Our funders require us to carry fire insurance for precisely this reason, and the VCs are fully informed and behind us. We’ve contracted an IT house to do full restores onto your shiny new workstations.” She smiled. “See you at work in about an hour.”

We made a small caravan away from the blackened and damp shell of our old office. I did not look in my rear-view mirror.

—-

The new office was nice, but as befitting a start-up, not too nice. The air conditioning was either full-on or we were roasting. The choices for lunch were better, however.

Miracle of miracles, we had a new boss who actually knew what he was doing. Our releases weren’t the gut-wrenching, thirty-hour cluster fucks they had been; we were working fewer hours, having to fix fewer bugs, and it was clear that something had been unblocked and born anew in our group. Light at the end of the tunnel for a start-up can often be simply having more than three months of money left, but we had actual paying customers, and they seemed happy.

One morning I saw someone, a janitor or workman I didn’t recognize, doing something strange to the door frame. On the way to lunch I examined it; there was fine writing, in gold, all up and around and back down the inside of the door. Then I noticed the patterns on the carpet, and everything came into focus.

I mentioned it to Dave, and he got a little pale.

“You looked, didn’t you?”

“Yes. So did you.”

“They always tell you not to look when then really want you to look, but not too hard.”

Zotar had seen the paper bag on the receptionist’s desk and a whole sequence of emotions had played across his face: Puzzlement, delight, fear, anger. He went over to the bag, pawed in it and lifted out something bright and small. Then Dave and I had left, and we were well into the parking lot when the earth shook slightly and the screaming started.

“He was burning, and there was this hole in the air…”

There had been a wrenching crash and a gabble of voices, then more screaming as an entire management team had been dragged into a vortex, changing form as they flew through the air. Nobody from inside the office remembered anything more than the fire system suddenly turning on.

“These other places, the really successful companies, who do you think they’re run by?”

Dave munched his sandwich. “I dunno. But you notice a couple things about the servers we’re running now — no Oracle, for instance.”

“Oh, right. And our routers are . . . yeah, that makes sense.”

We finished lunch in silence, returning to the office through the wards and across the carpet covered in pentagrams. I swear that some bugs had fixed themselves while we were gone. Not, of course, the really hard ones…

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17 Responses to Consultant

  1. Sam says:

    Very interesting post! Kind of reminds me of Office Space. Have you ever considered writing a novel or screenplay?

  2. schnalle says:

    this story is so scary i cried out in fear several times. tears are running down my cheeks now. i need a hug, fast!

  3. Gramar says:

    Sarcophagus

  4. Will Sargent says:

    Bravo. Charlie Stross himself could not have done any better.

  5. j. says:

    Please grab an editor and write a whimsical fiction…. I’m following in your footsteps (accidentally) and would pay for your wisdom in an entertaining package in the style you blog :)

  6. mnky9800n says:

    You leave me wanting more every time. Are all consultants so scary?

  7. ewesterly says:

    Soooo much truth embedded within. :D

  8. Dan says:

    That was such a good read, I really enjoyed that!

  9. Dan says:

    Why does this remind me of high school and college programming courses, almost to the letter, replacing bosses and workplaces with different labs in the building with computers that work/could work someday/will never work and different teachers and professors that know something/don’t know anything yet/will never know anything ever, and replacing getting paid with general pain?

  10. TheMangler says:

    Our own Kid Pirate is now the wrong side of 30. As of today, he has a new nickname….

  11. bill says:

    Censer, not Censor

    Wikipedia:
    Censers are any type of vessels made for burning incense.
    Censorship is the suppression of speech

    …though a ‘swinging censor’ might be fun to watch…..

  12. Chris says:

    An excellent Saturday morning read. I think you hate the system more than I do. Yet we are pawns none the less always and forever it seems…….

  13. Tik says:

    Reality beats always the fiction.

  14. Richard says:

    heh…
    I was that guy (kind of) once.
    I no longer fear him.
    I can spot him and dispel his evil emanations.
    Ah-HA-HA-ha-ha-ha!

  15. Liam Proven says:

    Indeed, rather Stross-esque, and good fun.

    BTW: “cubical” means resembling or having the properties or shape of a cube. A small cube-shaped space is a “cubicle”. Cf. principal/principle.

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