Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Raw Power

Elvis started to throw his weight around immediately, and since he only had two engineers to look after that meant me and Benjamin. We had a release due in a couple of weeks and Elvis decided he needed to be involved.

Most of the things he wanted were small. "Move that control two pixels to the left. "Change that word from "Edit" to "Modify". My favourite was his request that I make the toolbar show its icons in true colour. I explained that it was an out of the box control and it only supports 16 bit images, but Elvis was adamant. I explained that the images we used weren't in 24 bit colour anyway, and he went and had a designer in the marketing department spruce them up. Int he end it took me most of a week to get the damn icons on the toolbar displaying properly in true colour, at the expense of bug fixes and features that customers might actually benefit from. He didn't care, so I did what I was told. Putting a true colour toolbar on that horrible, hacked-up interface was like putting a ribbon around a turd.

Suddenly ATB was hiring. Elvis immediately started negotiating to bring in the team of contractors working for us from a nearby firm, and there was a procession of candidates through the doors as well. Benjamin was called upon to test all of them. When he was away, I did the testing.

It was my first time on the other side of the table in an interview situation and I didn't like it. The test I had to administer had been written by Benjamin, and it only covered C++ topics. I was asked to test programmers who had responded to job ads for Visual Basic or C#/.NET programming roles--topics I was bone ignorant about. One candidate in particular--a veteran programmer who was probably in his fifties--grew angry and belligerent about it. Elvis had left us alone in the room for the test and I felt like the lowest of weasels. In his place I would have been angry, too. Some punk kid half my age, asking me difficult questions in a language you never claimed to know. But the form of it was all that mattered to Elvis

Money was suddenly a sore point. Elvis had left papers lying around showing the salaries promised to the team we were poaching from the contracting company and their numbers were substantially higher than what what Benjamin and I were getting. (I didn't know Benjamin's salary, but that was what he said when he saw the papers.) The lowest salary on the sheet was almost fifty percent above mine, and these were all programmers with similar levels of experience to my own. Benjamin stormed into off to see the president of the company at least once a week to demand more money. I went with him once, but I just stood by and let Benjamin talk. I could see it was getting him nowhere. My own interest was academic: I didn't plan on staying there long.

Benjamin started pushing me. Doing less work, belittling my work in front of other people. I let him say what he wanted, but I wouldn't stand by and let his poor judgment compromise the quality of the work I was doing. He contested a database schema design that I came up with and his proposed alternative was leaky. It was going to lose crucial data. Benjamin got angrier and angrier as I refused to accept his design. Eventually, he pulled up his college transcripts to show me that he'd scored As in his database subjects. I told him he was still wrong. It was my feature and my responsibility and he could fuck off with his college transcript.

To this day it's the only time I've ever raised my voice in anger at work. When I realized I had shouted I turned and left the room. Elvis and Judd were nowhere to be seen, but afterwards Freddy, who witnessed the whole thing, came up to me with a smirk. "That was new," he said. "Not unexpected, but new." He reported the incident up the chain, as I knew he would. I liked Freddy but I knew he was a born gossip.

Benjamin and I didn't speak for days after that. I delivered the feature and the matter was never raised again.

When the first new engineer started we had an office move. There just wasn't space for one more desk in the dingy basement room Eric, Benjamin and I shared. Instead we moved upstairs, to the area formerly occupied by QA and technical support. It was quite a large area, and with only three desks in there it was a like working in a barn. A barn that dripped from the ceiling.

Elvis told there were plans to rent a floor in the 12 storey office block next door. I wasn't sure I believed him.

The new hires started arriving and before long they had to install partitions. Suddenly I had one square meter of desk space, with engineers on my left and my right. The floor in my spot wasn't  level, and I had to lean constantly to prevent my chair from rolling downhill. If I rolled my chair backwards more than a few inches I would run into the back of the guy who sat behind me--a grumpy old veteran named Ralph. I liked Ralph. He told you what he was thinking.

ATB had purchased a branch of the sourcecode for a Visual Basic application written by a couple of local entrepreneurs. The app itself was primitive, and was in fact a direct knockoff of a competitors product, but someone at ATB saw it as a strategic market. Ralph and Dennis, a baby-faced engineer five years my senior, were given the task of cleaning up that code and make it something that ATB could convincingly sell to man-on-the-street-with-laptop consumers.

Within the space of about a month my workspace had gone from a tomb to a barn to a sardine can. It was bewildering.

I rebooked my cancelled holiday home to Australia for July. The lawyers advised me that I needed to go home and get a new visa stamp in my passport. I needed a new passport, too. The consulate in Melbourne would not say me how long that process would take--they advised me not to buy a return flight. I put my head down and decided to wait it out, see what happened. The situation at ATB continued to get weirder all the time.
Benjamin was becoming increasingly agitated. He would pose psychological challenges to everyone who sat within earshot. Unpleasant hypothetical situations. What would you do if...? I don't think even Benjamin enjoyed those conversations, but he kept introducing uncomfortable new topics.

The team of contractors came on as regular employees and suddenly they were the cool kids. They hung out together, they were always laughing, they had a good time despite the dingy work environment. It's rare in the software business that you feel like you're not popular enough to hang out with the pretty people, but suddenly there was a clique of engineers who were better paid and better treated and who were simply having a better time than the rest of us.

One Monday morning, when the new hires were announced at the staff meeting, Benjamin turned to me with an expression of shock.
"That guy."
"That guy." The guy he indicated was a huge individual with cokebottle glasses and some kind of obvious social disorder. 
"I tested him on Friday and he got zero. ZERO. Couldn't answer a single question on the test. Elvis hired him anyway."

When Benjamin buttonholed Elvis about it he said "The guy was nervous.  He sent me some work samples from home and they were good."

That Guy lasted about one week, including the weekend. (Elvis made him work over his first weekend). Every single line of code he submitted had to be rewritten by somebody more competent. I think he quit before Elvis could fire him but I was never certain.

Benjamin decided that his chess game had improved sufficiently that he could take on Colin, and he challenged him to a best of fifteen tournament to see, once and for all, who was the best player in the building. Colin agreed to it in his usual laid back way. Benjamin then turned to me and said "I'll bet you five dollars I'll win."

I wasn't sure how to respond. He was my teammate, and he had had a sensitive ego, and now he wanted me to bet against him? I didn't care about his chess game. I just wanted to be able to get on with my job in peace.
"I bet you twenty," I said, hoping to price myself out of the proposition. I knew Benjamin was a cheapskate.
He thought long and hard about it, but in the end he decided to take the bet.

Benjamin  started playing chess. He kept score on the white board; game stats and a whole lot of bullshit analysis that made it look like he was doing better than he was. The truth was that Colin was thrashing him, no matter what he wrote on the board. His mistake had been telling Colin about the bet. Now that there was money on the line - even though it wasn't his own - Colin took a renewed interest in the game and Benjamin just couldn't compete.

Benjamin also started coming up with excuses to rewrite all of the external utilities our product needed in C#, because he wanted to be able to put the cool new language on his resume. I was scornful of the idea--more of Benjamin's paranoia about being left behind or turfed out by the tech business-- but I left him to do it. I was scornful of C#, even though it was clearly becoming more valued at ATB than the C++ we were writing. But I didn't say anything. I didn't want another fight; I just wanted to get my job done and get away on holiday.

July came around finally and I was ready for my holiday. The day before I was to leave, Judd called me into his office. "Here you go, Pike, we're paying you a bonus for all your good work." It was maybe $1000--well short of what was owed to me for the month of salary he'd earlier screwed me out of.
"Thanks, Judd."
"It's to make sure you come back," he said, grinning.
I just looked at him. "You really think I'd just leave like that?"
"Well, not really..."
Without taking the pleasure of slapping a resignation form down on his desk? Did he think I was stupid? 
I pocketed the cheque and left it at that. He knew I had good reason to walk, and he knew it was a lame gesture. I don't think it had occurred to him that I would be insulted.

I knew I'd be back, but I had a feeling it wouldn't be for long. I wanted to take my holiday, get my new visa, and get some perspective. I wasn't ready to call it quits with Donna but I wanted to get away from her for a bit, too. I had no real idea what would happen next.

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