Chapter Five

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Upstairs in the Latrine, the conference room favored for brainstorming, Paul Gribbe and team are digging into the Blackquest requirements. Elite has provided a spread including bagels with smoked salmon, breakfast pastries, a tower of sculpted fruit. Yellow-shirted "coordinators" stalk about answering questions, gesturing at printouts. There is a woman smiling and nodding with Minosh. A man with windswept hair talking to Jared, whose lips purse in the toad-like expression with which he feigns deep thought. After my exchange with Jim Davis, I'm encouraged to see normal people on their team-people who aren't scowling or squeezing the foam guts out of a stressball.

I linger at the door to the conference room, officially 3-C. The name "Latrine," as Paul explained during a tour my first day, traces back to an old project that involved rewriting copious amounts of CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) logic. The type of tedious work you almost wish got farmed out to rent-a-coders. Someone said, "We're so deep in this gunk, we should call this place the Latrine." The name stuck. I said to Paul, "I bet it also makes you guys feel tough, right?"

Now Paul stands at the projector, a bracing hand on his half-donut-bald head. Sprawled across the screen are 187 interfaces in all their cryptic, punctuation-soup glory. He has begun grouping with blob-shaped outlines: a loose green "L" across the middle is labeled Jared injection piece; most of the top is purple, Deb under the hood; etc. His first try at assigning who will do what.

"Deb, good." Paul waves me in. "Need to get your take. This thing's enormous."

"Oh I was just rubbernecking," I say. "I'm not coming inside."

"No, you need to. Now."

I shake my head. "Pass."

He peeks back at the Elite coordinators, then approaches confidentially. "First checkpoint is in two hours. We have to file our initial design."

He gestures to a timer mounted in the corner, ticking down from 01:43:52. I saw a few others on my way, these red digital readouts clearly meant to suggest Jack Bauer lurks somewhere, prepping hypodermic needles behind a two-way mirror.

"Or what?"

"We get docked. Apparently Elite has the authority to dock our Q4 options- they believe in incentivizing 'at the micro level.'"

"How does Elite have any authority whatsoever over our options?"

Paul gives his dunno, I just work here shrug. I think about that addendum Davis mentioned. What other powers has Elite usurped? Can they boot our vehicles? Restrict bathroom access?

One of the coordinators, the woman, strides forward with hand extended.

"Katie Masterson, communications specialist." Her grip is firm, nails immaculate. "Can I assist? Is there some confusion I can clarify?"

My sandals remain in the hall, such that our handshake occurs across the threshold. "No confusion. Just headed back to my cube."

"But you're an engineer, yes?"

It's unclear whether she is assuming based on appearance, or has my bio memorized like Jim Davis. "I have too many deliverables for corporate training. Sorry. Your scones look yummy."

Katie is preparing to respond, the corners of her grin rising dangerously, when Paul says, "I'm just bringing Deb up to speed. Thanks."

Once she's left, Paul faces me. His eyes drop for a pervy peek at my feet.

"It'll be remarkable software," he says. "If we pull it off."

Unwittingly my attention drifts to the projector screen. The interfaces paint a complex tapestry of function, littered with obtuse variables (k1253r, BXR_BAK) that run counter to the accepted industry norm of using English-readable names. The gist, I perceive in a blink, is that the code needs to (a) inject itself into a foreign operating system, (b) perform some optimization, transforming a matrix of inputs into outputs, and (c) persist in the host with minimal footprint. It's an odd mix of systems programming and heavy algorithm work, with a dash of old-fashioned hacking thrown in for good measure.

Paul notices my gaze. "Thought we might carve out the optimization piece."

"Can't be black-box," I say. "That middle piece-whatever it does-will need context."

He winces in grudging acknowledgment. "True."

"Do you know? What the story is on those input/output matrices?"

"I asked that at the kickoff. Jim Davis said it shouldn't matter. 'Code to the interface. Do not worry about use cases.'"

With uncharacteristic humor, Paul delivers the quote in a not-bad imitation of Davis.

Paul is occasionally tolerable. I enjoy talking shop with him. The guy knows his stuff; people say he was an absolute code-ninja during Codewise's startup days, when he, Susan, and Carter Kotanchek were new Carnegie Mellon PhDs, spinning off research started with their professor. While the other two moved into executive leadership, Paul stayed down in the salt mines architecting the groundbreaking optimizations that fueled the company's rise. In time he was convinced to take his current role as head of development. An office, dozen direct reports.

I think he misses coding, though. I think a tiny part of him envies me, not having to sit through meetings and wrangle bureaucracy, wholly compensated to solve (real) problems. In a way, I'm the new him: Codewise's revenues last year missed analyst expectations, and Susan expects my arrival to ignite a resurgence.

Still, there's only so much sympathy I can muster for a man of Paul's net worth. When the founders finally did sell out to private equity three years back, the price tag was $1.8 billion.

He says now, "One possibility is to go with small teams, parallel approaches."

"Like Boeing," I say.

"Exactly. Boeing was complex too, lots of moving parts."

"Not 187-interfaces complex. And we delivered in two months, not two days."

"Right. Probably impossible."

He is baiting me of course, and I am halfway considering taking said bait when a plastic grocery bag drifts by in the window. The dumpster at street level is a common foraging spot for the unhoused.

"Nope." I shut my eyes, grind both palms into my ears. Clear. Focus. "Sorry Paul, not getting sucked in. Not doing it."

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