From now on, I’m publishing the “Behind The Scenes” as part of the same post – you can read it at the bottom of the story.
This happened ten years ago, maybe more. I was heading for the team leader role and was pretty much second in command on that – Lexi was just starting to divide her time between us and the Special Projects team, if I recall, so that’s probably why I was stepping up. We still had a good team – there was Fred F, and I was never sure why he didn’t move to a management role for years; it was only years later talking to him that I realised he kept turning them down. Then we had Garfield – I forget what his real name was, but he used to eat a lot of lasagna and it became a nickname and kind of stuck. I actually went to his wedding and they printed his name as “Garfield” on the invitations, if you can imagine that! All from the fact he brought the same meal to lunch at work, day after day.
The reason I was interviewing was that Lexi had just poached Cassie for Special Projects a couple of weeks before. I can see why – Cassie was fast, she hustled. Kind of the benchmark I measured myself against. But that meant I had a support developer job to fill.
If you didn’t work for us, you won’t remember the horrible industrial unit we used to inhabit – about five miles out of town, always a traffic jam to get there and never a parking space when you did. Graeme from accounts started biking in and then that started a trend for cycling in for anyone who was close enough, until someone started stealing the bikes from outside while we were working. I wasn’t, so for me it was a 6am start and hope my old Honda survived long enough to make it to work while there were still parking spaces left.
We got our people through the same recruitment agency most of the time. Human resources wouldn’t countenance going through anyone else. Jenny always said no, and her word was law. I left long before her downfall, but heard on the grapevine that she got arrested for drink driving, being very heavily over the limit. Then, instead of acting like a sensible person who hasn’t already been arrested for this four times already, she decided to drive off, drove over the officer’s foot and then ploughed into the central reservation, closing the road for four hours. It might even have made the news. Either way, most employers don’t tend to hold your job open if you get a two year prison sentence, so that was that.
Anyway, the first guy that I interviewed was pretty OK. Suit, tie, corporate look to him. I don’t remember much else – this was years back, remember. But I seem to recall he politely sailed through the tour, asked a couple of relevant questions, did pretty well enough on the technical test, shook everyone’s hands and left. Second candidate I seem to remember she was a bit more punky – Misfits shirt (although at the time I really didn’t even know who they were, shame on me), and seemed bright enough to cope with most things.
So my last one before lunch is the one that sticks in my head. He was tall, really tall, well-manicured with sleeked back hair. Thin as a lath but wiry and strong, your stereotypical gym bunny.
“Hi,” he said. “Scott Arman, here for the support developer role.”
I shake his hand and it’s crushing, like he’s trying to actually break my fingers. Looking him up and down, something doesn’t fit. That suit looks tailored, looks like it probably cost more than my car. And I mean when it was new, not when I actually bought it, fifteen years old, out the back of a copy of AutoTrader. And this guy wants a support developer role for an annual salary less than his suit cost? It smells wrong.
“Jake Tapper,” I introduce myself. “Acting team leader for support development.”
“Acting team leader?” he asks, and raises an eyebrow.
I nod. “Lexi was the team leader, but she’s moving to Special Projects.”
There’s a faint twitch of a smile and it’s the sort of predator smile that makes you uncomfortable.
“I’d like to know a bit more about these ‘Special Projects’,” he says.
“You probably will,” I shrug. “It’s a growing part of the business, but we end up supporting their code in any event.”
I start giving the usual tour, which is normally about five or ten minutes. You now, showing people the office and the way that we work. We’re all open plan and some people hate that. Some people hate working in a noisy office, and then some people just put their headphones in, fire up their music and code away to Bowie or Lou Reed or Deicide or Mantovani (and if you ever want to meet a programmer that listens to Mantovani, I’ll introduce you to George. He’s really not what you expect.)
I show him the whiteboards around the office, and he’s asking questions all the time – what’s this project, what’s the lines of responsibility, how does any of this get allocated, how do calls come in, where do we go looking for clients, where is the new work – the man has more questions than a TV game show.
My usual five minute tour has taken nearly half an hour by the time we go into one of the meeting rooms, and I’m pretty exhausted with all the questions. And Scott Smarman, as I’m starting to think of him, looks like he’s just getting warmed up.
Lexi responds to my entering the meeting room and comes in behind me. I introduce her to The Smarm.
“I thought you were running the Special Projects team?” he asks.
“I am,” she says. “But I still need to provide a bit of support for this team here before everything settles down so I’m helping out.”
He smiles at her in the same kind of facile way that he’s been smiling at me every thirty seconds or so for the last half hour – a kind of bland, fake reassuring smile that I’d swear he’s been taught – and I can see from her face that something about him puzzles her as well.
“So Scott,” I say, sitting down. “There’s a whiteboard here, and a marker. We’re going to sit at the table and I want you to show us, in your favourite programming language, how you’d implement a binary search in a sorted list.”
He looks confused for a moment and then says “OK,” and picks up the pen and starts looking at the board.
Now this is pretty easy. Basically, you have a list of things. You already know how long it is, so you start in the middle. If the middle is bigger than the value you’re looking for, you go halfway towards the start; if it’s smaller, then you go halfway towards the end. Of course, if the middle was the right one to begin with, you stop there. It sounds simple, but realistically, it’s really hard to write it without bugs.
And he wasn’t. He just stood there at the board, holding the pen, as though he was debating something.
He turned, proffered his hand, and flashed that oh-so-fake smile again.
“Guys,” he said. “Thanks for seeing me, it’s been a really interesting tour, but I’m afraid I’ve decided not to pursue this any further.”
Lexi and I looked at each other in surprise.
“OK,” I stood up. “That was… unexpected.”
“Not to worry,” he shook my hand. “No reflection on yourselves.”
“What exactly was it changed your mind?” Lexi asked. He just laughed
“Let’s just say there are extenuating circumstances for now.” He grinned that strange grin again.
Neither of us could understand it. So I called the agency.
“The guy you sent me, Jacq, Scott Arman?”
“Ah yes. He didn’t work out, did he?”
“Er, no.” I was beginning to get a bit suspicious. “He didn’t.”
“I did rather expect that.”
“Then why did you send him?”
“I was told to,” she said.
“Why? Who by?”
There was a pause.
“Can’t really say.”
Oh great. Jacq at her most evasive. Not that Jenny’s little buddy was ever very forthcoming.
“Did Jenny know?”
“You can tell her if you like,” she sniffed. “But it’s above her pay grade.”
“Eh?” I was nonplussed. “What does that mean?”
“You’ll find out.”
And with a plethora of excuses about having an urgent meeting right now, she hung up. I considered going to Jenny in HR to ask, but decided against it. Anything that questioned her god-given authority tended to be frowned upon.
I didn’t give it much of a thought after that. I had three more interviews, and eventually the Misfits shirt girl got the job. She turned out to be OK, actually, in case you were wondering, but that’s another story.
I would probably have forgotten all of this, odd as it was, except for the next Wednesday.
Eleven am, prompt, the big boss wanders in with two guys in tow.
“Listen up people,” he says, clapping his hands like a performing seal to get us all to pay attention. “Got something to say.”
Even Adam takes his headphones out, which is rare for him. It’s a running joke that it would take a nuclear explosion to drag him away from Eclipse, some days.
“We’ve had a bit of cashflow problems lately,” the big boss goes on. “I’m sure you’ve heard the rumours.”
There’s a muttering. Yeah, we’ve heard them. Someone left a list of names on the photocopier the other day and the rumour went round they were people who were going to be made redundant.
“Well, I’m glad to say that we’ve solved this in a most optimal way. We’ve sold a majority interest in the company to the investment firm Forever Future Prospects.”
George leans over and mutters in my ear. “Sounds like a vacuum cleaner firm.” We try not to laugh.
“Anyway,” the boss goes on. “Let me hand you over to one of the men who did the deal – Scott Arman.”
And the Smarm walks forward. He starts talking, and goes on for half an hour about management synergies, rolling cash forecasts, lowering the burn rate, profit targets, cost control. About how FFP are going to change everything we do, freeing us up to do our jobs better. How he expects renewed commitment from the team players. Blah blah – we’ve heard all that a million times, either for real or read about it somewhere in the business pages.
“See that oily suit,” I whispered back to George, leaning over. “Faked me out. Played me like a fiddle, pumping me for info, all the time pretending to come in for an interview.”
We never saw Arman after that. He retreated to his ivory tower, no doubt going back to smoking his cigars and relaxing on a cushion stuffed with money.
But I always resented being played. I never trusted a manager after that. That’s why I’m the way I am these days: “only the paranoid survive.”
Behind The Scenes
Basically, the idea for this one came from a dream. Really, the dream had only the interview sequence, and I liked the idea of someone going “undercover” to scope out a company takeover, especially as it was seen from the point of view of the interviewer.
Sometimes, this happens. I once dreamt an entire film, complete with opening and closing titles. There was a lot of policework in that – it opened with a murder, and turned out to be something to do with police corruption, if I recall. But having had that dream at eight or nine, I remembered it vividly for years. I even remember a lot of it now and could probably turn it into a novel (maybe I will, at that – perhaps I should make a late start on NaNoWriMo…
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