Saturday, 13 September 2014

Skull Ring

Things at Across the Bay got weird very quickly.

Benjamin was the most obvious source of weirdness. Whenever his cellphone rang he would look around guiltily and answer it in an undertone. He would invariably say "I asked you not to call me at work." I tried not to listen in but his chair was less than two meters away from mine. I thought perhaps he was talking to a drug dealer, but he later told me it was his girlfriend.

Benjamin was also a bit on the paranoid side. He was terrified that he would be fired, and he told me that he was worried the black stain of that would prevent him from finding work again and he would end up on the street.

Benjamin had lost a lot of weight, he said, due to a strenuous diet and exercise program and he was also paranoid that he would get fat again. He would very rarely eat anything besides the occasional powerbar. But that never stopped him tagging along when I went in search of lunch. During one such lunch he told me that during the interview process there was only one other candidate who had passed the test. This candidate was more experienced than either of us and Benjamin had somehow vetoed the hire because he did not want Judd to put anyone above him, and the guy was 'management.' I was never clear on exactly how that went down but I suppose int he end they decided that they didn't need a development manager to look after a team of two, and I was definitely cheaper--and they definitely had me and Benjamin cheap. The CEO of the company joked about it in my hearing: "We  pay our programmers peanuts." I would later hear him use the phrase "Arbeit Mach Frei" when describing our workload.

One of the tech support engineers, Colin, was a chess enthusiast. Benjamin was convinced that he was the smarter of the two, since Colin was 'only' in support, and that he would prove this by becoming a better chess player. The only problem was that Colin held an Expert ranking and Benjamin was a novice. Benjamin kept a tally of how many games he had won in order to track his progress. He did start to win more and more often, as Colin became less and less interested.

There were only a couple of testers working at Across the Bay, and only one was assigned to the product Benjamin and I were writing. Igor was a huge, soft-spoken Bulgarian guy with a sarcastic smile. On my first day, he indicated the work Benjamin and I were doing, and said "This software is shit. It's the worst software I've ever seen." He smiled his little smile and went away, leaving Benjamin fuming.

Freddy, on the other hand, quickly proved my initial feelings about him wrong. He had a strange, self-deprecating sense of humour but he was a good guy. We were the only two people int he office who drank coffee, so he brought in a little two cup percolator which we both enjoyed.

Benjamin and I were the only programmers ATB employed in house, but they had a team of six or so team they'd outsourced from a nearby contracting house who wrote ATB's flagship product. ATB was primarily a software reseller but I think the outsourced product sold better than any of the tools they were distributing, and the margins were much higher. We heard a lot of talk about the other team, and word was that ATB was going to move into software development in a big way. In the meantime, though, there were some problems... such as the fact that Benjamin and I were the only two employees who had ever worked for a proper software development outfit before.

One Friday at the end of the day, Judd asked us for a development build of the product, saying he wanted to play around with it. We cut him him a build and went home for the weekend. Benjamin and I returned on Monday to a furious email about release procedure from the CEO. Judd had published the build as a release candidate and the denizens of the Beta forums had torn it to shreds.

Judd started to feed us odd technical questions that seemed to be from the outsourced team. For example, he showed us a magazine article about how string parsing in Microsoft's new language, C#, performed just as well as it did in C++ and asked us to assess its accuracy. (We debunked it pretty thoroughly). Something strange was going on. We started to hear the names of the engineers on the other team bandied about. The team lead, Mark, seemed to get a particularly good amount of airtime. They were contracted through the consulting company to which Vlad from my old job had recommended me, where the manager had been so rude to me. I heard his name mentioned a lot, too. Michael.

But we had other things to worry about. Judd asked us to estimate how much time we needed to get the product ready for Beta. Benjamin and I spent a day figuring it out and decided that the bare minimum was four weeks, if every single thing went to plan.

"Well, you've got two," Judd told us. I don't know if he thought we were slacking, or if he thought he could make us work harder, or if there was a reason for that deadline, but whatever the case, Benjamin and I just stared at him slack jawed. Then we went back to our desks and got to work.

Things didn't go perfectly. Igor logged a huge number of defects, which provoked Benjamin into storming upstairs in a rage. I followed him int he hope of talking him down, but he had to have his say. Benjamin screamed for probably five solid minutes. The gist of his argument had nothing to do with the defects: he was convinced that Igor was trying to ruin his career. Igor just sat there and smiled his little smile.

While all of this was going on, I was actually learning some new things about programming. I learned more in my first couple of months at ATB than I had in the two years prior. Specifically, I was learning about threaded programming.

Benjamin called himself the "Thread Master" and he was very proud of his work in that arena. He showed me some online articles on the topic and I devoured them avidly. The skills were necessary for the software we were building and I soon found that I needed to use them. My first asynchronous project was to write a threadpool. I wrote a generic class that would take a queue of jobs, which the threadpool would consume until the queue was empty. Jobs could be safely added to the queue during processing. It worked pretty well and the class  proved useful in several places, and Benjamin declared it a success. This is a solution I wound up implementing at a number of different jobs after I left ATB.

Then Igor logged a bug that looked thread-related. Benjamin made a big show of telling Judd that normally this was something that he, the Threadmaster, would handle, but he thought I was ready to step up and take it on. Judd, of course, said "How long will it take?"
"Maybe a week. It looks nasty," I said. I didn't like the way that Benjamin was makign a big deal of this. It looked like he was talking me up, but really the point was to show Judd how much better than me he was.
"I think you'll nail it in three days," said Benjamin.

I had nailed it by lunchtime. Once I had actually looked at the code I found that it wasn't a threading issue; it was an blatantly obvious error that Benjamin had introduced a few days prior. I fixed it quietly and got on with things.

The next morning, Judd sidled over and said "So, how's that monster problem going, Pike?"
"Oh, I took care of it."
"Wow, that was quick. What was it, in the end?"
"Oh, just a bug." Benjamin was still my teammate and I wanted to look out for him, although he was increasingly volatile and he was screwing up more and more often. He was int he CEO's office at least once a week, complaining about conditions and pay.

I figured that Judd and the rest of the office could see what was going on. They could see that I was quietly and competently getting the job done without any big show and without talking myself up. Surely they could see that Benjamin was a little bit unhinged.It wasn't for a couple of years that I realized they didn't know or care.

Benjamin and I continued to work on our product, and it was getting close to being releasable. ATB started hiring again: they brought in an engineer who was a little older than me and had Benjamin test him, as he had earlier tested me. I wasn't in the room, but the new guy, Elvis, did well, and was duly hired...

... into the position of Development Manager. Benjamin was furious. In particular, he was galled that he'd been the one to test Elvis--he thought that meant  he would later be singled out for special vengeance.

But whatever his faults, Elvis was a laid-back guy with little concern for such trifling matters. I doubt he gave the test another thought.

Elvis was an entirely new kind of manager, quite different to the ones I'd served under in the past. But his presence signaled something I'd never seen before: rapid expansion. ATB had big plans and they were only just beginning.

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