Soft Where?

by John Wyatt
copyright 2002

The portly Mr. Roundabout squeezed through the front door of CompuWalk Software and waddled to the reception desk. He gazed down at the receptionist, Miss Edna Prunelips, with a wide, toothy smile. “Good morning,” he bubbled, “My name is Joseph Roundabout and I’m here to start my new job!”

Miss Prunelips craned her head up from last year’s fashion magazine, scowled at the newcomer, then swiveled to the security guard Mr. Squint, who took this cue to run his small eyes down the list of expected visitors. Mr. Roundabout gazed around the reception area, drinking in the many silk and plastic plants and other ersatz décor. A poster on one wall encouraged visitors to “Walk, don’t run, to CompuWalk Software.”

”Ahem,” Squint peered up at Mr. Roundabout. “Who you were to report to?”

“I’m to report to Mr. Bitehard, the head of Research and Development. I’m his new lead programmer!”

“I see.” Mr. Squint peered over his list again. “Were you sent by an agency?”

“In a manner of speaking. I was sent by a recruiter, Tom Liewell. I interviewed here last week.”

Mr. Squint apparently found what he wanted on his list, made some pencil scratches, then called the Human Resources office. “There’s a Mr. Roundabout here to start a new job. I assume you need to see him first? Yes, I’ll send him right over.” Mr. Squint hung up the telephone, leaned over and whispered something to Miss Prunelips, whose pinched face scowled even more as she retrieved a temporary badge from her desk drawer. Mr. Roundabout extended a pudgy hand to retrieve the badge, which was boldly imprinted Escort Required. Miss Prunelips instructed Roundabout to report to Human Resources for indoctrination. Having discharged her minimally required duties, she returned to her fashion magazine.

Mr. Roundabout pinned the badge to his shirt pocket and started towards the door. “Do I need an escort?” he queried. Squint responded by buzzing the door open. Mr. Roundabout shrugged, opened the door, and sauntered down the hall until he found a door marked “Human Resources.” The opposite door was marked “Company Nurse. Lance Boyle, RN.” He briefly wondered why a software company would have an onsite nurse.

“It’s about time you got here!” Mr. Roundabout whirled to face the HR Director, Mrs. Helen Highwater. Smiling, he strode into her office and squeezed into the guest chair at her diminutive table. He spent most of the morning filling out forms, reading company policies, and signing agreements before finally being shown to his cubicle. The space had already been prepared for his arrival, containing a used computer, a telephone, and last year’s telephone list. Mr. Roundabout settled slowly into his chair and powered on the computer.

“Excuse me?” the voice startled Mr. Roundabout, who scattered his papers as he whirled around.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. Are you the new programmer?”

Mr. Roundabout saw an elderly gentlemen, who probably would have been tall had not life’s worries so horribly bent his back. The newcomer helped replace the fallen papers onto Roundabout’s desk, then pulled over a chair. He coughed, “My name is Edward Crashburn. I’m one of the senior programmers.”

“Pleased to meet you! My name is Joseph Roundabout! I’m the new lead programmer! I’m supposed to report to Mr. Bitehard, but I haven’t had the chance to meet him yet.”

“You probably won’t see much of him, he likes to travel at lot. I think he’s visiting a prospective customer this week.”

Mr. Roundabout was warming to the quiet-spoken Mr. Crashburn. “I’ve heard a great deal about you. During my interview, Mr. Longtooth spoke at length about your ability! I must say it will be a pleasure working with you.” Mr. Roundabout’s affable smile began to slip as he added: “I was hoping I would get an office though, not a cubicle. These things are so…confining.”

“Not to worry,” Mr. Crashburn wheezed, “I just heard that Mr. Longtooth will be retiring next week, so you might be able to move into his office if you want. Unless, of course, Mr. Bitehard decides to take it over for himself. Things are pretty much ‘take as you can’ around here. That’s why Mr. Bitehard wanted a lead programmer – someone to put some order to the chaos.”

“Splendid!” Mr. Roundabout cheered. “I have my own way of doing things and I expect to make a number of changes once I settle in! Perhaps you could show me around the building? I didn’t see anything past the front conference room when I interviewed.”

Ed escorted Roundabout through the building, introducing him to the team of programmers and testers, the documentation department, the marketing group, and ending at the security office to obtain his official employee badge. Having received his badge, Mr. Roundabout decided to investigate the company cafeteria, accompanied by Mr. Crashburn.

The anemic cafeteria contained a small, overworked grill and a passable sandwich bar, all lovingly tended by the resident chef – a smiling woman who had once had a passing acquaintance with youth. Her nametag proudly announced “Karen Feeding.”

“Can I help you?” she burbled, as the pair scanned the short menu. After much cogitation, Edward Crashburn ordered the same sandwich that he always ordered, reasoning that it was best not to risk change at this point. Joseph Roundabout ordered a triple club sandwich. Karen proudly assembled their orders, garnishing their plates with remnants of parsley. The two programmers sat at one of the less dilapidated imitation wood tables and began eating.

“Edward, I know that Mr. Bitehard is out of the office, but I’ll go ahead and start making changes right away. No use wasting time! From what I’ve seen, you have a number of problems that need an immediate solution! Yes, I can see right now where I can make some substantial changes to set things on track!” Roundabout smiled as he took a huge bite from his thick club sandwich. His jowls shook as he masticated the massive sandwich. “By the way,” Roundabout mumbled while chewing, “what kind of software do we develop here?”

Next Friday morning found Mr. Roundabout humming softly to himself as he sat in his tiny cubicle surfing the Internet. Ed Crashburn rushed down, wheezing: “I just heard that all the other programmers and testers were fired this morning! What happened?”

Mr. Roundabout swiveled his head about and smiled at Ed. “They simply weren’t needed! I am streamlining operations to improve our profit margin! Do you recall how we talked yesterday about the high cost of software defects?”

“Yes?” Ed pulled up a chair and gently eased into the creaky seat, wondering where this was leading.

“I decided to reduce the cost of software defects by reducing the payroll, as well as reducing the amount of software. But don’t worry about yourself; I have a place for you in my new structure.”

Crashburn peered around Roundabout’s smiling, fleshy bulk and looked at the computer screen, where page after page of their program’s source code was being posted on a local Internet newsgroup.

“You’re giving away our program’s source code!” Ed exclaimed.

“I would be foolish to give it all away!" Roundabout laughed."I am giving away enough to add value to our software!”

“How?” Crashburn’s voice wavered.

Roundabout produced an even wider smile. “Easily! You see, the real problem is that our software has no value because it doesn’t work. No one wants to steal our company secrets because they’re worthless, and believe me I’ve been trying to find a buyer all week! Do you know what this means?”

Crashburn numbly shook his head.

“If our software had any value, then our secrets would be valuable. However, in the last week I’ve been unable to find anyone who is even remotely interested in buying our company secrets! That proves that our product is worthless!”

“I see...” Ed remarked cautiously.

“Fortunately, success is mostly a matter of creating the perception of success. If I can create the perception of success, then I can create a market for our company secrets! That’s the real test of our product’s worth.”


“That’s why I still need you, Ed. I need someone to generate source code for our program.”

“But, the program doesn’t work! And I can’t debug and test the whole thing by myself!”

“That’s the beauty of my plan!” Roundabout was in full form, proudly expounding his plan. “If we actually succeeded in writing this program, then someone else would lose market share, correct?”

“Yes…” Ed was hesitant. His aging brain was not up to the task of muddling through a twisted path of reasoning. Fortunately, Ed didn’t rely heavily on facts or logic, preferring pure blind faith in the established authority - and Mr. Roundabout was now the established authority. Ed suspended disbelief, a familiar and comfortable state of mind, and allowed himself to be carried away by Roundabout’s passion.

“And the amount of market share lost would be the measure of the real value of our product, correct?”

“I … I suppose so.”

“Then right now our product has the potential of having that much market value. However, if we actually write the program, then we consume our profits in advance - assuming the program even works, which right now it doesn’t. That’s a gamble I’m just not willing to take. If, however, I treat the potential profit like a stock option, then I can choose to sell my option before it matures. There are a number of companies that would pay to prevent our product from coming on the market, and that’s guaranteed money. You must admit, it’s a less risky plan than actually writing the program! I made a great deal of money this way at my last company, but this company holds even greater promise!”

Ed Crashburn thought long and hard, his furrowed brow a testament to the infrequency of such activity. Finally he brightened and proudly exclaimed: “But that ’s illegal!”

Roundabout’s smile turned to a conspiratorial grin as he lowered his voice: “Not if we make it look like simple incompetence! There’s no law against that!”

Two weeks later, Mr. Roundabout was called into Mr. Bitehard’s office. As this was his first time visiting the boss, he gathered an armload of papers to show his progress. He ambled upstairs, trailing bits of paper like bread crumbs, smiling at all the workers busily typing in their cramped cubicles. Mr. Bitehard’s office was in the farthest corner of the building. He wedged through the office door, papers clutched protectively to his breast, and squeezed into a chair facing his boss. Mr. Bitehard was head down, intently studying a scrap of a paper, chewing hard on a number two pencil.

“Ahem!” Roundabout whispered. Bitehard leapt as if stung! Papers flew from his desk and floated gently to the floor.

“Excuse me, Mr. Bitehard, but you asked for a meeting?”

“Ah…” Bitehard tried to focus on his large visitor, while simultaneously grasping for falling papers, unable to recall having seen this man before.

“I’m Joseph Roundabout - your new lead programmer.”

“Ah! I see! Yes, well, very good then Mr. Roundabout. Yes, that’s very good. I’m glad we have a lead programmer in charge of all this.” He swept his arm in a grand gesture, knocking over an even taller pile of papers.

“I imagine that you want to hear about the progress I’ve been making on our latest project? I’m pleased to report that the project is going quite well! In fact I can safely say that I’ve more than tripled the value of our product!”

Bitehard looked up quizzically, peering into Roundabout’s gleaming eyes while trying to fathom the meaning of the words he had just heard. He turned back to his desk briefly, made an abortive attempt to locate a specific document, then turned back to face Roundabout.

“But, I thought the project was four months late and almost double it’s original budget! And to top it all off, most of the programmers were fired two weeks ago!”

Mr. Roundabout brightened, plunking his armload of papers onto the freshly cleared spot on Mr. Bitehard’s desk.

“As you can see, we have progressed by leaps and bounds since dismissing the deadwood programmers. You see, most programmers prefer extending a project as long as they can. They have a vested interest in making sure that they don’t deliver software until well after the deadline; that way management has to resign itself to accepting the software in whatever state it’s in, rather than making the programmers go back and fix the bugs. Since firing the programmers, there’s not been a single new software bug!” Roundabout inflated his chest even larger, beaming proudly! “Not a one!”

Mr. Bitehard found his number two pencil and proceeded to gnaw, his eyes betraying a lack of comprehension. Roundabout took the opportunity to continue.

“By slashing the cost of software defects, to say nothing of slashing the number of defects, Ed Crashburn and myself have been able to accomplish more work in just a couple of weeks than the entire project team had accomplished in the last four months!”

Mr. Bitehard listened cautiously, concealing his lack of understanding behind a series of slow head nods, interspersed with grunts of acknowledgment. Bitehard had learned never to trust anyone whom he couldn’t understand - which meant that he didn’t trust very many people at all. Clearly this Mr. Roundabout was dangerous and something would have to be done. However, he soon put his concerns in a distant corner of what, in most people, would have been called a mind, thereby allowing himself more time to reflect on why Mr. Roundabout didn’t seem to possess an Adam’s apple.

“How was your meeting with the boss?” Ed Crashburn couldn’t have been more nervous had he been told he was standing on a land mine. “Mr. Bitehard always makes me nervous - I’ve never been able to put anything over on him.”

“I don’t doubt that, Ed. That’s why I kept you when I fired the others. The meeting went just fine! Yes, it was a very fine meeting indeed! In fact, I’ll be taking over Mr. Longtooth’s old office tomorrow!”

Ed was clearly astonished. “Wow! Bitehard let you have the office? It’s bigger than his office. I thought he said that he was taking it for himself?”

“Somehow he got the idea that Mr. Longtooth is still employed here. He doesn’t know that the office is vacant.”

“But…” Ed spluttered, “When he finds out that you moved in, he’ll be furious!”

“I expect he’ll be so pleased with my progress that he won’t make a fuss. He’s mainly worried about his own position. As long as he feels safe, things will be just fine! Besides, I have his memo instructing me to post our source code on news-groups for public comment. I’m sure he won’t want upper management to know about that.”

Ed Crashburn was aghast. “You…you mean…Mr. Bitehard authorized you to post the source code?”

Roundabout shot Ed a sour look. “Don’t be dense; of course he didn’t. I only said I had his memo - I didn’t say it was genuine.”

This was clearly too much for Ed’s diminutive brain; he just stood for a minute, gazing in shock at Mr. Roundabout’s happy grin, then shook his head and walked slowly away. At some later point in his life, Ed’s brain would arrive at a conclusion about all this; but for now, he was on information overload and felt sadly in need of a vacation.

Roundabout returned to his computer, where his e-mail’s inbox was stuffed with offers from competitors wanting to buy him out and prevent CompuWalk’s much touted software from being released and cutting into their profits. Yes, he thought proudly to himself, I should be able to turn quite a nice profit from this!

Miss Holdline, the receptionist at Bytes ‘R Us Software, looked up from last week’s newspaper, whose headlines decried the scandalous incompetence of a competitor’s research and development executive. She gazed at the bulky, well-dressed figure whose cherubic smile outshone the light falling through the skylight.

“May I help you?” she inquired.

“Yes you may! I’m here for a job interview! I believe I’m supposed to see your vice-president of research and development!”

“Who shall I say is calling?”

“Roundabout! Joseph Roundabout! I’m applying for the position of lead programmer.”

“Thank you, I’ll let him know that you’re here. Please take a seat.”

Roundabout wiggled into a small chair and gazed about the room, happily humming to himself.