Man on Raft with Marmosets | P.M. Calandrino
The final days of WebLab eSolutions, Inc., reminded me of the last scene of Werner Herzog's classic film about tyranny and delusion (one of them), Aguirre: The Wrath of God , in which the Spanish “conquistador” Aguirre stands on a raft that is stalled in the brackish fringes of the Amazon, all his men and his daughter dead, with no one to command except an agitated swarm of marmosets alit from the jungle canopy. Believing that he is the personification of God's wrath, sent to rule the lost city of El Dorado, all of Spain, and indeed the world, Aguirre picks up one of the runt monkeys and delivers the cruelly funny last lines of the film: “We'll endure. I am the wrath of God. Who's with me?”
Our Aguirre looked nothing like Klaus Kinski, the late, unnerving German actor favored by Herzog to play such roles, in his curvilinear helmet, flowing blond locks, tarnished breastplate, and limping around the raft à la Olivier's Richard III. Rather, Bob Gerbicki, the CEO, was tall and straight with close-cropped black hair—not a hint of gray though he was well into his forties—and always wearing a tie and slacks in defiance of Silicon Valley norms.
At what would be the last of our “survivor meetings”—those relieved, tenuous meetings held after a round of layoffs—Gerbicki could not have been more upbeat.
“Okay, folks,” he said to hush the assembly, the forty or so of us left in the company who had gathered in the lunch room. “What does this mean? Where are we headed? What's the plan? What's next? These are the questions that are on everybody's mind if not lips, and that's what I'm here to answer today.”
Gerbicki was a particular kind of idiot-savant that you find in high technology—gangly and stilted in social situations, yet rippling with know-how in the business environment. He laid out his and the board's six-month, two-year, and five-year visions of WLE's future, which were “admittedly” based on a certain amount of “educated guessing.” We would concentrate our marketing and sales efforts on known quantities, limit our development efforts to achievable goals, and continue the hunt for synergistic partnerships and allegiances. The “synergy” part of the equation was the rub. Unless the board scrounged up some venture capital fast, there was no need to talk about even a three-month plan. Everybody in the room, except Gerbicki apparently, knew this. Given the downturn in the economy and coincident stinginess of the VC boys on Sand Hill Road, we all knew we were doomed.
“We need to get religion, people,” Gerbicki said. “And passion. With religion and passion we'll get our pot of gold.”
Making this connection between the company's predicament and the movie, I began to have fun at work. The only record of Aguirre's embassy into oblivion was the diary of Gaspar de Carvajal, a deranged monk. Feeling it was my own personal mission, I began an eDiary of what I sensed were WLE's last weeks in business. I sent the daily entries to my two closest friends at work.
Aug. 6, 2002 A.D. — We continue to march bravely forward into the unknown, though our morale was dealt a serious blow when we realized that our provisions are nearly exhausted. The Tupperware containers usually stocked by the company with M&Ms, both peanut and plain, were found empty in the lunch room today. We haven't the resources to replenish them. What's more, there are no frozen waffles in the company fridge. Free bags of Cheetos and Fritos are a distant memory. At least the sodas are still free. For how long, no one knows.
In a folk arts store in Santa Cruz I bought an authentic Peruvian chullo hat, the kind worn by Aguirre's native guides. Knitted of colorful alpaca wool, it had ear flaps and tassels and a row of llamas caravanning around its crown. I began wearing the hat to work.
Aug. 11, 2002 A.D. — The long, refracting days of summer point at us like a magnifying glass, igniting tempers, reducing our will to ash. The V.P.s of Marketing and Engineering butted heads in a public display of animosity today. They had just emerged from the executive conference room when their invective against one another rang like sword clashes over our cubicles. Gerbicki came between the men and urged them to settle their differences with comportment. “We are, after all,” he said, “on the same team.” Business clichés have never seemed so hollow ... and so necessary.
A haunting sound that recurred in the film (seemingly at random, though accounts of the post-production reveal that Herzog interjected the sound at critical moments in the action) was the shrill whistle of the screaming piha bird. I downloaded the sound from the Internet and played it occasionally, loud enough to be heard several cubicles away. An eerie, minor-scale version of a wolf whistle, it prompted a number of inquiries from coworkers, to which I responded with a complete summary of the movie and its relevance to WebLab eSolutions.
More and more people asked to be put on the mailing list of my diary. One evening I had about seven or eight coworkers to my house for a screening of the DVD. People loved it, and at work we started mimicking one of Aguirre's henchmen, an unshaven, oily man who emitted a toneless la-la-la-la-la before perpetrating some evil, like chopping off someone's head with a machete. Those of us in on the joke would la-la as we passed each others' cubicles.
Aug. 28, 2002 A.D. — Strangers entered the building and were sequestered with the executive staff in the boardroom for most of the day. Venture capitalists? Prospective partners or synergists? My attempts to discover their identity were met with either silence or disavowal. Their presence, rather than bolstering our spirits, only reinforced our sense of impending doom. The Golden City of IPO seems only a mirage to us now. A cruel fantasy, whose contemplation can summon only madness.
The highest ranking nobleman on the doomed raft was Don Fernando de Guzman. An overfed simpleton and pawn of Aguirre, he sat on his “throne” and claimed the jungle to the left and right of them as extensions of their new empire, even as the explorers were picked off one-by-one by the spears and arrows of unseen Indios. At lunchtime one day, as a number of us walked to the nearby deli, I stopped in the middle of the crosswalk and claimed the entire valley, north and south, as the sole property of WebLab eSolutions, Inc. The light changed while I was still in the street, and I had to dodge a couple of bleating cars.
That afternoon Gerbicki came to my cubicle and said, “Got a minute?”
Test engineers typically don't have much interaction with CEOs, so I more or less knew what was coming. I followed him to his office and he closed the door. He sat behind his desk and pressed a few keys on his keyboard. He said that he had been forwarded a number of emails, apparently authored by me, in the form of a diary. To him, the contents of the emails were disturbing and disappointing for their attitude of defeatism and faithlessness. I told him they were just a joke. He said he didn't see the humor.
“Do you really think an IPO is a mirage?” he said.
The man seemed stunned by this possibility and offended. A certain kind of blindness that masquerades as “vision” is a necessary trait for entrepreneurs—otherwise, nobody would ever go into business—but in Gerbicki it seemed more defect than adaptive advantage .
I said, “Yes. Everybody does.”
“Not everybody,” he said and then told me I had until four to pack up my belongings and leave the building.
My friends said that the day after my dismissal Gerbicki called a company meeting to say that anybody who did not share the company's vision should leave. Nobody did. He said that when the going gets tough, the tough kick ass.
“You're not going to change the world if you don't have a fire in your belly, people,” he reportedly said.
And he was right. In less than a month, WebLab eSolutions, Inc., lacking any kind of fire whatever, announced its intention to dissolve. My last missive went to everybody at the company, including Gerbicki.
Sept. 21, 2002 A.D. — Who's with me?