Tom Matlack’s fictionalized tale of an ethical crossroads at a tech startup.
Based on a true story. Names and identifying details have been changed.
A technology revolution was underway and Ajit was a field commander in the ground war. He paced the back wall of the small glass conference room. Nerves bunched up into wrinkles across his otherwise youthful brown forehead. He stared at the thick, cracked beams holding up the old Alabama train station, now converted into an office building. Data Solutions, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Google, sat just above the old rail road tracks with the Thomson River beyond. During floods, the office computers on the first floor had to be carried upstairs. Last spring, water had surrounded the building, filling the parking lot, making entry impossible without fishing waders.
“Hey Ajit,” Milam said casually as he walked in with his Data Solutions partner Justin. “Since when do y’all get to the office at the crack of dawn after takin’ the red eye? You must be dog tired, friend.”
“Sit down guys,” Ajit said looking at his hands. He was shy by temperament, not prone to confrontation. He had a fleshy body, not fat just pudgy, with black hair and boyish lips. Faith in his intellect pushed him on now.
“Now ya’re makin’ me nervous,” Milam said as he and Justin sat down across the table.
“I’ve bad news guys. We’ve decided to fire both of you for cause. This morning we sued you for breaching the merger agreement. Your technology wasn’t what you represented. You won’t get severance or the remaining balance on the seller note. We’re seeking five hundred and ninety million dollars in damages.”
It took a minute for the words to register. Milam was paralyzed as the sounds coming out of Ajit’s mouth penetrated his brain and finally sent an electronic signal to the pit of his stomach. “FUCK YOU,” he screamed when the alarm bells finally began to ring. Milam crouched low, like a snow tiger, ready to pounce across the table.
Tim, in his late 20s with black Clark Kent glasses that hid his jet lag, stuck his head in when he heard the noise. “Ajit, everything okay in here?”
“No it’s not fuckin’ okay you little maggot,” Milam shot over his shoulder. Tim walked around the table and sat beside his boss to make it a fair fight by numbers if not by muscle mass.
“Why don’t you go call your lawyer, Milam? We’re asking you to go home voluntarily and leave all company property, including your keys and laptop computers, behind,” Ajit continued on in a monotone voice.
Milam grudgingly rose and turned to leave. “We’ll see about all that, ya-silicon- valley-bitch.”
When the door was closed, Ajit and Tim began to talk strategy. Ajit had been one of the first twenty-five employees of Google, with a paper fortune to show for it. But that was beside the point. Yes he had bought himself his first new car—a sensible but still very nice Volvo sedan. He had bought a nice split-level home just outside Palo Alto. He had even celebrated the initial public offering by marrying his girlfriend, Trishna. But he went back to work the very next day.
A security detail was on call. A locksmith was prepared to come over and change all the office locks. Before getting dragged into the near fist-fight, Tim had been supervising one of the IT staff as they changed all of Milam and Justin’s passwords. They would soon find out they had been locked out of the servers. The focus quickly became the laptops, which could contain important evidence in the pending litigation. These good ol’ boys were never very cagey about covering their tracks, they agreed.
“I bet his first call was to the marina to tell them to hide that new boat of his,” Ajit mused. “What’s a guy like that doing with a million dollar boat anyhow? He should have bought himself a goddamn education before blowing all his money on toys. Show me the language where it speaks to computers, Timmy.”
Down the hall, Milam leaned back in his chair. The phone was pinned to his sweaty ear, jammed in place by his large right bicep—capable of curling over a hundred pounds at the Gold’s Gym in town. Milam had built Data Solutions over eight long years of smoke and mirrors but also eighteen hour days. He wasn’t afraid of hard work. The Southern drawl was a conscious choice to keep the competition, particularly northern pricks, off track. After high school, he taught himself computer programming from books through brute force. He quit pumping gas and put out his shingle when he was twenty three. His success proved his knack for software. More than once he had achieved the impossible, largely on his own, for clients who simply didn’t think it was possible. That was back in the day when he was running technology for many of the businesses in the state.
Then he struck upon a program, or at least an idea for a program, that would allow Google to download, and internet users to search, every book ever published. Implementing his idea would take months rather than the years Google had already wasted digitizing a small fraction of the world’s library. He was smarter than Larry Page and Sergey Brin, he was sure of it. He was ten times smarter than the cock-suckers in the conference room at the moment. The world just had it out for guys from Alabama. Selling to Google was his chance to strike it rich and prove the world wrong.
Soon after he signed the deal, and bought his yacht, Milam’s known world had turned upside down. Google realized that the only engineers anywhere near Data Solutions headquarters capable of supporting the top secret effort were recently emigrated PhDs from India and Africa who were willing to move to the back-water town for the intellectual challenge and dirt-cheap cost of living. Google brought them in by the truck load. Even the minister at the mega church, sworn to save all comers, was shocked by the sight of brown and black skinned foreigners walking down Main Street in groups of ten and twelve at lunchtime. Milam’s idea was sound, he was sure of it. The product could revolutionize even Google. But what they had done to Data Solutions was too much. He spent more time fishing on his boat, smoking cigars with his pals, as they cruised Lake Martin. What the fuck could they do, the money was already in the bank?
“Try to behave yourself Milam,” Fred Tucker, the best lawyer in town, advised him on the other end of the phone. “Don’t go punching anyone in the nose. This is a legal battle now. We’ll have our chance to make our case. But you aren’t going to improve the situation by anything you do or say today.”
“Yeah, maybe,” he grumbled still pushing the phone into his eardrum until it hurt. “But they can’t have my laptop. I’ve all kinds of personal shit on that thing. They’ve no right.” He pictured his naked girlfriend, Gracie, who he often popped up on his screen when stuck on a programming glitch. She was beautiful in a soft, inviting, blond-Clemson-sorority-sister kind of way. They had dated for three years now, ever since they met at a football game her senior year. Neither of them drank. Both had been reborn with the belief that Jesus Christ was their personal savior. Both were saving themselves for marriage. They had talked about sex but agreed it was not what He wanted them to do. Milam was sure Gracie was the woman for him. He just had to give her a little more time to grow into womanhood before proposing. Besides, now he had a skirmish with the most powerful technology company in the world to deal with before settling down.
Milam burst through the door. Ajit and Tim were still hunched over the documents. “My lawyer says I should leave you fuck-heads alone but there’s no way you get my laptop. You’ve the right to the code. That’s company property. I see you’ve already locked me out of the server, you efficient bastards. That’s fine. But the laptop’s my personal property and you’ll have to come through me to get it.”
“I’m sorry Milam, but it says right here that all work material is the property of Data Solutions. We now own DS outright,” Ajit responded pointing down to page 86 of the purchase agreement.
“I bought the machine with my own money. I brought it from home!”
“And you never use that machine for work?” Ajit asked, raising his voice for the first time.
“No, but I never save files locally, only on the server through our wireless router. It’s a dummy terminal, just a screen and keyboard—my screen and keyboard, asshole.”
“If it’s just a dummy terminal, why are you getting so pissed off? Must be something on there you don’t want us to see or you wouldn’t be swearing at me. Let’s just compare the contents of the laptop with your server directory? If you there is nothing on the machine, it will only take a few minutes and you can take it with you.” Ajit suggested.
Milam came around the table. He leaned in on his tree trunk arms, veins popping as he supported his weight on the table, nose-to-nose with Ajit. “You’re in my town now. I know everyone. Bad things happen around here to people who piss me off. You’re pissing me off. So I’d watch your back little Stanford-boy.”
“Is that a threat?” Ajit said, refusing to back down from the staring contest.
“That’s a promise!” Milam turned and kicked the door on the way out of the room. He went to his office, grabbed his laptop and headed down the back stairs to the parking lot.
“Tim, go after him. Talk sense into that idiot. Tell ‘em destroying evidence in a case of this size won’t only cost him, it’ll land him in jail. Make sure he talks to his lawyer before driving off with that laptop,” Ajit commanded.
Tim approached the black Porsche turbo as Milam loaded his stuff into the tiny back seat. “Listen Milam, this has been a horrible day. It hasn’t been fun for us either. We’re just trying to get through this. You can’t walk away with that computer because there is evidence on it. Anything work-related is our property. That’s what the contract says. If you leave we’ll have to press criminal charges. We really don’t want to do that.”
“Yeah, what do you suggest, egg head?” Milam muttered without even looking back.
“How about we sit down and go through your hard-drive file by file and copy all the work stuff off onto DVD. Then you can take the machine with you,” Tim offered up.
“Let me think about it. Now beat it before I kick your ass.”
Milam sat in the leather seat of his sports car with the doors closed staring at the speedometer. He’d driven it 150 a couple of times in the middle of the night down country roads. On the local track he had hit 200 on the straight-a-way. He dialed Gracie. “Hey honey, what’s up?” she said when she picked up.
“Sugar, I got a problem. The guys from Google are pullin’ the plug on the deal. Say I didn’t give ‘em the product I promised ‘em. They want my laptop or they’ll file criminal charges,” he explained.
“Milam, keep your head. Don’t hurt nobody. I know how you get. I’m not saying you don’t have a right to be upset, but try to think what Jesus would say. Maybe you should give ‘em the laptop and go talk to Fred.”
“I just hate the bastards. I don’t trust ‘em at their word.”
“God has a plan for all of us, Milam. You know that. This is just a test of our faith. You’re a good man. You’ll do the right thing.”
Gracie cooed in Milam’s ear for another minute or two. Finally, Milam had to hang up and make a decision about what to do. As he talked to Gracie, he realized this was in fact a fork in the road for him, and not something he could brush by without considering the consequences.
“Love ya, sugar. I’ll call you when I have this cleaned up,” he said as he hung up.
Justin and Milam walked back into the conference room just after noon with their laptops in hand. Tim and Ajit, on the phone with headquarters, hung up mid-sentence. The founders sat down with a box of shrink wrapped software that was designed to copy large files, compress them, and copy them on DVDs.
“Okay fuck-heads, we’ll let you copy our work files off the hard-drives. But only the work files. We are going to do this one computer at a time so there’s no bullshit, starting with Justin’s machine here,” Milam said.
Two hours later they had finally figured out how to use the software and started scanning Justin’s hard drive. There were over nine hundred files and several thousand emails, so progress was very slow. Several times they had to stop to examine the contents of a file after sharp words were exchanged over the relevance of an email. By five that afternoon it was clear they would be lucky to get through Justin’s computer. There was no way they could work through Milam’s as well. They agreed to get company counsel and Fred Tucker on a conference call to figure out what to do.
“Why don’t you put Milam’s laptop in a file cabinet, give Milam the key to the cabinet, and you guys can change the locks on the doors? Both sides will know it is secure until you can process it tomorrow,” Fred offered up.
It was almost seven in the evening. Milam and Ajit had been teetering on the edge of an all-out brawl for twelve hours now. Ajit had not slept in thirty six. The energy in the room had ground down to a bleary-eyed acceptance of the situation. The second laptop would get processing in the morning. The filing cabinet would have to do. No one liked the idea, but there was a disgruntled nodding of heads.
While Tim finished up on Justin’s computer, Agit went to call the locksmith. He asked one of the secretaries to get Milam out of the conference room. They placed his HP8000 gingerly in an empty filing cabinet in his office. Milam locked the cabinet and checked it twice before pocketing the key. He looked at Agit in the eye, “You try to break into this cabinet, you brown-skinned-rocket scientist, and I will personally cut your balls off that little prick of yours.” Agit had to restrain himself from throwing a punch at his muscle-bound adversary. But as satisfying as shutting the red-neck up even momentarily might be, he realized he would get his ass kicked and end up fired. So he turned silently and walked out of the room.
An hour later, Tim and Ajit were chewing on rib-eye steaks at Charlie’s Steakhouse on Main Street. They had met Sam, the locksmith, who said it would take him a couple hours to change all the locks. He promised to call if there was any trouble. They decided to get dinner before swinging back by the office to make sure everything was secure and to pick up the new keys.
“What’s on Milam’s computer that has him so damn hot and bothered?” Ajit asked to no one in particular. “Either it’s a smoking gun in the case or, better yet, something that proves Mr-born-again-Jesus-freak isn’t so squeaky clean after all.”
“I bet it’s damning evidence and a shitload of pornography. He’s probably more worried about the porno than losing the case. It’s one thing to be broke—he’s been that before and will again—but quite another to be a sinner in this place,” Tim said.
“How comfortable are you that the good ol’ boy isn’t going to try to dig his laptop out of that cabinet tonight?” Ajit asked.
“Not very. I’m sure he’s got ways into that building we haven’t even thought of,” Tim said.
“Eat up, we gotta figure something out. We can’t leave that thing in the office all night long unless you plan on sleeping there.”
Back at the train station, Sam was just finishing up when the Google executives pulled into the parking lot. He handed them one master key and showed them each of the five external office doors that he had changed. “Snug as a bug,” he proclaimed before handing over a five hundred dollar invoice. Tim thanked him and told him he would receive a check in the next week.
Tim and Ajit climbed the stairs two at a time and headed back to the filing cabinet. They tested the lock and pushed and pulled but couldn’t get it open. They took a letter opener to it, trying to pick the lock and then pry open the drawer. But Milam had picked a very sturdy container for his cherished goods. There was no way to get it open.
“How about takin’ the whole cabinet?” Ajit asked.
“It has to weight two hundred pounds, man. I’m not sure a couple PhD geeks like us can pick it up.”
“Let’s try.” They heaved without budging the thing before realizing it was screwed to the floor with metal braces. After rummaging around in drawers they came up with a screw driver and were able to remove the braces. After that the cabinet moved easily. It was actually not that heavy, just big and awkward. They got it out to the hallway and gradually walked it down the back stairs as the computer bounced around inside. They took breaks on each landing. In the parking lot it dawned on Ajit the cabinet wasn’t going to fit inside their rental car. “Open the trunk,” Ajit told Tim. “We only have a half mile to go to the Hilton. We’ll just throw it in the back and leave the trunk open.”
Ajit and Tim drove up the hill and then down Main Street in their baby blue Chevy Nova rental with a filing cabinet hanging out the back of the car. They got stares from cars coming the other way. When they got to the hotel, the doorman’s quizzical look was overcome by the $20 that Tim put in his palm. The three men moved the cabinet to the elevator bank and up to the hotel room.
Across town, Milam was waiting at the gas station where he had worked so many hours. Sam finally pulled in. He walked around back and approached the black Porsche 911. Milam got out of the car and shook hands with his old friend. They had spent hours together in a men’s bible study group. “Sammy you are the best!”
“Don’t mention it brother,” Sam said handing over a copy of the new key to the Data Solution’s office. “There’s something about them Google people gives me the creeps. Aint like us. Their kind blew up the towers. That Ajit sure as hell haven’t been to church recently. Praying to a Buddha don’t count.”
“I owe you one my man,” Milam said giving him a hug.
Milam sped back down the hill to the same office building he had spent most of his waking hours as an adult. He clicked the back door open and ran upstairs. When he got to the spot where the file cabinet should have been, he was sucking air from the exertion. But his breathing stopped when he saw that it was gone. He sank to his knees and screamed.
The sound was more animal than human. He had tried to have faith and do the right thing. But it had landed him here, nose to the carpet in an office he once owned. If there had been anyone in the building or the parking lot outside, they would have believed a man had been mortally shot and called for help. But both the building and the parking lot were deserted.
At seven the next morning, there was a nock on Ajit’s hotel room. A three hundred and fifty pound African-American man stood in the doorway. He wore a security uniform complete with a large black handgun in a holster on his belt. “Hey there, my name’s Charles. But friends just call me Bubba. I heard you’d an interesting day yesterday. I’m here to make today a lot less interesting. Your friends back at headquarters in San Fran thought you might need a hand.”
Ajit smiled. He took the blackberry from its holster on his belt and hit speed dial. “Milam, things are gonaa be a little different today. We’ve got the filing cabinet. Why don’t you stop by the Hilton and we can take a peak at all those dirty little secrets of yours.”
Half an hour later Milam knocked on the door. With a gleam in his eye Ajit announced, “Meet Bubba, Milam.”
Milam walked past Ajit and Bubba. He sat on the edge of the bed across from the filing cabinet. Tim walked in from the adjoining room as he began to speak. His voice was calm and clear, matter of fact. He had a far away look in his eye.
“I got engaged last night. My fiancée Gracie is on the hard-drive of that HP. Those are private photographs. They have nothing to do with you. You can have my car, my boat, my money, even my company. But you can’t have her. Unless you agree not to open the photo directory, I’m not opening the cabinet. You’ll have to find a blow torch.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Bubba offered up. “I got the gun. There is no need to be lookin’ at private photographs here.”
Milam unlocked the cabinet. Ajit grabbed the machine and sat down with Tim to go through the file directories. Bubba kept a watchful eye over their shoulder.
Milam sat in a club chair near the window, staring down on the Main Street of his childhood, silently thanking Him for the last twenty four hours.