Tinselcity

The following is a work of fiction. Names and events depicted bear no relation at all to any real person, company or event.

The Attack

A peculiar job interview

The guy explains:

Years ago I realized that the people that create most damage to a company are those inside it. A friend was feeling disgruntled and mistreated at his current job as a programmer and decided to vent his frustration on the company.

He goes on to explain about some old Solaris exploit that would let anyone randomly reboot the shared compilation servers or something like that. I'm starting to wonder what exactly I am doing here, in a bar, with this guy. It's not like I haven't been into some weird interviews, of course. And this one isn't even that weird, but somehow I can sense if anything comes out of this, the job will certainly be peculiar.

You won't be doing anything illegal, of course. But… well, our line of work may appear to operate over some “grey areas”.

He draws the quotes in the air with his fingers.

But again, nothing illegal at all. We just need particular levels of secrecy and trust. Trust is extremely important because there may be times when you have to carry out certain tasks without understanding what for. Do you think you could do that?

I nod, but immediately notice he's expecting something more than a simple nod. “Yes, sure” - I say, - “if it's not illegal…”.

No, no, of course. We wouldn't ask such a thing. We're a serious company. We just have to deal with some sensitive information. And I don't mean to say that we don't trust you, no. It's just that you will be better able to focus on your job if you don't have to care about those details… Anyway, enough of this beating about the bush; let me explain what's the general idea.

At first, his “general idea” sounds a bit like your typical body-shop, getting hired to work for someone else. But…

…but they can't know. I mean, it's not like nobody will know. Of course someone, at some level in the company will know. But you have to act as if, to any and all extents, you didn't know us at all. You'll apply to work there through a selected recruiter, and we will get you any help you need to successfully go through the process. But to anyone other than me and you, it has to look like you're applying on your own and you don't know us at all. You will get a hefty bonus from us upon securing a contract with the company. After that, you'll start working there normally. We will then get in contact with you when needed, to provide you with more specific instructions.

“Uhmm…” - I hear myself say. It does sound like some kind of industrial espionage shit. But he insists it's nothing like that.

Not at all. What we're trying to do here is… without getting too much into the specifics… We drive transformations through corporate structures. How can I put it? Judging from your resumè, I'm certain you've been through this at least a couple of times. You know how it is. Companies evolve. Small ones grow big. Big ones grow old and need rejuvenating. The fundamental problem in that evolution is the so-called culture. You can re-structure departments, teams, you can merge and split different sections, move people around, but the hardest thing to change is an established culture. People are hard to change and that's where we come in. Culture Drifters is a specialized firm focused on helping companies make those changes. But our studies indicate that the best way to achieve this is from within and in a natural way, without people being made explicitly aware of it.

Just a Senior Developer

With the promised help and information, I end up getting the job at HomePic as a Senior Agile Developer easily. I still have to go through a multiple interview process and it takes about a month until I finally start there. The promised bonus is quietly deposited into my bank account and it is a considerable sum. The only message accompanying it instructs me to simply “get to know the job and have fun”.

And so, for the first five months I just work normally at HomePic. I'm given time to familiarize with their code, and soon I'm pushing code to the repository and getting features into production. I don't exactly “have fun”, but I do get to know the team and the company. After the first months I start to get a rough idea of the company's culture and I do notice that some shifts seem to already be in progress. Maybe I'm not the first one on this here.

Then again, I don't really think much of all that. I just do my job and that's it for about five months. Then, one evening I get an email on my personal address. It's short and is simply tells me to start suggesting using a couple of libraries in our development. I already know the libraries and it makes sense using them in what we do. I can't really imagine what this has to do with culture or why would this idea need to be introduced in this manner. But I remember my contract and the penalties for not following the instructions. Oh, well, in any case it does make sense and it would help us modernize our codebase a bit.

My suggestion quickly gets traction and the whole team agrees that it is an interesting idea. Not only I get another “quiet bonus” -though not as large this time-, this action earns me a nice reputation in the eyes of my reporting manager as someone knowledgeable and proactive. Later in my first 360 review I'm told the bosses are pleased with my attitude and that I may be getting some additional responsibilities in the coming months.

Agile

The second email I received included a certain revelation.

Instead of asking me some direct action, as the first time, they wanted me to support what someone else had suggested. A couple of days before, some guy in one of the other teams had presented to all of us a case for adopting a number of “Agile ideas”. At the moment, it had seemed pretty normal. After all, he had made his case well, and had presented just a small amount of practices that really did seem like good ideas.

But receiving that email, with an explicit request to back up the proposal, meant one, probably two things. The first was that, obviously, Culture Drifters was monitoring HomePic very closely and from the inside. There was no other way they could know so fast about things. But then again there was a second conclusion, maybe not so cut and clear but which I tended to think was probable enough to be true: I was not the only infiltrate in HomePic. This would, in time, prove to be true. There were at least, I suspected, 4 of us.

After a while I found myself quietly joking with the two people I used to have lunch everyday about who was “el topo”. This came from a totally different place. We were so dismayed at how badly some things were managed and how weird some management decisions were made that we imagined there must have been some mole working for our rivals. It was just a joke, of course, but it made me a bit uneasy because, in a sense, I was the mole. Sure, I was a “good mole”, but…

In any case, we adopted those new methodologies and to a large extent I started feeling like this whole “infiltration thing” may have indeed been the correct approach. In the following months I received some more indications to collaborate with the other guy and -without ever mentioning to each other that this was an intentional manoeuvre from CD… if it indeed was- in about a year we had really transformed the way the whole technology area operated. We implanted an adaptation of what I later learned was “the Spotify model”. More importantly, we introduced a large number of ideas and approaches from the Agile world. It felt like a completely different company in many aspects.

In many respects, working at HomePic became much more comfortable. Coincidentally -and I didn't know if it was more than a coincidence or not- middle management convinced the higher-ups to make a handful of small but convenient concessions. They were just small touches, but it helped lighten the mood. Juices and fruits, some team-building entertainment every number of months, and so on. We also got some budget for books and learning materials. Nice small touches that complemented the other larger effort in the way we did things. Teams were now more autonomous and free to self-organize. At the same time they all had to offer progress visibility to improve communication through some sort of public board so that every one knew how everybody else was doing and how they could align with each other.

We also communicated that progress through various informal periodic meetings. This gave everyone a sense of unity as a team, as well as a chance to share plans, problems, and progress. I became one of a small group appointed to organize these and to keep them rolling. All in all, we achieved a lot with this and the transformation was something everyone was aware of.

The doubts

I'd been at HomePic for about two years and received maybe a grand total of a dozen “missions” from Culture Drifters. The instructions had always been detailed in the things I had to say or do but, as they had warned, it was difficult trying to guess the actual goals behind it. In my fourth year, after a day spent on various planning meetings and receiving news of some apparently minor team re-structuring, I started to feel like this wasn't really working out. Sure, if I thought about it, there had been a certain culture shift through a large part of the company. The problem is that it didn't seem like things were actually better.

We had introduced a lot of modern practices and policies and, on paper, they were all good ideas. We were certainly better in some areas. Diversity values were now better understood, and we had in fact hired an increased number of women for technical positions and also a number of people with different backgrounds in the last year or so. Which in itself was a good thing, of course, but at the same time we weren't really any better technologically. Many of the new hires came with little to no experience. Some had gone through some intensive bootcamp and that was that. And while they all joined with a lot enthusiasm, most were much more self-confident and opinionated than their actual skills merited. Not only that. The mandate from above -or maybe from Culture Drifters- indicated that we, as a company, should be welcoming and supportive. And instead of caring about them learning and improving, somehow this ended up in a climate of self-entitlement for them. Before, you knew who the go-to person for some decision was. You knew who, not only had the final word but also why it was so: because their experience and their decision record was pretty good. Now, it seemed, everyone's opinion was equally important and relevant to any decision and you couldn't object to some clearly misguided suggestions or else they would go and tell management about your unwillingness to collaborate and to accept new ideas.

At the same time, the whole Agile thing… well, on a surface level it seemed to be working nicely enough. The processes were in place, the various ceremonies run as scheduled. Adjustments had been made through the whole thing, of course, and some steps had required more effort than others, but now everything seemed to be in its place. We had also hired a whole team of Agile coaches to make it so.

But the net result was difficult to appreciate. Some people seemed to be generally happier, while others looked definitely less so, so that was hard to evaluate. More than that, I found myself wondering if this was really “progress”. In part, there was this recurring problem where every step forward produced a step back somewhere else. Or even sideways. Or in some completely different and unexpected direction. As a whole, from afar, everything worked. But as soon as you looked into it with a bit more focus, you started to notice the little things. Each team was working internally with their own particular organization and then exposing a sort of façade to the rest of the teams. Also, about 50% to 70% of them were alarmingly behind the progress they had publicly shared to others.

Meetings had grown, both in size and duration. Frequently these meetings turned into some surreal theatre. The same problems seemed to arise once and again. I started spotting a number of inconsistencies where the same things that had been presented as done a month back, where now presented again as this month's progress. And the most damning thing was that not even a single voice was raised about this. Either people didn't notice at all or, worse, they all knew but didn't want to be the first to ring the alarm in fear that the same would then be pointed out about their own progress.

I started becoming a bit obsessed with this and took notes about it secretly. About other teams and about my own team and my own personal progress. It was not easy to spot it, because most of the time, the processes in place meant that nobody ever had the full picture, and those who think they did, they had one that didn't match at all the reality behind it.

It didn't help at all that one of the practices in place since the beginning of the transformation had been to completely banish estimates in any form or shape. And I do mean any shape. Not only we skipped the whole effort or time estimation, but the process in place meant that so-called Sprint Planning meetings only produced a general statement of intention. What's more, this, what the teams intended doing on the next sprint was declared on the spot and before they could analyse in any way what those tasks might involve or require. So you had a generic goal that was only tentative, and when you defined it you really had no idea of what it might involve. This meant a large part of the sprint was wasted figuring that out, then goals were not met, progress was faked and new plans for the next sprint meant everyone provided completely generic goals which didn't really require any commitment.

An easy exit to any trouble seemed to be repetition through continuous renovation. That is, to dress up the fact that no real progress was even possible a lot of effort was justified by refactoring, rebuilding, migrating to the new platform, porting to the new structure defined by Architecture, re-designing the code with some new best practices set in place and so on.

The Architecture Team was a new thing, too. It was a sort of elite group that… Well, somehow they had earned some sort of authority and now they dedicated all of their time to investigating new ideas and producing guidelines for the rest of the teams. This had earned them some animosity. Mostly because -to justify their own existence- they defined new guidelines and platforms far too frequently. But of course the animosity was all a pose as all teams welcomed having them as scape goats and justification for “yet another change”.

First cracks in the system

Soon, problems appeared. At first it seemed like nothing much. Just the usual day to day life of any company and no-one was making anything out of it. But then on a dull Friday, just after someone I appreciated had just resigned and we'd had a beer nearby, I realized how in the course of the previous six months as many as 10 people -all of which had been in the company for more than six years- had left, and how it had all seemed so casual. The person leaving hadn't even noticed it. “You sure? That many?” - he asked. In fact, he didn't have a clear notion of why he was leaving, just a general sensation of it not being fun any more, of being tired and wanting new things. When I pointed out that he was actually leaving a completely different company than the one he'd spent the previous seven years -leaving aside this last one- he was stunned. “Well, maybe then” - he said, “what I want is not new things after all, but the old things”.

While the exodus probably didn't go unnoticed in higher circles, there was no impression of it in lower ones. Most of the developers and team leaders and agile coaches, and product owners and whatever else we had now, either were too busy to notice or didn't feel like it merited any worries. Not only that, but it also offered another escape valve to relieve pressure on progress and keep building more artificial needs. Problems could now be attributed to losing some people, their knowledge, their capacity. Others opted for a more less subtle approach and directly blamed those gone for a number of problems which would now require additional time to fix.

Two fairly large projects in which the company had already invested a lot, were so vastly behind schedule that they had in fact burned through three previous schedules and now offered no indication at all about when or how they would advance. They would, of course, because trashing them was not an option, but even if completed they would fail to deliver any impact at all. One of them was a feature that nobody really believed we needed. Also, our main competitors had already released that same feature about a year before so it wouldn't be any advantage over them. And even so, they, our competitors, had already acknowledged that the feature hadn't seen a significant response from users anyway. Late and irrelevant, and costly; but we had to do it. The other project meant even less progress. It was a purely technological project. I didn't even feel like I could call it a technological improvement. It was just a different way of doing things, not necessarily a better one. And it wouldn't have any impact at all on either the user or on any cost, performance or any metric you wanted to look at. But it was one of those “technologically interesting” problems. And so it had absorbed most remaining experienced developers into it, while all other smaller, more mundane but practical, projects suffered from lack of direction and an increasingly larger amount of bugs.

Maybe I couldn't say that the plan I had been a part of had provoked all this, but could I say it had not?

The fall

Every time I thought about it, it made more sense and it bothered me more: I was indeed “el topo”. Meaning Culture Drifters was not working for HomePic, but for its rival.

I tried to make a careful analysis recalling every interesting detail my memory allowed me. Taking into account the things I knew and those I could guess with reasonable certainty, it was a close call. Of course it could be that it just hadn't worked as expected. We had made our “cultural change” successfully, but there are always a lot of unknowns and sometimes things simply don't work out. Sure, but… what if…?

What if I had actually been involved in an orchestrated and subtle attack meant to destroy an organization? First of all, this was probably illegal, and I would then find myself in a risky situation. But more than that, did this kind of thing really happen in the world?

I started searching for information about Culture Drifters, but the company was really dark. Almost no information could be found about it. In the end, asking around, some guy knew someone that knew someone that sort of knew the two founders. It did not look too good. One of them, the guy I had met -under a fake name, I learned- did have a short but fairly common history as a software developer at a couple of well-known companies. But that was at least 10 to 15 years ago. After that there was nothing at all about him. The other guy had been involved in a number of start-ups, both as an angel investor and as a founder. He kept a low profile compared to others, but he still kept a profile on AngelList with some of his achievements. Many felt like quick money grabs, but that seemed to be par for the course in that world. But he had been at least tangentially involved in one incident where a company he had an unclear participation in, suddenly busted and some employees started making a stink about how they had never had a real product and it was all a scam. He was never mentioned in that scandal, but it looked like he had just closely avoided the whole thing by pulling out a few months earlier with an undisclosed but probably sizeable compensation. There was little to no detail, and I only saw mention of his name in one single place.

But then I started looking at the rest of the surrounding picture. Not directly at what these two may have been involved in, but at their competitors. At least four times in six years, they were there when a company with a seemingly weaker position had in the course of six to nine months taken over a solidly established company. This didn't mean a thing in and of itself, sure. But my doubt started growing. What if, indeed. What if it could be done reliably and repeatedly?

A relevant detail was that we had never been worried about our competitors and had always dismissed them as a clearly poorer offering. But now, we were genuinely behind Kthxbai in almost all technical aspects and we were following them. Kthxbai was very rapidly building itself a name and a reputation as a much cooler company than HomePic. And suddenly I learned that some of those leaving HomePic had in fact gone over to Kthxbai, and had even made a bit of a show out of it. And meanwhile we were having difficulties hiring new people. So the company started pushing for people to go on developer events and talks and “be seen”. But at the same time they kept failing to keep the current developers in.

Once, my instructions indicated I should suggest the creation of an external-facing developer blog. But they provided a full planning detailing I should only collaborate for the first three months. They hoped that others would pick after the example and write. A couple of people did but only at first. As soon as I stopped, they stopped too. At first I didn't think much of it; I know these things sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. But then I noticed that exactly as I stopped writing, someone else had decided that in order to publish something in the blog you needed to be approved and have your article reviewed. They seemed to be actively discouraging people. The whole thing was abandoned and forgotten rather quickly, though it remained online.

The thing is that the person doing this was someone I had long suspected was another of CD's infiltrates. In fact, this was not an isolated case and I started to notice how the 4 people who I had more or less identified as infiltrates, seemed to be running in wildly different directions. Nothing that you could see as a recurring conflict, but they were clearly pushing in incompatible directions and then suddently abandoning their efforts. I was more and more convinced that Culture Drifters' plan was too wrong. It was intentionally wrong.

One day I decided to take a chance. After one of those weird meetings where my instructions were to defend that QA should be more lenient while someone else defended just the opposite, I casually mentioned a study I had read by company called Culture Drifters that, I posited, supported my position. The reaction was visible, not only in the girl that was arguing the opposite, but also in another one of my “suspects” which was also present.

With the conviction that the plan was not at all to improve the company but to destroy it, I gave my notice to CD. I did give them three months in advance, as one fastidious clause in the contract required. But they offered a chance to avoid the penalties of missing the notice period by arranging my exit from HomePic to happen in a specific way. I didn't really want to do any more damage, but the plan they had didn't seem, for once, to be ill-intentioned. Or at least, not much. I would lose my temper over something or other, and my manager would be forced to let me go and that was it.

Out of curiosity I kept an eye on HomePic. They fell behind Kthxbai about a year later and are now struggling to go on at all. They had some massive lay-offs recently and are seeking to be bought or close up shop definitely in under three months. About a year after I left, I walked into the girl I identified as working for CD. She'd left shortly after I did, and although she was a bit reluctant to talk about it, she admitted she'd worked for Culture Drifters for 2 years. She had thought she was the only one at HomePic and was shocked when she learned otherwise. I've always wanted to talk to her again a bit more and compare notes to fully understand the extent of the operation, but she didn't want to keep in touch. In my mind though, it's pretty clear that I was a piece in a play meant to destroy a company.