Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Boy Wonder

Anyone reading this who recognizes who and what I'm talking about are hereby asked to keep specific details to themselves. Thank you.

One of my previous jobs was at a startup which, as many startups tend to do, ran aground on the shoals of market reality. The investors had swooped in to install "their guys" in a perfectly understandable attempt to salvage something from their investment. This fine bunch of gentlemen had acquired cartloads of money from selling their previous company; this automatically made them smart. We existing employees were inconvenient roadblocks in the way of their next success story.

One of "their guys" was this young, self-important know-it-all who was assigned responsibility for day-to-day operation of the company. No, I'm not talking about the 20 year-old financial wizard who resented that his mentors felt some old-fashioned obligation to pay our salaries. Rather, I'm talking about the wanna-be Master of the Universe for whom our company was a temporary stepping stone, having no prior business experience other than running his own consulting company that had no existing clients except for us, and which really no one else had ever heard of. I'll call him Boy Wonder.

Our company became Boy Wonder's playpen to test the innovative ideas popping into his head each day -- like scrapping our company logo, which admittedly wasn't terrific, in favor of a bunch of overlapping bubble shapes rendered in a pukey shade of green. Green bubbles had nothing to do with anything that anybody cared about, least of all the core idea behind our company. Boy Wonder was completely unconcerned about any existing history or values of the company, anybody's pride or feelings. He tore up our culture from one end of the building to the other, informing us as to how we were going change this and scrap that, and man, we'd all better try harder to keep up because he was full of ideas and had the authority to execute.

I'll never forget a project planning meeting hosted by Boy Wonder shortly after he arrived. Over and over, he'd ask us for work estimates for some feature or other, and, without the benefit of any time to really think, we'd be cajoled into providing numbers. Which were just ballpark numbers, certainly. But every time, Boy Wonder would matter-of-factly slash our proposed timeframe by two-thirds without any justification at all, and without skipping a beat, move on to the next item on the list.

Boy Wonder had real technical acumen, you know. He wasted no opportunity to pontificate about his latest programming system idea which would revolutionize software. His main idea was to use English words to describe programs in such a way that the descriptions could be translated into real programming language syntax. This would be super-cool because writing code via English prose not only made programs easier to understand (which on the face of it is not entirely without merit), but more likely to result in a program that did what you meant it to do. I'm not kidding. And I don't mean English-like as in Cobol. I don't mean literate programming, as proposed by Knuth. I mean, substituting English words for programming keywords, to be followed by magic happening.

I may be naive, but it's still difficult for me to believe that anyone could be that intentionally obtuse, shamelessly disruptive, and pig-headed. Maybe Boy Wonder was instructed to rattle our cages any way he could think of. I'll never know. On the other hand, we soon discovered that at his core, Boy Wonder was not a nice person.

At one point, I walked into our new CEO's office and asked whether his wunderkind was actually qualified to run a company. I wasn't afraid of much by that point. I certainly had no qualms about speaking my mind. The CEO's reply was basically "I put Boy Wonder in place because he gets things done like nobody else I know." This was certainly true, although you didn't want to be on one of his S.W.A.T. on-site teams getting things done. Because if you were, that probably meant you were working 7 days a week, a month or more past the promised contract end date, getting berated each day for arriving later and leaving earlier than Boy Wonder did.

That never happened to me because I never let myself fall into the trap of agreeing to go on those consulting gigs. It wasn't long before I left the company. Amusingly, Boy Wonder and the rest of the crew didn't last there much longer than I did. I don't mean that I was amused to see the company continue to struggle. I just didn't have much (and by that I mean zero) sympathy for those guys, nor for Boy Wonder in particular. I don't know where he went next or what ultimately happened to him, and I'm not ashamed to say that I couldn't care less.


Carolyn said...

In my youth, I used to think that such people that lead companies must be some kind of geniuses, so much smarter than I was. In my career, I have actually found that to be a rare occurence. Occasionally, I find a really good mentor in the rarified air above me, but more times than most it is someone more like Wonderboy. It is kind of amazing, isn't it? I loved this, Jack!

Jack Unrue said...

Thanks, Carolyn! I'm looking forward to when you decide to start writing again.

mike brewster said...

interesting read, Jack. Nicely done.

Jack Unrue said...

Thanks, Mike!

johnb said...

I've heard bits and pieces of this amazing story from you. When you put it all together in one article, it's really even more impressive. I think many of us have known crazies at the top, especially in the go-go 90's when CEO types thought everything they touched would turn to gold.

Jack Unrue said...

Thanks, John! I remember being at a work-related party in the early days of my career when the CEO (who was a Vietnam vet) said matter-of-factly to a couple of us: "you know, I've killed people". And "I've slept underneath trees that had unexploded shells, with bulldozers and tanks rumbling around bumping into stuff. But I slept through it." Now that guy was a little crazy. You might remember him.