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By R. J. Pineiro
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2001 Rogelio J. Pineiro
All rights reserved.
Ryan stepped inside one of the elevators in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, California, and pressed the button for the tenth floor. The slight upward acceleration unsettled his stomach.
Relax, he told himself as a computerized voice announced his floor and the doors slid into the wall, exposing a navy blue–carpeted hallway adorned with vases filled with fresh flowers atop pedestals. Ornate mirrors hung on the walls behind the vases.
Swallowing with concern, he proceeded toward his noon appointment while Mozart flowed out of unseen speakers. He reached room 1020, a corner suite, at exactly 11:59 A.M.
Adjusting the knot of a tie he had not worn since his last interview two weeks ago, Ryan knocked twice, still wondering why he felt nervous about an interview that certainly didn't matter in the scheme of things. As he stood here today, Michael Patrick Ryan already had lucrative offers from Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco Systems, and even Intel — all on the West Coast, or very close to it. He certainly didn't need to talk to SoftCorp, an unknown company from Austin, Texas — a region of the country that was never one of Ryan's geographical preferences. Having lived in northern California all of his life, Ryan didn't relish the thought of moving too far away from family and friends. In addition, his wife, Victoria, wasn't thrilled about the prospects of uprooting her California life and moving halfway across the country. Stanford's employment office, however, had strict rules about interviews and had insisted that Ryan attend every one that it had set up for him, regardless of how many offers he already had on the table.
Relax and play the game. You're holding all the cards today.
A man in his midforties opened the door a moment later. Tanned, well built, and dressed in a double-breasted suit, the stranger smiled, making Ryan think of a toothpaste commercial. Ryan recognized Ron Wittica's face from the Internet digging he had done last night. SoftCorp's Web page included a section with photos and brief backgrounds of the management team. Ryan, a hacker at heart, had thought about breaking into their system, but had chosen to spend his time studying for finals.
"Michael Ryan?" Wittica asked, still smiling, making Ryan feel strangely at ease.
"Yes, sir," he replied, extending a hand.
"Ron Wittica. Pleasure to meet you in person." He pumped Ryan's hand firmly.
"Pleasure's mine, Mr. Wittica" Ryan replied cordially, noticing the Rolex watch hugging Wittica's wrist, probably more expensive than Ryan's six-year-old Honda. Wittica had contacted Ryan over a month ago for a brief phone screen. Then after weeks of silence, which Ryan had perceived as a lack of interest on SoftCorp's part, Stanford's employment office had sent him an E-mail to be here today for a face-to-face interview.
"Call me Ron, please. By the way, you look better in person than in your picture."
The comment caught Ryan by surprise. He didn't remember providing a picture to the employment office. Did they get it from the yearbook? He suddenly wished he had attempted to break into SoftCorp's system to get more insight into their operation. Before Ryan could ask about the source of the photo, Wittica put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently while guiding him inside the lavishly furnished suite. "We've been looking forward to talking to you, Michael."
"I go by Mike."
Wittica patted his shoulder. "Of course, Mike. I'm glad you've found the time to see us today. We know how busy you are."
Ryan followed this seemingly well-informed character inside the front room of the corner suite. A second man sat on a black leather couch, his back to Ryan as he faced the panoramic windows showing a stunning view of Silicon Valley, backdropped by the mountains leading to the ocean.
"Mike, meet Aaron Shapiro, our founder and CEO."
Although Ryan also recognized Shapiro, he certainly didn't expect to see him here. How often did the CEO of a corporation recruit candidates directly, especially new grads?
"It's a genuine pleasure, Mike," said Shapiro, standing up, extending a hand over the table separating them. Although probably in his sixties, Shapiro seemed to be in good shape, slim, with a strong handshake. His face, wrinkled with age, was framed by a full head of silver hair. Blue eyes, glinting with bold intelligence, inspected Ryan as he stood there pumping his hand.
"The pleasure's mine, Mr. Shapiro."
"Call me Aaron, please. Are you hungry?" The CEO of SoftCorp waved a hand toward a tray of cold cuts on a cart next to the sofa.
"No, thanks. I grabbed something before I came."
"Coffee? Water?" asked Wittica, standing next to Ryan.
"Water would be nice, thanks."
While Wittica walked over to the minibar on the right side of the room, Shapiro motioned Ryan to sit down on one of the chairs opposite his sofa, across from the cocktail table. A piece of modern artwork that he couldn't make out stood next to a silver coffee tray holding a pot of coffee, cream, sugar, and three cups.
"Do you like modern art, Mike?" asked Shapiro, obviously noticing his eyes.
Ryan sat back, crossed his legs, and calmly placed both hands on his lap. "I prefer the classics."
Shapiro briefly closed his eyes while giving him a knowing nod. "I know exactly what you mean. I can't ever figure out what this kind of art is trying to tell me. What do you think?"
"Art is like a program," Ryan replied. "It either works or it doesn't. Modern art just doesn't work for me. It doesn't grab me, unlike the paintings of Botticelli, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo. That doesn't mean it's bad. It just doesn't convey to me what it appears to convey to others."
Wittica and Shapiro exchanged a glance and nodded, apparently deciding that it was a good answer.
Wittica handed Ryan a glass of water before taking his place on the second chair. "You have a very impressive record, Mike," Wittica started. "Valedictorian of your high school, plus star quarterback, which got you a double scholarship to Stanford for athletics and also academics. You completed your bachelor's in electrical engineering in three and a half years instead of the regular four."
"While fulfilling your end of the deal on that football scholarship," said Shapiro.
"Even after your knee gave during your sophomore year. You never missed practice and even played in a few games. That's remarkable." said Wittica.
"After your bachelor's," added Shapiro without skipping a beat, almost as if they had rehearsed this, "you turned down Cisco System's full-time offer, as well as several others, to pursue a master's degree in computer engineering, even though such a decision would force you to take out a student loan because both scholarships expired at the end of your senior year. You completed your master's in just over a year and a half, instead of the regular two, mostly due to the success of your virtual-reality database-access software, which earned you three patents and even more lucrative offers from Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, and others."
Impressive, Ryan thought, especially since neither of them held a single piece of paper in their hands.
Before Ryan could reply, Wittica picked up the ball, reciting Ryan's other accomplishments at Stanford, including two-time president of his IEEE chapter, member of Stanford's elite president's list for maintaining a 4.0 GPA during his entire college career, and other awards and recognitions.
"Seems like you've done your homework," he said, somewhat relieved that they had not mentioned his hacking activities back in high school and during his freshmen year in college. Either they didn't know about it, or they had chosen to ignore it for now. Either way it didn't matter. The episodes had been mild at best, a mere slap on the hand in high school and no action at Stanford because they were never able to trace the break-ins back to him. After that Ryan had somewhat reformed himself, though he occasionally visited classified networks, especially from the corporations that interviewed him. He made a mental note to research SoftCorp a little more thoroughly. Ryan also wanted to do his homework.
"We can't afford not to be thorough, Mike," said Shapiro. "You see, we're not a large company like Microsoft or Cisco. We're fairly small in size but quite large in sales and profits."
"Last year's reported revenue surpassed two hundred seventy-five million dollars," said Ryan, recalling his limited Internet research. "At only seventy employees, that puts the revenue-per-employee ratio at the very top of the industry. You only recruit a couple of candidates per year out of the top five percent engineering schools in the nation."
Shapiro smiled. "Here's a question whose answer is not posted on our Web site: We have kept pretty much the same head count since our sixth year in business, even though we have continued to hire at the rate of two engineers per semester. How is that possible?"
Ryan shrugged. "In this industry people change jobs a lot. They move around."
Wittica nodded. "That's a good answer for other companies, Mike, but not for SoftCorp. We never lose an employee to the competition."
"If they don't leave to go elsewhere then how ..."
Both executives stared at him. Ryan realized that he was being tested. The answer came to him a second later.
"Exactly," said Shapiro, smiling first at Ryan and then at Wittica, like saying, See, I knew he was smart enough to figure it out.
"Financially independent?" Ryan asked.
"With enough money to never have to work a single day in their lives," said Shapiro, reaching for the coffee tray, turning over one of the cups, and filling it halfway.
Ryan shifted his gaze between the two SoftCorp executives. "At what age?"
"Early forties for the most part," said Wittica as Shapiro leaned back and sipped coffee. "Sometimes a little younger."
"One engineer left us at thirty-seven, after only fourteen years," said Shapiro in tag-team fashion. "She now lives in the Florida Keys."
Ryan considered that for a moment. These guys were good — damned good — at their recruiting job, to the point that they'd already piqued his interest in a job he would not have considered just five minutes ago. As he decided that he would definitely need to research their operation further, it dawned on him that aside from checking Ryan's ability to think beyond textbooks, these two characters weren't here to interview him but to sell him. They had already done all of the homework they needed to do on the technical competence of Michael Patrick Ryan, even to the extent of obtaining information that wasn't publicly available.
He decided to continue playing their game. "What are your products? Your Web page was vague about that."
Holding the cup to his lips, Shapiro glanced at Wittica, who nodded solemnly, leaned forward on his chair, and rested his elbows on his thighs, narrowing his gaze, as if about to disclose national secrets. "We specialize in custom software for the government. That in itself helps keep our overhead low. We don't need to advertise or sustain expensive sales and marketing departments, like Microsoft and Oracle. SoftCorp is made one hundred percent of engineers, minus a few clerical assistants and the unavoidable security staff of any high-tech firm. We don't have the large manufacturing headaches of semiconductor houses like Intel, Motorola, and AMD, or the huge advertising expenditures of Microsoft and other software companies. Our primary asset is our intellectual property, our engineering staff. That's where all of the money goes, keeping them happy and focused on their work. No other company can compete with our salaries, bonuses, and other benefits, Mike. No one."
"Don't you run the same risks of so many other government contractors? Can a shift in Washington politics cancel your contracts?
"Not a chance," said Shapiro before Wittica got a chance to reply.
"How can you be so certain?"
"Because, Mike," said Wittica, smiling while glancing over at Shapiro before focusing on Ryan. "We have managed to make ourselves quite ... indispensable. This particular government agency, which has been around for a very long time, could never survive without our services."
"How do you keep from losing your contract to another company? If this is as big an opportunity as you claim, there would certainly be other parties interested in wrestling the fat government contracts away. Doesn't your client have to go through a bidding process each time contracts are up for renewal?"
"Then how do you keep the competition out? Whenever there's money to be made, start-ups begin to pop up everywhere to grab a piece of the action. Some years back, when the need for networking computer chips rocketed in order to support the exponential expansion of the Internet, the initial companies that got in were able to make huge profits overnight, but soon after other start-ups got in the game, driving the prices of networking chips down as the supply grew, until the profit margins were minimal at best. Why is your situation any different?"
Wittica took a deep breath. "Damn good question, Mike. The answer is that at SoftCorp we have created a leading edge in technology and we continue to keep it by constantly thinking outside the box, by hiring nothing but the very cream that the industry has to offer — and hanging on to them for their entire careers. We have managed to develop the finest environment in the industry for the birth and growth of ideas. We don't have to worry about losing an employee after investing years of training. By hanging on to our people we hang on to our most precious investment. Our mode of operation resembles that of a think tank more than that of a large corporation. That keeps us always ahead of the pack whenever contracts need to be renewed. No one can touch us, and believe me, there have been many who have tried."
"What agency?" asked Ryan.
"What government agency does your company support?"
"That's confidential," said Shapiro. "Only full-time employees of SoftCorp can know."
Ryan nodded, well aware of company confidentiality in the high-tech sector, and of the extremes to which many corporations went in order to protect their intellectual property. In fact, a significant portion of the virtual-reality database-access software that he'd developed for his thesis comprehended extensive fire walls designed to keep hackers out.
Ryan decided to take a different tack to get a little more information. "You mentioned custom software as your end product. Can you elaborate without revealing anything confidential?"
The SoftCorp executives exchanged a glance and concurred that it was a fair question.
"Sure, Mike," started Ron Wittica. "It's all C++ code. We are Unix based and develop all of our programs on workstations."
"Is the C code for development or production?"
"Our client has a wide variety of requirements, from development of new applications to bookkeeping of its huge database. Along with that comes all of the required software and hardware to protect the system from outside interference."
Ryan looked away, considering how he could best contribute to such environment. "What type of systems does your client use?"
"A wide variety, actually," answered Wittica while Shapiro poured himself more coffee and watched Ryan carefully, even as Wittica spoke, obviously trying to read Ryan's reaction to the explanations. "They have an army of mainframes, some of them dating back to the seventies, interfaced with latest-generation supercomputers. All of that is networked with new workstations and personal computers."
"Sounds like a very eclectic system. A big monster, actually."
"It is," said Shapiro.
"But that's our job," said Wittica, nodding at his CEO. "Keeping it all working together in harmony. Old and new hardware running a mix of old and new software."
Ryan considered that for a moment before asking, "Do you have any plans to upgrade the entire monster to a single platform? Nothing like trying to maximize simplicity and uniformity in the already challenging world of computers."
Excerpted from CONSPIRACY.COM by R. J. Pineiro. Copyright © 2001 Rogelio J. Pineiro. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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