What I remember most about that time is being called into his office with three others. The four of us sat at a table that was positioned between the floor-to-ceiling windows and his desk. He walked around us as he spoke, first softly, then raising his voice to a rant in crescendo while he sped his march around us. Pacing. Working himself into a lather. Pounding his fist into an open palm.
He stopped in mid-sentence, opposite me, behind Jake. He looked me in the eye while Jake cowered, shoulders drooping while he slumped in his chair, obviously feeling the flaming presence behind him. Jake had already been through this. He'd already made up his mind.
Gene said, "What do you want? Do you want money? Do you want power? Women? I can give you any of those things but you - you - have to decide who you are loyal to. And you better not pick wrong."
I felt like screaming. I was more terrified than I had ever been in my professional career, and it was a personal terror. This wasn't some sort of political game that gets someone promoted over you-who-are-more-worthy. This wasn't some battle for my-project-is-better-than his. This was stupid and melodramatic. And because it was so incredibly idiotic, I felt it viscerally. Like it could happen. The guy would hire someone to do me in. He said he'd done things like that in the past, in jest. But where was the line for this guy?
I felt like a teenager, cringing at some gang of bigger kids on a high school basketball court. My impulse was pure instinct. I wanted to do what my father had taught me.
In the face of overwhelming odds, you find a weapon. Strike viciously, and with the greatest possible surprise.
Then run like hell.
I wanted to leap over the table and feel my fist crack onto the bridge of his nose. I found myself calculating how many obstacles I'd have to surmount before I got to my car in the parking lot. I was clenching my jaw and reminding myself over and over - "This is not a street in the city. This is an office building in silicon valley. This is your job. You do this for money. If you don't like it, quit and do another job for another company."
We were all crazy in those days. Leaping across and clocking my boss's boss would probably have ingratiated me to him forever. He would have praised my courage. Given me a raise and a promotion. Then fired me the first chance he could get. Any guy who would attack a superior officer in a public place was crazy enough to do something worse.
We were crazy. There were no boundries. No Sarbanes-Oxley. No irrational exuberence. We were all making money. It was 1992. It was all about the money. I'd tell myself it was about my children's future. About getting my wife the house she always wanted.
But really, it was about the money.
"Do you understand me?" Gene said. All four of us minions in that office flinched.
I nodded, timidly. I was not the lion screaming in my head. I was a sheep. I would remain a sheep. I would garner nothing but disdain from this man, who made himself powerful and wealthy by intimidating people like me.
Gene said, "On Monday I will call you into this office and you will profess your loyalty to me. Is that clear?"
I was blank. I just nodded in reply. What kind of engineering was this? I went to school and got a master's degree in electrical engineering and now I'm being browbeaten by a Taiwanese lunatic from Sun Microsystems who thinks we're still in the middle ages and he's royalty dealing with the serfs who tend his crops. He would get what he wanted by intimidating us into violating our most deeply held principles, then offering us remarkable rewards. Overcoming our fear would be the key to extraordinary wealth. Abandoning our ethics would be our strength.
A man who betrays himself, will do anything.
And I was intimidated. I did not sleep for two weeks.
And that fateful Monday came and went. Gene was not there.
He never came back.
That part was over.
I had planned to quit. I was already looking for a new job but the truth is, I really don't know what I would have done in that office alone with him. I like to think I would have stood up.
Now I'll never know.
This is true. You can read about it for yourself on the internet.
I changed all the names. But you can figure it out.
I remember walking past Jane's office. She was in hysterics. On the phone. I wasn't used to that much emotion in the office.
"What will I do without you?" She was sobbing, repeating, "I can't go on without you."
My boss's office was nearby. From where he sat neither he nor his admin could avoid heaing Jane's side of the phone call.
I asked him, "What's happening with Jane?"
He shrugged. "She probably should close her door."
I passed his admin on my way out. I asked her what she thought was happening.
She said, "You'll find out."
There were police records. Statements given and recorded by the court stenographer.
By then I had moved to North Carolina. We got a copy of the statements given by the defendants.
It was pure entertainment, except it was also real.
A bunch of employees, guys we worked with, took all the stuff they were working on for our company, and went off and started another company, and then used the stuff they took to make slightly better stuff that they sold to the same customers they had been selling to when they were us.
On the surface, to the uninitiated, it may seem somewhat innocent. I work on something for you. I invent it. You pay me. You get your copy. I quit and do my own thing, taking the thing I built for you and resell it as my own thing. After all, I'm the one who made it. So it belongs to me, right?
Actually, no. At least not in America. Not when you've signed invention agreements saying - if I pay you and take care of you and fund your creativity, and you agree that whatever you build while I'm feeding you belongs to me - then it belongs to me, not you - even though it came from your own brain.
We call this capitalism.
And actually, most of the guys who committed the crime were indeed aware of capitalism and all of its legal ramifications. That's why the intimidation was necessary. That's why large sums changed hands. That's why there was sex and betrayal and a cult of engineers arose who did their work in secret "white room" conditions before the FBI raided them, took their computers and their executives to jail, and shut them down for a few weeks.
Gene had started a cult. He'd surrounded himself with true believers in whom he entrusted almost nothing, and who were certain to incur the penalty of his wrath for some minor transgression or another. He evoked very primal instincts in very talented engineers. Fear. Greed. Lust. And engineers, who are generally not the most emotionally developed as a class, fell for it completely. They built a new company around the millions they made taking customers with stolen goods. They were living the life.
He required a loyalty oath. Those who would swear, he'd slather with money. Stock options. Rewards. He required of his minions loyalty above that of family. He required more time from them than they would devote to their families. He asked them to do things that amounted to crime.
And when the law came down upon them, he abandoned them. Left the country to evade prosecution.
They took the heat.
I was deposed by lawyers in those days. The defendant company was counter-suing our company to try to deflect attention from the case at hand. I was accused of going to North Carolina to secretly subvert the activities they had going on there. I spent a full day being video taped while asked pointed questions by a lawyer who was trying to figure out how he could implicate me in some sort of imagined plot.
It didn't work. But I still had to go through a full day of court recorded testimony I had given to see if they had transcripted me correctly.
I've never read so much drivel in my life. I remember during that same time reading transcripts of Bill Clinton testifying in the Monica Lewinski case, and the transcript read like the blathering of a first grader.
Mine sounded no better.
"And did you tell him you thought he was crazy for going?"
"Um...ah...I don't really remember."
"What did you tell him, then?"
"Um...ah...I think...I'm not sure."
"We can wait. Think about it."
"Um...um...um...I think I don't remember."
For pages and pages.
The FBI had stormed their offices. Locked the doors. Cut off the phones. Took the computers and led the executives out in handcuffs. Nobody was allowed in or out till well into the late evening.
The principals of the crime were convicted. Some did time in prison. Some paid big fines.
There was a civil case that dragged on for a full decade. Eventually, the wronged company prevaled.
In the end, the organization that was built on what amounted to "stolen" goods went public and flourished. But as so much time had passed when the civil case settled, it was determined that more harm than good would be done by penalizing that company and its shareholders as punishment for the crime that resulted in the founding of the company. Then that company was eventually subsumed by another silicon valley company.
I left Alaska and went to work for the guys who acquired the goods, long after the theft occurred. By then, the stolen software was feeble and bug ridden. It had been superceded by better versions and newer capabilities that were legally and legitimately developed.
My boss was one of the guys who had absconded with the goods. He never did jail time. He was now with the people who had acquired them on the open market for some fraction of what they would have been worth had they not been convicted criminals and just lost significant court battles.
I worked for him for three years and we only spoke briefly about the issues of the past. He was a student of the madman who engineered the theft and started the cult.
I got his organization operational, and his products out the door.
And then I made the mistake of reminding him that I was of that era of craziness. And that he was only a disciple of the original lunatic, and not the original himself.
And that I could not be a sheep.
He wasn't having any of that.
Our lives describe arcs through time.
Screenwriters know this. They compress the arc of life into minutes of screen time. Opening, climax, denoument, coda.
It occurred to me that the story of this software theft should have been a sidelight to my career. Instead, it has been center stage. As much as I have tried to put it behind me, it keeps surfacing.
I was not one of those who spent years with the lawyers and the courts proving the guilt or innocence of others. I have friends who spent a whole decade doing nothing but giving depositions, testifying in court, and engineering the case against the thieves.
And the details are stranger than could be believable in any screenplay.
The thieves went back into engineering. They continue to develop software products in the same industry, for the same customers.
After doing their time, some of those convicted and jailed now again work for that original company whom they stole from.
The madman who started the engineering cult used to live in the San Francisco bay area and was driven to work every day in an armed convoy. He had a special garage built on the site of his offices for his car and those of his security detail. The garage was accessible through a secure underground passageway.
His office was a suite, that included a bedroom with a hot tub. He had employees who during working hours assisted him in the care and maintenance of that tub.
The office facility had a first class cafeteria, and he set up his son in business, and had his son run the cafeteria concession. As the offices are far from any other shopping or restaurants, most employees ate there daily.
There was a central core to the facilty where the "inner circle" of engineers worked. Access was limited by guards and card keys. Those not in the inner circle had no clue what was going on in that inner sanctum. Though, there never was any appreciable output from that team.
Now I work for a company that was not in any way involved in the software theft of 1991. I am in the same industry.
The company I work for now just recently acquired the facilities occupied by that questionable firm back in the 1990s. The buildings had been vacant for years after they were merged and relocated. My new company retrofitted the buildings and moved us into here a month ago.
The private garage with the clandestine entrance is still there.
They took out the hot tub.
Lots of people come to work here and have no idea of the history behind this place.
Money. Power. Women.
Maybe Gene was a criminal. Maybe he was no different from any other tech CEO. Maybe all Gene did was surface what was always there and flaunt it in our faces.
It was a software company. We were engineers.
Every day I come through the front door imagining how it was the day the FBI helicopters circled overhead, and the parking lot was cordoned off, and the computers were taken, and the execs were led into waiting cars.