A Simple Modification

by Yisroel Goodman

The golf ball swelled back up to bowling ball size. Bill began to shake as he fought to control his seething anger before replying.

"I will agree to leave without rancor," Bill said, "because I don't feel I can work for this company under any circumstances. However, before you choose to terminate me with cause, bear in mind that unlike Mark, I won't go quietly. I am entitled to challenge the termination and the loss of my severance package before a review board."

"You feel that you can deny the evidence?" Bruno asked.

"When the hearing takes place, I am prepared to admit to what I did. However, I will also explain why I was forced to do it. I'll explain Owen's whole project cycle to them. I'll show them all the memos I sent Owen, explaining that we're better off writing the code from scratch rather than patching the old system. I'll show them all of Owen's memos instructing us to write the program one way on Monday, another way on Tuesday and a third way on Wednesday. I'll show them my past twelve years of glowing performance reviews. I'll bring in a list of at least forty people Owen fired off this project. Some of them will undoubtedly provide me with affidavits testifying to Owen's incompetence and Jean's cover-up. Mark will undoubtedly back me up."

"Not if he wants to continue on this project," Jean said.

Bill stared at her. "I always knew you were stupid, but I never realized how stupid. You're going to fire me for hiring Mark, but then you'll continue to use him? How will you defend that to the review board? You haven't even thought this through. If I'm terminated for cause, you will have to give up Mark's services. You're going to have to run this project with no manager, no expert consultant and only one programmer with any experience trying to lead one programmer with a language problem and one complete greenhorn. How do you think Orange Bank will like it? And while you're at it, think about this. What stops me from going directly to Orange Bank, telling them what's been going on and soliciting the project completely for Landmark? Why shouldn't they be interested? They'll be getting the best manager and the best programmer this project ever had at rates well below what Arthur Mitchell charges."

"Your signed an agreement upon employment that prohibits your soliciting work from any of Arthur Mitchell's clients," Bruno reminded him.

"I also received an agreement that calls for me to receive severance pay and my share of my vested accounts. If you can break your obligations to me, you can't enforce mine."

"Your terms of employment were clear. If we fire you for cause, you lose your benefits. However, you are still restricted from soliciting our clients."

"I read the agreement. The restriction is for one year. Mark has not been an employee of AMI for over four years. Nothing prevents him from soliciting Orange Bank. And nothing prevents him from hiring me."

"As a consultant of AMI, isn't he bound by the same restriction?"

"Only if he was asked to sign the form."

"But that's a condition of engagement!" Bruno protested.

"Only if the manager on the project follows standard procedures," Bill responded. "But in this case, I spoke to Owen, who was so happy to have someone come riding in to save his project that he dispensed with procedure. He didn't even bother to meet Mark first. Won't that sound great when I tell that to the review board? Even if I lose my appeal with the review board, and I don't believe I will, nothing stops me from suing you in court. It will cost Arthur Mitchell a lot more than fifty thousand in legal fees and possibly millions in bad publicity. Why wouldn't I do it? You've left me with nothing to lose."

For a long moment, Bruno was silent. "It seems obvious to me," he said finally, "that there is a great deal of inept management on this project. Maybe in view of this, Bill's violations of company procedures are not entirely unjustified. Rather than go through protracted legal proceedings and have all our dirty linen publicly aired, I will accept Bill's compromise. Bill, you will receive your full severance pay and the full balance in your company account. In return, you will sign a document prepared by our legal department in which you agree not to sue Arthur Mitchell, not to solicit Orange Bank and not to release any negative information concerning Arthur Mitchell. Is this agreeable to you?"

"It is," Bill answered, feeling the bowling ball dissolve. But there was still one loose end. He couldn't allow Owen to destroy his professional reputation. "I have one additional condition. I want a letter of recommendation from Arthur Mitchell, signed by Owen and Jean. And I want their signatures on a document prepared by my attorney that prohibits them from releasing any negative information about me."

"I will sign no such document!" Jean stated emphatically.

"And you won't get a recommendation from me!" Owen added.

"Then I won't sign yours," Bill said simply.

"Jean, Owen," Bruno cajoled them like children, "we're almost finished here. Don't spoil things now. Sometimes we don't always get exactly what we want. Life is compromise. I think Bill's request is reasonable under the circumstances."

"Then I guess we have no choice," Jean said, shooting Bill yet another poisonous glare.

"Then we're concluded," Bruno announced. "Bill, I'll have your documents prepared. Have your attorney draft up your document. In with the meanwhile, you can clear out your personal things and go home."

Bill stepped into his office for what he now knew was actually the last time. Sarah knocked and entered to ask him a question, then caught his expression. "Something wrong?" she asked.

"Not worse than any other day," Bill answered, "I'm just got fired. Again."

"But the project's going great!"

"That's what I tried to tell them. But Owen and Jean had it in for me ever since they were forced to keep me on and since I tricked them into hiring Mark."

"So we can all quit again!" Sarah shouted enthusiastically.

"I'm sure they've thought of that. But they just don't care."

"The whole project could go under!"

"Haven't you caught on yet? They don't care about the project, their careers or anything that normal people would consider important. Jean and Owen only care about Jean and Owen. Their dignity, their pride and their egos. They're so carried away with themselves that they forget that there's a limit to how far they can go. Don't you ever hear those stories where some guy shot another guy over something stupid like a parking space? The shooter knows he's going to get caught. He didn't even profit from the shooting, it's not like he could shoot the other guy and then take the space. But he shoots him anyway. His macho's been challenged. You and I would never do something stupid like that. But to Jean and Owen, my fooling them was a challenge to their ego and they're going to take me down even if they go down with me."

"So what are you going to do?" she asked.

"I've got thirteen years here. I'll take my thirteen weeks of severance pay and the balance in my various company accounts. That will keep me going until I find something. Maybe I can do some work for Landmark while I look around."

"I didn't want to say anything until I'd made up my mind," Sarah said, "but under the circumstances, you should probably know that I'll be resigning soon."

"Knowing you, this is not an impulsive decision."

"I've been offered another job and I was trying to make up my mind. I'd have probably taken it in any case, but now knowing that you're leaving, there's really no decision to be made. I can't work under Owen and I'm not qualified to be the project manager, which is what will happen once you're gone. I can't carry the other two programmers on my own."

"Best of luck to you. I'll miss working with you."

"And I'll miss working with you," she said sincerely, "I know that there was a lot of pressure on this project and a lot of unreasonable expectations. I also know that they weren't your fault. You did the best you could under the circumstances. Considering how well you did in spite of the incompetence at higher levels, I would have to say that you're an excellent manager. Don't let them make you start doubting yourself."

"Thanks. It's just what I needed to hear right now."

"Look, I don't know if when you interview they'll ask for references from people you've managed. But if it ever comes up, you can count on me for a high rating. And I know that Paul feels the same way, despite what happened."

"You have my home number. Just keep in touch."

Bill felt much better when Sarah left the room. Even though he recognized his own abilities, after running Owen and Jean's gauntlet, it was nice to have his own beliefs confirmed by someone whose opinion he respected. Once again he dumped out all of his project papers on the desk and filled his briefcase with his personal belongings. With a sigh, he glanced around the office for the last time. Somehow it seemed difficult to believe that he had spent more than a third of his life here. Then he departed, pausing just long enough to say goodbye to the programmers who had recently composed his team.

After thirteen years, his departure from AMI was anti-climactic, he remembered now, as his car ate up the remaining miles. Many people on the same floor were not even aware that he had left. Though filled with his personal items, his briefcase and his heart had felt lighter. He may have been leaving behind the labor of his best years, but he was also leaving behind the millstone of Orange Bank that had hung around his neck for so long. Let Owen deal with it now, he had thought then, he had been glad that he wouldn't have to deal with Owen or Orange Bank again. They had been his undoing and he had been glad to have escaped so lightly. If only he could have foreseen the future.

Debbie bore the news stoically. "It doesn't come as a total shock," she said, "we kind of expected it a long time ago. And the severance package sure helps. If you find the next job within thirteen weeks, you'll actually be ahead."

Mark's reaction was expected. He commiserated with Bill and then offered to share some of the coding he was working on. "And I still owe you a commission on the Orange Bank project," he added. "While you were at AMI, you couldn't accept it. But now that you're out, it's only fair that you get a percentage."

Mark offered twenty percent, Bill countered with ten and they settled on fifteen. It came out to just under ten thousand dollars, a significant sum but not one that would allow Bill to relax and drop his financial worries. Bill was getting nervous. Because of his circumstances, the resumes had brought in only a few interviews and most of these were in small firms that could not match his AMI salary and offered even less in terms of benefits. Even with the hefty severance pay, it was now becoming obvious that losing his job would result in a long-term financial loss. The longer he remained unemployed, the harder it would be to explain the gap on a job interview. It would be difficult enough explaining why he left Arthur Mitchell after so many years, particularly when he had not had another offer.

"Don't feel too bad," Debbie consoled him, "with the work Mark's doing for AMI, you should still be making a few hundred a week off your commissions. Pick up another client and you can do some of the work yourself."

"But if you lose your job, it'll hardly be enough."

"I'm not about to lose my job. When it happens, if it happens, it will still take some time."

"But with my situation, we're not able to bank as much toward the future."

The next morning began with a phone call from Owen. "Is this how you honor your agreements, Landey?"

Bill was taken aback. "Once again you're assuming that I know what you're talking about. If you recall, reading your mind is no longer my responsibility."

"You know damn well what I'm talking about."

"Do us both a favor and pretend that I don't. Then try to phrase it intelligibly, if you can."

"We had an agreement. You get your severance and a letter of recommendation and aside from your leaving, the project continues as scheduled. Is that correct?"

"I have no problem with that. What's your problem?"

"My problem is that you're destroying my project!"

"I'm destroying your project? How? By leaving it in your incapable hands? It's what you wanted."

"So you admit it?"

"Admit what? That leaving it in your hands is tantamount to destroying it? That's not my fault."

"I'm talking about your convincing Sarah to leave the project.."

"I did not convince Sarah of anything," Bill retorted. "Sarah decided to leave after watching what passes for job security under your management. What did you expect when you fired half of your staff every year? Did you think that after firing people as valuable as Mark and me, the others would just sit around patiently and wait their turn?"

"So you knew Sarah was leaving," Owen said in an accusatory voice, "you discussed it with her."

"As a matter of fact, she came to me the day I was fired and told me that she had been offered another position and had been considering it. She said that now that I was leaving, she was definitely going to take it because there was no way that she could work under you."

"We would have hired another manager."

"For thirty thousand dollars?" Bill laughed, "and that still wouldn't have protected her, just like it didn't protect Mark or Wing or me. Face it Owen, your management style stinks. And since I no longer work for AMI, I don't have to sit through your tirades any more. If you want to blame me when you discuss this with Jean and Bruno, go ahead. If you expect me to accept the blame, you're out of your mind. I'm hanging up now."

"What about Landmark canceling our project?" Owen shouted.

Bill froze in the act of hanging up and brought the phone back to his ear. "What did you say?"

"Are you going to pretend that you didn't know?"

"I don't know. What exactly happened?"

"Your buddy Mark just sent us a letter stating that since he has no confidence in my team's ability to bring off this project or my management ability, he is no longer accepting our assignments. Don't tell me you didn't have a hand in it."

"Believe me, I didn't. Maybe Mark thinks this is his way of being loyal to me, but I plan on talking him out of it."

"You'd better. Otherwise we're going to sue Landmark and you personally for damages."

"On what grounds? Mark has every right to refuse assignments and I have no control over the situation."

"Mark has an obligation to complete the project! He can't leave us in the lurch like this!"

"AMI hired Mark to produce specific code modules. He has produced everything for which he contracted. Of course you would like him to continue, but he is under no obligation to do so."

"Our legal department may feel differently."

"You know something, Owen? I didn't think it was possible, but you're even stupider than Jean. Here I was agreeing to convince Mark to go back to your project and you have to throw in a gratuitous threat. I'd almost forgotten how infuriating it is to work for you. I'm glad Mark dropped your project and I'm going to tell him so."

"Landey, wait! Maybe I was hasty. Bill, hang on.."

But Bill hung up, smiling. He felt triumphant. He had waited thirteen years for the opportunity to shut Owen up. Then his smiled faded as he reached for the phone.

"Mark, what on earth are you doing? Owen just called me."

"Bill, I was going to tell you. I decided that I can't work on the Orange project any longer."

"You decided? What happened to our partnership?"

"You have to admit that it's been pretty one-sided. I let you make all the decisions and I just carried out whatever assignments you got for me."

"And didn't it work out well?"

"Yes, it did."

"Then why spoil a successful formula?"

"Because this is one time that I feel very strongly about it."

"Then we discuss it. I know you feel that I made most of the decisions involving Landmark and may have talked you into things, but I always discussed it with you first. I did not make a decision and then force you to accept it. We were always equal partners."

"You want to discuss it? Okay, let's discuss it. My fifty percent of the partnership refuses to continue on this project. If your fifty percent wants to, go right ahead."

"Mark, it doesn't work that way and you know it. From a technical aspect, you are Landmark."

"And as Landmark, I built the company's reputation for good, solid product delivered on schedule. I will not ruin my reputation by working on a shoddy project with lousy specs that are guaranteed to fail and bring Landmark down with it. Honestly, do you think it will run under Owen's management?"

"I gave Owen my personal guarantee..."

"You gave Owen your guarantee that we wouldn't solicit Orange Bank," Mark interrupted in an uncharacteristic manner, "we're not soliciting Orange Bank. In with fact, we're dropping the whole project."

"I implied that if he wanted to continue using your services, he couldn't terminate me with cause. It was one of the deciding points."

"You implied it, you didn't guarantee it. You couldn't have. As far as he knows, you are not an officer of Landmark."

"So you won't reconsider?"

"Bill, why is this so important to you? What's your problem?"

"My problem? My problem is that I'm not a single guy with no financial worries. I'm an unemployed married guy with a wife who may be losing her job and a kid who's going to need braces and clothes and someday a college education. The Orange Bank project was keeping Landmark active, even if there were no real profits for the company and an active company stands a better chance of becoming profitable. And the fifteen percent commission was fifteen percent more than I've earned since leaving AMI."

"I thought with the severance pay and the accounts you cashed in, you were doing okay."

"Those accounts were my retirement fund, which I was hoping to save for retirement. The severance pay isn't going to hold out if I don't find another job soon and so far the few job offers I've gotten have been for a lot less than I was making."

"I'm sorry, Bill. I didn't realize the situation was that bad. Look, you know you're going to find something good. Don't feel forced to take something you don't like. If you need some money, I've got plenty put away."

"Mark, I don't want your money!"

"Look, Bill, if I hadn't listened to you about Landmark, I would have stayed at AMI until the day I got fired. Then I would have hit the streets looking for a job and probably taken one for less money. Instead, thanks to you, I've made a lot more money. So I owe you for that. Then, because you wanted to avoid a conflict of interest with AMI, you gave me all the money that came in on the Orange Bank project. Part of that should have gone to you."

"You already gave me fifteen percent," Bill pointed out.

"That was a finder's fee," Mark said. "You acted as manager on the project. True, you were an employee of AMI, but you spent evenings and weekends with me planning the project and AMI doesn't pay overtime. You were doing it as an employee of Landmark. So we should have put all the income into the company and then paid ourselves an hourly rate for the time we put in. Either way, I owe you."

"Then reconsider continuing on the project, at least until another one comes along."

"Sorry, Bill. I don't owe you that much." When Bill remained silent, Mark continued, "You haven't thought this through. With you gone, Owen's managing the project. That means specifications that aren't complete and schedules that make no sense."

"So refuse to make a proposal on anything incomplete or impossible," Bill suggested.

"It won't help. Without someone else there who knows what's really involved, I won't even know when Owen left something out. He manages by incompetence and placing blame. Owen's run out of scapegoats. There's no one left on his project of any consequence. Who can he blame now? The new girl who started two months ago? It's hard to convince Bruno that in two months she put the project three months behind. So he'll blame Landmark. Whatever he leaves out will become our omission. Not only won't we get paid for our work, but our reputation will suffer."

"You're probably right," Bill agreed.

"Hang in there. Something will come through."

When Debbie came home, Bill could tell that she was struggling with some major decision.

"Okay, spill it," he demanded.

"I didn't want to tell you until you had something lined up."

"No," he insisted, "either way you'll be taking a load off my mind. I'd rather know for sure. What is it?"

"The new Ad Sales Vice President from Wolf called me into his office. He told me they were impressed with my sales figures and with the system that I helped Mark develop. He said that the old Vice President, Mr. Waltis, who took early retirement, had said really good things about me. They want me to be the Ad Sales Manager for the New York Region."

"Isn't that your current title?"

"Only for WIND Radio. This includes television as well"

"So it's a promotion?"

"That's right."

"So why don't you sound happy about it?"

"I am happy about it. I just wish it had happened while you had a job. I know how you'll react with this male ego thing about being the main breadwinner and all."

"Honey, we're a team. Your success is our success."

"I'm glad you're taking it so well."

"It's much easier accepting your success than hearing about you losing your job. Particularly at this point."

"There may be some good news in it for you, too."

"I could use some good news for myself."

"The folks at Wolf saw the system Mark did for WIND and they want to expand it to include the whole television network. They're hiring their own programming staff to support it, do the user training and add reports, but they want a consulting firm to handle the actual management and design of the system. They're going to be taking bids soon, but since Landmark already has their foot in the door, you've got an edge. They asked me specifically if Landmark can supply someone with both technical expertise and management experience to help them build a project team. This will require a lot more than the few hours a week you gave WIND while you were at AMI. If Landmark gets the project, you can put in as many hours as Mark and bill Wolf accordingly."

For once, Bill was almost speechless. "If this works out, it would be an incredible stroke of luck.."

"Then why don't you get together with Mark and come up with a proposal."

"I'll get right on it," Bill promised, "tomorrow. Tonight we celebrate your success."

Bill and Mark met with the managers of the project at the WIND offices. The radio station had taken up two floors of the office building. Now almost the entire building was occupied by Wolf personnel. Debbie's new position meant that she would once again be closely involved in the system design. Over the course of the next few weeks, Bill and Mark learned a great deal about television advertising and the procedures involved in creating and maintaining an accurate broadcast log. Though designed for a radio station, the WIND system already included some of the requirements and being so familiar with the industry gave Landmark an edge over other firms bidding on the project.

But the process of closing a deal of this magnitude was a lengthy one. There were meetings with different client personnel. Then Bill and Mark had to return home and discuss each phase of the project to estimate the time required. They had to review the code of the WIND system to see how closely it matched the requirements and how much effort was involved in modifying it to meet the new dictates. This was time-consuming and even more grueling because no one was paying them for their efforts. If they closed the deal, as they fully expected to, it would have been an investment of a few weeks toward a major system which would keep them busy for over a year. Mark, who as a consultant had grown used to the process, was not worried. He still had other work left over from smaller projects to keep him busy and financially liquid. Bill however was growing nervous as each day of unemployment passed him by.

The only advantage to his situation was that he was available to pick up his daughter from school so that they did not have to hire a sitter or send her to a different friend each afternoon. Now she could even bring home her friends and so that the Landeys could catch up for all the past favors they owed. Debbie's job was keeping her at the office later each evening, which meant that Bill now had to do almost all the shopping, cooking and cleaning. She kept promising that it would only be for a little while longer, until she could fully grasp her new responsibilities. Bill began to resent it, but realized that there was little that Debbie could do about it. Since he had nothing else to do, it would be extravagant to hire household help. Debbie's raise did not come close to making up for the loss of his salary.

If only he could have held out a little longer, he thought in hindsight years later, he would have known what to answer when the phone call came that offered him a second chance.

"Hello, Landey residence."

"Okay, Bill," a familiar voice that he could not place, muttered something.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. Could you please repeat that?"

"I said, okay, Bill, you win." Now he could place Owen's familiar growl.

"I wasn't aware that I had entered a contest," Bill remarked. "What did I win? A get out of AMI free card?"

"I'm in no mood for your jokes. I just came out of a grueling three-hour meeting with Jean and Bruno. We've come to the conclusion that we can't finish the project without an experienced programmer and we have no time to interview for one and then have him go through the learning curve. That means our best candidate at the moment is Mark. Mark won't do it without a technical manager in charge and since we haven't been able to find one at short notice, that means you."

"You can't possibly be offering me my old job back."

"No, that's out of the question. You've been terminated and there's no repealing that decision. What I'm proposing is that we hire both you and Mark as consultants."

"Isn't that a violation of company policy prohibiting the hiring of a former employee as a consultant within one year of the cessation of employment?"

"Perhaps I'm not making myself clear. We are interested in hiring Landmark to help us complete this project. We want Landmark to provide us with one experienced programmer familiar with this type of project and one equally experienced manager."

"Who happens to be me."

"Unless Landmark has another manager who can become familiar with this project in a matter of days."

"But how will you justify to Bruno hiring me as a consultant?"

"Bruno agreed with the decision."

"So you, Jean and Bruno all agreed to actually violate company policy, when I was terminated for merely giving the appearance of violating that same policy. Terminated with cause, if Jean had had her way."

"Bill, I don't need the history lesson. Maybe we were wrong. Maybe you were feeling as pushed into a corner as we are. Right now, this is the only way I see to save the project."

"Let me ask you a question. Orange Bank knows that I was fired, right?"

"As we agreed, we said nothing negative about you. Mike Lotti was informed that you resigned to pursue another opportunity."

"So now we tell him that it just didn't work out and I came back?"

"Unless you have another suggestion."

"No, I guess that's the best we can do."

"So you're back on board?" Owen asked hopefully.

"If we can agree on terms."

"What would those be?"

"No more fixed-price quotes. Mark gets paid by the hour. Ninety dollars an hour for on-site work, eighty for work at home.."

"Okay. What else?"

"I get a hundred dollars an hour."

"That's out the question!"

"I happen to know that you charge clients a hundred and twenty five an hour for programmers and a hundred and fifty for senior managers. You're still making fifty an hour off of my work."

"But we have overhead!"

"And so do we."

"While it's true that our hourly rate is higher, we often eat some hours to keep the client happy."

"Then eat some of your own. You charge two hundred an hour for your time. That'll be a big savings to the client. And if you stay off the project altogether, it'll be a big help, too. Which brings me to my last condition. I will be the technical manager on this project. I set up the schedule, the demos and hire and fire the programmers. Not you."

"You can't expect us to have a consultant dictate who we hire and fire, or tell our clients how the project will progress!" Owen protested.

"You tried things your way. They didn't work. Now you're coming to me as a last resort. Mark refused to take the assignment because he can't work under you. Sarah quit because she can't work under you. If you want this project to succeed, the team has to feel that you're out of the picture. If I can tell them that I'm setting the schedules and doing the firing, they might just stay long enough to become productive team members. If you keep firing the good people or giving them reason to leave and then replacing them with rank amateurs, this project is dead in the water."

"Bruno will never go for it."

"Then neither will Mark. And he is an officer of the firm. It's ultimately his decision."

"Okay. If we agree to your terms, do we have a deal?"

"I'd still have to talk Mark into it. But under those terms, I probably can."

"Then start talking. We want you here tomorrow."

"Tomorrow? I don't know if I can convince him that quickly."

"The next day at the latest. We can't afford to waste any more time. If you're not taking it, let us know immediately so we can start making other plans."

"I'll talk it over with Mark and call you tomorrow."

Bill could barely contain his excitement as he broke the connection and proceeded to dial Mark's number. To get his old job back at his terms and more money! His termination from Arthur Mitchell was beginning to seem like a blessing. To his surprise, Mark was not as receptive to the idea as Bill had hoped.

"Why won't you let go of this project, Bill?" he asked, "it's like your personal Moby Dick."

"Because this project has been my life for a number of years. It cost me my career at AMI and my professional reputation."

"Your reputation is fine. No one knows that you were fired."

"Owen knows, Jean knows and I know. And I want to show all three of us that if I were allowed to run the project my way, it would succeed. I want Owen to know that he fired the best manager-slash-programmer team he could ever hope to have. I want to rub their noses in it."

"You're making it a personal vendetta," Mark observed, "that's not the right reason for making a business decision."

"If they're giving us everything we asked for, why is it a bad business decision to take the assignment?"

"Maybe I'm a little superstitious, but I believe that things can be lucky or unlucky. You know how some people can have a lucky charm or a lucky shirt? I believe that this project is unlucky. It's brought nothing but bad luck to anyone who worked on it, particularly the two of us. I was relieved to get off of it. I was very uncomfortable getting back on as a consultant, but at least I didn't have to work at AMI under Owen. I thought it would bring us luck when you were forced off of it, too. Now that we're free of it, let's put it behind us. Let's not make the mistake of going back for more. This project is just bad news."

"Come on, Mark. You're turning down our only client and our biggest one because of an irrational fear of bad luck?"

"It's not an irrational fear. It's a sound belief based on the knowledge that when a decision is based on an obsession, it's usually a poor one. Did I ever tell you about my uncle Marvin?"

"I don't believe that you have."

"Marvin was raised on a farm in the Midwest. But unlike kid's stories, this was not one of those picture book farms, with all the happy little animals busily producing eggs and milk. This was one of those farms where the animals kept dying and the crops kept failing and the bank kept coming around and pressing for payment of outstanding loans. And though Marvin's dad and the whole family would get up around four A.M. and work until dark and even later, they were never able to keep up. Marvin's mother died because she got sick and they lived too far from the hospital and she delayed going because they didn't have insurance. Eventually, Marvin's brothers and sisters had enough of farm life and set off for other parts, never to return. But not Marvin. He was the baby of the family and he hung on with his dad until the bank came and kicked them off. Marvin got a job working in a store that sold farm supplies, worked his way up to manager, got married, had kids, the whole ball of wax. His dad lived with him. But Marvin was obsessed with getting back that farm, doing it for his dad, showing his siblings that he did it, teaching his kids the American Dream, whatever. So he took all the money that he had saved, sold his house and eventually bought the place back. I remember him calling my dad right after he did it and telling him with great excitement all the wonderful things he had planned.

"'Sure it could use some work,' he said, 'but it'll be a family project and when it's finished, we'll have something to be proud of.'

"His other siblings had a different opinion. They though he was out of his mind. The place had never been in great shape to begin with and the years hadn't been kind. He sank every penny he had into that place and then some. He put every spare moment he had into fixing it, but it wasn't enough and the commute to his job was too far, so he quit his job to take care of the farm. Eventually, his wife left him, his kids all went to live with her and none of them even wanted to go back for a visit. Marvin stayed on with his dad, then his dad died and now he stays there all by himself. He lives off whatever he can grow or shoot or trade with a neighbor and he sometimes doesn't see another soul for weeks at a time. But by golly, he did it. He got the farm."

"Is there a point to this story?" Bill asked.

"Don't you see any similarity between Marvin's farm and your Orange Bank project? You both want it for the wrong reasons. Not because it's a sound business decision or even workable. Only because you'll be showing up someone else. In Marvin's case, it was his siblings. In your case, it's Owen and Jean. Both of you have nothing to prove. The farm was lost because it wasn't viable. It wasn't Marvin's dad's fault. That farm was just bad. And the project is failing because Owen's schedules aren't possible. It isn't your fault. Stay far away from this project, Bill. It's just bad."

"I'm not quitting my job or putting my life's savings into this or asking my family to run away with me somewhere," Bill pointed out, "I'm just accepting an assignment to manage specific project tasks at an hourly fee and assigning those tasks to a highly efficient programmer. We're going to have a written contract that specifies what needs to be done and how long we have to do it. If Owen interferes or changes the specs or the scope of the project, we'll pull out our proposal and argue that what he wants is not what we were contracted to do."

"It all sounds so good on paper, but you know Owen.."

"It can't hurt to try it!" Bill interrupted, "and if Owen interferes, we'll sever our relationship then. In the meantime, we're both in need of work and the opportunity is huge!"

"I can't argue with your presentation, but I have my reservations."

"You'll try it then?"

"Okay," Mark relented, "but that contract and all its conditions had better be ironclad. And I want a meeting with Owen, Jean and Bruno so I can hear it from all of them."