A Simple Modification

by Yisroel Goodman



Bill read the letter a second time. There was no mistake. Orange Bank did not intend to make any further payments for their work. A number of reactions ran through his mind. He took a few deep breaths and calmed down before he picked up the phone.

"This is William Landey. I'd like to speak to Al please."

"I'm sorry but Mr. Simms is in a meeting."

"Could you please ask him to call me. He has my number."

An hour later, he tried again. Mr. Simms was still in conference. Bill left another message. After several attempts, Bill began to grow furious. "Could you please inform Mr. Simms that my team is at an impasse in the project. If I don't hear from him, I'll be forced to pull the team and send them to my other clients until the confusion is clarified."

His next call was to Alex at Orange Bank. "Alex, listen to me very carefully. First, I want you to stop all work for today. Get all users off of the system. Then back everything up to our removable drive. Next, erase all source code from Orange Bank's network. Don't forget to completely purge the files so that they can't be recovered. Do you have all that?"

"I believe I understand, but tell me please, why?"

"I'll explain it to you later. After you've done all that, tell the whole team to go home and I'll call them later."

A short time later, Albert Simms was on the phone. "Bill, I just got out of a meeting and find your whole team gone. Then my secretary informs me that you called about some emergency."

"I'm calling in reference to your recent letter."

"Is there a problem?"

"There most certainly is a problem. When Landmark agreed to take over the project, no mention was made of a fixed fee."

"I told you that we would not be changing the terms of our original contract with Arthur Mitchell. The eight million dollar fee was part of the original terms."

"Arthur Mitchell does not take fixed fee projects."

"They did in our case."

"Then why did you complain of cost overruns?"

"Arthur Mitchell complained to us of cost overruns. They claimed it was one of the reasons why they couldn't hire more experienced people at higher rates. We complained about the schedule."

"You told me that by hiring Landmark, you would be saving the expense of Owen, Jean and Bruno," Bill reminded him.

"By saving that expense, Landmark could hire more qualified people."

"Where did you come up with the March deadline?"

"It was in AMI's original proposal."

"But that deadline had been extended several times."

"On the contrary. As you pointed out, Owen would extend the deadline for a phase of the project, but the final deadline remained unchanged."

"I can't believe you're doing this!"

"Bill, I can sense that you're somewhat upset about something."

"Somewhat upset? You're destroying me. And you know what? You just destroyed your own project. Eight million dollars down the drain. "

"Bill, don't do anything rash. Why don't we meet in my office and discuss this?"

"No, why don't you come to my office, you bastard, and beg me to take the project like you did when I was at AMI?" Bill was tempted to retort. But he reminded himself of his current financial situation and how much he needed Orange Bank's consulting fees. "I'll be in your office within two hours. Should I bring a lawyer?"

"I believe we can come to an arrangement without resorting to legal disputes," Simms said. "We would like to see this project completed as much as you would."

Feeling slightly better, Bill said nothing about it to Debbie and set out for Orange Bank. He was ushered right in to Simms' office. There was another man with him.

"This is Peter Devaine, from our Legal Department," Simms introduced a thin man of diminutive stature in his late forties. Despite his small size, Devaine presented the aura of a man who controlled all the cards. Even his serious expression seemed to hint at a secretive smile.

"I thought you said we were not resorting to legal disputes," Bill said angrily.

"Peter is not here to prepare a lawsuit," Simms said, "he is only here in case we need a legal opinion concerning our contract."

"Albert tells me that you have some confusion about the contract we signed," Peter began.

"There was no confusion about what Albert promised me at our meeting," Bill said. "He said that Orange Bank was upset with Arthur Mitchell's cost overruns and their deadline extensions.."

"I already explained to Bill.." Simms cut in.

"Let me finish!" Bill snapped.

For a moment there was silence. Then Simms nodded. "Please continue."

"My buddy Al," Bill continued in a sarcastic tone, "promised me that now things would be different. He trusted Landmark to do what AMI couldn't, produce programs according to accurate schedules. Now he says that all we agreed to do was take over from AMI and do the same job at the same schedules which have long been discarded because they have already been proven unreliable."

"They were unreliable when done under the management of that incompetent Owen Seltzer," Simms explained, "but under Bill's able management, the team was getting back on schedule. I assumed that Bill could pull it off or at least come close. As manager of the project from the beginning, Bill, you can't pretend that you didn't know how the project schedule stood when you accepted the contract."

"And you assumed that we'd do this for free?"

"We paid you a great deal of money."

"But now you expect us to continue for the next few months with no additional fees?"

"I assumed that you were prepared to put in some unbilled time in return for the generous fees you already received."

"And I assume that if Orange Bank asked you to work without pay for three months a year, you'd be prepared to do that in return for the generous salary they paid you the other nine months."

"If I had signed a contract to that effect, I'd better be prepared to accept it."

"But I never signed a contract to that effect. My contract said nothing about a fixed fee."

"Your contract said that you were taking over from Arthur Mitchell at the same terms."

"Which should be taken to mean the terms that were currently in effect, not the terms you first worked out years ago, which you already renegotiated with AMI."

"Our contract with Landmark specifically references the original contract with AMI," Devaine, the lawyer, responded.

"Listen, Mr. Lawyer," Bill snapped, "I was told that this was not going to be a legal debate, but if you want to turn it into one, I'll have to come back with my lawyer and let the two of you spout legalese at each other."

"Maybe you should do just that."

"That will be fine with me," Bill retorted, standing up. "We'll set it up for some time next month. In the meantime, my team will be reassigned to our other clients."

"Now wait a minute, Bill," Simms said, "Don't do anything hasty. We can discuss this."

"If you want to discuss this like human beings, I'm prepared to listen. If your android here is going to spout legalese, this meeting is over."

"You have a point," Simms said. "Peter, please allow Bill and me to conduct this meeting and try not to comment unless we ask you to."

"Here's another point," Bill said, sitting down again, "there were additional requests made by Orange Bank after the initial proposal. Since these requests were not part of the initial proposal, fees charged for these were not part of the original eight million dollar proposal."

Simms had obviously not thought of that. "Peter, is he correct in his assessment?"

"The argument could certainly be made and even upheld in litigation."

"Then Bill, if you itemize these additional items and the applicable fees, we will increase the total payment allotment by that amount."

"That's good for a start, but do you realize that much of what we're working on involves additional items requested after the initial proposal? Wouldn't it be easier to just pay our invoices as you receive them?"

"I know it sounds petty, but we do have our procedures and our auditors," Simms said, "anything we do, particularly when it involves large sums of money, must pass the strictest reviews. So dig through all the old records and correspondence and find all the additions that you can. I have no problem authorizing payment if I have the paperwork to explain it."

"As long as you understand that I'm doing this research at your request and will be billing you for the time expended accordingly."

"I suppose it could be argued that you're doing this research in order to justify your own charges and therefore Orange Bank should not be expected to pay for it," Simms said.

"I find that hard to swallow," Bill responded, "since at the time the work was performed, Orange Bank received detailed progress reports and invoices from AMI. Now you're asking Landmark to go back and review several years worth of records because you didn't keep an accurate account. We have no problem with our billing. It's Orange Bank that seems to be confused."

"He makes a good point," Devaine said, looking a little less smug.

"Fine. Orange Bank will pay for the time spent researching the charges," Simms conceded, "and Orange Bank will add to the eight million dollar fee any amount due because of changes made after the initial proposal."

The lead weight in Bill's stomach began to dissolve. He knew that he could find another quarter million dollars in charges if he looked hard enough, particularly at the two hundred dollars an hour charged for Bruno's, Jean's and Owen's time.

"Then we're all in agreement," Simms summed up. "You see, Bill, there was no reason to get excited."

"There was every to get excited. If I had handled my responsibility with the same efficiency and tact that you did, I would not have bothered to call and attend this meeting. I would simply have pulled my team off the project and sent Orange Bank a letter of explanation. What was done to me was the financial equivalent of stabbing me in the back."

"Bill, please calm down."

"Don't I have a right to be upset? I have bills to pay and my employees received their salaries every two weeks. However, I bill Orange Bank at the end of the month for the previous month. Then it takes another thirty days to get paid. So I get very upset when, without a phone call or discussion, I receive a letter in the mail stating that Orange Bank feels they don't have to pay me. Then my phone calls aren't returned until I pull my team off the project. Now, despite your agreement that I am due the money, you want me to spend the next few days combing through old correspondence so that you can satisfy your auditors that the payment is justified. Then I'll have to resubmit the bill and wait another thirty days to be paid. This is not the proper way to do business. But since you insist on these procedures and I can not continue to pay my team while my invoices are outstanding, I am assigning them to my other clients until I have received payment in full for my outstanding invoice. Naturally, since this delay is caused by Orange Bank, the clock stops. If it takes a month for me to get paid, all schedules will be delayed by a month."

"But that will put us even further behind!" Simms protested.

"Then I suggest that you expedite payment."

"Suppose I call Accounts Payable and have them prepare a check immediately for the balance of your invoice while you do your research?" Simms asked.

"As soon as I have the check, my team will be reassigned to this project."

"Consider it done," Simms promised, lifting the phone.

"Now that the crisis has been averted, what did you hope to gain by this?" Bill asked.

"My department was under pressure because the project was behind schedule and over budget," Simms explained. "I wanted to be able to explain that we were taking steps to correct this. Awarding the contract to Landmark was one step, but the board wanted assurances that Landmark wouldn't fall behind or overbill us just like AMI did. I promised them that I would get Landmark to agree to abide by AMI's original contract and with proper supervision, I would see to it that the project proceeded on schedule."

"Then you tried to strong arm me into shouldering all of the burden for AMI's and your own Mike Lotti's incompetence. That wasn't very nice. And considering that you practically begged me to do you this favor and salvage your project, it was despicable."

"It was business."

"You people have a hell of a way of doing business. Mark was right. He warned me that there could be an Owen in Orange Bank. You and AMI deserved each other."

A knock sounded at the door and one of the office messengers entered with an envelope which he handed to Simms. Simms opened it, took out a pen and added his signature. Then he passed it to Bill. It was a check made out to Landmark for the balance of the January invoice.

"My team will report back to work tomorrow morning," Bill promised. "Good evening, gentlemen."

On his trip back to the city, he used his cellular phone to call Mark, Alex, Natalya and Monica and inform them of what had occurred. He asked them to meet at a restaurant near Orange Bank in the morning so that they could discuss the ramifications of their client's actions. He spent most of the remainder of the trip fuming at Simms. Then he thought of how he had finagled his way out of it and was reminded of some of his arguments with Owen and Jean. He began contemplating a way to turn this to his advantage. By the time he came home, he was smiling.

"Looks like you had a good day," Debbie commented from her usual seat on the couch, near the telephone, filing cabinet and computer, "when you ran out earlier, you seemed positively livid."

"Simms tried to pull a fast one on me, but I turned it around." Bill related the details of his recent meeting.

"What does this mean for us?"

"As far as I'm concerned, it means even more money. Now I have to research the last few years of this project and account for all the additional requests Orange Bank came up with since the initial proposal. And I had an idea."

"Let's hear it."

"Right now I need somebody to go through years of paperwork and disk files. I know it's sort of tedious, but you can do it sitting on the couch. We can charge Orange Bank a hundred and twenty five an hour for your time. What do you think?"

"My salary from Wolf Media is tied to the hours I put in and they're not keeping me very busy. I have the time and we could use the money. Sure, I'll do it. Just show me what to look for."

"Let me bring the boxes in from the garage. It's a good thing I kept copies of everything."

"And a good thing you didn't listen to me and throw them out."

While Bill had been on Arthur Mitchell's payroll, he had kept copies of all memos, schedules and correspondence concerning the Orange Bank project. Had it come to a lawsuit, he wanted to have documented proof of Owen's incompetence. After leaving AMI, Debbie had begged him to toss out the boxes of papers stored in the garage, but Bill had demurred. Now those same documents would be used to demonstrate that some of the cost overruns were due to Orange Bank's requests for additional program features.

"Here, see this letter from Mike Lotti to Owen asking for an enhancement," Bill showed Debbie, "when you see something like this, mark it in red and put it aside. If it's a disk file, write down the filename. I'll go through what you found and calculated the time and fees that it added to the project."

Within a few hours, they had uncovered a hundred and eighty hours of work that were not part of the original proposal. It was enough to keep one programmer on the project for an additional month. They were just getting started. But Debbie was getting tired.

"Get some sleep, honey," Bill told her, "you've got plenty of time tomorrow."

The next morning, Bill left early for his appointment with the other team members. They met as planned at the restaurant. Bill told them that breakfast was being paid for by Landmark. Then he explained what had occurred the day before.

Alex burst out with a stream of Russian. Though Bill didn't understand it, Alex's tone and Natalya's blush confirmed that the words weren't polite.

"So what happens now?" Monica asked.

"For the time being, the project continues as scheduled," Bill answered, "but there's got to be a little change in our perception. From now on we don't treat Orange Bank as our friends. We don't confide in them. We don't discuss Landmark business in their office. We keep our interaction cool and businesslike. If they ask you how long it would take to add a feature, you don't even give them a rough estimate. Instead, tell them you need some time to consider it. If they pressure you, refer them to me. It seems pretty obvious that they are willing to use pressure tactics to try and force Landmark to bear the responsibility for all of AMI's incompetence. We can't let that happen. We have to be on guard. So from now on, we don't give them source code. Remove all source code that is not currently being modified and leave only compiled programs. Each night before you leave, back up your own source code to the removable drive. The last person to leave should take the cartridge and purge all source from the client's network. If they try anything like this again, we can threaten to walk off the project. If they try to bring in another team, we're holding the source code."

"But don't they own it?" Monica asked.

"Sure they do. Just like they know that they owe Landmark full payment. Their threat against us is to withhold payment knowing that it would take too much time and cost too much in litigation for me to sue them. My weapon against them is that without the source code, it would cost them more to bring in another firm than to pay us what's due. Sure they can sue. But it would take months to come to court and time would be on our side. They've already invested over eight million dollars on this project."

"So you feel there's very little to worry about?"

"Frankly, I was surprised that they tried to pull this off. Did they really think I'd cave in? Didn't they realize that if they stopped paying, we'd stop working, contract or no contract? They'd have to sue us, that would take months. In the meantime, I could declare Landmark bankrupt and form a new corporation to handle Wolf Media. With no assets, even if they won they'd have nothing and I can't see a court ordering a company to work for free. And in the meantime, their eight million dollar project falls apart."

"That's what worries me," Mark said, "that they tried it when they should have realized it wouldn't work. It makes me wonder what they were thinking."

"Obviously not very much," Bill said dismissively. "Now that we know where we stand with them, we'll just act accordingly. Let's head back to the office."

By the end of the week, Debbie and Bill had documented over two thousand hours of time expended on modifications that were requested after the initial proposal, totaling close to three hundred thousand dollars in billing. Armed with this finding, Bill requested another meeting with Simms to present his findings. Once again, Peter Devaine was present.

"So now I have the documentation I need to justify paying up to three hundred thousand more," Simms said.

"That's only enough for four more months of work," Bill pointed out.

"Then Landmark will simply have to complete the project in four months."

"That's ridiculous! AMI's last projection had it going well past a year from now."

"Which is why we took it away from AMI."

"We're back to that again? You know damn well that there's never been a better team on the project than Landmark. We've made up for months of wasted time. But you can't reasonably expect that we can do a year's work in four months."

"You signed a contract accepting the project under the same terms we gave AMI."

"Again with that lousy contract! We already discussed this.."

"And we met your objections and are extending the contract for any additional time our requests added."

"But you still expect us to make up all for all the other overruns that occurred under AMI. That's not fair and I won't stand for it."

"You don't have much choice."

"I can pull my team off the project."

"And Orange Bank will sue."

"You'd probably lose. Worse case, you win but Landmark has been dissolved and there will be nothing to collect."

"Just your house," Devaine cut in.

"Pardon me?"

"Did you forget that Orange Bank holds the mortgage on your house? How do you expect to pay it off without the income from this project?"

"I have other projects."

"You mean Landmark has other projects. And since Orange Bank will be suing Landmark, you will spend all that income on legal fees."

"Then I'll dissolve Landmark and incorporate under another name."

"You'll need the approval of your partner for that and I don't believe you can get it. Did you forget that Orange Bank holds forty nine percent of Landmark stock?"

"You might be able to stop me from dissolving Landmark, but you can't force me to work for them. Suppose I tell the team that the project is over. Then I tell my other clients that I'm leaving Landmark. They won't care what name they write on the check as long as I do the work."

"So you use Landmark to obtain a loan and then proceed to devalue the company and compete against it? There are laws against that." Now Simms merely sat silently and let Devaine control the meeting.

"Maybe we should have this conversation after I speak to my attorney."

"That's probably a good idea," Devaine agreed, "but I would also suggest that you don't do anything precipitous in the meantime."

"They really have you over a barrel," said Philip Zaks, the lawyer who had drawn up Landmark's incorporation papers. "You can decide to walk away from Landmark, but that won't do you much good. You can't solicit Landmark's clients, so you'll have to start all over. In the meantime, Orange Bank will own the company and your house. I really don't see that you have any choice but to go along with their demands."

"You mean work for free?"

"You are getting paid. Just not as much as you expected."

"The way I see it, this project's got at least six months to go, probably closer to eight and the payments stop after four. If I expect to finish this project, I'm going to have to continue paying the team for two to four months after Orange Bank stops paying me. That's about three hundred thousand coming out of my pocket. I just don't have it."

"Don't panic. Let's examine your options. Your projection on completing the Orange Bank project is six to eight months?"

"Sounds about right."

"If you leave Landmark, what are the chances of finding another client to replace Orange Bank and Wolf Media?"

"It would take months, if at all."

"And if your entire team walked off the project, where would that leave Orange Bank?"

"It would take them months to assemble the right team and it would take even a good team months to catch up to where we are now."

"So it would probably cost them about half a million extra if they lost the whole team. If you walked off and they hired the rest of the team directly, where would you stand?"

"They wouldn't get Mark and he's the lead programmer."

"So they would have to replace you and Mark. What would that do to the project?"

"Even a top manager and programmer would need time to become familiar with the system. So they'd still be paying for training time. Let's say it would cost them an extra hundred thousand."

"If you stop paying your mortgage, it would take the bank about nine months to foreclose. Orange Bank holds about a hundred and fifty thousand on your house, so they stand to lose a substantial part of that along with whatever it will cost them to find someone else to take over the project. And then there's the cost of a lawsuit. These are all factors they have to take into account before they play hardball. I can use these to work out a compromise."

"What sort of compromise?"

"They've already agreed to pay for the four months their modifications added to the system. Suppose I ask them to cover an additional four months. Will that be enough to finish the project?"

"Barring unforeseen circumstances, that should do it."

"Then let me set up a meeting and handle the negotiations."

A week later, Bill found himself once again in Simm's office with the bank Vice President and attorney. This time, he had his own attorney to represent him.

"The way I see it, gentlemen," Zaks began, "we are not antagonists here. We have a common goal and we're all working toward its completion. Without belaboring the obvious, under AMI's management, the project suffered some severe setbacks. This led you to award the project to Landmark. And you must admit, it was a wise decision. Landmark has recovered for Orange Bank several months of lost time and hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I fail to understand your need to establish an adversarial relationship."

"Our problems stem from a lack of supervision over our previous consultants," Simms explained.

"So you're going to take out your frustrations caused by AMI on the firm that corrected the problem? That is not only unfair, it's bad business. In the end, it's Orange Bank's eight million dollars at risk here."

"The board is pressuring us to be absolutely certain that we don't have a repeat of that fiasco."

"And you can assure them that by hiring the firm that turned this project around, you saw to it that the project couldn't be more secure. Your current actions are putting Landmark in a position where they feel they have to drop this project no matter the cost. How will you explain that to your board?"

"Maybe we were overzealous," Simms admitted, "but my business training has always been to deal from strength. I felt that a little hardball would put us in a stronger position."

"You call withholding eighty seven thousand dollars without notice, leaving Landmark unable to pay their employees, a little hardball? What would you call heavy pressure?"

"It was an action suggested to me as a sort of warning to show that we do mean business. Maybe it was a bit heavy handed. I apologize. Let's put this behind us and come up with a proposal I can take to my board."

"Then permit me to offer one. As even your board must know, long-range projects always wind up behind schedule and over budget. It Murphy's Law. When you drew up your contract with AMI, you expected an overrun, which is why you didn't come down on them the instant they fell behind schedule. This is an eight million dollar project. It is already four months behind schedule and three hundred thousand over budget because of additional requests by Orange Bank. If Orange Bank can be three an a half percent over budget, give Landmark another three and a half percent. Give them an additional four months and three hundred thousand dollars to complete the project. That's in addition to any changes Orange Bank comes up with during this period."

"That seems reasonable," Simms agreed, "let me take it back to the board and see what they have to say, but I don't foresee any resistance."

"Then can we dispense with the verbal fencing and allow me to concentrate on completing this project?" Bill burst out.

"Go right ahead," Simms said, "and don't worry about it."

A week later, the four met again in Simm's office to discuss the board's decision.

"The board has agreed to a compromise of sorts," Simms reported. "They will allow a five percent project overrun. This means that you have six months on the schedule and four hundred thousand dollars remaining in the budget."

"Then inform the board that I have a compromise of my own," Bill responded. "They can either add two hundred thousand dollars to the budget or another six months to the schedule."

"Can you explain your reasoning?"

"It's simple economics. In order to meet your tight deadline, my team is going to have to put in a great deal of overtime. Unfortunately, your tight budget doesn't provide the funds to pay for all this work. So I'm forced to allocate most of my man-hours to clients that don't weasel out of paying their bills. When the funds are gone, I won't be able to pay anyone. That leaves just me to complete this project. But don't worry, I'll squeeze it in along with my other priorities. I hope I can get it done in just a year."

"Landey!" Simms said in a shocked tone, "you made a commitment to Orange Bank when you signed that contract."

"And I'm fully prepared to meet that commitment provided that Orange Bank makes it possible for me to do so. But since Orange Bank appears more interested in saving money than in producing a reliable system on schedule, I have no choice but to give Orange Bank exactly what it is asking for. You can have it cheap, good or on schedule. I'll even provide cheap and good."

"I warned you," Zaks said, "you can only push someone so far. You tried to save two hundred thousand dollars and it can end up costing you the whole project."

"Perhaps we can still work something out," Devaine ventured.

"I assume that you have something in mind?" Bill asked.

"Something has occurred to me. It seems that we're at an impasse. Bill can't continue the project at its present pace without adequate funding and the board won't allocate funds because they see it as throwing good money after bad, since this project is already over budget. How about if we convince the board that this time the money is secure, because we guarantee performance?"

"Would you care to elaborate?"

"It's simple. I'll convince them to allocate the full three hundred thousand you're asking for on one condition. Instead of sending us your regular invoices, we will pay it to you in a lump sum upon completion of this project according to the agreed upon schedule."

"Without the timely payment of my invoices, I can't pay my employees."

"Each month, you will invoice us for the hours put in by your employees. We will extend a loan against the three hundred thousand balance due to cover their pay. But bear in mind that this will be a loan. If the project is not completed on schedule, we will demand repayment."

"What about payment for my own hours?"

"That will have to wait until the project is complete."

"It's not a perfect deal," Zaks said, taking Bill aside, "but it's probably the best you can expect under the circumstances. As long as you're certain that you can complete the project by the deadline."

"At the rate we're moving, we should be finished in six months. That's why I asked for eight."

"Then my advice is to take the deal. At the very least, they'll draw up a new contract and that will be a hell of a lot better than the one you've got now. And they'll continue to pay your invoices in full for the next four months and your consultants' fees for four months after that. I don't see how you can expect to do better."

"Okay, I'll take your advice. But I want you to go over this contract with a fine-tooth comb. I don't need any more surprises."

"Problem solved?" Debbie asked, when he arrived home that evening.

"I hope so," he answered, "Orange Bank is preparing a new contract. I still feel like they've taken me for a ride, but at least it looks like we'll be paid in full for our work."

"Daddy, are you in a better mood now?" Suzie asked hesitantly.

"Sure, honey. What's up?"

"Can you help me with my computer homework?"

For a moment Bill was tempted to respond that after a whole day of systems work, he didn't need more of it at home. But then he remembered how often he had neglected her these past few months, promising to help her with her homework and then arriving too late or too exhausted or too angry to do so.

"You have computer homework now?"

"I told you we're learning Basic in school. I have to write a program to calculate my grade point average."

"Just tell the program to print one hundred," he told her jokingly.

"No, Daddy, we have to do it for real."

"Okay, let's get to work."

For the next hour Bill actually enjoyed coding as he watched his daughter become absorbed by the process of creating a program that accepted her input and produced the desired result. It reminded him of his first introduction to the world of electronic data. But he had not been nine years old, living in a world so full of automation that very little was astonishing. There was so much today that amazed him and left Suzie unimpressed. Still, the very fact that she was designing the program and controlling the process delighted her.

"So there it is," he summed up, "it asks you for test grades and keeps tallying them until you press enter without entering a grade. Then it divides the tally by the number of tests, giving you the average. Is that what it's supposed to do?"

"That's it, Daddy. Thanks for your help."

"Can you think of a way to make it better?"

"Why does it have to be better? This is what the teacher wanted."

"A true programmer always looks for ways to make it better, faster, easier to use."

"I suppose if I only had to enter my last grade and it already knew all the ones I had before, it would be a better program," she ventured. "Maybe it should also have my grades for all subjects, so it could give me the average for every subject, instead of just one number."

"Now you're thinking like a programmer!" he exclaimed delightedly. "To record information, you have to save it to a file. Should I show you how it's done?"

"I think that's enough computers for one night," Debbie interrupted. "Next thing you know, you'll be bringing her to Orange Bank and billing a hundred and twenty five an hour for her time."

"A hundred and twenty five dollars an hour?" Suzie asked, "Is that what computer people make? I definitely want to be a programmer when I'm older."

Bill laughed. "First of all, sweetheart, that's not what the programmers make, it's what Orange Bank pays Landmark for their time. The programmers only get half of that. Our of their half they have to pay all sorts of taxes and insurance. And not many programmers make even as much as sixty an hour."

"So Landmark is getting sixty five dollars an hour for each programmer without doing any work? I changed my mind. I don't want to be a computer programmer, I want to be a computer company."

"First of all, out of the sixty five dollars an hour Landmark gets, Landmark has to pay for a lot of expenses. Second of all, it isn't fair to say that Landmark isn't doing any work. Landmark put together the deals. Mark and I met with the clients for hours, drew up plans, discussed the projects, hired the programmers and are continuing to manage their work. If one of the programmers does a bad job or leaves the project, Landmark is responsible to correct the work. If the client doesn't pay Landmark, Landmark still has to pay the programmers. It's a lot of heavy responsibility. It's why Mark decided that he didn't want to be part of Landmark, but just work as a programmer. It's why I've been coming home so late these past few months. One of my clients decided to stop paying Landmark, which meant that we were problems paying our programmers and paying our own bills. But we had a meeting and straightened it all out. What I'm trying to say is that there's nothing wrong with wanting to do something that brings in a lot of money. But just remember that people don't pay a lot of money for doing something easy. If something was easy and made a lot of money, everybody would do it. If it was easy, our clients wouldn't need Landmark, they'd do it themselves. When I started Landmark and then bought out Mark's share and wound up doing it all myself, I never realized how hard it was going to be."

"Is that why you've been so grumpy lately?"

"That's why I've been so grumpy," Bill agreed. "But for now it looks like our big problem is over so I can go back to being just mean old dad until the next problem and then I'll be grumpy mean old dad again."

Suzie laughed, the sound ringing like music in Bill's ears. "You're so funny, Daddy."

"If I can guarantee that all my audiences will consist of nine year olds, maybe I have a future as a comedian," Bill remarked. "Now I believe it's time for my appreciative audience of one to go to bed. Good night, Princess."

"Good night, Daddy."

"I can't believe how good you are with her," Debbie commented after Suzie had left the room.

"Why do you sound so surprised? I am her father."

"I just thought you'd be out of practice, considering the past few weeks."

"I know the past few weeks have been a little hard on everyone, but I think things will get better now."

The next morning, Bill was pleased to report to his team that the project would continue for another eight months. By then he hoped to have other projects for them. Bolstered by this good news, the programmers returned to their work with renewed spirits. Two days later, the new contract was ready to be signed.

"So what do you think?" he asked his attorney.

"Looks like it's everything they promised," Zaks said, perusing the document. "Wait a minute. Those clever little buggers."

"What's the problem?"

"They've agreed to the loan to cover the consultants' fees, but they're loaning the money to you personally, not Landmark."

"What are the legal ramifications?"

"If you don't complete the project on schedule, you are personally liable for the additional three hundred thousand."

"If I don't complete the project on schedule, I'm finished either way."

"That's no reason to commit financial suicide. Look, Bill, one of the reasons to incorporate is to provide a protective shield between you personally and the corporation. If the worst happens and Landmark goes under, you form another corporation or find a job and move on. What Orange Bank is doing with this personal loan deal, is attaching your personal assets. If they can't collect from Landmark, they'll collect from you. That means your personal assets, your house, your cars, even a portion of your future earnings. I don't like it."

"What do you propose we do about it?"

"I'm going to call Delvaine and insist that he modify this contract."

"A simple modification."

"Exactly."

"But as my old boss, Owen, discovered, it's the simple ones that are the hardest to pull off."

"Come again?"

"It's just that I suspect that this is one issue on which they won't budge."

"Then your choices are to accept it, or to drop the whole project and cut your losses."

"That's the whole kingdom."

"You're being cryptic again, Bill."

"You know the poem, 'For Want Of A Nail'?"

"Sure. A missing nail causes a missing horseshoe which causes a missing rider which leads to a missing battalion which leads to the loss of a war and ultimately the loss of the kingdom."

"I consider Landmark to be my little kingdom. A right now, my little kingdom has two battalions, Wolf Media and the bigger one, Orange Bank. If I lose Orange Bank, I'm losing my biggest battalion. That's the end of my kingdom. I won't just give it up. I've invested too much in this project."

"So has Orange Bank. They stand to lose eight million dollars. I think if you threaten to pull out if this contract isn't changed, they'll listen to reason."

"Not this time."

"What do you know that I don't know?" Zaks asked.

"I know that eight million dollars sounds like a lot to you, but in the larger scheme of things at Orange Bank, it's small potatoes. They spend at least ten times as much in a year on Information Systems. This eight million was spread out over a few years. In the overall budget, it's petty cash."

"Then why are they being so demanding about it? Why not just let you complete the project in peace?"

"Because it's gotten complicated," Bill explained. "It's like the situation was at Arthur Mitchell. Even though Owen, Jean and Bruno all should have realized that firing me at that critical juncture could cost them the project, they did it anyway. At that point, they were thinking with their gonads rather than their brains. To Orange Bank, the eight million may be small potatoes, so they can pressure me and ignore the fact that I'm threatening to pull out and take the project down. Why put the pressure on at all? Because even though this is a small project by Orange Bank standards, to the person ultimately in charge, Albert Simms, it is his responsibility to see it through. He appointed Mike Lotti to oversee it and discovered too late that Lotti had another agenda. Now the system is projected as being a year behind schedule and about a million dollars over budget. So he pulled out all the stops to assign it to me and now he's pressuring me to bear the burden of making up for all the waste. We were able to justify the overrun due to Orange Bank's requests, so he had no problem with that. But he's on the hook for anything else. He's not willing to spend another dime unless he can either guarantee success or someone else's head on the platter. If I pull it off, we're all happy. If I fail, I get sacrificed and in the excitement, Simms slips off the hook. Whether or not the project is actually completed has become secondary."

"I strongly advise you not to sign this contract."

"And I appreciate the advice, but right now my choice is to drop out now and face the end of Landmark and eventual bankruptcy or continue with the project that stands every chance of succeeding. In a sense, Orange Bank has put eight million dollars on the line and since I'm asking for six hundred thousand more, they're asking me to match that. I don't have six hundred thousand. I have Landmark, but I only own half and I borrowed the money from them for the other half. There's my house, but it's heavily mortgaged and they own the biggest chunk of that. This is the only way I can demonstrate that I have faith in my ability to pull this off. I can't see asking them to let me off the hook and since there's no way they'll go for it, don't even bother."

"Shouldn't you think about this? Discuss it with your wife? She is the primary shareholder of Landmark."

"I have full power of attorney."

"Then I can only advise you. The ultimate decision is yours."

"So how did it go at the bank today?" Debbie asked, once Suzie had gone to bed.

"Just fine," Bill answered, forcing a cheerful facade, "they signed a new contract, just as we agreed."

"So you've got the extra money and the extra time you asked for?"

"All of it. They're allocating three hundred thousand and four months up front. Then they're conditionally adding another three hundred thousand if we can finish the project during the next four months."

"What does 'conditionally' mean?"

"They're loaning us the money interest-free to pay the consultants, conditional upon our completing the project in eight months."

"And what happens if you miss the deadline?"

"It won't happen," Bill answered, with assurance, "we expect to be completed in six months."

"Then just for argument's sake, what happens if you don't make it."

"We stand to lose everything. Landmark for starters, probably the house."

"And if you refuse to sign the contract?"

"Then we already lost. Landmark is gone and without the income, the house goes, too."

"So you've really got no choice?"

"It's run a race I stand every chance of winning or give up now for no particular reason."

"Then by all means, go for it. I have complete faith in you, honey."

The next month was busy but uneventful. The team made steady progress and continued to stay right on schedule like a well-oiled machine. Then a monkey wrench threatened to crash the smoothly-running engine in the form of Landmark's other client.

"Bill," Debbie said one evening as he arrived home late again from Orange Bank, "I've been getting some calls from the office and I'm getting concerned. They're complaining that they feel you've been neglecting them. I know how much is riding on Orange Bank, but you can't abandon Wolf Media. Don't forget that my job depends on you're completing their project."

"I'm fulfilling my end of the deal," Bill retorted, "Mark wrote the original system and Mark is the person ultimately responsible for the project."

"Wolf Media made it perfectly clear that they wanted a manager to run this project and direct their team. They had some reservations because you had another large project, but you assured them that you could give them the attention they needed. Now you're spending most of your time at Orange Bank and expecting Mark to do the same. I don't blame Wolf for feeling that you're not delivering as promised."

"Has the project fallen behind schedule?"

"No, it hasn't.."

"Then what's the problem?" Bill interrupted.

"The problem is that you're unavailability. Your development team at Wolf is often unable to contact you.."

"Only when I'm actually in the midst of a meeting at Orange Bank!" Bill shouted, cutting her off again. "At all other times, if I'm not at Wolf Media, they have my office number and my cellular phone number."

"But it's not the same as being there, which is what they expected, based on your promises. And they can't schedule meetings because you're almost never there and won't schedule specific days of availability. They need a manager they can count on."

"Did you explain to them that this is a temporary situation?"

"First of all, no one came right out and asked me for an explanation. So far it's just been general grumbling. Second of all, do you consider eight months a temporary situation? I can't tell my boss that they're going to have to wait eight months to get the manager they were promised."

"It's going to be closer to five months."

"That's not a whole lot better."

"I won't be spending so much time at Orange Bank for all of it."

"Fine. Then don't waste your time convincing me. Spend some time at Wolf Media and convince them."

The following month, Bill cut back on his hours at Orange Bank in order to spend more time at Wolf Media. However, this meant that Mark had to spend more time at Orange Bank and less time at Wolf. Since Mark's technical expertise was of even greater importance, this had a noticeably negative impact on the project. This time, Debbie's boss didn't just complain to Debbie, he called a meeting to voice his dissatisfaction to Bill directly.

"I'm having a difficult time trying to meet your expectations," Bill said. "First I was told that you want more of my time. Now you complain that you want more of Mark's time. I had already explained to you that we have another project and that Mark and I would alternate between locations. I am more than willing to work things out to your satisfaction, but you have to be consistent with your requests."

"I thought we made our position clear," said George Harris, Vice President of the New York region. "You assured us that we could count on Landmark to provide the support that we needed. Lately we feel that we're being treated like second class while you concentrate on Orange Bank."

"I'm sorry that you feel that way. Short of my giving up the Orange Bank project, what can I do to alleviate your concern?"

"Seems pretty simple to me. Give us a timetable so we know when we can expect to see you here and when we can expect Mark. Make sure that you and Mark each give us at least thirty hours a week. That should allow for some overlap, so that you'll both be here together at times, so that we can have meetings where we need input from both of you."

"Sounds reasonable."

"So it doesn't present a problem?"

"Not at all. Mark and I will work out a schedule and you'll have it tomorrow."

"Are you losing your mind?" Mark asked, once he and Bill were alone. "You promised them thirty hours a week of our time. Did you forget that you also promised Orange Bank that we'll finish the project according to schedule and the schedule shows us each putting in thirty hours a week on that job as well? That's sixty hours a week you committed me to and that doesn't include a commute of two hours each way to Orange Bank."

"Your commitment to Orange Bank doesn't require you to put in thirty hours a week on site. You can do quite a bit of it at home, in the evening."

"But it's still sixty hours a week."

"So, you've put in even more in the past. And for a whole lot less money."

"In the good old days, when I was younger and more driven to succeed. And even then, it was only for brief periods, not for months at a time."

"It's only for the next four months."

"Unless we fall behind and then it will be longer."

"Well, it can't be too much longer. Six months at the outside."

"Unless we're not finished in six months."

"We have to be finished in six months. Otherwise, it's all over."

"What's all over?"

"Everything." Bill proceeded to tell Mark about the conditions of the latest contract he had signed with Orange Bank.

"I don't believe it. Why didn't you quit while you had the chance?"

"I would have lost everything."

"You would have lost Orange Bank, maybe even Landmark, but not everything. I would have given you back what you paid me for my half. You could have paid off your mortgage."

"That's just it, Mark. I want to make it to the top, not fail and have you bail me out. This is my chance. And I have every reason to believe that I'll succeed."

"And you're willing to gamble your entire financial future and that of your family?"

"I don't consider it a gamble."

"What about your sixty hours a week? Are you going to manage the project from home?"

"I've worked long hours before."

"Again, in spurts and in one office and not when your wife was confined to bed. You're trying to do too much too fast."

"It's the only way to get ahead."

"You already were ahead, Bill. Remember what I told you about life averages? You don't want to have too much financial luck because it will disturb the balance and bring you misfortune in some other area. You've been riding a streak of good luck that's been just incredible. Sooner or later, it's bound to turn on you."

"You call this a good luck streak?"

"Look at what's happened. You were fired from your job and then rehired at an enormous increase in pay. You picked up Wolf Media, a large project. Orange Bank drops AMI and hires you directly at another huge increase in pay. They agree to let you hire three more consultants, letting you charge them about double what you're paying. Every move you made brought you even bigger profits. You own a company worth over a million and are billing over a million annually."

"Then why don't I feel lucky?"

"Because you overextended yourself. You weren't willing to share the burden if it meant sharing the profits. You could have advertised for a partner to buy out my share rather than try to take it all on yourself. You could have turned down Orange Bank. You don't feel lucky because deep down in your gut you know that you're trying for too much and you can't have it all."

"So what do you suggest?"

"Hire another manager. Let him handle some of your duties at Wolf Media, so that you don't spread yourself too thin."

"And what do I pay him with? My income from Wolf is not even enough to live on after I pay off all my debts. And Orange Bank isn't paying me at all until we're finished."

"Then sell him a share of Landmark."

"Orange Bank currently holds forty-nine percent. I'll have to sell him part of my fifty-one. That could take away my control of the company."

"Bill, stop worrying about finances when there's so much more at stake!" Mark pleaded.

"Such as?"

"Such as your life! What good does a controlling interest in Landmark do you when you're dead of a heart attack?"

"Mark, I'm in great shape for my age."

"But you keep pushing the envelope. You've made too much too fast and you're losing sight of priorities. That bad luck gremlin is just waiting to hit you with a big one. If you're lucky, it will only be a financial setback."

"I can't believe you're that superstitious."

"Bill, think about it. The first time you were fired at AMI you almost lost Suzie to a car accident. Recently you almost lost Debbie and your baby. Now Debbie's confined to bed and you lost most of her income and had to spring for a full-time housekeeper. Don't you see it? Your smaller bouts of bad luck come in groups. Haven't you heard people say bad luck comes in three? It's because a few small bad experiences add up to one big one. You were due for a big one. You could have lost Suzie or Debbie. But that bad luck gremlin settled for a few smaller things rather than the big one."

"And you're worried about me? I'm worried about you. Is this why you gave up your half of Landmark? Because you're worried that being successful is asking for some kind of cosmic thunderbolt to destroy your life?"

"Bill, there's nothing wrong with being successful, as long as you do it within reason. You don't get obsessive about having it all. You don't try to accomplish too much too fast. You don't lose sight of your priorities. When Landmark and the work became the driving force of my life, it was time to bail out. But you worry me. I didn't have an anchor. I didn't have a wife and daughter and a child on the way to remind me of my priorities. You do. So why are you making these decisions without any consideration for them?"

"Because at this point, I don't have a choice. This is the only route that makes sense."

"It's the only route that makes sense if your goal is to maximize your profits at any cost or risk. There are much safer ways to go if you don't mind sharing the profit."

"I'm not ready to bring on someone new at this stage of the game. We've done all the groundwork, taken all the risks. Now, with only four months to go to the realization of our ultimate goal, why should I bring in some newcomer to share the reward?"

"Because it will save you from a nervous breakdown. Because it will bring your fortune karma down to acceptable levels."

"Again with that fortune thing! Is this like a religion with you?"

"No. As a matter of fact, Vincent's philosophy was independent of religion. Belief in God was optional, though he made a good case for the argument that a higher being does exist and governs our lives. In fact, there are legends that reflect Vincent's philosophy found in the stories of many religions. Want to hear one of my favorites?"

"Sure, I've got nothing but time."

Mark continued, pretending to miss the sarcasm. "There is a Talmudic legend about a rabbi who met an angel dressed as a common person. Because this rabbi was a holy man, he recognized that this was an angel. The angel told the rabbi that he would accompany the rabbi on his travels as long as the rabbi did not ask any questions.

"It was the custom that Jewish travelers would wait in the synagogue and townspeople would invite them to their homes for meal and lodging. In one town, they were invited by one of the wealthier men in town. Since they were dressed poorly, the man only invited them because not to do so would make him look bad. Once they reached his house, he sent them to his barn and fed them leftovers. When they left the next day, they noticed that there was a crack in an outer wall of the barn. The angel used magic to repair it. Later they came to a town of poorer folk. A farmer invited them to his house and fed them at his table, sharing his own meal with them. He treated them as honored guests in the best manner that he could afford. As they left the house, the angel prayed for the man's cow to die.

"The rabbi was shocked and asked why the rich man who had treated them shabbily was rewarded and why the poor man who had treated them honorably had been punished. The angel reminded the rabbi of his promise not to ask questions. The rabbi insisted that he could not rest if he was not answered. The angel then said that he would reveal a great secret, but after that he would leave, never to be seen again.

"He explained that the rich man's fortune was beginning to take a turn for the worse. He had been given an opportunity to redeem himself by taking in guests. Since he had abused the chance, he would now lose everything. The wall that was cracking held a treasure concealed there by a previous owner of the house. By sealing the crack, the angel ensured that the man would not find the treasure and thus his downfall was assured. As for the poor couple, though they didn't know it, his wife suffered from a fatal condition. The angel had prayed to transfer the defect to the cow, killing it so the woman could live."

"How does this story relate to Vincent's theory?" Bill asked.

"Don't you get it? This story explains that good luck and bad luck are not just random occurrences. People's actions can influence their luck. And luck can be changed. And luck isn't always what it's perceived to be. The broken wall and the dead cow can actually be good luck. Having the broken wall fixed can be bad luck. Your losing your job seemed like bad luck but was actually good. Debbie's condition seems like bad luck but might be good. And getting the Orange Bank project may seem like good luck but might actually be bad. It all depends on how you perceive it and what you do with it."

"So you believe that any time you have good luck, bad luck is sure to follow?"

"Not quite. Any time you have too much good luck, so that you lose sight of what's important and become obsessed with amassing wealth and power, you're asking to be taken down. You've heard the expression 'The higher they are, the harder they fall'. Look at the Kennedys, Howard Hughes, Getty, DuPont. I shudder to even contemplate having that much tragedy in my life."

"What about Bill Gates?"

"I didn't say that it happens one hundred percent of the time. And Bill Gates is still relatively young. There's still time for him to develop a social conscience and avert disaster. Look, we all know that smoking cigarettes is hazardous to your health. Does that mean that every single smoker gets lung cancer and every single non-smoker doesn't? It just means that it's a good idea not to smoke."

"So it's a good idea not to be successful?"

"You're twisting my words again, Bill. I'm suggesting that it's a good idea not to make financial success your holy grail. If you can step back and say to yourself, 'I've done well enough. Now I'll relax and take some time off, spend some time with the family, do something to improve someone else's situation', then you're in control of your destiny. If you're consumed by your financial dealings, you're tempting fate."

"I'm not consumed," Bill protested.

"Like the drug addict said, 'I can quit anytime'."

"Mark, it's just another lousy four months."

"Or six months."

"Or six months. Max."

"And what if Orange Bank throws another requirement your way?"

"They'll have to give us an extension."

"So it becomes another six months."

"No, this is it. After this project is done, I'm through with Orange Bank."

"Somehow you don't sound very convincing. Look, Bill, I hate to do this but I don't feel that I have any choice. One of the reasons I gave up Landmark was because I wanted my life back. I won't work any more sixty hour weeks. Not even for four or six months. I don't like the Orange Bank project. It's been built on the blood, sweat and tears of a lot of people, including the two of us. As I said before, it's a bad project. Wolf Media on the other hand is a good project. They've chosen us, stood by us, worked with us like colleagues. But the way you've been treating them, anyone would think that it was Wolf who tried to stab you in the back and Orange Bank who remained a loyal client. I've got a good relationship with Wolf and I want to keep it that way. Not to mention that Debbie's future there depends upon us completing the project as agreed. So while you concentrate on Orange Bank, I'm going to concentrate on Wolf. I'll be giving them thirty hours a week as agreed. I'll give Orange Bank ten to fifteen hours on a regular basis, twenty in an emergency."

"Mark, I'm counting on you heavily to bring the Orange Bank project in on schedule."

"I don't think it can be done. But because of our friendship, I'll make the attempt. I'm just not willing to die trying."

"Why can't it be done? We're sticking to our schedule."

"By working sixty hours a week. You can do it for a week or two. Maybe even a month. But eventually you hit burnout. Careless errors slip by. You've set up your little kingdom so that there are dozens of nails waiting to go wanting, any one of which will bring the whole thing down."

"If Orange Bank fails, I'm finished."

"That's why I'm urging you to give it up now. Let them keep whatever money they owe you, let them shut down Landmark. I'll give you back your money so you can pay off that second mortgage and keep your house. Then the two of us will continue at Wolf Media."

"I can't give it up now. I've worked too hard and I'm so close to completion."

"It's always when you're this close that you become irrational. How many gamblers tossed in their last dime because they were this close to winning? If you don't have the courage to walk away now and quit while you still have something left, you're too far gone into it. Bill, please, give it up now before you pay a terrible price."

"Mark, I know you probably believe you mean well, but I don't subscribe to Vincent's theory. I believe that perseverance and work and luck can pay off. Did Edison quit when his first or second or third light bulb didn't work?"

"You can't draw that comparison. Edison was not consumed with the need to make money. He was seized with scientific inspiration and the possibility of creating something that would benefit everyone. However, you can look at the Reichmans. A family whose fortune once exceeded ten billion dollars until they overextended themselves buying vast properties in New York and England. Eventually, they lost almost everything and are now worth just a few million. Can you imagine being so rich that you never have to worry about finances and then sinking over ninety percent of your assets in a gamble? Think of the greed and obsession involved in such a move. Then think of what you're doing."

"I've thought about it, Mark, and I don't see another option."

"It's your choice, Bill."

"And it's my life."

"Doesn't this affect other lives besides yours? Think about it."