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Opportunity Knocking

by Tom DeMarco

Adapted from The Deadline. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. See below for copyright notice.

Mr. Tompkins took his seat in the very last row of Baldrige-One, the main auditorium at the Big Telephone and Telecommunications Company's Penelope, New Jersey, facility. He'd spent a lot of time in this auditorium during the past few weeks, attending out-placement lectures. Mr. T., along with a few thousand other professional and middle management employees, was being given the boot. Oh, that wasn't the term they used. They preferred to call it "made redundant" or "downsized" or "right-sized" or "streamlined" or "managed down" or, best of all, "Released to Seek Opportunities Elsewhere." They'd even made an acronym out of that one: ReSOE. Tompkins was a ReSOE.
     Today's event was yet another in the series called "Opportunity Knocking." This five-week program, according to the posted notice, was to be "more than 100 hours of inspirational training, skits, musical interludes, and celebration of ReSOE status." The still-employed Human Resources people who put on the various sessions seemed pretty convinced that ReSOE was a blessing in disguise. They made it clear that they would have dearly loved to be ReSOEs themselves. They really would. But no such luck. No sir, they would just have to soldier on, bearing the burdens of salary and benefits as best they could. Up on the stage now, they were trying to put on a brave front.
     The last few rows of the auditorium were in what the acoustic engineers called a "null area." For some reason (no one had even a good theory about this), almost no sound from the stage could be heard in these rows. It made it a perfect place for a snooze. Tompkins always sat here.
     He put down today's ton of handouts on the seat in front of him. Two fat loose-leaf notebooks and the usual assortment of favors were packed into a new canvas bag with its printed logo: "Our Company Is Thinning Down So the Rest of the World Can Fatten Up." At the top of the bag was a baseball cap embroidered "ReSOE and Proud of It!" Tompkins put the hat on, pulled it down over his face and, within a few minutes, drifted off to sleep.

*          *          *

A long chorus line of HR people on the stage was singing "Opportunity Knocking: Okay!" The audience was supposed to clap the rhythm and join in at the chorus, shouting out "Okay!" as loud as they could. At the left side of the stage was a man with a megaphone, exhorting the audience with cries of "Louder! Louder!" A few people in the crowd were clapping softly, but no one was shouting. Still, the noise, even the little bit that penetrated the null area, was enough to rouse Mr. T.
     He yawned and straightened up in his chair. The first thing he noticed was that someone else was sitting there in the quiet zone, only one seat away. The second thing he noticed was that she was lovely. She seemed to be in her early thirties, dark and rather exotic-looking: mid-length black hair in a Dutch cut, very dark eyes. She was looking up at the muted stage act and smiling very slightly. It was not exactly a smile of approval. He thought he might have seen her somewhere before.
     "Did I miss anything?" he asked.
     She kept her eyes on the stage. "Only some very important stuff."
     "Could you net it out for me?"
     "They want you to go away but not change your long-distance account over to MCI."
     "Anything else?"
     "Um . . . let's see, you've been asleep for about an hour. Was there anything else during that hour? No, I guess not. Some songs."
     "I see. A typically triumphant morning for HR."
     "Ooooh. Mr. Tompkins has awakened, how shall we say it? in a slightly bilious mood."
     "I see you have the advantage over me," Mr. T. said, offering his hand.
     "Hoolihan," she said, shaking his hand. Her eyes, as she turned to face him, were not just dark, but almost black. It felt good looking into them. Mr. Tompkins found himself blushing slightly.
     "Umm . . . first name, Webster. Webster Tompkins."
     "Funny name."
     "It's an old Balkan name. From Morovia."
     "But Hoolihan . . . ?"
     "Mmm. A girlish indiscretion on my mother's part. He was Irish, a deckhand on a freighter. A rather cute deckhand, I understand. Mother always had a weakness for sailors." She smiled at him lopsidedly. Tompkins felt a sudden extra beat in his heart.
     "Ah," he said, cleverly.
     "We've met, I think." He meant it as a question.
     "Yes." She didn't go on.
     "I see." He still couldn't remember where it might have been. He looked around the auditorium. There wasn't another soul anywhere near enough to hear. They were sitting in a public auditorium and yet were able to have a private conversation. He turned back to his charming neighbor. "You're a ReSOE, I take it?"
     "No? Staying on then?"
     "Also no."
     "I don't get it."
     "Not an employee at all. The truth is that I'm a spy."
     He laughed, thinking it a joke. "Do tell."
     "An industrial spy. You've heard of such things?"
     "Yes, I guess."
     "You don't believe me."
     "Well, . . . it's just that you don't look the part."
     She smiled that maddening smile again. Of course, she did look the part. In fact, she looked like she was born for the part.
     "Not exactly, I mean."
     She shook her head. "I can give you proof." She unclipped her identity badge and passed it to him.
     Tompkins looked down at the badge. It was imprinted HOOLIHAN, Lahksa, over her photo. "Wait a minute . . ." he said, looking more closely at the badge. On the surface it looked okay, but there was something wrong with the lamination. In fact, it wasn't a lamination at all; it was just plastic wrap. He peeled it back and the photo came away from the badge. He saw there was another photo underneath, this one of a middle-aged man. And now that he looked, her name was on a sticky label pasted on the front of the badge. He lifted the label and saw the name STORGEL, Walter, underneath. "Why, this is about the worst forgery I can imagine."
     She sighed. "The resources available within the Morovian KVJ are not what you'd call 'sophisticated.'"
     "You really are . . . ?"
     "Mmm. Going to turn me in?"
     "Uh . . ." A month ago, of course, he would have done just that. But a lot of things can happen in a month, things that change you. He thought about it for a moment. "No, I don't think so." He handed her back the pieces of her badge, which she tucked neatly into her purse.
     "Wasn't Morovia some kind of a, well, a Communist country?" Tompkins asked her.
     "Uh huh. Sort of."
     "You worked for a Communist government?"
     "I guess you could say that."
     He shook his head. "What's the point? I mean, if the 1980's proved anything, it was that Communism is a bankrupt philosophy."
     "Mmm. The 1990's, of course, are showing us that the alternative ain't too great either."
     "Well, it is true that there have been a lot of layoffs."
     "Only 3.3 million lost jobs in the last nine months. Yours among them."
     A long pause as Mr. Tompkins digested that thought. Now it was he who said, "Mmm," and he thought, What a heavy conversation. He switched gears, artfully, "Tell me, Ms. Hoolihan, what's it like to be a spy? I mean, I am in the market for a new job."
     "Oh no, Webster, you're not the spy type," she snickered. "Not the type at all."
     He felt a bit miffed. "Well, I don't know about that."
     "You're a manager. A systems manager, and a good one."
     "Some people don't seem to think so. I've, after all, been ReSOEd."
     "Some people don't seem to think at all. Such people tend to become executives in large companies like this one."
     "Yes, well. Anyway, just for my information, do tell me what's involved in being a spy. I mean, I never got to meet one before."
     "As you might expect, stealing corporate secrets, the odd kidnapping, maybe occasionally bumping someone off."
     "Oh, sure. All in a day's work."
     "Well, that doesn't seem very respectable. You would actually kidnap people or even . . . you know, kill them, just to gain commercial advantage?"
     She yawned. "I guess. Not just anybody, though. For bumping off, I mean. Whoever it was would have to deserve it."
     "Well, even so. I'm not at all sure I approve. I mean, I'm quite sure I don't approve. What kind of a person would kidnap another human being-we just won't even talk about the other-what kind of a person would do that?"
     "A pretty clever person, I guess."
     "Clever?!? You have to be clever to do that?"
     "Not the actual act of kidnapping. That's fairly mechanical. No, the trick is, knowing whom to kidnap." She bent down to her feet where there was a small refrigerator bag from which she took a canned soft drink and opened it. "Could I offer you a drink?"
     "Um. No, thanks. I really don't drink anything but . . ."
     ". . . diet Dr. Pepper." She pulled out a cold can of diet Dr. Pepper.
     "Oh. Well, since you have one . . ."
     She pulled the tab and passed it to him. "Cheers," she said, clunking her drink against his.
     "Cheers." He drank a mouthful. "What's so hard about knowing whom to kidnap?"
     "Let me answer that question with a question. What's the hardest job in management?"
     "People," Tompkins replied automatically. He knew exactly where he stood on this subject. "Getting the right people for the right job. That's what makes the difference between a good manager and a drone.
     Now he remembered where it was he had seen her before. It was in that corporate management class he'd taken almost half a year ago. She had been in the last row, only a few seats away when he had stood up to contest the seminar leader on this very point. Yes, now he remembered. They'd sent some guy named Kalbfuss, Edgar Kalbfuss, to teach the course, a guy who was probably about twenty-five and had obviously never managed anything or anyone. And he was there to teach management to people like Tompkins, who'd been managing for half their lives. And the worst of it was, he was prepared to teach a whole week with (judging from the agenda) not a single thing to say about people management. Tompkins stood, told him off, and then walked out. Life was too short for that kind of "training."
     She'd heard it that day, but now he told her again what he'd said to Kalbfuss: "Get the right people. Then, no matter what all else you may do wrong after that, the people will save you. That's what management is all about."
     A long, significant silence.
     "Oh." Tompkins caught on at last. "You're suggesting that figuring out the right people to kidnap is the same?"
     "Sure. You have to pick the ones who will give your side a meaningful advantage, and whose loss will cripple your competitor. It's not easy knowing whom to pick."
     "Well, I don't know. I suppose you could just pick the most prominent person within an organization. Wouldn't it be as simple as that?"
     "Get serious. If I really wanted to harm this organization, for example, would I pick the most prominent person? The CEO, for example?"
     "Oh. Well, certainly not in this case. I guess if you removed the CEO, the company's stock would probably go up about twenty points."
     "Exactly. This is what I call the Roger Smith Effect, after the past chairman of General Motors. I was the one who decided to sabotage GM by not removing Smith."
     "Oh. Good job."
     "Now, if I did want to do some real damage to the Big Telephone and Telecommunications Company, I'd know exactly which managers to pick."
     "You would?" Tompkins had some ideas of his own about who was really indispensable to the company.
     "Sure. Want to see?" She took a pad out of her purse and wrote down three names. Then, she considered for a moment, and wrote down a fourth. She passed the pad to him.
     He stared at the list. "Ugh," Tompkins said. "This would be like bombing the company back into the dark ages. You've picked exactly the four who . . . Wait a minute, these people are friends of mine. They have spouses and kids. You're not thinking of . . . ?"
     "Oh, no. Don't worry about them. As long as the company keeps its present executive level, there is no need to sabotage it. Believe me, your soon-to-be-former employer is going nowhere, with these four good managers or without. It's not them I'm here for, Webster. It's you."
     "Uh huh."
     "For what? What use would the Morovian K-V- . . . whatever it is, have for me?"
     "The KVJ. No, it's not the KVJ that needs you, but the Nation State of Morovia."
     "Explain, please."
     "Well, our Nation's Noble Leader, we call him NNL, for short, has proclaimed that Morovia will be first in the world in export of shrink-wrapped software by the year 2000. It's our grand plan for the future. We're building a world-class software factory. And we need someone to manage it. It's as simple as that."
     "You're proposing to hire me?"
     "Sort of."
     "I'm flabbergasted."
     "Also available."
     "Well, that's true enough." Tompkins took another swig of his drink. He looked at her cagily. "Tell me what you're offering."
     "Oh, we can discuss that later. When we're there."
     He laughed, incredulously. "There? You think I'm going off to Morovia with you before we've even discussed terms."
     "I do."
     "I find that a very dubious proposition. I mean, given what I know about you and your inclination to use heavy-handed methods. Who knows what you might do to me if I decided not to accept your offer?"
     "Who knows indeed?"
     "I'd be a very foolish fellow to go with you. . . ." He stopped, wondering what he'd been going to say next. His tongue seemed a bit thick in his mouth, like a dry rag.
     "Very foolish. Yes," she agreed.
     "I, uh . . ." Tompkins looked down at the drink in his hand. "Say, you wouldn't have . . . ?"
     "Mmm," she said, smiling her mysterious smile.
     "Urghhhhh. . . ."
     A moment later, Mr. Tompkins slid quietly down into his seat, quite unconscious.

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This excerpt from The Deadline [ISBN:0-932633-39-0] appears by permission of Dorset House Publishing. Copyright © 1997 by Tom DeMarco. All rights reserved. See http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/dl.html. The material contained in this file may be shared for noncommercial purposes only, nonexclusively, provided that this Copyright Notice always appears with it. This material may not be combined with advertisements, online or in print, without explicit permission from Dorset House Publishing. For copies of the printed book or for permissions, contact Dorset House Publishing, 1-800-342-6657, 212-620-4053, http://www.dorsethouse.com, info@dorsethouse.com, New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B, New York, NY 10027 USA. Additional rights limitations apply, as presented in the Legal Disclaimer posted at http://www.dorsethouse.com/legal.html.



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