[Editor's Note: Seattle-based author Brandt Monroe's new book, Red Bang, is a fictional account of a former Hollywood screenwriter who moves to Seattle to work at a tech behemoth known in the book as "The Company." Released this week, the book is a work of fiction, but many of the scenes will ring true to people in the industry, particularly those at one large, Seattle-area tech company. We're publishing this excerpt, with the permission of the author, as a special bonus for GeekWire readers.]
“Welcome to I.D.E.A, or your Introduction Day for Employee Admission,” the tour guide at the front of The Company shuttle proclaimed through the loudspeaker, drawing an overabundance of applause that was infectious enough to get me going as well. “Not only is this your first day at The Company, but we hope you have come to us with one big I.D.E.A.of your very own.”
I clapped. Actually clapped. When was the last time I had done that? The excitement was so palpable and the camaraderie so inspiring that I couldn’t help reaching over and patting the guy next to me on his back; he did it right back to me with a genuine smile. Ah, yes. The introduction day for new employees had officially begun.
“My name is Tad, and I’m an evangelist for The Company,” our self-appointed Captain of Fun continued. “It’s my job to make sure you know how great it is to work here, the awesome benefits you have at your fingertips, and to provide you a Day One experience that prepares you to become a significant contributor to The Company’s success. You will quickly find that The Company employs some of the smartest, most ambitious people in the World. The question is how soon will it be before you are just like them?” Next to me, the concept of “how soon” was already being realized as one Indian dude wondered how another Indian dude had already gotten access to his e-mail for a job he had yet to begin.
“I’ve already responded to twenty-three e-mails and scheduled seven one-on-ones over the next two weeks,” the first Indian dude whispered under his breath.
“But how could that even be remotely possible?” worried the second Indian dude, sounding like he had actually been asking about some horrific social or ecological situation that had befallen all the other humans on planet Earth. “We don’t get our aliases and passwords until we meet with our managers on Tuesday.”
“I met my manager at five-thirty this morning,” responded the first Indian dude. “Then, since the Help Desk wasn’t open yet I configured my new laptop myself, set up which domain to pair my alias with… I was working by six in the morning.”
The second Indian dude’s eyes lit up like he had just been given the secret to The Secret. He nodded, most likely working out in his head how he would abandon the tour and access his own domain so he could, too, be working before the rest of us. Meanwhile, Tad the Wonder Guide began the herculean task of familiarizing the entire population of the shuttle with The Company’s elaborate and well-manicured campus.
The Company and The Walt Disney Company truly had much more in common than the words “The” and “Company” – they both had had the foresight to buy hundreds of acres of real estate in mostly-remote locations for what would someday become the home of their Corporate Headquarters (or Amusement Park). Having done so in the mid-seventies, The Company’s early success had allowed it to start building their campus in and around Seattle, and they had never looked back. Now, there were hundreds of buildings everywhere, each with their own cafes, sport courts, futuristic “focus rooms” for individual or cooperative brainstorming and the kind of video-enabled conference rooms that made you have to care about how you looked. Over time, the campus had infested so much of the surrounding areas and grew to be so spread out that The Company decided to build one amazing hub of activity at the center of it all. They called it the “Annex” and it rivaled a place that some folks called The Happiest Place on Earth.
“Now we’re entering the Studio Annex,” said Mr. Personality, a.k.a. Tad. “The Annex was built in 2010 and is made up of six major compounds that house our most lucrative entertainment properties across the software, hardware, media and R&D departments.” There were many oohs and aahs but the enthusiasm paled in comparison to what was to come. “And at the center of the Annex,” he continued, “is the Union. This is a more than your mother’s food court. These structures contain over forty different restaurants, a bank, a post office, a bicycle shop, a hair salon, five different mobile phone retail stores, a game room, an ice cream parlor, three coffee shops, an art gallery, the official Company store and a pair of full size regulation soccer, basketball and volleyball courts.”
In my head, I envisioned the entire crowd lifting Tad up on their shoulders, carrying him into the center of the soccer field and tossing him into a bed of roses. Instead, they just cheered wildly. The excitement was palpable and the questions were many.
Someone asked if the rumor was true – did the Seattle Sounders actually practice on The Company’s regulation field? Indeed. Someone wondered if employees got discounts on high priced electronics and software? Yes, as long as they didn’t charge it to their Corporate AMEX. A third person wanted to know if it was true that on one Friday every quarter The Company actually transported ponies, bouncy houses and a ludicrous amount of face painting professionals to the Union for employees and their families to enjoy. True, true and true. It was amazing. So amazing in fact, that there was a split second where my eyes glossed over as I watched the gleaming silver beams, sky-high glass picture windows and voluptuous green foliage pass by (in the rain, mind you) and still thought to myself…this would be a really wonderful place to be buried someday.
The tour continued. Past employee parks, athletic centers and even legal service facilities. Apparently, while on your lunch break, you could establish that living will, divorce your significant other (as long as she wasn’t a current, in-good standing employee of The Company), and sue an off-campus hair salon for that Caesar cut they subjected you to. In the Shuttle, everyone stared slack jawed and wide-eyed at the possibilities that lay out before them. This wasn’t an office park with three vending machines built next to a freeway on-ramp. This wasn’t even T-Mobile – which was incidentally built next to a used-car dealership and a freeway on-ramp just miles down the road. No, this was high class. It made you want to work here. It made you proud to work at The Company. I found myself nodding along with my fellow employees. We were all drinking the Kool-Aid and it tasted mighty good.
An hour later I exited the Shuttle and into The Company’s outdoor registration tent which surrounded the massive flagship convention center. It was adorned with the flags of every country and a digital billboard that cycled between two messages: “Welcome New Company Employees!” and “Your Future Begins Here!” All around me the machine was working to full effect. I stood, marveling at the choreography of the Shuttles – each pulling up, dropping off a group of thirty or so individuals, and continuing the dance out of the parking lot as another perfectly-timed Shuttle arrived. The in-house camera crews were also there, filming new employees exhibiting Spring Break-level enthusiasm for the Company’s Intranet-focused news and television channel. I couldn’t imagine the employees at The Company were spending their work hours perusing the in-house website, but the creation of a brand new Excel template was sometimes a galvanizing watershed moment. At the far end of the tent in front of the entryway were tables, organized alphabetically, where volunteers affixed each new employee with their plastic-encased Blue Badge.
“Adam Murphy,” I announced to my own personal volunteer, who fished out a Blue Badge with a picture of my face already adorning the card.
“Always keep it with you,” she explained. “And no tailgating.”
“Tailgating?” I asked, confused.
“Okay, so when you swipe your way into a building, don’t let anyone piggyback on your security badge.”
“Piggyback?” Were we talking illegalities of the vehicular kind or something that my daughter stole from me every time I leaned down to pick up an errant sock?
“Everyone’s blue badge is authorized for only the buildings they’re supposed to have access to. Which means, don’t let anyone else in when you open the door.” She was done explaining, pointing towards the double-doors behind her. “Orientation is on the second floor. Take the elevator up, down the hall.”
I made my way to the front doors, swiping my Blue Badge twelve times before the melodic click authorized my entry to the building. You better believe I made sure that the “questionables” behind me didn’t try any of that tailbacking or piggygating. Everyone was paranoid. You didn’t want to be the guy who was responsible for letting some investigative reporter into the inner-sanctum of The Company, only to leak confidential information all over the Internet. At least not on the first day. There’d be months and years in the future to get involved in that sort of thing, I thought, as the doors to the elevator closed and the closest person to the panel hit the button for the second floor.
When the doors opened again, there was nothing but chaos as far as the eye could see. As I stepped out, scanning the groups of wide-eyed newbies and frenetic first-dayers, it clearly looked like a combination between the Zombie Apocalypse and Black Friday at Staples. Which the general public often had trouble discerning themselves.
One group stood catatonic, staring at an entire wall of glass-doored refrigerator units. The sum of its total parts included every single possible carbonated drink, juice, milk and soy product you could ever imagine ingesting. “Free soda!” someone cried to another, setting off a looting spree of epic proportions where pockets and bags suddenly became cold and rigid. These people were making salaries well well over the poverty line, but free carbonated liquid seemed to still hold them captive.
Another group moved quickly and with purpose, cycling in and out of a hallway a few hundred feet down the line. As I approached, I bumped into an individual by accident, then watched as thousands of paperclips exploded into mid-air. As I took a few more steps forward I realized the hallway was not one at all, but rather an office supply repository. Pens, pencils, paper, datebooks, envelopes, paperclips, markers and more. People carted off boxes of brand-new dry erase markers and the accompanying eraser itself. Others lifted reams of paper and placed them in their bags. “Free paper!” someone cried to another, which seemingly had less of an effect than the free soda rallying cry, and which was communicated by a general malaise despite a few shifty-eyed looking newbies running off with stacks of white.
I passed by a final group as I approached the double doors to the auditorium, who marauded around a table stocked high with pre-wrapped protein bars and drinks. It was like an aisle in a supermarket, filled to the brim with every possible brand available. I grabbed one, tearing it open and taking a bite as I looked back from where I’d come, leaving Daphne to bond with the others. I smiled to myself.
Fuck L.A., I thought. I’m never going back. This place is sweet.
With The Company starting thousands of new employees every single week, they had their I.D.E.A. down to a science. They’d begin with a pre-recorded message from Ben Packer, the charismatic fifty-something CEO, who had been a relatively recent hire after selling a billion-dollar Internet business solely focused on selling billion-dollar Internet businesses. “We welcome you and your families,” he finished his message with, “because without your families supporting your work at The Company, we would never be able to accomplish the unthinkable. I challenge you to go do amazing things.” For the first time of the day, my mind floated back to Jess and Kate and my leaving them standing in the darkness at the start of the day. I picked up my phone, cycling through some saved pictures until I landed on one of them. I smiled. This was about them, too. I couldn’t wait to walk through the door at the end of the day and tell them all about the great things I had seen. They would be so excited. So pumped. I visualized the three of us dancing in silly joy.
There were other speeches and videos, too. Most amazing was the fact that at The Company, health benefits were gold class. “Get as sick as you want,” the Director of Human Resources told us. “Cough up a lung. Have a baby. Get diagnosed with schizophrenia!” The health benefits would cover it all. Plus doctor visits at your house, prescriptions filled and delivered to your door, and if you actually ever went to the gym to work out? The Company would contribute to the monthly membership fee. Finally, someone would pay me to exercise. I had dreamed about that and flying cars, so it was nice that at least fifty-percent of my futurist predictions were actually becoming a reality.
There were folders and hand-outs for employees to better understand how they would be evaluated for promotions, bonuses and stock rewards. There was a brief teaser for a class focused on how to handle your e-mail in-box (I thought how silly that was since I had been handling my e-mail for years). For those who were afraid of driving or didn’t have a license, there were free, WiFi-enabled shuttles delivering employees to the hundreds of Company locations throughout the Seattle area. And with each speech or presentation came yet another perk: schwag. Drink cozies, t-shirts, stickers, binders, water bottles, headbands, phone cases and more. It was like presenting at The Oscars and getting a gift bag of goodies for doing almost absolutely nothing. You can imagine how hungry it made us all.
Outside the auditorium, the lunch spread was already in place. Multiple food stations and chefs were standing at attention, carving Kobe beef, crafting sushi platters, tossing salads and serving up bread pudding in ten varieties. There were hot and cold sandwich bars, gelato sundaes, chicken wraps, vegan platters and more. I had to admit, after the morning I had experienced, it was kind of to be expected. But there was still room for some surprises, as a gleam of polished metal caught my gaze from across the room. I immediately made a bee-line for it, staring in awe at what was before me.
It was a portable, self-serving, completely intelligent Starbucks coffee machine – plucked right out of some futuristic space saga and dropped here, in the middle of this convention center. There were buttons for everything, in a well laid out simple to use interface. Choose your size of cup, choose the style of coffee you desired, land on the temperature you felt was appropriate and click begin. I repeated the steps to myself in sing-songy way (“Pick the cup and fill it up”) as I banked four different combinations of hot drinks including Dark Hazelnut Hot Chocolate, and lined them up on the table before me. In the time it took me to arrange the Starbucks/Company co-branded cups in my usual OCD fashion, I had already determined how to lay off half of Starbucks’ International workforce by simply showing them this device. That was it. The rest would take care of itself. The sobbing and general hysterics would be short-lived as they would all find more personally satisfying jobs elsewhere, I would tell myself.
“Adam Murphy, you bastard.” The words hit me like a ton of bricks, startling me into knocking over all my coffee as I spun around to see who had spoken them. It was a surprise I never could have called. Standing there, in a tight knit sweater and a pair of painted on jeans was none other than Romy Wallace. Back in Los Angeles, she was known as “the” new media agent, repping video game creators, new media visionaries and a slew of YouTube stars who were best known for their “snark.” She had developed an entire cottage industry around the snark of today’s youth, including pioneering the Snark Food Review, Snark Music Video Goof and discovering talents such as RJ Zimmer and his Undead Snark, who had racked up thirty-million views by dressing up like a zombie, packing himself in FedEx boxes and shipping himself to the doorsteps of faint-of-heart senior citizens expecting their Social Security checks. Those who liked her called her the Digital Diva, among other nicknames. Those who hated her called her a bitch. I had met with her years ago when I had been developing a video game based on a script I had written, inspired by a greeting card that had made me cry. My mother had loved it. But despite that, Romy had been open to giving me advice and had treated me with the utmost of respect. I liked her. And let’s just say she wasn’t too tough on the eyes.
“Romy Wallace!?” I reached out and gave her the hug she was obviously half-pregnant with. “What are you doing here? Do you have a client here at The Company?”
She rolled her eyes and then flipped her blonde locks behind her shoulder, leaning in more closely. “I’m working here,” she announced, noticing the surprise on my face. “Those bastards at Legendary Artists were bleeding me dry. Sucking the life out of me. Challenging me to redefine the entire industry all at once and then at the same time they were stealing every idea I had and passing it off on their own withoutgivingmeanycreditwhatsoeverandIwassooverit.” She took a breath. It was one thing I forgot to mention about Romy Wallace. She was passionate, that was for sure. And when she was passionate about something, she talked incessantly. Had you told me she had ADHD I would have told you that she was obviously not taking any medication for it.
Behind us, throngs of coffee worshipers had realized what I had discovered and were now waiting for their turn to use my new life’s obsession. “How about some lunch?” Romy asked, waving her open palms at the food stations like a regular old Vanna White. “On me.” I laughed, starting to walk with her towards a table. “And don’t forget your coffee,” she turned back to point out. All four of the cups were spilled, half-filled, and totally killed.
“Oh, I don’t drink coffee,” I admitted. “I just love technology.”
Brandt Monroe’s new book, Red Bang, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com.