I have written short stories and novels related to my ancestors, my time in the Navy, growing up in South Dakota during the depression and even a novel about the future but never anything related to the thirty three years I worked as an engineer. The short story “Making the Numbers Work” breaks the pattern since it is about a fictional incident that takes place in a technology company during the time I worked as an engineer.
Making the Numbers Work
Jim Fowler settled down in his corner office with his first vendor cup of coffee. The vendor machine coffee tasted pretty bad but the only alternative to bringing a thermos. Something that Jim didn’t care to do.
The corner office with a door represented a measure of his success as a long term employee of the Data Control Corporation, commonly known as DCC. It took a while, over twenty years. Fowler started out as a mechanical design engineer and finally as the Manager of program management for all space computer programs. DCC had a reputation for miniaturizing highly reliable computers for use in space for its government customers. Business had been good with President Reagan promoting his Star Wars missile defense system but that could change since the Berlin Wall had come down a month previously.
There had been a lot of pressure with the job and Jim attributed the stress to his overweight condition and loss of hair. Jim had thought about doing some exercise, maybe jogging. Trouble is he should lose some weight before he tried jogging. It was the chicken and egg thing. There wasn’t much that could be done about the growing bald spot on the crown of his head. Combing what hair he had over the bald spot wasn’t much of an improvement. Despite the pressure Jim liked his position, head of program management in the Space Systems Division with staff of a dozen working on proposals, program budgets, scheduling and four program managers managing seven multimillion dollar programs between them. He wielded more power than he ever had in engineering and he found he was a tough negotiator and known as a kick ass by department managers working on his programs.
Jim’s phone rang. He hesitated to answer it. He suspected it might be Gerald Blackstone, director of the Space Systems division calling about an overrun on the Eagle One program that showed up in the lasted programs financial report.
Gerald growled “Good morning Jim.” To Jim, Gerald’s voice didn’t sound like it was going to be a good morning.
Gerald continued, “Say Jim, that Eagle One program is over budget, behind schedule again this month. What are you doing to fix it?”
What Jim heard wasn’t any news to him and shouldn’t be any news to Gerald Blackstone. Alex Jorden, the manager that prepared the Eagle One proposal had instructed all of the departments doing the estimating to bid it skinny. The procurement would be fixed price and competitive. A potential for follow on programs added value to the current procurement. The systems use would be for surveillance, something not likely to be cut during defense spending cuts. Last but not least, the division backlog had been shrinking and without new business there would be headcount reductions.
Alex had negotiated and cajoled the department managers to cut the bid to the bone and then upper management cut the low ball estimates by twenty percent. Now upper management wanted to know why the program was running over budget. Jim hesitated to answer, he didn’t want to say what he was thinking; like you dumb asses, what were you expecting?
“Hello, anybody there?” Gerald asked after waiting a while for an answer.
Jim faked a small cough to let Gerald know he was still on the line and started to fabricate an answer to Gerald’s question. “We are working the problem,” he said without going into any detail. “I’ll have a work around plan on your desk Monday morning.”
After discussing a number of issues on other programs Gerald signed off reminding Jim he looked forward to seeing the work around plan on Monday.
Jim rocked back in his desk chair and stared at the ceiling after hanging up the phone. He didn’t want to work this weekend on the “Plan.” For one thing it seemed to be an exercise in futility and the other thing is that he had better things planned for the week end. He dialed Alex Jorden’s office located several doors down the hall. “Alex, you got a minute or an hour or so to talk about the Eagle One program?”
At the time Jim called Alex was in the middle of preparing the customer monthly Eagle One progress report so it was good timing for him and he grabbed a couple Eagle One binders and headed for Jims office.
Alex had boyish face with a full head of hair that made him look young for a man about to turn fifty. A lot of activities with his two sons, nine and eleven, helped him stay in shape. Alex like most managers in the company had technical backgrounds. Trained as an electrical engineer, he loved design and was good at it. Like many good design engineers he had been awarded by making him a manager of other engineers. Alex soon discovered he was a square peg that didn’t fit in a round hole. Managing people, particularly egotistical engineers, was not his cup of tea.
The problem with leaving management and going back to computer design was that computer technology evolved at a fast pace at the design level and a person away for couple of years could become obsolete. Transistors were packaged individually in cans when he was designing, now they put thousands on a microchip. Instead of doing logic at the transistor level they were doing it at the microchip level. Sure he could do it but it would be like starting over. He worked around the problem by going into program management where he had to understand the nature of the technology changes but not the nitty gritty of implementing them. In program management he managed things, like proposals, budgets, and schedules, not people. Only one management assistant reported directly to him. He could handle that.
Jim waved Alex to sit at a side table where they could spread out program data. “Here’s the problem,” Jim said as an introduction to what they had to do today. “Division management wants to know why Eagle One is overrunning its budget. Apparently they don’t want us to tell them what they already know. We bought the program, an investment that will pay off someday in the murky future. Apparently corporate wants the division contracts to pay off today, to hell with the murky future. So all we have to do is come up with a plan to show how we can make a profit from a contract we bought with a bid that we estimated would twenty percent less than cost. How do we do that?
Alex lookd at Jim, “Are they serious?”
“We are supposed to come up with a work around plan by Monday morning.”
“We can give them the plan this afternoon,” Alex replied. “It’ll be note that says it can’t be done. We have technical problems we don’t even know how to solve. A twenty percent overrun could be a low ball estimate. I’m hardly charging the program I keep haggling the department managers to keep the cost down. We have put as much pressure on the vendors as the law allows. Some of the vendors are betting on the follow on, just like us.
Jim, who had been scanning a print out of vendor charges on the Eagle One program looked up, “That’s interesting,” He said.
Jim wanted to know what’s interesting.
“What are you charging your time to when you work on Eagle One?”
“You know how that’s done, you charge what you are working on, a program, a proposal, overhead if you are on vacation, sick-leave.”
“So you don’t spend much time on Eagle One?”
Alex didn’t like where the conversation had gone. Mischarging on government contracts was a no no which could result in heavy penalties for the company and individuals. Jim managed the Eagle One program which involved the development of a new computer and a separate production contract for satellite computers used in a NSA program for a decade or more. The production program had been negotiated as a none-competitive cost plus contract. The government had little leverage as no other suppliers had the technology or the interest in competing for the business. As a result DCC Space Systems loaded up the contract which the prime contractor negotiated out some the most egregious charges. The result had been a contract with a lot of padding and Jim knew damn well what Alex had been doing.
Alex didn’t answer the question but Jim answered it for him. “Hey,” Jim said, “It’s no big deal; we all fudge project times given an opportunity and reason. Maybe that’s a solution, doing something like this on a bigger scale.
What Jim had just said scared Alex. “What are you saying? Alex asked, hoping maybe he had misunderstood Jim.
“Well you have two programs, one that is starving and the other one is fat. Same prime customer, same government agency, you just balance things out between the two of them.”
Alex was aware of those kind of shenanigans went on with cost plus programs where there were two contracts within the same program and two buckets of money and how you filled them didn’t make much difference in the big picture as long as they didn’t overflow. Two programs, one program cost plus and the other fixed price is a different story. People get fired, companies get fined and get a black mark when those kinds of things are mixed together. Alex had twenty years invested in DCC and didn’t want to risk it to make management happy in the short term. He pointed out these obvious problems to Jim.
Jim wasn’t impressed. “There’s more than one way to get fired,” he replied. “The quickest way is to mismanage your programs. If you are given an impossible program to manage you have to figure out how to manage it. I’m in the same line of fire as you are. I see a way to fix the problem and everyone will be happy and none the wiser.”
Ales felt the pressure. Jim evaluated Alex’s performance in the annual reviews and made salary recommendations. These evaluations went into his file and stayed there forever. A bad evaluation in his record could affect his future in DCC in a bad way. Besides Alex was not sure how they could accomplish what Jim implied. How could they manage the time card information? Alex couldn’t think of a shuttle way to ask Jim how the manipulation of time card information would be accomplished so laid it out on the table. “How do you intend to modify the time cards?” He asked.
“Hey Alex, as far as we are concerned, this conversation never took place. I expect you will work out the details and I don’t want to know how it’s done. Before the end of the day I would like a draft of what we are going to tell upper management what we are doing to eliminate the losses on the program and it won’t be to modify time cards.” Without further explanation Jim said they had accomplished what they needed to do in the meeting and Alex should get busy drafting the plan to be sent to management.
Alex felt a migraine headache coming on after leaving Jim’s office. He did get a draft plan of a fictional way to fix the cost overrun on the Eagle one program to Alex before leaving for the weekend. Alex had been looking forward to a weekend of canoeing with his two sons, ages eleven and nine. They would be canoeing on a nearby river, leaving Saturday, camping overnight and returning Sunday. Now he had this problem hanging over his head; how he would implement the time card scam.
Alex hadn’t been asked if he agreed with the scheme Jim had come up with. Jim had decided what to do and told Alex to do it. This was Jim’s style. So Alex knew he would be in trouble with Jim if he didn’t do as directed, and he would be in trouble with the customer if they found out what was going on. There were no good scenarios.
The weekend after Alex had been tasked with coming up with a fix for the Eagle One program he had gone on the canoe trip with his two boys as planned. During the canoe trip he worried about how to he would satisfy Jim’s directions to him on how to satisfy management’s desire to cut the Eagle One program losses. By the time Alex and the boys returned from the canoe trip, he had a plan in mind.
The scheme Alex concocted involved collecting time cards on Friday that would be turned in by noon. He would then close the door to his office and select cards to be modified and replace them with a time cards that had been altered. He would forge the employee’s signature on the altered card by looking at the real signature and duplicating it as best he could. He had tried to think of better ways to do it but nothing came up. Using white out or cross outs would obviously be spotted.
Alex also decided during the canoe trip that he would begin looking for a new job. The twenty years he had invested in DCC had lost its importance after the time card meeting with Jim.
He found the defense business job market had tightened. The USSR was collapsing, the cold war ending. In addition technology people exiting the defense business were crowding the rest of the technology world. Alex spent a month chasing leads, contacting every local business that might need his skills. He didn’t want to move out of the area. He and his family had put down roots that would hard to extract.
A month past and the next monthly Eagle One budget report showed remarkable improvement. Jim congratulated Alex on how he had managed to improve the program performance
Alex began calling former associates who had left DCC recently to find out what they were doing and if they knew of any opportunities.
He called Frank Dawkins, a sharper than average engineer who had been lured away from DCC by a startup. Alex found that Frank had left the start up after three months.
“They didn’t know what to hell they were doing,” Frank said. “So I decided to start my own company. Have you heard about a thing called the internet? It’s starting to go commercial. I’m looking for C, C ++ coders. Know any?
Alex said he didn’t know C or C ++ but was looking for work.
“What happened with DCC?” Frank asked.
“Short story,” Alex replied, “Still working but looking to leave.”
“Hell Alex, you used to do Fortran, you can learn it like nothing. But you know I can’t pay you like a Program Manager at DCC and you will be digging in the nitty gritty.”
Frank went on to describe what they were doing with the internet and seemed to get more excited as he talked. The idea began to appeal to Alex, he liked the nitty gritty. It wouldn’t be hardware but programming was the same kind of thing. “The idea is appealing,” Alex admitted. “I can handle a pay cut as long as it don’t last forever. How about some stock in your little enterprise in lieu of a big salary?”
Frank laughed, “All our professional people have gotten stock, don’t cost me anything and we can all get rich together.
They agreed to meet the next day and talk some more. As a result Alex signed on for a substantial cut in the salary he made at DCC and twenty thousand shares of the new company’s stock.
The next morning Alex gave Jim the required two week notice that he would be leaving the company. Jim looked shocked. “You can’t do that,” he yelled. “You know damn well why you can’t do that.”
“I did it,” Alex admitted.
“Stay another year, you’ll get the best raise you ever had.”
“If you’re worried about the time cards I’ll brief you on the process. I’ll help you with it for the next two weeks.”
Dammit, you know I can’t assign another manager for either program. I’ll have to manage them myself. That’s not going to work. I’ll get you a promotion.
Alex had been focused on his own problems associated with leaving DCC and hadn’t lost much sleep worrying about the problems he might be causing Jim. But being made aware of some of Jim’s problems wasn’t giving him any heart burn. He made his best effort to sound sympathetic to Jim’s concerns while suppressing a satisfied smile.
Alex soon became immersed in his work in Franks new company and it didn’t take him long to realize the thing called the internet would be transforming the communications world. Franks little company was growing as fast as it could hire engineers, programmers and staff. The stock that had no value when Alex joined the company six months previously now traded on the local market at five dollars.
Through contacts Alex maintained with DCC former associates he learned the government was doing an audit of the Eagle One program, an event that only occurred when something really caught the government’s attention. A couple of months later Alex had lunch with an engineer he had worked with at DCC. The engineer said Jim had left the company and whole division had been shaken up. He heard that Jim had been manipulating time cards. “Can you imagine anyone being so dumb?”
Alex shook his head, “Ya, I can imagine it.”
Alfred Wellnitz Published Book and Short Story Information at:
Copyright © 2015 by Alfred Wellnitz
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this short story are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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