Secrets and lies: A coding cover-up

A tech pro enters a netherworld of dubious dealings, odd practices, and borderline personalities at a new job

Have you ever felt like you were stuck in another dimension? One week of my career was like that, when I put in a short stint on a job that was full of unanswered questions.

On a crisp fall Monday, I arrived for my first day on the new job. In HR, I filled out the usual forms, was introduced to the timekeeping system, listened to explanations of health care plans and the company 401(k), and watched a video about this amazing, fast-growing contractor. Yes, this would be a great company to work for.

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After lunch, I reported back to HR as instructed. Someone was waiting for me -- but it wasn't the hiring manager who had interviewed me. HR introduced me to "Phil," another manager. I was told that Phil had requisitioned me for an emergency assignment. I would help him out for two or three weeks, then join the department I'd been hired for.

Phil briefed me on the nature of the new task, which sounded challenging and engaging. My new company had won a support contract away from a competitor, and we needed to prep an office on the client's site as soon as possible so that they could fill out their staff for two dozen available positions. My job was to assess the condition of computers, files, software tools, and security. I was sent home and told to report to the client site the next morning.

All is not what it seems

It sounded straightforward, but Tuesday brought a string of strange experiences. First of all, I had trouble getting into the building because the receptionist didn't know to expect me and Phil wasn't around. Finally, after a couple of phone calls and half an hour of waiting, I was given a badge and sent upstairs.

The next sight that greeted me didn't bode well, either. The previous contractor had dedicated a large open room to its operations. About 20 workstations adorned this stark space. It looked deserted, as if an alien mothership had abducted all the people, leaving behind their artifacts: open books, stacks of papers, folders of reports, and three-ring binders. Notably, there were no disks anywhere. In fact, there was no media at all except a few DATs stacked up on one of the desks. I got an eerie feeling about the situation but soldiered on, introducing myself to the one person who was in the room. He turned out to be "Harry," another one of Phil's employees.

We had a brief conversation to help me get oriented. I'd expected to meet Phil there and get my assignment, but Harry said he had no idea when or if the boss would show up. He pointed to a cluster of workstations along one side of the room and recommended I dig in, take inventory, and start recording my findings.

I did so, even as my uneasiness continued to grow. As I began reverse-engineering years of the client's work, I felt like an archaeologist on a dig. What lost civilization was here? How were these pyramids built?

By the end of the day, I had documented four workstations. I understood how to recompile everything the client had been working on and had a written inventory to add to the one occupying Harry's time. Harry had made his way through another three or four workstations. Neither of us had heard from Phil.

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