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

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On Wednesday, I got into the building easily and met Phil in the hall on my way to the room I'd been in the day before. He was frantic. The client had a list of tasks needing immediate attention. I was told there was an additional room where another employee was working on a programming project that the client wanted finished that day; I was to help that employee in any way I could. If we completed the assignment, I was to work on the next task on a short list he showed me. Harry would remain on the inventory and assessment.

I went down the hall to introduce myself to "Shirley." Our conversation lasted five minutes. Shirley wanted to work independently. She didn't want or need any help. She trusted no one. She was brusque and suspicious of everyone and everything. I kept my questions short. She kept her answers shorter. I decided to leave her to her work and move on to the next task on the list.

The confusion mounts

I looked to see what was next. All the tasks were about tweaking existing programs. To my surprise I got the first one done in less than 30 minutes. I got the next one done in 15. Why so fast? Because the code I needed was already there -- but commented out. What sort of game was this?

I called Phil and told him what I'd found. He sounded surprised that it was so easy, then told me how to deliver the results of my first task. At the same time, he instructed me to not tell anyone that I'd completed the second one. Why? I asked. He said he intended to meter out the results our little team produced; if we delivered results any faster, he wouldn't be able to justify to the client the number of staff he had budgeted for the project. What was the new revised plan now that there wasn't as much work as originally thought? I dared not ask -- yet.

Thursday passed quietly. I worked on two more projects, one of which required about 50 lines of code and tricky changes to a module stack. This was the first challenging programming work I'd seen so far. The other project was like the first two: Uncomment some code, test the results, prepare a deliverable, and document my work.

I talked with Harry and Shirley. How were we going to handle deceiving the client about how hard it was to do the work? How could a policy of deception work to anyone's favor? Harry shrugged. It was a job -- no more, no less. Shirley scowled and grumbled quietly, but said no more. I privately renamed her Surly Shirley.

The last straw

Friday morning, Phil was on-site again. He told me in the hall that my job title and pay rate had been changed to fit the requirements of this new contract: My pay had dropped $2,000 a year with the promise that it would go back up "soon." Confused, I asked when I would report for the job I'd originally been hired for. Phil told me that my position had already been filled by someone else -- something about budget, job classifications, nothing he could do about it, blah, blah, blah. Oh, I also belonged to him now.

Well, no, I thought -- I am not property. I was so mad I could hardly see straight. But I also knew I was leaving.

I smiled at him and expressed disquiet that these changes had been made without my input or knowledge, but assured him I would work hard to meet his requirements. I figured someone who lied to everyone around him wasn't entitled to the truth.

Before I went back to work, I made a phone call to a recruiter about another job I'd interviewed for prior to signing onto this one, saying I would indeed be available for a second interview after all. He sounded delighted, and I got a call back with a time and place.

At the end of the day, just before HR closed, I called in and resigned. The following Monday, I interviewed at the other company and was hired on the spot.

This was the job that never was -- and my own Twilight Zone.

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This story, "Secrets and lies: A coding cover-up," was originally published at Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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