Story Time – Patriot’s Day

We drove into the city in the Honda Fit, Karen taking me this morning as the trains were going to be a nightmare on the day of the marathon. It was a sunny day, early Spring, and too much happening. Karen had spent the weekend away couch surfing, we had had a falling out on Friday night and had spoken for the first time of wanting a divorce. I was in rough shape. She’d come back Sunday night, we had dinner with my mother, and I was shaking at dinner.

In the car I told her, I had had so much insight when she was gone, realized how I had blamed her unfairly for things I needed to work on, that I wanted time to talk, that we should not be seeking divorce.

I was preoccupied as well because the game I’d been leading was due to be released in two more days, so we were at the end of the crunch, and I was exhausted, having worked 7 day weeks. I had not gotten as much done over the weekend as I’d needed to but the game was in good shape, we had bugs down to zero and time left to keep kicking the tires.

She dropped me off at Arlington and Boylston. I was a bit late but would make the morning stand-up meeting. I told her we would talk soon, that I loved her.

The stand-up was cancelled, with a surprise company meeting. Surprise because, as part of the “exec team” I was usually involved in planning any company meeting. We were only 18 employees and not a very formal place, but this caught me off guard. The CEO led the meeting — a first since I had started six months prior — and wrote on the whiteboard to emphasize his message: he gave the employees an A+ for creativity and a C- for effort. Way to start a Monday! With the company’s third product release imminent no less. He said we had planned to do a “game jam” this week — where everyone pitches new ideas and competes to produce the best demo in a few days’ time — but that this activity would be a reward for hard work and that people had not been working hard enough.

In my role leading the dev team, and feeling very much that everyone, myself included, had been working their asses off, I felt literally obligated to raise a hand and question this assessment. I pointed out how half the company had been logging into group chat all day Saturdays and Sundays, how much more could we actually be working? I asked what the role of the execs was in making us hit our deadlines. The latter question got a smile but a chilly response from Steve, the CEO. I said no, not what I meant, I just mean to call out, we can only meet deadlines when everyone plays their part.

Others started speaking up, saying how they had left other companies like Zynga and 38 Studios, having worked long hours on long projects only to suffer mass layoffs, and were not going to commit their lives without commitment from a company. What could easily have turned into a bitchfest felt instead like a team-building venting session. As someone who had been hired explicitly to help bring better processes to the company and had been helping their adoption of Agile practices, I had been waiting for exactly this moment. In my prior experience it was when teams finally broke down and started to vent their frustrations that they began to take group ownership of what was and was not working. It was, in other words, a positive thing.

Greg, the CTO, perhaps wanting to avoid Steve getting the impression I was fomenting mutiny, called me out and said “I would just like to say, I think we should look to Jason’s team-building leadership as the future of this company.” I don’t think I’ve ever had such pointed praise in front of my colleagues in my career. I tried to take the compliment gracefully, nodded and made a wan smile.

The meeting ended and those of us working to complete Angry Ball broke off to have our last regular Monday pow-wow on the project. Another surprise: the product manager, who had up until now been mostly good about adhering to our process and not doing crazy things like adding a ton of work right before major milestones — a classic snafu in software that almost always derails projects — let us know that he had a long list of new features (new features?!!!) we needed to add to the game. According to our team’s Agile velocity, the rough work estimate was about 2.5 weeks of additional work. But, he insisted, the release date was not changing, we still had exactly two days.

Normally I would be obstinate that such things could not stand, and would make a point to debate this with the team present, to show that execs could *not* arbitrarily derail project plans in such a manner, that we all had to stick to our decisions and follow through. However we had just been reprimanded by the CEO for not working hard enough, and two days left less than zero time to debate, so I said, okay, lets go do the impossible…

A few of us stepped out to grab quick food to bring back to our desks. I texted Karen in part to confirm she could finish submitting our taxes, as April 15 was the federal tax deadline. She didn’t respond as she often did not. I wasn’t worried but wanted to make sure we got this done.

The streets were packed like sardines with people turned out to see the marathon — the finish line was a block away from our office so runners were starting to arrive. It was a very warm day, everyone in T-shirts and day packs. I barely registered all of this as my mind was focused on finishing our project.

Time flew. We were desperately stepping over each other, sending chat messages and running across the floor to try to shoehorn in the new features, aimed in part at making the monetization more like the popular Candy Crush. This was classic software clusterfuck. As people scrambled to add hastily added features, things started breaking, bugs introduced, stress levels rising.

When we heard what sounded like cannon blasts from our fifth floor suite, vaguely feeling the bass notes in the floor, I blurted out a typical dark humor “… and let the killing begin!”

Then the internet went down.

This was *bad* timing, as even our internal chat and file sharing was 100% dependent on the external internet, this would grind us to a halt. After a few minutes, accustomed to maximizing productivity by switching gears to whatever could be done *now*, I ran down five flights to grab a smoke and get the update from Karen on our taxes.

When I hit the street, I saw something was wrong. There were some people walking by me crying. In one direction I saw a large amount of white smoke rising off Boylston St; in the other I saw ambulances trying and failing to push their way past the throngs of people surrounding the Common. It was at that moment that I registered: this is a terrorist attack. It was too perfect, how tightly everyone was packed, explosions right at the finish line.

Karen wrote back: Are you okay? The TV is saying there are limbs and body parts 🙁

I felt panic rising. I avoided the elevator and ran back up the five flights. Because the internet was still down and because it was impossible to see the street directly from our windows, people were still unaware of what was happening. Steve was by the window and I approached him, surreptitiously showed him the text from my wife. I wanted to say, we need to *leave* here, but I did not want to be asserting that we should take a day off after this morning’s meeting. I wanted the CEO to make a call. He said nothing and wandered off to his office. Was the last I saw of him that day.

As people started getting texts and calls from family, the office started chattering that there was a bombing at the finish line. Spotty internet allowed someone to pull up photos of the smoky blast. Someone commented, how come there are no people in the building across the street? The product manager — god bless him — walked across the floor and said Hey, I was in New York in ’93, this is nothing, keep working. Oh Thanks! Just what we need, an explicit message not to do the smart thing and get the hell out of here. Basically everyone was reacting in their own way.

We kept attempting to work. I could not concentrate. The project felt doomed, for one thing, no way we were going to get all this done.

Twice in the half hour after the primary blasts, we heard additional explosions from nearby. The rumor floating through the office was that these were “controlled demolitions” as police on the ground located additional bombs. It was hard to make sense of what exactly was happening.

Then a coworker turned from his computer and said “Hey, the police scanner says they’ve found a bomb at our address.” ?!!! We occupied the entire fifth floor of a narrow townhouse with a single entry onto Boylston. If there were a bomb in our building, it would be directly below us.

Time slowed down. I am not sure how long after, someone else said that the police were evacuating our block. We all got up and left everything as is, filed into the hall and down the stairs. No one thought to use the elevator.

Karen texted me as we descended, Are you okay?!! I tersely responded “Can’t talk, running.” Not an ideal response.

When we hit the street, there were additional barriers constructed since the bombs had gone off, criss-crossing the sidewalks to prevent pedestrian foot traffic. The street had been cleared. The police were about 100 meters away at the corner of the block, waving assault rifles in the air and cursing at us. “What the fuck are you still doing in that building, get away from there!!” Since it had been perhaps 30 minutes since my coworker had announced the police scanner business, it became clear in my mind — they must have found an actual bomb. Not a random package. Not unaccompanied luggage. Something that made the police not want to approach. We ran.

When we got to the corner, there was a crowd gathered. After a minute or so, an officer yelled into the crowd “Listen, folks, if you know where your friends and family are, please start moving away from this area immediately. The whole crowd began moving rapidly across the Boston Common, being herded. Several of my company found each other and we walked perhaps a mile to the nearest Red Line station that was operating — much of the transit system had been shut down in the vicinity of the bombs at the finish line. We got on at Mass General Hospital.

We were all fried. Amanda had been crying some on the walk. Greg the CTO was sharing a vaguely inappropriate story about smoking lots of weed over the weekend (asked me if I wanted him to score me some). I don’t recall what my own state was. I was freaked out.

The train stopped under ground for about 90 minutes in Somerville. I didn’t realize until we finally moved forward and got off at Alewife that this had been so they could inspect all trains leaving town for bombs. We were stuck underground while they checked to make sure we didn’t have a bomb in our car.

I remember I was out of sorts enough to ask Greg, who dropped me off at Davis Sq, if he thought I should try to save my marriage or not. No one was clear-headed.

I had existing plans to meet my friend Matthew for drinks that night. We met at Saloon and I learned that his wife and daughters had been at the finish line but left a few minutes before the blasts to get ice cream. We drank several whiskey drinks. I flirted shamelessly with the waitress. Unwound.

Karen was hugging me and very concerned when I got home. I was so glad to be home. How could I know this new dawn’s light would change my life forever? I still had no idea how much this was true.

~~~

Tuesday morning I awoke fairly rested. No hangover. Made morning coffee and turned on TV while loading up my email. The CEO had sent a company message saying business as usual, come in for a normal day. The TV showed a 15 block police lockdown surrounding our office, no one allowed. I figured, yeah, gonna be a work from home day. After a while a few coworkers responded to the group email saying they tried to show up and were turned away by heavily armed police in riot gear. Great.

For some reason, one of the more random new work tasks added to our game and assigned to me was to add blood and debris particle effects. The game was a twisted humor casual game for phones and tablets where you tilted the screen to roll your character — Angry Ball — around pastures and seascapes squashing cute little animals like bunnies and penguins. It was dark humor but cute. It did not require blood and debris particle effects, especially added one day before the launch of the game. Especially one day after people had lost arms and legs outside our office. Especially not then.

I learned on the TV that one of the people killed in the bombings was a girl who had served me beer many times when I worked over in Cambridge. I did not know her, but this affected me.

I sent an email to the exec team — product manager, CTO, CEO, and said, fyi, the mood on the floor was not happy with that meeting. People did not like being told they get a C- for effort. I pointed out ways that the execs had dropped the ball on promised work that then impacted the team hitting their deadlines. I ended the email saying, I myself did not appreciate it, that there were other places to work. My tone was civil but the mere act of challenging the CEO was *dumb* and that final comment was too much. I never mentioned the terrorist attack that had just happened yesterday. I think I was in shock, think we all were. I would never have sent such an email normally, but I felt pushed past some limit. Frankly could not believe we did not all have the day off. Our product release deadline was entirely arbitrary and self-driven, there was no reason not to give people a chance to rest.

The product manager was the only one to reply to my email. He suggested my tone was maybe coming across more confrontational than I intended, but then very professionally acknowledged and addressed the points I made about the execs and how we all needed to own our ability to hit deadlines.

I texted over our Hipchat to Greg, saying I really was not feeling okay, needed to take some time offline. He texted back, take whatever I need.

I watched the TV a bit that morning. There were lots of police talking to reporters. An FBI agent gave a speech about how they were going to scour every block around the marathon finish line with a fine tooth brush, would not overlook any evidence, even something as small as a piece of circuit board, they would find the people responsible for this heinous act. As someone who is very good at reading actors, I remember wondering to myself, why is he lying right now? Why would it be necessary to lie in such a speech? …

I decided I needed to get to the woods, clear my head. I drove up to the Fells, the local reservoir and woods, and went for a walk. Called Karen at her work. I told her, there’s something fishy about the reporting on TV. I said I know this sounds crazy, but I feel like this event was staged. I think they are going to use this to justify a military lockdown of Boston.

While I remember some details I am not disclosing about the events that day, and other odd press releases surrounding it, I cannot for the life of me remember what all I saw that made me make the above assertion to my wife. Many months later I remembered making this call, and she also remembered it. It was weird that within 2 days, the FBI turned up a piece of circuitboard, traced the bombs to two brothers from Cambridge (though even after the full investigation and trial, no one was ever able to explain where they assembled these bombs and who provided the brothers the sophisticated technical know-how to construct them), and by the end of the week, a dramatic, live-televised military lockdown of the city of Boston and all major suburbs within the 128 beltway. Everything I said to Karen in that call would happen, happened. I regret that phone call.

~~~

Greg called and asked if he could take me to lunch. Said I sounded stressed. I said sure. He picked me up, living only 10 minutes from me, and we went to this small Mexican joint. In the car, he started ranting at me. He said if I didn’t do “damage control” for the email I had sent, I would be fired. I was shocked and said “What?! Okay, Greg, I’m supposed to be doing apparently a couple weeks of new work by *tomorrow* and coordinating the team doing that work, how the hell am I going to stop everything and do damage control? I don’t think I did anything wrong! Steve hasn’t even responded at all, how can I address it?”

Greg notably calmed himself when we got the restaurant, acted quite pleasant with the waitress and friendly to me. He suggested we get margaritas. Now, this was VERY odd. Number one, he had moments earlier been yelling at me that supposedly I needed to both do an inhuman amount of work today but also needed to calm the CEO to avoid losing my job. Number two, he surely knew from our occasional company gaming/drinking nights that I had stated before, Tequila is my cryptonite. I never drink it, it is deadly to me. Why in God’s name he would suggest we therefore drink some Tequila in the middle of the day with all this happening was beyond me. I also found it odd how when the waitress would go back inside the restaurant and it was just us on the patio, he would resume ranting at me, telling me how I was going to be fired. It was like I was being played.

He took me home and that afternoon I tried to get work done but could not concentrate. I kept texting Greg saying, seriously, I need to take a personal day. He chose not to text me back but to call me on the phone, and yelled at me that if I took a day off, I would absolutely be fired (by the CEO). I pointed out that the CEO had not communicated a single word to me since the actual bombings were happening, that I had no idea how to respond to someone not actually communicating with me. I pointed out how I’d worked 11 straight days before the bombing, and it seemed insane not to let me take one day off.

By day’s end, I was on a call with Greg at 6, and told him, look, I don’t know what to tell you. I need to spend time with my wife, you are saying if I take a day off I’ll be fired; I am fried right now. I need to go.

That night I awoke disoriented and coughing, horrible acid in my throat. It took me a minute to realize I had a LOT of vomit in my lungs. Not simple acid reflux. I was choking, real liquid in my lungs. I woke up Karen. It was maybe 2am.

She brought me water, which did not help. My lungs were burning. I was coughing up vomit.

She called a medical hotline and spoke with a nurse, who assured that I should be okay until morning, but should not sleep, should not lay down. Stay upright and try to keep bringing up the fluid. Said it sounded like an acute stress reaction.

At 5am I wrote an email to Steve. I said, I don’t know what to tell you. I give up. Greg has told me if I take a day off I will be fired, but I have had only 2 hours sleep and have half a cup of vomit in my lungs, there’s no way I can come in today. He responded within a couple minutes “I accept your resignation.”

Our game launch was to be this day. I was the project lead. I had been praised Monday morning for my leadership being “the future of the company”. My world was falling apart. How was all this happening?! My marriage was suffering under the strain of the 90 hour weeks I was putting in, which I had kept telling myself, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. We will ship the game, and can relax. I can make it up to Karen. I was not prepared for this surreal turn of events. I had been supporting us. I had gone through a high stress job hunt only 6 months earlier when my last company had (shocker) laid off the entire workforce on *the day* we completed a 2 year project to rebuild their flagship game, which I was also the technical lead on. I was not prepared to go through this again, and was exhausted, and had vomit in my lungs.

I wrote back to Steve, saying I had not resigned. I also started individually Hipchat texting my coworkers to let them know *something*. I had to, since they would expect me in the office, and I clearly was not coming in. I told them Steve was saying I could not take a day off but I was not well, that I would be available as I could be. A conversation escalated with Steve over the morning hours. He told me, okay, if I wrote a clear-headed full resignation letter he would pay me through the end of the week (this was Wednesday). I wrote a final message saying, Steve, you are firstly clearly acknowledging that I have not resigned, and furthermore are trying to blackmail me into resigning (which would preclude my ability to obtain unemployment benefits, among other things) in exchange for THREE DAYS’ SEVERANCE. I said, I don’t think any court in the world would sympathize with an employer terminating an employee for asking for a day off one day after an internationally televised terrorist event! Within a few minutes of sending this message, my access to the email server was severed, and then the company VPN. I was locked out. I crashed and slept.

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