The Art of Gig III

And now for the thrilling finale. Read Parts I and II first. 

I exited the AspireKat building at a slight trot. Time was of the essence. Anscombe was scurrying to keep up with me, trying to type with one hand on his open laptop, balanced on the arm of his Starbucks-mug hand.

“Figure out Donna’s home address and get us an Uber. I am going to have Guanxi open up a line.”

He reluctantly folded his laptop under his arm, pulled out his phone and fiddled briefly with it. “Okay. ETA three minutes for the Uber. Looks like Donna lives about twenty minutes away.”

“Good.”

“So why are we going to see her? Why would she know about the acquisition bid?”

“Hold on. I’m texting Guanxi here.”

Unlike young digital natives, I can’t text and talk at the same time.

Things under control?

All good. Bainies getting set up for the initial goat sacrifice.

Khan?

Trying to get to Saul, but the Bainies have him.

We need a live feed.

On it. Periscope.

I pulled up Periscope on my phone. It looked like Guanxi had managed to position his phone strategically by the window ledge near the display. Almost the entire room was visible in a fishbowl view. At the far end, Saul was standing regally, in a gown the Bainies had put on him. Three Bainies were doing a slow, ritual snake dance in a circle around him, waving incense sticks and chanting.

Guanxi wandered briefly into view and nodded imperceptibly at the camera before wandering out if view again. I handed my phone to Anscombe.

“Could you monitor that? I get a headache if I stare at a screen while moving.”

Anscombe promptly forgot about the question he’d asked. His gaze latched onto my screen.

“Firehose time. I’m going to have to reconfigure my setup a bit to handle this.”

Handing your phone to anyone born after 1985 is an incredible gesture of trust. So in consulting, it is increasingly important to maintain your phone in a state of plausible shareability to form alliances. It’s also a good way to keep digital natives busy so you can think.

And I needed to think about an important question: what did Donna know?

***

The Uber arrived.

Anscombe got in first, opened up his laptop and tapped a button on the handle of his Starbucks mug.

It said, “Welcome, Titanium Card Member. Reconfiguring for mobile work now. There are three Starbucks stores on your route. Would you like to order a drink pick-up along the way?”

Anscombe said, “No Siren. Just reconfigure.”

Are you sure? We are offering a three-point bonus for a breakfast sandwich purchase today.”

“I am sure. Reconfigure.”

The coffee mug and laptop beeped briefly at each other. Two slender robot arms and a coffee-mug holder emerged from the sides of the screen. Anscombe put my phone in one gripper, his own in the other and the mug in the holder. A tiny dish antenna unfolded like a little steel flower from the lid of the mug and hummed and twirled like a tiny ballet dancer to find a signal.

Anscombe tapped the side of his glasses. The left side transformed into a monocular display, the right into a laser sight, and the nose bridge to a grill that covered his nose and mouth. He tapped his watch and it turned into a sheath that enveloped his forearm.

He turned to me and rasped, “Reconfiguration for Grande Volume, Velocity and Variety Firehose Complete. We are Transcombe. Transcombe would like more data. Can you provide more data?”

I stepped around and got in from the other side, making sure to yield as much space as I could to Transcombe.

“I think the weather in Kuala Lumpur and activity on the #Pharell hashtag might be salient.”

Acquiring feeds. Would you like to add two more feeds so Transcombe can reconfigure for Venti Volume, Velocity and Variety?”

Not yet,” I said, and to the driver, “Let’s get going.”

I leaned back and closed my eyes. What did Donna know?

If I could just come up with one clue, I could unleash Transcombe on it. Normally, it wouldn’t be a match for the full-scale McKinsey  on-site consulting compute cluster, but with the Bainies running interference, and just a little bit of inspired guesswork, we stood a chance.

Now, if you’re new to the consulting game, you might assume that since Anscombe was now an ally in the Little Three alliance, I should have just answered his question and kept the alliance at the level of good, old-fashioned human-to-human trust and avoided triggering his transhumanist mode. More old-fashioned indie consultants — including some much younger than me — won’t even work with transies in their human state, let alone their transformed states. They think it is the human, personal touch, without all that alienating technology, that sets us small, indie consultants apart from the big guys.

They’re wrong. They’re also prejudiced bio-bigots. Indie consulting isn’t about low-tech, high-touch HumanOps. Even the venerable 2×2 can benefit from infusions of technology. Humans and transies can not only get along, they can learn from each other as we all work towards a better world.

When dealing with data-driven types like Anscombe/Transcombe, it is a mistake to offer up summary views of a situation as you would with a human ally. I could have explained the state of play Guanxi and I had engineered, and launched into an explanation of why my gut instinct suggested Donna’s ‘flu could not be a coincidence. I could have described the determinacy illusion and Situational Control Structure™ I had set up.

It would have been a waste. The data-driven are not like you and me. They do not understand these conceptual things. Trying to explain conceptual things just leads to guys like Anscombe to challenge you with way too many dumb questions and remarks. Back in the day, the only way they knew to push back against conceptual types was to yell “correlation is not causation” whenever you poked them in the belly. These days, they often come with as many as a dozen pre-recorded messages:

How do you know? What are you priors?

What’s your confidence interval?

Coincidence is not correlation.

Why are you overfitting that? Please stop, it hurts.

You’re p-value fishing! That’s pure Fisherian bro-science!

You’re mean. Why won’t you let me run a regression on that?

Hey, that’s my laptop you’re smashing, Bayes curse you!

Tee Hee!

Sacrilege! Thou shalt not use System 1.

How dare you challenge the Authority of the Priory of Bayes?

I am more convex than thou!

That’s not Solomonoff Induction, that’s just bullshitting.

Instead of building trust, as sharing candid subjective opinions and intuitive assessments usually does, with the data-driven, it simply drives up suspicions and creates walls. So the right way to build trust is to hand them your phone and accept their transie state as just as human as the rest of us, if not more so.

Guys like Anscombe feed on firehoses of raw data. Preferably flowing with the volume, velocity and variety of untreated coffee-flavored sewage.

I prefer scotch and as little data as I can possibly get away with. To each his own.

Transcombe interrupted my train of thought.

ETA 16 minutes to residence of Donna Dauntless.”

“Insufficient signal recovery to assess situation at AspireKat HQ. Continuing to monitor.”

Good. The FUD was holding. I turned to the question of what Donna might know. Clearly she knew something that Saul didn’t, and was using it to broker the acquisition deal to benefit herself somehow. I began running through the options in my head.

AspireKat has a patent portfolio KlongleWorks needs.

AspireKat has some sort of licensing foothold in the Chinese market.

AspireKat has an engineering team worth acqui-hiring for some reason.

Donna has come up with a Radical and Disruptive play KlongleWorks was interested in running.

I chuckled to myself at the last one. You have to allow yourself your little private jokes.

No none of the options sounded plausible. AspireKat had no meaningful patents that I knew of. KlongleWorks already had much better entry points into China. AspireKat’s engineering team was too big and mediocre to be a bargain acquihiring prospect.

Then it hit me.

I opened my eyes and exclaimed, “Donna has a Neo up her sleeve!”

The Transcombe turned to me, a look of puzzlement visible behind the mask.

Transcombe does not understand. What is a Neo?”

“Never mind that. Movie reference. Before your time.”

Should Transcombe incorporate twentieth century cultural history archives into priors for analysis?”

“No, never mind that. But here’s something to try: look for AspireKat employees who have been communicating a lot with Donna in the last few months. Exclude her long-time direct reports.”

Analyzing. Eight candidates found.”

“Hmm. Narrow it down to people who recently started reporting to her or transferred to her organization.”

Analyzing. Two candidates found.”

“Okay. Pull up their bios. And you can stop monitoring the other stuff now and power down.”

There was a brief hum as Transcombe withdrew and Anscombe re-emerged, blinking slightly.

We looked at his laptop screen together. Two intranet profiles were showing side-by-side.

One showed a picture of a young man with a vacant look, captioned David Dauntless, Director of Customer Co-Creation Initiatives. Clearly her talented genius son had graduated college and she’d gotten him a job well-suited to his considerable talents.

The other showed a picture of a  young, awkward-looking bespectacled woman, probably in her mid-twenties. It was captioned Cassandra Hadoop, Assistant Engineer.

I stabbed at the second profile with my finger.

“That’s her. That’s our Neo.”

“What’s a…”

“Never mind what a Neo is. Dig up everything you can about her.”

***

We stepped out of the Uber and headed up the front door of Donna’s house. We could hear soothing drumming through the open window on the left. Dancing figures were visible through the partially drawn curtains.

For a moment, I almost panicked. Had the Bainies somehow gotten here before us? I did a double take through the window. No, drums weren’t their style. Plus, these were mostly older women, dressed in flowing hippie robes.

Donna opened the front door. Cheerful, relaxed, steel-gray hair in a neat bun. Same as I remembered her from our last encounter.

“Oh, it’s you, I was expecting someone else. I suppose Ben called you in? Nervy kid. Come on in, how have you been? Who’s your young friend here?”

I ignored the question and said, “So who were you expecting?”

Donna grinned widely and ignored me in turn.

“Come on through to the living room, my friends were just walking me through their creative leadership workshop. It’s great. It’s called Drumming Up Market Dominance.

Four women were seated at drums in the living room. Two more were dancing. The oldest, clearly the leader of D.U.M.B, waved cheerfully at us and nodded at her companions. The group lowered the drumming intensity to a pleasant background murmur.

Hippie consultants. Was there a species not represented in this damn circus?

I said, “Creative leadership workshop?”

“For RADIR, my group’s annual Radical and Disruptive Innovation Retreat. Starts this afternoon and goes through the weekend. These guys do this inspirational three-hour workshop where you alternate 15-minute drumming and dancing sessions with 15-minute creative visioning exercises.”

I frowned. This wasn’t making sense. Maybe Donna was hopped up on NyQuil.

“You’re preparing for a group retreat right now?”

“Oh, didn’t Ben tell you? I have the ‘flu so I’ll have to miss most of it. It’s been scheduled for weeks, so I didn’t want to postpone it. Hopefully I’ll be able to join at least the last day, but my son can lead the retreat without me.”

“You don’t look sick, plus you’re working now. Isn’t the Thought Leadership crisis a higher priority?”

“Oh, I am sick alright. I am just feeling slightly better this morning, so I figured I’d keep this one meeting. Are Saul and the boys handling the Thought Leadership crisis okay? Isabella leaning-in as usual? They’re a good bunch, they’ll deal.”

So she was brazenly sticking to her influenza act. There was no time to dance around. Leverage time. I turned to the D.U.M.B leader.

“You there. What’s your name?”

The women stopped drumming and the leader stood up and bowed.

Namaste. My name is Joanne Running Water. You might have heard of my company? Aquarius Center for Yoga, Pilates and Creative Leadership? We’re in a strip mall off the highway? About an hour south.”

“How much is Donna here paying you for this workshop?”

“Money is secondary. Our values…”

“HOW MUCH?” I asked, more firmly.

“Ten dollars  for the session plus a free lunch, but we are really grateful for the exposure and opportunity for…”

“I’ll give you $100 and get you a meeting with Whole Foods if you leave right now.”

Donna interrupted, “Wait, you can’t just…”

I turned to look at her, “Drop the act. We’re here about Cassandra.”

Donna shut up and gave me a dirty look.

The D.U.M.B  team filed past me. I handed the leader her $100 as she left.

“Now Donna, how about we sit down and talk about what’s really going on here.”

***

Donna retreated to make tea and returned with a tray. I did not object. I needed time to gather my thoughts as well, and Anscombe was still digging. More time meant more usable intel.

We all sat down with our cups.

“What about Cassandra?” she demanded cagily.

“KlongleWorks. We know.”

This is the one part about business maneuver warfare movies and television shows get right. When you know very little, you must use it suggest you know more than you do, in order to bait your opponent into revealing more than they should. Nine out of ten times, it does the trick.

Donna was too experienced to fall for it though.

“You know what exactly?”

I looked at Anscombe.

This was the moment of truth. The leap of faith. That one live-fire situation in every gig for which you cannot prepare. The situation where you cannot retreat to discuss in private with allies before acting. If Anscombe did not step up, she’d know we were bluffing.

Anscombe looked up with the unnerving, preternatural calm of the data-driven.

“Project AspireElephant. You’ve spent two million worth of compute time on it in the last two months alone. Eidetic memory, huh? Impressive.”

Donna seemed to deflate. Suddenly, her face looked much older, more haggard.

“Have you told Saul?”

“Not yet. So if the deal goes through, Saul is out, you’re in?”

“AspireKat can’t  take a corporate eidetic memory product to market. Not with Saul at the helm. You know that. So what do you want?”

“To come along for the ride. Anscombe here, Guanxi and me. We can spin up a larger practice to handle all of KlongleWorks strategy needs.”

That seemed to amuse Donna. She recovered her normal cheer.

“You clowns? Even if I could convince them, you couldn’t manage an intern among you, let alone staff a major account. I’m not going to risk queering the deal with that sort of thing.”

“Would you rather have McKinsey joining the party? Or Bain perhaps”

“What do you mean?” she asked suspiciously, her eyes narrowing.

“I mean they are at AspireKat right now. Only a matter of hours before they figure out what’s going on too.”

That seemed to do the trick. Donna sank back into the sofa and closed her eyes. After a moment, she opened them again.

“How about a three-month transition-management advisory gig? If you can keep Saul and his Big Three buddies distracted through the weekend while I wrap up the deal. I can do that much. It’ll go through on Monday.”

Foot in the door. 

“Deal.”

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m tired and need a nap. I actually do have the ‘flu as it happens, and I have a lot more diligence to wrap up today.”

She did look tired again. Maybe she did have the ‘flu.

***

 We were Ubering back to AspireKat. I texted Guanxi the good news that we were in on the deal with Donna. He texted back,

No worries, I’ll keep them occupied. 

“That was nice work back there. Didn’t think you’d figure it out in time.”

“I didn’t. All I had was the project name and budget. I threw in Cassandra Hadoop’s PhD dissertation topic on a hunch.”

I sat back, impressed. This was not just bullshiting. It was data-driven real-time bullshitting. Young Anscombe had a bright future.

“So if I understood what happened back there, she’ll take a lowball offer from KlongleWorks to Saul next week?”

“Correct. It will include a can’t-refuse exit deal for Saul.”

“And in a few months, when the dust settles, Donna gets a nice, juicy deal for herself, maybe a senior corporate VP job at KlongleWorks, and they announce the new product.”

“Yup, and we get three months to work our way in ourselves.”

“So how do we keep Khan and the Bainies distracted through the weekend?”

I frowned. I was forgetting something. Then I remembered.

“Where do you suppose Cassandra is right now?”

“At the retreat I suppose.”

“And where is this retreat?”

Anscombe tapped briefly on his laptop.

“Some sort of retreat center in the woods. About six hours away looks like.”

I closed my eyes to think.

The retreat was to last through the weekend.

The deal was to go through on Monday.

Saul and his team believed Donna had the ‘flu.

Donna had been genuinely spooked when we mentioned Khan.

The deal hinged on Cassandra Hadoop’s work.

I opened my eyes, leaned forward and yelled in the driver’s ear.

“Turn around. Go back to where you picked us up.”

Anscombe said, “What’s going on?”

“She played us.”

“What do you mean?”

The Uber had turned down Donna’s street again. Her driveway was visible several blocks away. A silver Lexus was backing out.

“Slow down, follow that car. Don’t get too close.”

I turned to Anscombe, “Why do you think she has a retreat scheduled at the same time as a major deal going through?”

“Umm…”

“She’s going to get Cassandra. That’s whom she was expecting at her house.”

Donna’s Lexus had turned down a road heading out of town.

“Where does this road go?” I asked the driver.

“County airport a few miles down. Dead-ends on the waterfront.”

“Alright, go with the flow, but don’t lose the Lexus in the traffic.”

***

The Lexus turned into the airport as I expected. We had the Uber drop us off at the terminal, while the Lexus continued past it towards the parking lot.

Anscombe asked, “now what?”

“Look around, see if you can spot Cassandra.”

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on…?”

“Donna isn’t brokering the deal. Saul is. Donna is stealing the crown jewels.”

Anscombe frowned. Then enlightenment dawned on his face.

“Without Cassandra, there’s no deal…”

“Yes, she engineered the thought-leadership crisis as a distraction while she worked the steal.”

“What about Khan? Was that her too?”

“No. That’s what spooked her. She thought she could handle us, but wasn’t expecting McKinsey gruntforce and Bain telepathy loose on the AspireKat Intranet. She’s afraid they might find out Cassandra is gone too soon, through brute force.”

“So when Saul finds out Cassandra is missing…”

“…he’ll learn about the retreat and rush there, yes. What do you want to bet the retreat center has no phone or WiFi connectivity? That will buy her another day. Except she didn’t think he’d find out until Friday, after the thought leadership crisis.”

We had both been scanning the waiting area as we were talking. There were only a couple of dozen people there. There was nobody who looked like Cassandra.

“She isn’t here.”

“No she isn’t. Any chance you could trace her online?”

“I can try hacking into NORAD and triangulating from cellphone tower pings using the blockchain…but it’s going to take a few minutes.”

“Dammit man, do it.”

Something was wrong. We had been in the terminal for five minutes and Donna had not yet walked through the doors. And Cassandra was nowhere to be seen.

“The trace is working. It will take a few minutes to run. So what can she do with Cassandra? Wouldn’t AspireKat own all the IP for the project anyway?”

“It’s just incomplete code written by one engineer. If she has Cassandra, that will be worthless. And if I know Donna, she has probably arranged to have her lackeys trash the repo with junk code or something.”

“So she’ll just…”

“…sell the actual clean code and Cassandra’s services to some obscure Russian hacker group, yes.”

“And the AspireKat-Klongleworks deal…?”

“…Will fall through at the last minute, and they’ll both just have to watch as some Russian oligarch launches the product in America.”

Anscombe’s computer beeped. The screen showed a map with a large blinking red dot.

“What the hell? According to this, she was here at the airport just minutes ago.”

Shit. I ran to the information desk.

“This is the only terminal at this airport, right?”

“Yes sir. Unless you’re boarding a helicopter. In that case you should head directly to the helipad. Can I get you gentlemen a cart?”

I ran back and grabbed Anscombe by the arm, dragging him with me to the door.

“The helipad. They’re at the helipad,” I yelled.

We could see a helicopter landing the moment we exited. The helipad was fenced in separately, right by where the curving sidewalk ended, about a hundred yards away, past the end of the terminal. In the small parking lot next to it was the silver Lexus. Two figures were standing at the edge of the helipad.

We ran as hard as we could, but it was too late.

Donna was fastening her seatbelt as we got to the helipad gate. Inside, already strapped in, was a young woman I recognized as Cassandra.

Anscombe and I watched despondently as the helicopter lifted off and disappeared from view over international waters.

“Oh well,” I shrugged.

“Yeah,” said Anscombe.

“I suppose we can still bill AspireKat for some hours today.”

“Maybe we should head back? Help Guanxi drag it out longer?”

“I suppose.”

We stood in silence for a while, watching the sun climb higher in the sky. It was almost noon.

“So,” I ventured. “You got any other good gig leads?”

“Well, I heard they’re looking into Holacracy at one of the big studios down in LA. Know anything about it?”

“Hah, I was doing holacracy consulting before they invented a term for it. Let’s talk about it over lunch before we head back.”

“I saw a Taco Bell on the way here.”

“Sure. I’ll buy.”

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. This is great stuff, but as usual I think Karen Moy and Joe Giella manage somehow to say more with less:
    http://m.seattlepi.com/comics/?feature_id=Mary_Worth

  2. pkinsky says:

    Cassandra Hadoop, love it.

    Also, this is hilarious but I think you mean block(c)hain:
    >“I can try hacking into NORAD and triangulating from cellphone tower pings using the blockhain…but it’s going to take a few minutes.”

  3. Was “TransCombe” meant to be a pun/joke on transhumanists?

  4. I’m somewhat disappointed by the plot. The MacGuffin data scientist Cassandra Hadoop was just introduced to avoid the drama that was built in part I. O.K. the scene with the telepathic Bain monks in II was funny but after you let them in you lost your interest in them as well. So you have built a stage for all of those really great figures and factions, a whole new scenic universe, including your alter ego, but after you have introduced them, it looks like you don’t really know what to do with them.

    • Very perceptive :)

      I realized at the end of Part II that I had set up too big a premise for a short story and that I really needed novel-length space to do justice to it. So I ended this sort of half-assedly. If I ever turn this into a longer story, we will of course have Donna and Cassandra still in play, the heroes chasing them to Russia, and McKinsey and Bain in hot pursuit etc.

      tbh, my main goal with this 3-parter was a self-test: to see if I could sustain the discipline of weekly installment writing for fiction. That test worked out. If I actually do serialized fiction though, I think I’ll need a lot more work to put the thing on a sustainable burn.

      • Not sure a novel would help.

        You would possibly begin to write a Trilogy or more, until you are getting bored. You can write great finishes, as the GP series impressively showed. So not all is lost in a branching stream of an infinite game, which either needs a superhuman force to find an end or dies by boredom and heat death.

        tbh, my main goal with this 3-parter was a self-test: to see if I could sustain the discipline of weekly installment writing for fiction.

        Sure, lesser authors have accomplished that in the salt mines of the culture industry for centuries ( centuries is not overstated. The romantic novelist Ludwig Tieck started that way at a very young age in the late 18th century ).