Saturday, April 9, 2011

On Writing Outsourced

Outsourced is the crime book I was born to write.

Let me explain.

At it’s heart Outsourced is a fast-paced, twisty bank heist book, but it’s also about displaced middle-class workers trying to survive in a world that has changed dramatically, and has left them out in the cold. Outsourced deals with a small group of misfit engineers who’ve become obsolete due to outsourcing and technology changes. The main character is Dan Wilson, a forty-eight year-old engineer. Two years earlier the small software startup where he worked closed up shop, and now he's finding that the expertise he acquired over his career has become nearly worthless with companies outsourcing that work to other countries. During this two-year period the only work he was able to find was a short term contract designing a security system for a bank who then outsourced the software coding to India. He's desperate. His middle-class existence is disintegrating quickly, and to make matters worse, he's going blind. Without the long term disability insurance that a job would provide, he'll be sentencing his family to a life of poverty. Desperate people do desperate things, and Dan and three ex-colleagues, who are in equally dire situations, come up with what they think is a brilliant plan to exploit a mistake in the software code for the security system Dan designed. They're going to rob the bank, and not with computers, but with guns. The plan they come up with looks flawless and no one is supposed to get hurt. Dan and his friends should've been reading crime novels, because if they had they’d know there is no such thing as a perfect plan.

Of all my books, this one is my most personal. Dan, and the three other ex-software engineers turned bank robbers, Shrini, Joel and Gordon, could’ve been ex-coworkers of mine. Let me explain further.

My undergraduate degree is in Applied Math and Computer Science. I also have a Master’s degree in Computer Science. I’ve always read a lot, especially as a kid, and always seemed to be drawn to writing. When I was thirteen I found a dog-eared copy of Mickey Spillane’s ‘I, the Jury’ when spending a week at my uncle’s house in Maine, and that got me hooked on crime fiction. But also very early on, I enjoyed math, puzzles, and building software and had a strong aptitude for all that. So writing fiction seemed more of a lark. It just made more practical sense that my career be in developing software than writing fiction. So when I graduated from college, my first job out of school was developing modem software for Motorola. This was in 1982. To show you how times have changed, the modem I was working on was going to be a technological breakthrough which would allow modems to operate over dial lines at 9600 bits per second, and these modems would be selling for an astoundingly low price of ten thousand dollars per unit (in contrast, today’s cable internet access provides speeds in the millions of bits per second).

Back then the software industry was filled with oddballs, eccentrics and more than a few extremely socially awkward and immature people. I worked with one engineer, Lannie, who walked around as if he were an alien (I have to believe he thought he was) and would only greet you with the Vulcan V greeting. And there was Betty Jo who had 3 PhDs and would get so absorbed in her thoughts that she’d walk into a corner and get stuck until someone helped her. And then there was Hal, a malcontent if there ever was one. He sat across from me and every morning he’d yell to me how the company we worked for sucked. When he eventually quit, he did so by interrupting a scheduling meeting to hand his boss his resignation letter, telling him how this would affect the schedule. And there was also an early boss of mine, John, a brilliant person who made huge technological advances to the industry, but until he knew you well enough he could not look directly at you and could barely talk to you.

In those first few years, me and most of my fellow engineers were in this because we loved developing software. We loved the challenge and the logic problems it presented. We all made decent salaries, but stock options weren’t yet prevalent, and we had little prospects of getting rich. So for most of us it was what we enjoyed, and we probably worked about 50-60 hours a week on average. All this started to change in the late 80s and early 90s. First, the relatively good salaries started to bring in engineers who were motivated only by the salaries than the work, and these people tended to quickly get out of engineering and move to management. And the dreams of a lot of these folks were to get rid of engineering completely—the ultimate goal being to write product specifications and have them magically turned into software without ever having to deal with all these odd and geeky software engineers. A much bigger change was the money that started to pour into the industry. By the early 90s with an avalanche of investment money and stock options now being handed out like monopoly money it looked like every software engineer could become a multi-millionaire by joining a hot startup. The reality turned out to be few of us made anything as the tech bubble burst in 2001, and a lot of engineers actually lost a good deal of money by buying stock options and paying AMT taxes on paper gains that never actually existed. So with this new virtual Gold Rush on, software engineers at these startups were now working a minimum of 60-hour weeks, and more likely 80-hour weeks. And the pressure was being turned on full throttle. If you weren’t making these ridiculous deadlines (which in some cases had the goals changing every few days), then you could be responsible for everyone losing out on millions!

Now that I’ve given a brief history of the industry from 1982-2004, let me get back to Outsourced and the events leading up to my writing it.

In 2004 I was approaching my 22nd year working as a software engineer. A little over a year and a half earlier the large network equipment company I was working for killed the product line we were on and laid off everyone in my division. The company I was now with looked like they were struggling and would be going out of business (and they did). From 1992 until 2003 I had written three very different crime novels: Fast Lane, Bad Thoughts and Small Crimes. Fast Lane was part very psychotic noir, part deconstruction of the hard-boiled genre. Bad Thoughts was this grim and nightmare-inducing mix of horror and crime with a strong metaphysical element. Small Crimes was intended as a modern noir with a sub theme of redemption, and was inspired by two true-crime newspaper stories I read. I wrote Small Crimes in 2003 between being laid off and starting this new job. None of my books had yet sold, and while they all seemed very real to me while I was writing them, they were about people and situations that were very foreign to my actual life. This time I wanted to write a book closer to my heart; touching on subjects important to me, like software jobs being outsourced to other countries and engineers who had been sold a bill of goods that if they worked their 80-hour work weeks they’d make their millions. This never happened, and these same engineers were now obsolete thanks to technologies they'd mastered being rapidly replaced by newer ones and by the industry's move to outsource any work they could to cheaper labor. Since I was working 10-12 hours each day at this new struggling company, I didn't have much time to work on Outsourced, no more than a half hour to an hour each night, but it provided a good emotional release for what I was dealing with and what I was seeing happening to friends of mine in the industry.

There's probably more of me in Dan than any other character I've written. Like Dan I was an expert in a field which was quickly becoming obsolete due to outsourcing. And while I have a different eye disease than I gave Dan, I'm also mostly blind in my left eye (and knock wood I'll retain my vision in my right eye). So, I relate to Dan's character strongly, although unlike Dan my escape plan is to write crime fiction instead of robbing a bank (at least for now…) And what about the oddball group of misfit engineers he teams up with? While none of them are based solely on any one person, Shrini, Gordon and Joel could've been co-workers of mine at any of the companies I worked at. A scary thought.

My dedication for Outsourced reads: Outsourced is dedicated to all the software engineers I’ve worked with over the years. And maybe even to a couple of my old managers.

This dedication is heartfelt. Well, at least as far as my fellow software engineers are concerned.

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