Ambush meeting

"Hmmm." Anna is at her desktop computer and stares at one its 30" screens for several minutes. When the screen starts to dim to indicate that the screen saver is about to take over, she taps the control key to stop it, then Alt-TABs to the IRC window. "everyone, we've some news from SH, seems they've been sold and Lasse is being replaced, we should ponder and discuss this". She presses Enter to send the message, then continues to type. "I'll bounce the mail I just got from Sam, please ack you got it, and I'll poke anyone who didn't, since this is important. Let's meet in the kitchen in half an hour to discuss. I'll order pizza for everyone."

The Team starts saying "got it, reading now", one by one. Good, everyone's awake and she doesn't need to rouse anyone from hack mode.

She orders pizza from their usual place, the usual selection, with drinks. After about half an hour the delivery arrives, and she carries it to the kitchen. Everyone else starts gathering there.

Nina grabs a slice. "So, we read the email. On the surface it doesn't seem like it should affect us. Does it?" She opens a large bottle of soda, with a loud hiss, and pours some into a cup.

"You're right. On the surface it doesn't affect us directly or immediately." Robin takes a couple of slice on her plate. "But who knows what the real effects are. So far the SmartHome upper management has not convinced me of being wise, and now anything might happen."

Andy isn't eating, having had a curry lunch elsewhere earlier. "I'm in a Matrix room with some of the SmartHome devs, and they're gossiping. They don't really know what's going to happen either, which is really great for morale and everyone couldn't be happier if they got a thousand bitcoin dumped on them."

Bert chuckles. "Careful there, mate, you sarcasm is showing."

"He's not wrong, though." Robin is shovelling pizza into her mouth and speaks between bits. "This is sure to inject a lot of uncertainty and that's not good for productivity."

Andy shrugs. "Scuttlebutt has it that Lasse is going to be kicked out, and they're hiring a replacement from the outside. Not officially announced, however."

Anna picks up her phone, and fiddles for it a bit. "I've another message from Sam. Andy's right, Lasse's out, and the new guy is starting today. His name is Antero, some kind of management consultant. Antero wants to have an all-hands meeting in about three weeks, so he can be briefed on the project. Exact time and place and agenda to be decided later on. I suggest we're going to participate, we don't really have a choice."

There's nodding and mumbled agreement around the room, and more pizza is taken out of the pizza boxes. Another large bottle of soda is opened with a hiss.

Three weeks pass.

"Sam, thanks for confirming the date for the all-hands. It's Thursday, and the meeting is on Tuesday, is there an agenda yet?" Anna is on the phone, not visibly agitated.

"Sorry, we've not had an agenda either. I'll poke around and see if we can't get one soon."

"Thanks. Meetings without a clear agenda do tend to be useless."

That afternoon the agenda arrives by email. Anna vents on internal IRC. "I just got the agenda for Tuesday. Forwarded it. Not happy, but it's what we have."

"Fails to have a goal for the meeting, or to say what each participant should do at the meeting, if anything. Or to spell our names right. Great start, Antero." Robin does not like badly run meetings and is feeling uncharitable. "I count a total of 17 typos in a screenful of text, and that's ignoring bad grammar, logical inconsistencies, and other errors. This is standard fare for management consultants, but I'm not having a great feeling about this."

The Team and all the SmartHome developers, and some new people are all gathered in the large meeting room at SmartHome offices.

"Welcome, everyone. I am Antero Virtanen. I'm the new CEO of SmartHome. I suggest we start this meeting with introductions. I'll go first, and then we go around the room, and everyone can say their name and very briefly what they do. But do keep it brief, there's a lot of us here."

He opens his laptop, and starts connecting it to the video wall in the meeting room. After a minute, he gives up, and another new face gets up and takes over.

"While Paul gets my laptop to work, I'll start. My background is a management consultant, and I don't really know much about the technology this company uses." Antero giggles briefly.

"I started at SmartHome three weeks ago and have been getting up to speed on things. Today is all about me getting up to speed with the technology side of the company, and getting all of you working well together."

Robin and Anna look at each other. Both raise their eyebrows a little, then turn back to look at Antero.

"I would also like to introduce Paul, who seems to have gotten my laptop connected. He's the new chief of IT and technology. We go back a long way with Paul. I brought him with me to SmartHome. Some of you remember Martina. Paul replaces her."

Paul waves. "Hi, I'm Paul Piper. I do computer things for Antero. This is now my third company where I work for him. I tend to prefer Macs, and we'll have to discuss if the plethora of Windows and Linux machines I see around the room is the best way to organise things. But that's not on topic for today."

Robin and Anna share another eyebrow moment. This time, the rest of the Team joins in. They've heard this before, someone wanting to mandate what developers run on their development machines. It's never a good sign.

The round of introductions start. Everyone is clearly doing their best to be brief. The Team members stand up when it's their turn, briefly say who they are, and sit down again.

Antero rubs his hands together. "Good, good, that went well. Let's get started for real. First order of business, who would like to explain what the SmartHome product really is?"

Sam stands up, walks to the podium with his laptop, detaches Antero's, connects his own, and starts a presentation. While the slides are clearly re-used from company marketing material, it's also clear he's prepared the presentation for the meeting.

Another eyebrow moment for the Team, boosted by small shrugs.

"Thank you, Sam." Antero rubs his hands together again. "Now, I understand we have hired a company to help us improve our products for a new generation. I believe that's you guys, Anna. I'd like to understand what that's all about. Could you walk all of us through that?"

Anna gives Robin a glace, and stands up. "Robin would be better for going through the technical stuff than I am, but I'll give a brief overview. I've not prepared a presentation, since one wasn't indicated in the agenda, so this will be brief and ad libbed."

"Don't worry, Anna. This is not an audit or any kind of attack on you and your people." Antero keeps rubbing his hands together.

"Very well. What we in the Team have is a customisable software platform for building the kinds of IoT systems that SmartHome's products are. We've provided it to other customers, too. It's kind of generic, but requires some customisation for each hardware platform, which we've done for SmartHome. Our platform makes it simpler to write reliable distributed IoT applications. We're currently---"

Antero has stopped rubbing, and interrupts in a gentle tone. "But SmartHome already had working products. Why do we need your platform?"

Anna looks at him for a moment, entirely motionless and expressionless. Without taking her eyes off Antero, or moving, she speaks slowly. "You may want to ask that of Sam, or the others who came to us. He can tell you in exactly what shape SmartHome products are and why you need to fix them in order not to go bankrupt."

Sam clears his throat. "Anna is correct. We approached them to help us update our entire product line. Our current product line is in trouble. We have serious problems with security, for example, and are taking a lot of heat about it in the market."

Antero sighs. "Very well. Let's continue. I've asked various engineers, SmartHome engineers that is, to prepare a presentation on the Teams' new platform. I understand there's some concerns about stability. Anders, if you wouldn't mind?"

Anders stands up, smiling tightly. He brings his laptop to the end of the conference table, attaches it to the projector, and waits for his first slide to show up. The title is "Issues with the Team platform." The Team members shift position in their chairs. Their faces are carefully expressionless. They don't say anything.

"I've been part of the group at SmartHome helping get the Team's new platform into place. I must say I'm not convinced of their professionalism or competence. The platform is slow and riddled with bugs, which I think are due to the excessive complexity of the software."

He changes slides. The new slide is titled "Known bugs" and lists, in a small font, a very large number of issues, with scary titles. "I'm sure bugs can be fixed. Creating and fixing bugs is what software developers are all about, after all. Heh Heh."

The Team looks at Anna, who looks back, concentrating on Nina, and shakes her head minutely.

Anders continues. "I'm more worried about performance. I did some benchmarks, and the devices can barely handle a few thousand HTTP requests per second now. With our production version, we can handle at least ten times that."

Antero nods. "That seems like a big problem."

"Yeah. At the same time I agree that we do need to fix our products. I did a quick proof of concept replacement, which I think we could use as a base of a new platform that we develop in-house. It's only a few hundred lines of PHP. For speed, I've dropped some of the things the Team does in the name of security, which I don't think we actually need."

Antero nods. "No point in paying in performance for things we don't need. What have you dropped?"

Anders smirks quickly. "I don't think we need HTTPS, plain old HTTP is much faster and nobody's really going to eavesdrop inside a home anyway. Also, plain HTTP basic authentication is fine, we don't need the elaborate OAuth2 signed JWT token nonsense that the Team is fond of. All the crypto requires CPU cycles we can't afford."

Antero nods again. "That seems sensible. Anna, would you like to comment?" Anders sniggers quietly.

Anna is silent and motionless, but it's clear she's suppressing strong emotions. After a few seconds, she looks at Robin, who nods. "I'm afraid I don't want to comment. This is now a hostile situation. You've ambushed us, and expect us to defend ourselves against an attack. We're not prepared to work with a client that does this. Our contract has a clause for this eventuality, and it means we terminate our involvement in the project as of this moment. We'll be sending you our final invoice soon."

Anna stands up. The rest of the Team stands up. "We're leaving now. Have a good day."

In unison, the Team step away from the table and march towards the exit. The room is quiet. Anders looks triumphant, Antero looks surprised, but neither moves or says anything.

The Team is gathered in their own kitchen. They are subdued. Bert is the first to speak. "Well, that was fun. What do we now?"

Andy's head snaps toward Bert. "What do you think? We lost our only client, we panic and go bankrupt."

Nina grunts. "Maybe we can find something else, quickly enough."

Robin sighs deeply, and holds her mug in both hands, but says nothing. Anna knocks her knuckles on the table. "OK, everyone. I would like to tell us all to be calm, but we're clearly upset, and we should vent. So for a while everyone can say what they want, and be as nasty as they want, but not to each other. Only towards our former client."

Andy nods. "I'm the one with the most fragile personal financial situation here. The one with a mortgage and family to support. Just observing. I can't take personal risks for long. If the Team can't pay my salary, I'm going to have to find other employment. I can't afford to miss a single month, I'm afraid."

Bert shakes his head. "I hear you, although I'm able to be more flexible myself. RUDE WORD this is not fun. I wonder if we should've been more humble and not cut our ties to SmartHome."

Robin lifts her head. "I don't think it's about humility. It's about having a working relationship with a client that doesn't hurt us, emotionally, physically, or financially. What Antero did killed that."

Everyone nods. Bert nods, too. "Yeah, I guess. I just fear what will happen to us now."

Robin nods. "We'll have to find other income. But make no mistake, if we'd caved under, things would have gotten worse. I've seen that happen enough times. Giving in to bullies only gets you beat up."

The room goes quiet. Anna clears her throat. "I agree with Robin. Does anyone want to say anything else?" She waits for a moment. "Very well. If you think of something to say later, don't hesitate to say it. This isn't over. I suggest we finish the work day now, and come back to the office tomorrow, and start beating the bushes to see if we can't find a new client quickly."

There's nods and murmurs of agreement. Everyone gets up quietly, puts their mugs away, and starts leaving.

"Hi. Shitty things today. Lunch?" Nina checks her phone after it's bleeped at her. She taps a response to Nick. "Food court at Forum in half an hour?"

Nina and Nick get their portions of food and sit at a table. "That was s shitty thing my employer did to you." Nick looks at his plate.

Nina shrugs. "There wasn't anything you could've done. It is what it is. We'll just have to find a new client and move on. But I'm done with work for today. Do you have time to sit and chat? I could do with a friendly ear."

The two sit in the food court all afternoon. After they finish their food, they keep talking.

Nick gets back to his employer's office, and Antero sees him in the corridor. "Nick, my office, stat." Antero is clearly upset, but keeps his voice low. Nick walks briskly to Antero's office.

"A SmartHome employee saw you at the food court this afternoon. You seem to have very friendly with that young woman from the Team. What do you have to say for yourself?"

Nick tilts his head. "Nothing? What's the problem?"

Antero is standing, and makes fists of his hands, and leans them on his desk. "That's unacceptable. You're clearly fraternising with the enemy. You either break up with the girl, or you resign. I'm not having any of my employees collude with the enemy like that."

Nick takes a step back. "Are you serious?"

Antero leans forward, putting more weight on his fists. His volume is rising. "I'm deadly serious. You're fired. Leave at once."

Nick takes another step back. "You can't fire me like that. It's not legal. That's why we have unions and legal protections for employees, to protects us from employers being arbitrary. If you want to fire me, put it in writing, and I'll take it to a lawyer. Otherwise I'm going to my cubicle and continue working."

Antero takes a stapler from his desk, and looks like he's going to throw it. Nick leaves the office, and closes the door behind him.

Antero puts the stapler back on his desk, and picks up his phone, and makes a call. "It's me. Are you up for some work? Tonight. Just you, it's only a small woman."

Nina is walking home from the bus stop nearest to her home. It's been a long day. She's tired. Every step feels almost too heavy. She's going to just collapse into bed and be dead for the world until the morning. Her phone bleeps. It's a message from Nick, who tells what Antero did. Nina puts her phone away, and continues walking. She's no longer slouching, and there's an energetic vibe to her steps.

She rounds a corner, and almost walks into a man. A very large, muscular man, who for some reason is wearing a purple ski mask. The man hits her in the stomach with his fist, then shoves her against the wall, roughly. Nina's head hits the wall, and she sees stars.

"Stay away from Nick, you bitch. And his employer. If they see you again, I'll come back and hurt you."

The main lifts Nina up and holds he against the wall. Nina's feet don't touch the ground.

"Do you understand, bitch? You stay away. Say you understand."

Nina is feeling nauseous. "You hurt me..."

The man shakes Nina. "You stay away. Say you understand, or I'll hurt you more."

"OK. I understand." Nina speaks quietly, sounding like a small girl on the verge of crying.

The man throws her the side. She falls to the ground, and cries out in pain. The man leaves.

Nina is at home, sitting on the floor, leaning towards a wall. She throws a rubber ball into the air, almost hitting the ceiling, and catches it. She repeats this, over and over again, with nearly no variation. After a while she puts the ball aside, picks up her phone, and taps a message to Nick. "Thanks for telling me. Best if we don't meet in public for a while. Going to have to process this. Your employer is now officially a RUDE WORD poophead." She taps "send" and puts the phone away again. She picks up the ball and starts throwing and catching it again.

The room goes darker, as the sun sets. Nina gets up and goes rummage in her bedroom closet. She throws some clothing onto the bed: a pair of black cargo pants, black socks, a black t-shirt with no printing, a black army sweater, and some other things, all black. She goes into another room and rummages in a cupboard. She pulls out a black military style backpack, and puts a multi-tool, some cables, and a roll of duct tape into the backpack. She takes out a black, unmarked laptop, not her usual one, and checks that its' battery is fully charged. She puts it into the backpack.

She goes into her living room, and starts a program on her desktop computer. Suddenly a somewhat loud discussion between two different people starts playing from her stereo. She opens her living room ventilation window.

She goes back into the bedroom, and changes clothes. She puts on a black bomber jacket, and black baseball cap. She puts her keys into a jacket pocket. She dons the backpack, and leaves.

Outside, she goes into a nearby park, and goes to where a forest starts. She looks around for a bit, and finds a rock the size of a gym ball. She wrestles it aside, revealing a small box with a combination lock. She opens the box, which seems to contain some USB drives, some cash, various credit card sized items, and what looks like a passport. She takes a USB drive and several credit cards that are all green with concentric rings as decoration, and puts her home keys into the box. She closes the box, locking it, and puts back. She wrestles the rock back into place, hiding the lock-box.

She pulls her cap lower onto her eyes, and starts walking through the park, via a little-used path through the forest. Some distance away there are teenagers being noisy, and someone walking a barking dog, but she doesn't meet anyone. After a long walk she exits the park on the opposite side of her home. She's walked several kilometers, not her usual route when leaving home, and it's getting quite dark.

She comes to a bus station. Soon a bus arrives, and she boards it. She shows the green credit card to the travel card reader to pay for the bus ride. She looks down on the floor, hiding her face from the driver. The bus is almost empty so she picks a seat near the exit door.

After a while, she exits the bus, and walks another kilometer, to another bus stop. She boards the next bus, and uses another pre-paid, green travel card to pay for the trip. She changes buses a few more times, until she arrives, and starts walking. She's about two kilometers away from the SmartHome office.

She arrives at the SmartHome office. The building is dark. It's clearly past the office hours, and nobody is staying late. The building is going to be locked, but Nina walks around it, in the forest surrounding the building. She leaves the forest and walks next to the side of the building, and sits on the ground, leaning against the wall, legs crossed. It's a side of the building that's not visible to the road that goes past the building. There's some artificial lighting, and possibly a security camera, but she's not doing anything visibly illegal. She takes out her laptop from the bag, opens it up on her knees and thighs.

She stares at the screen, opens up a terminal window, types some commands, and reads the output. She's at this for a while, an hour. After she's done, she puts the laptop back in the bag, puts the bag in her bag, and leaves via the forest. She walks to another bus stop than the one she used to arrive, and uses yet another travel card. On her way back home, via a different route than when she left, she makes a stop at a mall. She takes her laptop and dismantles it, putting the pieces in the WEEE containers of several different electronics stores behind the mall.

It is late morning. Antero comes to work, whistling as he enters the office building lobby. It's going to be a good day.

Three uniformed police officers meet him. They're carrying a laptop, and a thick sheaf of papers. "Antero Virtanen?" He nods in assent. "How can I help you?"

"You're under arrest on suspicion of corporate espionage and sabotage. Turn around, we'll be putting handcuffs on you. There's a car waiting outside to take you to the police station."

"What? That's outrageous." Antero protests loudly, but turns around. He's handcuffed. "What proof do you have?"

"We can discuss that at the station. Just come along quietly, please."

Anna's phone makes a noise. She's at home, and is woken up by the phone. "Uh, Anna here?"

"It's Sam. There's been a development. Big changes this morning."

"What's up? It's too early for me. I didn't get to bed until late."

"This will cheer you up, I think. Antero's been arrested, and I'm the acting CEO for the time being."

"Arrested? What? Why? And what does this mean for the Team?"

"Look, I was really unhappy at the stunt Antero and Anders pulled yesterday. It was an ambush, and I need you to believe it was as much a surprise to me as it was to you. Do you trust me enough to believe me on that? Please?"

Anna coughs. "Ah, yeah, I guess."

"Good, thanks. I'd like to undo everything that happened yesterday. I'd like to bring the Team back on the project. Can we pretend yesterday didn't happen?"

Anna coughs some more. She takes a breath. "Look, you woke me up. I need to wake up and connect with my people and talk it over. Can I call back to you in an hour or two?"