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The Case of the Petrified Programmer

By Daniel Appleman
Copyright ©2001 by Daniel Appleman - All Rights Reserved

Dan Appleman is the world's inventor and sole author of the genre he refers to as "Soft-boiled detective techno-thriller parody" (when he isn't referring to it as something else). In this story his alter ego and cohort D.T. face one of the most dangerous cases in their respective careers).

It was too quiet. Even the spider had packed up its dusty cobweb for grimier corners, leaving the cracked window in the door deceptively clean. In the days since the Dot-Bust, ex-millionaires were too busy watching their plummeting portfolios to get into any serious trouble. No trouble meant no cases.

I was almost startled when I heard the slight vibrations of footsteps on the narrow staircase leading to my office. I put down my last copy of the Industry Standard, and laid my hand beside the drawer that held the Beretta. No premonition - just routine.

The silhouette in the glass was shapely - a dame. I tensed, and nudged the drawer open slightly. One never knew. The door opened and she slunk in. I sunk into my worn leather seat in shock. It was the last person I would expect.

It was D.T. She was crying.

I was at her side in a flash and guided her into the dorm style chair that passed for a chair. Then I reached into the desk for a KFC hand wipe, and pried it open for her. She took it gratefully, blew her nose, wiped her tears, and licked her fingers.

Then broke into tears again.

Now I've seen blood. I've seen Horror. I've seen business plans that would make even the folks on Sand Hill road die laughing. But seeing D.T. cry really threw me.

D.T.'s been my rock - my most reliable source for years. D.T. is short for Deep Throat - she's seen All the President's Men more times than you can count. No matter how tough the problem, I could always find her at the latest soon to be hot café just before it was discovered. There she would be, sipping the latest fashionable beverage, working on her laptop, and watching the scenery walk by. She could always find the answer. She's the hacker's hacker, the programmer's programmer, the geekiest geek - all wrapped up in a package that could get her a job in Hollywood in a heartbeat, if she were willing to drop her IQ by a hundred points or so.

She was the last person I would expect to find crying in my office.

"Hey, Deet's - you know whatever it is, I'm there for you", I knelt beside her. "Lord knows, you've pulled me out of plenty of tight spots. What is it? Blackmail? A stalker? A disk crash? Name it. I'll take care of it. I'll even charge you my pulp-fiction rate of fifty dollars a day plus expenses. Who or what did this to you?"

She shuddered and gripped my hand. I could see the struggle as she forced out the words.

"Dot Net".

Chills went up my spine.

Look, I'm just a neighborhood P.I. True, the neighborhood in question is Silicon Valley, which is a bit more civilized than the big city where I was trained. And it can be just as rough in its own way. But I'm no Sherlock Holmes. I've never handled a really big case, and here she was, dropping in my lap one so big that I knew for a fact that every consultant in town was hiding in terror that someone would come to them bearing those fateful words. If it were anyone else, I'd make up a lame excuse and be gone in a heartbeat. But this was D.T. All this ran through my mind in seconds. I looked her squarely in the eyes, and my voice barely cracked as I replied.

"I'll take the case."

I was glad her eyes were still teary. I don't think she could see me sweat.

Chapter 2 - The Shadow

We left to search for leads. Not that it was hard to find information about .NET. The convention center was holding a DotNet Developer Tour. Fry's Electronics had free DotNet samplers with every copy of XP. Billboards advertised DotNet web-services. McDonalds was giving away free DotMcNet toys with every Big Mac. Clearly, Microsoft's marketing folks were doing their usual overwhelmingly thorough job. But none of those sources were the kind of leads we were looking for.

Fortunately, what we were looking for was not hard to find - in fact, it was trying to find us.

I first noticed the shadow while walking past the newly renamed DotNet cinamaplex 45 theatres (24x7 presentations on DotNet, alternating with first run feature films, for only $295 for a double feature, $195 if you use discount code XYZZY).

He was wearing a trench coat, which made me suspicious because it was 85 outside.

We ducked behind an alleyway and he followed. I let D.T. go ahead. I slowed down to let him catch up. His shadow against the wall gave him away as he reached into his coat and pulled out a gun. I ducked and spun, sucker punching him in the gut. He folded over and I grabbed for the gun, but he slammed me against the wall. I fell against a brick fragment that finally eradicated an itch that had been bugging me for days. I grabbed the fragment from behind and bashed him in the head with it. Then I knelt over him, grabbed his collar and yelled: "What was that all about, you slime bag?"

He answered through clenched teeth: "because, you idiot, this is a detective mystery, and you can't claim to fit into the genre without at least one scene of gratuitous violence!" He then slumped into unconsciousness.

"Bah", I muttered, as I dropped him to the ground. D.T. came over, having overheard the exchange.

"You don't believe in gratuitous violence, do you?" she commented.

"Right," I answered. Getting the hint I searched his pockets and found the inevitable clue - an address on a brown card" with a picture of a laptop wearing a white mustache and the caption "Got Net?"

We were on our way.

Chapter 3 - Friends of Bill G.

We were in the poorer part of town, where single family homes sell for under $400,000, so I didn't expect much. We rapped twice on the door, and were let into a room, bare except for the dozen or so people seated on cheap folding chairs in a circle. We took our seats and listened to the first guy up.

"My name is Joe and I am a VB programmer" he sobbed. "I taught myself VB. I walked twenty miles through the snow to buy VB books at the local Computer Literacy. I was the company's VB expert - everyone looked up to me and came to me with their tough questions. Now they're taking that away from me. VB .NET is too big, too complex. All those young whippersnappers with new degrees are taking to it like water, and I'm being left behind!"

I could see D.T. watching intently. We had indeed found what we were looking for.

"I know what you mean," interrupted another programmer. "My name is Tammy and I am a VB programmer. I lost my job when my company went to .NET. My husband left me with my best friend and the kids contracted incurable diseases. Then my cat died and they cancelled Star Trek Voyager."

"Are you telling us everything?" the group leader asked gently.

"We also ran out of coffee!" she sobbed.

This led to total chaos as most of the attendees lost it and panicked. Two men in western garb came into the room and dragged the sobbing Tammy away. I later heard she became a great success as a country western singer starting with her hit song "Stand by your LAN".

At first D.T. seemed shocked and depressed as the chaos continued. Then suddenly she looked over to me and exclaimed: "This is nuts!" She grabbed a chair and threw it at the window, shattering the glass. She then ran towards it and dived forward into the air. I rushed up, just in time to watch her James Bond her way down the side of the building, do a swing off the flagpole, a double flip down onto a canopy, and land safely on a skateboard which she proceeded to ride down the middle of the street, gracefully dodging traffic on either side.

I was relieved. We were well overdue for an action scene.

Chapter 4 - The Road to Salvation

The black limo with the Russian diplomatic tags didn't stop for more than a minute by the marker at side of Highway 17 where I was staked out. I moved quickly after it left and followed the footprint to the half empty sandbag. I grabbed the paper, half hidden in the sand, dove into my car and sped off with just moments to spare. What was sure to be a 5 hour traffic jam was already forming up behind me. It wasn't until I passed Lexington reservoir that I could relax and look at what I had found.

It was a fancy Hallmark envelope with an invitation.

It was from D.T.

I arrived that evening. The parking lot was jammed. The understated sign outside read "D.T.'s Intensive VB.NET Training Program"

I walked in and it was as if I had entered Valhalla.

People were gathered by the pool, swimming and laughing. Scantly clad waiters and waitresses served hors d'oeuvre as a barbeque pit broiled chicken and rib-eyes. I looked over and caught D.T.'s eye. She detached herself from a group of smiling individuals and made her way over.

"This is VB .NET training?" I asked.

She smiled. "Thanks to you."

I raised my eyebrows in question.

"That's what I learned from that encounter group you found for me. The problem with learning VB.NET isn't the language changes or the complexity. It's the fear. I was feeling the same things as those other programmers. Here I was, a respected VB6 expert and now I have to start again from scratch learning this entire new development paradigm. Frankly, it had me terrified."

"So how does that translate into this party?" I asked. "And what does that have to do with training?"

"Isn't it obvious? she answered. "The first step to teaching people VB.NET must be to overcome the fear and uncertainty. People who are stressed and afraid don't learn well, and there is a lot to learn. So here's how my program works:"

"Every developer entering the program is required to first take a day off. We lock up their laptops in a safe and confiscate their wireless devices - even cell phones. I want them thoroughly relaxed - like taking a deep breath before an athletic event."

"Next, we talk about the size of the transition to .NET. Not to scare them, but rather to show how this is going to be a long transition. From a developer's perspective VB .NET is a whole new way of programming - like moving from DOS to Windows or 16 bit Windows to 32 bit Windows. Those kinds of transitions don't happen overnight. So developers need to be reassured that they have time to learn this new technology - plenty of time. I explain to them that there's no need to port most of their existing software to VB .NET - in fact that's a waste of money in most cases. I show them how to use COM interop to let .NET and COM software coexist."

"Then I show them all the resources available to help them learn. There is a lot of material being published about .NET both from Microsoft and other sources. I encourage them to read reviews on sites like Amazon to help them choose books that have worked well for other programmers."

"So that's why we party, " she continued. "to show programmers that VB .NET should be looked at as a fun challenge, and not an ordeal to be faced."

I nodded. It all made sense in an odd sort of way. "You know, D.T., isn't it a bit unusual to be so focused on these emotional issues? I mean, don't programmers just want to drill down into the technology right away?"

"That's a myth," she said seriously. "Software developers are people, not machines, and while more accepting of change than most, change is stressful nonetheless. You can't pretend it doesn't exist. You'd be amazed how many people have privately thanked me for being straight with them."

"And what about you?" I asked.

"Well, " she grinned, "extreme change makes for great business for trainers - another insight I gained at that encounter group you brought me to. And teaching is a great way to learn, so I'm coming up to speed quickly. I figure to be a .NET expert in another six months to a year."

"Six months to a year?" I was surprised. D.T. is really smart. "Isn't that rather long?".

"Not at all - .NET is BIG and there is a lot to learn. But you don't have to know all of it to do some really cool stuff. So while I may not be an expert, I can still do real work with it. Maybe I'm not as quick as I'll be - I still sometimes find myself spending hours trying to figure out how to do something that later turns out to be obvious - but that's ok. It's part of the learning process."

I was happy for her. For myself as well, because I knew it wouldn't be long before a .NET case walked through my door and I would need to turn to her for help. She would be ready. We said goodbye and I helped myself to snacks.

"Oh, one more thing," she stopped me as I was about to turn and leave. She reached into her pocket and handed me a fifty. "Thanks for your help, " she smiled.

I smiled back and tipped my hat at her. That's the mark of a true friend in this business - they never stiff you.

Comments and inside jokes:

Normally I would never bother to explain any of the jokes, but I do realize that many readers of this particular story are not only from outside of Silicon Valley, but likely to be outside of the U.S. and not native English speakers. So for those who are interested, here is a brief summary of the cultural references and why they are at least supposed to be humorous.

Chapter 1

The Industry Standard: A famous dot-com generated magazine that I personally had never heard of until I read about its collapse.

KFC hand wipes: The reason their chicken is finger licking good is because the envelopes that hold the pre-moistened towlettes require a Ginsu knife to open. You inevitably end up licking your fingers before you can get them open.

Sand Hill Road: The street in Palo Alto where most of the Silicon Valley venture capital firms have their offices. It's a sign of the times that for the first time in years they actually have a measurable vacancy rate.

Chapter 2

Dot Net Developer Tour: A major road show put on by Microsoft, distinguished by the fact that every attendee gets a copy of my Moving to VB.NET book (which Microsoft actually paid for).

Fry's Electronics: A combination electronics, computer store and house of worship for Silicon Valley techies.

Ticket prices: You think $195 is steep for a double features? Just wait a few years.

XYZZY: You are in a maze of twisty passages all alike. Just kidding - one of the secret codes in the original Colossal Cave adventure game. Which sure dates me, doesn't it?

Got Net?: Parody of the Got Milk? advertising campaign that shows up periodically on television.

Chapter 3:

Friends of Bill W. is a code phrase for an meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. And no, I've never been to one personally - not that there's anything wrong with it (which is, in turn, a take off of a Seinfeld episode).

$400,000 for a cheap single family home: Unfortunately, not a joke. But you can get a small but nice 2 bedroom condo at that price.

Computer Literacy: Was once the best technical bookstore in the valley. Sadly gone - victims of a down economy.

Snow: It almost never snows in Silicon Valley. We start complaining about the cold here any time it goes below 60°F.

Stand by your LAN: Parody of Tammy Wynette's famous song "Stand by your man".

We ran out of coffee: Blatantly stolen from the movie Airplane. Rent it today if you've never seen it.

James Bond: The master of impossible stunts.

Chapter 4:

Highway 17: A four lane mountain highway from Santa Cruz to Silicon Valley. Notorious for beautiful scenery, and traffic jams long enough for even the most ardent nature lover to get tired of the views.

Sandbag: Highway 17 is subject to mudslides during the winter. Sandbags are sometimes used to shore up the sides.

Lexington Reservoir: A beautiful lake during the winter and spring which usually empties by late Summer early fall.

Valhalla: The Viking's idea of heaven.

Note on political correctness:

I am, of course, perfectly politically correct in every way. However, the character in this story is not, and I hereby disclaim all responsible for any opinions he holds or is foolish enough to express.

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