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A Spy in the House of Work

I’m sure you’ve read the headlines in all the papers. It was billed as one of the worst debacles in dotcom history — at least statistically: “One-Third of Laid Off!” Like a lot of the things that happen in the neorealistic world of dotcom-dom, it’s both true and not true. I’m here to tell you the story behind the story.


It happened, well, a little like this: We folks at, despite our modest and continued success, understand that these have not been easy times for our dotcom brethren. Sure, we’ve been able to continue to run our business in the black. Our surefire formula: few employees, few customers, few revenues, fewer expenses. Still, we feel their pain. After all, we’ve been to any number of pink-slip parties hosted by cheeky outplacement firms trolling for clients. Martinis with clever names! Live music! Spirited complaining! False bonhomie! (Hey, when you’re getting laid off, there’s no such thing as genuine bonhomie.)

To demonstrate our solidarity with our fellow ex-workers in the ex-new economy, we held a post-pink-slip-party party: a pick-me-up for the next morning, because you wake up, and by 9 AM you’re already exhausted from trying to keep the word “failure” out of your mind. Invitations went out, asking the neounemployed to join us at world headquarters. (Another reason for our profitability: We never moved out of Spud’s mom’s garage. Rent: Zero.)

The only person who showed up was my longtime friend Rhonda. “You guys have a lousy reputation,” Rhonda said, helping herself to a cup of Folgers (part of our post-dotcom expectation-adjustment program). “Forget the fact that your burn rate was nonexistent. You’ve never laid off a single soul.”

It’s one thing to be profitable in an unprofitable world. But there’s nothing worse than feeling despised by your fellow dotcomsters. Desperate times call for desperate measures: My cofounders, Spud and Darth, agreed that we had to lay someone off — if only for the street cred. Since I was the partner in charge of personnel, the task fell to me. There wasn’t a whole lot of choice, since the whole company was just the three of us, and it was Spud’s mom’s garage, and Darth was the only one who could program. I caught my reflection in the plate-glass window and immediately felt a tinge of sorrow for me. How would I break it to myself? Email would be the obvious choice, but there was something nice and heartless about using the PA system (which I eventually ruled out because, well, in the garage, we don’t have one). In the end, I left myself a voice mail, then sent out a press release announcing that had just laid off one-third of its employees.

I now walk among those whom the Census Bureau calls “permanent job losers.” I have a lot of time on my hands to figure out whether that means I am a person who has lost a permanent job or I am a permanent loser who, on top of losing everything else, has now lost his job.

The guys I play basketball with have no sympathy. They’re 9-to-5ers, with those old concerns that are once again mine: Is my department profitable? Have I stolen one too many boxes of Zip disks? Should I get a thing going with Tawny the Plant Lady? “You’re breaking my heart,” says Lawrence, a loan officer. “It’s like feeling sorry for people who think buying a lottery ticket is an investment plan. Get real, bro.”


In truth, it was like that. I worked 18 hours a day, 6 days a week. Well, okay, at I worked about 3 hours a day, 3 days a week. But I know people who’ve logged in long hours. I was pursuing more than a job; I was pursuing a dream. Well, okay, it wasn’t exactly a dream, either. Like the company name said, it was an e – con job. Still, getting laid off is for other people — people with less vision, people who are part of the world where there’s the talk and then there’s the walk. We were a better breed. Or so we thought. We lived in a world of work where, for one brief and shining moment, the talk was the walk.

This is the latest episode in The Spy’s continuing saga, “Working Behind Enemy Lines.” You can find the entire Spy chronicles on the Web (