Back before I became a full-time part-timer, which is to say, a proud member of the ranks of uninsured and self-employed, I used to work for a rather large internet company. I learned a lot about corporate behavior in that volatile environment, having the opportunity to watch the company morph from a 100-person startup to a 750-person minor behemoth. We were essentially a search engine, although as the company tumesced, it came to seem more like a stasis engine. Still, busybody executives needed to do something in order to generate the illusion of their usefulness, and so a bout of acquisitions ensued. All manner of small companies were plucked off the market and folded rather unceremoniously into our company – rather like origami as performed by a jack-hammer operator, say – and our ranks swelled with unfamiliar, dazed-looking employees shunted into makeshift desks in conference rooms, hallways, and cubicle farms.
It became clear that our company would need to acquire another search engine, as our underlying technology was woefully inadequate. The search was eventually narrowed to just two companies, and the engineering team undertook a careful analysis of the technology of each. When the engineers finally made their recommendation, their choice was a small, private company that was already gaining a reputation as a masterful search engine, perhaps the best there was. (They were prescient: that search engine’s name would eventually become a verb in common usage.) The executives listened to the engineers’ recommendation, and promptly turned around and acquired company B, a company whose technology was clearly inferior. Over the course of time, the error of their ways became almost laughably apparent. We had spent an ungodly sum of money on a lemon. But the executives, it seems, had their minds made up from the beginning. The engineers’ “bake-off” was a mere formality. The executives – one of whom occasionally carried a baseball bat – had rigged the game from the start.
Reading Richard Clarke’s allegations that even in the first hours after the 9/11 attacks, George Bush pressed him to find a way to link Iraq to the attacks, I’m struck by the parallels – in method if not scale. What we see, it seems, is a particular type of corporate director: the Prejudicial Executive, for whom all data must bend to his will. (This appellation gives the phrase “terminate with extreme prejudice” an intriguing new resonance, in the era of “right-sizing.”) Bush was hell-bent upon attacking (or, to extend the metaphor, acquiring) Iraq, no matter what the engineers had to say about it.
When Bush was elected president, the economic boom was still in full swing (even though the boom in question turned out to be like the boom of a sail, ready to snap back and brain us all with the slightest shifting of the wind), and executives were revered as rock stars. Bush, we were told, was the first CEO president.
How true that turns out to have been.