The Stanford Experiment
Jake stood dead still, his head turned to the side, listening. The muffled sound of basketball on the television wafted in from the living room. Baltimore was losing. Which meant that his father was going to be in a very bad mood. With a shaking hand, Jake cracked open the door to the master bedroom and slipped inside the closet. His ten-year old eyes raced past the shirts and the pants and his mother’s dresses covered with clear protective plastic. This had to be where she put it!
He quickly scanned the shelves, prodding the contents. Nothing. He dropped to the floor and laid his cheek on the carpet, straining to see under the clothes hanging on the lower rod.
“Du verdammte Misgeburt!” Jake heard his father swear in German. He froze, eyes riveted on the doorway. His parents had strict rules where he could go in the house...and their closet was not one of them.
His eyes followed white shelves ringing three of the four walls. He stood on his tip-toes. There! Behind the suitcase! He could just make out a corner of the cardboard shoebox. His eyes shot around the closet until they fell on a small three-rung stepstool. He grabbed it, pulled the two sides apart, and scrambled up. Straining, his fingers closed around the box.
“What the hell are you doing in here?” his father roared in his thick accent.
Jake whipped around, nearly falling off the ladder. He clutched the box to his chest. His father’s large frame filled the doorway, blocking his escape.
“It’s mine!” he shouted.
“It’s an insult! You give me that garbage. Right now!”
“What did you say?”
“I said no!”
His father’s eyebrows came together. “You give me that filthy box or I swear, I’ll whip you so hard you won’t sit down for a week!”
“No!” Jake tightened his grip.
Without a word, his father lunged towards him, but his limp made him slow. Jake flew off the ladder, darted past him and ran down the hall.
“Get back here!” he heard his father shout.
But he didn’t stop. Their house was small and it only took a few steps to reach the front door. He threw it open and started running. There was only one place to go. One place where he knew someone would help him.
Jake Bernstein parked his beat-up Toyota sedan and shut off the engine, which died with a sickly mechanical wheeze. He wrapped both arms around the steering wheel and leaned forward, staring through the windshield, ignoring the crack that was slowly working its way up from the corner.
To everyone else in the world, Jake realized, this was just another boring office building in Sunnyvale, California; a non-descript square box off the Lawrence Expressway that hardly deserved a passing glance.
But he knew otherwise. His entire future rested on what was going on inside.
His ears picked up a low, deep rumble. He looked out to his left. A black Porsche convertible pulled up next to him, its engine humming. He watched the driver wrestle his overweight frame out of the leather seat and stand up with a grunt. It was Larry, his engineer.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked, spreading his flabby arms wide. His black Pink Floyd tee shirt barely covered his hairy naval.
Jake glanced at the car’s mirror-like finish and gleaming wheels. “It’s a big change from a Lexus.”
“I know. Ain’t it great? Living the high life, baby. Living the high life!”
As Larry lumbered over, Jake noticed the messy-looking stubble on his face and neck. This was a business meeting, for crying out loud. Just once, couldn’t he have cleaned up?
“Well, this is it, buddy,” Larry said. “The end of six long months.” Jake felt him grab his hand and shake it; not fluently, but with a single up and down motion: bum, bum.
“Six very expensive months,” Jake corrected.
“Come on! Have a little faith! I did the design. This product rocks! How do you think I got my reputation as the best engineer in Silicon Valley?”
Jake held back the snide answer that jumped to his mind. “You’re still coming to the Seacrest shareholder meeting, right?” he asked instead.
“I hate those things.”
“So do I, but the investors are going to want to meet the entire company, which right now is you and me.” He fought the urge to focus on Larry’s crooked, gapped teeth.
“I don’t have to say anything, right?”
“Right. I’m doing the whole presentation. Just answer the technical questions if they come up. You’ll be in and out in less than an hour.”
Jake heard Larry sigh. “What time does it start again?” he asked.
“One o’clock. At the Four Seasons Hotel in Palo Alto.”
“All right.” He nodded his head towards the building. “Come on, Mr. En-tre-pre-neur. Let’s go see if these guys have started production.”
Jake followed the chubby engineer into the CTI lobby—if the entrance could be called that. It was small, eight feet square, with no furniture and nothing on the wall except a large blue button and a printed paper sign that read, “Push here to talk to someone.” Jake pressed and waited.
“Who’s there?” a voice asked through the muffled speaker.
“Jake Bernstein. I’m here to see Sheila Knoll.”
“Hang on. I’ll page her.”
Jake rubbed his forehead as they waited.
“Another migraine?” Larry asked.
“Kind of. Got a headache that I can’t shake.”
“I swear, Jake. A divorce. A custody battle. Starting a company. No wonder you’re sick all the time.”
Jake didn’t answer him.
“You coming this weekend?”
“I don’t know. I may need to watch my daughter.”
“Are you kidding? Get a freakin’ sitter! This is going to be one kick-ass party. Open bar. A band. Hell, I even hired guys to valet park your car. I’m going all out, man. You don’t want to miss this.”
Jake resisted the urge to comment. How could such an obnoxious jerk make so much money? He looked across the lobby and sighed. So much for his own Stanford degree beating a path to the bank.
A brown door opened and a woman with neck-length black hair, dark blue jeans, and a CTI polo shirt waved them over. Jake could feel his face dissolving into a smile. It was Sheila, his sales rep at the factory.
Over the past few months, they had become very good friends; one of the few unexpected benefits from this project.
“Hey, Jake,” she said warmly. “Big day.”
“Tell me about it. I’m nervous as hell.”
“Relax. It’s going to be great.”
“Damn, you’re looking good, woman!” Larry interjected. “You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?”
Jake winced at the question. He saw Sheila glare at the engineer.
“Production started about an hour ago,” she said. “The first batch should be ready for the test station pretty soon. Come on back.”
She led them through a series of hallways, keeping her distance from Larry, until they reached a small room. They put on full-length white smocks and attached black anti-static straps to the bottom of their shoes. Jake caught Sheila’s eye as they finished dressing. She offered him a quick wink.
“This way,” she said, directing them through a set of beige double-doors.
For Jake, it was like stepping through a portal to another world. His senses were hit from all directions: the loud, droning hum from dozens of busy machines, the cavernous size of the factory floor, the smell of chemicals, the hard concrete floor. He followed behind Sheila, past rows of workers hunched over half-built products, each holding air-powered screwdrivers attached to coiled hoses that dangled from the ceiling.
Sheila turned to him and said something. Jake cupped his hand over his ear.
“We’re building it over there,” she said loudly. A grin came to her face. “Tell me that you’re calling it something other than a sniffer.”
Jake shrugged his shoulders. “I haven’t thought of a better name yet.”
“Well, I hope you do. It sounds like something you’d buy for a dog.”
“I know, I know,” Jake said, rolling his eyes. “I get that a lot.”
After threading through a maze of machines and aisle ways, Sheila stopped. “Well, here we are.”
Stretching twenty feet in front of them was a row of individual workbenches connected by small sections of metal rack. Jake recognized the parts from Larry’s engineering drawings: the frame, the GPS circuit, the outer casing. He watched, speechless, as workers placed each finished subassembly in a blue plastic bin and rolled it to the next station. So much effort; so many hours spent preparing for the start of production...and now, it was finally happening. He felt a little lightheaded.
“What do you think?” Sheila asked.
“It’s...amazing.” A lump formed in his throat. He felt Sheila squeeze his arm. He responded by putting his hand on hers. Without her help, the dream of owning his own company would never have made it this far.
“I’ve got one week until the samples are due,” Jake said. “Seeing this...seeing the product actually getting built...it’s hard to believe that I’m going to make it on time.”
“It’s pretty exciting. Come check this out.”
As they walked, Larry elbowed Jake in the side. “What did I tell you?” he said. “I knew this thing was going to work.”
They passed under a large “Quality Assurance” sign tacked to the wall. A technician wearing a blue lab coat hovered near a machine with a polished metal nameplate affixed to the front. It read “Lindon Precision Machines.” Jake peered through the thick glass.
“Is that the test fixture?” he guessed.
Sheila nodded. “It tests every single circuit in your product.”
“But it’s so small! For the seventy-five thousand bucks you charged me, I expected something...you know...a little beefier.”
Sheila smirked. “Don’t let the size fool you. It’s state of the art.”
“It had better be for that price.”
The worker reached inside the machine and plugged in a series of wires and cables. He closed the cover and tapped his finger against a nearby computer monitor. A moment later, dozens of lights went on, as if the tester had transformed itself into a holiday decoration. Jake watched and waited. Several minutes dragged by, then the lights went off. Jake looked at the screen. The word “Fail” flashed in thick black letters.
The technician’s face pulled into a frown. He reset the machine and ran the test again. When he got the same result, he went to the line and pulled off a second sniffer, then a third. He stared at the screen, hands on his hips.
“What is it?” Sheila asked.
“Power failure,” he answered in accented English. “The GPS, the cell modem; they’re all dead. No input voltage in any of the units.”
“Is it the test fixture?” Larry asked.
The technician shook his head. His thin neck seemed to swim inside of his white collar. “No. If it were broken, we wouldn’t get a readout at all. The fixture is fine. I think there may be a problem with the design.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the design!” Larry said loudly. Several of the line workers stopped and turn their heads. “It’s probably the circuit board or a bad component.”
“The boards and the components are individually tested before they were put into production,” the technician countered. “I’ll be right back.” He went to a telephone near one of the workstations. Sheila quickly joined him.
Jake turned to Larry. “It’s not the design,” the engineer repeated, this time a little more defensively.
After a few minutes, a small crowd of people gathered near the workstation: engineers, production supervisors, and the plant manager, a short, balding man with thick, black-rimmed glasses named Jason. An animated discussion began. A half-dozen more units were tested. With each failure, Jake began to feel his stomach seizing up. He watched the plant manager lean over and whisper something to Sheila.
“We need you two to wait in the conference room,” she requested.
“What’s going on?” asked Jake.
“We need a few minutes to sort things out. Please. Just wait for me in the conference room.” Sheila’s mouth was taut and serious.
“Can I see one?” Jake asked, pointing at the production line.
She hesitated at first, then walked back and got him one. “I’ll be there in a minute,” she said. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure out what’s going on.”
Jake walked off the production floor with Larry in tow.
“I hate it in here,” the engineer complained when they walked into the conference room. “It’s always so goddmamn stuffy.”
Jake said nothing. He slumped down in a chair, his mind racing with worry. He stared at the metal box in front of him. It was six inches square, with smooth metal fins around the sides to help it vent heat. Jake pressed a red button on the back and pushed his thumb against a small latch. There was a quiet mechanical click and the case fell away, revealing an internal metal frame that came to a point at the bottom like an arrowhead.
Jake held it in his palm, studying it. For months, these guts had been the subject of countless meetings, emails, and phone calls. Now, he was finally holding the real thing in his hand. And it didn’t work.
He looked over at Larry. The engineer was gnawing at his fingernails, looking bored and disinterested. His thumb had several crimson red patches where he had picked away the skin.
The door opened. A half-dozen people filed in, including Sheila and Jason. Jake watched her take a seat, hands resting listlessly in her lap, her face pasty-white, the only noticeable color being the pink gloss she wore on her lips. When he saw the sullen look on her face, his spirits sank.
“I’m afraid the news isn’t good,” Jason began after he sat down. “We tested all of the sniffers that we built today. Every one failed.”
“Why?” Jake asked.
“We think there is a fundamental flaw in the design. We were talking about—”
“There’s nothing wrong with the design!” Larry broke in.
“—this at yesterday’s staff meeting,” Jason continued over the top of him. “Several of our engineers were expressing a concern over the potential for a high failure rate after reviewing the schematics.”
“I don’t understand,” Jake said. “You never mentioned anything about this before.”
“Sometimes, you don’t uncover potential problems until you’re close to the actual production.”
“So what’s the plan?” Jake asked.
“There is no plan. We can’t build this product.”
“We’re a high-volume factory, Jake. You knew that coming in here. We don’t have the time or the resources to troubleshoot manufacturing issues. Products need to be ready to go. I’m sorry, but I need to cancel production.”
“For how long?”
His head jerked back with surprise. “But we haven’t even had time to figure out what’s wrong! What if it’s something incredibly simple to fix?”
“It’s not,” Jason insisted. “Today’s results prove that.”
“They do not! Without a proper failure analysis, you have no idea what’s going on!”
Jason stood up from the table.
Jake held up his hands. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow down for a minute!” He could hear the shakiness in his voice. “I’ve got a huge customer waiting for samples. Their orders could fill up this factory for months. You guys could make a fortune! Just give me a few hours, okay? I’m sure Larry can nail whatever the problem is.”
“I’m sorry. There’s nothing more I can do,” Jason proclaimed. With that, he abruptly left the room, followed by his entourage.
Jake watched the exodus, stunned. He turned to Sheila and gave her a silent, confused look.
“I’m sorry,” she said sullenly. “It's his decision..”
“Decision? What are you talking about? He shut down an entire assembly line after one bad run and absolutely no failure analysis?”
“He has full authority to pick and choose what he wants to build.”
“That’s not the point. Don’t you think it’s a little bizarre?”
“My opinion doesn’t matter, Jake. He can do what he wants.”
Jake gripped the edge of the conference room table, trying to get in front of this rapidly-escalating nightmare. “Listen to what you’re saying, Sheila. My customer is Red Fender Industries, the largest supplier of truck parts in the world. Their orders could keep this place running twenty-four hours a day.”
“Are you telling me that Jason doesn’t care about that? You said yourself that the factory is only running at half-capacity.”
Still no answer.
“Look, Sheila, you’re one of my best friends! Tell me what’s going on here!”
“Jake, I think you should go.”
“Go? I dumped more than three hundred thousand dollars of my investor’s cash into this place. You know what’s at stake for me! Look me in the eye and tell me you’re not going to kill this project.”
“Tell me!” Jake slammed his hand down on the table. Sheila jumped back in her chair.
“Come on, buddy,” Larry said, grabbing Jake’s arm. “It’s time to leave.”
Sheila stepped way away from the table. Jake saw the frightened look on her face but he was too angry to feel bad for scaring her. The hot wave of anger passed. By the time he got to the door, it had quickly reignited. He turned and pointed a finger at her.
“I’ve got six days to deliver those samples to Red Fender. You hear me? Six days. You tell Jason that he’d goddamn better build them for me or I’ll have his ass for lunch. No one threatens my livelihood like this!” He threw the door open and stormed out.
In the parking lot, Jake stomped towards his car. “I can't believe what went on in there!” he bellowed as Larry struggled to keep up with him. "You’re the engineer. Tell me what I’m supposed to do!”
Larry stopped walking. “Hey! Don’t take this out on me. It’s not my fault!”
“Yeah, well I’ve never brought a product up into production before, remember? You’re the one who kept telling me not to worry; that CTI was the best factory in town.”
“It is! I have no idea why they’re acting so weird.”
“Really? A hundred and fifty bucks an hour and that’s the best you can do?”
“What else do you want me to do, Jake? Go kick the plant manager’s butt until he changes his mind?”
“No. I want you to do your damn job!” Jake’s shout echoed through the parking lot.
He saw a look of anger, then hurt, flash across Larry’s round, unshaven face. Oh, no. Is he going to start crying again?
“I’m sorry, Larry” he apologized. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that.”
But it was too late. Without a word, Larry threw himself into his Porsche and roared away.
“Moron!” Jake shouted after him, the acrid smell of the Porsche’s exhaust still in his nostrils. He reached into his pocket and fished out his keys. He was about to open the door when he heard a noise.
He looked up.
In the distance, a woman was running towards him, waving her hands.
© 2007 - 2011 - Steven D. Kaufman