I’m your typically nerdy guy, with long hair, tangled beard and the constantly distant look of a brain-engaged geek. Apart from keeping myself clean, I never worry about my appearance. Coordinating the colour or design of clothing is not something I would bother wasting my precious thinking time on. If it doesn’t smell, is warm or cool (in the atmospheric sense) I’ll wear it. Anna says I’m getting worse. Anna is my wife.
Anna and I met at university. She was studying humanities and I was at the tail-end of an MA in Information Systems. Before this, the female gender lurked on the periphery of my life and I rarely ventured in that direction. The only child of academically oriented, naturally unsociable parents, meant that I grew up in my bedroom. I was twenty-one years old when a male friend pushed me into uncharted waters by introducing me to Anna. My life changed dramatically. I fell head first into the ‘pit’ they call love. Fortunately, Anna joined me there. Anna still tells me that she loves me for my intelligence. Not bad, considering this just might be my only attribute.
I am still working for the company I secured a job with after leaving university. It’s a smallish company with only one IT guy; Me. I do everything from building servers, setting up workstations, supporting users and writing the company’s internal software. My work keeps the company running, or so the CEO’s personal assistant tells me. I help save money for them by using the free software product, Linux.
Today I’m attending one of the biannual, two-day Linux conferences. The centre is filled with other nerds like myself. I feel quite at home. I can’t see many ‘regular’ people here. Most of those present have the same geeky look, unkempt appearance, and seem busily engaged in ‘propeller head’ topics. I’m sitting here with one of my friends John, whom I have known since university days. John used to put “Linux Flavor” stickers over the ‘Designed for Microsoft’ logos on university system. He now works for one of the larger Web development companies.
John is leaning toward me as he says, “Here… I’ve got a joke for you. A new developer calls the help desk and says, ‘I need to fork the code but can’t do it.’ “The help desk responds, ‘You need a dongle for that.’ I’m not smiling. John sees I’m not laughing and goes back to his own thoughts. I’m left pondering the cost of dongles. They are very expensive. I muse on the fact that companies using expensive software, instead of Linux, have to face this expense, and I wonder how they can keep getting away with it.
A blonde young woman seated in front of me stands, turning to face us. The back of her cellphone is facing us. It flashes. Why has she taken our picture? She walks away. The woman doesn’t look like a Linux developer. I start thinking she could be from the press, but discard this idea because I hadn’t seen any media ID. My curiosity lasts all of three minutes before I dismiss it.
It’s the second day of the conference. I leave my room and head for the conference hall with my cellphone buzzing quietly. The text from John suggests we immediately meet in the conference administration area. As I step out of the elevator and head into the admin area I see John in conversation with the blond young woman who took our photograph yesterday. John is wearing a “F@#$ BILL” t-shirt. Not smart, I think to myself. Today, the woman’s blonde locks are tied back in a ponytail and she is wearing a cap with a company name.
John sees me and waves. He is frowning. The woman ushers us into a big meeting room leading off the foyer area. A large oval table in the centre of the room would normally hold at least fifty persons. Today, there are only five of us. Two are conference organizers. One hands me a business card. It reads; ‘Jesse Smiles – Community Organizer.’ Once seated, Jesse begins, “Riley, here, has made a complaint. She claims you guys were making sexist jokes in front of her.” “We were sitting behind her!” quips John. “Let’s get serious, mate!” Jesse, retorts.
John shrugging his shoulders, looks at me for a measure of support that is too obviously absent, and explains. ” Yeah…I did tell Dean a joke yesterday. It was about free software versus paid software. People are paying big bucks for dongles and other development tools. The developer in the joke is a Microsoft developer. Get it?” Neither Jesse nor his colleague look convinced, but I am. I now realise that John’s joke was about the cost of Microsoft development software. I kick myself for having assumed a sexual connotation. Thinking about the many other nerds I had studied and worked with during the past decade, I am unable to recall even one telling a smutty joke. Their jokes, if you could call them that, have always nuanced technology. This thought leads me past pangs of guilt and toward determination to be more supportive of John. I turn and wink at him, just to let him know I’m ‘on board’ and then echo his explanation. From the looks on the faces of the other three persons present, I am not believed, either.
As the meeting progresses we learn the full name of our complainant and the company she works for. She is Riley Cochran, of Duco Technology Incorporated; this last name embroidered on the front of the cap she is wearing. The conference managers look serious. One of them winds up the meeting by telling us that a press release about the incident will be released that afternoon. This, he explains, is essential to their upholding the reputation of Linux. He emphasizes that names will not be included in the release. One of the managers then gives a brief lecture on the ‘black shadows’ even comic misogyny can cast over a successful industry and warns us to avoid such behaviour in the future. John and I look and each other, perplexed. Riley smiles.
John and I leave the meeting. As soon as we are out of ear shot, I say, “For what crazy reason didn’t they want to believe us?” “Goodness knows!” John answers. Faced with the futility of the incident, I change the subject. “By the way, are you the one putting the Ubuntu and I love Linux stickers in the centre’s toilet stalls?” John puts his finger to his lips and says nothing.
It’s now two days after the conference and I am back at work. Since yesterday afternoon the vile messages have been flooding in. I am accused of sexism, misogyny, and am being told that I should be ashamed of myself. I notice that the names of most of the senders are fake or foreign. After the meeting with Riley Cochran and the conference managers, I had checked out the Twitter account of the woman’s employing company. It had been full of fake and foreign names; like ‘Ak Huyft’. I suspect a link.
I Google the name Riley Cochran, and find out her real title; ‘Linux Evangelist.’ I discover she has printed John’s and my names on her Twitter account and posted the story, with embellishments, on her blog. I’m looking at the photo of me and John and I’m reading a tirade of accusations about our having repeatedly made sexist jokes at the conference.
I email Riley’s Twitter and blog links to John. Almost immediately, he calls me. “What’s a Linux Evangelist?” he asks. I respond, “It’s another title for a Public Relations Officer.” John is angry. “I want to reply and set the story straight.” “Not a good idea.” I tell him. “You’d be taking on PR. It’s a fight you can’t win. Just post the real story on your own blog.”
It is two hours later and I am reading John’s blog. He has posted the original joke using the words ‘Microsoft developer,’ pointing out that the joke had been about the additional costs required to use licensed Microsoft development software. In other words, he was saying how crazy is it that you need to buy an expensive dongle to get the software to work. I show both Riley’s and John’s blogs to my CEO’s personal assistant and ask for her opinion. She tells me she will look at it later.
It’s the last day of my working week as I walk to my desk. I get the cold shoulder from the CEO’s personal assistant. My phone rings. The Human Resources Manager is summoning me to her office. I am given one month’s notice. I will be paid for the following month but I am to pack up my things and leave immediately. I’m stunned. She doesn’t want to hear my side of the story. She calls security. A broad, muscly guy arrives, escorting me to my office space and then to the ground floor entrance of this building where multiple businesses are located. I’ve been sacked!
I’m on my way home. I call John to tell him the news. He’s aghast. Still driving, I dial Anna’s number. It’s much harder telling her what has happened. The news given her at the medical clinic this morning had been what we were hoping for. She is pregnant with our second child. My job loss could not have happened at a worse time. We only recently purchased a new car for Anna, replacing the old vehicle she had been driving around since our university days. When I worked out the budget for this purchase I had been relying on a promised salary increase. Now I won’t even have a salary. I feel my heart rate increasing as my stress levels soar. Anna, always her calm and loving self, just says, “Don’t worry, darling. We’ll work things out.”
Over the weekend, I scan the Internet and newspaper for suitable employment opportunities, get myself a hair cut, shave off my beard and pull out the suit I have only worn to two funerals. The HR Manager had already told me she would not be providing a reference for the six years of hard work I had given the company. I fiddle around with my resume to make it look a little more attractive.
I have now experienced one week of unemployment. My car is up for sale. There are no interviews in the pipeline. I turn on my lap top and read the online blurbs and blogs still flowing in about our incident at the Linux conference. I am surprised to learn that some kind of tsunami effect has also cost Riley Cochran her job. I ring someone in the know and am told that a Duco executive, after becoming aware of the incident, discovered Riley had been using fake accounts to post her nasty comments. Further investigation uncovered an even darker side to this woman’s personality. She had been posting jokes about male genitalia on her personal blog. I am left thinking that it must have been her own dirty mind that led her to the conclusion that John’s joke had been a smutty one. Was she the only guilty one? No…After all, my own mind had gone down that same track, hadn’t it? I feel disheartened and a little sullied as I send the link about Riley to John.
My cellphone rings. It is John. He has just relayed the entire story to his boss, Andrea. Andrea asked John for a brief resume of my experience and accomplishments. He was happy, and informed enough, to oblige. His boss is now offering me a full-time position, on double pay and an apology. Apparently, it was Andrea who told John the dongle joke in the first place.