The Secret Life of Wally Madhavani

Author’s note: I began writing columns for IEEE Micro in April of 1995. This is the 100th column. To mark this milestone this column offers a parody of James Thurber’s 1939 story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In the original story Thurber described Mitty’s shopping trip with his wife in Waterbury, Connecticut. What would be a typical day for a Mitty-like programmer in today’s Silicon Valley? Would he find a more hospitable or inhospitable set of rhythms and economic archetypes?

“We’re going through.” The commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore a full dress uniform, with a patch rakishly pulled over one eye. His loyal puppy stood at his side, staring into the horizon.

“We can’t make it,” said Lieutenant Berg with a foreboding tone. “There is a hurricane coming, if you ask me.”

“I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander, who began pushing on the power dials on the complicated dash. The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The crew bent to their various tasks in the huge Navy cruiser…

“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Katie. “What are you driving so fast for?”

“Hmmm?” said Wally. He looked at his supervisor, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed unfamiliar, like a strange woman who yelled at him in a crowd. “I don’t like it when you crash a virtual vehicle.”

“You know I don’t do it on purpose.”

Katie rolled her eyes. Wally drove on in silence for a few moments longer, his attention caught by a rendered ripple on the water.

“It’s one of your days. I wish you would let Dr. Renshaw look you over. He is very good at occupational psychotherapy.”

Wally Madhavani made the boat stop in front of a shack on an uncompleted dock, so Berg could disembark. Suddenly Lieutenant Berg’s face turned red, and he fainted to the ground. He froze where he lay.

“Oh, now look what you did.” Katie could not hide her exacerbation. “The captain’s aide cannot transition between surfaces without his magic overshoes.”

“He shouldn’t need magic overshoes to get off a boat.” pleaded Wally. He stared at the screen, unsure why the boat’s energy force stopped Berg.

“We have been through all that.” Katie rose from her seat abruptly. “I have to go to a hair appointment. I will be back tomorrow. Just fix the beta. And remember: we have to figure out how to throw a bone to that dog.”

She began walking out of the room, muttering to herself. “Programmers! Always ad-libbing. They major in CS, but they think it means ‘creative scripting.’”

MBAs are so damn cocky, thought Wally Madhavani, as he got up from his seat, stretching. Just follow the script. Just fix this and don’t ad-lib. Our start-up was doing fine without them, but, nooooooo, the VCs wanted “adult supervision.” They promised a den mother, but we got a shrew. If not for the stock options I would’ve quit by now.

He opened the door to the street and headed toward University Avenue.

Wally Madhavani walked aimlessly for a time, eventually passing European Cobblery. He bought a pair of overshoes there. He tucked the box under his arm, and continued along the street, stopping to stare at Walgreens’ window display of back-to-school items and pet supplies. He stared into middle space, but the overshoes reminded him of Berg’s collapse…

A man rushed by. Suddenly his face turned red, and he fainted to the ground. Wally knelt next to him, pressing his ear to his chest. The heart broadcast an off-beat pulse, pocketa-packeta-pocketa….

“My goodness, coreopsis has set in. Luckily I am the most skilled Cardiac Syncopationist west of the Rockies. You need a new tempo,” said Wally to nobody in particular, becoming aware of the many onlookers who had gathered around. He shouted to the crowd, “This man needs a ballpoint pen!”

A murmur rose and a pen found its way to Wally’s hand. He held it up, inspecting it like a fine glass of wine. He looked at the man, inspected the pen once more, and precisely tapped the lower third of the man’s chest plate eight times in a cadence from the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth. The old man stirred and opened his eyes. As applause rose from the crowd, Wally whispered, “Just an old magic trick…”

The excited buzz around Wally began to fade as the buildings of downtown Palo Alto rose up out of the medical emergency and surrounded him again. As Wally peeked through the window at Walgreens, he began to wonder what other thing his supervisor told him to do. She told him twice that morning. He hated these checkups—he was always getting something wrong. What was it he was supposed to get? Kleenex, he thought, or razor blades? No, toothpaste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, or carborandundum? He gave it up. But she would remember it. “Where’s the what’s-its-name?” she would ask “Don’t tell me you forgot the what’s-its-name?”

“Puppy biscuit,” said Wally Madhavani. A woman who was passing laughed. “He said ‘puppy biscuit,’” she said to her companion. “That man said ‘puppy biscuit’ to himself.” Wally Madhavani hurried on inside. “I want some biscuits for a small young dog,” he said to the clerk. “Any special brand, sir?” The greatest Cardiac Syncopationist west of the Rockies thought for a moment. “It says ‘puppies bark for it’ on the box,” said Wally Madhavani.

After roaming aisles 7, 8, and 11, Wally headed back to his cubicle. A block away from his journey’s end, he spotted a coworker in conversation. Wally slowed his pace as he approached. His friend looked vaguely uncomfortable, and Wally could overhear a critical phrase from the stranger, something about “unappealing iconography.”

The stranger was a VC, surmised Wally. His coworker was making a pitch, and not successfully…

The noontime sun shone on the face of Doctor Renshaw, which made him warm. He loosened his tie. The world’s most discerning venture capitalist, Wally Madhavani, could sense the discomfort. “So you think your Cardio Syncopotater will take the medical world by storm, do you?” Renshaw began to summon an answer, but Madhavani interrupted. “Just a tad cocky, aren’t we?”

“You may know programming, Captain Scrutiny,” said Renshaw, using Madvahani’s popular nickname, “but my creation will outlive your skepticism.”

Renshaw turned on the machine. It made a whirring motion, and hummed. After a minute of graceful motion, excited conversation rose from the crowd of observers.

Wally put a finger in the air, silencing everyone. “The ductal tract program cannot handle the streptothricosis of sunlight,” said Madhavani with quiet assurance. “Give it another minute to overheat.”

A tense silence settled on the demonstration, gazes fixed, ears tuned to a low hum. Faintly at first, a whispering beat developed. Thumping began to build, growing too loud to ignore, ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

Captain Scrutiny had heard enough. “It seems,” declared Madhavani dryly, “that your inventive team needs a little adult supervision.” Laughter mixed with angry voices drowned out Crenshaw’s anguished groan…

Katie found Captain Scrutiny leaning back in his chair the next morning, as if the chair was closing in on him. Two empty cans of Red Bull and a half-eaten bag of Doritos lay on the desk. Katie glanced worriedly at him as she sat. “Were you here all night?” Wally grinned with a fleeting affirmative smile.

They began where they had left off. Berg and the Commander barked at each other, and the engines went ta-pocketa-packeta-pocketa. Wally had a new maneuver for the captain, who removed a pen from his pocket. The captain inspected the pen, and then he tapped the power dial eight times in a cadence resembling Beethoven’s Fifth. The engines purred again.

Katie sat up, her mouth slightly agape. It was an unscripted ad-lib, but she could sell it.
“That’s good. The online blogs will obsess over that.”

“Just an old magic trick,” answered Wally with quiet assurance.

“Make it the general solution for failing engines.”

Berg moved next. He found the overshoes in the corner of the boat. Katie studied their design as Berg put them on. “Those look very stylish,” she remarked with approval.

The vehicle came to rest at the dock. A virtual ripple on the water momentarily entranced Katie until the puppy’s bark startled her. The captain threw the trusty hound a biscuit. The dog acquired a slight red glow as it jumped onto the dock.

“Hey, that’s a biscuit, not a bone…”

Wally put a finger in the air, quieting her. “It needed more appealing iconography. Give it another minute.”

Berg and the commander followed their puppy, acquiring a similar glow as they left the ship. They walked to the shack. A slight rain fell, rain with sleet in it. The commander stood up against a wall, took out a cigarette and lit it. Katie felt seduced, but duty tugged at her. “That looks good, but parental groups will not like the tobacco—”

She stopped in midsentence, and her opposition melted. Six enemy soldiers jumped from behind the shack, pointing guns at the two men and their dog. A handkerchief was given to the Commander for his execution. “How will they escape?” she whispered excitedly.

“They are safe. Berg put on the magic overshoes. The Commander showed kindness to his puppy, so the dog’s magic shield protects him.”

The Commander put his shoulder back and his heels together. “To hell with the handkerchief,” said Wally Madvahani scornfully, lip-syncing the Commander… He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Wally Madhavani the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

Copyright held by IEEE. To view the original essay click here.

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