Ejected from Business Incubator: Part Two: Working with a Congenial Genius

Continued from part 1. From the Series, “Down and Out in Silicon Valley” by,  Alan Wilensky

“Hiroshi?”, I said in a rising, non-threatening voice. I wanted a combination Mr. Rogers and benevolent older brother tone. “How you doin’, man, we really didn’t have a chance to formally introduce ourselves, I’m Alan Wilensky, I am so sorry about getting involved at the incubator and getting you…..hospit…al…ized, er…ah…I mean…I didn’t know who you…” I was sputtering.

Hiroshi chimed right in over me, “what you talking about”. This was the first time I actually heard his speaking voice, which was a fully Americanized accent. Hiroshi was, as I later found out, of Japanese and American descent, and preferred being called, Hank. We are getting way ahead of the game, however.

“What involved, what hospital, what are you talkin’ about man?”, he was off to the races, although one can’t actually blame the man if he remembered nothing of the incident!

(internal whisper to self: whoa, big fella, lets not let things spiral into incivility so soon and so blunderingly)

“You know”, I said as I drew closer, a little, “with Claudia, that Thursday? You were crashed out in the Networking lab?”. Where was this conversation going?

“huh..uh, yup. Crap man, I was just napping there ’cause I don’t like my room at the group house, but…,” he raked his hand through his longish hair and followed with, “..but I don’t recall leaving…..”….his voice trailed off in a suspended thought.

I needed to get the conversation back on track, so I gave him the only thing I had, my best Monty Python lines, “Well, what of that, Roight! Roight!”. “To Business!”, I punctuated.

“Claudia said that you needed a prototype, and you don’t have much bread, and I don’t care ’cause I’m not about the money”, Hiroshi was on a roll, or on rye. Continuing, he said, “give me the rundown”.

“And, call me, Hank”, he had a story to tell, so lets let him tell it. “I was born here, I’m not Japanese, except on my dad’s side, I don’t speak the language, I don’t like sushi,  my family is filthy rich, I get a 5k a month disbursement from a trust”.

“Well, doggies”, Jed Clampett’s ghost exclaimed to me. Or should I say Buddy Ebson? “well, that’s all great stuff, Hank, let me tell you about my messaging state architecture for virtual dispatching”.

I subsequently gave Hank the once over for the ThruDispatch data model and key functions. By this time we had transitioned to my office, and he was considerably more settled and even quite bright and charming – for the moment.

I wrapped my verbal and flip slide presentation for Hank in about an hour and forty five minutes; this was  a record because he didn’t need convincing as to the business viability of the venture, and he seemed to be psychically in-tune with the technical rationale of distributed work order routing. I didn’t have to back track, argue, or explain. On the contrary, Hank filled in structures and made comments that confirmed, corrected and clarified my states and schema’s.

This was a change for me; on numerous occasions some very experienced SAAS engineers have had at me and bogged down the gist of the presentation. I am all for a colleague’s critique, and the architecture in question has been through the wringer – I didn’t just dream this. Numerous sessions were spent with folks more experienced than myself, picking my requirements apart. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

Often, I saw a difference between east and west coast software engineers. Let me restate that – between  Yankee New England and Midwestern stock and the Silicon Valley contingency. There seemed to be more intellectual rigor in Cambridge or NYC; sessions often ended with all of us learning something. In Palo Alto, equally experienced engineers were oftentimes unable to see past the limited technical structures, and attacked my business rationale. All very lively.

It’s easy to attack me. I used to be an RTOS programmer, and I know the basics well enough to convey what functions need to be extant. For a software engineer to pin me over message passing and object serialization is petty, when all I am trying to do in these presentations is call forth  the functions that are required to run the back end of a mobile dispatch system!

Hank Watanabe didn’t even  go the snoot route; if he understood my intent he said , “got it, I understand’, and if he was unclear, he would say, ‘do you mean’, and, most notably, where many left coast engineers got uppity, Hank would merely state, “I think what you are looking for is more like this, I have a way to prototype that”. This was a refreshing change.

And Hank was fast. He worked in Eclipse and actually simulated a J2ME runtime target, wrote test generators for the work order data flowing into the portal, and geo-location data and status tokens flowing in from the simulated mobiles. This all saved very valuable time. If we had to actually create functioning  interfaces and UI’s, this would have taken months.

Hank did all this in seven days. Seven. He worked quietly and competently, showing none of his previous unfortunate instabilities.

Then things suddenly went wrong – he didn’t show up one day. It was before I got any code listings from him, for our arrangement was fairly informal, and I didn’t think, in my wildest drams, that anyone could have made such rapid progress.

I called the Los Altos incubator; it was the Thanks Giving holiday and Claudia didn’t return my message till the following Monday. She seemed to take Hank’s no-show in stride, saying, “that’s par for the course for Hiroshi, you will hear from him, but I will call his family. He must have gone to them for the holidays”.

Claudia couldn’t find Hank, either. His family, a wealthy patriarchy from Atherton,  were not answering the phone. Claudia had come to a dead end, and I could not ask for more uncompensated detective work.

So, this all culminated in days of calling his group home, Stanford, more messages to his family, and finally, giving up. Several weeks later I did get a call from a voice with a markedly Japanese accent – it was Hank’s father:

“Mr. Wilensky, I found your business card is my son’s laptop case”, he began. He sounded tired and his voice had all the concern of a father who had been dealing with this issue for most of his son’s life. He continued, “Hiroshi cannot continue to work in the industry, I am so sorry. We know that he loves to create programs, and we want him to be happy.” Mr. Watanabe was formal and polite.

“I am so sorry sir, I didn’t know how deep the problems were, I did not mean to cause him or you any sorrow over this”, I felt terrible, as my initial instincts at Claudia’s suggestions were proving to be spot on.

“It is not your fault, Mr. Wilensky, my son was a brilliant student, attaining his Doctorate in only a very short time. But he was not able to ever fully function in the commercial world; we received a call from the San Mateo police that my son has working in a coffee house and would not leave when the business was to close. He was disruptive and was taken into custody, and we just have brought him back to his mental health facility”.

I knew the coffee house he was referring to; Hank and I had been working there, using the wi-fi, and taking notes just before the Holiday. He must have gone back there after our last meeting at my house. That was very, very sad. He hated his living situation at the group home, where they controlled his access to the net, and the time he spent coding.

I didn’t even consider mentioning the code and such, as I had no claim on it legally or morally. It would remain ensconced on Hank’s laptop or in a secure  source archive on line with an unknown account name and password. I told Mr Watanabe I would help in any way possible.

“Thanks you, Mr. Wilensky, he needs friends, but if you do see him again, I would ask that you stay away from intellectually challenging activities until we can be sure he is well”, Hiroshi’s dad said the foregoing with an air of finality, as if he did not actually believe that his son would ever work in the field he trained so hard to excel in.

I hung up the phone and looked at my notes; nothing had changed, really. The architecture had been somewhat clarified via our week-long efforts., but at what cost to Hank Watanabe?

Had ThruDispatch claimed it’s first casualty? Was I one already? I believed in my market and my product – did I care too much?