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March 5, 2013

The Case of the Stressed-out Coder


iStock_000000341644XSmallSome years ago I started writing occasionally in a genre that I call the “Soft-boiled detective techno-thriller parody”. It’s been a while since I’ve written one – I hope you enjoy it.

The Southwest flight to Salt Lake City was turbulent, mostly due to the terrified shudders of the passengers with peanut allergies. I was trying to rest my head against a new parka that I got at half price from Macy’s, wondering what a nice Silicon Valley boy like me was doing heading to the icy reaches of Layton…

It started a few days earlier. I was sitting in my office – I’m a PI – Private Investigator – working the streets of Silicon Valley from the hipster neighborhoods of San Francisco, to Sand Hill Road, to the hills of San Jose where rusted signs on fence posts point to the future of software development.

A creaking sound from the stairs announced my next clients. From the sound, I knew they were real heavyweights. They didn’t bother to knock.

The guys were big – muscle. The kind of guys you don’t mess with. I was about to reach for the gun I keep in my desk drawer, but one glance from the leader told me that would be a bad idea.

“The Boss wants to talk to you” he said with ice in his voice. “He has a job for you”

“$50/day plus expenses” I said. He lifted his eyebrow in surprise. I shrugged, “It’s the genre”.

He nodded and reached into the case his partner was carrying. I tensed. He pulled out a laptop and flicked it on. It booted fast – SSD drive. In a few seconds Skype was up and there he was. I can’t tell you his name – You’d recognize him, but not the way he looked here. He was tense – sweating. He talked. I listened.

“It’s my development teams,” he said. “They’re stressed – losing their edge. Some of them are getting sick from the stress. Sometimes they leave great jobs for stupid reasons. Potential hires turn down great job offers for long shot opportunities. Something’s not right.”

“Maybe there’s something wrong with your company?” I asked. The big guy on the right snarled.

“Hey, I give them free food, drinks and gym memberships – nice offices, the works” answered the CEO, shaking his head. “Besides, the other CEOs see the same thing. It’s affecting most of our developers. I need you to figure things out.”

I nodded. The big guy shut the laptop, shoved it in the case, and whacked me on the head with the mouse. The last thing I saw was him looking apologetic and muttering “sorry, it’s the genre – we’re overdue for some gratuitous violence”.

When I came to, I felt a chill of fear. Not about those hoodlums, they’re a dime a dozen. I was thinking about D.T.

D.T.’s been my rock – my most reliable source for years. D.T. is short for Deep Throat – she’s seen All the President’s Men more times than you can count. She’s the hacker’s hacker, the programmer’s programmer, the geekiest geek – all wrapped up in a package that could get her a job in Hollywood in a heartbeat, if she were willing to drop her IQ by a hundred points or so. She’s saved my skin more times than I can count. If there were something affecting software developers, it would affect her first. This case was now personal.

I needed info fast. I needed the snitch. He works from a snazzy high-tech lobby in Palo Alto. If you need dirt on someone, he’s the guy to talk to – he keeps tabs on every detail about everyone’s life. Works at Facebook of course.

“I heard devs are getting stressed” I said as I sat down next to him. He pulled out his laptop.

“Funny thing,” he said after a few minutes searching. “There have been a number of articles out in the past year or two calling software engineering a low stress job.” He looked further. “There are a lot of responses by programmers calling those articles stupid. They talk about long hours and the struggle to keep up with changes in technology, and the fear of becoming obsolete. Older developers are afraid of being laid off and unable to get a job. Hardly low stress.”

I thanked him and he held out his hand. I pulled a five from my wallet, then glanced at his laptop screen. “Using Google?” He glared at me, pulled a five out of his wallet and handed it to me.

So I knew the problem was real, but had no idea where to find an answer. But I could find D.T. I checked her twitter feed – She was in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City?

So there I was on a flight, heading to a land that was colder than Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters. I landed, stood in line forever in the frigid window at the Thrifty kiosk to grab a car, and made my way to the Pluralsight headquarters in Layton.

The elevator was locked. I pulled out my toolkit for some old-school elevator hacking, but before I had a chance someone came off the elevator. I hid the toolkit and put on the charm. “Can you get me upstairs?” She did her best, but the security card didn’t work – a bad sign. I needed another way up. She pointed me to the staircase and I was off. I had a feeling every second counted.

By the time I reached the upstairs lobby I knew it was too late. D.T. was dead.

It like a scene from my worst nightmare – there were corpses everywhere, terrified civilians and some dangerous looking folks who had organized crime written all over them.

They were playing Mafia and having a great time.

What was this place? It was full of developers, and none of them seemed stressed. I dragged D.T. out of the game, told her about the case and asked her what was going on.

“You were worried about me?” she smiled. “That’s so nice. Here, let me show you.”

As we walked around the Pluralsight office, she explained. “You said it yourself, some of the biggest stress points for developers are career issues and struggling to keep up. And even though my career is perfect, that doesn’t mean it’s not stressful.”

“You never show it,” I told her, thinking that I’d never seen her so much as break a sweat.

“Yeah well…” she hesitated. She never hesitates. “It’s not good for a consultant to show stress – but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.” She paused. “Anyway, I mentioned it to a friend and he pointed me to Dan Appleman’s course “Career and Survival Strategies for Software Developers” on Pluralsight. It helped me to see the big picture, figure out my priorities, and realize that we’re all facing the same issues.

“Hmm, I heard about the guy – wrote a bunch of books in the VB and .NET world, and for some reason is now focusing on,” I said, continuing the gratuitous plug. “But what’s the deal with Pluralsight? You were always one to go straight to specs and reference documentation, filling in the gaps by searching on Google.”

“Oh, I still use those, but it’s not efficient,” she replied. “If you want to come up to speed quickly on a subject you need a teacher, someone to cut through the clutter and explain things quickly and clearly – someone with real world experience with the technology. I found that on Pluralsight. Being able to sign in any time and get some quality training has really reduced the stress of keeping up.”

“But what are you doing here? It looks like a conclave of Pluralsight authors and you are..”

“.. a Pluralsight author, yes.” She smiled, “It seemed like a fun way for me to share my own knowledge, so I gave them a call, auditioned, and here I am.”

I nodded. Any training company, online or otherwise, would kill to have D.T. on their team. We chatted a bit more, and then I left into the cold Layton night. But not before texting the client “Case closed – See “Career & Software Survival Strategies for Software Developers” and other Pluralsight courses”. Seconds later I got confirmation – they’d wired the payment to my Swiss bank account – $50 + expenses (I really need to find a better paying genre). And I didn’t leave empty handed either – I carried with me a box of trial subscription cards and an autographed glossy of Julie Lerman. It was a good day.

Key to inside jokes:

  • Peanut allergies  – Southwest airlines is notorious for always serving peanuts as snacks on flights
  • Half-price from Macy’s – Pluralsight author Adam Purkis ( Design Patterns) got his coat from Macy’s (half price) for the author’s summit
  • Sand Hill Road – Many venture capital firms have their offices here.
  • Rusted signs on fence posts – See the book cover at
  • Using Google – Reference to the ongoing rivalry between Facebook and Google when it comes to hiring software developers.
  • Mitt Romney’s Campaign Headquarters – cold and dark since he lost, and subtle reference to the fact that he is Mormon, and Salt Lake City is the center of the Morman church. Nice temple by the way – worth the visit.
  • Thrifty Kiosk – It took forever on my last visit. Next time I drive Hertz.
  • Locked elevator – The elevator in Pluralsight’s building locks to outsiders at 5pm.
  • Mafia – A popular game at Pluralsight. See wikipedia entry
  • Julie Lerman – Author of several Pluralsight courses on the Entity Framework and a good sport when it comes to signing photos.

About the Author

is a well known author, software developer and speaker. Currently the CTO of Full Circle CRM, he is the founder and CEO of Desaware Inc., one of the co-founders of APress publishing, and is the author of numerous books and ebooks on various topics (technology and other); most recently Advanced Apex Programming.