BARTHOLOMEW L. BARTHOLOMEW — D. A. Hosek
I wasn’t always like this. I once held the position of Technical Lead at C——. Then this happened.
For over a month, we’d been interviewing for a new developer to join my team. Each candidate who came in was somehow wrong. The guy who answered all the questions well on the phone interview couldn’t solve a simple problem when he came in to the office. The guy who arrived two hours late. The guy who arrived two days late. The guy who ate a barbeque pork sandwich during the interview, answering questions with his mouth full while barbeque sauce dripped onto his shirt.
After each interview the team gathered in the conference room and, except for Frank 2 who liked almost everyone, we were unanimous. The candidate we had just interviewed wasn’t right for our team. We didn’t want to mess up the balance we had worked so hard to develop, just make us a bit stronger.
Bartholomew was a last-minute addition to our interview schedule. I handed out copies of his résumé to the guys at our daily stand-up meeting and let them know that we would be interviewing him that afternoon.
“I’d prefer not,” Jerry said. He dropped the résumé on his desk without looking at it. “We’ve got that release deadline on Friday and there’s still a lot to do.”
“I’ll get the deadline pushed to next week. We’ll be fine.”
“Bartholomew L. Bartholomew,” Chris read. He pushed at his desk with his feet, his chair rolling backwards across the office floor. “Seriously? At least his parents didn’t give him a middle name of Bartholomew as well.”
“Yeah, but look at this,” Frank 2 said. “He’s been at Y—— and G—— and Q—— and look where he went to college. I can’t see why he’d consider working at C——, but if he’ll consider us, we should consider him.”
“G—— doesn’t mean anything,” Jerry said without looking away from his computer monitor. “Remember that B. O. guy? He was from G——.”
“I heard that G—— had him telecommuting 100% of the time,” Sanjoy said.
“I wonder if G—— is sending us their smelly programmers,” Chris said.
“Look, I’ve already scheduled Bartholomew to come in for an interview after lunch, OK? Sanjoy you start with the tech, then Chris on problem-solving and Frank 2 and Jerry on team fit.”
At the end of the day when we gathered in the conference room, Jerry was the first of the guys to speak. “There’s no way we should hire this guy.”
“You hate everybody,” Frank 2 said.
“Sure, but did you notice how he didn’t make eye contact at all during the interview.”
“OK, he didn’t make eye contact,” I said, “but if it wasn’t for IT, where would all the socially awkward guys work.” Jerry grumbled and stared at the floor.
“He really knows his computer science,” Sanjoy said. “He showed me ways to simplify algorithms during the tech interview that I did not know were possible. I looked them up afterwards just to make sure they were real and they worked.”
“Tell me about it,” Chris said. “I gave him a P—— Prize problem, just to see how he reasons. I’ve never seen anyone who could even begin one of those problems without a lot of hints, but he breezed through it like it was basic algebra.”
“Bottom line,” I said. “Do you guys think you can work with him?” Everyone nodded, even Jerry. “OK, then, I’ll contact Judy in HR and have her get an offer letter out.”
Bartholomew started two weeks later. I arrived in the morning to find him sitting on the carpeted floor outside the locked door to our office. He had his headphones on, the cord climbing from the phone in his pocket. I could just make out a bit of classical music leaking from the headphones.
“You didn’t need to arrive until ten,” I said.
“I know. I like to be early.”
“I like to be very early.”
I set him up with a cubicle, computer and copy of our software that first morning. He started work right away, headphones on, fingers clicking on the keyboard as he familiarized himself with the code. The next morning he told me he was ready to start working on something productive. I assigned him one of the lower priority tasks from the current sprint and he finished it off before the end of the day and asked if I had any more work for him. After I reviewed the code he had written, I was even more impressed than I had expected. Not only did he solve the problem in a clear and efficient way, but everything had the sort of concise clarity that you see more often in a computer science textbook than in actual production code.
He would have been a perfect hire except for one thing; he refused to attend the daily stand-up meeting with the rest of his team. When I went to his cubicle and told him that he needed to attend, he said, “I would prefer not. I think it’s more efficient and advantageous if I just send an e-mail detailing my activities of the previous day and plans for the current day.”
“It’s not negotiable. I expect to see you at the meeting tomorrow.”
I walked away before he could respond certain that not allowing further discussion would resolve the matter, but I underestimated Bartholomew’s intransigence. The next morning, when the guys had gathered for our daily stand-up, Bartholomew was absent. Over the cubicle walls, I could see his headphones over his black hair. “Frank 2,” I said, “go ahead and give your status. I’ll be right back.”
Jerry smirked. I’m sure he was feeling smug about his initial evaluation of Bartholomew, but I chose to ignore him and not attempt to attribute any motivation to his reaction.
At Bartholomew’s cubicle, I leaned over and said, “Meeting. Now.”
Bartholomew continued typing as if I hadn’t spoken. He slowed only to periodically take a single unsalted cashew from the can he kept on his desk and eat it.
“Meeting. Now.” My voice had gotten louder. Perhaps a little too loud. One of the accountants looked over her cube wall to see what was going on. Bartholomew continued to ignore me.
I pulled the headphones from Bartholomew’s head, cracking the plastic in the process. Bartholomew looked at me, acknowledging my presence for the first time.
“I would prefer not.” He looked at the broken headphones in my hand. “You will have to replace those. They’re $42.97 at A——.”
“I would prefer not.” My voice shook. “You need to be at the meeting.”
“You need to replace my headphones.” Bartholomew returned to his computer and continued typing.
Everyone from accounting was now standing and watching me. From the area near the whiteboard, the guys all craned their necks to see what was happening. I dropped Bartholomew’s headphones and walked away.
After lunch I came back to a message on my phone. It was Judy from HR. She said that I needed to see her as soon as I got back. I hoped I wasn’t about to be fired.
“I understand there was an ‘incident’ this morning,” Judy said after she closed the door to her office.
“Yes. An employee acted in an insubordinate manner towards me.”
“I was referring to what you did. Your response was not—appropriate.”
“He refused to attend a mandatory daily meeting.”
“That doesn’t matter. Your actions were inappropriate. We cannot have another incident like this again.”
I felt my face burn.
“I’ve ordered a pair of replacement headphones for Mr Bartholomew. Payroll will deduct the cost from your next paycheck. Perhaps—and this is just a suggestion—you should allow Mr Bartholomew to submit these daily status reports by e-mail as he prefers. I do not want to hear of another confrontation of the sort that took place today.”
After that, I scrutinized every piece of work Bartholomew did. There was bound to be some reason to initiate disciplinary action, some infraction that would justify moving against him. I found nothing.
Worse still, Bartholomew’s attitude caused problems with the rest of the guys. Frank 2, who was never the fastest worker, began taking even longer to finish his tasks. Every day during standup, Jerry and Chris would ask if we could just drop stand-up and have everyone e-mail their status like Bartholomew did. Sanjoy seemed to have more questions than usual that required my attention, and I didn’t have that much attention to begin with because I was putting in a little extra effort to keep our velocity up so the drop in productivity wasn’t noticeable from outside the team.
I brought this to Judy’s attention hoping that she would see that her “suggestion” was causing a problem for the team. I hoped that she would speak to Bartholomew to bring him in line with the rest of the team.
Instead, she said, “Why can’t you let the developers send their status by e-mail? If it’s working for Bartholomew, it would make sense that it would work for everyone.”
“But it’s not working for Bartholomew. He’s only sending his status by e-mail because you made me allow it. We follow the agile-with-scrum process. It’s an established system that’s been tried and tested by countless other companies and organizations and doing things this way is what works best. It makes the team work as a team. And that’s why I really need Bartholomew—”
(“Mr Bartholomew,” Judy interjected, believing I was using his last name rather than his first)
“—to participate in the meetings like the rest of the team. It’s a matter of cohesiveness.” I handed her a sheaf of notes on how the agile-with-scrum process is supposed to work, documents that I had spent the day before collecting and curating to bolster my argument. “I think that enough time has passed since the—incident—to merit revisiting Mr Bartholomew’s participation in our daily meetings.”
Judy gave my documents a perfunctory glance and pushed them aside. “I don’t really understand any of this.”
“This is important.”
“Very well. However, I don’t want you to speak to him individually. I think it would be best if I participated in the discussion.”
“I’m fine with that.” In fact, I had hoped she would witness for herself just how aggravating Bartholomew could be.
Judy put her phone on speaker and dialed Bartholomew’s extension. The call went to voicemail.
“The developers tend not to use their phones,” I said.
“I’ll put a meeting on his calendar for tomorrow morning.”
The next day I arrived at Judy’s office at eleven. She was alone. We waited in silence for Bartholomew’s arrival. Ten minutes into our wait I asked, “Would you like me to go get him?”
“No. I think it would be better if I went.”
After ten minutes she returned alone, her face flushed.
“Wasn’t he at his desk?” I asked.
“He was there. I told him we were waiting to meet with him and asked him to come. He said, ‘I would prefer not,’ turned his back on me, put his headphones back on and returned to his work.”
“Do you see?”
“What I see is a continued reaction to your incident, Mr Carsten. We’ll consider this matter resolved for now.”
Clearly I needed a new approach.
The day of our failed meeting with Judy, I had assigned him, among other things, a fairly straightforward rewrite of the data access conversion layer code. When we sized the work, the consensus among the team (excluding, of course, Bartholomew, who preferred not to come to meetings) was that the changes that were necessary would be no more than two days’ work. For almost a week, Bartholomew’s e-mailed status read, “Still working on the data conversion layer code. It should be done tomorrow.” At the same time, his other assignments went undone. I had to have the other guys take over Bartholomew’s tasks and after a week, I asked Sanjoy to take a look at the data conversion layer code work. A few hours later he told me he finished the work. He said it was simpler than they had thought at the sizing meeting.
I printed all the relevant e-mails and took them to Judy in hopes to getting her to see the issue. She didn’t even look at them before she said, “I don’t really understand any of this.”
“It’s simple. Bartholomew—Mr Bartholomew, I mean—spent a week not doing something that another developer ended up being able to finish in less than a day.”
She paged through the e-mails. “Perhaps Mr Bartholomew did the bulk of the work and Mr Patel just needed to finish it off.”
“No, Mr Bartholomew didn’t check in any of the work he did—if he did anything at all. In fact, I can find no evidence that he did any work at all this week.”
“Well, let me bring him here so we can all discuss this.”
I leaned back in my chair when she left, expecting her mission to end in failure just like the last time she tried to bring Bartholomew into her office. To my surprise, she was back almost immediately with Bartholomew at her side.
She put him in the chair next to mine. “Mr Bartholomew, Mr Carsten says that he has concerns about your performance.”
“Mr Carsten hasn’t told me about any concerns.”
Judy gave me a look. “Do you feel that you’ve been giving all of your attention and effort to your work for C——?” Judy asked.
Bartholomew stared past her and answered inaudibly.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” Judy asked.
“Yes,” Bartholomew said. He continued to stare at some invisible object behind Judy.
“Are you happy here at C——?”
Bartholomew nodded, his vision still trained on the wall behind Judy. I involuntarily followed his gaze, wondering what he could be seeing.
“Well, if you could make an effort to keep your performance up, we would appreciate it. You may go.”
Once he was gone, I asked, “What was that?”
“That was me trying to keep the situation you created from becoming worse.”
“You raised an issue with me before discussing it with the employee in question? That’s not how we do things here at C——. You have created a hostile work environment for Mr Bartholomew and you seem to have some obsession with making things worse for him.”
“But—can’t we discuss this?”
“I would prefer not.”
After that, I started walking past Bartholomew’s cubicle hoping to catch in slacking in some ostensible fashion. But every time I passed, there was a single window on his computer screen: the programming software that we all used at C——. The furious pace of typing that he displayed on first arriving had been replaced with him patiently paging through the code, advancing line by line with the scroll wheel on his mouse. I once silently watched him to see what happened when he reached the end of the file. He closed the window and opened the next file in alphabetical order then returned to paging through the code.
Meanwhile, I started seeing non-work websites showing up on the other guys’ computer screens. There was F—— of course, and A—— and E——, but worryingly I also saw some of them looking through M——, the job site.
My worries became justified when Jerry asked to talk with me alone in one of the small conference rooms. He was still working relatively consistently even after Bartholomew had become such a problem. I couldn’t afford to lose him. I hoped that the real reason for the meeting was that he had found some way to get rid of Bartholomew. It turned out that he had, just in a different way than I would have hoped.
“I’m sorry, boss,” he said. “I’m giving you my two weeks’ notice. I’ve been offered a job with V—— and I’m going to accept it.”
It was the company where my predecessor had gone. If Jerry was going there, it was only a matter of time before I would lose Chris too if things didn’t turn around. Frank 2 and Sanjoy were competent, but I wasn’t going to be able to run my team well if they were my most senior developers. “Is there anything I can do to convince you to stay?”
“I’d prefer not. It’s not the environment or the company it’s just—”
Jerry didn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t need to. I understood. It was Bartholomew. He needed to go. I needed something that would persuade Judy. Actually, forget Judy. I was going to take this straight to Dave, the VP of technology. He wouldn’t dismiss me with an “I don’t really understand any of this.”
I needed to talk to Bartholomew to set my plan in action. He was sitting at his computer, still paging through the code. The tinniest frequencies of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony leaked from his headphones.
I said his name. He didn’t respond. I stopped myself from tapping him on the shoulder. I had no doubt that Judy would inform me of some corporate HR rule that I could be violating by making physical contact with a subordinate. Especially after the “incident.” I didn’t need another dark mark on my record as manager. I rapped on the edge of his desk.
He looked up at me.
“I need to speak with you.”
He shrugged and returned to his ceaseless paging through the code.
I knocked on his desk again.
“Take off the headphones.”
He took them off. This was an improvement, even if Beethoven was continuing to tintinnabulate from the earpieces.
“I would like you to address bug ticket 1729, the issue where uploading a spreadsheet file which has an embedded presentation throws a null pointer exception.”
“I would prefer not.”
“It’s not about what you would prefer. This is your assignment. It’s been sized at three story points, so it should be done by the end of the week, if not sooner.” I turned and left before he could answer.
At my desk, I sent an e-mail to Bartholomew reprising the request. How to Manage Difficult Workers by A. F. outlines in chapter nine how to prepare a dossier on a troublesome employee should HR action (viz, termination) be required. Bartholomew responded with his own e-mail almost immediately. It was one line: “I would prefer not.”
Later that day, I went to talk with Dave, to let him know that we would need to hire a replacement for Jerry.
“We can’t do that right now,” Dave said. “You just got a new hire.”
“But this isn’t a new hire. This is a replacement.”
“The thing is, I’ve been looking over the productivity reports for your team and all the metrics are down.” He turned his laptop so I could see the spreadsheet on the screen. “Commits are down, story points per sprint are down. Bugs fixed are down. Everything’s down. Except here: bugs found per release. There’s no way I can get a new hire approved with numbers like these.”
“We’re doing poorly, so you’re going to make things harder for us? Seriously?”
“Think of it as an incentive.”
“I would prefer not.”
I ran the numbers from Dave’s spreadsheet myself when I got back to my computer. He was right, there was a marked decline. Then I re-ran the report to show individual performance numbers and saw something surprising: Bartholomew wasn’t appearing any worse than the other guys, in fact by some measures he was performing better. Something had to be wrong.
I ran every statistical analysis I could find to show that Bartholomew was doing less than the numbers claimed: single-variable variance, multi-variable correlation, factor analysis, parametric regression, the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, none of it turned up anything.
But I knew that Bartholomew was not producing. On our burn-down chart, the blue progress line that was supposed to remain at or below the red diagonal projection line instead kept landing above it and this was because of Bartholomew’s contributions—or more appropriately his lack thereof. Each sprint ended with significant work unfinished and I had been forced to postpone the last release twice already. It was looking like a third postponement was inevitable.
I did my best to pitch in, doing more coding than I normally have time to do, trying to keep our blue progress line below the red projection line, but I had difficulty concentrating on the coding. Instead, I kept going back to my statistical analyses. There had to be some way of proving from the numbers that Bartholomew was underperforming but it seemed almost as if he had planned things so he would seem statistically productive without actually doing any work. I kept digging for the next week and a half without finding anything.
Meanwhile there continued to be no bug fix recorded for bug 1729. After Friday’s stand-up meeting, I went to his cubicle where he sat staring at his screen, headphones on, piles of empty unsalted cashew nut cans crowding the corners of his desk as he continued eating from a fresh can, one cashew at a time. I was about to knock on his desk to get his attention when a question occurred to me. If Bartholomew was showing up in the reports as doing work, what was he doing? I returned to my own desk and started examining the commit log, finding his activity. In the past week he had eleven bug fixes to his credit, none of them high priority, all of them trivial changes to the code. When I started looking at the history of the code underlying those bugs, I realized that seven of these bugs were problems that Bartholomew had introduced with his earlier commits. There was no way these bugs were unintentional. Not with a programmer like Bartholomew.
I had it. Between what I’d turned up with the bug fixes and Bartholomew’s failure to complete a direct assignment or provide any accounting for his time (his status update e-mails had stopped the week before), there was ample support to justify his firing. I opened up Word and began drafting a lengthy memo describing the issues of Bartholomew’s performance, with copies of the e-mails I had sent regarding the JIRA, a detailed accounting of his activities as reported by the version control system and anything else I could see that would bolster my case. For good measure, I included copies of my statistical analyses and my interpretation that Bartholomew was intentionally gaming the system. When it was complete, I sent it to Dave with the subject line, “Request for employee termination.”
Dave replied immediately. “A couple weeks ago you wanted a new hire and now you want to fire someone?”
I sent him an answer summarizing the contents of my detailed report and adding my concerns about Bartholomew’s impact on the rest of the team.
Again, Dave replied right away. “Come see me.”
Dave closed the door when I got to his office and asked me to have a seat. “I’ve been looking over what you’ve sent me about this Bartholomew—is that is last name or his first?”
“Strange. Anyway, looking over what you’ve sent me about this Bartholomew character I don’t see any problem with his productivity. Your interpretation of the commit statistics seems to be really reaching to me. From what I can see, he’s actually your most productive developer.”
“It’s all an illusion. And don’t forget he ignored an explicit request to fix a specific bug.”
“I should let you know, Judy has talked to me about your—issues—with Bartholomew.”
“Did she mention his insubordination towards her?”
“Yes, but she feels—and I think that she’s right—that what happened was ultimately a result of your history with Bartholomew. I can’t help feeling like there’s something personal going on here. Frankly I’m concerned.”
“It’s not personal. He’s not doing any work. It’s all laid out in what I sent you.”
He glanced over my emails. “I don’t really understand any of this. You must realize that at the VP level, I’m not going to get mired down in the details of the code. But as I said, it seems clear to me that he is working, and you will have to work with him. I can’t justify your request for employee termination. “In any event, I didn’t ask you to come here to discuss Bartholomew. I’m actually more concerned about your performance.”
I felt my face pale.
“Look at this, what you sent me. How much time did you spend on this?”
“A couple—a few days.”
“This is more than a few days’ work here. All this time wasted on some sort of vendetta against one of your employees. Whatever this issue you have with Bartholomew is, you need to leave it outside the office and focus on being an effective manager. Your team’s productivity leaves a lot to be desired.”
“That will be all.”
“If you’d just look at—”
“I would prefer not.”
After that meeting, I did my best to put Bartholomew out of my mind. If he did the assignments I gave him or not didn’t matter, none of them were very important. He never started one of them. Bartholomew wasn’t even pretending to work; he began sitting at his computer staring at the desktop background on his monitor and eating cashew nuts one at a time. I received constant complaints from the guys, even Frank 2. “How come Bartholomew doesn’t have to work?” “If Bartholomew won’t do it, why should I?” “Why don’t you have Bartholomew do it?” Morale (I hate that word, but what’s the alternative?) plummeted. When Chris gave me his two weeks’ notice to let me know he was moving to V——, I wasn’t surprised.
“Two in two months? You’re hemorrhaging developers,” Dave said when I told him.
I resisted mentioning Bartholomew’s role in the problem. “I would like to put in a request for a replacement.”
“About that, I’ve decided to split your team up—what’s left of it anyway. We’ll also be distributing among the other teams what you still have left in the backlog. Sanjoy Patel will go to Alexander Nilov’s team, Frank Lewis to Debra Potrelli’s team and Bartholomew Bartholomew to R&D.”
I said nothing. I knew what was coming next. There was only one fate for the manager of a failed team.”
“So, of course, we won’t need you to continue as technical lead.”
“Of course. I should see Judy in HR about the next steps then?”
“Actually, if you’re willing to consider it—and I’d like you to view this as a lateral move, not as a demotion, your salary will remain the same—we’d like you to continue at C—— as more of an individual contributor.”
“On which team?”
“I’d prefer not.”
D. A. Hosek’s fiction and poetry have been published by journals in three countries on two continents. His story, “Our Lady of the Freeway,” won the 2016 Headland Prize. He has an MFA in fiction from the University of Tampa and lives and writes in Oak Park, Illinois. He spends his days as a cog in the machinery of corporate America.