Dan Underlight, a divorced, workaholic technology executive, suffers lingering grief over the death of his ten-year-old son, Zack. When Dan’s longtime friend and boss fires Dan from RadioRadio, the company that he helped create, he crashes and isolates himself.
Willow, a poet and domestic violence survivor, helps Dan regain his footing. With her support, Dan ventures on a pilgrimage of sorts, visiting Fortune 500 companies to flesh out a software start-up idea. He then recruits three former RadioRadio colleagues and starts Conversationworks, a company he believes will be at the vanguard of social change.
Guided by Dan’s leadership, Conversationworks enjoys some early successes, but its existence is soon threatened on multiple fronts. Will Dan survive the ensuing corporate battles and realize the potential of his company? Or will he be defeated by his enemies and consumed by his grief?
“Dan, Olivia would like to see you now.”
Summoned, I hang up the phone, lift off my chair, and exit
my corner office. A year in the making, it’s about to happen, and
even though I had a hunch it was coming, nothing has prepared
me for the end walk. As I’m heading to Olivia’s office, the last
months flash in Technicolor until the credits, the epitaph rolls—
He put his head down, tried to rekindle the wildfire he helped
birth years ago, tried to daydream down a riven path. Didn’t work,
but hey. Midway, my legs go wobbly, so I restroom to regroup.
After I wash my hands and face and adjust my tie, I stare at my
regrouped selves in the mirror and recite Willow. She sent me one
of her poems the other day after we chatted about my current
predicament: When sudden loss dances/ When the inexplicable
fogs/ When you’re about to lose what you love most/ Remember
this: You’re fucked. Well, that’s not exactly the poem. Her last line
made some poignant point about all the “When’s” being gifts, but I
like my version better.
When I arrive, Olivia, who’s waiting for me at her door,
blank-faces me into her glass-walled corner office. The place reeks
of new paint, new rugs, new leather, power. She sits, calm, hands
folded on her mahogany desk, dyed chestnut hair expertly styled,
wearing one of her many black bespoke suits. Gold and diamonds
adorn her hands, her ears, her neck. Directly over her heart,
pinned perfectly, is a pendant shaped like a sickle. I touch down
across from her in the seat I’ve frequented countless times over
the years. At least she didn’t swap that out. Awards and photos
line the wall behind her—RadioRadio Software named one of the
best companies to work for in America, opening bell on the day of
our IPO, CEO of the Year back in 2008, she and the Dalai Lama at
a leadership retreat, the anniversary she gave me a Martin guitar.
I’m in one of the awards ceremony photos with her, wearing a
black tuxedo with my hair slicked back. When was that one? I had
much less gray.
Another picture of the two of us in jeans and T-shirts,
during our first year when we still worked out of her house, is
still my favorite. I had long hair then; Olivia did too, all the way
to the middle of her back. That day, we ate Chinese take-out and
background-marathoned Pearl Jam and Nirvana for sixteen hours
straight as we worked well into the night. Sometimes I shake my
head at how far we’ve come since those early years in the nineties.
I reach down and stroke my plastic employee badge, number 2,
securely fastened to my belt. It feels like skin.
The room is unnaturally quiet until Olivia clears her throat
and says, “This is going to be a difficult conversation, Dan.”
Instantly, I zone out. Why listen in the middle of an avalanche
when I already know my fate? “Blah. Blah. Blah. We’re no longer
simpatico. Blah. Blah. Blah. HR will contact you with your
package. Blah. Blah. Blah. We’ll spin a positive message about
I push off my chair, make my way over to one of the glass
walls, and stare out into a sea of color. New England in fall. What
beauty. Barely touching the glass with my index finger, I cursive
R, R, R, R. Sixteen years in this place. Why so long? Well, until
recently Olivia touched me. Honestly, if she were a man, she
would have been a priest. She rocketed RadioRadio Software from
nothing to greatness in a decade, a decade in which we grew
triple-digit fast, a decade in which she had the team, the Street,
our customers, me, fully bought in. Her sermon—we will change
the world; we will do work faster, cheaper, better; we will give the
power back to the people. It was the same pitch all hi-tech CEOs
used, but nobody delivered it better than Liv. During the ascent,
she golden-girled through, well, everything, and I was her righthand
man, helping her craft and implement the vision. Our vision.
For fifteen of the sixteen years, she trusted me, respected me,
believed in me, valued my advice. Until she didn’t.
Olivia joins me at the window and places a hand on my
shoulder. “We’ve been through a lot of autumns, but I don’t recall
one this vivid.”
“I love the fall.”
“If there were any other way, Dan.”
When growth stopped a year ago, for the first time, bigleague
adversity loomed over RadioRadio, over Olivia. The stock
fell to fifty percent of its fifty-two-week high. We lost two
hundred million in a quarter. Many called for her resignation, but
somehow she held on. Still, the spotlight judge rocked her, made
her second-guess long-standing goals and values, made her hire
consultants. Like cancer, they spread through the company; like
brain cancer, they crowded me out.
At first, I coped. Olivia had to have her reasons for not
inviting me to the consultant meetings, for not wandering into my
office every day, for no longer asking my opinion. The board, the
Street, had put her under a lot of pressure, and she needed space
to search for an answer. I got that. Sometimes, like during our
Friday lunches, I convinced myself that we were going through a
rough patch, that we were still best friends, that everything was
going to be okay, that I would weather the storm of consultants.
But most of the time I buried the abundant signs under the now
Then, about a month ago, in their full Ivy League, overpriced
splendor, after eleven months with little impact, the consultants
designed a new narrative. We owe it to our shareholders to
reduce spending. Lean and mean is the name of the game. Cut the
deadweight. Their goal: rationalize the harm Olivia was about to
do to her employees, to the very people who had dedicated their
lives to helping her build the twenty-second largest software
company in the world. One day, shortly after the new narrative
had taken hold, I asked Olivia: “How exactly are living, breathing
human beings who built this place deadweight?” That was
I turn my back to the fall foliage and lean against the
window, hands behind my back as a cushion. Olivia takes a step
away from me, readies herself for the last barrage.
“We could still pull this thing out together,” I say.
“It’s too late for that, Dan. I have a board-approved plan.”
“But the company is in a death spiral.”
“That’s why I need to make these changes.”
“Thirty percent of the workforce?”
“If there was any other way.”
“But there is.”
“No, Dan, there isn’t.”
Olivia folds her arms across her chest. Her face is blank,
except that her eyes keep wandering off trying to hide something.
But what? Does she agree with me, but believe her hands are
tied? Does she believe Wall Street screwed us? Does she believe
that I failed her in some way? Or maybe there’s nothing hidden
underneath. It wouldn’t be the first time this year I couldn’t
read the woman.
My black loafers, normally grounding, threaten to levitate
and whisk me out of the room before she can say another safe,
canned, board-approved thing. Couldn’t she at least have had
a real conversation after sixteen years? I manage a fake smile,
though my eyes, filled to the brim, betray me. Did she really just
fire me? After everything we’ve been through, how could she
walk away? In twenty-five years weren’t we going to be the last
two standing at this place? Wasn’t what we had stronger than
As I leave the corner office for the last time, Olivia says,
“We’ll stay in touch, Dan. Our relationship transcends work.”
She hugs me. The same perfume she’s worn for years, Tom Ford,
induces a dry heave. I can’t ditto her hug. Billions of prickling
needles freeze my arms at my sides. Am I bleeding? Don’t look
down, the pinpricks have spouted and are covering the new
carpet in blood.
Moments later, somehow magically transported back to my
office, I have a brief conversation with a friend, Sally, the HR VP,
who hands me the severance document that apparently details
what Olivia overviewed. I phone my lawyer, fax the document,
and after I talk him through the details, manage the strength to
scribble a signature on the voluntary severance package: Daniel
Underlight. By taking the high road to a golden parachute, one
that is fully extended and generous, I’m agreeing to never publicly
say anything negative about the company or Olivia. At least one
will be easy. My secretary, Annette, who’s been with me since
the start, who will be assigned to someone new tomorrow, helps
me clean out my office. The keepers: my infinite number of
management books, a few early awards, a bursting-with-color
glass paperweight my wife gave me years ago, a picture of my son
playing soccer, a stone arrowhead. Everything else we throw away.
I slowly drift out of the office building, stopping often
to shake hands or say good-bye to boatloads of friends and
colleagues, most of whom seem genuinely sympathetic. You’ll be
missed. RadioRadio won’t be the same without you. Let us know
where you land. Forty years old, divorced, with a dead son who
paid a heavy price for my long work hours, I’ve come untethered.
What was that line in the poem? When the inexplicable fogs.
As I pull out of the parking lot in Gordon Bell, a name I’ve
given my 1972 Triumph TR6 convertible, and race onto Route
128 away from corporate headquarters, toward my oversized
Concord home, the wind washes my face. Even at seventy miles
an hour, the air is warm and embryonic, temporarily warding
off the vast blackness of non-RadioRadio closing in. But oblivion
won’t wait for long. Yes, I could easily get another job, but there
is no other RadioRadio. Yes, I have enough money, but there is no
other RadioRadio. Yes, there are other strong CEOs, but none like
Olivia. Do people wear firings like a missing wedding band, like
an old soccer jersey, like a medical bracelet after an unwanted
surgery? I survived my firing and had my heart removed and
replaced with an artificial one. It’s as good as new. I’ll see you at
the health club tomorrow.
A short time later, I pull into my driveway. The crunching
sound of rubber against gravel causes me to stop midway up and
run my fingers through my hair until the rearview mirror reveals
Einstein-hair in the making. How to net out my time with Liv? That
was always my strength. Analyze. Strategize. Synthesize. Net Out.
ASSNO. I even had it added to the RadioRadio list of corporate
acronyms. After a few rationalizations, which are surprisingly easy
to do when unemployed, I zero in on the truth, the main takeaway,
the sixteen-year NO—I got all caught up.
So it spins.
So It Spins