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Guest Writer

One day I ran into the ringmaster
Getting off the tiger
by Joe Follansbee

hey refuse to let me go. John, my boss, wipes his bald head and puts his feet up on his desk. He wears fabric slippers and the soles have holes. Batting leaks from the holes.

I sit on a cheap office chair with no arms. Other RealNetworks' employees walk by John's open door and glance through the picture window that looks out on the hallway. I close John's door for privacy. No one can hear us, but people can see us through the window.

"Have you had a chance to talk to Dave?" I ask.

Dave is the vice president in charge of our group. I pick off a gray hair from my black T-shirt and brush my blue jeans with the palm of my hand. Fans from a pair of servers recirculate the stale air. John turns down the music coming from his laptop.

"Well, there's a lot going on," John says.

I stop listening. I doze with my eyes open and Engelbert Humperdinck starts crooning in my head.

Please release me, let me go
For I don't love you, anymore

"I haven't been able to get approval from Dave," John says. "We may need you in the next few weeks. You can't leave yet."

I went back to my office and watched a ferry pull out of Colman Dock on Seattle's Elliott Bay. New leaves the color of grass seedlings snuck out of the street trees.

Of course, I could quit any time. But there's no point in burning bridges. John was a good boss. He said he might need me. I'd adapt. I'd figure it out, as always. No. No, I don't want to adapt anymore. I'm tired of adapting.

Somebody once asked me for my job description. "My job is to ride the tiger," I said.

RealNetworks' status as a start-up technology company meant my job description changed quarterly, monthly, even weekly. I'd written articles, produced audio and programmed servers.

Once a year, I'd set goals as part of my annual evaluation. I'd toss the goals once I got my raise. My true goal was survival, to stay on the tiger's back, and make sure the tiger didn't turn his head and rip out a chunk of flesh. After five years, I wanted off the tiger.

I told John months ago I wanted to carry on a RealNetworks tradition. I was given a schedule the day I started at Real: March 15, 1996.

The HR lackey said to me, you can exercise your right to buy 20 percent of your stock option grant after one year. Every six months thereafter, you may exercise another 10 percent. Six months later, another 10, and so on, until March 15, 2001, when you can exercise 100 percent. Then she slapped on the golden handcuffs.

I lived 10 percent at a time. Six months at a time. I looked forward to my release date for four years. Many employees took a stretch of unpaid leave when they reached their five-year vests. That was the tradition. Sometimes they came back. Sometimes they didn't. I saw it as the reward for surviving. John wouldn't give me what I was due. Dave was on the executive team, and he wouldn't either. Who would?

One day I ran into the ringmaster. Rob Glaser and I walked out of a hallway at the same moment and headed for an escalator. The building was once a wholesale mall, and escalators carried people from one floor to the next. The escalators traveled along one wall of a four-story room. We called it the "Atrium." I let Glaser step on first. After all, he was the CEO.

"How're you doing, Joe?" he said. "What're you working on?"

Glaser remembers your name, even if he hasn't seen or spoken to you in years. It's a way to crack the whip.

"Well, I'm thinking of taking some time off," I said.

Translated: I'm tired of jumping through hoops and I want a rest. He listened carefully. Company lore said he would plead with departing employees to stay. I waited for a pitch. But I thought I sensed sadness in his eyes. They're set in a round head, which resembles the bowling balls in the company alley in the basement. He's a Yalie, a Microsoft alum and a billionaire. He and a couple of buddies bought the Pro Bowlers Association in 2000. I took a bowling class in high school to satisfy a PE requirement.

The escalator rumbled beneath us as code jockeys played pool in the Atrium. The clack of cue balls echoed in the hall, which was surrounded by office windows. A program manager took in the scene from his fourth floor office. Maybe Glaser's question was simple politeness, or a way to work through an awkward moment.

I wouldn't mind a chat. I admired his business acumen; RN had survived the Net boom and bust. And he always had time to answer emails from employees, starting his response with "Great to hear from you!"

We stepped off the escalator and he reached out to shake my hand.

"Thanks for everything you've done for us," he said. His grip was solid. "I hope to see you around." Glaser walked off at an Internet pace. He turned a corner and disappeared.

A few weeks later, I was back in John's office. He had lost half the batting from his slippers. Dave had approved my application for unpaid leave. I returned to the company in a couple of months, but no one had a place for me. Finally, I was lumped into the largest layoff in company history, 20 percent of the workforce.

Glaser cried when he delivered the news.

The tiger had bucked me off. I handed in my key card and walked to my bus stop, relieved.

Joe Follansbee is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose first book was published this month; you can email him at joef@speakeasy.net. And visit our archives.

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