Al’s Understudies

14 July 2022 15:42 GMT+0100 

fiction, Silicon Valley3,734 words

Writer’s note: for this story to work, the reader must be very familiar with some of Al Pacino’s movies. In addition, the traits of the particular Pacino character must be clearly adapted to this situation; it’s not clear that I’ve done this well. Still, it was fun to write.


“Explain it to me again,” said Mather as he looked over the brochure, which under the company name, had the byline: ‘Professional development based on the actor’s legendary performances using the Stanislavski/Strasberg Method.’

“Look,” said Jason, “look at it this way. You guys are always going to these team building offsites. You know, ropes courses where everyone puts on those dorky construction helmets, straps on the crotch harnesses that catch your dick wrong, and then you have to walk on a wire, suspended between two trees, a hundred feet in the air, getting a wedgie if you slip off the wire. Does anyone really enjoy that? Does anyone learn anything out there, hanging between the trees? You learn that you don’t want to do a ropes course.”

“Well…”

“Or then you have to do those dumb ass trust drills. You know, where one person is blindfolded and the other person has to guide him through the field: turn left, you’re about to step on cow crap, oh, sorry I didn’t see that root you just tripped on. Or your hands are tied up and you let yourself fall and your circle of colleagues will catch you. Right. Look, either you are a reliable, trust-worthy person by the time you are six years old, or you aren’t. No new age drill is going to make you into a better person.”

“That’s not necessarily true. We’ve had many people write reviews about how much they got out of the ropes courses.”

“Many people? Really? How many? Were those reviews anonymous? Were they required? Never mind—don’t answer that. And what’s that other thing you all do? Role playing? How much do you guys pay for that sort of thing? Seriously, don’t bullshit me. Tens of thousands for an afternoon of that crap.”

“I can’t discuss how much we pay other consult—.”

“That’s okay. Or maybe you bring in some management consultant who charges tens of thousands of dollars to run personality tests to determine if you’re a ENTJ or you’re a magenta thetan warrior. I mean seriously, how in the world does this help people get the job done?”

“Well, to be fair those sorts of test are often done more for long term career—.”

“Never mind. It’s okay. There might be some merit in that role playing stuff, but it’s strictly amateur hour. What I’m proposing is much more professional and practical.”

As a favor to his wife, Mather had agreed to meet her cousin, Jason, to hear about his consulting firm, based out of Burbank: Al’s Understudies. Jason claimed to already be working with a couple of technology companies in the LA area, although he still had not emailed Mather any references. Now Jason was trying to get some business in Silicon Valley.

He was unsure of Jason’s background. He knew Jason had graduated from the University of Southern California, but neither he nor his wife knew what Jason had studied. Jason was a member of the screen actors guild, but Mather didn’t think he’d done any acting. Jason had also worked for a time as something called an NLP trainer, which Jason assured Mather had nothing to do with Scientology.

Mather, the vice-president of Human Resources, agreed to listen only because he was looking for creative alternatives to help the technical support department: a new product release had been very buggy, resulting in unusually high call and email volumes. The tech support was swamped, and morale was low. Mather had met several times with the manager of the department, Angelo Deogracias, and the group lead, Rowena Delosreyes: both wanted something done to help the department.

Because of a budget freeze, the company could not hire any more technical support engineers (TSEs). Worse, Angelo reported that he thought some of the TSEs were looking for new jobs. One had left a month ago for a new start-up, and Angelo told Mather that there was a possibility more could leave for that same company. If that happened, Mather would have to talk to Jones in legal about the anti-poaching clauses in all the employee contracts, but he knew those could be hard to enforce.

In the meantime there was another problem, a bit harder to solve, which had to do with the nature of TSEs themselves. People in high technology jobs were introverts, preferring to interact with a computer all day long, rather than with humans. Or if they did have to interact, they were shielded by a technological buffer, the phone or email, to minimize the awkwardness of real human contact. Mather had found this to be true of developers and software test engineers, but less so of technical writers and technical support engineers. Indeed, in some cases this latter group were almost extroverts, willing to talk to customers, complete strangers, on the phone. The TSEs were polite, patient, and intelligent. The problem was they absorbed all the stress and anger from the customers, then kept it inside. They had no outlet, and now because of recent events, they were stressed and on edge.

Mather needed to do something about it, yet he had doubts about Jason’s company: LA was the land of pretentiousness and narcissism, Silicon Valley was introverted nerdiness; it was oil and water.

“What I think you need to understand is that engineering groups are different, they’re skeptical. And a lot of the group are simply nice, quiet people, who are for the moment going through a stressful period, and given their nature, internalizing—.“

“That’s exactly why you need Al’s Understudies. There won’t be any more of that accumulated stress! You think Al keeps it all inside him?”

“Look, isn’t this something more suited to sales? Those guys love this sort thing, they eat up those motivational seminars run by former Navy SEALs or a washed up athlete or some actor just out of rehab.”

Jason looked happy. “Well, if you’re satisfied with the job I do in technical support, I can move on to your sales department.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. And why did you choose Pacino? Why not Tom Hanks or Robert Deniro or Jimmy Stewart or even Johnny Depp?”

Yeah, DeNiro’s good. I still think about switching to him. Hanks is always the same guy in every movie, same with Stewart, and nobody remembers him, anyway. Depp is overrated. But with Pacino you get a lot of DeNiro. And none of these guys have the intensity of Pacino, that verve.”

“Verve?”

“Yeah, verve.” Jason stood up and walked behind his chair, then faced Mather. “Look, here’s a scene from Heat, when Pacino’s talking to Hank Azaria about Ashley Judd’s butt. You remember that, right? She’s got a nice butt, a real biteable butt.”

Jason tipped his head from side to side, then shrugged his shoulders a few times like a boxer warming up, took a couple of deep breaths, then started pacing back and forth and waving his hands. Then he stopped pacing, turned, opened eyes as wide as they could go, stared at Mather, moved his hands as if he grabbing her butt, and yelled, “She’s got a great ASS!”

“Jason, not so loud.”

“Sorry.”

That’s verve?”

“Yeah, that’s verve.”

“There will be women in these classes. You can’t say things like that. There’ll be a lawsuit. Why don’t you sit down.”

Jason took a breath, then sat back down. “Yeah yeah, no problem. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.”

“I don’t know. Someone’s going to ask why isn’t your company modeled after a famous woman actor. Meryl Strep, someone like that.”

“What? And have them do all those accents? The fact is women aren’t given the spectrum of roles that men are. And the guys will have a harder time identifying with a woman’s role. Don’t worry, Al Pacino is a good model for men and for women. Listen, he’s played a cop, a criminal, he’s been the devil, a journalist, a football coach, an army officer, and a real estate agent. There’s something there for everybody. Everybody likes Al. Trust me.”

“What the hell is Al’s Understudies?” asked Kelly, the company’s chief financial officer as he looked at the purchase order Mather had brought to him. It was a week since Mather had met with Jason.

Mather cleared his throat. “It’s a consulting company. A professional development firm. It’s to help in technical support.”

“This isn’t some third rate motivational speaker? A Tony Robbins wannabe?”

“No, no, this is legit. He’s already done some work with some other software companies.”

“Why is it called Al’s? The name on the PO is Jason Reardon.”

“For Al Pacino. It’s a sort of personal and career development based upon Al’s acting methods.”

“And I thought marketing people were out there. Now you know we have a budget freeze.”

“Well, I thought that was a hiring freeze, meaning no new hires for now. We’re still spending money in other areas, advertising and trade shows. And besides, look at the cost, it’s not that much. That’s a fraction of one of the executive’s annual bonuses. How much will it cost us if we lose another technical support engineer?”

Kelly looked at Mather for a moment, tapping his pen on his desk, then signed his name at the bottom of the purchase order. “Okay, here you go.”

“Thanks, Kelly.”

Kelly leaned back in his chair, squinted his eyes a little, gave a little shrug, tried to look to tough as he said, “Fuhgetaboutit.” Mather wondered what he was getting in to.

A week later Jason stood in front of the technical support department, talking to half the group: the training was scheduled in shifts, so as not to leave the phones and email unattended. Mather stood in the back of the room listening.

“The first thing to remember is that person on the other end of the phone has absolutely no idea who you are. It’s not your mother calling, or some friend you’ve known since childhood. There’s no preexisting relationship, with any pre-programmed expectation of behavior, dialog. Nothing. It’s all new, it’s the first time. And this, my friends, is an advantage you have. You’re a sort of tabula rasa, the unknown.”

Jason paused for a moment as if expecting a comment or question or perhaps any acknowledgement, but the eight TSEs, four men and four women, just watched him. Mather noted that as often happens in Silicon Valley, because the manager of the department was from the Philippines, the majority of the TSEs were Filipino. If the manager had been Russian or Indian, all his employees would be Russian or Indian.

“So, what’s the point? The point is you can be anyone you want! But that’s not quite what we want, is it? You need to be someone very specific. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because a customer has contacted you about a software problem. They are coming to you because they need something. This means you need to be a person who is reasonable, receptive, supportive, but also takes control of the situation to ensure a positive outcome no matter what.”

Again Jason paused, but with no reaction, he continued.

“Now actors have scripts. You don’t, or at least, not exactly. Instead you have your technical knowledge, your specific answers to customer questions. Now, in a play or in a movie you know who is going to say what, and when they are going to say it. This is a little different. It’s a bit more ad lib, the ultimate acting challenge: improvisation. Every time you answer a call, you don’t know what the person is going to ask, but, you do know that somewhere there is a response, there is an answer. And what the method will do is help you connect to what you need to say to the customers’s question. To connect in a way that not only solves the problem, but is a moving and rewarding experience for you and the caller. You’re not just a technical support engineer at a software company, but something more, something greater…”

So far Mather had been pleased, or at least not disappointed in Jason’s presentation. He was certainly more polished and agreeable when presenting to the group than when Mather had first talked to him. However, with Jason edging towards liberation and enlightenment, Mather’s bullshit meter started to flash red.

“We’re going to watch excerpts from some movies. Heat. The Godfather. Scent of a Woman. Donnie Brasco. The Insider. Any Given Sunday. Maybe some others. And in addition to what we watch here, I encourage you to watch the complete movies at home, and of course, any other of your favorite Al Pacino movies. Study everything you can about Pacino: his dialog, his facial expressions, his gestures, his rhythm of speaking, everything. Even the clothing, think about making a change for a while to help you get into character. What’s the saying, clothes make the man? Wasn’t that Gottfreid Keller? Then think to yourself: what is here that can help me with my job? Any questions?”

There were no questions. No one said anything.

“Last, we are going to do a bit of role playing, but this is not like those lame role playing drills you may have done before. This is a real world scenario: one of you will pretend to be a customer calling up about a problem, and the other will apply all these things we’ve been learning and practicing.”

For the next two weeks Mather was busy, but late one Tuesday afternoon, he walked out of his office on an MBWA patrol: management by walking around. He wanted to listen in on how technical support was doing since going through Jason’s course. He carried some papers with him, which he would pretend to study to cover his eavesdropping.

The first cube he came to was Raul’s, and Mather paused to listen in. Raul was sitting at his desk, looking at his screen, talking to a customer. Instead of his usual jeans and t-shirt, Raul was dressed in a dark grey suit, with a black shirt and black tie.

“Yes, sir I know you’re experiencing problems. In fact, THE PERSON I just spoke to is having problems. And the NEXT PERSON I’ll talk to will ALSO be having problems. And the person after that – the SAME THING. EVERYBODY in my ENTIRE CALL QUEUE… is having problems.”

Mather wasn’t sure, but Raul’s voice sound different, a slight raspy gravelly tone to it. Maybe Raul had a cold. He thought Raul was right on the edge of being rude, but without hearing what the caller said, it was hard to tell.

“Your questions indicate you are technically proficient. I need you to do some forensics work on your computer before we can address your problem. Do you understand?” As he talked, Raul snapped his fingers every three or four words.

Mather looked in on Rowena, but she was not on the phone; she often handled a lot of the email technical support requests. He noted that instead of her usual leather edgy look, she wore a simple cotton dress.

He continued to Winnifed’s cube: she was pacing back and forth in her cube, on the phone with a customer.

“Sir. I understand. You’re in computer hell right now, and your files are in bad shape.”

Again Mather could hear only one side of the conversation, so he assumed an angry customer talking rapidly and loudly. Finally, after almost a minute of listening, she broke in, speaking slowly and deliberately, in a different sort of cadence that Mather had not heard from her before.

“Yes sir. Each one. Each and every one. File by file, one file at time. Directory by directory, until we get it all done. We’re gonna put it all back together.”

She definitely sounded different. Gone was the valley girl upward lilt and intonation at the end of her sentences. As Winnifred spoke, still pacing back and forth, she held the extra long headphone cords in one hand, and slapped it against her pants like a riding crop.

“Now. I can’t do it for you. Sir. I’m too old and I’m too tired. You’re going to have to do yourself.”

Mather looked up from his fake reading. Winnifred was in her late twenties and competed in triathlons. She continued to walk as she talked, her eyes looking down, her heading nodding.

“I know what you mean, sir, but that’s just how the game is. A couple of wrong keystrokes and things start to fall apart. I mean, the margin of error in computer science, in software, is SO small. One wrong bit, one punctuation error, just ONE tiny bit, that’s all. Get that wrong, and the WHOLE thing stops working.”

Mather moved on.

He came to the Lou’s cube, and he stopped to listen in. Lou wore khaki pants, and a button down olive colored shirt, with a black tie, half of which was tucked in to the top of his shirt.

“Ma’am you can call me Lou, or Mr. Garcia. You don’t have to call me sir.”

There was a pause while Lou listened.

“Ma’am, I am very sorry about your computer, but your are in no position to disagree. I have the solutions to your problems, you have a broken system.”

Mather looked up from the papers he wasn’t reading. What the hell?

“No ma’am I can’t give out the name of the engineer or manager. I am not a snitch.”

Lou’s tone was perfectly agreeable, even if his words didn’t sound especially cooperative; Mather wondered what the customer had asked Lou. Several minutes went by and Lou said nothing.

“I’m sorry ma’am. I really am. I understand about getting a virus on your computer. If I were half the man I was ten years ago, I’d take a FLAMETHROWER to all those virus writing scum.”

The conversation continued, with Lou giving instructions, waiting, talking some more. Somehow, despite whatever Mather was overhearing, it must have been going well.

“Happy to help you, ma’am. Have a nice day. Hu-ah!”

He moved on to Cynthia’s cube.

“Yes sir. This is the support department, and I can answer any of your technical questions.”

There was a pause.

“Yes, that is an older version of our software and some those problems you mentioned were fixed in the latest release.”

Mather wondered if the call had been misdirected. Sometimes sales calls ended up in the technical support queue.

“Sir. I don’t have all the sales information here. I can refer you to our sales department. Our vice-president of sales is a reasonable man. I’m sure can offer you terms for a multi-site license that you can’t refuse.”

Cynthia sometimes did some knitting in her cube while talking, but now the way she held a piece of yarn between her two hands, pulling hard on each end, there was something not quite right.

“Oh no sir. It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”

Mather rubbed his temples.

“No, sir, no, I understand the challenges of switching systems. But if you are going over to using Macintosh computers, then are you willing to renounce the Windows operating system?”

As Mather walked back to his office, he passed by Angelo, who was wearing tight knit pants and his shirt was unbuttoned half-way down his chest.

“Angelo, how are things? Everything going okay?”

“Hey, yeah, yeah. It’s all goin’ fine. Yeah. Goin’ real good.” Was Angelo chewing gum?

“Things going better now?”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s been no duck walk, ya know? But yeah, going betta.”

Later that evening Mather sat is office, his door closed. Almost everyone else had gone home. He opened the bottom drawer, took out the bottle of Jameson, poured some in his coffee cup, and drank it off in one gulp.

There was an email from Jones over in legal: several customers had contacted the company to complain about their treatment from technical support. Jones had heard from Kelly about some special training the department had gone through, and was that in any way related to the complaints? Jones wanted to meet first thing tomorrow morning with Mather, Angelo, and probably someone from marketing just in case this had gotten out to the press. But at the end of his email Jones noted a few, a very few, of the customers had also sent email complimenting technical support—apparently these customers had found it refreshing to talk to TSEs who were frank and energetic.

Mather took another drink.

He would have talk to Angelo right away. Whatever was going on with the department, whatever the TSEs had learned from Al’s Understudies, would have to stop. He doubted Angelo was still in the office, but he’d better check. For some issues it’s better to talk live first, rather correspond over email.

As he approached the technical support area, Mather heard some voices. All the overhead lights were off, and only a desk lamp was on in one of the cubes. His feet made no sound on the carpet floor as he approached the cube. It sounded like there were two people, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Something bothered him; he crouched down low, peeked around the cube wall.

Inches from Mather’s face was Angelo’s jiggling, bare butt. Pants at his ankles, Angelo was grunting and pumping hard. Between Angelo and her desk was Rowena, bent over, her cotton dress pushed over her back, holding on to the front of her desk, making gasping sounds. Mather silently backed away from the cube, continuing to crouch low as he made his way back to his office. Surely this didn’t have anything to do with the recent training. Angelo and Rowena had probably been having an affair for a while, but he was surprised he had not noticed sooner: usually Mather spotted these as soon as they started.

No. There’s no way Al’s Understudies could have had anything to do with this.

As he walked away, Mather heard Rowena call out, “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.”

Puffing and blowing, Angelo answered, “Say hello to my little friend!”

Leave a Reply


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}