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Prison Break: Escaping From Shawshank Inc. For A Startup

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on August 1, 2011 54 Comments

I first laid eyes on Andy Dufresne during his orientation session here at the Shawshank Software Corporation. To tell you the truth I didn’t think much of him—I figured a couple of 4-hour mind-numbing “planning” meetings and he’d break down in tears. That’s what happened to most new developers at Shawshank. Sometimes it took a day. Sometimes a week.

Rumor had it Andy was some hotshot programmer fresh out of MIT. Usually someone that talented can write their own ticket, so why Andy was at Shawshank, I can’t say. But I’m betting it had something to do with a recruiter. Or his parents. That’s how a lot of programmers end up at Shawshank, pounding out mindless code like convicts churning out license plates. “I’m better than this,” they all say straight-faced. “I don’t belong here.”shawshank

In the beginning, Andy hardly said more than a few words to me. It was obvious Andy wasn’t like the others that were passing through Shawshank’s gate. Most fish start whimpering as soon as our CEO, “Warden” Norton finishes his your-butt-belongs-to-me speech, and the goons from HR begin their interrogation routine. Andy, though, had a quiet way about him. He was not like the others. It’s safe to say I liked Andy Dufresne. I liked him a lot.

It was a month before Andy actually spoke to me. He said that he heard I was a man who could get things done. Which was true. Shawshank required approval forms in triplicate for every little thing, and I was the only one on the team that knew where to get the forms, and who to submit them to. When I nodded, Andy slipped me a yellow Post It note with a list of items—pens, dry erase markers, white out. “And a large poster of Rita Hayworth,” he added.

rita hayworth

Warden Norton took notice of Andy, and soon he had Andy doing all sorts of pet projects, like working on the Macro Infrastructure Guide to Releasing An Incomplete Engine (MIGRAINE). I can’t even count all the Fridays when I’d be getting a drink from the bucket that replaced our water cooler, and notice Captain Hadley standing just outside Andy’s cubicle, giving him another shakedown he didn't deserve.

The fact that laptops were invented years ago or that if we upgraded the computers developers worked on more than once every 4 years, we might get the Eclipse IDE to load in less than 2 minutes was not something we talked about at Shawshank. Better just to start off a build and stare into space than make waves. Inmates at Shawshank are supposed to read specs and write code. Thinking was not encouraged at Shawshank.

Some nights, I’d find Andy sitting there alone in his cube with Rita Hayworth looking down condescendingly as he gamma tested Shawshank’s latest software release The fact that Andy didn’t know that most of his code would never actually get used by anyone was a blessing. It allowed him to carry on. Ignorance is bliss at Shawshank.

The Warden liked to use motivational tactics that he claimed were invented by Japanese monks, but we since discovered he had read about in an in-flight magazine. Like helping developers break-up the monotony of their long day by scheduling mandatory meetings every three hours.

Andy was probably the toughest screw to ever do a turn at Shawshank Software, which only made me more curious about him. “Hey, Andy, what’s up with Rita Hayworth there?” Andy glanced behind him. “Rita? Well she’s a symbol,” he said. “A symbol of a better place out there, where you’re appreciated, where people like coming to work, and you get to build products and release them to actual users.”

I thought he was crazy. “That kinda thinkin’ will drive you insane, Andy. There ain’t nothin’ like that out there.” Once you get sentenced to Shawshank, there is no other world. After a while, the place gets to you so you can’t function beyond the tombstone-grey cloth panels of your cell. Andy wouldn’t hear it—said he’d prove me wrong one day. I had no idea what he meant and thought he might be cracking up right in front of me. The circles under his eyes looked darker than usual.

Staring into his monitor, Andy got in the last word before I walked off. “There’s only two things you can really do in a place like Shawshank,” he said. “Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'.”

Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'. I couldn’t escape Andy’s words.

A week later, Andy was gone. The Warden and Captain Hadley were tearing his cubicle apart when I showed up. I didn’t know what was going on until they threw Andy’s resignation letter at me and then ordered me to take down that stupid picture of Rita Hayworth.

shawshank rain

Andy’s gone. I was still in disbelief. Andy Dufresne—put up with a world of crap, and escaped to the better life he knew existed outside these walls. A world where developers got Macbooks with SSDs and dual monitors. Where programmer productivity was not an oxymoron. And most importantly, where you got to actually write code that mattered to millions. I took the small slip of paper I found behind the poster of Rita. All it said was “PrisonBreak.me”. I smiled.

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