Two New Apps

This is a fairy tale for our time. It is the reverse of Cinderella, an inverse of the Horatio Alger stories. For the girl in this story does not travel from rags to riches; she is rich from the beginning. But let me back up to where the story starts.

We begin with a more conventional Cinderella. Emily was born into a home which was not rich; there was enough to eat when her mother remembered to go grocery shopping. The wants were psychological. Her parents were distracted, uninterested in their children, borderline negligent. However, no one died so they were a pretty normal family in most respects.

Perhaps because her family life was so deficient, Emily was not good with people, and she was wise enough to accept this early on. But Emily majored in math and soon found that she was very good at doing what was hard for most people – the intricate coding that was needed at the very basis of most computer programs and applications. After college, she hooked up with a company that was formed to put programs together for associations of museums, eighteen months later she moved on to a health food consortium. Soon, she was scooped up by an even bigger company where Emily worked side by side with Larry, a young man whom had never had a serious relationship with a woman before, mostly because he was preoccupied with work. Emily gave him the opportunity of maintaining a relationship without ever having to leave his spacious high tech office on the top of one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco, and without having to pretend he wasn’t watching his Blackberry. Their relationship was not romantic in any traditional sense, but that was just fine with Larry and Emily. Within the context of the world they lived in, they were extremely engaged. Even without a fairy godmother, Emily had escaped home and landed a prince, at least an up-and-coming prince of the tech world.

After a year, Emily gave birth to a perfectly healthy and closely monitored baby girl. Larry and Emily named their daughter Sophia and hired a nanny so Emily could come back to the office right away. After all, their entire relationship was based on beating the next paradigm. If life went on in this lucrative vein, he and Emily make enough money to establish a foundation in their old age and save the world. They would go from unknown to world celebrities. If they guessed wrong, and things were not so lucrative, they already had enough stashed in the islands to live with ease.

So all was well, until one Monday morning when Emily was thinking about a new algorithm as she made her way to pick up some bagels. In the throes of a new methodology, she stepped in front of a delivery truck on the corner of Dividadero and Broadway. The hospital called her husband. Larry was still madly pushing advanced search engines to find out who the world’s best trauma doctors were when Emily died without regaining consciousness. Sophia was seven months old.

Larry never thought that he would be good at marriage; he was absolutely sure that being a father was not at the core of his being. He cared about his daughter, but he had no intention of being about her. After he slogged through the Facebook posts, instant messages, and e-mails, consoling him on his bereavement, he set about making arrangements for what he considered the best solution for his child.

Larry wanted to honor his obligation to his dead wife and his living daughter to give Sophia a good childhood, a far better childhood than either he or Emily had. Since he didn’t really want to spend time with a small child, however, he thought it might be better to find people who did. A mother and a father. He couldn’t quite bring himself to give his child up for adoption, but he found within his organization a young couple who were both desperate to be parents. He set them up in a house in the very best suburb of San Francisco, hired help for them, and told them that he cared about nothing else but that they take exquisite care of his daughter. Exquisite care. Those were Larry’s words. He did not want to be part of her life. Sophia would call Gail and Don “Mom” and “Dad” and he would provide them with perfect legal documents to cover their custody of his child. They were confused, but thrilled – and when they saw their new house and swimming pool, they were ecstatic. If anyone asked, Larry said that some relatives had taken the child; but Larry had no really close friends and had not yet reached celebrity status, so most people soon forgot he even had a daughter. It all worked. Sophia was soft and quiet and easy to love; Don and Gail adored her. All seemed to be well.

But “well” was not good enough for Larry, who was both a perfectionist and a guilt-ridden man. Larry wanted to be sure that things were perfect for Sophia, and so he set up web cameras in all areas of the house in the suburbs and monitored what went on. Initially, he just wanted to be sure that his foster parents were what they appeared. Larry found that Gail and Don were kind and diligent caretakers, while unexpectedly lusty in the bedroom (although not noisily so). But as Sophia grew, Larry increasingly used the feed from his cameras, microphones, tracking devices, and computer interfaces to make sure that life for Sophia was… great. If Sophia even mentioned that there was something she would like, it appeared the next day. If Sophia was jealous because a friend went to Disneyland, a limousine arrived the next day with Mickey in the back seat waving tickets.

Don had remained employed by Larry’s first company; when Larry sold out several years later, Don’s position was the only one specified in the agreement to be honored for twenty years. Larry had immediately started a new venture, but as he became more of a public man, he thought it would be better to keep his surrogate household at a distance from his growing tech empire. Larry centered his next venture on the east coast, but continued to monitor the situation in California closely.

And so it continued. Sophia went to private schools whose educational standards and treatment of pupils were artfully massaged through gifts to their endowments. Not that Sophia was difficult. She was a girl who liked to please others and who was used to being pleased herself. She was the intelligent offspring of very intelligent parents. And if she was having trouble with geometry, tutors were quick to offer assistance. If she was having trouble making the swim team, there was soon a personal coach and private time at the pool. The best doctors monitored her blood chemistry and hormone levels.

Through technology Larry traced Sophia’s movements through the cameras and microphones, through her computer accounts, through her school, and through her surrogate parents. While he knew almost everything about Sophia, his daughter did not even know that he existed. She was very attached to her “parents,” even to the point of testing them once in a great while. But even when in a snit on a bad day when she couldn’t find the right thing to wear (although her walk-in closets were full), Sophia told her “mother” she hated her, Gail was calm enough not to strike back with the truth. Gail and Don had gotten used to the lifestyle that Larry thought Sophia’s parents deserved; they also truly loved their “daughter.” They lived in fear that the truth would come out and they would become redundant.

But Sophia was not spoiled. Being spoiled comes from realizing that one can get what one wants by the force of one’s will. Sophia never had to use force. It was not even clear that she would have known how to.

Finally, when Sophia was in her sophomore year at Brown (her first choice school, naturally) and majoring in art history, Larry thought it might be time to get to know his daughter. He had developed and sold two large start-ups and had ventured into a company that maximized productivity at all levels – for factories, schools, families, individuals – in a quirky and interactive manner that was popular, if not as effective as one might have liked. In any case, the new company was hot, and their human resources office offered Sophia a paid internship at their headquarters, which were located outside of Boston.

Sophia’s friends at Brown had never even seen such an internship advertised.

“How did you know about it? Why didn’t you say anything?” they asked. What the hell? they thought.

“My father knew someone who told me they were looking and gave us the application. I never thought I had a chance,” Sophia responded. Her friends, especially the tech-savvy ones and the ones majoring in economics, were astounded and suspicious. Sophia was bothered too. She had gone through something similar when she had gotten into Brown, even though the valedictorian of her graduating high school class had not. Such events were starting to bother her. When she was very young, she never thought about her good fortune – she just thought that was how life was. As she got older, Sophia started to perceive that this was not the way life was for other people, and so she began to think of her self as lucky, fortunate. And now she began to wonder if she were being set up. Clearly, she did not deserve such rewards as came to her unbeckoned; surely there would be a reckoning someday. And the idea of that day of reckoning seemed to hover over her waking hours.

By the time she started her summer internship at Top-Max, Sophia was visibly depressed. Most of her friends were off to live at home for a few months and to work at much more mundane summer employment. Gail and Don flew into Boston and drove her to Easton. The people at Top-Max had found Sophia a lovely studio apartment with a view that reached all the way out to the coast. They had stocked her refrigerator and provided a rental car and a gym membership for the summer. The first night alone in her new apartment, Sophia sat and looked wretchedly out at the lights in the harbor. She called her parents at a nearby inn, who offered to come and stay with her. Sophia declined, but Larry listened to the conversation the next day and became concerned. He sent his right hand assistant Aly (who was also his sleeping partner) to welcome Sophia the next morning and see what could be done to make this new intern … happy. Aly had no idea that Sophia was her boss’s daughter, but clearly it was someone he cared deeply about. If Sophia had been just a little older and prettier, Aly would have been jealous.

After being shown into her new office (fairly private, windows, and furnished with an impressive ergonomic desk chair), Sophia asked Aly what she would be doing.

“What would you like to do?” responded Aly, eager to satisfy Larry by making this sad-looking young woman happy.

Sophia just stared at her.

“What did you hire me to do?” Sophia finally asked.

Aly was not going to be flummoxed by a college girl. “We hired you to give you a chance to broaden your experience.”

Sophia continued to stare. This time she kept her silence until Aly couldn’t stand it.

“Why don’t I just get the tech guys to come in and get you logged on to the computer and all that? I’ll be back.”

Aly was not stupid. She told Larry that Sophia apparently wanted to be told what to do. Larry was confused, but immediately thought of an on-going development project relating to voice recognition that he thought was interesting and told Aly to assign Sophia to the head of the project. And to specify special treatment.

But special treatment was not what Sophia wanted. Ted, her new boss, was bright and wonderful, but his office didn’t even have a window, never mind a Herman Miller chair. Sophia got sadder and sadder. Her parents decided to stay for a few more days.
“I don’t deserve it. They are going to find out I’m an imposter. What the hell am I doing here?” Sophia anguished to her mother over her favorite sushi at the local Japanese restaurant.

“Do you want to come home?” Sophia was tempted, but had no idea how she would explain things to her friends or advisor at Brown, and just shook her head. Of course, all of this was reported to Larry.

Over the summer, things got worse and worse. Sophia seemed to sink into despondency and Larry was beside himself. What the hell had gone wrong?

Larry finally decided to tell Sophia the truth. He asked her surrogate parents to be present, uploaded old pictures of Emily and Sophia as a baby, and ordered lunch into his penthouse office. He had gotten advice from psychologists and he spoke gently and slowly. Sophia did not take it well.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought giving you up to new parents was the best I could do for you.”

“No, you didn’t,” Sophia answered flatly. “You didn’t give me up. You played mind games with me my whole life. If you had given me up, I could have forgiven you.”

“I was trying to make sure you were happy. I thought that was what I owed you. A happy life. Neither your mother nor I had a happy childhood.”

“That might explain why you were clueless. Whether you owed it to me or not, you obviously had no idea how to deliver it.”

“What would it take for you to forgive me now?” Larry was crying, which was a very strange feeling.

“Leave me alone. Forget I exist.”

“I can leave you alone, but you did exist. It’s sort of like a hard-drive; you can never really scrub it clean.”

“If not, it’s only because you haven’t figured out how yet.” And Sophia left with her surrogate parents, about whom Sophia now had mixed feelings.

The next day Larry created new development teams to work on apps for the two problems he hadn’t figured out yet.