Talking to Criminals

You should check out a recent and fascinating episode of the fine Radiolab podcast. It is about the team who has finally obtained the first interview with Bernie Madoff since sent to prison for committing massive financial fraud. Kudos to Audible and #PonziSupernova on the story.

LISTEN when you can (40:14)

You listen in on phone conversations between the reporter and Madoff from prison. In the “theater of the mind” — which is the domain of AUDIO — I was taken back to a year in real life when I, too, had occasion to speak regularly to a convicted criminal. It was interesting… but not fun.

In the mid-1990’s, a “collections” application run on minicomputers at many companies across the country was disrupted when the software’s primary author was convicted of murder. Call it a domestic situation. He got life.

The term “mission-critical” means many things. If you’re in the financial industry, therefore subject to strict record-keeping, and rely on an application package, it becomes your mission. User companies, who now owned the source, formed a group to continue support for the software (read: keep them in business). My partner and I ran a successful training and consulting company, were already known by some of the companies, and were coaxed into providing support … we agreed but only to a year. Smartest “out clause” in the contract.

Financially, it was fine… emotionally, it was draining.

By necessity, our team (now including some former employees of the defunct software company) needed to have regular contact with the man in prison. I’ll call him Phil. Daily. Collect.

Much was technical talk. Phil actually felt bad about pulling the rug out from under his customers. And for his former employees. So they talked, resolving software and business application problems.

Phil was a smart guy and I’m certain he looked at it as something productive to do. Looking at a lifetime in prison must be daunting if you have a brain at all. But, he seemed to thrive. He actually had bound greenbar printouts of the source code in his cell. I never did it but some corporate customers evidently stoked up his commissary account from time to time. He liked to talk. Apparently, access to the phone was not an issue “during business hours”.

We talked regularly over the year before the plug was pulled. While my company was working to transition dependence away from him, he delusionally saw himself as more central. People think in strange ways sometimes but, after getting to know him during many “business” discussions, you get a sense about a person. I think I could have seen his crime coming.

But we can’t predict the future.

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