John’s finger hovered over the grimy mouse button, illuminated by nothing more than the glow of the monitor and a beam of moonlight that shone through the dirty flaking window. John glanced around the dingy motel room that contained what was left of his life… a stained mattress resting haphazardly on a broken frame, a nightstand that was likely fished out of a dumpster, and a flea-market lamp that flickered dimly when it did decide to work. The floor covered in the detritus of a broken man; soiled laundry, empty bottles, and food wrappers.
He was taken aback as he saw himself in the window. His hair in disarray, drooping bloodshot eyes hung in darkened sockets decorated with heavy bags beneath them. His beard had reached full-blown hobo status, and what may once have passed for a beer gut was now a flabby keg that hung over a waistband that had long since lost any trace of elasticity…
[4 Years Earlier]
In the world of startups, you’re known more by your company’s name than your own. “That’s the Dropbox guy.” “That’s the dude who started Reddit.” “That’s the girl from 99Dresses.”
John was “the RouteUp guy.”
After graduating from Stanford, John interned with MapQuest before joining them as a software developer. He then went to work Garmin, and then to Google to work with the Google Maps team on adding live traffic to maps. And that was where he got the idea for RouteUp.
RouteUp was meant to be an app to help friends travel more conveniently. Share your origin and destination and when you planned on getting there and the app would alert you if a friend had overlapping plans. You could share a ride, have some company, use HOV lanes, and put one less unnecessary car on the road, helping to alleviate traffic for all. Not to mention the ecological benefit.
Things were going well—John had raised a 2nd round of funding to help them expand their user base, and existing users loved the app. Media outlets had pegged RouteUp has one of the most influential pieces of technology of the decade. Many predicted RouteUp would be acquired by one of the tech giants for a tidy sum.
John was riding high.
Giving him that much further to fall when RouteUp’s reign as media darling was overthrown by up-and-comer Uber.
John hadn’t considered them much of a competitor initially. RouteUp was for sharing a ride with friends, whereas Uber was a replacement for taxis. Similar, sure, but not quite competitors.
When they noticed a spike in RouteUp account creation in the same cities Uber launched, they thought Uber had simply helped open people’s eyes to a new way of riding and that the rising tide lifted both ships.
Only shortly after did John’s team realize that a large number of these new accounts would commit to provide rides and then no-show, or request a ride and then cancel it as their RoutePal neared their location. This series of disruptions left RouteUp users posting furious ratings and reviews.
They quickly found many of these new accounts where created from within the Uber offices. While John didn’t consider them competitors, Uber clearly felt differently.
John’s team reacted quickly, blocking accounts that were abusive or that were created in large volume from a single location. But the damage was done.
As RouteUp lost users, Uber gained them, and the incredible amount of backing Uber had allowed them to turn the screws on RouteUp in a way they weren’t funded to defend.
The ensuing cat-and-mouse game drained RouteUp of resources while the juggernaut, Uber, rumbled on.
One by one, John had to let the members of his team go, but despite it all he refused to give up. When their funding ran out he poured what was left of his personal assets into keeping RouteUp on life support.
John defaulted on credit cards, bills, utility payments, and eventually his rent. Everything except internet access. After the fourth month of skipped rent, his landlord came to evict him, only to find John had changed the locks in an effort to buy more time.
As in his fight with Uber, John was only delaying the inevitable. The landlord returned with a locksmith and had him escorted out.
Absolutely deflated, John climbed into his—thankfully paid-off—Subaru Legacy, a.k.a. the immortal rust-bucket, and began to drive.
He drove to clear his head and with no particular direction in mind, but found himself drifting in the direction of Salt Lake City. After eight hours of excessive speeding through California and Nevada, fatigue got the best of him near the border of Utah. John pulled into the cheapest spot he could find, Big Pillow Motel. Twenty dollars of escape fund money later and John had a room for the night.
The next morning John returned to the immortal rust-bucket only to find its immortality was temporary. Each turn of the key resulted in the engine turning over with a grind and a choke but nothing more. Despite prayers and swears and everything in between, the car refused to start.
John broke down as thoroughly as his car. He ground his teeth to withhold a scream of rage, immediately overwhelmed by uncontrollable choking sobs that wracked him as he gave in to the wave of emotion he’d been trying to outrun.
After some time, he left the car. He couldn’t help but feel like he was exiting a cocoon, having gone through some kind of reverse metamorphasis. He’d entered the car as the Founder of RouteUp, “the RouteUp guy,” and exited as a homeless, destitute failure.
In search of something to numb the pain, he made his way to the liquor store across the street. Remedy in hand, he returned to the motel to extend his stay another day.
One day became two, and two blurred into a week.
It was only when John realized he was down to his last few dollars that he opted not to return to the liquor store, but instead staggered into the motel’s office to seek asylum.
“Just print, you piece of shit!” John heard as he opened the door. The owner of the motel was shouting at the archaic printer resting next to the computer on the counter.
The owner looked up over his glasses as John entered, and smiled apologetically. “Technical difficulties.” he said with a shrug.
“Happy to take a look at it if it’d help.”
“I’d appreciate it… you’re in room 7 right?
Small talk ensued and while John got to know the owner, Bill, he was also able to fix the printer… and the computer, credit card scanner, and a host of other “computer” issues.
“Thanks again for the help. Sorry to just now ask, but I assume you came in for something?” Bill asked.
“Oh, yeah… actually” John stammered “I’m a little low on funds and was hoping…”
“Say no more. You wouldn’t be the first person who’s needed to borrow some time here. But you are the first to lend a hand in exchange for it. We’re far from booked up. So long as you’re ok with the staff not cleaning your room, you can crash here for a while.”
John couldn’t have been more pleased with the exchange. He obtained free room, occasional board, and perhaps most importantly ongoing access to now functional wifi. And wifi gave him a way to earn a little money.
A freelance gig here and there afforded him enough to numb himself with a pint of cheap whiskey or vodka. Which was useful, since wifi access also connected him to the world of news… which was inevitably dominated by “media darling” Uber and it would all come crashing down again.
The constant back and forth of heated exposure to his failure and his quenching of the flames with whatever booze he could afford tempered his resolve to steel. The unyielding focus that served him so well as an entrepreneur now turned to a darker purpose.
Between alternating benders and freelance gigs John began to concoct a plot for revenge.
The more he focused on his anger, the less he felt anything else. The less he needed to drink. In an effort to avoid his pain, he was filled with so much rage there was room for little else.
He obsessively explored plans to exact his vengeance. His machinations ranged from simple monetary theft, denial of service attacks, stealing user data, or implanting malware… anything to get piece of them.
He probed their systems for vulnerabilities and points of access. He scoured the net for rumors of breaches or stolen data for sale. He created pages of notes outlining plans for phishing schemes and social engineering to garner access.
As the months passed, John gained access to their systems and despite having numerous opportunities to strike he waited. No longer content with a simple cut or scratch, he yearned to deal a killing blow. An act that would cut them down as completely as they had crushed him.
He waited with the indefatigable patience of a predator, crouched and awaiting the proper moment to strike. He remained poised silently for years. John knew how their systems worked better than any of the engineers or developers who collaborated on it. There was not a facet of its functionality that escaped his notice.
While John plotted, Uber expanded.
Uber grew city by city, investing billions into their new programs. They were lauded as the first company that successfully made the leap from app to auto, from luxury to necessity. Riding high on this momentum Uber launched one of the most successful IPOs of the 21st century.
So successful in fact, that John participated in it as well. He purchased as much of the stock as he was able. Or, more specifically, in his financial state, he borrowed as much of the stock as he was able. Brokers were happy to extend margin on such a powerhouse IPO. They couldn’t lose.
John disagreed and a week later, he prepared to put his plan into action. The slight edits he had made to Uber’s software would be almost undetectable until it was too late.
And thanks to John’s shorting of the stock, Uber would finally repay him for the collapse of RouteUp with interest… all he had to do was upload his modified program to their system, take this one final and irreversible leap, and the job would be done.
John’s finger hovered over the grimy mouse button, illuminated by nothing more than the glow of the monitor and a beam of moonlight that shone through the dirty flaking window. John glanced around the dingy motel room that contained what was left of his life… a stained mattress resting haphazardly on a broken frame, a night stand that was likely fished out of a dumpster, and a flea market lamp that flickered dimly when it did decide to work. The floor covered in the detritus of a broken man; soiled laundry, empty bottles, and food wrappers.
He was taken aback as he saw himself in the window. His hair in disarray, drooping bloodshot eyes hung in darkened sockets decorated with heavy bags beneath them. His beard had reached full blown hobo status, and what may once have passed for a beer gut was now a flabby keg that hung over a waistband that had long since lost any trace of elasticity.
Uber’s autonomous vehicle software had immediately been transformed from the safest form of autonomous travel since airline auto-pilot to the technology that would become responsible for more fatalities than a decade’s worth of drunk drivers.
Based on John’s calculations, about 14% of Uber’s autonomous fleet would be in an accident in the first day of operating with the updated code, resulting in just shy of half a million accidents.
And yes, many would be fatal – but anyone foolish enough to place their trust in a company so vile didn’t deserve mercy.
Besides, these deaths would make these accidents a media sensation. Uber’s stock would plummet as rapidly as it had climbed, earning John millions from shorting the stock and dealing the company a crushing blow from which it would never arise.
CarHacked – A short story.
Endnote: If you haven’t read If you haven’t read Nikki’s (the girl from 99 Dresses) write-up on she dealt with the failure of her startup in a much more successful manner than our protagonist John, check it out.