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The FBI Raid (Small Company Life Flashback)

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Years ago I used to juggle two different projects by spending my morning writing C and assembler code for 8-bit embedded CPUs, and in the afternoon I’d switch over to Windows code with Borland’s OWL framework. This was a day I’d never get to launch the Borland IDE.

My office was in a building housing two companies. My company occupied the front of the building, and the second company (let’s call it XYZ Inc.) occupied the back of the building. The only proper way into the back of the building was to go through a door just past my office. These two companies were distinct legal entities, but were closely related. By closely related, I mean the owner of company XYZ called the owner of my company “son”. It was all one big family, if you know what I mean.

As the reader, you need to imagine yourself in my position. You are in a reasonably private area, like an office. You have your favorite music on, and a caffeinated drink by your side. You are cranking out code. There could be a Mardi Gras parade happening outside your window, but you wouldn’t notice, because you are “in the zone”. Such was my situation on this particular morning.

Suddenly, a demanding voice breaks my concentration. “Is this company XYZ?”, the voice says tersely. It was like an order in the form of a question.

Now my first thought, as I was slowly coming out of my concentration, was that if the FedEx delivery guy was going to be this rude, then I had absolutely no obligation to give him a quick answer. In fact, I thought, I might just start by shooting him an annoyed look. I mean, if you value running around lost and interrupting otherwise productive members of the work force with rude questions, give up driving for UPS and join a company who performs ISO 9001 audits.

I turned slowly to the doorway, only to notice a man with a gun on his hip. You can imagine my surprise at having misjudged the situation. Now my lips were already pursed to let out an emphatic “no”, but my brain instantly went off in a number of different directions.

My first thought was how this guy, in his blue windbreaker and jeans, looked like he walked right off the set for the TV show “Cops”. Except “Cops” isn’t filmed on a TV set, it is supposedly “reality television”, and a man with a gun (and a badge on a chain around his neck) was now at the edge of my office staring intently.

My second thought centered on the man’s finger, which was pointing directly into the center of my office, as if this could be the source of all problems in the world. I knew my job now was to divert his attention to some other office in the building, but I was beginning to feel a bit queasy, which led me to my third thought.

My third thought was that I was taking entirely too long in analyzing this situation. I should have long ago calmly replied that the company he was looking for was through the doorway at the end of the hallway, thank you very much, and have a pleasant day. Instead, I was sitting here for what seemed like an eternity, and it suddenly it dawned on me I might appear guilty.

Guilty of what? I thought to myself. What could I have done to attract the attention of a law enforcement officer? But if I wasn’t guilty of something, why didn’t I just answer? Get a grip, I told myself. Quit staring like a deer in headlights and make this unpleasant situation go away.

I never did get to answer, because suddenly a voice in the hallway shouted “it’s through THAT door”, and a parade of 12 armed men moved past and into the second half of the building.

Now, I thought to myself, would be a good time to go to lunch a little early a grab a sandwich.

The deputy at the front door informed me nobody was leaving the building, so I did what everyone else at the company was doing, which was forming a circle in the lobby and speculating as to what was happening in the other half of the building.

Over the next hour or so, agents loaded file cabinets and computers into a rented U-Haul truck, which I thought was interesting. I imagine the FBI does this a few times a year, and maybe if they actually purchased a truck and took decent care of it they could save some taxpayer money over time. On the other hand, you never have to take a rental truck for an oil change, or wait for it to completely stop before switching gears from reverse to drive, so maybe it evens out.

In any case, here was what happened. It seems our sister company imported some electronic components from Japan. These components appeared in medical devices, but the U.S. custom forms said they were intended for cheese analyzers. Oops, an easy mistake to make. Unfortuantely, this lack of attention to detail attracted the attention of several government agencies, including the FDA, U.S. customs, the FBI, and the local sheriff, all who sent representatives on-site that day.

I left that company soon afterwards, but not because of the raid. I had decided I wanted to work for a company whose only product and focus was software. I didn’t know it at the time, but the bubble years were approaching, and small company life was about to get even more interesting...