Joseph Finder: “Paranoia”

If you do not work there, you will not see it!

Joseph Finder’s Paranoia is not just a fun corporate thriller out of the author’s wildest imagination. It is a story that has uncanny resemblance to the operation, set-up, corporate culture and technologies of the Fortune 500 workplace, Cisco Sytems. The names are altered poorly for the trained eye. I heard through the rumor mill that Finder spent much time on campus learning and observing the ways of Cisco – and while the book is now dated, as much has changed in the last few years,  some of us know and remember the early days of Cisco fondly. As a Cisco citizen, I found humor where none was intended, and amusement where no one else might. This may have been the only thriller that was extremely entertaining for me by virtue of being a long time Cisco employee, on levels probably most unintended by the author.

Paranoia, a Joseph Finder thriller

The characters are eccentric, the tech and corporate jargon are clever, and the setting is no better than my beloved Silicon Valley. An engineer and a keen user of our own technologies, I especially found Finder’s added twist and play on words to the tech jargon very amusing, almost hilarious. He seems to have taken (and passed) a crash course on Cisco acronyms, project names and everyday dialogue. Well-done! Very impressive! Finder must have worked with an inside source and spent a few weeks on Cisco campus as part of his research on this book, or else how could he become so vernacular on Cisco lingo?

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The Publishers Weekly doubts anything else will be “as much sheer fun as Finder’s robust tale of corporate espionage” in 2004 thriller list.  I wonder if that is a tribute to Cisco’s way of things, partially!  It all starts so innocently for poor Adam Cassidy when he pulls a prank on his company, Wyatt Telecom, and finds himself between a rock and a hard place.  He is obligated to accept a deal from Nick Wyatt, the slick wealthy self-loving built-to-be-the-bad-guy character CEO of Wyatt Telecom and the deal is for him to spy on Trion Systems, their arch competitor, and learning the trade secrets of their hottest products and technology. Adam is hesitant but hasn’t a better choice in avoiding felony charges than Nick Wyatt’s indecent offer. So he accepts.

Off he goes to become the best spy for Wyatt and company, impressing more than anyone himself on his well-accomplished espionage ways. His self-deprecating attitude makes for a tolerable protagonist. One of Finder’s strengths is in depiction of his characters through humorous monologues, and Adam Cassidy is no exception. His situation is dire and desperate, but alas for me, I am beyond amused. My thriller has turned out to be the best comedy on the shelf.  Cassidy struggles with justifying the increasing spying he is forced to commit but a posh apartment, fancy car, and easy corporate living blur his thinking, and sadly lead him to compromise his ethics.

Enter Jock Goddard, the auspicious CEO of Trion Systems.  Finder builds Jock’s personality only too obviously in hindsight: the perfect CEO with complete devotion to his company and true loyalty to his employees, the ultimate workaholic, with his lavish executive lifestyle which, naturally as all the world including Finder wants you to believe, does not lead to a happy life but rather an empty and lonely one especially for Jock who still nurses a deep wound from losing his son. It is this Jock Goddard that Adam Cassidy impresses and befriends.  Trust and confidence are born between the two as a result of Adam’s deep understanding of the super secret project, thanks to all his espionage feeds, and Adam’s task becomes increasingly difficult for him as Jock places loyalty and trust in him.  Finder gives us a bit of drama with Adam’s decaying relations with his father and Jock’s emptiness from losing his son and seeing a vision of him in Adam.  The test of Adam’s character comes when he has to betray the Jock he has come to admire and even love, as part of his obligation to Nick Wyatt. The real shocker hits when Adam realizes he is not the spy but a victim into this terrible game of corporate competition gone mad.

Paranoia, a Joseph Finder thriller

The plot is plenty strong for a corporate thriller, but my favorite things about this book are outside of the plot. They are things that I can relate to from experience because this book is about my company. The cubicle farm. The techie culture. The old ways of Cisco. The copious use of acronyms.  Free food and drinks.  Perks and rewards. The insane work hours especially with the appeal of the exploding economy in the 1990s.  The super secrets of the hot products and related top projects. The executive worship. The instant millionaires in their fast cars and seemingly bottomless stroke of luck. Life at Cisco.

It seems fiction to others because it is a surreal culture we used to live and breathe at Cisco.  Paranoia left me with a tinge of sadness for the old culture and things that no longer are.  As with all things, change is inevitable and until the change has happened, we do not realize the depth of its impact. I know I will appreciate Paranoia more over time because of the vivid images it set in motion from a similar environment to which I belonged a long time ago, and to memories that will serve me for a very long time to come.