Sergio Mansour marveled at the giant eyeball staring back at him from his computer display. He leaned closer to the tiny 3-D camera perched atop the monitor until his brown iris and sparkling pupil popped from the screen in electrifying detail. On any other morning, he would have been exhausted after working through the night. But this was the moment of truth and Sergio felt curiously wired, as if all the synapses in his brain were firing in rapid succession. He could have dismantled his computer, piece by piece, and then put it back together again, just for the fun of it. It had to be the dopamine.
He clicked his mouse and captured a frozen image of his eye in the computer’s memory. In an instant, the picture began to flutter, each pixel on the screen momentarily blurring, adjusting, and resetting based on complex pattern-recognition software churning away in a rack of computers in the cooling room down the hall. A tiny round icon in the top right corner of the monitor blinked steadily as the servers processed each of the twenty million pixels in the image. As the seconds ticked by, the number of fluttering pixels declined until tens of thousands, and then just hundreds, remained in flux. After a long 7.9 seconds, the three-dimensional photo of his eye locked into place and the flashing icon steadied with a beep.
“Yes!” cried Sergio, as he sprang off his stool and pumped his fist.
Finally. Seven months of complex programming, false starts, and frustrating errors had paid off. He was well on his way to one of the most important achievements of his career—a virtually foolproof user-identification system that would catapult Circles, already the world’s biggest social network, into the stratosphere.
Sergio craned his neck to survey Circles’ highly secured research lab. A spartan assemblage of engineering workstations, linoleum floors, and artificial light, the big room in the heart of the lab was home to a dozen or so colleagues. But it was eerily quiet for nine o’clock on a weekday morning.
He bounced along a row of closed office doors on the far wall. “Anyone here?” he called out as he made his way down the line, peeking in each unit’s narrow window as he passed. He reached the end of the row and shook his head in disbelief as he looked back at the empty offices. Not even one person to share the news with?
A heavy sigh escaped him. It had been too long since his last eureka moment, that instant when countless lines of artfully woven code clicked for the first time, transforming fanciful notions into amazing new technologies. It had not been lost on him, or his bosses, that many of the biggest innovations to come out of Circles Labs, the company’s R&D unit, in the past few years were the work of colleagues half his age. The gap between him and the new generation of coders had hit home when he became the first Circles employee to turn fifty and one twenty-something coworker thought it would be fun to bust Sergio’s balls by giving him a bottle of Old Grand-Dad bourbon for his birthday.
The thought of it still irked him. Oh sure, he had plenty of gray in his beard, but that only added a touch of distinction as far as he was concerned. He still had a full head of chestnut hair and he could out-ski or out-surf most of his young colleagues. More importantly, his mind remained as razor-sharp as ever.
Sergio made his way down the back hall and checked the cooling room, a thirty-by-forty-foot vault stuffed with rack upon rack of powerful servers, each one brimming with tangled cables and flashing LED lights. Not a soul in sight. He wandered into the lab’s empty conference suite just as the massive arm of a construction crane swung past the windows. Down below stood the concrete skeleton of Circles’ new wing, still about five months from completion. He pressed his head to the glass and smiled with satisfaction.
The new wing was just one more reason to believe the social network’s best days lay ahead. Naysayers were quick to declare that Circles had peaked, but they didn’t know about China yet, nor could they have any inkling of the boost the company would get from his inexpensive iris scanner. Built with a high-definition 3-D camera instead of the conventional but very costly infrared-light technology, the scanner would likely become the de facto security standard at Circles within two to three years. The software and programmable chip would be ready within six months; then the computer companies and cell phone makers would jump on board. They loved new products that spurred consumer demand and drove up prices. And they’d never buck the most powerful Internet company on the planet, not if Circles gave them the technology to protect the social network’s two-and-a-half billion users from cybercrooks bent on committing fraud, identity theft, and online reputation crimes.
Once his 3-D iris scanner was built into every new cell phone, tablet, and laptop that rolled off assembly lines, Circles could expand into dozens of new activities. People would trust the social network to bank, get a mortgage, trade stocks, pay their taxes, and maybe even one day vote—all without concern for their privacy or the safety of their personal information. Maybe, just maybe, Sergio’s big breakthrough would help keep his run going a little bit longer. Help the team win and they will love you for it.
Sergio stepped back from the window and caught a reflection of his disheveled self. He tossed his hair back and tucked in the tails of his light green Hugo Boss Oxford shirt. T-shirts, shorts, and sandals were all accepted attire at Circles, but if he was going to wear a collar, he might as well look the part. He exited the conference room, walked up the hall, and stopped at the kitchenette. He opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, one of several kept on hand for these impromptu occasions. It was his moment to celebrate, even if he had to do it alone.
Sergio returned to his stool and set a plastic flute amongst the camera parts, laptop computers, and tiny tools scattered across his workbench. He popped the cork and held the bottle at arm’s length as bubbly spilled to the floor. Wiping his hand on his jeans, he poured himself a healthy tipple and solemnly lifted his glass to a framed photo hanging on the wall. The late Circles founder, Johnny Weiss; Sergio; and several senior staff stood beaming on the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange. They were about to ring the opening bell and watch Circles shares trade on Wall Street for the very first time. They were all about to become millionaires.
A muted ring brought Sergio back to the moment. The landline on his workbench announced an incoming call from George Verneek, the company’s security chief and a close friend. He never uses the phone, Sergio thought, unless . . .
“We got one,” said the familiar voice. “And it looks bad. He’s been poking around for at least a month. I could use your help.”
Sergio set down the flute and leaned forward on his workbench. He lifted his head and stared at the giant eyeball peering out from the computer monitor. The eye, only moments ago a source of celebration and excitement, now seemed to be mocking him. He had gotten too far ahead of himself; a utopian future free of intruders and cybercriminals would have to wait. Circles was under attack.