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Short Story Contest: Mr. Swift

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“Send the fax, Able.”

Mr. Swift shut the door of his office and headed for the elevator.

“It’s out of our hands now.”

“More like ‘out of hand’,” thought Able.

Things were out of hand.  Mr. Swift remembered those days in the Seventies when he started working at this large company.  The company was heralded as groundbreaking.  And at the time it was groundbreaking.  Over the years the company’s hegemony over international payments grew and Mr. Swift even became privy to the little-understood and even less-revealed role his company played in the back rooms of the global financial stage. 

These days Mr. Swift was spending more and more time fixing errors, patching software, and scrambling to prevent the theft of billions of dollars by ever more sophisticated hackers.  He wore his stress like a badge of honor.  That’s to say he attributed these attacks to his company’s standing as financial powerhouse handling millions of transactions not, as it were, to the fact that his company was a technological sloth, a jumble of intermediaries and an accordingly easy target.  Anyway, it was time for a drink.

“Do you think they will get it in time?” said Able.

“Get what?” asked Mr. Swift.

“The fax.”

“Oh the fax is there already.  The question is will they find it, read it, and take the myriad steps necessary to stop the million dollars from slipping through the cracks to the hackers.”  Mr. Swift explained.

“Its more like a sieve than a crack” commented Able.

Mr. Swift thought Able was exaggerating even though six percent of all transactions performed by his company failed in some way or another.  Although he himself was a bit of a dinosaur when it came to technology, Mr. Swift had heard something about six degrees of separation in today’s interconnected world and figured that his company was meeting the global standard by separating six percent of its clients from their money.  Another badge of honor to him.  Likewise, it was this sort of thinking that gave him pride in “modernizing” the company’s fraud alert system to incorporate the fax machine—he won employee of the year for that.  Besides, one million dollars was just a drop in the trillions dollar bucket the company handled.  “Don’t worry they won’t miss it…they have no choice,” he said to Able.  “That’s the privilege of being the only game in town. We can never lose a customer.”

As they entered the pub Able thought to himself, “I can’t believe how much money the company misplaces in cyberspace.”  And then thought further, “This company still uses telephony…that means it uses telephony space.”  He finally concluded, “The world uses cyberspace and we use phony space.”

Able was a bright and curious MBA so landing a job at such a smug behemoth didn’t stop him from learning and investigating the competition.  He started investigating Bitcoin and Ethereum when the media started widespread coverage—late actually--but his penchant for depth helped him discover other companies and assets such as XRP which he thought could be a potential threat to complacent yet powerful institutions like the one he worked for.  He had become a true crypto enthusiast—and one that could separate the wheat from the chaff.  A coin that could transfer and settle in seconds was a breakthrough, sure, yet he couldn’t help but imagine what the real impact would be.  He envisioned the liberation of dormant settlement funds, efficiencies for remitters and the unbanked, bridge currency utilization, and even applications in the stock, futures, and derivatives markets.

The pair sat at the bar and listened to a recent release on the jukebox.  Mr. Swift didn’t consider at all the contrast between that tiny jukebox and the aging technology invented by his company.  How does something so trivial as pop music get piped everywhere via the internet while trillions of dollars of critical and urgent international payments still languish for days in cyberspace waiting to be delivered, clear, and settle?

 “Ripple” said Able, interrupting Mr. Swift’s thought.

“What?” asked a startled Mr. Swift.

“Gin ripple.  I was talking to the bartender.  What are you having?”

“Golden Cadillac,” answered Mr. Swift.

“Coming right up” said the barkeep.  As he mixed the drinks he couldn’t help but notice how different these two regular customers were.  He knew they worked together, probably in the same office, but everything about them was different.  Able listened to the latest music on the jukebox using an account on his phone to select the songs.  He had tried to pay his tab with bitcoin once.  Mr. Swift, on the other hand, was stuck in his ways.  He stopped experiencing new music in the eighties, paid for drinks with a check and even drank Golden Cadillacs—a drink popular forty years ago.  Hell, Mr. Swift’s pants even had pleats.  The barkeep knew that the gin ripple was the hottest cocktail on the mixology scene right now.  He even believed the Ripple could become a new classic.

Able was planning on waiting until Mr. Swift at least had a few drops of alcohol in him before breaking the news, but for whatever reason he blurted it out: “I’ve found a job with a startup.”

“What’s that now?”

“I want you to know that I am very grateful for what I have learned in my year at the company, but I’m going in to the tech space.”

Mr. Swift chuckled.  “You’re a fool, son, tech is a crapshoot.”  But suddenly Mr. Swift’s voice raised considerably. “For every ponyhorn that makes it there are a million others who fail.  And even the ponyhorns don’t do anything meaningful.  You’ve got a sure thing here and you are doing something that brings utility and value to banks and everyday people.”

“Unicorns.  They’re called unicorns”

“Unicorns, whatever.  I don’t care.  If there is one truth in the world it is that institutions like ours stand forever…you are taking a stupid risk.”

Able knew Mr. Swift would be upset.  But something about his reaction was strange to the kid.  It seemed as if Mr. Swift was worked up due to his pride and arrogance.  He was simply offended.  A savvier person would feel threatened by tech.  Mr. Swift certainly wasn’t feeling threatened.  He was too clueless to think that his company and it’s so called “technology” would ever be replaced.  He was even less likely to understand or even care about what was going on in the fintech space.  In a way, Able felt sorry for the man.  Able learned basic lessons in business school about what a strong position Mr. Swift’s company was in and how easy it would be to keep its monopoly if it just adapted.  But Able knew there was no hope trying to change the complacent culture therein so he had decided to move on.

“I hand-picked you among the best and brightest and you’ll have the opportunity to reign over the company one day.  Tech space? Humph!  Get that crazy idea out of your head.  Besides, what the hell does tech have to do with what you’ve learned here?  You damn millennials think that every stupid smart phone thing is going to be the next mainframe.  Haven’t you seen that technology is just a trendy time waster?  Look what our company has accomplished over forty years.  We’ve never been distracted with tech developments yet we have a global monopoly.”

“Definitely clueless”, Able thought.

Mr. Swift calmed down after downing a few of his passé cocktails.  Able managed to share enough of his plans to satisfy his boss without explicitly mentioning that he was going to work for a potential competitor.  They discussed an exit timeline and recounted a few memorable work experiences mostly dealing with crisis management.

All in all, it turned out to be a pleasant evening although much of that was due to Able keeping Mr. Swift in the dark about specifics.  But Mr. Swift functioned best in the dark about many things and that’s just how it was.

“I’ll pay for the drinks” said Mr. Swift.  “Save your money.  You never know with those Silicon Valley startups.”  He reached for his checkbook.

“Sorry, Mr. Swift, but the owner says we are no longer taking checks.”

“But I’ve always paid with checks.”

“I know, but apparently you are the only one that does, and it costs my boss extra time to handle them.”

“I’ve been coming here for forty years.  Why now?”

“I’m not sure.  But I guess those days are over, Mr. Swift.  I guess your time has come.”

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