please instruct the court reporter to note mr. o’brien’s sarcasm


I gave a deposition in a case involving contract law a few years back. It’s a long story, but the company I worked for signed a vauge contract with an individual who didn’t deliver a product in line with the expectations of the company. In addition to that point of contention, the contract was one of those vauge “Joint Development” contracts. I’m not sure who drew up the contract, but I was focused on technology issues. This company hired me to come in, rescue the project, and try to see if there was anything worth salvaging.

There wasn’t.

There was a wide array of technologies, someone had written C code to handle web requests, drop a file on a filesystem and enter into an infinite loop waiting for another process to satsify a request. I came in, took one look at the approach and rendered my opinion – “no way I’m going to be responsible for this Rube Goldberg machine disaster”.

That’s where I started to become exposed to this lawsuit between the contractor and the company I worked for. I was carted into a deposition to answer some questions about open source, licensing, contract definitions, and it was also a chance for the contractor’s lawyer to try to attack my qualifications. That’s always a lot of fun for me because 5 out of the 10 “bios” for me on the Internet are less than serious.

Take this bio from my Apachecon 2011 talk:

Tim used to contribute heavily to Commons back in the days of Jakarta, and he desperately wants to get back to coding and contributing to ASF projects. He’s continuously trying to convince people that he’s a coder, not a technical documentation expert. In addition to open source work and documentation efforts, Tim has implemented systems for Forbes, Inc. and TheStreet.com over the past decade and he has occasionally pretended to be a journalist for O’Reilly Media covering science, government, and technology.

At the time of this particular deposition, I had a bio on O’Reilly that said something like,

“Tim discovered programming on a TRS-80, and went on to study (and subsequently forget) Electrical Engineering at UVA. In his free time Tim likes to sleep, study music, build toys with microcontrollers, and participate in open source projects.”

Innocuous, right? Clearly a joke. Well it turns out that the opposing counsel’s case revolved around the words “and subsequently forgot”. This was going to be the keystone of his attempts to discredit me.

Imagine that you just drove a few hundred miles (at the time I still wasn’t flying – that’s a whole different story), youare sitting in the basement of some cheap Comfort Inn in a conference room converted into a deposition space, and some super serious lawyer hands you a copy of your comic bio. I took one look at this, chuckled, and responded, “Yes, I’m familiar with this biography, I wrote it.”

The back and forth for about 30 minutes went something like this:

Op. Counsel: Mr. O’Brien is it true you attended the University of Virginia.

Me: Yes.

Op. Counsel: Is it true that you majored in Electrical Engineering?

Me: Yes.

Op. Counsel: Is it true that you subsequently forgot Electrical Engineering as stated in this bio?

Me: Can you be more specific?

Op. Counsel: That is a simple question Mr. O’Brien could you answer the question.

Me: Electrical Engineering is a broad subject, I need you to ask me about specific ideas and concepts, I’m not here to play….

My Counsel: (interrupting) he just wants you to ask him a specific question, what specifically did he forget.

Op Counsel: Ok, did you understand the basics of electricity. Is there anything you forgot about that?

Me: That’s not a specific question. I can’t answer it. Are you asking about Maxwell’s Equations?

Op Counsel: Mr. O’Brien I’m trying to get you to confirm your own words, words you wrote. Is it true that you subsequently forgot Electrical Engineering.

Me: I remember important concepts, but I forget exactly how to use a Mentor Graphics program to layout VLSI. Do you know what VLSI means?

Op Counsel: Will the court reporter please note Mr. O’Brien’s sarcasm?

My Counsel: He’s not being sarcastic, he’s trying to get you to ask a….

Op Counsel: I think he’s being sarcastic.

Me: I’m happy to answer your questions, I have all day.

Op Counsel: Ok, can you give me time to confer with my client.

Op. Counsel then calls for a break, confers with his client

In hindsight, it wasn’t that I was being sarcastic at all. I think he was reacting to the fact that he didn’t understand enough about technology to understand the sarcasm inherent in my writing. This continues to this day – a non-technical reader may read a post of mine only to conclude that I dislike Maven, but someone more familiar with the topic will conclude that I’m just being tough on Maven because it is so essential to my day to day work.

The pattern established in that back and forth continued all day (it was an exhausting day). Especially when he started to ask me questions about XML, HTTP, and application frameworks in general. Not only was I stopping him with “Your question doesn’t make sense, I can’t answer it.” The court reporter didn’t understand how to transcribe many of the terms. This gave op counsel a disincentive to get into specifics.

Hopefully, I’ll never have to give another deposition again. If I do I’m looking forward to the day that someone asks me about another sarcastic biography. “Mr. O’Brien what did you mean when you said you were pretending to be a journalist?”