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Innovation Economy

The region’s tech sector, in a fishbowl

Puffer in better days.

Puffer in better days.

This is the story of Puffer, a sprightly little pufferfish who lived in an office building in Cambridge. Puffer was the mascot of a company called Endeca. Every day, when the software developers would show up for work on the 15th floor, the first thing they would see when they got off the elevator was Puffer, swimming happily in her tank.

All the employees loved Puffer. They put her picture on posters that promoted companywide parties. And when she puffed up — which was not very often — people took pictures and e-mailed them to their co-workers. The employees who helped take care of Puffer, feeding her krill and algae, loved her even more. She would follow them whenever they walked past her tank, sometimes bonking into the glass.

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But one day in 2011, one of the richest men in the world decided to buy Endeca. He paid more than $1 billion for the company, which created software to help businesses analyze their operations or organize the products sold on their websites. And that’s when things changed for Puffer and her friends.

This is the story of Puffer, but it’s also the story of those thousand tiny changes that big companies often make when they acquire smaller ones. And about how those changes often lead to the loss of the very same talent the big company hoped to bring on as part of the deal.

Puffer wound up at Endeca through happenstance. The fast-growing company was subletting a new office in East Cambridge in 2001, and the prior tenant “had a few things they were trying to sell us,” recalls Ken Papa, Endeca’s former head of facilities. “We got their pool table, their security system, a reception desk, their saltwater fish tank, and six fish for about $5,000.”

No one remembers the other fish. But Puffer “became this cult legend at the company,” says Papa, whose brother, Steve, founded Endeca. “When we had a party, she’d be on the posters wearing a sombrero and drinking a Corona,” says Ken Papa. When the company moved, first to Alewife, and then to Kendall Square, Puffer came, too, in a 5-gallon pail.

In October 2011, the California tech giant Oracle, run by billionaire Larry Ellison, announced it would acquire Endeca. Most of the company’s administrative employees, including Ken Papa, were told they would no longer be needed after Endeca was integrated into Oracle.

“I knew I was losing my job,” Papa says. “But I helped them out as best I could.” One day, in a meeting with Oracle executives overseeing the integration of the two companies, they mentioned that Oracle has a no-animals policy at its offices.

Papa tried to persuade Oracle to leave the fish tank alone. It cost about $5,000 a year to have a vendor come in to clean the tank and deliver Puffer’s food. “My advice was, if they took the pufferfish, it was going to make them look like bad guys,” Papa said. “But they didn’t heed my warnings.”

The vendor helped Papa find another home for Puffer. In January 2012, Papa sent out an e-mail letting everyone know it was Puffer’s last day at the company. Some came to say goodbye, but others said they couldn’t bear to watch.

The tank just gathered dust. Then someone drew a picture of Puffer on the glass with a permanent marker. The tank “sat there empty as a reminder of the Endeca that was,” says Rob McDonald, a former Endeca engineering director.

Plenty of other things changed at Endeca, many much more significant. Steve Papa no longer ran the company, and there were “more layers of management,” says Steve Fredette, who oversaw Endeca’s mobile products.

The old formula for calculating end-of-year bonuses, which everyone understood, was altered, and “it became fuzzier and unknown,” says McDonald. There were new policies about which specific snacks and sodas could be stocked in Endeca’s kitchen.

But among all the changes, Puffer’s disappearance was the most visible. When employees announced that they were leaving, the fish often came up in their exit interviews. “I know it seems like a silly thing,” says Rob Gonzalez, a former product manager at Endeca. “But the pufferfish was part of the family.”

Endeca’s 150 or so engineers were the company’s crown jewel: They wrote the software and knew how to maintain it and make it better. Many of them stuck around for a while after the acquisition, trying to give it a shot even though they didn’t consider themselves “big company” people, says Fredette.

But when McDonald and other ex-Endecans looked at an old employee list recently, they calculated that about two-thirds of the engineers had split since the Oracle purchase. Some, like Fredette, have started their own companies. McDonald is working for a Cambridge data analytics start-up, Hadapt. (Oracle declined to comment on anything related to Endeca or its policies pertaining to fish.)

Puffer moved to a retirement center, the Fall River Jewish Home, where she lived out her final days. She passed away peacefully around Christmas of last year, says Ed Warman, owner of Aqua Vision, the vendor that took care of Puffer’s tank. Ken Papa knew that, but when a bunch of Endeca alumni got together last month for a Cinco de Mayo party, he didn’t have the heart to tell them. Even for that party, Puffer’s face was on the poster.

Oracle eventually decided to make an exception to its policy about animals, according to former Endeca employees. Perhaps a belated attempt to revive the team’s esprit de corps? Oracle wouldn’t say. There’s a new saltwater tank in the middle of the office where the engineers work. But no Puffer.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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