When Zack Zaremba graduates form engineering school, he wants little more from his career than to do useful, interesting work. It is not long, however, before life becomes more complicated: He's assigned to an Air Force contract with impossibly difficult specs, $100,000-a-day late penalties, bullying managers, disgruntled coworkers, and parts that must be ordered before there's a design. When he fall fervently, passionately in love with Lilah Li, a beautiful Asian-American programmer with a whistle-blower's agenda, he realizes just how irrelevant his engineering education was in preparing him for moral choices.
Zack's coworkers include Warren Kushner, who's never had a date and draws up flowcharts of even casual phone conversations with women; Shopper Jim, engineer-for-hire, whose engineering survival rules include, "Always keep enough cardboard boxes under your desk to carry out all your stuff"; the Frenchman, who wears his clothes backward as a sign of bureaucratic defiance; and the silky smooth Wonderboy, whose corner-cutting extends from finessing the Air Force to cheating on the office contest in tiny writing.
Zack soon discovers himself covering for the incompetence and corruption of others. Middle management-the dyspeptic A Boy named Hsu, the heavily pustuled Medieval Man, sick-leave king Whispering Bill, in-business-for-himself Marv-only makes things worse. As it gradually becomes clear that the hardware can't meet the promised specs, Zack is seized in a crosscurrent of loyalties when he must decide whether to lie at a Critical Design Review. His only anchors are Lilah, her son, and the six-year-olds he volunteers to coach in soccer, a sport he's never played. As his team loses game after game, Zack struggles with the mysterious, painful, age-old task of engineering: making things work.