Category Archives: work

On Work as Community

For the second night in a row I found my dreams haunted by the job I was dismissed from a little over two weeks ago.  In last night’s dream my company wasn’t just a company.  It was a city populated by thousands and I found myself an exile forced to walk in the desert and look longingly on from a distance.  I was cut-off and isolated not only from the company and the people I’d known there but also from the rest of mankind.  The company, apparently, represented the entirety of society.  This honestly isn’t a bad analogy for the way I feel at the moment and it takes a bit of probing in my psyche to determine exactly why.

I’m a person who tends to keep people in one of three circles.  There are a few people, numbering less than a half dozen that I consider the ‘inner circle’.  These are the people for whom you not only do anything but do it without thinking about it and realize only later that you’ve done something important.  And when you do have that realization you don’t even think about it because it was second nature.  The second circle is people with whom you aren’t as intimate but that you might actively seek out for conversation; the ones that you’ve invited out countless times to do something after work but they never seem to have time.  To the third belong all the people that you crack jokes with in the hallway in passing or talk to only in meetings.  You know them well and you may like them but for whatever reason the interaction just hasn’t gone social.

As I sit here on a Saturday morning I realize just what my dismissal has done to my social hierarchy.  When Laura came home last night she noted that I was just a machine of chatter.  Cracking silly jokes and babbling on endlessly and this is at least in part because I just have so much of it pent up.  The third circle that used to suffer through my witticisms and conversation is utterly gone.  This need to babble, I suspect, explains the tendency of many retirees to strike up random conversations with strangers.  They’ve lost their own third circle and the conversation just has to go somewhere.

In addition to losing the third circle, this has an impact on the second circle as well.  Work was a great place for the second circle to congregate.  If you put a few people together from this group it typically results in a great interaction.  Now, without the common bond of a workplace, the second circlers have nowhere to come together (well, they come together, it’s just without me and it’s behind the locked fortress walls of the workplace) and the dynamic is changed.  I was always mystified at the phenomenon of the high school reunion.  Why would anyone want to get together with a bunch of random people from 20 years ago?  I see now that it’s an attempt to reform the second circle of days gone by.

Starting out I was jotting down some notes for this missive and thought initially that this sense of loss was probably an indication that my life was too work-centered.  Having babbled on for 550 words though I’m not so sure that’s the case.  I think this may just be the natural order of things and that I’m just feeling this loss more acutely because I’ve been stationed in one place for so long.

Yes, the third circle is gone, but those are easily enough reformed.  The cohesiveness of the second circle is shattered forever, but another can be built.  Those people in the second circle with whom I have sufficient things in common will persist, perhaps to enter the first circle or perhaps to perpetually float on the fringes.  Either way, this is the nature of things.  Life is not a stockpiling of relationships but rather a dance.  Today’s close and favored dance partner is tomorrow’s distant memory.  One must revel in the moment and enjoy what is and hope that eventually the dreams will stop waking us at 7am on a Saturday morning.

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On Working… and Not Working

Today it has been officially one week since the company for which I worked for almost nine years told me that my services would no longer be required.  For the record I don’t blame them for this since I told them two months previously that I was looking for other employment.  When they had a need to lay off some staff I took it with absolute understanding that they included me in that since I had said, quite specifically and quite redundantly, that I was looking for other work.  I stand by my statement from a few days ago that I would much rather they disemploy me than some person who was determined to stay and relied on that job for their daily bread, as it were.

Despite all that, being unemployed sucks.  Yes, I know, it’s been a week.  Despite that fact I find myself restless and uncertain.  In that week I’ve interviewed for… well, eight different jobs.  To date, none of those have come to fruition.  I find myself rather randomly optimistic (or not) about all of them but the fact remains that after the course of seven days I’m still without positive prospect for future employment.  By the standards of the masses that’s nothing but by the standards of me… well, that’s completely unacceptable.

The reasons for this are all too obvious from my perspective.  Unlike the Rob of nine years ago I can nail the personality part of any interview.  I’m outgoing (for a developer) and gregarious (for a developer) and well spoken (for a developer) and, I hope, my passion and devotion to a job is clear to anyone I’m talking to.  I’m the guy who will come into your organization and do … well, do whatever it takes to get the job done.  I know it’s cliché but in my case it’s true.  Need documentation?  I’m there.  Need product management?  I’m there.  Need a developer to get in front of a group of customers and talk about the product??!?!?!?!?!  I’m there too.  Believe it or not.

But that doesn’t seem to be even remotely akin to what the market’s looking for.  The market wants developers to sit with their heads down typing into their keyboards and honestly…. At this point in my career… well… that’s rather dull.  In my experience the only real complexity comes about because people are involved.  Executing on the rote commands of others written into a scope of work document is valueless.  There are much less experienced people than me who can do that.

Long story shortened greatly, I find myself sitting in interviews and part of me wants to just look the other person in the face and make a small but hopefully effective speech.

“Your job requisition asks for a developer who knows very specific bits of technology.  Unfortunately, I don’t know those at the moment.   However, I’ve been programming in some capacity for 25 years.  I was writing computer programs in a day and age when programming meant hooking up a tape recorder to your computer to save what you’d spent hours typing.  I know how to program and whatever it is you need, I can do.

Furthermore, I may not have done what you’re asking for but I can assure you that I am a tenacious and devoted employee.  I will do whatever it takes to get the job done and you can call every boss I’ve ever had to verify that.  I spent nine years at my previous employer doing whatever was asked for without exception and I’d happily spend another 20 with you doing the same.”

It’s funny to me that I’ve spent 15 years of my professional life in software development but fundamentally none of the important lessons I’ve learned have been very software specific.  Ultimately, the simple facts boil down to the axiomatic truths of satisfying the customer and getting the job done.  If a non-software company offered me a job tomorrow in which I could exercise this premise then I would accept it as readily as any.  Perhaps it’s my old support background showing through but in the end there really is only one goal.  Get the job done.  Sometimes you have to write 3,000,000 lines of code and sometimes you have to just prop the door open with a broom handle.  At heart that’s all I want.  I want to contribute to the success of something.  I want to make a difference.  I’m insanely passionate about contributing to the greater good of the universe (or at least some subset of it).  Really that can’t be such a hard position to find.  Can it?

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Long Time Gone

Over the Edge

Over the Edge

It’s 1:13 in the morning.  I’m waiting patiently for some photos to copy from my camera and it occurs to me just how long it has been since I bothered to write in this blog.  As always, the reasons for such an occurrence are many.  First among these is that my internet was out for almost two weeks.  My good friends at AT&T U-verse were unable to repair my suddenly failing service for an exceptionally long period of time so I found myself without television or internet for the better part of 14 days.  In that time, my mind turned to other things.  To put it briefly, I rediscovered my bookshelf.  Then I discovered the library’s bookshelf of materials downloadable for the Kindle instantly.  Since that particular milestone I’ve been a firm consumer of the written word rather than a creator thereof.  On one hand I look at this as a positive.  To write well, one must read well, the old sages say.  On the other hand, in order to do anything well one must first DO it, say other equally correct sages.  It is with this duplicity of advice in mind that I find myself sitting down to write only because I’m waiting for 2500 images to copy from the camera.  Oh such is the woe to he who tries to do time-lapse photography.  This entry promises to be a meandering one so hang on for whatever dear life you find most dear.

The same sages that wax philosophical about writing also have plenty to say about how to live your life.  The standard advice says to do what you love and lately I’ve realized that what I actually do for a living is vaguely related to what I love but not particularly closely related to it.  Luckily, however, I have several loves, so there’s room for many, many possibilities.

What I really love most, and at a deeply fundamental level, is solving a good puzzle.  I like to take a situation and figure out how to get the most from it, dissecting the proverbial pig and putting it back together with oinker intact, to coin a phrase.  That’s what really gives me joy in this world.  The more complicated or complex the puzzle the better I like it.  Work services this need in a way since it provides an endless series of puzzles.  Every email that wanders into my inbox is some new mystery to be unraveled.  Well, pause and rewind momentarily.  I must take issue with my own use of the word ‘new.’  In reality, the vast majority of issues that come across my desk require not so much investigation as recollection.  I’ve been in the same job for … almost longer than I can remember.  Nine years?  Whatever the actual exact number, it’s a LONG time for a technical job.  There’s very little that I haven’t heard before and even less that’s really and truly novel rather than some simple variation of a previous situation.  Work is usually painfully dull and only interesting or fulfilling because I have the capacity to remember so much rather than coming up with anything new.  When I should chance to be so bold as to try to create anything new I’m instantly and mercilessly punished with twice as much time spent catching up on the banal items I was forced to omit in order to actually do something novel.  Eight hours of development is paid for by 16 hours crap, as the saying goes.

So it is at roughly this point that photography and writing enter the picture.  Over the years I’ve acquired a certain knack for both of these activities, though I’m sure some would take issue with my results.  These are both pastimes that HAVE no right answers.  Every time I take pictures I take my best guess at what is most aesthetically pleasing or what will inspire viewers the most and every single time I am utterly wrong.  This is a puzzle about which I have no clue and it engages me.  No mere exercise of recollection this.  Art is varied, complex and often beyond reason.  Or, at least, beyond the current reason that I possess.  That makes it all the more attractive and interesting.  I do NOT have the right answer.  I’m forced to go spelunking for it each time I put my eye to the lens or my pen to the paper.  That, my dear readers, is satisfaction.  Plumbing the great unknown depths of a world unknown.  And that is why you find me spending my weekends writing or taking photos rather than programming a computer.  I refuse to spend my free time in pursuits so clearly deterministic.  Give me the seething quantum uncertainty of the creative process any day.

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The Meaning of Life – At Work

Yesterday’s post brought many old streams of cogitation to the forefront of my mind.  Among them was the age-old question of just why it is that we work and how best we should go about it.  Clearly this is a question with as many answers as there are people to whom to ask the question but I think that one can hash out the possible answers into a fairly small number of categories which will allow us to more easily analyze the benefits of each.  So firstly, the categories as I see them:

The Bee

Like its namesake, the bee is a busy, busy person.  I imagine the bee in a profession like Project Management that is, for all intents and purposes, infinitely extensible.  By day, the bee is a professional Project Manager for 60+ hours a week.  The bee’s hobbies include studying for Project Management certifications and going to dinner parties where they can hear about job opportunities in Project Management and the latest certifications in Project Management.  Conversation with the bee, even outside of work, tends to be about Project Management with the occasional anecdote about how much extra money the bee has because there’s just no time to spend it between work and studying.  The bees are consummate professionals who are highly respected in their fields but typically work alone.  Every scientist you’ve ever heard of was probably a bee.

The Bonobo

The bonobo, like his apiarian counterparts, goes to work and gets the job done.  He puts in his time and when that final whistle blows and it’s time to go home he finds a way to kick back and relax.  In today’s culture it’s likely that a bonobo will go home, watch some television, play with the kids and maybe play a video game or two and get up the next morning refreshed and relaxed and ready to go at it again.  There’s a time for work and there’s a time for fun and bonobos know how (and when) to have fun whether it’s going to the monster truck rally or kicking back to watch that Doctor Who marathon.  Bonobos are warm and relatable and tend to have lots of personal connections. While bonobos aren’t as dedicated as the bees, they tend to be better workers in general because their strong relationships with other people in the company make them great collaborators.

The Scholar

Scholars share some characteristics with their bee and bonobo counterparts but the motivations for working are derived from completely different sources.  While the bee works because that’s just what the bee IS and the bonobo is “working for the weekend” the scholar is working for the purposes of pursuing something that the bonobos would regard as just more work but of a different type.  Scholars are hooked on the adrenaline of accomplishment and work is just a vehicle to get that shot of adrenaline and also provide resources so they can pursue the other 27 work-like things that they do.  You can always tell the bonobos from the scholars on the beach.  The bonobos are relaxing in a chair soaking up the sun.  The scholars are scouring the beach with a metal detector while picking up broken glass so nobody cuts themselves and simultaneously trying to get a perfect photo of the sunset.  To the bonobo, relaxation means doing nothing.  To the scholar, relaxation means doing something different.

The Sloth

I should start in describing the sloth by saying that the name isn’t intended to be a disparagement of this class of people.  Quite the contrary, the sloth is a solid and efficient form of life and so is the human sloth of my imaginings here.  While the other classes work regularly and out of habit, the sloth works only when absolutely necessary.  It’s probable that the sloth has other interests but that they’re not of a nature that would be lucrative enough to sustain the sloth, usually of an artistic bent.  For the sloth the working world is a place to be visited on a periodic basis as needed rather than a habitual place of habitation.  Luckily, or perhaps as a result of perpetual penury, the sloth’s material needs are few and simple and so they live relatively carefree and quiet lives.

Personally, I can see varying degrees of value in each category above.  The bees are steadfast adherents to a cause and they throw themselves into their line of work with absolute abandon.  We owe a lot to the bees because they’re the innovators who really push the world forward.  However, there’s a flip side to this in that sometimes you get a bee when you need a bonobo.  If you’re doing ground-breaking work in genetics, be a bee.  If you’re an accountant in a large corporation then taking on bee-like characteristics is likely to make you more rogue than anything else.  There’s a time for exploring and forging ahead solo and there’s a time for collaborating.  Bees can have a tendency to confuse the two much to the detriment of their (forgive me) hive.

I have to admit that I consider myself in the scholar category.  I want to know and explore and see everything possible and the thought of just sitting on the beach doing nothing absolutely makes my soul ache.  The benefits of the scholar in the workplace are many.  Scholars are better rounded and tend to excel less in specific areas but make up for it by having a wider range of skills that can be brought to bear on a business problem.  They can be assigned to a myriad of job duties and not only tolerate but also enjoy that level of job fragmentation.  Like the bee though there are pitfalls to be aware of.  Making personal connections outside the work setting can be difficult since the scholar typically has difficulty relating to bonobos and even to other scholars.  Discovery of common interests can be prohibitively difficult when there is so much from which to choose.  No matter the depth of one’s knowledge of Marchantiophyta it is exceptionally difficult to leverage those tidbits of knowledge to strike up a conversation with someone who enjoyed the newest Fox sitcom the night before and has an insatiable itch to talk about it.  Because of this disconnectedness collaboration can suffer and scholars in a larger group setting will be less efficient than their bonobo counterparts.

Lastly, we turn our attention to the humble sloth.  In some ways that lifestyle with its minimal needs is very appealing to me.  This is probably at least in part because my interests are primarily of a sort that require more time than money to pursue them.  Give me a camera, an internet connection and a forest to tromp around in and I’m as content as I’d care to be.  So the idea of taking a more work-minimal attitude towards life isn’t altogether unappealing.  More time for tromping, after all!

So, now that I’ve blathered on for what must seem like forever, what say you?  Do you fit any of the categories above?  If not, what category would we need to add to complete the picture?  Is your category different from what you would LIKE your category to be

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Out with the Old – Goodbye 7835

It’s Thursday night and I don’t have an office to go to tomorrow.  Today was the last day for my current place of employment, T2 Systems, in our old building and tomorrow the whole company will be working remotely in quiet preparation for the move into the new office on Monday.  Leaving my location of employment for the past eight years has called up no small number of reminiscences.  You don’t work somewhere for the better part of a decade without building up a lot of feelings about the place though admittedly even looking back at my blog entries of the time it’s hard to put together a suitably reliable timeline.  However, for my own posterity I will attempt to do so lest I forget it permanently.  This may be understandably dull to the point of tears for many of you unlucky enough to read it, but I write not only for you but for future me.  I will endeavor to minimize the lachrymal invocations.

The story begins, if my math is to be believed, late in 2003.  I was hired away from a rather tired and inscrutable company that did some sort of insurance(?) to be a web developer under my old boss, Chris, who was also my manager at Software Artistry/IBM/Tivoli/Peregrine.  (Ah, what halcyon days were those when one’s place of work could so repeatedly change names without actually changing locations.)  When I first started at T2 the company was a tiny intimate place and I utterly and completely failed to fit in.  Sure I came to work and did what was expected and did it well but I was figuratively and literally stuffed off into a corner with nobody else around.  I still remember coming to work for weeks and ticking off on a piece of paper how many days it had been since I’d spoken to anyone but my boss.  It was just as miserable and isolated as I have ever felt in my entire life.  The company was tiny, everyone there already had their place and their clique so this socially awkward developer dude didn’t stand a chance.  Even to this day after working here for so long I still think I’m viewed with some suspicion because of those formative years when I was just a haunting ghost in the office with no perceived personality.  At any rate, analysis of personal dynamics aside, those first two years were painful ones.  Or, to slip temporarily into the vulgar vernacular, they fucking sucked.  Big time.

Moving along, late in 2005 I arranged with the company to telecommute.  Having no real connections in the office aside from Chris this wasn’t a particularly hard decision.   Better to sit at home alone than sit at work alone, no?  So I packed up my scant office belongings and set myself to work from the upstairs spare bedroom.  This went on until early in 2008 and while it was not nearly as soul-singeing as the previous two years it was still a period of vast personal stagnation.  Trapped in a tiny pool with few outside contacts my life could have utterly wasted away if it had been allowed to continue.

What eventually drew me back to the office seems almost like a miracle.  While still working remotely I managed to make a personal connection with someone in the office despite my own perpetual non-presence. Whether this was because my psyche had grown impossibly hungry for friendship or that I finally stumbled upon a compatible soul is difficult to say.  Whatever the case though, it drew me back to the office and whetted my appetite to actually interact with other people.  The most important part was that by actually making a connection I had some reasonable reassurance that I was a person worth interacting with.  Years of isolation had very nearly convinced me that I was not particularly worthy of anyone’s attention.  That caused me to withdraw even further and thus perpetuate the situation.  By finally having one friend I managed to build enough self-confidence to start having relationships with a few other people.  This is not to say that I’ve mastered the art but I’m at least able to carry on a semi-reasonable conversation.

With my reintroduction to the office we enter the modern era.  The past four years have seen me through some spectacularly interesting times personally and in every case the only real constant in life was 7835 Woodland Drive.  In the time I’ve been there I can’t help but feel that I’ve really come of age and become as close to normal as is probably reasonable to hope for.  Eight years ago I sat in a cube in the corner scared to get up and go to the loo by a certain route for fear of meeting someone in the hallway.  My isolation was complete and self-imposed and torturous and it was all brought about by a gnawing sense of self-doubt and personal worthlessness.  “What could I possibly have to say that anybody would want to listen to?” my addled mind questioned.

Today I feel well-integrated with my own small corner of the company though I do regret that my connections with others outside my corner are non-existent or weak at best.  I still feel a great sense of distance between me and the majority of the company and I have absolutely no clue what to do about it.  Bridging those personal gaps takes a skill that I haven’t yet mastered.  I’m still an outsider but at least I’m not alone in the corner any longer.

What newness will the new building bring? What new opportunities will arise?  What new connections will be made?  I don’t know. But time will tell and the journey to the future begins on Monday.

Normally…. I’d end with the previous paragraph.  It concludes with a rather saccharine upturn of hopefulness and optimism but I’m struck with another thought that’s only remotely related to the rest of this post.  The question is… what part does this blog play in my personal dynamics with others at work?  It has to be admitted that I do tend to lay some pretty raw stuff out there.  I don’t pull any punches and that has to have an impact on those who read it especially when they also have to go to work the next day and look me in the face.

If I had to guess, the impact is probably an acutely polarizing one.  Someone who works with me on a regular basis would probably read this and have one of two distinct reactions.  The first, of course, would be to mutter “what the HELL?” under their breath and devise ways in which they can never lay eyes on me again.  Some really dislike dealing with other people’s emotions so they stay as far away from them as possible.  The analogy that comes to mind is that of a hot stove.  The stove is hot, don’t touch!

The second reaction (at least one hopes) is to have some deeper appreciation for what I’m putting out here and to realize that contrary to some popular opinions at work I really do have a soul.  I’ve been told from time to time that there are those in my workplace that just plain dislike me.  I’ll admit that in every possible way that absolutely intrigues me.  I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what psychological process has to occur for someone to actively dislike me.  People do tend to mistrust an enigma but to extend that to the point of actual personal dislike of someone?  Just plain odd.  Further, I can’t really be all THAT enigmatic given the thousands and thousands of words I’ve pumped out on this blog with utter lack of restraint and sometimes even common sense.

OK, it’s late and I’ve really made a mess of this post.  The original intent has been lost, my writing style has slipped into the mud and I’ve meandered into some bizarre work-centered psychological self-assessment.  Suffice it to say that the last eight years have been interesting and diverse ones.  Let’s hope for eight more as entertaining and perhaps to get invited to a few more parties.  Or, more accurately speaking, let’s hope to get up the nerve to actually GO to a few more parties after having being invited.

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So What Now?

As preamble I should say that over the years I’ve noticed that the blog posts that turn out best are typically those which I have the most reticence to write.  This is a post that I have a LOT of reluctance to even broach so it’s assuredly going to be one riot of a result!

Firstly, a bit of background.  I’ve worked for my current place of employment for eight years and in that time I’ve gone from developer to architect for the product to team lead for the team.  I’m that solid ever-present denizen of the company who states quite clearly that he’ll do whatever it is the team needs him to do.  Getting close to product release and need code?  On it.  Product support needs assistance?  I’m there.  Need someone to manage work in your release?  Already doing it.  This is not to say that I’m some mindless automaton.  I’m also the first person to look at his boss and say, “I just spent 50 hours finishing up work that I shouldn’t have had to do.  Can we plan a bit better next time?”  Ultimately though, I’m a “do whatever it takes” sort of guy.  Solve the problem.  Bitch about it later if you really feel it’s necessary.

Recently when the management position became available in my department I waffled back and forth in my head for a while and finally applied.  I reasoned that in no small part I was already doing a lot of managerial work anyway, so it only made sense to actually have the title.  Over the next couple months the interview process dragged on and on and we found a couple of what seemed like reasonable candidates aside from me but it was about this time that the world caught fire.  Well, let’s be honest, the world’s always on fire but the world seemed even more on fire than usual.  I found myself doing one of those jobs that I shouldn’t ever have to do and that I’d been promised, literally years ago, that we would “find someone to take care of” and by god here I was doing it again!  As I was taking care of this bit of unexpected tedium, I realized my work life was spread out over three different jobs.  I was still the developer.  I was still the architect.  I was still the team lead.  Could I really reasonably add manager to that list and hope to ever have any peace at all?  If my previous bosses hadn’t managed to have any success centralizing my job duties into one reasonably-sized position with literally decades of managerial experience and much more influence than I would ever wield then what chance did I have at accomplishing that task for myself?

It was with that realization that I withdrew myself from consideration for the position.  Now though, on a bright and clear Saturday morning, I find myself with a feeling akin to post-partum depression.  This time last week I had new challenges and interests on the horizon.  Today I have the same doldrums and ennui to look forward to that I’ve had week after week for eight years.  From a strictly logical standpoint I still believe it to be the right decision.  The team will be better off in the long term with a new manager from the outside to infuse new ideas and incrementally bring about change.  The team will be better off with me there to sweep up the tidbits and handle the overflow from whatever goes wrong.  The company will be better off having me as a resource rather than a manager.

From my viewpoint though, work life looks boring as fuck.  When the workweek resumes I’ll go back to the exact same thing I’ve been doing for years, doing all the bits and pieces that nobody else really wants.  When the new manager comes in he will probably rightfully take some of the more interesting bits of my job over for himself and the saturation of dullness will rise.  If I’m exceptionally lucky he’ll actually figure out how all the bits and pieces should be properly handled and run me out of a job entirely.  That last bit was maudlin, so strike it from your memories, but it’s a possibility albeit remote.  The more succinct point here is that the cliché “the good of the many is more important than the good of the one” can tend to leave the one feeling rather … well, unamused.

To flip this on its head, I will acknowledge that I still derive great joy from “doing.”  While I refer to my work as “bits and pieces” and “overflow” (all while imagining a plugged toilet flushed one too many times) I really do get a lot of satisfaction from getting things done and when allowed to actually concentrate on something I’m a hell of a “doer”.  It must be admitted though that the satisfaction of doing is a very short-term narcotic and there’s only a small difference between busting your ass to help someone and becoming their slave.  The joy of doing requires the catalyst of appreciation to be completely effective.

So do I regret not becoming the manager or at least letting that play out?  A bit.  All the “what if” scenarios do run through my head and the logic of my underlying assertions are a thin balm for the loss of my aspirations.   However I think I do need to remind myself of something I’m often called upon to tell my co-workers.  Ultimate satisfaction with life and self cannot be derived from work.  Work is merely a necessity, a means to an end.  Most of my maudlin meandering stems from a misplaced desire to assign unnecessary meaning to what is really a trivial necessity of life.  Can I perform my duties and continue to get paid the necessary money to live the rest of my life?  Yes.  End of questions.  Let’s use the rest of the day to do something we really give a shit about.

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Any $50,000 a Year Programmer…

In a job I held long, long ago I had a boss who liked to strut around the office and proclaim, “You’d better get to work!  I could get any $50,000 a year programmer to do your job.”  I worked under this guy for six rather annoyed months and in that time I rewrote the product that was the heart of their business.  Before I arrived it was written in VB6 and by the time I’d left the whole system was completely redesigned from the ground up in .NET.  Ten years of evolution happened in six months and I was the go-to guy for everything because I’d written the whole blasted system.  Unfortunately for our blow-hard boss, when a better opportunity came along I took it and my resignation letter read simply:

“I hereby tender my resignation.  While this would be seen as a regrettable circumstance by most companies I am abundantly reassured by the fact that you can, in fact, find any $50,000 a year programmer to do my job.  I wish you the best of luck.”

The company was a tiny little outfit with an entrepreneurial spirit and aside from the boss’s attitude I rather liked the place.  It was a pity to leave in some ways.  My absence was clearly felt as they did contact me for several months asking if I needed a job.  Fortified by previous experience with the boss, I stated simply that I was doing just fine without them.

I sincerely wish that I could say that I felt the attitude above was an uncommon one but it seems to be the predominant view among leadership within companies.  If you ask an executive which would hurt the company more, the departure of an executive or the departure of a senior engineer who served the company for a decade and designed their systems they’ll inevitably value the executive more highly.  All this despite the fact that the skills of leadership are fairly interchangeable between companies while the knowledge of a seasoned engineer is at least in part specific to the company or products they service.  A good manager is a good manager no matter where you put them.  When your senior engineer walks out the door he takes a decade of proprietary knowledge with him.  That knowledge will take 10 years to grow back yet in many cases the value placed on it is absolutely nothing.

What’s most stunning to me is that the problem seems most predominant in the cases where job knowledge is most important.  The more poorly documented your product is and the more it relies on the ‘tribal knowledge’ of the employees to keep things running, the less respect the old-time engineers seem to get.  The company I used to work for is a classic case in point.  The entire staff consisted of seven people servicing million dollar contracts.  When I left, that probably set the company back 6-12 months.  Since they were only paying a pittance for programmers, of course they got the bottom of the barrel.  I saw this first hand as employees rolled in… and then, like the tide, rolled right back out again.  When it comes to the hiring process you really, Really, REALLY get what you pay for.   There are no bargains in the world of employment.  You might occasionally catch someone between jobs but you’re never going to keep them long and when they leave you’re right back where you started.

As with any problem, I like to look for the causality behind it.  How can companies so blatantly disregard the intellectual capitol that they have in their staffs?  At the risk of being cynical, I think most of it boils down to simple ego.  The average executive would rather lose an important employee than admit that some non-executive plebe might be more important or have more to offer the company than a manager.  You don’t get to be an executive by having an excess of humility after all.  In the case of my former boss, he thought he was the end-all and be-all of the business world.  As a result he rolled through employees year after year.  He’s getting by, but how much better off could he be if he just doled out a modicum of respect to those who work for him?  We all have our contributions to make and recognizing those goes a long way.

The analogy that comes to mind here is that of a vast forest ecosystem.  The executives are the tall, noble trees of the woodland.  They take much of the sunlight and the glory.  They’re the ones that everyone comes to see and oooohhh and aaaahhh over.  The workers are the dwellers in the underbrush diligently working away, industriously doing the day-to-day work of the woods.  As workers, we don’t actually mind that the executives take the sunlight.  It’s part of the symbiosis of the system.  You promote while we provide.  All we ask is that you don’t dismiss us.  Even the roots of the tallest tree need the lowly worm to till the soil.  If there were no trees… well, life would go on in the forest.  But without us there would BE no forest.

Executives are born to control.  They want to manage, to move the pieces on the chessboard.  Unfortunately for them, the pieces aren’t made of plastic.  They don’t just do whatever you tell them to.  Otherwise, management would be far too simple.  Instead it’s a system of give and take in which the employees must feel respected and valued or else they’ll take their contributions elsewhere.  A company is the sum of its parts and any company that forgets to respect its workers does so at its dire peril.  Every employee that walks out the front door of your office should be seen as a failure of management.  If they didn’t stay long at all, you failed to hire the right person.  If they stayed a while and then left, they took a bit of you with them that can never be replaced.  How many bits can you afford to lose?

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