Dream Job

Voice Card  -  Volume 25  -  John Card Number 13  -  Thu, Sep 3, 1992 2:51 PM

A few days after returning from my honeymoon I began what I soon regarded as a dream job. I've been composing this card in my head ever since.

The obvious title was supposed to have an ironic overtone in view of my ongoing debate with Drury about working environments. Even I didn't believe I could find a job with no time clocks, no dress codes, a library, all the Pepsi I could drink, and the freedom to be truly creative. And yet that is precisely what I found. A month ago, however, the dream turned into something of a nightmare, and now the title of this card takes on an additional layer of irony. Last week I resigned from my dream job and am now, once again, looking for work.

First let me tell you how it was in the beginning. The job was at the testing lab of one of the major publishers of computer magazines around the world. The lab was less than a year old and had ambitions to become the Consumer Reports of the computer world, a place where all the latest gadgetry of Silicon Valley could be tested and pronounced fast, faster, or fastest.

The working environment was everything I asked for in recent voice cards and more. In addition to the library, which I was free to peruse at any time, there was a breakfast nook with a refrigerator stocked full of free Pepsi, orange juice, etc. The management often provided bagels, pizza, and for anyone working late: free Chinese food. There was no dress code whatsoever; almost everyone wore jeans or cutoffs with T-shirts and sneakers (Friday was unofficially considered Hawaian Shirt Day). And I could come and go as I pleased. The work was so interesting that I found myself staying late just for the fun of it. And the salary was more than twice what I was making as a technical editor.

As with any job, however, the most important factor is the people you work with, and this was the best part of all. My boss, Gene, was one of the sharpest and finest men I have ever worked with. He had carefully assembled a superb team of first rate programmers from all over the world. There was Muhi from Lebanon, Janna from the Ukraine, Hollis from Hong Kong, Jing from Mainland China, Dennis from India, Nazrin from Iran, Marvin from Queens, and Tom from Chicago. Of these Tom was perhaps the most remarkable: quick-witted, technically top-notch, and outspoken with a devasting sense of humor. He was the Hawkeye Pierce of the place, loved by most and resented only by incompetents in high places (Tom was the sort who knew a butthead when he saw one and wasn't afraid to say so). I grew to love them all, especially Tom and Muhi, and we worked well together as a team, each of us helping the others.

I was given state of the art equipment and a challenging assignment: design and build a general purpose data viewer. I spent much of my first month talking and listening and researching before I really began to understand the enormity of the task. The solution I came up with became the center of a political firestorm. In order to understand what happened, you need to hear at least a brief description of my now-infamous data viewer.

Here is the problem: A single testing project for one of the magazines can generate well over 50,000 individual test scores, measurements of how fast a given machine performs one of many different tasks. The lab was already doing 30 projects a month and the plan was to eventually store all those numbers in a huge database containing all the tests ever performed on all the machines ever studied by any of the company's publications. The problem is this: Once you have all this data, what do you do with it? How do you make any sense out of a million test scores?

What's needed is a tool that lets you sift through this mountain of data and pull up a managable population of machines and tests. You then need some way of collapsing raw test results into overall perfomance scores, by constructing and employing weighted averages. This in turn requires some way to divide the population into subsets and normalize the data and choose from a variety of averaging techniques (arithmatic, geometric, harmonic). There should be some way of quickly producing all sorts of charts and tables. You should be able to build upon the work of others so that no wheels have to be re-invented. Finding a way to do all of this, and make it easy to use, and general purpose, was the greatest interface design problem I have ever faced.

My approach was, first of all, to make this data more tangible by representing it as dragable color icons. I created a sky-colored "workspace" in which machines and tests flowed out of "data spigots" and appeared as machine pointers (shaped like one-way signs) and round test marbles. Machines and tests could be grouped into folders, arranged on the screen, and dragged to the trash. And there were other kinds of icons as well to represent normalized scores, combined scores, charts, and tables. The techniques used to manipulate these "data objects" are familiar to anyone who has ever used a Mac or Windows system.

The next step was to provide some way of transforming data objects, to turn a test into a normalized score or combine a folder full of tests with a particular machine to produce a chart. My solution was a strange, Dr. Seuss-looking object called a "gadget."

A gadget is essentially the embodiment of a function. It has one or more input "ports" and an output "funnel." Gadgets are dragable icons which can be arranged on the screen or even dragged to the trash. Some of them have additional buttons and knobs. If a data object of a certain shape is dragged near a gadget port of the same shape, the port "light" turns on and the object is sucked into the port, an operation I call "docking." When all the ports are full, the gadget turns on and spits out a new object, like a chart icon. The user can then double-click on this new icon to view it in more detail (zoom in on a chart, examine the weights of a combined score, export a table to a spreadsheet, etc.)

I wish you all could have seen these gadgets in full-color action. All of the people I showed it to found the concepts easy to understand and fun to use. It was hard to resist inserting machine pointers and test marbles into a chartmaker gadget. I spent three or four weeks designing the workspace and making it all work. Gene was intrigued by the possibilities inherent in this design. I think it was just the kind of thing he was looking for to bring the company's I.T. department into the '90s. And Tom become almost evangelical about it.

From the very beginning the three of us knew we were playing with fire. There is a term in Silicon Valley for this kind of work: "bleeding edge." Corporations, and perhaps all organized human efforts, involve power games. In the computer industry especially, power springs ultimately from new technology. Leading edge technology is inevitably threatening to many of those currently in power. If a new technological approach is successful, its supporters will rise to the top and, in so doing, displace those who cling to an older technology. For many different reasons, new ideas always meet with stiff resistence, and the shelves of Silicon Valley are filled with wonderful inventions which were suppressed in order to maintain some balance of power. And the inventors are suppressed along with their inventions. Hence the term bleeding edge.

My wacky program was still in its cradle, but was at the very least a new way of doing things. After getting a signature on a non-disclosure form, we showed the prototype to a representative of the Oracle Corp., who promptly offered technical assistance and the possibility of some financial breaks in return for the right to use the program in demonstrations and publicity campaigns. We began to plan for a formal presentation in Boston for all the company bigwigs. And we started doing demonstrations in an effort to get everyone "on board." Everyone we showed it to started turning cartwheels. We were all flying high. And then we set up a demo with the director of the lab.

The director of the lab and the person Gene reports to is a woman named Beth. From day one I was told quietly by almost everyone I talked to about the "Beth Factor." The lab was a great place to work, I was told, but sooner or later I would experience the Beth Factor and then I would have to decide whether or not to stay. Some could take it and some could not. Those who complained had a habit of disappearing; in fact "disappear" was used as a verb, as in "Ed was disappeared."

Beth has only two ways of dealing with her staff, either screaming or laughing (and she's more dangerous when she's laughing). Along with the rest of the office I was treated to the spectacle of her reducing her adminstrative assistant to tears, the poor woman pleading "I'll try to do better but please stop shouting at me." Even more disturbing was everyone else's reaction; these outbursts were so common that people simply bowed their heads and continued working. Some workers had nightmares and rashes. There was even a rumour that Beth had asked workers to install extra insulation in her office so that her screaming and the tortured cries of her victims would be less distracting to others. Tom maintained that she was psychotic and at first I thought he was being whimsical. Now I think he may have made an accurate clinical diagnosis.

One other thing you need to know. Beth hated Tom and Tom hated Beth. Tom was one of the few people who stood up to Beth. He was originally her second in command but got himself transfered under Gene so that he wouldn't have to deal with her. In his year at the lab, Tom saw many people he cared about hurt and driven away by Beth for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of their work. Beth had not yet been able to "disappear" Tom, but they were like two opposing trains on the same track; a collision was inevitable.

Here's where we goofed. On the day we were to demonstrate my program to Beth I came down with the flu - my first sick day all summer. At the last minute Gene got called away to handle some emergency. That left Tom and Beth alone in a room with my program. What follows is my understanding of what happened based on what others told me.

According to Tom, Beth was in one of her moods from the very outset. But when Tom fired up my program she exploded. "What is this? What is that!? WHO DID THIS?" Tom asked her to lower her voice, but to no avail. Finally, he gave up and walked out of her office. She came up behind him, grabbed him by the arm and said "GET BACK IN THIS OFFICE!" Tom said something like "Beth, I don't think we want to take this any further," and he left. In his judgment Beth was out of control.

The next day when he showed up to work Tom was greeted by security guards who told him that he had been fired and if he set foot on Lab property again he would be arrested for trespassing. When Tom returned home and called Human Relations he was told that Beth claimed he tried to assault her, that he was fired, and that criminal charges could be filed against him if he didn't go quietly. Tom said, "Fine. See you in court," and hung up. Five minutes later he got a call from a corporate vice president who invited him up to the tower to talk things over. By firing him in this clumsy way, Beth had exposed the corporation to possible legal action (it later turned out that there was a witness who could corroborate Tom's version of the events). They unfired Tom and offered him a plum position at one of the other magazines. Tom agreed to accept the transfer with no hard feelings.

But over the course of the next few weeks things started to look a little fishy. Although the vice president said Tom had this new job, HR said he did not. And when Tom looked into it, the job itself looked more like a trap, a place he could be sent to until things quieted down so that he could be quietly disposed of. So he did some shopping and soon received a very attractive offer from the competition: more money and a sane boss.

Tom had been a company man, ready to spend the rest of his career with them. But over the course of those two weeks he smelled enough corruption at high levels to change his mind. He accepted the job with the competition and did everything he could to leave on good terms, even stopping in to tell Beth there were no hard feelings. Shortly thereafter she had him escorted off the premises on the grounds he might be stealing secrets from the lab (an absurd charge - there was nothing he could learn that he didn't already know from helping to build the lab from the ground up).

Tom's sudden disappearance (and the spectacle of seeing him dragged away by security guards) had a devestating impact on the group. Gene had put up with a lot from Beth, but firing Tom out from under him without even consulting him first was unacceptable. Tom was the key man on ten different projects and losing him like that all but shut us down. Gene eventually got the injunction against Tom lifted so that he could come in for a few days and help us make the transition, and Tom was willing to help, but before he could help any of us he was once again escorted out of the building. So there was, to say the very least, tension between Beth and Gene.

To make matters worse, the very day Tom was fired we hired a new guy I will call "Dick Baluster". This was partly my fault; Gene and Tom both interviewed him and felt uneasy so they asked me to interview him. He seemed OK to me so I said "Give him a chance." Gene signed him up for a three week contract.

Baluster sized up the political situation, decided he wanted Gene's job, and made a beeline for Beth's office. He began doing an end run around Gene and reporting directly to Beth, apparently telling her anything he had overheard. Gene told him to cut it out, but he continued. We began to get reports from people all over the lab that "Baluster is telling lies about Gene. Watch out for this guy - he's a weasel." And all of us in the group found him extremely obnoxious to work with. It also became clear that he was far less competent than he claimed to be.

And there was more. Three people on our team caught him running a business out of his office. I now suspect he was selling our names and phone numbers to a headhunter without our permission. And he approached another friend of mine asking for a virus that he could plant on a Macintosh belonging to a former business partner who had double-crossed him. Under normal cicumstances he would have been fired immediately. But for Beth, I think, he was the perfect weapon at the perfect time.

All of this took a heavy toll on me. Tom and I had become close friends and the two of us were working intensely on my project. Without his expertise I was all but shut down. And then I had to put up with Baluster who constantly told me "I happen to know Beth doesn't like funnels. Take out all the funnels." I went to Gene and he told me to ignore Baluster, that Baluster would be out as soon as his contract was up, and that as long as he (Gene) was there my work would continue. But the tension in the office was so thick that it was almost impossible to keep working. The director of the Lab could not permit my program to succeed without admitting that she had been wrong in firing Tom. Word went out that some oddball on Gene's staff was wasting money writing arcade games.

It was during this tense period that I developed a strange and very painful illness. One day I woke up with an intense headache behind my left eye, a headache so intense that I became nauseous and had to leave work. I gobbled aspirin like candy. On day four Betsy took me to the emergency room of the local hospital where I was given two painkiller shots and a prescription for barbituates. On day seven I saw a doctor who ordered a CAT scan (they looked in my head and found nothing there!). And then, after 10 straight days, the headache vanished as mysteriously as it appeared. I'm convinced that the stress I was under had something to do with this.

And now, gentle reader, we come at last to the climax of our melodrama. The Friday before last I met with Gene in his office and he showed me some of the plans he had for his new budget. Baluster would be fired that day and, after negotiations with my consulting agency, I would be offered a permanent position. Gene and Muhi and I would try to carry on without Tom as best we could. He had to clear all of this with Beth and had a meeting set up to go over the details. I was very anxious about this meeting as it would define how things stood in the post-Tom era.

It was a long meeting behind closed doors. When I got back from lunch there was no sign of Gene. Finally, at the end of the day, Beth called Gene's entire staff into her office.

"This is GREAT news," she said with a big grin. "Gene has accepted an exciting new position in Testing! He's happy about it and I'm happy about it and the other managers are just TICKLED! We're all happy about this. You. Are YOU happy about this? And you. And you. Are YOU happy? Say you're happy!" She went on like this for several minutes, pointing at each one of us and trying to get us to say that we were happy about the good news. Only Baluster seemed genuinely happy. Most of us knew we were being lied to.

There was more. Beth was "worried" about Gene and felt that he had been working too hard, so she had asked him to stay away from the office for the next week. Coincidentally, information auditors from Corporate Headquarters were coming in next week to examine all of our work. And there was a Fellows meeting at the lab next week as well, ironically, the same meeting, originally scheduled for Boston, that Gene and Tom and I were going to present my program to. And then Beth almost skipped out of the room beaming with all this good news. It was creepy.

I later talked to Gene and heard what REALLY happened. When Gene came into Beth's office he found she was waiting for him with a representative from Human Relations. Beth declared that she had been keeping a file on him for three weeks (that is, from just after she fired Tom) and had determined that Gene was not a good manager. She said she had talked with "several" members of his staff and the consensus was that Gene was unpopular and difficult to work for. [This, incidentally, is absolutely untrue.] As a result Gene was to be demoted, sent to "Special Projects" and would never again be allowed to have a staff. It was a very stormy meeting, and if it hadn't been for health considerations (Gene's had a series of operations for a cancer in his throat) he might have quit on the spot. In any event, it was clear that "Special Projects" was a kind of Siberia where troublesome mangers are sent to die.

In the week that followed, my last week, the tension became unbearable. Gene's entire staff (except for Baluster) met in secret to determine if there was anything we could do. We were all furious, but with Beth in complete control of all information about this and other incidents, there seemed little we could do. Human Relations was worthless: inept, corrupt or both. Upper management was indifferent. We made a serious attempt to engage a lawyer but I knew we didn't really have a case (although Tom probably did). One of us drafted a petition stating that Beth was unstable and should be removed. Although anyone signing such a document would immediately forfeit his job, nearly 15 people were willing to sign and everyone else we talked to wanted to sign but could not afford to lose their job.

I was deeply touched by the people I talked to, many of whom had endured Beth's reign of terror for nearly a year. These people were scared stiff and deeply angry and, in some cases, desparate. These incidents with Tom and Gene were only the latest in a long series of troubling episodes. Several different people had already sought the advice of lawyers to no avail. I heard many frightening stories including a report that Beth had once asked someone to help her buy a gun so that she could blow her brains out in the lab. There was endless speculation about how she got the job and how she was able to keep it. And from Janna we heard tales of life in the Soviet Union; to her the situation at the lab was all too familiar.

Meanwhile, I had plenty of work to do getting my program ready for the auditors and demonstrating it to as many people as I could before Beth could make it disappear. Baluster was openly gloating now and Beth had plans to let him give a demonstration of his new ideas to the Fellows meeting. She sent a representative to officially view my program to see if I would be allowed to do a demo for the meeting. The verdict was no surprise: I was not allowed to show my work.

Beth gave the auditors an orientation, told them all about my "arcade game," and made sure that the first person they interviewed was Baluster, but that was the limit of her power. The auditors, head of corporate information systems and his assistant, did a professional job, interviewing each of us in private behind closed doors. I made my case as best I could and learned later that they were very impressed with my work. But none of that mattered. "Beth is the director of the lab and is free to disregard our findings." By mid-week it was clear to me - the writing was on the wall.

I decided to contact my consulting agency and alert them that there was a problem. When both I and their other consultant, Jing, indicated that we had had enough and both wanted out, they reluctantly concluded that the situation was irretrievable and that they would notify Beth that they were pulling both of their developers out of the lab. I had a six-month contract and probably could have stayed, but my work could not survive without Gene, and Betsy, who saw the toll this was taking on me, wanted me out of there NOW.

Friday of that week was my last day. Some other people in the lab asked for demos and one of them made sure he got a copy of the code in case Beth flushed it. I sent a final e-mail message to my friends, shook a lot of hands, received many hugs, and walked out with my head held high. That night, with the pressure finally lifting, I was able to cry, and then to sleep.

The remaining members of Gene's staff have either resigned, are about to resign, or are frantically looking for another job. Beth offered Gene's job to Muhi, but he turned her down cold. Protests were lodged with Human Relations to no avail. Marvin wrote a beautiful but futile letter about his year working with Gene. Baluster is now sitting in my cubicle and has access to both of my computers and everything I wrote over the summer. In three weeks he managed to help remove all three people who hired him.

I am doing just fine. I had two interviews last week and will have two more next week. It appears that because of the work I did and the friendships I made this summer, I will have my choice of several exciting new jobs.

Please keep this voice card to yourselves. Although I've only told you a small fraction of what happened to me, and although everything I've revealed here is true as far I can tell, some of the details were told to me in confidence, and some of the people involved are still afraid of losing their jobs.

I would, however, be interested to hear your reactions. This whole experience has caused me to do a lot of soul searching. I am assured by many friends that this sort of thing goes on all the time and that I should resign myself to it. This is the way of the world. The professional thing to do is to keep your eyes lowered and your mouth shut.

I, too, have encountered nasty office politics before. But it's one thing to argue about politics in the abstract and quite another to see people you care about hurt for no good reason and good work destroyed and careers ruined and precious time wasted.

How should we react to situations like this? If we try to fight injustice we may only prolong the violence and in the end become just as dirty as the thing we seek to destroy. If we shut our eyes to evil that evil will multiply and we may lose our self-respect if not our very souls. It is perilous to care about these things, but even more perilous not to.

I am a writer and my solution, for the moment, is simply to write. Thank you all for reading my words.