Job Hell - Canto Four

Voice Card  -  Volume 28  -  John Card Number 15  -  Sun, Jul 4, 1993 11:51 PM

This is a response to VC 27 John 16 ("I Return to Hell")...

The Job Hell Saga continues...

It's been nearly four months since my last report. Although several bullets were fired in my general direction, I am still doing the devil's work at the lab, but many others have fallen. As I predicted, the storm broke and the blood ran red.

In the Spring there were two factions battling to determine the new director, and it was hard to know who to root for. Manager A, though outwardly pleasant, had been quietly slipping knives into the backs of one peer after another with the support of the equally sinister interim director. Manager B was the only one with enough backbone to publicly oppose A, but he was also a crude bastard who regularly mistreated every woman in the office.

The opening shot was fired in April when the Macintosh Platform Manager, who had publicly quarreled with manager A, suddenly disappeared. At a "town meeting" the next day, manager A announced that the Mac Platform Manager had been fired with no notice for reasons which would not be disclosed. Apparently the charge was sexual harrassment. This was almost certainly true (the man was a known letch) but there was also little doubt that this charge was a pretext - sexual harassment is a way of life for the fraternity of managers at the lab. The interim director had publicly complained that the lab would run better if all the Macs were traded in for IBM clones, and the friction was quite public. Tension at the lab was now building to a crescendo, while the two factions battled over the new director.

On the following Thursday, manager B was beaming. His candidate, an associate from Lockheed, had been named new director over the objections of both the interim director and manger A. It looked like manger A's ruthless campaign for the throne was in peril. But the next day another town meeting was called. In somber tones, manager A announced that manager B had been fired that morning during the last hours of the interim director's administration. It was especially ominous that A, who was B's peer and had no authority to fire him, was presiding over the funeral.

On the following Monday the new director appeared and presented himself to the crowd as a kindly grandfather who loved to swap fishing stories. The next day, however, the women in the office were up in arms - he had already touched one woman in an inappropriate way and reduced another to tears.

In the weeks that followed it became clear that the new director intended to prop his feet up on the desk, collect his six figure salary, and let manager A run things behind the scenes. He became something of a buffoon, regularly embarrassing himself with idiotic pronouncements that would later have to be retracted. His only decision was to remove the free Pepsi from the refrigerators and make us pay for it out of vending machines.

His most memorable episode occured when my boss called him in to inspect a problem. The director seemed distracted and then pointed to a whiteboard and said "What is that?" "I beg your pardon?" "What is that symbol on the board?" One of my co-workers explained it was just some college rivalry. Betsy had visited and left an "I" over a "U", the symbol for Indiana University. My co-worker, who had attended Purdue, drew a circle and bar across it to indicate anti-IU. The director was not amused, "That is a religious symbol!" he delcared. "I want it removed immediately!" He then began touring the building looking for other "inappropriate religious symbols."

A few weeks later, the final remaining manager on A's level suddenly announced he was leaving the lab to work at another firm. He gave two weeks notice, but was escorted off the premises the next day. This is standard lab procedure, but it was poignant in this case because the man was one of the founders of the lab and had a big part in its design. It was rumoured, however, that if hadn't jumped he would have been pushed, probably by his friend manager A.

Meanwhile, the consultants and technicians were growing restless. Belts were being tightened and techs were being let go with little or no warning. A glowing publicity photo of smiling, ethnically-balanced, lab-coated personnel appeared in several major magazines; the next day half the people in the picture were uncerimoniously dumped.

Things came to a head the next Friday when two temps, Gregorio and Mickey, were fired without warning and given five minutes to clear out. Mickey in particular was well-loved and had done a superb job in the mail room for five months. One of the techs wrote an angry memo in which he pointed out that the company asked them to give two week's notice, but regulary dumped its employees with such dispatch that co-workers rarely even got to say goodbye.

Mickey was a single mother squeaking by on a near-minimum wage job that was very important and which she did better than anyone had ever done. Given the thousands of dollars wasted on luxury suites and limosines was it really necessary to fire this lowly worker? And if so, after five months of loyal service, couldn't she have been given enough notice to at least say goodbye to her friends?

This letter was sent electronically to every desk in the building and within an hour an angry mob had assembled to hear the director's explanation. The director stood on a table and complained that no one had even told him about this and that he would get to the bottom of it. Mickey was hired back the next week.

As Spring turned into Summer people continued to trickle away, two or three a week like clockwork. Some were pushed and others jumped. Resumes began to clog the printers and tips on finding new jobs were brazenly posted on company bulletin boards. In yet another town meeting, the vice president, Beelzebub himself, announced the demise of two entire magazines. The new director seemed cheerful through all this, attending banquets and jetting around the country to tour other labs.

I may have been one of the last people to see him alive. I went to MacDonalds one afternoon for a quick bite and who should be standing next to me in line but the director himself. He invited me to join him and we chatted about the weather and the latest movie; he seemed uninterested in talking about work. When he found out I was a consultant he tried to convince me to hire on. I told him the company wanted to hire me but would only offer $15000 a year less than I was already making. He then tried to convince me the $15000 cut was worth it because of "job security."

He was fired the next week, again without warning. Once again the pretext was sexual harassment (he had used the word "hooters"). He had served a total of 70 days. But now the path was clear and after two years of mayhem, manager A was elevated and is now sitting, rather uncomfortably, on the throne.

And what have I been doing all this time? Writing memos. Back in March the rather slimey interim director began hatching a plot to get rid of the entire Oracle development team at the lab. We were told to drop everything and write a study defending our existence. This was supposedly done because the inventory software still didn't work. This was news to the people in the warehouse who had been using it for many months but we had still had to PROVE that it worked.

Muhi and Dino and I cranked out a full color report full of convincing charts and graphs while Mike, our boss, spured us on to make it as thick as possible. It was thick alright, but it did the job. We managed to turn the tide and win ourselves a stay of execution. All of this wasted a month of our time.

As a finale we had to put on a dog and pony show for Beelzebub himself. Beelzebub had only been in the building three or four times, and then stayed only long enough to fire someone, so when he suddenly announced he would be attending an afternoon-long presentation by the Oracle devlopment team we all swallowed hard.

It was a very long afternoon. All of us were in suits and ties while Beelzebub, dressed in casual attire, frowned up at us from his little chair in the center of the room. He knew nothing of what we did or why we did it, but it seemed to him that the entire inventory system and everything else on the drawing board could be done by a secretary with a spreadsheet.

He was a mean little man who clearly had never thanked anyone for anything. At one point, Dino almost lost it and began raising his voice, but on the whole we kept our cool. Mike was sweating bullets. Yes, mistakes were made. Yes, money was wasted. The problem was the high turnover of developers. But now we had a good team and should be permitted to continue. No one in the room wanted to discuss WHY there had been such a high turnover.

In any event, we were spared - at least until August first. Meanwhile, the job I was originally hired to do remains blocked. No work can be done on this project until a certain manager, universally acknowledged as the biggest butthead in the lab, writes the draft of a requirements document. He has made promises to provide this at least a half dozen times since March. At a recent meeting he informed me that he would not decide whether or not to delegate this task until at least August 20th. I have compiled a long report on the absurd history of this pseudo-project and written countless memos, all of them ignored. The chief culprit in the delay is the butthead's boss, none other than manager A, now the director of the lab.

So now I'm working on another project requested by a quiet and decent guy who is politically out of favor (manager A despises him). The project could be very important to the lab and would be quite challenging to build. My boss is (cautiously) behind it and I have been instructed to spend the summer designing it. The odds are, however, that after months of work my design will be scrapped.

Life at the lab is nothing if not instructive. Every day I learn something new about what people are capable of and what kind of things can go wrong in a mis-managed organization.

The primary lesson in these last few months has been that in an organization of any kind, nothing is more important than a sense of justice. A business has to make tough decisions to stay alive in a competitive marketplace. I have found that even people down in the trenches are willing to accept hardships, even there own firing, as long as they are treated with respect and as long as the decisions are, from SOME conceivable point of view, reasonable. If people believe their king (or queen) is just, they will follow him anywhere. But if the leadership is seen as inept, petty, shortsighted, and cruel, a terrible malaise sets in on every level. When this happens, doom is inevitable. As Lincoln observed, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

For the time being I am content to draw my salary and trudge ever deeper into the pit. I could be promoted or fired at any moment without warning or reason. I have long advocated the Norse ideal of Ragnorok, fighting on even with the foreknowledge of certain defeat. We are all just sparks in the wind, after all. But this summer's task of designing ships that will never sail puts me to the test.