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Archive for the ‘officework’ Category

It is impossible to experience deja-vu for the first time.
I reckon the first time you experience deja-vu must be the second.

– Les Barker

These days, I can’t go to a networking event without meeting at least two or three people who are hoping to start their own high-tech business. Taking “Web 2.0” and “social networking” as their personal mantras, these contacts sound eerily like throwbacks to the dot-com boom. Enough time has passed, I suppose, for people to forget the lessons of that first infatuation with technology. As a survivor of that first era, I could tell them a thing or two, but mostly, I don’t bother. They wouldn’t thank me.

If the old dream was just about quick money, then the whole things wouldn’t be so painful. Most of the dreamers are going to fail, and that’s a lesson that can hurt, but can be valuable. If you find that your thirty thousand stock options are worthless in one company, you can always do what I did, and get another thirty thousand from your next company, continuing the process until reality sets it. You learn about persistence, and eventually you learn that hard-slogging work pays in smaller but more reliable returns – both useful lessons.

But, just like the dot-commers, the Web 2.0 generation isn’t only concerned about money. Most of its members would happily settle for survival as the owners of their own small business. Still more are attracted by being involved with something larger than their selves, for experiencing the sense of belonging that comes with being involved in the biggest trends of the era. And it’s this sense of purpose that is likely to shatter on the pavement when reality sweeps their feet out from underneath them.

Take me, for instance. My first dot-com startup, the pay was three-quarters of what I had been earning as a consultant. I never did believe – not really – that the company would go public and my stock options would let me retire. What concerned me was that we (and it says something about the spirit of the times that, for a non-team player like me, there was a “we”) were going to change computing by introducing GNU/Linux to the world.

Moreover, as the first non-developer hired by the company, I was playing a leading role (maybe theleading role in my own mind) in making that dream a reality, cutting bundling deals, hammering out a features list, going over legal contracts and licenses and discovering all the other thousand and one things needed to bring a product to market.

My second company offered much the same – only better, because this time I was working with big names in the field and being flown across the continent for the sake of my expertise.

Was I self-important to the point of blindness? No question. But other parts of my life were at an absolute nadir, and the dream gave some desperately needed meaning. It’s because I remember that desperation that I don’t want to spoil things too much for this next generation of dreamers. Let them dream while they can.

Of course, if they did ask, I would warn them that being tipsy with meaning doesn’t mean that they should abandon common sense. Half-intoxicated as I was, I never could see why those around me were working long extra hours when they didn’t need to, or sleeping in the cardboard boxes that file cabinets came in, just so they could have the full experience (in the same spirit, many line up for hours for tickets or Boxing Day Sales – not out of necessity but because they don’t want to miss the excitement). Nor could I see the point of those who hung on after I left, working for half pay and then deferred pay, or staying loyal before they were laid off. Too many dot-commers forgot in their quest for personal meaning that business remains business, and my only personal claim to foresight is that I twice remembered that simple fact and ejected before the crash came.

If asked, I would also tell them about my post-dot-com survival, about how, after feeling yourself in the avant-garde, laboring to produce dull and sensible things that people actually want to buy seems pointless and bland. And if you once believed that you were not only in the avant-garde, but leading it, then life in an ordinary office under managers and executives who know no more – and sometimes less – than you do becomes simply an exercise in sustained frustration. I would warn them that their experiments with meaning and work will make them unfit for anything else except becoming consultants in their own small business.

Not that this role is an unsatisfying one – far from it, I would say. After all, iit’s the one that I chose. But unless what you really want is not just purpose, but control of your life, it would be cruel to encourage anyone down this twice-trodden path. You’ll only be disappointed and unhappy, unless you are one of that handful who truly wants that direction in life, one of those for whom the boom-gone-to bust (and it always goes to bust sooner or later, believe me) means a hard-won chunk of satisfaction.

Like I said, I could tell this new generation of dreams these things, but they wouldn’t appreciate hearing them. So I try not to intrude on their dreams, and smile fondly as I hear their excited talk of commitment.

Goddammed kids with goddammed stars in their eyes. I hope they enjoy the roller coaster, and appreciate the ride when they stagger away.

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At this time of year, newspapers are full of stories about how to act – or not act – at office parties. As I skim them, I reflect with satisfaction that I have a good chance of never attending another office party, whether for Christmas or anything else. Off-hand, I can’t think of a more unnatural and contrived effort at celebration.

Even though most of my adult life I’ve been a consultant, I’ve seen my share of them. And most office parties are grim affairs. At best, they’re full of quiet desperation. When you are used to relating to people at work, trying to relate to them socially can be an abrupt switch – except, of course, for those who are at least friendly enough to go out to lunch with.

The awkwardness is compounded by the efforts of supervisors and staff to interact, and, in high-tech by the lack of social skills possessed by the average developer. Most people spend their time standing around uncertainly, staying only because, no matter how dreary the party may be, it’s marginally more interesting than doing their jobs.

And that’s at the best of office parties. I’ve seen companies where the human resources staff literally hunted people through the hallways, dragging them out of their offices and the washrooms where they’ve gone to ground.

Sometimes, the blame for the average office party lies in the hands of company officers or owners. Full of their own magnanimity at giving the staff a treat, they overlook how little people are enjoying themselves. I remember at one company, the owner ordered pizza every Tuesday night, only to find that much of his order was going to waste. Finally, he thought to ask his staff. I’ll never forget his stricken look when he realized that the employees thought of pizza night as a duty, rather than an enjoyable experience.

However, most of the blame belongs to human resources. Somewhere in the last few decades, the idea has taken hold that human resources staff don’t just hire and fire and take care of benefits. No – they also have to be Club Med entertainment directors.

They run around organizing birthday parties and fun events like bowling in the hallway, ring-tosses, and singalongs, and pressganging people into activities that are meant to break the ice (but really only unite people in their common embarrassment). All the while, they have a bounce in their steps and a perky smile on their face because they like organizing people and are in their element.

“You just know she was in the pep club in high school,” one fellow sufferer muttered to me as we endured one HR director’s efforts to organize teams for Pictionary. I remember looking at the director running around and thinking: What’s the use of growing older if you still have to hop around like a demented robin?

By far the worst of these human resources efforts was at a small software company that had been working non-stop for several months to finish a project. The overtime was so constant that, if everyone had been paid by the hour, the cost of the project would easily have doubled. To make matters worse, the project was done during the best weather of the year.

Dimly sensing that the staff had been pushed to its limits, the company officers announced they were renting a night club for the evening. Considering that the lead programmer on the project was a devout Moslem (which everyone knew, because he prayed several times a day in his cubicle), the idea was tactless – he not only didn’t drink, but wouldn’t enter a night club. Yet, without him, the project would never have been finished. You could almost hear the silence as people looked around in embarrassment at the meeting to announce the party.

Then, a voice from the back (mine) asked, “Can I have his drink tickets?”

But even with free drink tickets, nobody wanted to go. They’d had enough and wanted to go home at the end of the day for once. I wouldn’t have cared much myself, since as a consultant I got paid by the hour, except that I didn’t think I could bill for the party.

Embarrassed, the company officers changed the event to a Friday afternoon. Still, nobody signed up, despite repeated emails. Come the day, the human resources manager rounded us up like an obsessive-compulsive sheep dog, and herded us over to the night club. We made a concerted rush for the bar, downed our three free drinks – and, at quitting time, three-quarters of us left in such unison that you would have thought we had planned our escape beforehand.

Every now and again, people ask if I feel lonely working from home. But I only have to think of these situations to realize that, if I occasionally am, there are compensations, too. I’ve done my time pit-lamped like a stunned deer under the gaze of an HR manager determined that I’ll have a good time and be grateful, and I have no intention of being in that situation again.

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“I wish people would come to work with enthusiasm,” the CEO said to me, looking up from his copy of From Good to Great. “I really wish they showed some passion.” His voice was a mixture of puzzlement, longing, and frustration that could only come from a man wondering why the rest of the world wasn’t more like him.

The statement shouldn’t have caught me as unprepared as it did. As a communications consultant, I didn’t even show on the organizational chart, but I’d noted before that executives often feel free to confide in a consultant in a way they’d never consider with an employee. Besides, we were sharing an office until the company could take over more space on the same floor, and it was a hot Friday afternoon, a time when even the most gung-ho company officer takes off his jacket and feels conversational.

All the same, the statement left me dumbfounded for a minute. What I wanted to say was, “You mean you really don’t know?” But I settled for something non-committal and corporate about teams taking time to build. After all, consultants may have more freedom than employees, but wise ones learn to temper that freedom with discretion.

Besides, the fact he could express the wish — and the puzzlement behind it — made all too clear that he didn’t know how much he was responsible for the lack of enthusiasm.

You see, the CEO in question had been recruited by the board of directors to make the company profitable. And he had done everything he could from a business end to achieve that goal, finding new markets and products, and developing business intelligence about the company’s industry and local business. However, what he had forgot was his responsibility for morale.

Frankly, it couldn’t have been worse.

The CEO had come in six months ago, and quickly proceeded to cut a third of the staff. About a month ago, he had done the same again, and anyone who could read a balance sheet and his worried glance could tell that another staff reduction was due in the future.

All these cuts made sense from a bottom line perspective, but they left employees uncertain. The stress was even greater because he had closed a branch office after promising to keep it open, and fired everyone who wasn’t willing to relocate to headquarters.

Moreover, even at headquarters, he had laid off people with no regard to their roles within the company. As a result, the survivors were not only wondering when the axe would fall on them, but having to cope with a sudden loss of a lot of unwritten knowledge because key people were gone. In other words, not only was morale so low that the photocopy machine was starting to jam from the rush of resumes, but the company had become less functional because of the cuts.

Then, just to make matters worse, having just read Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Lou Gerstner’s biography of his days at IBM, the CEO was inspired to hold retreats for those he designated key personnel. These chosen few were given free copies of various best-selling business books, and invited to spend a day or two at a resort discussing the contents.

But what might have worked in a mega-corporation like IBM, where a few absences across the country would barely be noticed, only served in the CEO’s small company to make make three-quarters of the company feel under-privileged and insulted. Several of the elite didn’t feel especially honored, either, since what they really wanted to do was get on with their work.

And, after all this, what did the CEO do at Christmas? Cancel the company party, and, on Christmas Eve, leave at 11AM without telling the staff they could do the same (most left anyway by 1PM).

Looking back, I’m pleased at my restraint when the CEO wished for a dedicated work force. He wasn’t a stupid man, yet he had no idea that he couldn’t have ground morale into the dirt more effectively if he had been deliberately tried to do so. Busy satisfying the board that he was containing costs, he forgot that, if he wanted dedication and respect, he also needed to show some loyalty and support for his employees. And, really, considering all his long hours trying to turn the company around, I couldn’t tell him what was wrong or the aspects of business that he was neglecting without mortally insulting him.

The company still exists, but it’s only a remnant of what it was in my time. Despite a couple of modestly profitable quarters, it continues to show regular losses, and the same CEO still heads it. I’ve never revisited, but I sometimes wonder if he’s ever figured out what puzzled him, or simply bemoans the difficulty in attracting loyal personnel.

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Tomorrow, the last computer in the house with a floppy drive goes to Free Geek for recycling. An era in computing is officially over for me.

Actually, the era was over several years ago. Even four years ago, when I bought my last computer, I thought twice about bothering with a floppy drive. Nor do I think that I’ve use the drive any time in the last two years, nor even more than once or twice in the year before that. I’d already converted to flash drives, and only the free-spending, why-not attitude that comes when you’re making a large purchase made me get a floppy drive in the first place, on the remote chance that I might need it.

I didn’t, really. When I looked through the nearly two decades’ worth of floppies that I’d accumulated, I found all of them working — unsurprisingly, since I take good care of my storage media. But I hadn’t used them for anything except a quick means of transferring files with older computers for eight or nine years, and they had nothing that I couldn’t do without.

Back when I got my first computer, getting three and a half inch floppies had seemed like a cutting edge idea. Even the person from whom I bought thought that five and a quarter floppies would be more sensible. But I figured that disks that were not only smaller and more rugged but boasted twice the capacity — a whole 720k! — was the wave of the future.

I was right, of course, and smug about it. At first, I did have difficulties when buying programs (this was back when free software consisted of emacs and not much else). At least once, I carried disks to Kwantlen College where I was a sessional instructor, so I could take advantage of the different size drives in my office to copy programs into a format that my computer at home could use. Yet, before I’d had the computer a year, the larger sized floppies started to disappear.

Then for years, floppies were my main source of backup. I remember how strange it seemed when floppies started coming in black, and then even colors. And, while at first the differences in quality between name brands like Sony and cheaper brands were obvious, it soon disappeared.

After a few years, too, 720k no longer seemed as large. In rapid succession, I switched to syquest drives, then CDs. Eventually, I moved to DVDs and an external hard drive for backup. The prices started falling on floppies, and so did the amount of shelf space they took up. The last time I happened to notice, floppies were selling ten for six dollars. Yet I remember a time when thirty dollars seemed a good price for a name brand collection of ten.

In a way, I suppose the fact that you can buy floppies at all is a testimony to the force of habit. Even my smallest flashdrive has over three hundred times the capacity of a standard floppy — the 1.44 megabytes ones having never really caught on. They’ve been yesterday’s technology for a lot of yesterdays.

I don’t get nostalgic for hardware, although it’s a good piece of historical trivia for fiction to recall that a single floppy was once considered the storage necessary for the average popular novel. Even when I name our cars, it’s more a joke than any sign of affection. Still, the end of my personal floppy era is another milestone in the passage of time, just as the moment when I realized that the IBM Selectric that I bought with a small inheritance from my grandfather was obsolete.

Come to think of it, I still have that squirreled away on the top shelf of the closet in the spare room. My reasoning, I think, was that I’d have a backup if the computer failed. Of course, exactly how I thought an electric typewriter would be of any use when I couldn’t use a computer is a mystery, considering that most of those circumstances would involve a loss of power. So, I suppose the next bit of housecleaning is to haul that piece of scrap iron away.

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A meaningless Labour Day is still strange to me. For years, as a student and English instructor, it marked the start of a new school year, or at least of a new semester. Then, when I worked in an office, it marked the end of casual summer wear and a return to seriousness – suddenly, all the promises to do something in the Fall came due. But now, working from home with an unvarying workload, it means very little except some quiet mornings when I go for my morning run. I didn’t even take a full day off, although I worked lightly, and got caught up on a few housekeeping chores such as sending out invoices.

It didn’t use to be like that. When I was growing up, Labour Day always came with a sense of disruption as much as regret. I always felt that I caught a rhythm in the summer holidays, filling my days with par three golf and bicycle riding, and that I was on the verge of some mental breakthrough that would be lost forever when I returned to school.

Later, at university, Labour Day marked the end of my labour. Thanks to my father, I was lucky enough to have a well-paying summer job that, together with scholarships, would keep me funded through two semesters of study. I was grateful, knowing how scarce such jobs were, but the work was unrelievedly boring.

Mostly, it consisted of repetitive jobs, such as assembling roof racks for telephone repair trucks, or drilling half a dozen holes in each of thousands of stakes for some purpose I never learned. One summer, I did enjoy building crates for equipment, which required some independent judgement, but, even that year, I was grateful to flee back to the comfort of university. Although such work told me that I was not the total klutz I had learned to believe, growing up left-handed, it also convinced me that I wasn’t going to do manual labor when I was an adult, no matter how highly paid I might be.

Twelve years of high school followed by five at university is more than enough time for conditioning to set in. Yet, as important as Labour Day was in those years, it became even more important when I started working as a teaching assistant and university instructor. In both positions, I was hired by the semester, and, often, I would only hear about my teaching appointments a few days before I had to step into the class room. Once, I actually only heard on the evening of Labour Day. So, in this period of my life, the Labour Day weekend became for me, not one last chance to get away while the weather was still good, but the point when my immediate financial future was determined, and, if I was lucky, a sleepless frenzy of preparation.

At night on Labour Day, I would fall asleep tense with anticipation, wondering how my lessons would be received and what students might be in my classes. Would any of the students with whom I’d had a rapport in previous semesters be there? Any of the occasional troublemakers? Any mature students, who often did so much to raise the level of class discussion?

Since about half my teaching was composition (and, even at that, I was luckier than the average sessional instructor), I knew that many would be fresh out of high school. I knew, too, that many, including scholarship students, would be overwhelmed by the sudden independence of university and have much to learn before they could write a university essay. Some would be shocked, and probably cry. Some would learn to love the responsibility and blossom. Either way, I would be one of those trying to help them adjust, and I would lie awake wondering if I was up to the challenge.

Labour Day changed yet again when I left academia. In business offices, it was marked by a sudden outbursts of suits for the men and stockings and heels for the women. The same people who hung on my office door talking when I was trying to work would suddenly be full of brisk purpose, striding around with a determination that left me feeling jet-lagged.

Throughout these years, I always thought that Labour Day would make a better New Year’s Day than January 1. Unlike January 1, it was a day when people’s lives really did change. But this morning, running through the rain and noticing the long line ups for the bus and the near gridlock on the roads, the most interest I could mutter was a vague interest in what was occupying other minds. I returned home happily to bathe and sit down to the keyboard, thinking myself well out of the post-Labour Day grind.

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For the past couple of weeks, I have been setting up my new laptop. It’s a challenge, since a number of items – the wireless card, the LightScribe capacity on the DVD drive, the webcam and the modem – are not supported straight off the CD with GNU/Linux. I’m frustrated that I don’t have the time to sit down and focus on each of these puzzles. However, I find that after eight years of using GNU/Linux, my attitude to these puzzles has changed.

Understand, I am an English major by education, and my technical knowledge is what I’ve picked up as needed. Moreover, I get bored by puzzles for their own sake – one reason I’ve never applied to MENSA (another is that one of the first members I met died because his pride in his own intelligence made him careless, but that’s another story). So, by training and temperament, I should be disliking the slow setup of the laptop immensely, especially since it’s compounded by my decision to use the Fedora version of the operating system, rather than the Debian one with which I’m most familiar.

Instead, I find myself unusually patient. Strangely enough, I actually look forward to approaching each problem, trying out ideas on my own, then scanning the Internet for possible solutions and patiently trying them one at a time. And, when I solve a problem (I’m now working on the third one), I have a small sense of triumph.

What’s changed me, I’m convinced, is using GNU/Linux. Unlike Windows or OS X, GNU/Linux assumes that you want to do things your way, and provides dozens of options for you, even from the desktop. If you need help, many programs have detailed help pages in one format or the other. So, naturally, if you’re the least bit curious, you can’t help starting to poke around. For some one like me, who is in Pandora’s league when it comes to curiosity, the temptation is constant and irresistible.

Besides, what choice do I have when something goes wrong or isn’t to my liking? I don’t use a commercial version of GNU/Linux, so I have no technical support to step me through solutions. If I go to a computer store, I’m lucky to find a clerk who has even heard of something called Linux, let alone Debian or Fedora. I can ask advice on mail forums, or search for helpful lines of investigation, but, in the end, I am left to experiment methodically.

This sort of patient trial and error is what developers call hacking (and, no, it has nothing to do with breaking into other people’s computers – that’s called cracking, to the initiated). Since my programming skills are laughable and I’ve never identified as a developer, the realization that I’ve picked up the habit and even learned to like it is somewhat disconcerting.

For years, I have made a living interpreting geeks to other people – and sometimes the other way around. But now I have to reassess myself. Maybe I’m a geek after all.

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Achievement statements are a way of listing your expertise on a resume to attract a readers’ attention. They are small case-studies, really, that show-case both your skills and your effectiveness. They’re ideal for those with too wide a variety of experience to fit comfortably on a few pages, and probably more likely to tempt a reader to look at your resume carefully. At worst, their novelty makes them interesting. At best, they state very clearly what you have to offer.

If you decide to use achievement statements, divide a sheet of paper or a text file in a word processor into three columns. Label these columns “What,” “How,” and “Results.”
Then think of things you’ve done that have made you happy or proud. Ideally, these accomplishments should be about business, but you should also consider events connected with family, school, or volunteer activities, especially if they highlight a desirable trait that might help you to get hired.

For each accomplishment, state what you have done in the What column. To keep the statement short, start with the past participle of a strong verb (for instance, “created” or “organized.” Then summarize what the accomplishment consisted of.

Then, in the How column, write what you did in order to achieve the accomplishment. Again, use the past participles of strong verbs.

Finally, in the Results column, use the same structure to explain what happened as the result of your efforts. In many ways, this column is the most important part, because well, it suggests reasons why someone reading your resume might want to hire you. At the very least, it gives readers and interviewers a point in your favor about which they might want to ask more details.

For these reasons, make your results as specific as possible. For example, giving figures where possible is more effective than a general statement. Readers are going to be more impressed by “increased sales 65%” rather than just “increased sales.” Sometimes, though, you won’t have the figures, and have to make do with what you have.

Then repeat this process for each accomplishment that occurs to you. If you can get a colllection of twenty or thirty, you’ll have all the statements you need to match them to any job for which you are likely to reply.

Some finished achievement statements from my own resume preparations:

  • Consulted on policy decisions as Contributing Editor by senior editors at one of top 3 Linux magazines. Wrote two regular columns, technical articles and reviews; advised on individual issues and articles. Results: Wrote 4-6 pages per issue of 90 page magazine. Magazine increased circulation by 56% in 8 months.
  • Set direction of first software product for startup company. Researched and wrote competitive analyses; set feature list; created branding campaign. Results: Company met production deadline with a competitive product. Company praised for its advertising and corporate philosophy by reviewers and customers.
  • Corrected serious flaws in a company’s first software product. Found flaws while installing software at home; explained problems to company principles; prevented new employee from becoming scapegoat; coordinated emergency effort to correct problem over Christmas. Results: Problem corrected before product shipped. Company avoided sales loss due to negative publicity. QA and programming work methods revised.
  • Negotiated bundling deals for retail product. Researched potential partners; discussed terms with third parties; advised lawyer on licensing issues and contract terms. Results: Product’s appeal enhanced and remained within budget per unit.
  • Developed and supervised branding campaign for new company and first software product. Originated concept; worked with design company; planned ad placement; negotiated ad rates; planned trade fair activities; liaised with customer base, partners ,& media; wrote ad copy, newsletters, and public statements. Results: In 4 months, company was regularly regarded by media as one of top 6 in a field of 20 companies.
  • You can place five or six of these achievement statements on the front page of your resume, with your work experience on the second page. If you choose the statements well, not only will readers have read a page of your resume – an investment of time that will encourage them to read the rest – but, before they have read the details of your career, they will be thinking of you according to the perspectives that you have chosen – and that can’t hurt in any job-hunting situation.

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