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Posts Tagged ‘officework’

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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I’ve hired – or helped to hire – at least half a dozen people. However, so far, I’ve only been involved in one firing. If I’m lucky, I won’t be involved in any others. The one experience, when I did the company’s dirty work was abrupt and needlessly brutal, and I remain embarrassed by my acquiescence to it eight years later.

The setting was a small startup in Vancouver, the person fired a young programmer on his first job. He was a bit brash, a bit too eager to fit in with the other programmers in the company, and prone to carelessness, but nothing out of the ordinary for a young man on his first job.

Perhaps, too, his coding skills weren’t quite up to professional standards. But he was willing to work for the low wages offered, and tremendously excited to be working with free software – we all were.

Over the few months he was at the company, I noticed that he was gradually developing the necessary working habits, and I was starting to become convinced that he would develop into a useful employee with a little more time.

The trouble was, a startup isn’t the place to learn working skills. At the best of times, a startup is a rough and ready sort of place, and this was the Dot-Com Era, which made the company even more giddy than most in their first few months. People were doing things like sleeping overnight in the boxes the file cabinets arrived in – not because what they were doing was essential, but because they wanted to plunge into the whole Dot-Com experience.

Add to the fact that I was one of only two managers and we were both learning management, and running frequently to the parent company downstairs, and it wasn’t exactly a place for mentoring new workers.

Whatever the case, one day another developer reported that the newbie had been caught trying to hack into the company’s user accounts. In that milieu, the offense seemed a peccadillo, especially since the newbie pleaded that he was only trying to find information that he needed to complete his own work when an account owner wasn’t around.

However, that wasn’t how the HR manager from the parent company viewed the incident. He’d served in the Israeli army as a volunteer, and his military attitude, combined with the sense of his own righteousness, had him springing into action as soon as he heard the story. He hauled the newbie in for interrogation around 10AM, and – presumably after consulting with the owners – fired him not long after.

The first I heard of the story was when the HR manager asked me to clean out the newbie’s desk; he obviously thought the newbie capable of anything up to and including taking his computer and chair with him.
Looking around, I could see that the developer who reported the incident was regretting having done so, and that none of the other developers thought the incident very important, either. But I lacked the confidence to register my own protest, and maybe the HR manager’s grimness as he stood there, bald-headed and scowling and with his arms folded, was a little contagious.

As for the newbie, what he had expected in the way of consequences, being fired wasn’t among his expectations. He looked as though someone had hit him hard on the head and he was still recovering.
Eight months before, I had been laid off myself, so I empathized with the newbie. But then, when I was teaching, I’d always hesitated before giving a D or an F, so no doubt some people would say I was too tender-hearted. But, in this case, genuine doubt seemed to exist, and I was certain it wasn’t being heard. And even if he was as malicious as claimed, he still deserved to be heard in full before

I wanted to call for more discussion. I wanted to take the newbie aside and slip him my card, and whisper that I would help him with a search for a new job. But I was unprepared, and lacking the confidence in my new role to do either of these things. Instead, I went along with the HR manager, removing item from the desk and solemnly asking the newbie whether each one was his before dropping it in the box, while the HR manager stood sentry and another person from the parent company cordoned off the area. Possibly, I was more embarrassed than the newbie, who still didn’t seem to understand what was happening.

Somehow, I made it through that ordeal. But I never felt quite the same about the company afterwards, let alone the HR manager. I was condemning them, of course, instead of condemning myself for not doing things the right way. A few months later, the episode became one of many that made me decide to quit – an easy decision, since I had realized that the company was going nowhere (and, in fact, it failed within the year).

The next time an arbitrary firing was in the works, I’m proud to say, I did take a stand, and helped to prevent it. But I still remember the first experience with shame – and that shame would stand, even had I known that the newbie was as dastardly as claimed. I’ve never liked having power over other people – or them having power over me – and the episode was as obvious a case of abuse of power as any I’ve seen. And although the others involved in it have probably long ago forgot the incident, it remains with me as an example of a time when I didn’t live up to my own image of myself.

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In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, I read yet another article suggesting that if you work from home, you should dress for important calls as though you were at the office. The idea is that this bit of role-playing will help you to focus on the business at hand and act more professionally.

Well, whatever works. I suppose. But I know that such role-playing doesn’t help me one bit.

Whenever I try such a suggestion, instead of being focused, I’m distracted by the falsity of what I’m doing. Like pretending to agree when I have reservations, or to be in a good mood when I want to dig a hole and fling myself in, dressing for a phone call feels forced and pointless to me. Such efforts do me more harm than good, because I keep thinking I’m being a phony instead of concentrating on the business at hand.

As a result, after trying to play dressup once or twice, I quickly gave up bothering. Now, I happily take calls in my usually working attire: a T-shirt, shorts, and bare feet. A sentence or two into a call, I’m too busy thinking about the issue at hand to waste any worry on what I’m wearing.

Business experts who echo each other on this subject (I’d say “parrot” except that, as the owner of four, I know that they don’t say things mindlessly) would probably say no good could come of my casualness. Yet I think the record speaks for itself. In my casual but sublime outfit, I’ve successfully negotiated the price of a series of ads. I’ve arranged bundling deals for commercial software. I’ve aced job interviews. I’ve successfully interviewed leaders of the free software movement, as well as countless managers and CEOs of national and international corporations. Not one of these people — who must amount to several hundred people over the past eight years — has ever complained that I was anything less than professional and competent.

Under the circumstances, I fail to see why I should spend time ironing a shirt and pants or knotting a tie before a professional call. I could better use my pre-time call making notes of the points I want to cover, or drinking a cup of peppermint tea to help calm myself as I think about strategies.

It would be another story, of course, if I were doing a visual teleconference. But I think that, although the technology for such conferences is now more or less ready, there’s a reason why the idea has never caught on since I first saw a demo as a four year-old-child: few people really want such a thing. Given a choice, most of us, I think, prefer dressing or sitting comfortably while we talk on the phone to whatever minor advantages being seen might confer. Not worrying about such trivialities as our clothes help us to concentrate on what really matters in our telecommuting calls.

That’s not to say that some people might not find dressing up for a call is helpful. I’ve seen too much to believe that everybody responds the same way, so I expect there are people who find that putting on a suit and tie or a pair of nylons helps them when they take business calls from home.

Yet, at the same time, don’t feel that dressing up is compulsory, or a piece of magic that will automatically work for you. In some cases, the effort may only be a distraction.

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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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