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Posts Tagged ‘officework’

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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