A Work Life (part 4, the end)

It can be said that there is no pain like grief, whether it be a loved one or a career.  Of course, the pain of a lost career is significantly less than a loved one, but it hurts nonetheless.  Adding to my misery on several levels, was being offered the option of hourly work as a contractor consultant.  That would seem like a positive, and it was financially, but I watched as everyone else was sent packing.  Further, since the company was divesting itself of all its assets, I got to participate in the “garage sale” of equipment I had labored to acquire and configure into something that kept the company solvent.  All that hard work lost, and worse, all those careers jettisoned because of a funding cut.

Before the office door clicked shut for the last time and ended my career as a full-time salaried worker, I entered the quantum reality of self-employment.  I stuck around the old office to monitor the last of the assets being bought and hauled away by those with futures much brighter than my own. Some six years later, I continue to fight the self-employment battle. I’d love to find full-time work, but the work environment has changed. People my age are being shown the exits, not the entrance. Experience is not worth paper certificates. I’ve been told my degree means nothing because technology has changed. Work ethic can’t compete against low wages.

However, I try to stay positive, keep up with trends, and seek knowledge from the fire-hose of information that is today’s Internet. As long as I can stay ahead of the train of mental and physical obsolescence, I still see a future of possibilities, not regrets. Does that make me deluded? Perhaps, but I leave “dining on ashes” to those who have stopped living.

A Work Life (part 3)

One other aspect of small office work is that the environment is subject to the whims of the boss.  I imagine in a layered corporate structure, with lots of managers, supervisor behavior is constrained by what the company is willing to tolerate.  Oversight and accountability, though not what it once was, will work against (though not prevent) megalomaniac and sociopathic tendencies.  I might be entirely wrong on that, but I do know that in a small office environment there is very little to keep the boss (particularly when the boss is also the owner/president) from transforming the company into a purgatory reflective of their personality.  That is not to say that all small office bosses are little Hitler’s, rather what they like or don’t like is often reflected in the work environment, for better or for worse.  I think, in the grand scheme of things, I lucked out.  My boss was super intelligent, very witty, and ultimately committed to doing the right thing for his employees.

Even so, learning the ins and outs of your boss’s quirks and/or traits is a necessity.  You must discover what you can talk to them about, and what to avoid.  For example, I learned very quickly to avoid anything that smacked of hyperbole, as that was the equivalent of lying.  However, I also learned to appreciate an off-center sense of humor, something I share as well.  Finding commonalities with people is key to getting along with them.  You will always have differences with people, but don’t let that dominate.  You might share a hobby, have similar family structures, or common interests.  Of course, there are topics to avoid throwing out there – like politics, religion, and extremely personal information. The other aspect to avoid is cliques (probably less of an issue in the small office than large), and the malignancy of egocentric sociopaths.  I have witnessed folks who felt as if the rules didn’t apply to them, and tried to recruit others to be the same way.  That is a train wreck waiting to happen.

I’m certain that other folks have found that much of what they learned in college didn’t translate very well into the work environment, at least initially.  My background in computer science was a lot more theory than application, which didn’t help when I first started working with the computers in the office.  However, being curious and willing to stretch myself intellectually helped the transition.  Later, as I got into working on reports, particularly those that talked about computer technology, the theory information I learned in school had a lot of applicability.  Virtually everything I learned had use at some level, though sometimes I had to stretch to find it.

I could go on and on about what I did in my full-time career, but I won’t. What I want to touch on, is another pitfall of a small business career, which is, sometimes the job doesn’t end, but the company does.  Sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me.  The company I worked for had a few contracts to provide support to various agencies (all within the government).  When all those contracts stayed fully funded and stable, everyone had plenty of work, and the company remained flush with cash.  The problem is that when the dynamics change, the wiggle room and flexibility a small business has becomes a liability.  Case in point, the company began shedding contracts, about the time that the Iraq war and resulting insurgency began devouring more and more of the government’s spending.  Mega-sized corporation swept in to gobble up available funds, particularly those earmarked for research and development (R&D).  That is where trouble began, not that the corporate vultures weren’t already circling, but they certainly got more aggressive.

Money vanished into the maw of two wars; immediate needs clearly outweighed doing anything that wouldn’t see the battlefield in 15 to 20 years.  DoD got out of the business of inventing and switched to using technology, trying desperately to find something to stop legs and arms from being blown off in Iraq.  All this was noble and worthwhile, but also short-sighted and unsustainable for a military that is dedicated to using advanced technology to allow our smaller military to be superior to those of our enemies.

If that sounds like gobbly-gook, then I apologize.  But the long story short is that money meant for research, the pot of money that kept Orion going, was disappearing into a sinkhole.  And before long, the money was gone.  And with it, went the future of Orion.  Curiously though, the contract I worked on did not disappear, but it could not sustain the rest of the company.  So, as I watched, the company switched to 60 percent pay (including myself), and within the year, the money from the other contracts that kept the company viable, ran out.  In March of 2011, Orion closed its doors, and everyone was let go, including me.

A Work Life (part 2)

Working at Orion cured me of several bad habits, foremost was bad writing.  The absolute need for technical specificity (say that three times fast) put my brain into overload, and forced me to expand my vocabulary to include a wide range of scientific and technology terms and definitions.  It was an education, no doubt about that.  Adding to this, the progression of technology, capabilities, and conundrums (see, I can do alliteration) forced me to learn as I went, usually by spending time in bookstores and spending lots of non-existent cash on books and magazines to stay current.  I found libraries to be less than useful as the rate at which computer technology was changing outstripped their ability to stock current materials.

Though I played the part of “CIO”, I had no expense account or decision-making authority that went with it.  Part of that was due to my unofficial CIO status, and the other part was due to corporate culture.  Now, I guess I should touch on what it is like to work in a small office.  Having never worked in a private sector office before, I slid into my position at Orion with no concept of office politics, or personnel relations.  Some years removed from Orion’s small office work environment, I’m not sure if the lessons I learned (or failed to learn) translate at all into a large office. However, I did learn some valuable lessons.

  • First, be sure to alienate no one – I’m sure anyone who works in an office already knows that, but in a small office, if you manage to piss someone off, you’re guaranteed to have daily awkward moments when you cohabitate in small quarters. Perhaps in a large organization, you can ostracize Joe in shipping, but when it is someone you deal with daily, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
  • Second, which follows on from the first, is be humble, and prepare to be humbled. Someone is always smarter than you, and sometimes the number of people who qualify is sizable.  Observe them, see what they are doing right, and be prepared to imitate.  It might be the sincerest form of flattery, or hypocrisy, but often it is a way to find success when your native efforts aren’t good enough.
  • Third, when you make mistakes, always apologize, even if whatever happened is not your fault. Mistakes happen, people get their feet stepped on, or worse, end up doing more than they should to pull your nuts out of the fire.  Learn to enjoy the taste of crow – sautéed in garlic is supposed to be tasty, or so I’ve heard.
  • Fourth, deal with people directly without involving the boss. Nothing creates toxicity faster than being pegged as a stool pigeon for management.  Thankfully, despite my many flaws, I never stooped to that, but I certainly felt the sting that comes with being on the receiving end of such treatment.  Not fun.
  • Fifth, cultivate openness, interest, and empathy with those you interact with. This aspect was (is) always my most difficult challenge, which I never fully mastered.  Of those that ran to the boss to complain about me, it was most likely my inability to listen and be empathetic that engendered that reaction.  If a co-worker gets the idea you don’t care about issues they are having with you, they are likely to do an end-run.  In those instances, where I was the guilty party, I don’t blame folks for tossing my nuggets into the corporate frying pan.
  • The sixth lesson is be honest even when it doesn’t make you look good. Hiding crap, ducking responsibility, and lying are toxic and will come back to bite you, and the company big time.  Plus, like Twain said, “Always tell the truth, then you’ll have less to remember.”  As I get older, I see that as a necessity.  Maybe that is why some of the most honest people out there are also the oldest.

I hope that I was a decent co-worker, but I knew that sometimes I was not.  I did try to be helpful, to fix things, and give my best effort.  Sometimes that wasn’t good enough, but in the long run, I believe I did more things right than wrong.  Some may dispute that, and I would not judge them harshly for it.  We are all human, and all make mistakes.

A Work Life (part 1)

Once upon a time, I did have a viable career, as the IT guru of a small company.  And when I say small, I do mean small – never more than 8 employees.  We did management consulting, which always invokes a puzzled look, as no one knows what that means.  You probably don’t either, so let me explain in a way that is not long-winded.  Management consulting is basically a job of being a go-between management and technical experts, handling questions and concerns, translating bureaucratic/techno-geek-speak into something the other party can understand.  It is a complicated and nuanced job straddling two cultures that often talk past each other.  Adding to the complexity is trying to balance everyone’s wants and needs.  Anyway, that is what the company did, and how I started as a jack of all trades, and one could argue, a master of none (which is probably an unfair statement, even for me).

When I started at Orion, back in “the day” (meaning the Jurassic age before the Internet became du jour, and Google and Facebook-owned everyone’s identities), we had three or four PCs, none of which were networked, and suitable only for basic word-processing.  There was also the ability to program systems to do limited things, such as stripping text out of files, or running calculations on banks of numbers.  Minimal stuff, but tasks which gave me the chance to get my foot in the door.  Later I expanded into creating and editing of advanced technology reports, on subjects that I only had a passing familiarity with, but required a deft touch.  As time passed, so did the technology; computers got faster and more capable, and we started toying with the idea of networking systems.  That is where my job kicked into a higher gear.

As I said, the company was small, and skill sets were diverse, though they did overlap a bit.  The problem was that no one had a definitive computer science background, except me.  I had a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Mary Washington College (now University of Mary Washington).  By virtue of that background, and the fact that no one wanted the odious task of setting up or maintaining a network of systems, I inherited the duties of a network administrator, without the formal title.  In all the 22 years of service I had with Orion, my official job title never changed much, except perhaps from “analyst” to “senior analyst.”  Yet, I acquired additional responsibilities that better suited my college-derived skill set than trying to create and edit technical documents on subjects I had very little background in, knowledge of, or an ability to contribute to, in a significant way.

The technical reports the company produced often mystified me. In retrospect, I should not have been too terribly surprised.  Government documents tend to be Frankensteinian creations, structured to meet strict requirements of nebulous regulations and directives that no one can find or understand, but which threaten imprisonment if they are not met.  Even more dubious is that sometimes what has to be done makes no sense on any rational level. So, what do you do? The wise old sage says, “sometimes you get paid by the hour.”  Isn’t that a rather comforting statement?  It evokes same sort of sentiment that the military lives by, “Always remember, your weapon was built by the lowest bidder.”

For me, what I found most confusing, besides the structure and format, was the vocabulary, primarily consisting of governmentese. A conjured stew of acronyms, titles and names of processes and regulations that, unless you had a dictionary or Federal register handy, was like trying to translate ancient Greek into Esperanto.  The other aspect of those reports was the stifling manner and style in which they had to be written.  High on technical accuracy, and low on anything that might keep the reader awake.

However, the process of writing, and more importantly, revision of these documents forced me outside my collegiate and personal comfort zones, particularly for writing.  To be perfectly honest, writing was not high on my list of interests going into college, and to be even more honest, was not a skill that I believed I could build a career around.  Coming out of Galesburg Senior High, I could barely write anything that anyone would want to read. To make matters worse, my poor writing skills trailed me into college and helped contribute to my less than stellar start to my college career (a story for another day).