A Work Life (part 2)

A Work Life (part 1)

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 3)

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).

A Work Life (part 2)

Crustless Memories

Wind rushing past, tugging at clothes and hair, sends the pulse racing until a collision with the dark loam reins in the momentary thrill. When you’re ten, the consequences are easy to ignore, the grass stains, a scratch here, a bruise there. Jump to your feet, race back to the porch, climb the railing and leap. A brief moment of freefall, a slap from the laws of physics, roll-over and repeat.

If you’re lucky, friends will cheer you on, if not, they land on you, sending stars across your field of vision, leaving you to sniff and search your arms for contusions, nose for blood. Hurt? Nah, shake it off. That baby tooth needed to come out anyway.

Weekends meant crawling through the neighborhood bushes, behind garages, over gravel driveways, until an adult began baying your name. As long as your middle name didn’t drift on the breeze, it was safe to ignore the summons.

Provided the prospect of being fed was not involved, then all bets were off. Chucking rocks over the garage into the Linkletter’s yard could not compete to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — manna from the gods.

Unless, of course, you could hear old man Linkletter cursing and chucking rocks back at you, in which case, your impugned honor as a neighborhood goon demanded a response or at least a sacrifice.

“Dan Karlson is throwing rocks!”

“Just wait till I talk to his father,” comes the biting reply.

We laugh. Dan was going to get it now. Too bad he isn’t with us. “Come on, let’s go to my house and have a snack,” I offer.

Ben nods, and we sprint toward my house, a two level thirty-year-old former barn, now masquerading as a residence. He reaches the door first. As usual, my lazy legs don’t get me anywhere fast, but that leads to one advantage I have.

“Oooof,” Ben squeals as I slam into him, plastering his bony carcass to the screen door. “Yur keeling me,” he moans, his face squashed into the glass insert.

“Ha! Sucks to be you,” I offer with as little sympathy as I feel. Being fast is one thing, being larger than most kids your age is something else.

“C’mon, I’ll let you pick something out of the freezer.”

“Cool. You have ice cream sandwiches?”

I nod. Only two left. One for me, and one for Ben. Which of course means … none for my sister. YES!

The door yanks open. A pair of feral eyes glare at me from under a mop of pony-tailed fury. A smirking grin mocks me, as does the bits of ice cream sandwich in her teeth. “What took you so long?” she asks rhetorically.

Crap, sis struck first, now Ben is going to get the last ice cream sandwich. “What’s for lunch?”

“Lunch? What makes you think there is lunch?”

DUH. “Because it is lunch time, and I’m hungry.”

“Well, you’re out of luck. There’s nothing made.”

“Fine, I’ll make something myself.” As usual. I start to push past her, but she spots Ben behind me. “Why is he here?”

Ben slides down behind me, taking the chance that my demon sibling must devour me before getting to him.

“I invited him.”

She rolls her eyes. “Whatever. You feed him, cause I won’t.” She turns away and saunters out of the kitchen.

Good news, that’ll reduce the chances of explosive diarrhea. “Come on Ben, I’ll make you a sandwich.”

Now that Tyrannus Sisterous Rex has left, Ben slides by me and sits in the breakfast nook. “Remember to cut my crusts off.”

Sweet Jesus, what is with him and bread crusts? Okay, whatever. But if he asks me to wipe his ass, forget it. “What do you want to drink?”


Which in midwestern parlance meant soda. Seriously, the bastard knows we don’t drink that crap. “Water or juice.”

Ben frowns. The prospect of not drinking caffeinated sugar is clearly unappealing. “What kind of juice?”

I open the fridge. Two pitchers sat on the top shelf, one orange, the other red. Now, normally that would mean we had apple AND orange juice, but thanks to Sister Sunshine, my guard is up. I grab the handles and gently lift. Crap. Both empty. They were both half-full this morning. Sis must have dumped them out before calling me in.

“Nevermind, we’re having water.” Ignoring the whining, I grab the jelly jar and turn to the counter. On the end sits the peanut butter. Where’s the bread? I glance around, a nearly empty wrapper sits there.

Snatching it up, I look inside. Four slices left. Yeah! All of which have my sister’s fang marks in them. Boo! I glance at Ben. He either crapped himself or is still resenting have to drink water. Better not say anything.

I grab a knife. Guess we’ll both be eating sandwiches with their crusts cut off.