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Tech Worker Meets Real World - Recoils In Shock

Date/Time Permalink: 03/05/09 10:46:22 am
Category: General

Anybody who's just breaking out into a career in tech can sympathize with this account of the woes faced by a programmer in his first four jobs. While some of you might dismiss it as whining, it is true that CubicleLand is a jungle. The main fault I can see is that the individual just needs to suck it up and keep trying.

Equally telling are the comments on Reddit solicited by the author, which rapidly share their own horror stories from the trenches. Yeah, a lot of these stories sound familiar, too. In D&D terms, think of the universe as Chaotic Neutral in alignment. Sometimes you get the bear; sometimes the bear gets you. Yes, I just pulled off references to Big Lebowski and tabletop RPG in the same paragraph.

Anyway, this reminds me of a few anecdotes I could share about friction I encountered in various workplaces I've had before, and what I did to solve them. Take them all as a whole approach to workplace philosophy.

#1: The idea is only good if it comes from somebody else.

The problem:
I had a direct supervisor who just seemed to hate me no matter what. Apparently, she felt that I was a threat to her position (I could have gotten promoted into her place with one hand tied behind my back, after all.). Anyway, in any problem that came up in the workplace, any solution that I proposed would be shot down by her. In every case, even if it meant that she had to wreck the entire department's productivity herself for the whole day or even a whole week, she'd do whatever it took to do the opposite of what I suggested, every time I dared to open my mouth.

What I did about it:
In this case, I could have used her own hatred against her, if I cared to. But all I cared to do was stay in my position and get work done. So what I ended up doing was giving my solutions away to my peers. I would dispatch a co-worker to the supervisor with my suggestion, while I played dumb. It would of course always get accepted and put into action. I would usually pick somebody she liked to be my messenger. She'd come around later gloating about how other people came up with the best solutions, as opposed to the wacky, nonsense ideas I proposed. I didn't care. I got my work done, everybody was happy, I let the dictator win her imaginary little game, and eventually the entire office - including her supervisor - was in on the gag except her.

#2: Time-sheet math 101.

The problem:
One office I worked made us fill out time-sheets for every break and activity, no matter how trivial. And you had to pick codes for each kind of activity, convert time increments to decimal math, and so on. The system was frustrating, since most of my job had no corresponding work code - how could I report that I spent an hour fixing a server because the field tech was off pouting? Anyway, nobody took the time sheets seriously, until we got a new person who had to punch the sheet data into the system. Said person would notice that I was rounding off a lot, to make the decimals total easier. She'd take to waiting by the door with an actual stopwatch, tracking my every coming and going. No, I'm not kidding.

What I did about it:
If she wanted accuracy, I gave her accuracy. My time-sheet suddenly became a five-page affair. Every single minute of the day was tracked to six decimal places, and I started timing myself so that no matter what, the minute and second of my switching from one activity to another would result in a repeating decimal which would make balancing my ten-to-twelve hour day impossible. Remember, the Time Sheet Queen had to punch all this data into the system and make it make sense in the program by the end of the day. After a week of my passive-aggressive tactic, I went back to doing things the old way. Mysteriously, I never got a complaint from her again about my time-sheet's accuracy. She was new anyway, so she mellowed out after a while in our environment.

#3: The Load.

The problem:
I had an anchor around my neck, in the shape of an older male peer who would inevitably be my team-mate. He was a sweet old guy who was well-loved by the staff, but what wasn't widely known is that he would drink on the job. He also had a habit of messing up in such a way that it would sabotage your work too, if you were shackled with him. Things like going into the system and dropping a database table that I still needed to finish my work. He was very forgetful, so trying to explain things to him didn't work. He really meant well, but he just couldn't keep up.

What I did about it:
After a while, I decided it was either pull five hours overtime per day fixing his mistakes, or prevent him from making them. So - and I don't advocate this solution for others! - I started sabotaging his workspace equipment, and then offering to do his share of the work too, since he had such bad luck with his equipment. He'd go out to his car to refill his mug, I'd slide over and pull a wire or move a file, the field-service engineer - who was in on it - would always be mysteriously unavailable. The Load never twigged. Suddenly, his password would start working again, his mouse pointer would begin moving, his graphics card would again work correctly, always when I only had ten minutes left to go on whatever we were working on. You have to understand that he was really close to retirement, and more than a few of the people who liked him knew what I was doing, and loved me for it.

Take your own interpretation of these anecdotes. To the idealistic among you, I've just come off as sounding like a huge jerk. The more experienced and world-weary among you will see that I applied social engineering to my advantage. In a more important setting, I'd never resort to these tactics. But this was about surviving the nine-to-five grind, in a world where office politics are an inevitable given. For those of you who would ask, "Why didn't you go to a higher-up and complain?", we're talking about multinational corporations with bases in every industrialized country here. Go ahead, complain to a higher-up. Complain to the nearest brick wall, while you're at it.

Sometimes you have to put your idealism in your pocket and live in the world around you.

PS I work freelance from home now. Gee, wonder why?

Penguin Pete doesn't play on iPod.

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