Saturday, April 24, 2010

Late Night Listening XXXVIII: In the Room Where Light does not Find Me

Tonight, I am immersed in the 80s. In lieu of the Groove Show on WTTS-FM, I am listening to the Saturday Night Safety Dance on Sirius/XM First Wave. They haven't played this song, but out-of-context snippets from this work certainly capture my spirit.

Work/life balance is way out of whack these days, and my desire to write for clarity has been almost nil. I have lost sight of a forward-looking narrative and have had a world of trouble regaining it or at least revising into a work that could revitalize me.

Pointing my browser back to the editor to write another post has been hampered by a false premise, that I must somehow have a grasp of what is going on before I can write about it. And as I have become mired in the fog of lessening awareness, I have been all the less moved to write on matters personal.

There is always an e-mail to answer, an IM conversation to have, a fire to fight, another coding task to wipe out. Somewhere in between there are parental tasks, bills to pay, and a whole host of other issues. Tonight I am writing because I forced myself to get the bulk of my coding tasks out of the way, and the kids are in bed.

The divorce papers were filed officially last week, one day after our 14th wedding anniversary. STBX had a recently-divorced friend complete the initial paperwork. If we complete the parenting class and get all of the settlement items worked out, our divorce will be final on the first full day of summer.

STBX has been super motivated to get the divorce moving forward because she wants to move out of her apartment when the lease is up in August and get moved into a house. I don't see how she thinks she will be able to handle the mortgage and upkeep, something she sought to get out of when she moved into the apartment, but it is her life.

The kids are doing well. My older daughter's grades have been really good thus far, but she has been having a rough patch in math with things like counting money. Her dance school has had two competitions so far, and she's been performing in two routines -- one with girls her age and a production number that runs the full gamut of ages. The production act won overall high points for their first competition.

The younger daughter has been enjoying the church-sponsored preschool co-op she changed to at the beginning of the year. They have a different instructional style from the co-op, but she seems to be really enjoying her homework. She seems to be having a harder time with not seeing me every day. There have been occasions where she calls me and cries saying she "really really misses" me. It tears my heart out to hear it.

Since STBX started her new job, I've started keeping the kids three days in a row on the weekends that I have them, which allows her to get ready to go to work on Friday mornings without having to wake up the kids.

A few embarrassing disclosures:

I haven't completed my Census form, but I did get my taxes paid on time. Federal refund was big. I owed the state money because STBX didn't do any state withholding for her unemployment benefits.

I haven't mowed the lawn at all this year, so the yard looks like a jungle. I wrote someone advertising on craigslist and got an estimate for a bunch of yardwork items that would greatly improve the situation, but he has been slow to get things going. He came over on Wednesday evening to scope out the property but then said that he wouldn't be able to get over to do the mowing until 8:30 am tomorrow, which is questionable now because we've gotten some rain. I got my first anonymous hate message in my mailbox on Friday, informing me that I would be reported to the county health department.

I haven't updated my direct deposit to reflect the child support recalculation based on STBX's child care bills. I have been writing supplemental checks to cover the difference and annotating the checks appropriately. It will be nice once this is all switched over to the state's payment system.

As for work, I'm finding myself increasingly burnt out, with some days going in wondering whether I'm going to have a job by the end of the day because I'm going to just throw up my hands and say that things are untenable and I'm quitting.

What has happened to make me so sour on my employer? The migration to management in August of last year moved me from a rather cloistered role where creation was of the greatest value to another which involved interacting with other parts of the company which have varying degrees of dysfunction.

The upper management knows something is wrong, but they haven't been able to develop the self-awareness to see how they contribute to the problem. Instead, they have sought out the corporate analog of religion, tea leaves which give them ways to explain away the problems with vague statements like "we don't communicate well enough".

Indeed the search for cosmic truth has led them to have a week-long training course on personality types back in August, another week long strategic planning session in January complete with a massive list of worksheets, an overwhelming list of followup tasks, and, most recently, a series of management meetings (two business days and counting!) based on a compulsory reading of a business book about management teams where we've allegedly figured out that no one has a clear idea of what the company is supposed to be about.

Since throwing the third VP of post-sales client relationship management off the ship back in February, the President of the company has taken on the role of managing that department. Her calendar is a wall-to-wall list of 1:1 and status meetings. She sent a company-wide e-mail a few weeks back enumerating all of the things they were doing to stem the churn of customers (which has been awful). They fell roughly into two categories -- giving away more free stuff to the customers who complain and smothering the others with tons of attention, including hand written notes.

Over in marketing, a department which has been amazingly free of accountability in the face of turmoil in sales and post-sales client relationship management, there has been an unearthing of some ugly statistics by the VP of Ops regarding just how much they skew the incentives so it's impossible for them to fall short of their targets. There is a dearth of automation, so things like lead distribution takes days. The department manager seems to think the only thing that will solve the problems is to throw more bodies at it.

A new EVP of Sales hired on at the beginning of February. I'm still trying to figure him out. One one hand he is very big on "collaborating" with other departments. He seems very hard nosed, which should bring some discipline to a department that has been adrift sans rudder since last fall. But there are some very big red flags.

For one thing, he is very resource intensive. He makes his home out on the East Coast and flies back and forth at the beginning and end of the week. For high profile leads, he will bring in three or four other people from other departments to sit in on calls or even make trips. He has brought on a large number of new reps, with more to come by mid-July. He shut down sales activity for the better part of a week in March to have sales training courses.

He is also very big on delegating tasks, which means he creates work for other departments, myself included. I've had to write more special documents for clients, and have prepared several hours of training materials for his team. He treats the Office Manager as his personal secretary, so a lot of his requests come to other people through her.

I also am not certain I can trust him. I know of anecdotes at his former employer where he had the habit of promising big ticket clients lots of custom work and then strong-arming the company into bending the roadmap to satisfy the client's whims. He has been chasing a major online travel website for three months now, sucking up lots of resources in landing them. This has included travel out to the Emerald City for him and the CEO to visit their HQ and for us to pay for three people from that company to come over and visit us on site so that they could have two full days of planning meetings with members of our team.

As for that travel site, the people we are dealing with are empire builders. They see social media as a gold mine for personal data, so they want to use a mix of e-mail and our application plus some custom development to collect all kinds of data about who drives the most revenue in their direction so that they can offer the deepest discounts. Their biggest competition, in their eyes, aren't other companies, but rather other departments within the same company.

One of the guys from the team, a meta manager with an overinflated sense of self, shared his enlightened visions of project management, his stint as a professional player of soccer overseas, his decade working for SauronSoft, and his pet dog of exquisite pedigree, traceable back to a champion. One of my coworkers, who had the horrible experience of sitting across from him at dinner during their visit, referred to him as a "douche wallow".

The CEO keeps expressing frustration that our team can't give his full wish list at full speed, going so far as to ask whether we needed to bring on contractors or offshore. So far, I have been able to hold my ground, refusing to compromise the department's history of high hiring standards. What we do develop gets done on time and with high quality. The new developer we took on in February has been doing well, taking on the bulk of server side software development for the last two sprints.

I've lost all respect for the President. At the beginning of the year, I found out that her father is among those on the company's board of advisors (translation: daddy bought me a job). She takes great pride that she majored in highly non-technical course of study -- writing of the creative sort. She's also in thick with the marketing manager cited above, with ties that date back to their hellenic affiliations in the college years. But these are small change compared to the things that really bug me.

Back when we did departmental budgets, I allocated enough money to pay raises to my team based on past payments, which are a sliding scale between 4 and 7 percent based on the quality of the effort. If you wind up on the 4 percent track, you get fired because it is a sign of zero growth. When the budgets were being reviewed, I was complimented on my restraint on spending, and I thought that would mean that my items would be honored.

I was worried at the January planning meeting when managers were told that the raise pool was 3 percent of the existing payroll. I figured that didn't apply to us, especially since we were the only department that had no form of bonus built into the compensation.

I recently had my annual review with my system engineer, who has done a great job moving our platform to the cloud, automating recovery of problems in production, and keeping costs so low that our cost of hosting the servers that serve our 400+ clients with more than three 9s of uptime is less than our company phone bill.

I recommended a nice increase, thinking that it would have a good chance of going through since I knew that both the President and CEO were worried about him leaving. In fact a couple months prior, they were so afraid that they asked me if a raise wasn't in order then.

After she read the raise request, the President wrote back telling me that the 3 percent value applied to my team, too and that it would deplete the pay for others. I wrote back strongly encouraging reconsideration of the decision, citing the fixed compensation and the fact that the overall value was less than the traditional "you're fired" value. She said she would consider it, and that circumstances might change if we managed to get outside funding this year, but no concrete improvements.

When it comes down to an issue raised by a non-technical person either inside or outside of the company, I am seldom given the benefit of the doubt, so a lot of my discussions with her start off on the defensive. After recounting many of these things with my system engineer, he said that if he were a manager and put as little trust in my work as it appears she does in mine, he would have fired me.

Moreover, because she is non-technical and unwilling to pick up much of any new knowledge in that area. If there are ever issues with her computer or one of her friends within the company, you can be sure there will be hell to pay.

In late March, I took a couple days off to spend time with my daughters when they were on spring break, and she interrupted my time off to drag me in on drama involving my IT support guy. The main gripe was that a new phone auto answer greeting wasn't live yet, even though we had made no promise that it would be. We were still awaiting the delivery of the recording from the professional voice service, and they were still within their turnaround window.

And then again when we had the high profile visitors from the Emerald City a couple weeks ago, she pulled me out of another meeting so she could rail off about the unacceptable IT conditions with said IT employee present. The infraction? She couldn't get her wireless network or ethernet to work in the conference room. The wireless issue was caused by her leaving her ethernet connection turned on after disconnecting from her docking station, and the ethernet didn't work because she didn't have the cat 5 cable fully plugged in. Still that was somehow our problem.

She wanted me to agree with her that he needed to go right then and there. I sat there listening to her throw a fit about how time was money and she was so far behind in her work and that we had a people problem. I asked her what we could do to help make the situation better, but she continued to press for him to be gone.

I told her wearily that I wouldn't make a personnel decision in the heat of the moment, so she scheduled yet another meeting at 3 pm the same day so that she could complain more about it. I talked her down to a two week performance improvement plan where she wanted no problems with the networking or her ability to connect to anything. Moreover she was refusing to authorize any more spending on IT until all the "problems" were resolved.

I wanted to quit then and there. So did the system engineer, whom the IT support guy helps out, when he heard about the whole thing. Had we all been gone, that would have meant 60 percent of the engineering team would have disappeared in a single day. Moreover, there would be no one left to keep either the internal IT infrastructure or our production servers alive.

Moreover, since something like 60,000 lines of code of the application were written by me, there would have been a huge evisceration of knowledge. That's not the kind of thing you want to happen when you're burning money at a rate of where you might have four months of cash left to live on and you're in talks with VCs. I joked to my team that it would have be the $6 million hissy fit. Shortly after that eruption, I found a blog post written a little over a year ago that seems to sum up her personality.

The IT guy sees the writing on the wall, and he's been trying to line up a new job so he can get out of there. He's in a precarious situation because he's working on lining financing on a new house, and the last thing he needs to have happen is lose a job.

As for me, I've sketched out the revisions I want to make to my resume, and I'm contemplating putting it into circulation. My Aspergic mind keeps rerunning the calculation to see whether there is any hope for the company. The one bright point in management, the VP of Ops (who is a strong ally on many fronts), is making some traction, but probably not enough to make the needed difference. He is getting more and more stuff dumped on him by the President, and he gets pulled in to play Dad in more and more squabbles between other departments.

During a 1:1 with the President, where she asked me what might need to change to reduce the burden on me so that I had more time to recruit new employees, I mentioned that the lack of desire by some team members in sales and client relationship management was generating a lot of work for me and recommended that we start encouraging them to take more of an initiative to increase their tech savvy to handle customer requests without having to continually turn to more skilled team members.

She said that wasn't going to happen with her team. I told her then we needed to get rid of them and start over and raise the hiring bar. She came back with some handwaving mumbo jumbo about how marketing and sales people, because of their personality types, would not be inclined to learn the details. The thing is, our team doesn't even think twice about taking it upon themselves to learn more about marketing and other areas that concern the other departments, but the curiosity is not reciprocal.

I guess the bottom line is that there are few islands of doers which survive in a sea of people who fail to execute or just toss things over the wall to those who can get things done. Further complicating things are that some of the people who need to go most are closely tied to the founders, either by longstanding friendship or even blood relationship, so there are critically entrenched vestiges of unassailable incompetence. At some point, there has to be a sort of Atlas Shrugged moment with in such an arrangement where the skilled people leave the whole mess behind because working harder is just an exercise in futility.

There are several things that keep me from moving on... I have been accumulating options, and I'd hate to see them go to waste. I enjoy the company of my team, and the lunches I have with them provide very stimulating conversation. There are a couple members of the product support staff that I get along well with, whom I would miss dearly. I've learned a lot about the finance of startups from the VP of Ops, and I want to help him succeed at his goals. I don't know if I could earn as much somewhere else, which is important to keep in mind when child support is a recurring obligation. I like working in the city, which is a much shorter commute than the sterile office parks on the north side.

So that's where I stand... light at the end of the tunnel on the personal front... lots of uncertainty and ambivalence on the professional front. The good thing is that I find myself much better armed with skills and experience than I was three or four years ago.