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Tuesday, November 14

A Year Later

It was about a year ago that my life changed beyond all recognition. There were various key events which triggered the change. The catalyst was the long-distance relationship that I was conducting with my girlfriend. I was driving some 700 miles or so each weekend to see her, often leaving at 3am on Monday morning to get back to work for the week ahead, rather than leave late Sunday night and feel like the evening had a goodbye in it. This was making me tired, but it wasn't my tiredness which set the ball rolling.

A year ago to the day I did a gig in Edinburgh which went very well - I later discovered that I wasn't going to be booked properly by that club DESPITE the gig going well, because they just don't think my act gels with their style of booking. Bitterly speaking, I would like to tell them where to shove that opinion, but realistically, I always knew that I'd need to expand my comic horizons to get somewhere beyond where I am, and I will have to do so if I ever want their support. I now live so far away from them, that it's almost not important anymore that they don't like the way I make their audience laugh. It's a shame, because their audience was always a good one.

I was doing the gig with a friend who was closing. She did very well, and I shared with her my current work problems during the journey. Work was being very silly and frustrating and I didn't see why we were wasting time at the same time as being put under pressure to deliver results for the long-term good of the company. I wasn't in charge of the team I was on, when once I had been. While I originally had believed that I would be in a better position as someone on the team who just got things done, it soon became clear that the controlling philosophy of those in charge was a hell of a lot more difficult to deal with when you had to do the work and they were pulling in every direction and no direction simultaneously. I had occasional "power struggles" with the younger fellow who was in charge of the team - letting go is difficult, I suppose - and the style of management they were trying to use involved not so much making demands as trying to get people to buy in. The problem is that if you're doing that and people don't buy in, then you have to settle with a compromise. I was quick to spot the compromises and always tried to rally consensus, which was, despite how it looked to me, exceedingly undermining.

The upshot was that, despite being the longest serving programmer on the rapidly reducing team, and the only programmer with reasonable domain-knowledge (i.e. understanding of what the problem was and how our software solved it and how the software was put together) I was starting to look like a problem, not a part of achieving success for the team. I was a problem to management because I wanted to get stuff done, and they wanted to do things of their own devising. The goal was not to do things, it was to achieve things, but I couldn't get myself heard.

In the end they found a way to deal with me. It was to allow a hole to emerge and to allow me to fall in it. It was not as much underhanded as just lucky for them, unlucky for me, and exceedingly wasteful of what years of good service I'd invested in the company. The irony, for me, was that I had never had the urge to work as hard as in the months leading up to my undoing. I had really tried to take the bull by the horns and make the most of my job, but it wasn't enough. There were a few people who made this impossible.
  • The self-deluding boss - he wanted to believe that his company would succeed and so took the opinion of those people who agreed with his vision, regardless of whether they would help him achieve it... he saw anyone who stood against the flow as someone who opposed the vision, rather than someone who wanted the end goal, but by a different or more effective route - he was also vague on what the vision was, or how he expected it to be achieved
  • The rat/snake - this was a man in senior management who didn't deserve to breathe, in my opinion, let alone draw his salary. A slimy individual, he's one of the few people I've genuinely felt hate for. He knew how to spot a bandwagon and how to jump on it. Despite being in charge of many strategic things, his strategy was to want everything and nothing simultaneously and to make himself look good whatever the weather.
  • The power-crazed junior manager - elevated to a status where he had lots of responsibility and no actual power, but the threat of wielding power by proxy, this guy probably thought he was doing his best for the future of everything, but pretty much held everything he touched by a strangle hold. If you didn't see it his way, he'd unleash his anger on you. So people took the line of least resistance, or became a thorn in his side - it polarised an intelligent workforce and tried to turn them into zombies. Probably not intentional, but just as annoying as if it were.
  • The optimistic junior team leader - a nice guy who just wanted to do his best and believed that the text books were right... he never really got to doing much, just a lot of organising. Tried hard, but failed to see the walls crashing down around.
I was caught in the crossfire of all of these things and managed, through my own self-destructive arrogance and belligerence to make matters no easier for myself. What was weird was that my ultimate undoing, which hurt me deeply, was not even done intentionally.

The exact order of events is now slightly messed up by the passage of an eventful year. It started after a week of frustration making charts in Excel - which might have been fine if it were a one-man job, but it became a ten men job because of some deluded sense of teamwork and sharing. My opinion - if someone needs a team to help them learn Excel, they probably want to work in something other than software engineering... anyway, the making-a-mountain-out-of-a-molehill work was getting me down, so I offered to do a few changes to an in-house system which I'd developed a couple of years previously. I reckoned I could fit that work in around any other work the team would do. I suddenly found myself on it full time, until further notice. This sort of made sense, but I didn't see that it would be necessary to spend long on it, so I assumed that I would soon get it done and return to the project I'd been on for 18 months or so without the satisfaction of "The Release" - as in the one where we do all the things we originally set out to - things we were being told that the absence of which were "killing the company"!

A short while later, I was asked by my team leader whether I could move my stuff as the desks were going to be moved around and my desk no longer had a place in the part of the office where my team lived. Since I had assumed that I was a part of the team, finding out that I wasn't in this way was quite a shock. I was shocked and upset. I kept my temper and took the middle manager aside to find out what was going on. Nobody knew exactly.

Quick to jump on the case, I had my stuff moved to somewhere I decided that I would like to sit, rather than be dumped in just a random space. I also took my personal possessions home. I'd essentially moved myself out of the office.

In that same week I did a gig in Glasgow. On the way to Glasgow I spotted a hitchhiker on a roundabout near Carlisle and gave him a lift to Glasgow. We were chatting and he turned out to be university educated in the subject my job related to. Given that this job was in a really niche field, this was a surprise. He told me that he'd been travelling round Europe and I bemoaned, as I've done before, that the trappings of a well-off life in Newcastle, with a house and a job and other responsibilities meant that I could't just up sticks and leave. I compared myself to a friend who had been able to just quit her job and change cities, doing some traveling in between. I felt like I simply didn't have that freedom anymore.

That occurred on a Tuesday. On the Wednesday evening, having felt a huge weight on my chest throughout the day - so angered was I about the way that I'd had any status, responsibility or sense of belonging, ripped from me so offhandedly - I drafted my letter of resignation. That day there had been a meeting scheduled. The meeting hadn't happened. I had tried to get together the top boss, the team leader and the middle manager. I had tried to get them to sit down and talk with me over what had happened to my job, my life, my self-esteem and everything. My aim was to get some sort of plan of action and some acknowledgement that something was going wrong and that you can't just treat an employee this way. The fact that the meeting just didn't happen because something was more important, was enough to fuel my anger and need for escape from this situation. I'd reviewed my life in an instant. Not too many gigs in the diary, not too much reason to stay in Newcastle, a notice period which could have me out of the office by the end of the year. I saw a gap and I went for it.

I wrote my letter of resignation angrily. I held it for a day. I didn't cool off. I wrote a CV and started posting it on jobs boards. I was getting calls. People were interested in seeing me for interviews etc. By the Friday I had a few job seeking prospects and the rescheduled meeting. I went to the meeting. I showed a PowerPoint presentation explaining my question and then asked for answers. They told me that they'd get back to me next week. I said that I couldn't wait. They had everyone they needed in the room. They had the answer between them. They asked me to leave the room so that they could discuss it. I left them to it.

When I returned, expecting answers to a series of "why" and "what" questions, the best they had managed was "Well, you're definitely off the team." - no why, how, or what next... I tried to keep my cool and handed my letter of resignation to the boss. I was going to do it anyway, I think. I was really looking for a good reason to justify it, or, at a vague outside chance, some ray of hope that might stop me. I tried to explain that I didn't want to be treated with such lack of respect. I tried to explain that, since another member of the team had left for reasons similar to my own feelings, that I had expected management to try to do more to keep everyone happy. For my explanation, I got a shouting at by the middle manager. I left him shouting and closed the door. I didn't need shouting at.

People want reward from their work. They want to be given something to achieve and to be thanked for achieving it. I was in a dysfunctional environment - undoubtedly made worse by my own reaction to it. I had to get out. And I did.

One year on
Where I used to have a job that I'd been in for years, using technologies that I knew, and where I used to have a house that I'd lived in for years, with all the silly traveling coming from trips to the girlfriend or gigs, things are now quite different.

I have somewhere I live, but it's not really my home.

I have a job with people who treat me well and whom I respect, though I'm in at the deep end with the technology and, after a period where I was really going for it, I'm sort of milling about a bit until I find my niche in the new world that started when our company was bought out and reshuffled.

I drive far too much for the benefit I get from the driving. The 30-40 minute commute will never make me happy, though I am used to it.

It's been a difficult year and, though I've definitely moved on from where I was, I feel like I'm finding my feet still.

Still, I was wrong when I told the hitchhiker that I could never leave Newcastle.


Blogger Duncan Graham said...

Wow, is it really a year? It feels simultaneously very recent and also a long time ago.

That's a really good summary of times at our last company. It was a good company for a while and I'd like to think that it'll be a good company again sometime. It's just a pity that they had to make some good people redundant as well as those whose actions caused the problems.

I'm now working in a team that reminds me of some of the people I used to work with at the last two jobs. They're a good bunch, very competent, mostly very experienced in different areas. They're all different characters and the (experienced) manager lets people get on in their own way. It's a reminder of how things used to be in better times.

Keep blogging...

8:25 PM  

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