Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Searching

Looking for work was a real adventure.

A common theme over the last half of my life has been people talking about Things Sure Aren't What They Used To Be. I've heard this applied to music, fashion, dating trends, cars, Interstate travel and now that it's been around long enough, even technology. Here's my story.

The first time I went looking for a job, I was nine, or ten. Dad was away fighting a war, mom was at home fighting to keep the house, the car and dog (and me, presumably). I was unhappy with going to her for my walkin' around money. I figured I'd get out there and sell myself to the highest bidder, and build my fortune by sweeping out back rooms, folding-up empty boxes, stacking palettes or something like that. I walked up and down Norfolk Avenue, stopping in dime stores and shoe stores and even the women's clothing stores, asking to see the manager. The manager of Hested's was the nicest. He sat me down in the back, in his cluttered little office, and explained that he didn't really have anything, right now. But he really admired my initiative. Still, there were laws about this kind of thing and he suggested I might have to wait six or seven years for something to open up. Maybe I would be better off washing cars, mowing lawns or babysitting, he told me. Why, a kid in his neighborhood seemed to be making good money picking up the land mines left by neighborhood dogs. But I couldn't, by law, get a real job, yet. I ran home and cried. I would be poor the rest of my life.

My first job was working for ninety cents per hour at the Double-KK restaurant, washing dishes. I knew a couple of waitresses there and someone put in a good word for me. It wasn't a lot of money, but I worked hard to keep everyone happy and only broke one glass the whole time I was there.

One evening, my dad and I were at the mall, getting haircuts. Across the mall was a music store with a selection of guitars. Since I was going to be a guitar star, this interested me, and we walked over there, while waiting for our chairs to open up. The owner was behind the counter, frantically ringing-up sales of 8-Track tapes and 45rpm records and a few albums. There were people wandering through his selection of organs and pianos, and a few standing near the in-car stereo display and fiddling with the knobs of the home units, too. Dad and I waited for several minutes at the guitars, while he finished. I was explaining to dad how the pickup was like a little microphone and all of the noise came out of this little plug, down here and so on, when he guy finally came up to us, breathlessly asking "How may I help you?"

I said, "Well, we came in here looking at guitars, but now it occurs to me that you might need some extra help, behind the counter". He looked at the customers for pianos, car stereos and home stereos, kind of winked at dad and asked me when I could start. I told him two weeks and he asked me if $1.25 was good enough? I told him it sounded great and we shook hands. I got a thirty-eight percent raise and a job selling music, just for asking. Kewl!

That's how it went, for me. Walk straight in, look the guy (or gal) in the eye, give 'em a firm handshake and make the deal. That's not how it's done, now.

Today, everything is on computer, of course. This is fine, if you have everything you need in the proper format and all of the necessary key words and so on. But if your situation is the least bit unusual, or unconventional, it's a hard system to work.

In the case of the really big employers, you need to have an account on file, first. Before you can even apply for a job, you have to fill out form after form, attesting to this and that, explaining how much you know about these and those, telling of where you've been and when and for how long and all of the rest. Once you're in the machine, then you can apply for jobs with the click of a button.

Now, that part I really like. Instead of having to get dressed-up, shave, put on a tie and drive downtown to meet with the manager who has only seven minutes before her next meeting and can't tell you anything, anyway, you can now apply for a job in your undies, at 10:30 at night, as kind of an afterthought on your way back to the TV from the fridge. But it has its drawbacks, too.

I've seen ads that look like little portraits of me. "We're seeking a fat guy, with Web experience and a whole lot of patience and charm, to teach our employees how to do stuff on their computers that we need done." Hey! That's me! I fire off an application, but a day or two later comes an automated reply saying I didn't meet the qualifications, somehow, or that there were better, fatter candidates out there and they went with one of those. Quite often, I don't even get an interview. These are the most unnerving because there's no way you can argue or explain. The process is over. Thanks for playing, here's a copy of our Home Game. A firm handshake doesn't amount to much, any more.

I went to the So You've Been Fired seminar. It was actually quite good. Some folks from the Department of Labor (Dad's old haunt) were there, some from University HR, and about half of us who had been shot on 11/9th. We spent several minutes catching up. Who had been let go. Who had already found a job, and where, and so on. They told us not to lose hope. They told us this was one of the worst job markets anyone had seen since the recession of the early-middle 1970s and early 1980s. They told us our benefits would run out in three months. That sounded like a generous amount, to me, and it still does and I'm supremely happy to have worked for an outfit that did that. I know a lot of places where you're escorted to the door and... that's just it. I'd continue to get paid and insured and retired for the next three months while I scrambled to look for something else. Okay, great. But they made a big deal out "three months" as if they thought we'd all need it or something. I'd worked with these people for years and they're among the finest I've seen anywhere. Certainly he, and she and even me wouldn't still be looking in March?

It felt really good to apply for that first job. Now, instead of unemployment happening to me, I was happening to it! I practiced looking the computer monitor square in the middle and firmly clicking on the mouse, "Apply". One-two-three... and the next morning came my first rejection. And I was elated! I knew this wasn't really personal. I just didn't have all of the right glyphs on the right electronic page for them. They knew nothing about me, personally. So that made it all a numbers game. And if it was my fate to need 47 rejection slips before I found my first "We'll take you!" then I already had one! Let's go!

But it quickly got old. I'd get up, like they said at the seminar. I'd continue to shave, like they said. I'd even continue to get dressed, like they said. But nothing I did seemed to help. Everyone was on their own timetable and running their own little kingdom where they got to set the rules. I'm a terrific trainer, but I don't have a degree. Some places wanted one but would settle for someone with a lot of experience. Others wanted all kinds of education and certification and only wanted to pay burger-flipper money. It was weird. There were a few jobs out there that I would be terrific at, though, and I applied for those. Then I applied for the ones I'd be good at and then a few that, well, I could do.

Within a few days, I was getting calls for interviews. These of course bring their own challenges. But I'd always been good, one-on-one. I wasn't worried. Then came the rejection slips: two, three, five. And I still hadn't heard from this one or that one, yet.

Finally, I got a telephone screening interview. And then a Come Meet The Troops interview and then a Come Meet The Brass interview and... finally... an offer!

Sort of.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

So. As I Was Saying....

So, yeah. I got RIF'd.

All-in-all, it was a very well done thing, inasmuch as one never seems to enjoy the efforts everyone puts into an enterprise such as this.

I'd come to work that morning fat, dumb and happy, secure in the knowledge that my boss had told me we didn't expect any layoffs in the current year, just maybe a little less travel, a few fewer computer upgrades and maybe not quite so much software. Okay, fine. I could live with that. Apple was on campus that day, giving a dog-and-pony show about the iPad and how it figured into the modern classroom. I figured I'd pack mine along and attend.

So there I was, listening to the Apple guys talk about how far and wide the iPad had spread in the education market, and how we were going to learn a whole bunch of new and interesting ways to use them in the years ahead, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye, my boss's boss was standing in the doorway. She waved. I waved and nodded. I went back to hearing about iPads in the classroom. A moment or so later, I looked back and she was still there, only this time she was gesturing kind of emphatically. It's about twenty minutes to 10:00am, now. I pointed at myself and she nodded and signaled she wanted me to come to the door. And so, I did.

She told me that her boss wanted to see me this morning. And not at my desk, or in his office, but right next door. And not at 11:00am or 11:30, but at 10:15am. You know me well enough to know my first question was "Okay, but what's this all about?"

"I think you'd better hear it from him" was her reply.

I let out an audible groan and she reached out and squeezed my elbow a little and said, "You'll be alright" but she turned away right away and left. After fifteen years, you can kind of get a read on people, you know? I could feel my face flush, and my ears filled with a high pitched whine like standing on the airport flight line next to a jet, or being in the next room while someone runs the vacuum cleaner next door. I texted my wife, "Honey, I'm going to be fired in twenty-three minutes" and made my way back to my seat at the Apple presentation.

She was great, she really was. Very supportive. At the appointed time, I gathered up my stuff and went next door. And there, on entering, was the CIO and the department HR person, both looking grim. I took the seat in front of them at the table. "As you know, the economy hasn't been doing well, lately. The rest was like Charlie Brown's teacher, really. "Wha-whaaah wha-whaah-waaah". Sign here, and here, and here. We stood and shook hands again, and I was led into the next room, where the University HR guy was ready with the "So, You've Been Fired" packet of valuable resources. Answers to questions about insurance and unused vacation and all of the rest, plus a page on an upcoming "So, You've Been Fired" seminar I'd be sure to want to attend. He led me across the hall to another University HR person who explained I was to go straight home, now, and not back to my desk. I was to make arrangements with my boss to come in and get my stuff after hours. I called my wife and she met me out in front of the union and drove me home. We'd worried, talked, planned and joked about this day off and on for a dozen years. It was finally here.

I did a lot of crying. It was frustrating. I thought I had done everything right. My boss's boss, the woman who signaled me to come to hear about the appointment, cannot name three things in fifteen years that I didn't volunteer for. Whenever she needed someone, I was there. New students need to have buildings pointed out to them? I was there. The computer store was having a big sale and needed to get a bunch of stuff to the Union? I was there. We need a second voice for an Abbott and Costello Who's On First? skit about the Windows Start button? I was there. I was also there for her whenever I thought it was important that she be in the loop. I finished a task and checked my home page to find a story about "a light plane" that had crashed into the World Trade Center. I refreshed the screen, only to find the story replaced with one that said two planes had crashed into the towers and I thought to myself, "You know? If I was the boss, I'd want to know about something like this." So, I got up and walked to her office and told her, "The nation is under attack. Go to".

Some years later, her boss was killed in an auto accident on a snowy morning on his way to work. We had a big meeting with the staff to discuss the ramifications of this and then we were excused, while she dealt with her managers. She started, as we filed out, saying that no decision had yet been made on who would fill in, in the interim. It might be her, it might be one of a few others. When I got back upstairs, I got the official e-mail announcing the interim replacement, and knowing she hadn't seen it, and knowing she was in a room full of managers who needed details, I printed off a copy and walked it back down stairs to the meeting room and handed it to her.

I was always doing stuff like that. When I'd happen upon a kid staring blankly at a sheet of paper and holding it up to a building and turning around and looking over his shoulder for another building, I'd walk up and ask, "How lost are you?" We'd usually have a pretty good laugh and I could figure out which "Hall" he needed and send him on his way. Did that with parents, too, from out of town, driving slowly down an otherwise busy street. I tried to learn the names of everyone in our building, if not everyone in our department. I learned their names, and a little about them, by the dozens. When new people were hired, I walked them around introduced them around because I knew everybody.

The Internet and the Web weren't going anywhere. And we were in the middle of a push to change the way we did all of our Web pages, and I made sure I was the guy who taught everyone how to do that. I'd been the one who taught them HTML, CSS, Dreamweaver and the Templates, and I would be the one to guide them through the wilderness to the CMS promised land. But I would not get there with them. I was sad, I was frustrated, I was angry. I went through all of the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief. There's no way this includes me-it has to be a mistake. Those fuggers! Hey-maybe they'd let me come back half-time, or work as a contract employee? I'll never find a job as good as that one, again. And finally I started looking for work.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Disruptive Tech, Again

I had a couple of people come up to me after the page about disruptive technologies and offer up their own examples. Mine were more personal–I have a box of once-expensive cables to hook up peripherals I no longer own to computers I no longer own, either. But all you have to do is look around to see other examples.
The United States Postal Service is in trouble. This was one of Ben Franklin's ideas, for crying out loud, but its usefulness may be coming to an end. My mother loves to talk of a time when she could count on twice-a-day service. As she put it, you could invite someone to dinner that night in the morning mail, and receive word back that afternoon that they were planning on attending. Pretty cool, huh? And this cost a nickel or less.

But it was a time before e-mail. It was a time before "everyone" had a telephone, too. It was the only way we had to do these kinds of things, so it's the way things worked. And generations depended on a system like this. It was a part of their daily life that I suspect went largely unexamined and unquestioned. Of course we people handling paper and bringing it to our homes. How do you communicate with faraway others?

In hindsight, mistakes are always more easily seen. Geeze, maybe first class postage did get kind of out of hand there at the end. Maybe second class postage and third class postage should have been more spendy—that would have cut down on the tonnage of catalogs and sales flyers and saved a forest or two, perhaps. With less "Junk Mail" clogging the system, there would have been less wear-and-tear on all of the equipment, including the letter carriers.

Maybe having to go to a box down the street, instead of to your very own door makes "The Mail" a little less personal and a little less precious. It was a matter of architecture. The Mail was so dependable, so ordinary and so necessary that we put little slots in front doors to keep from having to open a door and retrieve the daily delivery. In an age of increasing precision and accuracy (thanks in large part to computers), can we accept something like approximate mail delivery? A nickel used to bring a handwritten note from your grandmother from Ohio all of the way to your very own front door. Now, fifty cents gets your electric bill only as close as your neighbor's driveway? Really? That's the best we can do?

Netflix put a serious hurt on the mom-and-pop video rental business, and on local cable-TV and satellite franchises. Now, Netflix itself is in danger of becoming redundant as various concerns struggle with the problems of squirting movies and TV shows into our homes. It may be that the electronic side of their business, the "Net" part, eventually takes over everything. Or it may be that someone else will get it right, or get it righter, or offer it cheaper. Maybe one day we'll all watch TV piecemeal via some kind of a super-service like Apple's iTunes. I love HBO, but don't care much for boxing, so if I can get all of HBO's movies and original programming for $9 instead of the $12 my cable company charges, I'll probably go that route.

Economics plays a role in these decisions, but ultimately it seems like the best technologies eventually make it, in a survival-of-the-fittest kind of way. If your costs are lower this way than that, or if speeds are faster here than there or if your technology is massively cheaper than someone else's, then you're going to win. If not, then there doesn't seem to be much that you can do, except try to hang on.

In the 1980s we heard magical stories of wizards working on ways to get data from the same wire that gave us Skin-a-max. It was hugely expensive at the time, and not particularly fast by today's standards, but everyone saw it coming. Same with DSL on the phone lines. Where once we had two phone lines, so we could be online and still order pizza at the same time, now you can carry on all kinds of up- and downloading activity while, well, ordering pizza.

There are a lot of dial-up plans available, offering cheap internet access. But time is money, here, too. I know a lot of cheap people, but I don't know anyone with dial-up internet, any more.