they got my back
Thursday, January 27 2000
I feel better already just knowing I'm about to write about it.
This summer I developed a horoscopes program for the company website. It included a spider that went out across the internet and gathered pre-written horoscopes from a partner, stored them as specially-delimited text files, allowing a front end to display them as needed. It works fairly well, although the spider needs occasional manual deployment.
Well, in the months since I developed the horoscopes program, our company has acquired an Austin-based company of similar size, and with all their employees running around the Austin headquarters with nothing to do, our management has been looking for ways to keep them busy and help them deal with the emotional consequences of the absorption of their company. But since they have no developers who can work in the languages of our development environment, Austin ends up doing everything but the actual programming work on the several projects they lead. Then, or course, there's the odd circumstance that for some reason a good fraction of the projects taken over by Austin are ones for which I am the lead developer. So I end up being the only San Diegan on a project lead by a group of faceless strangers over a thousand miles away. In this position, I find myself doing the bulk of the work and fielding urgent phone calls from humorless Austin project leaders, especially one in particular who looks and acts like the lesbian incarnation of Jabba the Hut. But my troubles today didn't come from that particular Austin personality, they came from another, someone who has taken over the horoscopes project. Let me call her Bargain. Bargain and her Austin web designers came up with a horrendously ugly redesign plan which they presented to me on Friday along with, get this, a Monday deadline for implementation. Then, unbeknownst to me, they arranged to have the deadline extended. Not knowing this, on Monday I came to work and rushed through the creation of a perfectly acceptable horoscopes site in keeping with the latest design methodologies on our site. Thoughtfully, I emailed some screen shots to members of the Austin team (though I evidently neglected to email Bargain, the project leader!). Bargain flipped out, and called my boss, the Schoolmarmish VP of IT, among others. Today the Schoolmarmish VP of IT came to tell me that Bargain had fired me from the horoscopes project.
Of late the Schoolmarmish VP of IT has not been too irritating with her folksy corporate pragmatism. Indeed, she's successfully shooed away a number of bogus projects. But in talking to me today she wasn't especially helpful even if she was somewhat empathetic. She told me I'd have to select a replacement developer for the horoscopes project and then perform what she calls a "knowledge transfer." It sounded ridiculous to me, given the vast amount of knowledge that needed to be transferred. I was under the impression that under our management system no one has to do anything unless they're bonused. "What if I refuse to do a knowledge transfer?" I asked. "Then I'll have to fire you," she said matter-of-factly. From that point in the day onward, I thought about getting myself another job. Later, I communicated with people knowledgeable about the management system and they told me that there's no fixed rules about knowledge transfer, but by this point that was a little beside the point.
I felt really angry immediately after my conversation with the Schoolmarmish VP of IT. It was that bad kind of anger that sits as a poisonous potential in the muscles and pit of the stomach. I didn't dispell this bile and recover until I talked with the two guys in the cubicles on either side of me. Man, now those guys really are cool. I mean, it's not like I'm not good to them, but when they heard my tale they said things like "none of us developers are going to take that project. It's your's! We have your back!"
Later on this Bargain chick from Austin called Jason, the guy in the cubicle next to me. Since Jason has been out to Austin, Bargain has seen him face to face and feels like she knows him. But she didn't get any satisfaction from him. I heard him saying things like, "I'm totally swamped. Maybe in three weeks or so..."
So then my phone rings and when I pick it up, there she is, Bargain, telling me in as nice a voice as she could muster that, given all the things that had happened, it was best if I wasn't on her horoscopes project team and that I should pick a replacement developer. To me, of course, this notion had lost none of the absurdity it had when the Schoolmarmish VP of IT had suggested it. These managers and project leaders are clueless about the relationship between developers and the things that are developed. Developers are not, as Bargain seemed to imply, incidental to the project. I told her, in as non-patronizing a voice as I could muster, "Developers are not Lego pieces that can simply be stuck wherever they're needed." Then I added, "you can't just blow through developers like that and be a successful project leader. Word of that sort of thing gets around." Up until now I hadn't been aware that I'd sent the mockups of the pages I'd made to everyone on the team except the project leader (indeed, in my isolation from the team, I hadn't really known who exactly was leading it). But when I learned of this I assured Bargain that the omission had not been intentional. I told her that I had no special ego wrapped up in this horoscopes project (an assertion that Bargain could not believe) and that it made no sense for her to get another developer. "Even if we hated each other the whole time," I told her, "the project would be more successful if I was on the team than if I wasn't." Bargain agreed to consider whether or not to keep me on the team and told me she'd call me back later.
Mind you, I had no desire to work with this plainly neurotic first-time project leader. I just wanted to stay with my the product that I'd developed. Anything else was absurd. But beyond this, there seemed to be an underlying absurdity to the whole project management system under which we toil; namely, that a project leader can come in, strut around like a dictator, ignorantly firing people from their project at the slightest whim, and ignoring any of the history of the project.
For the first time ever, I went onto the company Intranet to check the status of projects and resources and to see what projects I was listed on and what rating my project leader had given me. It was an interesting experience. First of all, I noticed that the Lesbian Jabba the Hut project leader woman had given me a "3 out of 10" on the E-cards project, even though I'd been it's only developer and had worked my ass off on it. She had, of course, given herself a "10 out of 10,." No one else on the team had a score that high. Throughout the rest of the Project Management Intranet, I saw she had the "10 out of 10" rating, even when no one else had ratings. She'd obviously gone in there on her own and given herself these ratings. It's possible, after all, that, as a long-time employee of the acquired Austin company she was given this power as yet another concession of the acquisition. When I saw that I'd been completely left off the list as a member of the very successful "Holiday-izing the site" project, a project whose only Austin member was its project leader, I flew into a rage and fired off a couple angry emails demanding to be re-instated as a team-member. I'd been the team's only developer, for fuck's sake. It suddenly was clear to me that I had to stay on top of every nuance of project management arcana or I'd be fucked every which way possible. Suddenly my co-workers, especially the Austin crowd, seemed like a hostile force out to extract as much out of me as possible while not giving me even a trace of credit (let alone bonus money).
Later in the day Bargain called me back to tell me she'd thought it over and was "confident with the decision" to fire me from the horoscopes project. I wished her luck. Now she has no developer on her team, no likely candidates, and I sincerely doubt she has any idea what developer even does.
On thinking in detail about this situation, I decided that the blame for this debacle rests squarely on management. I'm not talking about management in Austin, either. I'm talking about the San Diego-based manager of the project management system, the so-called "VP of Professional & Organizational Development" (VPPOD). From what I gathered, the VPPOD had simply told Bargain that she was free to fire team members as she saw fit, and had even helped her with the process of repositioning deadlines. While I'm sure the VPPOD has no idea of the intimate relationship between developers and their products, she should have at least anticipated that the firing of a team's only San Diegan would lead to animosity between the Austin and San Diego offices. Before the end of the day, of course, I'd rallied the entire San Diego Development team on my side. (I had to do something to warn my team-mates about this psychotic project manager!) In the end, this first-time project leader's bumbling behavior had led to further polarization of the already-strained post-acquisition situation, and the people who could have called for a cooling of heads and face-to-face meetings had been asleep at the wheel. The actual cost (in terms of integration setback) from this single management system crisis might well run into the millions of dollars. That's probably more than my stock options will ever be worth.
In the evening I broke out my four-track for the first time in years and made a pretty good recording of "I Think This Once," a song I wrote back in early 1996. When I put together a few more songs, I'll make MP3s available for download.
Also, just for my own protection, I started looking to see what other jobs are available. In so doing, I realized I that could make as much as twice what I'm making now without having to deal with any of this management system nonsense.
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