good birthday present
Wednesday, February 16 2000
I turned 32 years old today. Everything one gets on one's birthday is a gift, and for me this birthday was no exception to the rule.
Owing to the "Little Birds" email of yesterday, I was on edge as I approached the day. Much like in the old Soviet Union, business in the company is hashed out in private, isolated from calming or mitigating inputs. And when the time comes for execution, it is delivered completely without warning.
So I spent most of the morning shepherding a few of my latest site changes onto the live web site and bringing my work affairs to a tidy conclusion. I also went about researching the identity of the author of the "Little Birds" email, and this effort wasn't entirely fruitless given my level of access. When everything that needed to be taken care of was finally taken care of, I realized that I had absolutely nothing left to do. This happens to me every few months or so and it always gives me the creeps.
More ominous still, I noticed that all my co-workers were scheduled to interview potential new hires, but I hadn't been selected to interview anyone. And every time I walked past the ever-swelling nest of cubicles over in product management, I could feel a chill from the averted gazes of the managers. One of the new nameless managers encountering me at the water fountain enunciated a salutation so poorly-timed that it seemed he feared I was about to leap upon him and rip out his larynx.
I went with the other product resource guys to Horton Plaza for lunch. On the walk over they were joking with me about how they intended to celebrate my birthday in the traditional company way, by dumping food on me. [REDACTED]
After lunch, I was puttering around on my computer trying to find something useful to do for the company when suddenly the Schoolmarmish VP of IT rolled into the room and started chit chatting with fellow web developer Jay about his plans for integrating the registration of yet another acquired company (this one in the Bay Area). As usual, I paid careful attention to the content of the conversation while continuing to give the appearance of focused industry.
When she was done suggesting to Jay that he probably needed to go up to the Bay Area to meet with engineers of the vanquished company, she turned to me and said she needed to speak with me for a minute. This was a ruse, it turned out, as was her banter during the elevator ride to the 14th floor. She was talking about the situation with my conduct visa-vis Austin, how there were "emails flying back and forth." I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing.
The Schoolmarmish VP of IT led me into the very heart of the Department of Human Resources and it was soon clear that I was being fired, or (as they say in their particular dialect of corporate jargon), "de-hired."
I found myself behind closed doors in the human resources office with a youngish artificial blond HR wench, the Schoolmarmish VP of IT, and Paul the technical recruiter (one of my favorite people in the company). Evidently, as my resource manager, it was the Schoolmarmish VP of IT's job to break the bad news. For some reason (and this may be corporate policy) this meant that she had to preface her announcement with a list of justifications. But the usual justifications weren't enough; she had to go and fabricate the majority of them. It's the sort of thing that gives big corporations a bad name. It's the sort of thing that gives corporate managers a bad name. Like her lexicon, this evidenced the extent to which the Schoolmarmish VP of IT has sold her soul to the cause of corporate greed, a force so cruel it can actually cause a mother to marginalize her children during the height of their formative years.
I have the feeling that this sort of thing is common at a "de-hiring." Usually the spin I hear in the aftermath of de-hirings is the official corporate version. Today I was witness to how baseless such spin can be. Fortunately, in this special case, I am granted the final word. You have to love the corporation-crushing democratization possible with the World Wide Web. God bless the World Wide Web! Suddenly a large fraction of my former colleagues who once knew me only as the company weirdo are aware that I have a web site. They've come here, they've pushed my hit count to record levels and they're anxious to read what I have to say about this matter. Greetings my friends, kindly fasten your safety belts and make yourselves aware of the location of fire exits.
The first point made by the Schoolmarmish VP of IT was that, in the aftermath of the file server crash of several weeks ago, my code had supposedly been systematically looked over and had been determined (she didn't say by whom) to be not nearly of the quality that had been thought. "And while this could probably be improved by proper mentoring and sending you to seminars," she explained, "your other behaviors don't show much potential for improvement."
This was a unnecessary insult and utterly baseless. The fact that the file server had crashed had nothing to do with my code other than the fact that I had used it. My job was never to maintain servers, it was to write code, and my code hadn't even been the biggest user of the file server in question. Indeed, by and large my code was more robust (and thus more complicated) than the great majority of code on the site. For example, though the Main Menu was largely dependent upon the file server, it continued to function just fine right through the file server crash. No other applications on the site had that sort of fail-safe programming. When I finally got the chance to rebuke the Schoolmarmish VP of IT's unnecessary denigration of my skills, she found herself having to agree with me point by point. But all the artificial blond human resources wench would say was that "if asked, all we'll say is that you worked here from this time to that time." For her youth, the artificial blond human resources wench certainly gave the Schoolmarmish VP of IT a run for her money when it came to maintaining a hopelessly dry corporate attitude. This was no doubt a result of the accumulated scar tissue from signing the endless stream of humanity-denying "Change of Relationship Forms," one of which soon found its way into my hands. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The next item on the list of the Schoolmarmish VP of IT was my troubles with the Austin team. She told me that, what with my emails and phone conversations, I had gone beyond the pale into the realm of "unprofessionalism and abuse." Up until today I'd thought the company policy had been one of "open communication" where someone could say whatever was on his mind to anyone else in the company, so long as compensation packages were not discussed. Evidently, though, in the company's zeal to become a corporate monstrosity, open communication, one of the three "core values," is a thing of the past. One must now conduct oneself with decorum and professionalism. I guess I never received that particular memo.
Lastly was the issue of my "personal website." This is where the Schoolmarmish VP of IT's capacity for unsupported evidence fabrication really came into its own. Not only did she claim that I'd been talking unnecessarily about our company's [REDACTED] IPO (I haven't said anything other than the fact that at some point an IPO is happening), but she went on to say that I'd said racist things about people in the company. When I denied both things, the Schoolmarmish VP of IT became extra schoolmarmish and said, "yes you did, Gus," just like the pre-Altzheimer Reagan deceptively telling Carter "There you go again!" in that infamous 1980 debate. Actually, I think the Schoolmarmish VP of IT was confusing what I'd said in my journal with what I'd said in some of the other, more satirical parts of my site such as the Trenchcoat Mafia Homepage. Indeed, though the Schoolmarmish VP of IT claims to have read my online journal back in November and "not found it too bad then," I doubt she's ever actually read it. And if she did read it, it's doubtful she had the capacity to understand it. For someone with such a numbly corporate mindset, my use of satire and irony stirred nothing but confusion and worry about the face value of the things said. This was born out later in the afternoon.
"It's obvious you've brought me here to fire me," I said, adding, "and it's obvious you've already made up your mind." To this the Schoolmarmish VP of IT was moving her head up and down in a snakelike manner not unlike the style of the most anti-corporate Matt Rogers.
I signed the forms, found out about my stock options, inquired about my unclaimed $1000 travel voucher and made sure to remind them that I wanted back the CD-Writer installed in my computer. "It's my birthday," I decided to remind them. "Oh... that's such bad timing!" bemoaned the Schoolmarmish VP of IT.
As we waited for the elevator, I told Paul and the Schoolmarmish VP of IT that I wasn't surprised I was being fired and that the biggest surprise was that I'd lasted as long as I had. Then I explained, "My online journal was always much more important to me than this job. This was just my day job. I have lots of other things going on. I have my writing and I have my art." Such talk lay completely outside the corporate paradigm of comprehensibility for the Schoolmarmish VP of IT, but not for Paul. Months ago he'd told me that he had some things he did in his free time and that he was much more than just a technical recruiter. I never found out what exactly he does during his off hours, but just knowing he was doing something on his own gave me a mysterious connection that I didn't feel I had with the bulk of my colleagues.
The Schoolmarmish VP of IT gave Paul the dirty job of escorting me to my workstation to pack up my shit. The scene there at my computer was one of the most humiliating experiences I've had in a long time. There they were, all my fellow developers and the QA people diligently toiling away. And there I was going through my stuff under Paul's watchful eye. He was there to see to it that I wasn't stealing company secrets or initiating firing-inspired mayhem, things I probably would have already done if I'd actually had any plans to do them. The couple times I wanted to go to my computer and do something, he told me that I couldn't. There were only two things I wanted to do to my computer: I wanted to discontinue a possible pending FTP session to my site at spies.com and I wanted to recover an email from my father. "I'm just doing what I was told to do," Paul said. Poor guy; you couldn't pay me enough to work such a shitty job.
For some reason no one in the room seemed to notice what was going on, but as I was leaving I said to those present, "Come to my birthday party tonight." Dave, the newish developer for whom I've been a mentor, looked at me and with an unearthly gaze asked "What's going on?"
"I've been fired," I explained, pointing a hitchhiker's thumb at the door.
"What?" he asked in disbelief.
"I'll be there," said Jason, one of the other developers, adding, "I'm sorry."
I said goodbye to Paul as I climbed into the elevator for the last time. Not knowing what else to say, I said simply, "I like you." To my ear just then I had the voice of a mass murderer holding a gun.
It was the first time I'd ever ridden home from downtown in the full light of daylight. Unexpectedly, I felt jubilant. Suddenly I had awaken from my corporate nightmare. Of course, this wasn't the only emotion. I also felt humiliated, blessed, defeated, energized, vanquished, excited and ruined. But at least I was free and my schedule was open. The only urgent matter in my life was to get home and change my spies.com password. The last thing I wanted was the company network guys using the stored password on my workplace machine to root around through the back end of the content of my personal website. When someone is fired from a company, the sudden distrust of the company for the fired person is balanced by the sudden distrust of the fired person for the company. As I explained later tonight, it's like the breaking of a magnet: both halves of the magnet on either side of the fracture begin repelling one another immediately as if they were never meant to be stuck together in the first place.
I didn't know this at the time, but evidently the decisionmakers of my erstwhile employer had placed a great deal of significance on the superficial content of my personal web site when they were developing the "action items" for my de-hiring. They took special note of my Trenchcoat Mafia Homepage and, without ever pausing to consider that its content might be entirely ironic, decided that I constituted a serious postality risk. Just for today, they'd taken the precaution to hire a couple burly armed guards to hang out all afternoon by the front door. They didn't want anyone to lose focus should I decide to return with a machine gun, a couple grenades and a shoulder-mounted bazooka. Predictably, though, the security planning hadn't been absolutely thorough. The guards had no idea what I looked like. So Paul decided to go find my picture on the only place he knew it to be, the intranet. But in a gloriously ironic twist of fate, it turned out that the intranet personnel database had actually been developed and hosted by me on my machine, which was just then in the process of being reformatted by the network guys. So then there was this mad dash to recover my computer before it was reformatted so my picture could be shown to the security guys. Mind you, the picture being sought was none other than the infamous animation of me being beheaded (from a still frame of a videotaped scene that took place at Big Fun back in 1995). It was a comedy of errors, and lucky for me, I had some friends there to witness it all so they could tell me later. Flies on the wall were unnecessary.
Among my colleagues, the person who was least-pleased with my de-hiring was Jason. During the frenzy to track down the missing intranet server that happened to be my old workstation, he'd told Paul he "could shove it up his ass." Tensions were so high in my firing's aftermath that the Schoolmarmish VP of IT found it prudent to come back and explain it all to the product group. Not wanting to mention my online journal (thereby giving me the final word) she explained that I had been fired for "performance reasons." But this didn't make anyone feel any better. The last time my performance had been quantified, it had come out squarely between Lydia the Queen of Stats and Jay the paragon of WTAWTAW. Obviously, if I could be fired, anyone could be. When the Schoolmarmish VP of IT was done with her explanation and asked if there were any questions, Jason raised his hand and asked "Who's next?" He was in such a thicket of outraged that he actually had to be disciplined later that afternoon.
Back home, Kim showed up while I was in the process of changing my Spies password. I explained that indeed, I'd been fired. "They don't deserve you," she assured me.
Remember, today wasn't just the first time I'd ever been fired from a job, it was also my 32nd birthday. Kim had originally planned to have a big semi-surprise party at an Ocean Beach German restaurant and had gone and invited a bunch of my co-workers. But for reasons completely unrelated to either my birthday or my firing, she'd come down with a fairly serious case of influenza. We wanted to tell all my invited co-workers that the party was off, but in another completely random twist of fate, Ixpres.com, our ISP, was on the fritz and we could send no email (on the crest of a wave of paranoia, I thought for a time that perhaps my former employer had interceded to have my dial-up access terminated). We ended up having to borrow the neighbor Lisa's AOL account to get the word out.
Kim's flu was further complicated by a rather severe asthma attack just around Simpsons time. Her breathing was growing worse and worse and I feared that I might have to take her to the emergency room. But then, recalling how wired she'd been after her Detroit emergency room visit, I tried giving her stimulants instead. I started with some herbal Ephedra extract and ended with a big pot of coffee. Amazingly, that's all she needed to recover. Her coughing vanished over the course of ten minutes or so.
Meanwhile, a group of my workplace chums had arranged to come over and hang out with me informally in my living room in lieu of an actual party. Steph and EJ called and said they were also coming over. Kim had even recovered enough strength to get out of bed and come out and socialize.
When I heard the knock and answered the door, there was the party: Jon Ibasitas, Jason, Kevin the DBA, Dmitry, and (later) Al. They had beer, they had booze, and most importantly, they had stories to tell.
You can't imagine how delighted I was to learn that management had hired two security guards to maintain the peace in my absence. They really thought I was going to go postal over this. That's the power of my Trenchcoat Mafia Homepage. At this time in American history, for me to post that page, satire or not, is to break a taboo even more sacred and arbitrary than the one attached to childhood sexuality.
Then Dmitry told me that after I'd been canned this afternoon, my website was "being dissected page by page" by the employees of the company. "Everyone in the company is anxious to read your next post," he added enthusiastically.
I hadn't really expected Jason to react as strongly as he apparently did to my firing. "I came this close to walking out right behind you," he told me, adding, "I got your back." That was incredibly touching, as was the news of how devastated Paul was to get the shitty job of escorting me to the door. I was pretty pumped up and drunk by the time I learned all this stuff and it overwhelmed me emotionally. Tears were streaming down my cheeks.
After everyone left and it was just Kim and me alone together, she held me in her arms and I had a good cry. I don't like change and am resistant to it, and when it comes it's always a shock to my system. Leaving this job means the end of a way of life and the de facto end of good friendships with plenty of great people.
So the question remains, why exactly was I fired? By this point I saw it as inevitable and I was no longer going through the motions necessary to keep my job. I'd turned on all of my online journal's archives and was calling things exactly as I saw them, especially with regard to the fuck-ups over at the acquired Austin office. I was fully aware that the prim, natural-bindi-sporting VP of Professional and Organizational Development had told some of the Austin people about this journal and that it was widely read there. So it came as no surprise that as I dissed Austin and the management system more and more they went hunting through my archives in pursuit of things with which to hang me. The "coming to work stoned" line from the "Little Birds" email definitely indicated to me that things unrelated to my performance were being put to use by high management in an effort to oust me. This was in concert with an overall corporate freak-out about the sort of person I might be as humorless management and human resources personnel took such pages as my Trenchcoat Mafia Homepage at face value. The whole fiasco was ultimately just another example of dreadful company management. The trouble with Austin could have so easily been fixed with a single meeting and slightly more involved managers. Fears about the content of my personal site could probably have been dispelled with a single conversation with its author. But no, everything that happened did so completely in secret, with as little rational, mitigating input as possible. In the end it turned into a comic afternoon featuring hapless rent-a-cops, an accidentally destroyed intranet, and an accumulation of hostility and anxiety that will probably never go away.
I'm glad I'm finally cut loose from that place. I never have the motivation to get out of a situation, no matter how bad it gets. I'm like a frog in a pot of water as it's slowly being brought up to a boil. I just sit there groaning and complaining but never actually moving until I'm dead. Lucky for me as the water grew ever hotter, I fouled it enough that I was finally dumped out and set free.
But I never really belonged in that place. When I arrived it was a medium-sized portal with aspirations of bland greatness on the order of a Yahoo or an AOL. Over the ensuing months, these aspirations gradually turned into reality. In the process, every slight trace of funkiness was repressed and destroyed. Just before I was fired, the newly-hired marketing guys unveiled their latest marketing gimmick, a stuffed animal who will serve as both a mascot and an absurdist icon. But it's the kind of souless absurdism that the popular people in a high school would bullet as an action item in the planning for a senior prom. There's no legitimate depth to it all. All the company's genius and creative drive has been wrung out and replaced with the existential blandness of a site built for the benefit of greedy, heartless investors. I'm off to better things.
But I will miss my colleagues, my mentors, and those for whom I was a mentor. The company gave me a suite of skills no one can possibly learn in school. I will take those things and, as they say in the dry corporate dialect of my former employer, leverage them to take my career to the next level. Blargh.
Spectacular endings to phases of my life (such as today's firing) are nothing new for me. Let me provide a brief chronology:
- April 29, 1989, Harkness Co-op, Oberlin College: A fire breaks out in my dorm room. This eventually led to my being perpetually banned from Oberlin College Campus.
- December, 1995, the Jehu End of the World Party, Central Virginia: I get caught stealing a bunch of beer from a cult's annual party. But they held no grudge against me and two years later I went to their 1997 Christmas party on my best behavior.
- April 26, 1996, BozArt Gallery, Charlottesville, Virginia: just prior to lapsing into a drunken Saturday blackout, I take all my chums into BozArt Gallery (to which I have the key) to show them around. Sometime later a few of the other gallery members happen by and find me in such a sorry state that a scandal ensues. I end up being expelled from the gallery.
- May 25th, 1997, My UVA student housemates evict me from the Dynashack in Charlottesville, Virginia after I stir up some shit with the local skinhead crowd.
So what do you think of this stuff?
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