Unintended Consequences

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a business owner about the salary and bonus structure at his company. Like many companies, this owner paid out bonuses at the end of each year. I asked him if he’d considered paying them out twice a year or during the summer months.

The owner said the end-of-year bonus schedule began as a necessity but had become more of a tradition. Wondering out loud, I told him that I assumed he chose the end-of-year because it encourages employees to stay put through year’s end.


And with that, we both came to the same conclusion: Should the bonus schedule reward employees who grind it out through the end of the year, take the bonus and then run? It was an unintended consequence of the schedule he hadn’t considered.

This experience reminded me of another business decision that had unintended consequences.

I worked for a company years ago which allowed employees to spend an average of $75 a day on food. This was not a per diem. If we spent $50 on food, that’s all we could expense. But as long as we kept the average at $75 or less we could eat cheap for a couple of days and then go out for a nice dinner the night before we flew home. This allowed for a level of meal flexibility especially when we stayed in expensive cities with great restaurants like New York or Chicago.

But management didn’t like approving these expensive meals even when we spent far less on some days. So they decided to cap meal reimbursement at $75 a day. No more averaging out to $75. Like before, we could only expense what we spent each day.

Can you predict what happened next?

After the policy change, employees who had casually tracked their meal expenses now went to great lengths to ensure they spent their full $75/day. The new policy made us feel the company no longer trusted us, and many decided to stick it to the man.

During this time, I approved expense reports for about 40 technicians who supported conferences around the world. They often lived out of suitcases, worked long hours and appreciated a nice meal at the completion of an event after living on room service for days.  A few techs complained about the policy, but there was nothing I could do about it.

A few weeks later, expense reports began to trickle in. I was interested to see if the policy would change behavior. Over the first month, the average meal cost per day increased from about $49 a day to nearly $65 or a 30% increase. Subsequent months saw the average inch closer to $68 a day.

I laughed at one expense report that came across my desk. One technician had managed to spend exactly $75 on the day he flew out of Seattle and the day he returned. A closer inspection of his expense report showed that he had purchased $75 (about 5 pounds) worth of cinnamon bears at the airport on his day of departure and another $75 worth the day he returned.

The policy stated that any food was expensable so he was within the rules. I approved his expense report and asked him to bring me a few cinnamon bears.

I can’t imagine this is what management had in mind when they changed the meal policy.

Expense reports with creative meal planning became the norm rather than the exception in years past. I signed expense reports that included pounds of Gobstoppers, Swedish Fish and Whoppers. I also signed reports with $50 worth of food from McDonalds and Taco Bell.

But the only time I recall getting a call from corporate was when one technician tried to expense a couple of bags of Starbucks coffee beans. I considered it food, but someone higher up did not agree.


Adapt and Refine Your Work

Two and a half years ago I approached the owner of Puget Systems and told him I was moving to Utah.

I explained that I wanted to remain with the company, and I proceeded to propose the work I could do 1200 miles away from company headquarters. My goal was to walk out of his office with any answer other than a “no”.

If I recall correctly, “Let me give it some thought” turned into a “Let’s give it a try” over the next few weeks. I spent my evenings contemplating what I could do for the company. Eventually, I had a pretty good idea of what I could do, and it was work I could do well.

But I had one problem I couldn’t immediately solve. I didn’t have the right software to do my job. In fact, I wasn’t certain I knew what type of software I needed. I approached the owner with my problem and his answer surprised me: start with what you know, refine it over time, and we’ll adapt once you know what you need.

I moved to Utah, and began collecting customer feedback in a Google Doc. It was far from perfect. I’m sure there were better tools for the job, but I didn’t lose any sleep over it. My goal was to prove that the work I performed was providing value to the company. Once that was in place, we moved forward tailoring the software tools to my work. This improved my work, but more importantly, it allowed customer feedback to reach every department in the company.

I had one request of the owner when I moved to Utah, and that was that he’d take 30 minutes out of his week to chat with me to make sure we were on the same page. This proved to be a wise move when I was able to reprioritize my work after feeling overwhelmed 6 months into the job. The owner allowed me to recruit some help to handle the extra work while I was able to maintain my focus on the work I had initially proposed.

Last year I started my own writing and research company and have pulled in work from a number of companies. Puget Systems is still my main focus, but I’ve been thrilled to be able to work on my research and writing skills, and get paid for doing so.

Throughout my career, I’ve too often looked at a job description and wondered if my skills were a good match for the position. I made that mistake when I went to work for Microsoft in a marketing position that I didn’t really enjoy and wasn’t especially suited to fill. I landed the job because I interviewed well, but I regretted taking the position within a few weeks.

I am blessed to work for an owner whose business philosophy matches my own. He hired me back in 2011 without a specific job in mind, and I later asked him to trust me to perform a job a few states away. What started out as an experiment a couple of years ago has turned into a way we differentiate our products and services.

Instead of asking if your skills match the job description, maybe a better approach is to figure out what you do really well, and ask the owner or your manager if you can do that. It might be exactly what the companies needs.

My Work

The question comes in many forms. 

What do you do?

What is your job?

What line of work are you in?

What do you do for work?

It’s a simple question, and one I get more since I began working from home at my own company.

I suspect the answer one gives to that questions is often sugar-coated or watered down depending on the person asking the question. Does your answer change if you’re telling a parent than it would if you’re asked at a high school reunion?

I’ve had a few jobs that were difficult to describe even to people I worked alongside.  For example, I had a job at Microsoft where I spent 50% of my days in meetings. I’m not kidding. There were days were I spent 6 to 8 hours in meetings and then got caught up on email late into the night. I guess you could say I was paid a salary to attend meetings and do email although my job title was “Product Manager” I didn’t actually work on a product nor did I manage much of anything.

I’ve worked in sales over the past couple of years, but I wouldn’t say I really sold anything. I was more of a consultant and order taker. I was technology manager for a number of years, but if I told you what I did each day you’d call me a baby-sitter. I don’t know if I could describe the few marketing jobs I’ve had, but I know I certainly couldn’t explain what I did each day with any accuracy.

But as went for an afternoon walk today I though about the work I’m doing now. I don’t have a job in the traditional sense, meaning I don’t have an office, meetings, or coworkers. I don’t even have a job description or designated work hours. But I can describe what I do, so here it goes.

I write for Site Builder Report.

I write for Puget Systems.

I gather customer feedback for Puget Systems and integrate the best of it back into our company and products.

That’s what I spend my days doing, and I love it.

How would you describe your job?

What Is a Career?

My definition of a career has changed about every 10 years.

I thought a career was something I’d stumble upon after graduating from college. It was college where I read and studied a bunch of subjects.  Some of them were related, but most were hit (Art) or miss (Linguistics) but would come in handy when I played Jeopardy from home.

Before college my definition of a career was determined by what I gleaned from watching my father who taught and coached at the local high school. He basically worked for the same “company” for over 30 years. He began his career teaching and coaching at a junior high school and worked his way up to the high school. But when he retired a few years ago, he was still doing the same type of work he did when he started out. He had a lot more responsibility and great influence, but he was still essentially doing what he was hired to do out of college, but on a bigger stage.

I can’t imagine working for the same company for 30 years.

I began my career by working at a chain of gift stores. I say it was my first real job only because I thought being on salary was a requirement for having a real job. When I began earning more money working on computers in my spare time I decided it was time to make a career change.

I bounced around working for a few companies, large and small, including a couple of dot-coms that had reached the Tyson Zone.  None of them felt like a career. But I did learn something from each of them even if all I could say is, “If I own my own company, I’ll never do that.”

Two decades ago I wanted to find something I was skilled at and do that on my own without the baggage of a company attached to it. Companies provide structure and procedure and rules and even safety. But they also ask you to take on their personality and to play by their rules. Recurring meetings, break rooms, open floor plans and near constant distractions are part of the corporate game. If you own a company, go to your calendar right now and cancel all your recurring meetings. Seriously. They are a massive waste of time and they breed more meetings. The best companies I worked for had the fewest meetings.

I’ve been working for myself going on three months now. I make my own schedule each day. Some days I work 3 hours and some days I work 13. I work when I’m most productive, not when I’m scheduled. I awoke this morning and jumped on email for 10 minutes before realizing it just wasn’t happening.  So I went for a bike ride up though the canyon with the breeze and sun in my face. When I returned home an hour later, I was ready to work.

I also get to select with whom I work. I’ve taken on a couple of fantastic clients and fired one when our personalities didn’t match.  One benefit of starting my own business later in life is that I’ve been able to learn from others. I’ve worked for people who allowed their business to run their life as they pushed their spouse and children into the background. That’s helped me determine what I’m willing to sacrifice and what I won’t for any price.

My only regret? I wish I had done this a decade or two earlier.

“How’s Work Going?”

Kim made chocolate chip banana bread this evening, and I decided to share a loaf with my neighbor who has spent countless hours helping to keep my bike in working order. He’s in his mid 60’s, retired and lives alone. He’s opinionated and direct in everything he does. In fact, he intimidates me a bit, but he’s become a good friend, and I sense he enjoys sharing his knowledge of cycling with me.

I stood on his porch with a warm loaf of bread in my hand waiting for him to answer the door. Eventually, he came to the door and stepped outside on the porch. I handed him the bread, expressed my thanks, and was about to leave when he said, “You’re doing it the right way, you know that?”

He could tell I was confused.

He began to tell me about his job as an engineer which often kept him away from his family. It was a struggle to stay involved with his children. He realized early in his career that sacrificing time with his children to further his career would result in empty rewards. Today his greatest joy is the time he spends with his son and grandchildren.

“I noticed you taking your kids for a bike ride today. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the right way, and it will pay dividends down the road.”

I told him I appreciated the kind words and began walking back home, where I ran into another neighbor who was just getting home as the sun was going down.

“How’s work going?” I asked.

“Not bad if I overlook the four hour commute each day.”

He works for Boeing, and was recently transferred to a plant about 50 mile north of where he’s worked the past few years. I’m not sure he realized I was no longer working in Redmond, and I felt bad admitting my commute is done on my bike and takes about 20-25 minutes each way.

I miss my corporate job twice a month on payday. Otherwise I am happy to leave the politics, endless meetings,  and 2 to 3 hour a day commute behind. I possess my father’s DNA, but I’m not wired the same way he is where my identity is tied to my job title. His father was the same way. I suspect it’s generational.

I can’t relate to people who say they would continue to show up to work if they won the lottery. I’m blessed to have a job I enjoy and a company I’m proud to represent. I don’t play the lottery, but if were in the position where I didn’t have to work, no way in hell would I continue punching the clock.

With my three oldest kids in tow, we rode our bikes to the 7-11 where they picked out a small Slurpee. They like to mix the flavors so we end up with a banana, Pina Colada , Coke concoction that looks as terrible as it must taste. As I waited for them to finish, I asked each of them what they enjoyed most about our summer.

Anna said she loved visiting her grandparent’s cabin. Luca liked going to Wild Waves and to many of her friend’s birthday parties.

Lincoln wasn’t paying attention so I asked him again. He thought for a minute, and then said, “Going on bike rides with you, especially that long one at night”.

That’s the one where we were gone so long that mom got in the van and came looking for us.

Next payday, I’ll remind myself of Lincoln’s answer.

Chasing Ghosts

I’m nearing the half way mark of my career and most of those twenty years have been spent chasing a ghost of one type or another. When I graduated from college I chased  prominent companies. Position and pay weren’t on my mind as much as the company name.

Then I chased the title ghost followed by the salary ghost. It took time but I usually found what I was searching for. But then the game was over, and it wasn’t long before I was chasing another ghost.

I’ve talked to people who have the goal of working for Intel, Facebook, Microsoft or Google. Any position will do. Get your foot in the door and figure it out from there. The younger stupid me believed that, and it may work for a while. But if you’re job isn’t providing any joy or growth you’re selling your life away to the highest bidder.

A year ago, I lost my job. What seemed like a major setback has been the opposite. I was compensated well, but nothing else about my old job brought joy into my life. And yet I wonder why I stayed so long? I suspect I was comfortable like many people who don’t see what’s around the corner.

If I could go back twenty years and give my twenty something self any advice it would be: find something you love to do and do without regards to location, pay or status.

This past year I realized I was heading down the wrong road. So I decided to turn around and take another route. So far that’s resulted in setting my career back a few years from where I’d like it to be. But I’m at peace knowing that I’m headed in the right direction.

Short Cut Selling

When it comes to sales, I have very little experience.  Let me rephrase that: I have none. My career has been spent in either marketing or management roles.

But for the past couple of months I’ve found myself in a sales role at Puget Systems. We are a small company that builds high-end computers. A decked out system can often cost as much as a car, so it’s far from an impulse purchase. My job is to find out what the customer needs and see if we can build a system that meets those needs. Most people I can help. Some I can’t, and in those instances, I will direct them to a company that can.

After a back-and-forth discussion on Twitter with John Obeto I’m beginning to doubt that what I do has anything to do with sales, at least in the manner in which he describes.

The discussion started when I questioned Microsoft’s recent move to pay retail sales staff to recommend Windows Phones. Subsequent news reports have used words such as incentivize, subsidize, or commission in place of pay, but let’s call it what it is.

If you walk into an AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile store looking for a new phone, would you want to know if the sales person is being paid a kickback for each Windows Phone he or she sales? I believe such kickbacks erode trust in not only the sales person but the brand. Microsoft is reportedly putting up a $200 million bounty to encourage sales of their oft admired but slow selling smartphones. Nokia will also get in the action, tossing at least another $100 million into the pot.

I speak to people each day who are trying to make sense of the PC industry. Many are downright frustrated with the focus on technical specs, hype and buzzwords that do nothing but confuse the average PC buyer. When they ask for assistance, they are putting their trust in me to cut through the crap and help them make an informed decision. It would be foolish of me to take that trust for granted.

But what if Nvidia decided to “incentivize” me to recommend their video cards to every gamer who walked through our doors? If I were working with you to select a new gaming PC is that something you’d like to know beforehand?

Luckily, I don’t have to decide between taking a bribe and doing what’s best for our customers. Not once have I been told to sell a certain brand or model, or convince customers to upgrade to more expensive components they don’t need. John calls such incentives “customary practice” in electronics retail, but that’s not encouraging given my experience at Best Buy. I wonder if Circuit City and Ultimate Electronics also followed that customary practice?

Gartner just released their latest report on PC shipments which were down nearly 6% in the 4Q of 2011. Yet we are experiencing record growth, and I attribute much of that to how we treat our customers. That trust leads to personal recommendations and return customers.

Yes, I earn a wage, but it’s not tied to selling a specific model or brand and I can’t imagine a scenario where anyone in sales would be allowed to take a kickback from a supplier. My job is to take care of the customer the best way I can. I’m given an incredible amount of leeway to interpret what the means. Most of my day is spent educating customers. If I’m lucky, I will have gained their trust and put them in a better position to make an informed decision.

But I work my butt off to earn that trust, and the thought of trading that trust for a few bucks is mind boggling. That John refers to us “salesdrones” tells me all I need to know as I strive to change that perception.

My Search For Rewarding Work

The switch happened shortly after graduating from college. Until then, jobs I held were centered on completing tasks. I cleaned pools, entered data into computers, and delivered janitorial supplies around the Salt Lake valley.

But at some point, if you’re good at getting things done, someone in management notices and you’re promoted to a position where you’re no longer directly involved in getting things done. I don’t recall anyone telling me that’s what earning a college degree was about but it was certainly implied.

My uncle is one of those guys you see when boarding a plane who’s tossing suitcases onto the cargo chute. As fun as it might be to zip around the tarmac playing tag with 747s, I didn’t like the idea of schlepping luggage in the sweltering summers or frigid winters of Salt Lake.

I told myself over and over that, I would skip right past the demanding labor of my uncle and head right into a job with an office, computer, and brass name plate.

As if going to college would magically activate a switch in my brain that would allow me to earn a living using it instead of my legs, hands, and back. Yet now, as my no-longer-21-year-old body is beginning to feel its share of aches and pains, I find myself drawn to challenging and unpredictable work.

My current job feels like work. But it’s challenging and frustrating and rewarding. Not every day, but most days, and that’s a change for the better. I’m learning and being pushed into uncomfortable situations I’ve not experienced in my career.  I’m alert instead of checking ESPN during a recurring all-hands. Most of all, I actually care about our customers because they aren’t buried beneath a dozen layers or corporate insulation.

The corporate world is full of planning, off-sites, 1x1s, status reports,  budgeting, and brainstorming sessions. I feel like that’s all I’ve done for the past fifteen years. When I worked for Microsoft, it wasn’t uncommon to spend 20 to 25 hours a week in meetings. When I’d arrive home and Kim asked me what I did that day, I had no answer. Not all meetings are a waste of time. Just most of them.

The notion that working with your mind instead of your hands is a more important contribution to society is incorrect. I’m starting to doubt my own education given how long it’s taken me to realize that.

At least now I return home from work each day I have an answer when Kim asks what I did.

The Case Of the Flawed Case

For the past two weeks I’ve been working at Puget Systems located about four miles from my home in Auburn, WA. We build high-end custom computers for people who want a system without all the hype and marketing speak. It’s an entirely different approach from everything else I’ve seen, and that was the driving factor that lead me to contact the president and inquire about a position.

Two days ago my manager at Puget called our group together. He pulled out a computer case and asked us all to look at it closely. All but the front panel was black and I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. He then placed the case on the table and asked us to look at it again.

This time I noticed faint markings on the faceplate, but only at certain angles. Otherwise, the case looked fine.

My manager talked about how this level of build quality isn’t acceptable and does not meet his standards. He mentioned how he pulled our entire inventory of that case and inspected them for similar flaws. All but three would be returned to the manufacturer.

It all felt a little extreme. Certainly I’ve worked for companies who wouldn’t have noticed the flaws in the case in the first place. I imagine most would have sold the cases on hand and prayed that customers wouldn’t notice the flaws.

I’ve witnessed managers bend their standards a little here or there when the customer wouldn’t notice. I once worked for a manager who demanded I lower my standards for promotion because it would lead to a higher bill rate to our clients. The customer wouldn’t notice, and the decision was made in the name of “increased shareholder value” so we’ll let it slide this time.

The problem is that it gets easier to let it slide until you’ve cut so many corners the standard becomes unrecognizable.

I seriously doubt many of our customers would have called to complain about the case. But I’m impressed that didn’t factor into the decision. The case wasn’t up to par for the person who tests and certifies every computer that leaves our warehouse. It didn’t matter that most people wouldn’t notice the flaws. That he noticed them was enough to send them back.

The only problem I’ve had since taking this new job has been that my PC at home feels slow and loud.

But I think I can fix that.

The Paper Trail

At my last job had to fill out a mountain of paperwork in order to give an employee a raise. Although I worked for a company that touted itself as a leader in technology solutions, everything was transferred from person to person on paper.

I created stacks of paperwork that was sent to our corporate offices. There, it would be reviewed, and passed on to another division. As you can imagine, many times the paperwork was lost in transit, and the entire process would start from the beginning.

The most confusing part of the process was how I had to transfer numbers from one sheet of paper to another. In fact, I had to do it twice. But one sheet of paper had to be pink and the other sheet had to be blue. It was the same information on both sheets, but those were the rules.

More than once, I tried submitting a raise (or “market adjustment” because nobody knew what that meant so nobody questioned it) on plain white paper, and it was rejected. A call would go out from corporate to my boss reminding him that I wasn’t playing by the rules. He’s toss the incorrectly colored papers on my desk, and I’d start from scratch.

After a few years of trying to buck the system, I decided to call corporate payroll and ask they needed the same information on two sheets of differing color paper. The answer still makes me laugh today.

“Because that way anyone can open the mail and sort it into the correct piles. Pink goes in one pile and blue goes in another.”