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.”

Brilliant!

Selling Your Soul

“Is it more important how much money you make or how you make it?”

That was the question posed by my 8th grade history teacher. After an awkward pause, a student chimed in that the amount of money was most important.

“Drug dealers make a lot money”, the teacher shot back.

He didn’t need to explain. We all understood his point that how one made a living is as important, if not more, than how much one earns.

I thought back to this exchange while I had lunch with a friend today. Both of us are close in age and about halfway through our careers, most of which has been in technology. We both have young families, and spouses who have put careers on hold to raise young children.

He asked me what direction I planned to take my job search. I asked him what he’d do if his company kicked him to the curb. Neither of us had an answer, but I suspect the days of selling our souls to a big company are over.

When I moved to Seattle in 1994 there was a buzz in the air. The internet was set to take off, and a new version of Windows was around the corner. Netscape was about to become a household name and kick off the dot com era.  Microsoft had replaced with the carrot with stock options and was dangling them in the face of anyone who could help them crush the upstarts.

With Boeing locked in labor issues, Microsoft and Amazon were seen as saviors. Thousands of small companies sprung up to ride the internet wake. And if that didn’t work, ride the coattails of these two titan of tech. I worked for one company that partnered with Microsoft, and two that didn’t. Guess which company is still in business?

Jobs were plentiful. So plentiful that I never really had to look for a job because the job would find me. One recruiter took me to lunch to sell me on an opportunity. He asked if I had a resume, and I shrugged, “Why?”

When nearly every company is hiring and wages are high, it’s rare that one considers the flip side which is what’s happening today. Microsoft has laid-off over 5000 employees over the past couple of years. Sure, they have hired back some of those, but many more have left on their own before being forced out. In the mid 90’s Microsoft was the place to work in Seattle. Now it’s just another big company “optimizing itself for shareholder value”.

This brings me to the question posed by my history teacher.

One of my jobs at Microsoft was to share information about the direction of our software with partners who directly increased sales of our products. It wasn’t always easy to determine who was selling for our against us. But I had information they needed to innovate and stay out ahead of us. Those companies that received the information lived to do business another day. But many of those that didn’t were crushed by our next release.

If the two ends of the spectrum were drug dealer and school teacher, I have little doubt which I was closer to. And yet, part of me feels relieved that I worked for a large company who cared enough to at least save their friends, or at least friends who increased revenues.

By starting my own company, I’ve inched my way towards the middle of the spectrum. It may take a few more years before all that corporate greed and grime is out of my system. I love not having a boss who tells me to “remove the human element” from the decision and do what’s best for the shareholders, as if the two are mutually exclusive.

I wish jobs were as easy to find as the last time I was searching. They are harder to come by today, but that’s given me time to consider what I stand for and how I intend to support my family for the second half my career.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know my focus will more on the how and less on the how much.

What Accomplishment Are You Most Proud Of?

By referral from a friend, I got a call from the HR manager at a large Seattle based company that’s not Microsoft or Boeing. Or Starbucks. Although, working for Starbucks could be fun, I don’t think I could attain the required level of jauntiness each morning.

She asked if I’d be interested in a number of open positions with her company. After she explained the positions I told her I was interested.

The hiring manager emailed me two job descriptions. I prepared for the interview as best I could which wasn’t difficult because I’ve been a customer of this company for many years and am familiar with many of their products and services.

The first few interviews would take place over the phone, and I had my first one last week. I kept my answers short since I couldn’t count on nonverbal cues to assist me there. Most questions were the open ended scenario type. For example, “You recognize a business opportunity that would drive significant revenue. How do you pitch it to your boss?”

And then the interviewer tosses in a few hurdles as I explain my plan. But nothing too intense.

I felt the interview was going well, as best I could tell. But I’ve been hired after what I thought to be a poor interview and been passed over after feeling confident I rocked it.

And then she asked me a question that caught me off guard a bit: “What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?”

I know the game. This is where I’m supposed to spout of a well rehearsed tale of how I took the reigns of the over-budget software project and gently guided it to completion. Or how I flew across the country to placate an important and upset client thereby saving the account and our quarterly bonuses.

I had a list of inflated stories to tell recruiters right out of college so surely I’d have a collection of real-world Superman stories to tell fifteen years later. Certainly they’d be right there on the tip of my tongue.

But they weren’t.

So I gave what felt was the honest answer: “The accomplishment I’m most proud of being the father of four children and, with my spouse, raising them to be cheerful, confident and productive adults one day.”

As those words escaped my lips, I immediately thought, “Oh crap,what did I just do?”

I don’t know what answer the interviewer expected, but if the silence on the line is any indication, I don’t believe it was the answer I gave. And that’s OK, because it’s the truth. Because I’m done answering interview questions with hyperbolized answers even if that means I don’t make it past the phone interview stage.

When I interviewed for my first job at Microsoft, I’d been prepped by a squad of handlers who wanted to see me join their team. I’d memorized all the requisite buzzwords and knew what questions to expect. Of course, I nailed the eight interviews only to land in a position I dreaded.

So I may not get this job at this large Seattle company with great benefits and well prepared interviewers.

But I’ll still be Superman at home.

At least until the next time my son conks me on the head with a Nintendo controller.

What’s a Real Job?

“Are you going to get a real job?”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question. I believe most people define a “real job” as one that requires reporting to an office at a designated time each day to participate in the rituals we all recognize from Office Space.

I’m don’t know how to answer the question because I don’t know what a real job is anymore.

But whenever I’m asked the question, I’m reminded how much time I’ve spent sleep-walking through life. I don’t know if it has to do with how I was raised or the church with which I’m affiliated or my natural inclinations. It’s probably a combination of each. But I feel as though many of my friends and family are supportive of my decisions as long as I color within the lines when it comes to managing my career.

And not just my career but many of the major decisions I’ve made over the past 40+ years. When faced with a decision, I’ve often selected the path of least resistance because, well, explaining a desire do otherwise leads to confused looks and far too many questions. Only later do I kick myself.

I’m not saying that many decisions didn’t turn out well. Just that some were made giving no consideration to alternatives. Some of these feelings come from being raised in a Mormon family where members are taught to fall in line, turn the other cheek and don’t do anything outsiders could consider batsh*t crazy.

Despite all that, I’m happy with how how my family is evolving. It’s not always smooth, but I like what I see in my children day to day. Until a few months ago, 60 hours of my week was spent outside our home. At best,  I was a part of their lives for a few hours each weekday. Now I see them more in a day than I did in a week.

Kim and I walked around the track at our local middle school last night. Our kids played on the football field as we walked. Every few minutes one of them would run over to us, tell us something in their out-of-breath voice, then run off to play again.

Other than Luca begging for ice cream,I don’t remember much of what they said. But I enjoyed how they kept us involved in their conversations.

We walked a few miles before loading the kids in the van and driving home. When I pulled into our driveway and turned off the car, my 3-year old son began yelling, “Get me out, Dad, get me out!” 

I know the feeling. Wear, say, and behave this way. Get me out!

I want to raise children who color outside the lines like Anna who twirled her way around the football field last night.  I want to encourage them to respectfully question the status quo. I want them to do well in school but not at the expense of suffocating an inquisitive soul. I want them to be as mindful of how they treat others as they are about their assignments and grades.

I want each of them to figure out what brings them joy and pursue that. I don’t want them to be like me at 43 years old and say, “I wish I had become a teacher.”

But that would put a stop to the “real job” questions.

Just Make The Phone Number Bigger

A few years back when business owners decided to jump on the blogging bandwagon, I was asked to come up with ideas for starting a company blog. When our CEO got wind that he’d be expected to occasionally post his thoughts online, that plan was nixed.

The company I worked for at the time created technical training courses, and it made sense that our customers would expect to learn about, sample and purchase our products online. I decided if I couldn’t talk the executives into getting behind a company blog, I’d convince them to allow me to update the website.

Sales through the website were considered a necessary nuisance. Most sales came over the phone and were easily tracked to an employee earning a commission. But sales through the website weren’t easily tracked back to an individual. No whipping boy. Sales would increase for a few months and then stagnate over a holiday weekend. Someone needed to be held responsible for the poor sales and yelling at a website isn’t as enjoyable or effective as yelling at sales reps.

Once I gained approval to update the site, I recruited a designer from another division to help me. Over the next few weeks, we updated the branding, layout and product descriptions. Basically, we gave the site a more modern look while simplifying the navigation.

The new site went live and sales soared.

I was excited. My manager was excited. At the next company meeting, our CEO gushed over the sales totals for the month, and I expected everyone would be happy for us. And most were.  Near the end of the meeting, anyone could chime in with suggestions such as which products to spotlight on the homepage. I often collected customer testimonials at this time, and would later add them to the site.

After a short discussion, the sales manager said, “Just make the phone number bigger”.

Clearly, she viewed the website as a billboard. Customers would come to the site to locate our phone number and then call one of our sales reps. She did not view the site as a tool to drive more sales.

A few years after this experience, I found myself working at another technology company that did not have a website. That’s hard to imagine, but in 2008, we did not have a website open to the public. I worked with the same designer to create a website that provided information about the services we provided. It was a very simple site but served our needs.

At the final review with my manager, before we took the site live, I asked for his input. All features had been locked so what I was looking for were bugs and/or obvious mistakes. That’s when my boss said, “Can you add a scrolling stock ticker to the top of the homepage?”

It was difficult not to burst out laughing. But he was serious. He viewed the site as a portal such as My Yahoo or iGoogle and wanted a site that employees would set as their default homepage. I viewed the site as a way to inform and interact with our customers.

The lesson I learned was that company execs often view the power of the web much differently than those of us who grew up immersed in technology. While we view the web as a tool to improve sales or market our services, others shun the impersonal nature of it. We have no problem posting our opinions on Twitter or blogs. But not everyone is comfortable with that level of sharing or promotion.

The sales manager who asked me to make the phone number bigger was afraid how her crew would react if the phones stopped ringing. Once we worked together to figure out a way to compensate them for sales that came through the site, they got on board with us. We updated the site to focus on the quick sale while encouraging those interested in our more expensive products to call us for discounted pricing.

Next time I’m asked to assist in the creation of a company website, I’ll build in time to educate those who don’t know Flash from Silverlight.