Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Ancient Workplace Idiocies

As in yesterday's journal entry, I occasionally make reference to some aspects of my first job that were unpleasant, or at least frustrating. With the experience of several decades in the workplace I try, in retrospect, to make sense of it all. I think the main problem was that the company and the department grew too fast without the proper management, allowing small power plays and ambitions to grow wild and unfettered. It also meant some incompetent people were hired, who then had to be protected by their management in powerplay situations. I suppose it was all very Lord of the Flies.

There was really only one colleague who was downright evil, but she deserves her own journal entry. And a reserved seat in hell.

Mostly people were just trying to carve their own fiefdoms from the managerial anarchy, and then trying to protect their kingdoms in battle against the rival kingdoms. This is not the formula for ultimate business success, if you ask me. As an example (and a darned dramatic one): While I was working there, one of the editors -- a lovely, gracious, bright, older woman -- started to manifest classic symptoms of paranoia, and perhaps even schizophrenia. She started to imagine that we, the writers, were part of the "conspiracy" and we were putting things in our work that were part of a vague unarticulated attack against her. I learned of this when she came to my cubicle one day, quite distraught, needing to talk with me. Her graciousness and kindness were at absolute war with her delusions, and she was struggling hard as she told me (as politely as she could) how disappointed she was that I, of all people, whom she thought so well of, would believe these things about her and be part of all this. I tried to get specifics out of her, of what "all this" could possibly mean, but could get nothing more than some vague things about colors and numbers and even "the government". I did my best to murmur reassurances and then went right to my ineffectual boss to tell him of this conversation. He said, "Oh, she talked to you too? Well, we'll be sure she doesn't work on any of your projects."

This was not an acceptable response to me, so I marched right across the building to my boss's boss and told him I needed to speak to him that day. All I had to do was mention the name of the editor and he knew exactly what the story was, and he gave me some background. This woman had been part of a different group within the department. When she started manifesting these symptoms her manager had arranged, at the next reorg, for her to be transferred to my group -- without saying anything to anybody about her illness. That washed his hands of the problem and protected his people. I was incredulous, and my manager gave me a conspiratorial look and said, "Yeah, I found that a little shady myself." The problem at that point was that when her problems manifested themselves again and he went to HR their response was to instruct him on how to fire her, when what he wanted was to find out what the company could offer to help her. Ultimately what happened was they made her employment conditional on her seeking help, which she did not do to their contractual satisfaction so they could fire her with impunity.

My point here is not the implications of this sad story -- I get a small tear in my eye to this day over that sweet woman's struggles, when I remember that hurt desperate look she had when she built up her reserves to tell me how disappointed she was in me. My point is that the initial response to this problem -- move it away to be another person's problem -- was the general ethos of the whole department and, I believe, the whole company.

The daily effect of this ethos on me in particular was that the editing department was one of these fiefdoms, with a power-hungry manager. There were a couple of truly incompetent editors in this group, and I had the misfortune of being assigned to these editors for my first projects. I would have thought editing was the profession of the devil and the biggest timewaste on the planet if it weren't for the fact that eventually (while still at Wang) I worked with the absolute best editor imaginable (Kate Chambers) on my biggest project. I learned so much from her every comment. After working with her, I never wanted a single sentence to go directly from my keyboard to the public without her intervention. And then later, at Cray and SGI, I also worked with very good editors -- those editors were particularly good at trying to figure out what exactly you needed from them that would help you. I miss the luxury of editing very much these days. So my first experiences were definitely aberrations. Big, big aberrations. Aberrations who worked in a department whose response to their incompetence (which, as I discovered years later, was well known) was to protect them and attack the other departments. Do you see how this is getting tied together? And why I say that no matter how bad things get for me at work I can always smile and sigh with pleasure that I work with people who, despite stresses and occasional disagreements, basically want to support each other to get good product out the door in a timely manner?

The procedure was this: All documents had to go through 3 edits before they could be officially released. Yes, 3. And if your project was reassigned to a new editor before all 3 edits were complete, the count got reset. And even if you were updating an existing manual by replacing, say, one chapter, the entire document would need to be edited. (Not for technical updates, no -- that was the writer's job, -- but because "Who knows what idiot might have edited it before" -- that's what the editing manager said, revealing perhaps a bit too much.) Oh, and just to make things go more smoothly, the editing manager would decide for herself what the priorities were in terms of what got edited when, without coming to consensus with the writing groups -- and there was no managerial oversight of this nonsense at all. All of this meant that my stuff never got through editing, because I was working on an older product line that was deemed -- by editorial, not by marketing -- as being of lower priority. To get my documentation out with my products, I used to xerox my documents at night with a stolen xerox machine access code and send them directly to product managers who would pass them on to customers. (Another years-later story, long after I'd gone: The good editors I later worked with told me that of course they knew I was doing this, but they also told me that, unlike some of the other writers, they could trust that my work would be fine unedited, so they just went along with it all -- and they couldn't do much about it anyway. We all of us found ways around the stupidities of the department's procedures to get our work done.)

But boy, all of that sure guaranteed a lot of work for the editors, huh? There were nearly as many editors as writers, I think.

My first documentation project included many screenshots, with instructions that would often say something like "ensure that x is y and hit enter". The editor returned the document with every single instance of "ensure" individually crossed out and replaced with "insure". (Hours and hours and hours could have been saved by just saying this once to me -- we were working with word processors after all.) Ok, I thought that was silly, but I went along. Then for the second review the "insures" were replaced with "ensures". And for the third review? You guessed it! Right back again. I actually went to my manager about this, saying that I personally didn't care whether it was ensure or insure (there is no real difference by the way, at least not according to some authorities), but does the company really want to be paying the editor and me to spend our time going back and forth like this? He agreed, and promised to bring this up with the editing manager. The result? We no longer were allowed to keep previous edits or even to see them once we'd submitted our document for the next edit, so that we couldn't go to our management to complain about inconsistent editing. See? Problem solved! AND MANAGEMENT ALLOWED THIS! And then my document was assigned to another editor, who had me change everything back.

Here's the interesting thing: A year after I left Wang they had their first layoffs. And to my absolute astonishment, the first people laid off-- to a person, without exception -- were the people who had made our lives difficult with this nonsense. The editing manager was top of the list. And the manager who foisted off the mentally ill woman. And the excellent brilliant writer who made everybody uncomfortable. And the two radically incompetent editors I worked with. So MANAGEMENT KNEW what the story was -- they just didn't do anything about it.

Ah, but we were young. And there was a lot of fun to be had. And I commuted to work in a van pool with people I loved. And it was the first time I had a salary, And I was learning to be an adult. It was not an unhappy time of life, really, but boy -- I didn't even know it was possible to work in a place where you didn't want to burn the building down at the end of the day.
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