Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Waiting and Hoping for the Next Wave

My entire employment history has been one of arriving at a company immediately after some sort of major crest,when the company's attitudes and policies and self-image are full to bursting with arrogance. This, however, is generally followed up by a period of less success, as the product line that brought the company to its current situation becomes outmoded in some fashion but the management has trouble facing what this means or determining what to do about it. Sometimes, looking over the four main companies I've worked for (Wang, Teradyne, Cray, and SGI), I think that there may not be anything at all to do about it; what defined the success in the first place is the same thing that defines the failures that follow.

As it happens, there is a part of me that's starting to believe that my current company, which has been struggling for many years, is finally turning around. I hope that is the case not just because I am interesting in keeping my job but because after 25 years in the workforce I think it would fun to know what it feels like to be part of a company on the upswing.

All of my work environments have been characterized by a sense of having missed "the good old days", when there were huge expensive company gatherings and profit-sharing checks. Every company I've worked for has had a generous profit-sharing program in place (as a justification for "below-market" salaries), and yet I have received only one profit-sharing check ever (in August of 1984). My current company, fortunately, gave up on the idea that a profit-sharing bonus should be considered part of a base compensation package in time for things to work out better for me, but my previous companies continued to cling to the belief that the days of huge profit-share were the norm long past the time when this was a reasonable approach.

When SGI bought Cray they were still riding very high on some pretty glorious days, so I have some sense of what this might feel like. It was heady and exciting for me to meet the SGI employees; at my first USENIX conference (which SGI was able to send me to) I went to a very expensive dinner with a large group of SGI and Cray employees, and one of the SGI folks there was able to expense the whole thing (on the "merger" budget). I'd never imagined such corporate largesse, or in fact so many people who seemed excited to be working for the company they worked for, the company that I now worked for. It wasn't just the money that was a cause of wonder for me, but the excitement and the pride and the buzz in the air, which is something I believe had left Cray before I arrived there. When I first went to SGI headquarters in Mountain View it was overwhelming and delightful to walk from building to building in their sprawling campus, and to eat at the wonderful cafeteria, to learn to use the corporate espresso machines, and to get a sense of how much there was of the company.

Actually when I first went to SGI headquarters in Mountain View I walked around the area of office parks on and around Shoreline Drive. This was perhaps the height of the dot-com boom, and you could practically feel the cry of "jobs jobs stock-options jobs" from every door and window. I briefly felt as if I were part of that world.

The general decline has been precipitous since that time (with my company on the cutting edge of the decline), but I was recently reminded of those days. I was cleaning out some ancient low-priority files of unresolved documentation issues and I came across an exchange from seven or eight years ago about where and how to document a bunch of scattered parameters that crossed traditional boundaries of technical areas. Not one of the many people who were part of that exchange works here any longer, and in fact the several groups that were represented in the exchange no longer exist. It's not even clear that it mattered at all to anybody at any time that this particular plan to put together a cross-departmental appendix never came to fruition; I will probably not pursue this.

The entire discussion predated my time working in the area, but I had known every participant. To see how much they had in the way of resources to address the issue, to see how many developers were involved and full of plans and information, this felt like looking through a foggy window on a grand old time. What was it like to work for this company at the time, when the stock was splitting and the fortunes of the world were descending on Silicon Valley? As I say, I felt a brief whiff of that, from a tailwind. But did I miss out on something irretrievable?

So now I'm looking at some things that feel like possibilities for my company, several things in fact. What if the stars align, and two or three of these possibilities pan out successfully? Will there be a renewed excitement, a period of time when we all work long hours and feel as if we're part of something important to our industry? Will there be raises again, and stock options that are not underwater?

I have a bit of hope. Let's see how long the sense of possibility lasts.
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