Fair Enough

It’s the new year and time to empty last year’s OUT basket.

By this time, appraisals along with evaluations of long term potential, succession plans, promotions, raises, bonuses and so on are in the books. But, once all was said and done, it seems like something more should be said about some of the things that were done.

I admit to being particularly vexed by our bonus system. It is discretionary. That means, in theory, that we have a meritocracy and those who deserve greater consideration will get it. What generally happens, though, is that more senior employees gobble up greater chunks of the pie simply because they are perceived as more valuable. Which means that the bonus system is tiered, not by rating but by level. (See what I did there?)

Do you remember Jessica? She provides content for various social media platforms. She was able to play the system, getting us to pay half of her husband’s very expensive medical plan. That whole business left the Black Widow’s eight eyes looking out of a glass darkly for months. That’s a lot of glowering.

Jessica’s performance met expectations but did not go much beyond them. Whiny Baby, as usual, found reasons to dim the glow on any of her reports and Jessica did not rise above the dreary outlook on her department as a whole.

The Black Widow, with an octet of furrowed brows, was still chafing.

As we have pointed out on several occasions, social media is not an area that captures the attention, much less the imagination, of our senior managers. They generally feel that social media is set up for self-promotion or mischief. Neither contributes to brand building but both could serve as a motivation and a weapon in wrong but capable hands. So take no chances, give Jessica something – a couple of thousand, say – and call it a day.

I argued that we are giving her too much credit. Rigor Mortis, our wise but weather-beaten legal advisor, pointed out that awarding a bonus is a de facto judgment on performance that can be levered against us if we ever decided to terminate. The Black Widow, with an octet of furrowed brows, was still chafing. Jessica did enough to earn her salary, she said, but not enough to merit a bonus. “And would two grand even be enough?” she wondered aloud. To use an analogy from Winston Churchill, can you satisfy a tiger by feeding it cat’s meat?

Ironically, that last query settled the matter. Our practical and otherwise parsimonious CEO, the Man from Glad, figured that if no one was truly happy by the amount of the bonus, it must be fair. So, we shrugged two grand her way and moved on.

Still Waters Run Deep

“Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them… there is nothing.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

Would that this were the case. But Sartre was wrong. He was overly existential. He believed that existence supersedes essence. To this observer at least, it is the essence – not the existence – of things that tell the story. Certainly, as inscrutable as things may appear on the surface, they tell this story.

Ben is a program manager who works with architects, engineers and other specifiers. He has boundless energy and speaks volumes when just a few words would probably do. But there is another side to Ben that no one sees. Or, to be more precise, there is an underside to Ben that no one realizes is there.

The first issue is that Ben disappears. The presumption is always that he is on the road, but that is not a certainty. Indeed, the constant query, where is Ben? has become something of a joke in the Small Office. I do not see it as a thing to be laughed at and worry that there is something amiss. But he does his job well and, short of prying into his personal business, there is nothing to be done about it.

His face was more stony than solemn.

Recently, the wife of a staff member died and most in the office went to the funeral. The church was large and, with its vaulted ceilings and majestic stained glass windows, something to behold. Ben sat alone, in the very far corner of the very last pew near massive oak doors. Ben is hardly a loner but, here, in this place, he kept to himself. He did not move through the entire service. His face was more stony than solemn; I am not sure he blinked even once. It was as if this place held for him a past he preferred not to revisit. I could not help but feel that there was something happening here but, short of prying into his personal business, there was nothing to be done about it.

Last week, the Black Widow, our very existential and, by her own assessment, very essential V.P. of human resources, came to see me. It had come to her attention that Ben has a drinking problem. She wondered if I knew anything about that. I looked at her quizzically. What do you mean by “drinking problem”? There are plenty on staff who can drink me under the table with no ill effects. Put Cowboy Bob at the head of the list. But of all those in the commercial team who would stop in for a pint at the slightest provocation, I would have considered Ben the least likely. Somehow, someone saw something that led to a conclusion that may or may not be valid. I imagine our Black Widow will pry into his personal business and then decide what to do about it.

So what is Ben’s story? Can we make it out based on the fragments we see and the snippets others hear? More importantly, should we try?

Calling 9-1-1

I guess I’m a bit like Benjamin Disraeli when it comes to traveling: I have seen more than I remember and I remember more than I have seen. But my travels, generally deplete of drama, stand in stark contrast to the latest sojourn of one Alistair J.

Alistair is the second cousin of the third earl of some ceremonial county in northwest England that ends in shire. Alistair is a buyer who scours the globe in search of any emerging technology that could be useful and profitable.

A proper preamble to this story requires the infusion of context. The Small Office is more known for its subtleties than its subterfuge. We are more strategic than surreptitious. In other words, there is little clandestine about our business – at least in the way we conduct it. Some low grade industrial espionage, perhaps. Patent surfing and back-engineering of competitive products. Raiding of competitors’ employees. Under-the-radar acquisitions. Off-book deals. Nothing to write home about in the unlikely event someone there truly cared. So tales of intrigue and artifice are beguiling to say the least.

Alistair is tall as befits an earl, and has white hair as befits a gentleman in his 70s. He often travels with his 20-something niece who is collecting obscure recipes from third world countries for publication. The two just went to Bangladesh.

Muggings are common, kidnappings common enough.

Bangladesh is notoriously dangerous for travelers. Especially well-dressed 70 year-old travelers with 20 something consorts. Muggings are common, kidnappings common enough. Alistair has already been robbed at knifepoint, had his room ransacked, and has been the recipient of numerous unsettling threats to life and very specific, rather important limbs.

Miscreants of all types scour airports for marks. Cab drivers are among the usual suspects. One common ruse is to wait for an unsuspecting businessman to grab a cab and, once on board, the driver robs his victim of all valuables. All of this only slightly offsets the fact that Bangladesh is duty free.

Alistair told me his latest trip to Dhaka was uneventful – even with his niece in tow – because, as always, he took an ambulance to and from his 5-star hotel. Apparently, no one robs ambulances – a nod, I suppose, to the fact that ambulance service is not much of a cash and carry business. Atif, Alistair’s regular driver, is always on call for his patrician bandhu. Atif’s vehicle is a full-sized, fully tricked-out, air-conditioned van, a rarity in this capital city where you are more likely to see a very pedestrian Maruti Omni human hauler with little more than a cot and an oxygen tank doing the job. In the business of getting around safely, what you know and who you know are one and the same.

I imagine that, going forward, I will take my extended, if relatively uneventful, travels in greater stride.

Rocket Science

The argument had taken somewhat of a harsh turn. Bull Terrier, who comes by his name honestly, growled something not quite off a Valentine card. The techie he faced was frustrated that his brilliant algorithm was being wasted on a sales grunt.

At issue was a dashboard the tech created that would measure the sales performance of a new line of industrial security products. The dashboard was built around a series of metrics that went far beyond merely sales volume and margins. Bull argued that their customers don’t want all this information, that they have their own way of measuring results, that too much technology turns them off. The answer to that was that customers could easily cherry-pick the metrics they found useful and ignore the rest. But for those that appreciate having more information so that they can make better decisions, we will have a distinct advantage over our competitors.

The argument soon became esoteric.

You have designed in retro rockets. The customer needs wheels.

“You have built a rocket ship,” Bull said in a rather exasperated tone. “The customer wants a car. The customer wants to drive to the grocery store, not fly to the moon.”

“The customer already has a car,” the techie replied with matching exasperation. “He doesn’t need us to give him another one. We are giving him a way to fly to the moon, something he doesn’t already have.”

“The customer doesn’t know how to pilot a rocket ship.”

“That’s where you come in. You will teach him to become a pilot. Do your job.”

“ Your job,” responded Bull angrily, “is to give the customer what he wants.”

“We are a technology company. Our job is not to give the customer what he wants but what he will soon learn that he needs.”

“What he needs!? You have designed in retro rockets. The customer needs wheels.”

The techie looked at Bull with a blank expression. “Why would a rocket have wheels?”

There is a Japanese proverb that says: Too much is just the same as too little. I heard it in the context of arranging flowers, the art of which, in Japan, is called Ikebana. I think it also works well in the context of this exchange.

Dress Code

“In my own city, my name procures me respect; in a strange city, my clothes.” – Hebrew Proverb

I recently attended a market analytics conference. Various market research companies were presenting a range of analyses designed ostensibly to inform, hopefully to titillate and, ultimately, to stimulate attendees to pay heavily for their services.

This was a gathering of C-level managers, all of whom looked the part. They were all attired in suits and tinged with just the right amount of grey. As an aggregate, they were natty and sophisticated. They looked like a million dollars, even if in well used notes, to use the words of author Angela Carter.

I have been to several such conferences over the years. Dress is always business casual and that is how I packed. As I entered the large hall with a screen the size of Iowa, I noticed all the suits. My heart sank a couple of inches. I guess I should have looked more closely at the dress code on the invitation. I leaned over to a hostess and asked her if I had missed something. She assured me that there was no requirement to wear a suit and that I should relax and enjoy myself. With no alternative, I resolved to do just that.

It was as if I had stumbled onto the set of the Thomas Crown Affair.

So there I was in dress pants and a merino blend v-neck sweater over a Ted Baker London classic fit check sport shirt. Presentable, I would say. After the first Power Point, which lasted a very long 60 minutes, I noticed that most of the jackets were hung over seat backs. By the mid-morning break, most of the ties followed suit. When the conference resumed after lunch, open collars and sweaters were out in force.

It was all so very gratifying. When I first walked in, it was as if I had stumbled onto the set of the Thomas Crown Affair bowler hat scene. These people had originally chosen conformity over comfort. And then, given a viable option, they quickly opted for the relaxed fit. Good on them.

Easy Does IT

Our IT department put in place this corporate chat tool that allows various groups to communicate with each other 24/7, to discuss issues of great or not the slightest importance. There is no moderator, although it is expected that good taste and good judgment will generally be maintained. There is a corporate channel, a sales channel and an IT channel.

You might imagine that I would not spend much time following the rather arcane threads that dominate the IT channel and you’d be correct. But I do drop in every now and then and, every now and then, I am richly rewarded. Yesterday, I stumbled in on this mystifying exchange.

We would have to swithc to vim.

Mac (our appropriately named IT Director): The thing is, we are kinda stuck with the mac. I mean, do you really want to dual boot ubuntu?

Shaggy (my inside source for all things IT): I can’t even imagine dealing with nvidia drivers on ubuntu… not to mention rubymine won’t run on it.

Thomas (our webmaster): Can someone translate for me?

Mac: We would have to swithc to vim.

Thomas: Where is my auto-correct?

Shaggy: What you have to know is that swithc isn’t even a typo.

Mac: No, it’s a nexus. LOL.

It is wonderful, said Winston Churchill, how well men keep secrets they have not been told. For most, talk of ubuntu – and other things incomprehensible – accomplishes much the same thing.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” – H.D. Thoreau, Walden

John X. has colitis. His moments of desperation come and go. In between, they lie low with silent slithering like snakes in the grass, waiting for his circumstances to be at their most inconvenient before striking. They do not strike quietly.

The colitis doesn’t affect his work, but it does make his working more difficult. It is almost inevitable that if John is expected at a meeting, he will be indisposed and unavailable at the appointed hour. I am sympathetic to John because I have a child who suffers the same affliction.

It is an odd thing that his colleagues are unaware of his plight, only of its various manifestations. Unkindly, when John is under siege, they say with a snicker that he is “in his office”.

Kyle C., our regional manager for the Northeast, was traveling with John. They were on a bridge in rush hour – trapped, in other words – when John felt a cramp coming on. He quietly – almost serenely – asked Kyle if he was up for some excitement. Kyle knew of John’s issues and immediately went into panic mode.

“Don’t even think about it!” he said sternly.

“I am trying not to”, came the reply.

“I mean it!” insisted Kyle, half expecting his admonition to have some effect on the outcome.

They were on a bridge in rush hour… when John felt a cramp coming on.

John, his stomach gurgling, issued a quiet “Uh, oh. This is not good”. He smiled weakly.

Time passed and traffic moved with excruciating slowness. They were still only half way across the bridge – too close for comfort, too far from relief. They could see no ready solution to their plight… it’s not like there was a rest stop or an off-ramp available.

Well, to quote a Spanish proverb, it’s not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring. Kyle was filled with sympathy and dread in equal measure.

“You will NOT do anything bad in my car, do you hear?” It was more a pleading than a proclamation.

Traffic inched along. A crush of vehicles going nowhere quickly, at least one small drama taking place in its midst.

Like every drama, there is an ending, a denouement, so to speak. But the ending here is, all things said and done, not important. However our story turned out, the thing of it is that it took place at all. And that, to our deepest regrets, it will almost certainly happen again.