©1997 by Bill Appledorf
A couple of guys who owned a software development business not far from where I was living in Sacramento needed some Pascal programming done. Michael Thurmond hooked me up with them. He had met them through EST, a personal improvement program that was enjoying significant popularity at the time, 1988, and with which Michael was heavily involved.
I attended Michael's brother's "graduation" from EST at the Sacramento Civic Center Auditorium. The graduation celebrated the completion of an intensive workshop in which a group of about 30 people had locked themselves in a room with one another and a "facilitator" for two consecutive weekends and aggravated one another's insecurities to the point where remarkable transformations in self-awareness are said to have occurred. These people applauded each other knowingly at the graduation, intimately familiar with one another's anxieties, which apparently had been illuminated and acknowledged for the first time ever during the course of this workshop.
As I understand it (I never took "the training", it looked like brainwashing to me), the EST workshops were structured such that the first weekend you were brow beaten by the facilitator and the dynamic of the group into the attitude that you are a hopelessly incompetent loser wasting your life and failing at everything of any importance whatsoever. The second weekend you were elevated to the heights of optimism and confidence in your own ability to achieve anything and have whatever you want. Then you went to the graduation, sort of like being led out of the oral surgeon's door high on Nembutal after having all of your teeth removed.
EST people, when they were immersed in the company of other EST people, perceived themselves to be exceptionally competent emotionally. They shared a common initiation into a common view and understood one another's lingo perfectly since they all said the same thing. But if you hadn't taken the training and you didn't know the lingo, you would be asked to sign up for the coming workshop and not let off the hook until you agreed or were forced to end the conversation by rudely walking away.
The accepted truth among EST devotees was that unless you have had your emotional onion skins peeled away by EST, you can only be deluded, blind to yourself, and not the master of your life that everyone who takes "the training" is prepared to be. EST was very good at providing its members, not coping skills necessary to communicate well with the huge variety of individuals in life, but a group of people who thought just like them. This eliminated the need among EST followers to clearly articulate one's perspective to oneself or others. No one I asked was able to describe the EST experience. All anyone could tell me was that it had completely changed his life and I owed it to myself to do it, too.
I think the unrelenting intensity of the EST experience and the way that it was run prevented people from slipping away and pretending it wasn't happening when they started to feel scared. It forced participants to acknowledge they'd been deceiving themselves about one thing or another for their entire lives. Graduates of "the training" not being the kind of people who had already been dedicated for years to getting at the truth about themselves, it was a radical awakening for many of them to discover it's all right to admit to oneself one's efforts to evade reality.
But seeing it once does not mean you are permanently fixed from there. As a guy by the name of Harrison once told me about himself at the Java City at 18th and Capitol in Sacramento, every time you manage to feel your way through one of your own walls, you find another one is staring you in the face. Self-awareness is not a one-time deal. It is a lifelong process that depends every moment on your commitment to allow the world to get through to you and to deal with it as though it is really there. Harrison told me he used to think that as he got older he would find it easier to feel calm in the face of adversity, but it just kept getting harder.
Graduates of EST, though, were inculcated with an entirely different view, that with the right attitude, which you get by taking EST, you can have everything you want, and, for EST, getting everything you want equates to being deliriously happy every moment of your life.
EST was a seriously big bucks business, a high energy super hard sell marketing program hawking wish fulfillment to the middle class; and the proof that EST works, the proof that you ought to sign up, too, was a room full of pumped up graduates excitedly parading full-faced grins, problem solved, on their way to owning expensive things and being liked and never having to deal with losing anymore.
EST did offer follow on workshops, I understand, and they cost a lot, but you can't buy self-realization, and to believe you can earn a certificate in authenticity by completing someone else's program in personal development is the epitome of pride and self-deception. You earn your own enlightenment by living your own life face to face with your own impulse to run away. I was particularly struck by the unfriendliness still manifest in the behavior of individuals who were unfriendly before they had taken EST. To me the measure of the success of a personal growth program is the extent to which it diminishes, not reinforces, a self-centered, defensive attitude.
The two guys with the software business Michael introduced me to were EST graduates. My relationship with them was that it was an opportunity for me to make a buck.
This particular group of people - the two guys and their wives - were not exceptionally heavy handed about it, but when I went over to one of their homes for the free dinner to kick off the project, I did have the distinct feeling of being perceived, oh, like a Coptic Christian in the parlor of a Saudi Sheik - not disdained exactly, just dismissed as woefully ignorant, backward, and unaware. Each of my hosts mentioned the upcoming EST workshop and asked me if I was going to attend. Each time I said no, I was asked, "Why not?" I gave all sorts of reasons - begging off because I was doing something else, philosophical differences with Werner Erhard's (the founder of EST's) theory, not wanting to spend the money. Nothing worked. They kept asking me if I was going to attend. I kept saying no. They kept asking me why. Not that this was the only subject of conversation. It just kept coming up over and over again.
In the EST culture, when you understood something, you said, "Got it." They had a number of other code phrases, too, one of which was, "Because I choose not to." That's all I had to say when they asked me why I wasn't going to that workshop, and they would have quit asking me. "Because I choose not to." But I didn't know the lingo - on purpose, mind you, because I hadn't done "the training". I didn't like the unquestioned dominance of the facilitator or the eager subordination of the group in EST. I ask a lot of questions. I resist doing what I'm told to do. I acquiesce to others' authority gradually, based on mutual displays of good faith and a willingness to give and take.
We were sitting at the dinner table eating, and the question of that damned workshop came up one more time. I was out of reasons, and I was feeling put on the spot again without being left a graceful out. I had said no a dozen times, and these people would not take no for an answer. I reached the limit of my ability at that point in my life to control myself. Space rose from my chest into my head. I snapped.
I stood up and calmly picked up my full water glass and threw it down as hard as I could into the center of my dinner plate. "No," I said firmly. Then I picked up my salad bowl and threw it directly into my soda glass. "The answer," I said deliberately, "is no." The others sat frozen in their chairs as one by one I picked up every dish and glass within reach and hurled them down into something that would break. I accelerated my movements slightly, then decelerated, then stopped, my fingers covered with blood by the shards that had flown up into them. I looked my questioner in the eyes and said, "The answer. Is no."
The owner of the china I had just demolished looked at me aghast and dryly articulated, "Got it." I was shown the door. If these people had been less civilized, they might have murdered me or worse. The next day, Michael called to ask me what had happened. The senior partner - the other guy, not the one with the home where the dinner was - had called him and told him the story. Michael told me I had to settle with my host by paying him $50 for the damage I had done. I had destroyed probably $600 worth of china and other items. I went by with a check.
Those guys had advanced me $300 for the work I was supposed to do for them. They had paid me with a check. When I paid up for breaking all those dishes, the senior partner asked me if I'd cashed the check for my advance. I said no. He told me he was going to stop payment on it - not to help compensate for the damage, he said, but to punish me for what I'd done. When I left his place, I drove directly to their bank, went inside, and cashed his check. He had phoned in a stop payment, but the teller who waited on me didn't notice it and handed me the cash. The bank pursued and threatened me for months until they finally decided they couldn't scare me into covering their teller's butt.
My contract with those guys stipulated I was going to be paid $300 up front. Other monies to be paid at different stages of the project depended on progress I was supposed to make. The $300 was a retainer. I freaked out and demolished that guy's dishes, but I had shown up for the dinner. In my opinion, I had kept my side of the bargain. Of course, it was their bank, not they, who paid me the $300.
Does this qualify as getting fired? I don't know. Maybe it's a business relationship gone bad. When those EST guys started to get insistent and the atmosphere became intolerable, I could have excused myself to the bathroom, gotten my coat, and left, but the thought never entered my mind. I assumed I could talk them into backing off. It was so typical of me not to walk away, to believe I could reason with someone who was out of control. I would reason, I would discuss. Then I would grab my adversary by the figurative throat and shake him, screaming in his face to open up his eyes. This propensity of mine to lose my composure in confrontation with inflexible individuals got me fired on a number of occasions and is the last of my demons I ultimately learned to quiet.
In 1975, when the dispatcher at Rowley's Taxi in Campbell River, British Columbia bawled me out for not giving the drunks their dime in change, I quit, so I guess that doesn't qualify as being fired either. I definitely did get fired in San Francisco in 1977 from my name compiling job when my employer got wise to the multiplicity of variations I was submitting for each name, but that wasn't a real job. It was a part time at-home gig I was desperately trying to stretch into something I could live on. I did get fired from my bartending job at Vesuvio, in North Beach, for encouraging the drunks to go outside and do something else besides drink all day, but I wasn't really being paid to do that job. Leo, the regular bartender, was giving me half his tips so he could play liars dice all morning instead of waiting on the trade. The owner never told me I was "fired". He said he thought it would be best for me not to help Leo in the mornings anymore because I was upsetting the customers. The Canterbury Hotel, on Sutter Street, definitely fired me when I caused their basement to be flooded by accidentally bumping a fire sprinkler head with my vacuum cleaner, but, hey, it was an honest mistake, and Yellow Cab of San Francisco definitely fired me for bad mouthing the boss on the radio.
That whole damned radio situation arose because I didn't realize I was done with driving cab and didn't have the sense to quit. Every load had become the same. Every passenger had become a carbon copy of someone else. The only part of the job that held any challenge for me anymore was getting to an order as quickly as I could after picking it off the radio. Once I had the order in the car, I felt like I couldn't get where I was going and get empty again fast enough. I started feeling just a little too independent. I assumed even more than I usually do that people give a damn about what I think. I started getting testy. I started acting like I was in business for myself. I even managed to get myself robbed as a result of my being too complacent and inattentive.
The night I got robbed I shouldn't have even been out on the street. Yellow Cab leased their cars for 10 hours at a time. I had already been out for 9 and had burned so much gas I had driven back to the garage to fill up. Business had been excellent that night. I had already grossed well over the $160 necessary to net 100 bucks for the night, and I was feeling greedy. Once your gas and gates are paid, your baseline costs to lease your cab and run it for the night, you get to keep the gross. I figured a few more loads and I would make another 30 bucks, so I went out again to finish up my shift.
I picked a call off the radio for the 1600 block of Fell Street. That's in the Western Addition, a dangerous part of town to pick up on the street, but safe as anywhere else to knock on someone's door. For some reason, even after I repeated the 1600 block address to my dispatcher, I drove to the 600 block. A guy was standing on the curb. I figured he was my load waiting for his cab outside. Boy, must he have been surprised. I pulled up to him and said, "Are you waiting for me?" He nodded and got inside.
In that particular part of town it was common for male passengers to adopt a remarkably unpleasant attitude if they managed to get inside your cab. Everywhere else in the world, people understand that when you get into a taxicab, you are buying a ride from A to B, but black men in the ghettos of San Francisco in 1977 understood when they got into your cab that you now worked for them. Drivers wouldn't check in for orders in the Western Addition precisely because when a load got in your car (after making you wait for 20 minutes until he finally came downstairs), he would start ordering you around, refuse to tell you where he wanted to go, raise his voice and get authoritarian if you told him you needed to know your destination. And he wouldn't tip. I understand where all that stuff was coming from. Those poor bastards felt so powerless and trod upon, about all they could get going for themselves was to terrorize taxicab drivers with belligerent backseat driving. So I knew the drill.
This guy got in the car and told me turn left here, turn right there, wait here, I'll be right down, go here, go there. This was no surprise. Only thing is, he had directed me to his apartment, gone upstairs and got his gun, toured the neighborhood to find a convenient place to rob me (Page and Webster), and then he held me up! He didn't exactly stick his gun in my face. He "showed" it to me. He opened his coat and let me see the handle.
I reached into my shirt pocket, pulled out my roll of singles - maybe 30 bucks - and handed it to him looking into his eyes in my rear view mirror. He thumbed through the wad.
"What about the rest?" he asked.
I pulled my wallet out of my hip pocket. It was crammed with 5's, 10's, and 20's, ten hours worth of flat out taxi driving. I handed him the cash.
"Don't move from this spot for 5 minutes," he said. He didn't take my keys.
Back at the garage, the drivers were all, "He was bluffing. Why didn't you make him show you the whole gun?" The reason is I didn't want to make him mad. I didn't want this guy to fly off the handle and shoot me. Sure, the cops would probably find him afterwards and maybe he'd go to jail, but I would be dead, something I definitely do not care to be.
After this guy robbed me, I drove around the block and got on Oak Street heading into town. The street was quiet. It was 12:30 or so am. That guy was crossing the street at Webster. I had him in my sights and could easily have run him down. He saw me coming, and when he looked at me, I could tell he knew. What am I supposed to do? Kill somebody over a couple of hundred bucks? Then I'm the one sitting in a jail cell with someone's penis up my butt. I can't say the look on that guy's face was worth the money that he stole from me, but at least I know I had a choice about whether to flatten him with my car, and I feel good having decided not to.
I think my dad would have been proud I didn't kill that guy. When I was kid, oh, maybe in 1962, I used to help out in my father's drug store in East Boston, Massachusetts. It was OK working there. I liked hanging out with my dad, I liked whipping together sundaes for the customers, and I liked when my dad and I stopped off for a pizza on the way home sometimes after closing at the end of the night. He was cashing up one time, and he waved a pile of bills at me, maybe a couple of hundred bucks. "This is money," he said. "There are people out there who are willing to kill you to take it from you. If someone wants your money, Billy, give it to him. Your life is worth a lot more."
He also taught me to drop what I was doing when a customer wanted my attention, something service personnel are not taught these days. My dad taught me that if I was cleaning the fountain or stocking the shelves, I could always go back to doing that after the customer had what he wanted and was gone. The customer, however, has more important things to do than to wait around for me to finish up some chore before I get to him. I don't want to overly idealize my dad here. He was not exactly on top of his relationship with my mother. One night driving home from work while the family was in the midst of a major emotional upheaval over some trivial situation my mother had blown up out of all proportion, my dad asked me almost in tears, "What am I supposed to do to make her happy, Billy?" How the hell did I know? I was a 14-year-old kid. He was supposed to be teaching me how to live with a woman, something no one ever did. Not that people haven't tried, if you count endeavoring to brainwash me into believing either men or women are evil or to be used. I was supposed to learn as a kid by watching an agreeable relationship mature. I have never been any good with women.
After I got fired from Yellow Cab, I went to work for Veterans Cab, which was a giant step down for me in seniority and in pay. Veterans did nothing like the volume of radio business Yellow did, and driving for Veterans was much more of street game, at which I was absolutely terrible. Maybe it's because I made no secret of my having dodged the draft (Veterans Cab was founded after WWII by veterans returning from the war). Maybe that had nothing to do with it. At Veterans I was given the worst cars and rarely got out of the lot before 7 or 8 pm. After 18 months of driving a brand new, clean Volare with an FM radio at Yellow and getting onto the street by 3 pm, I was at the bottom of the Veterans dispatch list. Driving taxi being the only way I knew to make a buck, I made every effort to adjust.
Occasionally at San Francisco International Airport there arises an opportunity for taxicab drivers to engage in a thoroughly illegal practice known as "double loading". This happens when there are a very small number of taxis in the lot and so many people wanting a ride that passengers are not only willing to share a cab to a common destination, but each passenger is also willing to pay full fare. When a double loading opportunity occurs, cab drivers lock all their doors to keep anyone from getting in uninvited, jump out of their cars, and select from the crowd as many people as they can cram in who want to go to San Jose, for example, or Marin County, or the East Bay - somewhere far away. That one ride can easily make a driver a couple of hundred bucks.
One night, after I had been driving for Veterans Cab for a couple of months, I was hanging out at the airport in a broken down heap of a taxicab at about 1 o'clock in the morning. I looked up in the sky and to my amazement saw the landing lights of half a dozen planes approaching. There couldn't have been 4 cabs in the lot including mine. About 15 minutes later there were a crowd of maybe 90 people clamoring for a taxi at the curb. I thanked God, jumped into my car, rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and turned on the ignition. Nothing. Not even a click. My piece of crap car was dead. Just about in tears from frustration and disappointment, I radioed for a tow. I'd missed the most dramatic double loading opportunity of my taxicab driving career because my car was a piece of junk (which, by the way, I had paid 40 bucks to lease). Three hours later the tow truck arrived and hauled me back to the garage. I asked the driver to let me out a couple of blocks from the yard. Next day I called the office to make sure they'd gotten their car back OK, which they had. Just as I was about to hang up, the girl on the other end of the line said, "Oh, you know you're fired don't you?" Yes, I replied. I knew.
I can only think of one time I have been fired for doing a bad job. Luella and I had been supporting ourselves in Vancouver, British Columbia with a Georgia Straight and a Buy & Sell Press delivery route for about 2 1/2 years in 1973. We made an easy $100 a week working Wednesday morning for the Buy & Sell Press and Thursday afternoon for the Georgia Straight. Except for the first Thursday of the month, when we had to collect for the previous month's sales (our receipts always tallied to the penny), the Georgia Straight route only took a couple of hours. We had the most desirable route in town, Kitsilano, stocking grocery store magazine racks with Gilbert Shelton and R. Crumb comic books, High Times and other marijuana growers' magazines, the LA Free Press, Rolling Stone, the Georgia Straight, and other publications of interest to the local left leaning, pot smoking, rock 'n' rolling crowd.
Luella counted out the papers and magazines in our van. I ran into the stores and placed them on the shelves and settled our accounts. We built the Buy & Sell Press route from scratch by appropriating counter space right next to the cash register at every corner grocery store on Kingsway and in Burnaby. The store owners went along with the idea because they received a generous percentage of every 25-cent sale, and the paper sold. The Buy & Sell Press contained only advertising, and the classified ads were free. It made its money on circulation and display ad sales. People advertised fantastic bargains in the Buy & Sell Press because they didn't have to pay for their ads, and bargain hunters bought the paper in droves.
Luella and I lived in a basement apartment near the corner of 19th and Oak we rented from an elderly Polish immigrant couple by the name of Lapides for $60 a month. Life was easy, we were warm and dry, and things were pretty good - until Luella started nagging me to bring home more money and I allowed her to talk me into looking for a laboratory technician job at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
On the surface I suppose laboratory technician work looks like a perfect fit for me because I have a Masters Degree in Physiology from UCLA, but I have no aptitude for laboratory work, and I never learned any practical science skills. Lab was always my worst subject in school. I took as little of it as I could. When my brother got me hired at MIT one summer (in, oh, 1964) to work in his professor's laboratory, I gravitated to the sink and started washing glassware - not that they let me spend the summer doing that, but it's my natural inclination. I am good at high level abstract theorizing, and I am useless in the lab.
I managed to talk a geneticist by the name of Jim Berger at UBC into hiring me to help take care of his Paramecia. He had created a large number of behavioral mutants (behavioral mutants exhibit easily recognizable traits that can be used as "markers" in genetic experiments), and was using them to study the physiological and genetic control of the cell cycle in Paramecia. He probably had 100 half gallon jars teeming with Paramecia on his shelves. My job was to maintain these stocks for him. I used little pipettes to put different kinds of Paramecia together in little puddles to give them the opportunity to mate, and I fed the stocks.
They ate "hay infusion medium". To feed them I would put a couple of pounds of hay in a jug of water, boil it in the autoclave, buffer it with phosphoric acid to get the pH into a range that won't kill Paramecia, dump out about half the fluid in every jar, and top each one off with new, sterile, buffered food. Only problem is I forgot to buffer the food one day and wiped out his entire lab.
What can I say? My heart wasn't in my work. I was doing it because Luella wanted me to make some money. My mind was on other things. Jim went into shock when I told him what I'd done. He never did get a chance to express his anger to me about it, because I was long since fired by the time his shock wore off.
Jim Berger was an OK guy. His wife became pregnant while I was working for him, and I asked him why they had decided to bring a child into this miserable, corrupt, over populated, polluted, war torn world. He told me that in his opinion, as a biologist, the argument for procreation is the same as the argument against suicide. It is our nature to reproduce, he said, and our function is to live our lives.
Except for that one instance wiping out Jim Berger's Paramecia, I can't think of another time I've been fired for doing a bad job. I learn fast, I work hard, and I focus like a steam roller on what I am assigned to do. That steam roller business is what usually gets me in trouble with my co-workers, especially when I am in a supervisory position. In any case, I work my job like a finely tuned machine. I get fired for refusing to allow myself to be stifled or abused.
In Vancouver in 1975, after I returned to the city from Quadra Island - alone, of course, because Luella was dead - I went to work for a month or so for Canada Post humping 80-pound bags of Christmas mail on and off of trailer trucks. It was strictly temporary work, but the hourly pay was as good as you could get. A steady stream of 50-foot trailers would back up to the loading dock stuffed end-to-end with mail. A gang of 6 or 8 guys, including me, would attack each one, emptying it completely in a half an hour. Then we'd compliment each other loudly, slapping each other's palms. Someone would hit it with the broom while we threw open the doors of the next one.
"Holy shit!" someone would say. "Look at all that mail!"
"Ah, it's nothing!" we'd yell at him, slapping each other on the back, pushing each other towards the doors, and tear into that pile of canvas sacks like ants swarming over a stale cupcake.
When that job ended, I took on a low circulation paper route in the Fraser Valley for the Georgia Straight that barely paid my gas. I reluctantly quit that route a few months later because I was going broke and went to work driving delivery for a transmission rebuilder in East Vancouver. The master mechanic at that shop was an insufferable grouch, always mad about something and shouting about it. I never personally had a run-in with him, but it was scary being around the guy. The job also required that I wash transmission parts in some sort of solvent. I didn't know what that was going to do to me, so I left, soon after I hired on, and went to work driving a step van for a small cartage company on East 4th Avenue in Vancouver called Delco Carriers. They delivered flowers for most of the florists in the metropolitan vicinity and did a small amount of general cartage, too.
The owner and general manager of Delco Carriers at that time was a guy by the name of Mike Macrae. Mike's mission in life was not to rip you off. He promised his customers a service for a fee, and he delivered. He hired drivers to service his accounts, and he paid. Every pay day your check grew just a little bit. He started us out at $6 an hour, but after a few months we were making $9. The longer you stayed, the more you made. He was smart. He incentivized us not to leave, which kept his turnover down and the experience level of his drivers up. He didn't mention these pay increases when he hired me. Figuring out what was going on after a couple of paydays might be the only pleasant surprise I have ever received after going to work somewhere.
I started driving for Delco Carriers in the spring. The weather was frequently warm and sunny, and I loved driving around in it in that van. I was supposed to slide my door shut for safety's sake, but I drove with it open except when I was near the barn, where I could get busted for breaking the rules. The air and street would swirl around my seat. I rode above the traffic on a cushioned pedestal looking out at the city through two big panes of glass. I had to work a 4-speed gearbox on the floor. I could hear and see and feel the road. I moved that truck like it was part of me.
When I first started taking my van out, I was not fully competent at driving it. I pulled in to park behind a pickup truck with a kayak on its roof and cracked the top of my driver's side windshield against the kayak. I hadn't considered my vehicle's height and became aware of it when I busted that guy's kayak. I was afraid I was going to be fired when I called in and told the boss what happened. He told me to leave a note on the pickup truck and bring the van in to the garage. He gave me a panel van to drive until my windshield was repaired and told me he might retire my step van altogether rather than to replace the glass. Fortunately, he had it fixed and gave it back to me. He knew that accident woke me up and he didn't have to worry about my damaging it again.
We drove two pickup and two delivery routes every day, one of each in the morning and one of each in the afternoon. It wasn't easy work, but I liked my boss, I liked my truck, and I liked my pay. I quit about 5 months into the job, when the opportunity to attend music school presented itself, to be a musician being my wildest dream, but I also quit because the thought of driving for Delco Carriers indefinitely scared me. I could feel myself being sucked into oblivion, that I would never travel on. After one semester of music school, when yet another winter fell and I still was lost and all alone, I finally returned to California. In San Francisco I rented a room in a residential hotel and played scales on my guitar eight hours a day for the next entire year.
The morning pickup route I drove for Delco Carriers started on Broadway in East Vancouver and worked its way out to north of Burnaby. I had to haul ass to get back to the barn in time to get my flowers sorted by 10:30 am when we all left to do our morning deliveries. My morning drop off area was south of King Edward Avenue to the Fraser River and east to New Westminster. I picked up in Burnaby and into town down Kingsway on my way back after noon. My afternoon delivery route was downtown west of Granville into the West End, including the cruise ship terminal. Our days were full, and the places I drove varied from crowded downtown streets to suburban commercial strips to residential neighborhoods. I blocked the road in the financial district, boarded ships in the harbor, wound my way through Shaughnessy, learned the hospitals in Burnaby, all while delivering floral arrangements brightening people's day. It was a lot of fun.
One of the first stores I hit on my morning pickup route always made me late. In retrospect I can see how being picked up early put a bit of pressure on that customer, but the way she handled it, not discussing her situation with me or Mike, always slowing me down, always making me wait, typifies precisely what is wrong with the communication between people. For some reason, huge numbers of us do not admit to anyone else that something is bothering us unless it is someone else's fault. Feeling pressured and needing some relief doesn't seem to be discussed. I think people assume that others will not care and therefore do not bring it up.
This particular customer was always pushing me to wait just about as long as a reasonable person would, and the tension between us was fairly high as a result. She didn't apologize about it at all. She didn't ask. She basically demanded that I wait for her, carrying her body with the attitude that since she was paying for the service, I was obliged to accommodate her. Naturally I told her I needed to get in and out of her shop as quickly as I could on several occasions, and I stress that at that time I was not a master of tact, so all I was able to accomplish was to put her even more on the defensive than she already felt about having to get her butt in gear early enough to be picked up every day.
Inevitably, this customer hung me up inexcusably long one day, and I wound up leaving her rather than continuing to wait. My reasoning was that if I did continue to wait, I could not possibly finish my route in time to get my flowers back to the barn on schedule, and everybody else, including our afternoon pickups, would be late as well. I called Mike a few stores later to give that customer a chance to finish her arrangements and to ask him if someone else could pick her up that day, but I called too late. She'd beaten me to the punch and naturally exaggerated out of all proportion how rudely I had treated her. Mike told me to go back there and apologize. I told him no. He told me I was fired.
I felt justified as I stomped away from the barn. Mike agreed with me that the customer was a pain in the butt, but his position was that we needed her business and we needed to keep her happy. "But I'm the one she's going to make late every day if we let her get away with this," I bawled. It didn't matter. I had to apologize or Mike had to fire me for not doing what he told me to do. It felt strange not to be at work during business hours. I walked to my friend Dwight's house to tell him what had happened.
"Call him and ask him to give you your job back," Dwight said. "Apologize to the lady." I thought Dwight would applaud me for not letting myself be pushed around. "You need that job," he said. "What are you going to do for money without it?" This was a major turning point for me. I valued my pride more than I valued money. Dwight convinced me to call the boss and beg him for my job. I did what Dwight recommended. He had never been wrong about this sort of thing before. The lady was nicer about it than I thought she'd be. She apologized to me after I apologized to her. She was shorthanded. She was doing more business than she could handle. She hoped to hire an additional arranger soon. We had the conversation after this crisis was over that we should have had before it ever began, which is the way misunderstandings generally go.
In July, 1989, I moved from Sacramento, California to San Diego. The weather is nice in San Diego, but I have been fired from almost every job I have taken there.
Taxicab driving was my fallback job when I moved to San Diego. I had worked for a total of 6 years as a computer programmer in Sacramento, but I knew that I could find work immediately driving taxi whether anyone in San Diego wanted to talk to me about computer programming or not. After lying out on the beach for a month or so, I signed on with Coast Cab, which serviced the same sort of neighborhood clientele in San Diego that City Cab did in San Francisco. There was a certain glamour associated with driving a City Cab or a Coast Cab. Well, glamour might be a little strong, but you were at least considered worthy of mentioning to another person when someone made your acquaintance in your cab. The fact that you were working counted for something among the passengers who rode with you. You were seen as an equal for the most part and respected because you had a job. This was in contrast to working in San Diego for Yellow Cab, for example, where you were viewed as a total loser hanging on to the last bottom-of-the-barrel stop on your way to homelessness.
I adjusted to making about $40 a night, figured that's all you could make driving cab in San Diego, and spent most of my shifts sitting around waiting. Driving for Coast was nothing like driving for Yellow Cab in San Francisco. The radio was slow, and except for a couple spots in town there was no business on the street. San Diego definitely is not a taxi town. The cars at Coast were uniformly about as bad as the worst cars I'd seen at Veterans. I didn't have to worry about being given inferior equipment. All of it was shot.
One night around 10 pm I had been out on the street for a few hours and was first in line in Pacific Beach. The dispatcher called my number and told me to pick up at the Trade Winds Motel on Mission Bay Boulevard. I drove to Mission Boulevard, which is about 30 blocks west of Mission Bay Boulevard, and obviously was unable to find the Trade Winds Motel. The dispatcher answered me condescendingly when I asked him to direct me to Mission Bay Boulevard, and even after he spelled out the location of the Trade Winds Motel so an idiot would understand, I still had trouble finding it.
Eventually, after spending more than half an hour looking for it, I did finally manage to find that damned motel. I got to my load just as an Orange Cab, which the motel manager had called when it looked like I wasn't going to show up, was pulling into the lot. A big discussion followed, everyone standing between the cars waving their arms and talking loud. I was awarded the load in the end because the manager had called me first. The Orange driver was a Middle Eastern guy who was noticeably angrier than the situation warranted, but everyone else wanted the situation to work out smoothly. The Orange guy probably figured if he fought the fight, he was going to lose it anyway, so he gave me a long hard icy stare and let me have the load. The load was two Mexican guys who wanted a ride to Reseda, a town in the San Fernando Valley northwest of Los Angeles, about 150 miles away.
I am not a very smooth businessman. I am stunned by the big bucks people pay for things. Money in itself feels make-believe to me. I find it hard to share the serious attitude people have about it. Asking a ridiculously expensive price feels like a game and embarrasses me. I never get as much from a golden goose as more predatory negotiators do. I'm not your prototypical taxicab driver.
Neither of these Mexican guys spoke any English whatsoever, and I don't speak a lick of Spanish. I understood the word "Reseda", though, because I happen to have bought a 120 cc Suzuki motorcycle from a guy who lived in Reseda in 1967 while I was going to UCLA. That guy actually turned up at Dalhousie University in Halifax after I transferred there, and I have often wondered if maybe he was a CIA guy keeping tabs on me because I was a War Resister. I don't say this because I am a paranoid guy in this case but because of how paranoid those government spook type guys were back in those days.
I asked the dispatcher how much to charge these guys to drive them to Reseda, and he told me "at least" 150 bucks. "Be sure you get the money before you leave," he said. I helped the Mexican guys count out $150. I suppose I could have helped them count out $300 and they wouldn't have minded. One of them was carrying a roll of 50's and 100's that easily topped a couple of thousand bucks. "Why are these guys carrying all this money?" I wondered, "Why are they taking a taxi to Reseda?"
I drive the way a lot of people think they do but can't. I press my car relentlessly forward into traffic, nosing steadily to the front of the pack. I watch the overall pattern of the traffic evolve and drive every avenue that opens, using all the lanes. But I never take a chance. I do not overextend myself or encroach on another driver's space, and I am always in control of my car. Sometimes I race young aggressive drivers who think you win by going fast, and I lose them every time by making more intelligent moves, cruising freely while they rush into being trapped behind slow moving vehicles.
I do not push on other drivers to yield an inch of space. I do not tailgate or obstruct. I drive between and around the traffic, never committing my car to a move that depends for its success on another driver's speeding up or slowing down or continuing at a constant speed. I have often fantasized about explaining to a judge that the speed limit doesn't apply to me, because even when I am driving fast, I am driving safe. I gave those Mexican guys a demonstration that kept them wide-eyed on the edge of their seats all the way to Reseda. What the hell. They paid me for the ride. I gave them their money's worth.
That Coast Cab, with worn shocks and balloon tires, was built for hauling loads around within the city limits and was not fit at all for a hundred and fifty mile road trip. We were floating on our springs, bouncing to the rhythm of the undulations of the roadway. The smoothness of our bouncy ride was my doing, I must add. I timed my speed into the ridges and dips in the surface of the freeway so our hits would coincide with the frequency with which we were oscillating on our springs. You think I'm kidding. It takes touch to make a car move smoothly. You have to feel the rhythm if you want to drive it right.
We got to Reseda about 90 minutes after leaving San Diego. I pulled into a gas station and asked for directions to our destination. The Mexican guys were carrying a piece of paper with an address written on it. End of story. Gracias. Thank you. I let them out and headed back to town.
Driving south through San Onofre a little after 1 o'clock in the morning I had a blowout in my right front tire. Small wonder. I had been driving 90 mph for the past 2 hours on a set of tires so old and bald I'm surprised I made it as far as I did. I stopped on the shoulder and opened up the trunk. "Good. A spare." Only problem was no jack or tire iron. "Uh oh." I was stuck. I radioed the dispatcher, who was just barely within range, and told him my situation. I asked him if he would please send me out a tow. "We don't send tow trucks outside of San Diego," he said. If I wanted a tow, I had to call one for myself, and I'd have to pay for it myself. "But it's your car," I said. Yeah, but it's your responsibility to get it back to San Diego. Whatever. I searched the trunk a few more times and tried to figure out what to do, kicking myself for not having looked in there like you're supposed to before I left the lot. (I don't think I ever have.)
A San Diego Silver Cab darted to a stop about 50 yards down the road and backed up to me fast. The car was a late model Oldsmobile 9-seater station wagon, nice paint, straight bumpers, tight fenders, lights and lenses all intact. The guy driving it, Davood, was an upbeat, high energy kind of guy, Iranian; owned the cab, wore a leather bombardier's jacket, new jeans, and a plaid shirt with a collar. He was on his way back from dropping at LAX, something he told me he did often. He was definitely a hustler and just as definitely not a crook. He stopped because I was a cab driver in distress. We were brothers, so to speak.
Davood had a jack, but his tire iron wouldn't fit the lug nuts on my wheels. We laughed about that the way you do when you are stuck having to do something you wish you didn't have to deal with. I locked my car and jumped in his, and we drove into San Clemente to look for another tire iron. No one could help us out. The only stores that were open were a self-serve Shell station with a little booth and no garage and a couple of fast food places with a drive-thru open til 6 am. We didn't give up easily. We searched thoroughly for businesses we could ask. We also got to know one another, because we talked about a lot of things in that hour or so driving around together.
Davood explained to me, for example, that a large number of taxi drivers in San Diego were refugees from Iran. A lot of them had advanced degrees, even Ph.D.'s, but were driving cab because they could not find work in the local economy. Something about a security clearance. One guy, he said, had been a colonel in the Iranian Air Force.
Around 3 am Davood told me he was going to drive back to San Diego and offered me a lift. At first I turned him down because I felt obligated to stay with my cab, but then we both laughed and I said, "Sure. Wait a minute. Let me make sure my car is locked." I told the dispatcher I had a ride to town and made sure he knew where my car was broken down. I ignored his angry remarks and turned off the radio while he was threatening me. He did not consider me a brother.
Davood offered me a job on our way into town. He owned two cabs and said he'd let me take one out on a few busy evenings if I agreed to drive for him on Monday and Tuesday afternoon. I tried to wiggle out of the weekday afternoons, but in the end he managed to stick me with the shifts he wanted me to drive. Davood taught me how to make money driving cab in San Diego, and after I went to work for him, instead of sitting idle in dead neighborhoods, I started spending my time driving tourists from the hotels in Mission Valley to the airport. As soon as I was empty at the airport I would check in back in Mission Valley. (Davood would check in at the Town and Country Motel while he and I were talking in his living room in Normal Heights when there was action there.) Checking in where you intend to be means that by the time you get where you said you are, there will be an order there. This minimizes the time you spend waiting for a trip. The technique, of course, is strictly against the rules.
Coast Cab fired me for "abandoning" my car in San Onofre. I phoned them in the morning after I woke up to make sure they'd retrieved their car OK. The amazing thing was how deliberately the woman who told me I was fired tried to hurt me with the news. I guess if I had no other options, I would have felt devastated about losing my job and maybe I would have groveled, which might or might not have gotten me my job back. But I had another job, and the meanness in that woman's voice was so plain I imagined she must have felt miserable about herself. Otherwise how could she treat someone else with such deliberate spite .
Davood taught me how and when to work Sea World and Mission Bay, but I never got the hang of the Greyhound Terminal. That's where he picked up most of his rides to LAX, usually late at night, opportunistically, off the street. I've just never been much of a street player, but I did OK with what I learned, and for 6 months or so I made a reasonably decent buck.
Davood explained what that ride to Reseda had been all about. Those Mexicans were undocumented aliens, and my having driven them there was thoroughly illegal. They had taken a cab to avoid being caught at the Border Patrol checkpoint north of Oceanside on their way to a safe house in L.A. Of course I high flagged them to avoid showing the L.A. trip on my meter, so we all could have been busted if I had been stopped. As I understand it, if the meter was running in those days, the Border Patrol left your passengers alone. I must have gotten that wrong. It doesn't make a bit of sense.
One afternoon I picked up 5 huge guys from Chicago who were in town for a Browns versus Chargers football game. They wanted to go to Caliente, in Tijuana, and they took up all three seats in my cab. One sat in the front with me, two sat in the back, two more sat in the rumble seat. The load easily weighed 1500 pounds. My floorboards were scraping the highway. Once again I broke the law through total ignorance. I was supposed to drop these guys on the U.S. side of the border. My car was completely illegal in Mexico, and I wasn't allowed to drive it there. I actually sat in traffic for 2 1/2 hours waiting to get out of Mexico after I dropped those guys at the main entrance to Caliente, and I wasn't bothered in the least. If I had been caught in Mexico, the authorities could have confiscated Davood's cab and locked me up in jail. The big guys from Chicago tipped me 50 bucks or something. It wasn't worth my time.
I thought I could make more money writing software than driving Davood's Silver Cab, so I started looking for a job as a computer programmer. Davood supported me entirely. He considered computer programming a respectable, big bucks business, easier and much more reliable than driving cab.
"Are you sure it's OK if I quit those shifts?" I asked him.
"Are you kidding?" Davood laughed. "I would quit myself if I could make the kind of money you will."
I mailed my resume to a number of recruiters in San Diego and eventually got an interview with an 8-person shop in Sorrento Valley developing a speech recognition product. This little company was run by a couple of women who had won some sort of an academic award for research they had done at UCSD, and they wanted to transition their idea from academia to the business world.
My interview took place in a reasonably furnished conference room, and I made all sorts of assumptions about the working conditions this company probably would provide. As it turns out, these women were strictly amateurs, and my first day on the job I felt like I was playing "let's pretend we're computer programmers" in Grandma's basement. For a desk I was assigned a door laid across two piles of cinderblocks. For a computer I was assigned an Apple II.
This was 1990. Eight years earlier, in Carmichael, in Sacramento County, I had taught a class of 8-14 year-olds LOGO using Apple II computers. The company that hired me to do that particular gig went bankrupt just as every kid in Carmichael started begging their parents to enroll them in the class, and I was never paid. Too bad, really, because if that company could have hung on for another couple of weeks, they would have made some money. At that voice recognition job in 1990, the women that owned the place thought they could do digital signal processing in BASIC, an interpreted language, on the slowest machine in town.
That in itself didn't lead to my getting fired. What did it was my voicing my opinion on day one to the partner responsible for running the business that the ergonomics of their development environment left much to be desired and on day two telling the technical partner that with a decent spec I could rewrite her software from scratch in C in 1/10th of the time it would take me to figure out what their undocumented prototype written in BASIC did. The technical partner insisted that we use that BASIC code, and before I got my seat warm my second day on the job I was roundly fired. This company, more so even than Coast Cab, gave me my first real look at how common it is for companies in San Diego to try to do business ridiculously on the cheap.
By some miracle I got a call from a recruiter with whom I have remained friendly over the years since then by the name of Vern Kleist. He had a software development job to fill in Del Mar at a similarly sized company as the one I had just been fired from, but he knew the technical lead over there and was confident his operation rested on a more secure methodological footing.
Vern treated me like a guy who identifies myself as a computer programmer. He didn't realize I am a janitor to whom computer programming is a kind of broom, that I program for money, in other words, and am not a computer nerd. Vern didn't know I am not the sort of guy who gets off on dominating my machine and that I don't aspire to be the most knowledgeable guy in the world about computers. It is true that I am an artist, and as a consequence I piece together elegant, coherent software. I also have an intuitive feel for process and an inquisitive mind that leads me to ask the right questions rather to rush off impulsively to show the world what a great computer programmer I am.
I had a cold the day I interviewed, and as a result I croaked in a deep voice when I spoke. I didn't sound a bit like myself when I talked to the technical lead. I could tell he was impressed with the self-assurance and professionalism my deep, deliberate voice communicated to him. I told him I wanted 50 grand a year. He got me 40 and the promise of some stock maybe sometime down the road. He low-balled me, in other words, which is what I have experienced almost every time I have worked in San Diego. There have been dramatic exceptions, but a pattern was definitely developing here.
For the entire 4 months or so I worked that job I had a terrible cough, and for the first month or so I was on antibiotics. The people I worked with didn't know me, so imagine the questions that must have arisen in their minds when I would go sit on the toilet for 10 minutes or so maybe 6 or 8 times a day. Sometimes in the midst of a conversation with someone I would be hit by the runs. What else could I do? I would quickly excuse myself, go sit on the pot for a while, then go back and try to pick up the conversation where we left off when I was finished. Who knows what kind of a toilet thing those people must have thought that I had going, but I was never able to find an appropriate time or place to let the whole crew in on what was going on. It embarrassed me a lot to be sitting there in the men's room and have one or another of the guys come in, do what he had to do, and leave, all in silence because no one had any idea what was up with me.
Vern placed me and, a few months later, an East Indian girl at that company. He was supposed to receive $10,000 commission for each of us, and he was never paid a penny. About a year after I was fired, Vern asked me to testify for him in a civil suit he'd filed against the owner of that company. Naturally I did, and Vern did win his case, but he never collected on his judgment, even though the owner agreed to a payment schedule in court in front of the judge.
The owner of that company told me within a few days of my being hired that he was "not a nice guy." I thought he was kidding, posing as a son of a bitch as a joke to make me like him, but the fact is he was a thoroughly rotten bastard. This guy didn't pay his suppliers. He used demonstration hardware and software right up until the last possible moment, then returned them, to get his development platform for free. He also addressed his employees in an intimidating, derogatory manner.
He spoke to his employees abusively to maintain a position of dominance over us. He was a Dutch guy who spoke with a harsh Northern European accent and made no effort whatsoever to be tactful, kind, or supportive when he spoke to you. He always found a way to express himself in a negative, insulting way. Your best was never good enough. I've seen a lot of this in San Diego companies. I believe it is due to a local surplus of labor. You need your job because you need a paycheck; your boss doesn't need you because people are a dime a dozen (Mexicans willing to work for $3 a day, Navy kids with no experience desperate for a job). As long as you are willing to be walked on and treated like a dope, you are allowed to continue to do whatever the boss tells you to do, shut your mouth, and be grateful you're employed.
A guy who treats his employees without respect is a miserable person. I know he feels like a worthless bastard. I've been there myself. He disrespects others because he doesn't have enough confidence to respect himself. I also know that without the power to throw an employee out in the street, a guy like that has nothing, as if having that is anything at all. He treats people the way he is afraid other people would treat him. He believes that being stepped on is all that he deserves. Apparently if you own a company, you don't have to admit your problems to yourself.
It was only a matter of time. One day this boss insulted someone in front of me just rudely enough for me to tell him what a miserable son of a bitch he was, and I was out the door. I gave Davood a call. Fortunately he needed someone to drive a couple of shifts for him. I was back on the street in a Silver Cab, but the game had changed in my absence. The Airport Shuttle had come to town, and there was no longer any taxi business at the hotels in Mission Valley. I went from making an easy 100 bucks a shift to being lucky to go home with a $20 bill.
I had a memorable trip that second time around driving for Davood. I picked up an Australian guy at the Silver Cab offices on Adams Avenue one afternoon and drove him to the Greyhound bus station at 1st and Broadway, a solid 10 buck fare. He was the kind of guy who enjoyed talking about the ups and downs of life. As we drove south on the 163 under the Cabrillo Bridge he said a noteworthy thing: "The good and the bad are intertwined." I had never looked at things like that before, and I think that he was right. I always figured sometimes things are going good and sometimes they are going bad, but that guy made me realize it isn't that way at all. There is always something to feel good about, and there is always something hard to handle happening. The conditions under which we live our lives are never black or white.
One dead Sunday afternoon I was sitting in my cab in front of the Mini-Mart at Mission Center Road and Camino Del Rio South watching beautiful women speed past in BMW's and Mercedes on Interstate 8 wondering how the heck I was going to make some money. It occurred to me that Vern Kleist did all right as a recruiter, and I decided I'd give that a try. Next day I started calling placement agencies out of the Yellow Pages asking for a job.
A few hiring managers called me in for an interview. Each one told me I would make a lot of money as a recruiter because I have a technical background. I didn't feel that confidence myself, however, because I felt intimidated by the prospect of doing something for straight commission I didn't know anything about. It was obvious that the recruiters who called me in had it in mind to make money off me provided I was the one who incurred all the risk. A few agencies told me I needed to have enough money saved to support myself for 6 months because that's how long it would take before I would start to see any income. No one was willing to pay me a salary while I learned the ropes.
Then I called Technology Locator. Brian Bomgardner, who called himself Brian Keith at the time (his middle name) and I hit it off immediately. We both looked at work from the same perspective. You do whatever the job requires you to do, ethically, to the best of your ability, and you do it to make money. Brian taught me the business from the bottom up. He taught me how to work the telephone, how to get by gatekeepers, how to sell our service (providing engineers and programmers on a contract basis), how to screen a candidate, how to close a deal. I felt awkward and intimidated cold calling when I started out, and within a couple of weeks I was right at home.
Brian was a legend in the placement business in San Diego. He'd sold his way into some of the most prestigious companies in town and had exclusive contracts with companies who refused to do business with anyone but him. The recruiting business is full of people who don't have a clue what the customer wants or how to provide it. Technical managers do not have time to read resumes not relevant to the jobs they need to fill, and they certainly do not have time to converse with recruiters trying to sell them people they can't use. Brian sent the right person for the job or he didn't send anyone at all.
The record time from starting in the business to making one's first placement was a month, and Brian held it. I made my first placement in 2 weeks. Everyone was stunned, not the least of whom was me. We celebrated. Brian slapped my back. I felt good. With Brian's encouragement and instruction I was already starting to succeed. Only problem is, in those days we did everything by phone. The guy I placed looked great on paper and sounded great on the phone, but when he showed up for work, for a hiring manager at Unisys in Westwood who was extremely skeptical in the first place, he turned out to be a hard core Hells Angels biker complete with chains and blues and looked like a homicidal maniac. The manager was terrified of this guy, and he demanded a replacement immediately. The candidate had a rare set of skills. A replacement would be extremely hard to find. The deal was off. It took me another couple of weeks to make a real placement, but in the end I did just fine.
I worked for Brian for about a year and a half. Things got bad in the closing months, however, and I wound up getting fired.
When I went to work for Technology Locator, they still did business according to the "account manager" business model. That means an account manager would prospect for job orders then recruit and present candidates to satisfy the customers' needs. The whole process, except for the collaborative aspects of working in an office with other account managers, was a one man show. I did particularly well in that environment, because I didn't have to explain to a recruiter the nuances of the qualifications I was looking for, and I didn't have to look for candidates based on the incomplete understanding of a client's needs gathered by a salesperson with less technical understanding than myself.
After I had been working for Brian for about a year, the placement industry as a whole underwent a radical transition to a new business model. The old freewheeling days were over. I had actually caught the tail end of that era. The new model split the staff into salespeople and recruiters, each with a specialized set of duties to perform. Now you meet every candidate in advance of sending him out for an interview. No one is hired entirely over the phone. The commission structure has changed dramatically, too. When I first went to work as a trainee, Brian paid me $2000 a month plus 10% of the spread on every placement that I made. The spread is the markup we charged the customer over and above a contractor's direct rate and the taxes it cost to carry him on our books. Our spread was $10-12 an hour depending on how much business we did with a particular customer.
After I felt secure enough to be able to make it on commission only, I started working for 25% of the spread. This amounted to $100 a week for every contractor I had in the field. When the business was reorganized, I had 12 contractors working. My goal was 20, which translates into $100,000 a year. That was a magic number in the business. "If you can't make 100 grand a year in this business, you've got no business being in it." A hundred grand was easy. You just had to work. In time your volume would be there.
With the reorganization, the wage scale became an entirely different story. I don't even remember what the numbers were. An easy 100 grand a year became a hard 40. In addition to that, I had to decide if I wanted to be a salesperson or a recruiter. We were not going to be account managers anymore, which had been the key to my success. Brian tried to make a special slot for me in the organization because we really did like each other (we are still friends) and he wanted to keep me in the company, but we couldn't make it work. He called me the "Manager of Technical Resources" and set me up as the interface between the sales side and the recruiting side of the business. In actuality that was Brian's job, operations manager, which he and I didn't realize at the time. Besides that, each of the other ex-account managers was an independent maverick like myself. When I suddenly went from being one of their peers to their manager, everyone ignored everything I said. We had always been an opinionated crowd, but it never mattered what anyone else thought before because we each ran our own accounts the way we wanted to. I gave Brian his management position back and said, OK, I'll be a recruiter.
There was a guy in the office by the name of Bert who was known for working fantasy job orders for months until they finally vanished from the face of the earth. Everyone knew he was wasting his time except him. I still can't decide if he believed the excuses he made up when his job orders that really weren't job orders finally fell through. One day around 5 pm Bert, who had become a salesman, came to me and told me he wanted me to work late recruiting for one of his fantasy job orders. First of all, I don't work late. In the whole time I worked for Technology Locator, I worked after 5 pm maybe twice, and that was before I realized what a waste of time that was. If a candidate is serious about a job, he will find a way to call you during business hours. Long flattering telephone conversations after business hours are good for a contractor's ego, but they are a waste of time. Secondly, the job order wasn't real.
I told Bert I would start working on it first thing in the morning and went home. Next morning Brian called me into his office. Bert was there. They had been having a little talk. Bert had told Brian that I "refused" to work on his job order. I told Brian what I really said. Bert did not budge off his story. The conversation went on for a while. Then Bert told me right to my face that I had told him I wouldn't work on his job order. I became enraged. (I still became enraged.) "Bert," I exploded savagely, "you are a lying fucking asshole!" I felt a little less uptight. Brian told me I was fired.
That incident cost me about $30,000 in commissions that I would have collected in the coming months if I had continued to be employed by Technology Locator. I was also out of work. In the aftermath Brian explained to me that he had to fire me because by blowing up I had caused the situation to become unmanageable. I ran into Bert in a Boney's grocery store about 6 years later. He greeted me in a condescending tone of voice. That's the way he talks. He's pretty taken with himself. I said, "Bert!" with a big smile and kept on walking as I passed.
Brian suggested that I market myself as a "Professional Contract Recruiter" and look for an assignment doing recruiting on-site for one of the local high tech companies in town. I didn't share his confidence I would succeed at that, but after having made $1200 a week for a while, it was a little hard to contemplate getting back behind the wheel of a taxicab. I got on the phone. The one thing I had learned at Technology Locator was how to work the phone.
Amazingly, I lined up a couple of interviews for myself with Human Resources managers who were looking to hire a significant number of engineers and programmers in the coming months. One of them even hired me. I asked her to provide me with a closet and a telephone, which she did, and I went to work producing candidates. She paid me $35 an hour, which worked out to $1400 a week. Not bad for talking on the phone all day, and I did an outstanding job.
I felt like a million bucks. I carried a $100 brief case and wore $250 shoes. I bought a new car and was making more money than I had ever made before in my life. My employer was wildly pleased with the quality of the people I delivered, and all I had to do was network on the phone. When the gig might end was never mentioned.
Nine months later, in November, 1991, a brutal recession hit San Diego. The bottom seemed to fall out of the local economy. Recruiters far more established than I went tits up every day. Everyone was laying off. The company where I was working established a hiring freeze. My contract wasn't terminated, though, until 2 weeks after the hiring freeze went into effect. I like to think that indicates how pleased my client was with the service I provided. They probably were hoping to continue hiring, and they wanted me to be there if they did.
I had about 20 grand in the bank that I was planning to use as a down payment on a house. After I was laid off, it became spending money. I thought I could continue making money as a recruiter, and I might have been able to if I hadn't decided not to dial "1" on my telephone. I was afraid that if I used my phone to call long distance 40 hours a week, it wouldn't take me long to spend my stash and wind up going broke. The fact is that if I had dialed "1", I might have been able to survive.
San Diego is the hardest market in the country to work as a recruiter. Local companies figure everyone wants to work in San Diego because the climate is so nice, so they don't see the need to pay recruiters to find them candidates. (This is bogus thinking, because recruiters maintain extensive networks into the talent pool, but it's still the way a lot of companies in San Diego think.) Wages are low in San Diego for the same reason. Companies pay in "sun dollars". And that giant local pool of cheap Mexican and Navy labor tends to depress salaries for highly skilled people, too. Getting an individual to change companies in San Diego means finding something besides money to convince them, because even though the cost of living is high in San Diego, the need for money here is overwhelmingly outweighed by the pervasive cheapness of San Diego businesses. Even when I managed to put a deal together, my client would rip me off. In the Midwest, for example, by contrast, in part because there is much less talent available, and also because Midwesterners are much more appreciative of others in the first place, companies are radically more willing to pay for the work recruiters do for them.
I bought myself a copier and a fax machine and set up shop in my apartment at the beach. I had no training in permanent placement. At Technology Locator we placed contract personnel. So I worked at a disadvantage on the sales side of the business, but I woke up every day and got on the phone by 9 am. I know I was strong on the technical side, so strong in fact that a client I worked for at Technology Locator tracked me down while I was working at my on-site gig and asked me to find him a mechanical engineer. He told me that in 20 years in the business he'd met two recruiters he trusted technically and I was one of them. I couldn't help him, though, because I was engaged.
Every afternoon around 3 pm I knocked off work and went to the beach. Depending on the season, I would take a walk or ride my bike or paddle out on my boogie board and ride the waves. Sometimes I had $100,000 worth of business on my desk. I was getting candidates in to interview. But no one had hiring authority, and just about every deal I thought might have had a chance fell through. I did make two placements before I gave up and sold my copier in September 1992. Both times I got ripped off royally.
The first guy I placed was extremely difficult to find. The client wanted a BASIC programmer who knew B-Trieve. I worked on it for weeks until it occurred to me a guy like that, who used industrial strength versions of amateur tools, probably read the weekly free computer nerd magazine, so I ran an ad in it. Bingo. I had tried to establish my fee up front the way you are supposed to, but all the client would agree to was that if I showed him a guy, then he would talk to me about the money. I have no excuse. I didn't adequately qualify the client, and I shouldn't have done the search, but once I had the guy, a 40 grand guy I should have made 10 grand on, what was I supposed to do? Tell him he couldn't talk to my client because my client refused to pay me more than 3 grand? The guy was looking for a job. I can't stand in the way of that. The son of a bitch who paid me the 3 grand made sure he got his, and he sure didn't give a damn about me.
The other guy I placed was a UNIX kernel programmer who was working for a local company that had been bought out by another company in Northern California. He was afraid of being relocated to San Jose, so he called me. A friend of his knew about me and had given him my phone number. I had a minor reputation in some circles. I was talking to the vice president of software engineering at an established mid-sized company in town that employs UNIX programmers, and I got the guy in there for an interview. He had the one thing companies in San Diego love to see on a resume. He was currently employed by a competitor.
I made the same mistake with this vice president I had made with that other son of a bitch. He'd talk to me about money after he saw the guy. Guess what is the first thing I would establish up front if I were in the placement business now. The vice president signed my candidate up for 65 grand a year and paid me 5, a whopping 7.5%. Industry standard is 20-35% of the candidate's first year salary, and there are a number of reasons that is the case. They all boil down to costs a recruiter saves a corporation and the fact that recruiters work most of the time for free. Part of the ethical contract when you do business with a supplier is to do your part to keep that supplier around to do business with in the future, but companies in San Diego are not driven by ethics. They are driven by the lust to pay nothing.
The UNIX placement fell through at the last minute anyway. The day before the company where I placed him was supposed to cut me a check, he quit and went back to work for the company he had left. His friends and associates had been calling him daily assuring him he wouldn't be sent to San Jose. Judging by the way the company I placed him with exploited me, I am not at all surprised that he went back. I am sure they had found a way to rip him off, too. The way they treated me wasn't personal. It's indicative of the way they run their business.
Eventually I became so broke and so desperate for a paycheck I took a contract programming assignment I was offered, in February, 1993, in Omaha, Nebraska. My rate on that assignment was $50 an hour, which translates to $100,000 a year. In June, 1995, I asked to be released from my contract because I believed that if returned to San Diego (which I consider home) with the experience I had acquired in Omaha, I would easily find a job.
I knew that to get an interview in San Diego I had to be living in town. Lots of people from out of town drop resumes around in San Diego when they go there on vacation, but local companies do not bother calling people with out of town addresses as a rule because they are not immediately available. Relocation is an issue, too. That's why I quit my job. But I had forgotten how badly San Diego companies pay, and after having earned $50 an hour for a couple of years it was awfully hard for me to consider seriously a job offering $60,000 a year. I also forgot that my skill set is not too strong of a match for a lot of the work that is done in San Diego. Local jobs require skills more on the electrical engineering side of the industry than straight computer science. In addition, my primary experience is with Tandem computers, and almost none of the development in San Diego is done on those. Bottom line is that after I returned to San Diego, I wasn't able to find a job that paid anything like what I was used to making, and my situation, except for the fact that I was flushed with money, started to look a lot like it had in 1993.
I left San Diego again to do a consulting assignment in Scottsdale, Arizona in October, 1995. I did start talking the month before I left to a guy in San Diego who had called me after I replied with my resume to an ad he had placed in the San Diego Union Tribune for a software engineer. He was in charge of developing a telephone call switching platform. We talked a number of times and got to know each other fairly well, but he dragged his feet in moving the project forward, and I wound up leaving town for Scottsdale. I sorely wished to continue living in San Diego at the beach, but I took the job in Arizona because I wanted to show steady employment on my resume. I didn't want to remain idle for too long, because I thought not working might hurt my chances of getting hired again in the future. I wanted to look like a guy who stays employed.
The assignment in Scottsdale looked like a promising opportunity. I had learned the details of a telephony services platform in Omaha, and a major communications company in Scottsdale needed an expert on that platform to be their resident answer man on a development project they were undertaking in that environment. I was stunned after working the job in Scottsdale for 2 months to learn I had been fired.
My greatest successes have been at companies such as Tandem Telecom or System Integrators, where individual initiative and the expression of ideas were encouraged. The companies I have been fired from were regimented, secretive or run by predatory, rude individuals. I admit that I still have a way to go to master the ability not to lose my composure in antagonistic situations, but I am not a provocateur, and my motive always is to help. When I find myself under the thumb of a mean, temperamental individual, or when I feel suppressed intellectually by the political environment in an organization, it is only a matter of time before I say what is on my mind. Then I get fired. In the end I am better off no longer to be working at a job I do not like, but being fired is inconvenient.
I was shocked when I was fired in Scottsdale. When I took the job, I was thrilled to have been hired by such a prestigious company. Well, lurking in the back of my mind there was the question of why a friend of mine in Omaha had turned his nose up when I gushed to him how fortunate I thought he was to have worked for this selfsame company in Illinois. My contract was supposed to last 6 months. My rate was $50 an hour. I planned to be back on the beach in the spring having picked up 50 grand. It looked like an ideal situation, and I really did know my stuff on the technology they needed me to help them with. I thought it was a perfect match.
Before I left for Scottsdale, I called an apartment hunting service there and arranged for them to line me up a place rather than to have to look for one when I arrived. The woman I spoke to noted the features I required. My highest priority was to live as close to work as possible. She assured me I would have no trouble getting into an apartment right away and gave me directions to her office. When I drove to Scottsdale, I went directly there.
I arrived after closing time and took a room in a nearby motel. Never having been to Phoenix before, I had no idea where I was. The desk clerk told me how to get to my job. It was 45 minutes away. Next morning I met my boss and knocked off early to hook up with the apartment lady. I called the lady and told her I had no idea how to find her office from where I was. She directed me to a freeway entrance near Arizona State University and had me drive west to Squaw Peak Parkway. Once I was heading north on Squaw Peak Parkway, the directions were the same as when I had first arrived from San Diego.
About an hour later I arrived at her office in North Scottsdale. We visited a couple of apartment complexes, very nice, and I rented a more than adequate apartment in one. While we were filling out the paperwork, I told the girl in the rental office the route I had driven in the morning to get to work, down Scottsdale Road. She recommended that I take Hayden Road instead, because it might be a little less congested. I spent the night in the motel. Rental furniture was to be delivered to my apartment the following day. Next morning I drove to work on Hayden Road.
When I got to within about 5 minutes of the shop, I entered a sea of apartment complexes. Dozens upon dozens of perfectly desirable apartments were available not 5 blocks from my job. I had told the apartment hunting lady that my most important criterion for choosing an apartment was how close it was to work, and she had hooked me up with an apartment 45 grueling minutes away in heavy traffic when there were tons of places, nice places, within walking distance. I called her on the phone.
"I showed you the closest complexes to your job that I have contracts with," she said. Couldn't she have told me there were tons of apartments she didn't have contracts with a couple of blocks from where I worked? "You told me you wanted me to find you an apartment so you wouldn't have to look." I don't think anyone is that stupid. I think she wanted to make that placement regardless of the cost to me, but you know what, I bought her a $25 arrangement at the Cactus Flower Florists on Scottsdale Road and had it delivered to her with a Thank You card just in case she was telling me the truth.
I did not get in trouble immediately at my job, but it didn't take long before it became obvious I was out of my element. I have never done defense work because I do not believe in war. Yes, I lose my patience and tell people things they do not want to hear, but I do not shoot them or bomb their houses. I have no excuse for having broken that EST guy's dishes in Sacramento. It was a mistake. I admit to a propensity for verbal violence, if you want to call it that, and I've been working diligently for years to learn to curb it, but physical violence is a rarity from me.
No one ever thought to mention that the purely commercial job I contracted to do in Scottsdale was at a defense plant. I learned when I showed up that I had joined a group who typically worked developing weapons software. Culturally, this job was not as perfect a match as it had appeared.
Word was, when I was working as recruiter, that an engineer in a defense plant can work for years beside someone and not have a clue what his neighbor does. I learned from my brief sojourn in that defense plant in Scottsdale that defense workers are indeed trained to remain ignorant about what goes on around them.
Defense industry culture is geared deliberately to strip workers of their initiative as they enter the front door. The environment is obsessively hierarchical in the sense that orders filter down from the top and people at the bottom are discouraged from asking questions. You defer to the authority of your superiors, do what you are told, make no effort to challenge or circumvent the chain of command, and keep your mouth shut. You must go through channels, which takes time, so you learn to wait. And everybody else waits for you, so you take it slow. You're given an assignment, in a vacuum, without reference to a bigger picture; you don't ask for more information than you are given; sometime in the future you deliver something maybe; then you are told to change your piece a bit, and you go away to work on the modifications for a while. Workers staring vacantly mosey down the corridors. Lame motivational signs posted on the walls encourage a ridiculously modest reduction in time to market 5 years hence.
Minor accomplishments achieved in 100 times longer than they might have taken in a more democratic environment are rewarded with elaborate ceremonies, plaques, ice cream, cookies, and other forms of recognition the workers do not find in the least absurd. When I observed these rituals, I was reminded of a toddler's parents crowing excitedly over their child's stick figure of a horse as though it has been rendered as artfully as God in the Sistine Chapel to nurture carefully his delicate self-esteem.
I got in trouble because I ask too many questions. I had grown accustomed to being a member of the design team and working as a technical lead in Omaha. My ideas, and those of all the members of my team, had been welcomed and encouraged. I was used to poking my nose into everyone else's business, not only in Omaha but also at System Integrators, where I learned the business, and at Technology Locator, which was similarly run. There's a deeper issue, too, more technical, which is that people came to me in Scottsdale to ask how to achieve particular results using the technology I was hired to represent. In software engineering there are many ways to skin a cat, the best way depending to a large extent on why you wish to perform a particular task in the first place.
In Scottsdale I was perceived as pushy and domineering. I asked a lot of questions and tried to participate in the design process. I wanted to understand the project well enough to contribute my best ideas for how to use the platform. In the hierarchical political environment in that shop, however, where only people with enough seniority were allowed to do design, individuals who had that authority guarded their turf jealously. Information hoarding, which pervaded the organization from top to bottom, was commonly used as a self-preservative technique. No one can ask penetrating questions or simplify the task who is in the dark about objectives, constraints, and alternatives.
It's not hard to understand why a bureaucrat would feel threatened by a person like me. Their positions were conferred by seniority, not necessarily intellectual capability, and my trying to help to do a better job threatened to steal their thunder. I was not enough of a lackey to enable my superiors to relax. I had to be silenced and put in my place. In addition, because I was a contractor, not an employee of the company, I was excluded from departmental meetings. This further compromised my understanding of what the hell was going on and identified me as an alien to the group.
To be fair, I must admit that I undermined my own credibility early on when I rashly and incorrectly stated as fact a technical detail I misunderstood. But I was given no opportunity to retract my statement and in fact made it in part because I was called upon to deliver on the spot with incomplete information. I was nervous and wanted to have the answer. The managers were entirely unforgiving. Everyone makes mistakes after all, and I am only too willing to admit mine. It fit the atmosphere of that place that from the moment of my error forward my pronouncements were viewed with suspicion, like the testimony of a witness who has been caught in a lie.
I worked closely with a young Indian woman who simply did not understand how to program. This in itself is not inexcusable. Everyone has to learn. In fact, her problem was that she had never been given the responsibility to conceive of a solution on her own. She was dished tiny pieces of a senior person's design. She had no sense of how the components of a program hang together or the usual questions that must be asked, the typical problems that must be solved, to create a coherent piece of software. She had not been trained, in other words. The environment had robbed her of the opportunity to learn to create software.
In private she asked painfully elementary questions. I tutored her generously in good faith, but she didn't have the instincts to be able to take what I gave her and apply it on her own. Her creativity had been sucked out of her by her job. I hated the way she treated me when others were around. She would adopt a supercilious tone of voice and repeat what I was saying to her as if she were illuminating me. I felt it was terribly ungrateful of her to try to make herself look good at my expense rather than to acknowledge me positively to the others and help me to be valued and accepted by her peers.
When her deadline was upon her, the only way I could think of for her to meet it was to write her code myself. It only amounted to a couple of hundred lines. I didn't go to her manager and tell him she wasn't cutting it, because I incorrectly assumed that she would be negatively impacted by a report like that. The upshot was that I was severely upbraided for having written her code.
I was invited to the Christmas party. One guy in the department who attended struck me as a particularly unremarkable nebbish. He didn't converse. He responded to friendly overtures with silence. I don't mean that he was unfriendly. He smiled genuinely enough, but he didn't say anything. This guy showed up at the party with easily the most stunningly gorgeous girl in all of Phoenix. She could not have filled her brown chiffon party dress more perfectly or revealed beyond it features more alluring. Her swept aside brown hair framed a face of such penetrating intelligence and bold structure, I couldn't look away when I first saw her. She stood on thin laced evening shoes that delicately wrapped her ankles up like presents. Her graceful, well-proportioned legs were strong and smooth. I saw her thigh brush against her hem and slip behind it. A powerful sexual feeling loosed itself inside of me.
During the cocktail hour, I tried to stay away from her. I had been dying my hair for a couple of years and was in the process of letting it grow out until I could cut the remaining, faded color off. It didn't look that bad, but I thought I looked like the sort of vain twisted creep you see alone eyeing waitresses in a cheap coffee shop downtown at 2:00 in the morning, or the kind of guy who imagines himself on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit girl while he's stuffing quarters into a slimy slot in a backroom booth at a peep show. Besides, I knew it was immoral to horn in on someone else's date. I also knew that the rest of the crew would dislike me thoroughly if I made a move on that girl and got away with it. But I couldn't keep my eyes off her.
My work mates who sat closest to me in the office took seats around her table. There was an empty seat for me at that table, too. I sat in it. I participated in the party games and conversation well enough, even made small talk with her a couple of times, but as the night progressed I couldn't get her out of my mind. If I looked at her, I felt uncomfortable for leering. If I looked away, I felt it was obvious to all I was trying not to stare.
Eventually we were alone together at the table. She looked directly at me through her invitingly made up eyes and said, "What do you want to do for me?" I just couldn't bring myself to tell her. I was 50 years old. She was 28. Besides, I stopped expressing with confidence my desire for women in 1975. That's when I came out of the woods of British Columbia and every girl within earshot had something meant to embarrass me to say to her girlfriend about "having to look". It's man's nature to look. Those days, the days of "women's anger" during the mid-1970's, were the start of 20 years in which men were obligated to apologize again and again for the sexual nature of men. Sure, things changed and became more relaxed, but the world moved on without me. I had been conditioned to flinch at the thought of flattering some self-centered bitch's ego by being routinely insulted in return. Plus everything else had gone wrong with my relationships with women, starting with the histrionics of my mother and ending with the suicide of my wife. I didn't dare to tell her what was on my mind.
Everyone saw the move. I lost the girl through my own ineptitude, and I lost the crew through having done everything perfectly right up to the ask, no matter that I choked.
One day at lunch, a Vietnamese woman told the table stories about having been a boat person fleeing Vietnam. I listened respectfully and empathized with the terror she experienced when pirates robbed her boat. I did feel, however, that my experience of the Vietnam days, my life as a War Resister, everything I had experienced and learned as a result of my having dodged the draft, counts as valid life experience, too. I told her, in conversation, in front of the others, that I could understand her suffering because I had suffered, too, ultimately for the same warped political reasons, and she agreed. But some of the others at the table were not as forgiving. One guy in particular, not the smartest guy in town, still conceived of draft dodgers in the abstract. His position was that if he had to fight in Vietnam, how come I got away without having had to? He lacked the intellectual and emotional insight to comprehend the discomfort dodging the draft caused me.
One of his friends explained to him later that people did what they did, and he came around to apologize, which is nice, but the damage had been done. I was a draft dodger working in a defense plant. I was alone, accidentally surrounded by people who believe in the trade in arms.
A few days later we had a departmental meeting to which, oddly, the contractors were invited. A former member of the group was in the Persian Gulf attending to a beta version of a weapons system they had developed together. Our manager gave a patriotic speech. A greeting card was circulated that everyone was asked to sign. I didn't know the guy, and I still stung from the anti-war versus weapons development philosophical confrontation that had surfaced in recent days. The card came to me. I read it and passed it on.
About a week before Christmas, I stopped in at a doctor's office for a chest X-ray to verify that a terrible pain in my upper back was not pneumonia. It was pneumonia. I was given powerful antibiotics and confined to my apartment. One of the programmers called me from the office four days before Christmas with a question I couldn't answer. I didn't have access to manuals in my apartment, and I was really sick. Two days later I got a call telling me my contract had been terminated. I'd been fired, home sick with pneumonia two days before Christmas. If I did have a life, a family that depended on me for a living, that would have been one hell of a Christmas present. As it is, when big holidays come, I make sure I've got a few days' food in the refrigerator and hide out until they pass.
The phone rang a couple of days after New Year's. That guy I had been talking to in San Diego offered me a job. I told him about the pneumonia. He said take your time. About a week later, the doctor told me I could travel. I packed my stuff and drove back to San Diego.
Once again on the surface the job looked great. I had written a 9 page proposal for this guy back in September outlining my ideas for a methodology to use to develop the telephone call switching platform we had discussed. I was effectively hired as Director of Software Engineering and was given the responsibility to make the product happen. This job gave me an opportunity to put all of the experience and knowledge I had accumulated to work to create a product from the bottom up. I felt challenged and was bubbling with enthusiasm about the assignment. Then reality hit.
Remarkable as it may seem, I made the same mistake with this company I had made with those two women with the voice recognition product in 1989. When I interviewed in September, I had seen the VP's office and did not bother going into the back room to look at the development environment. In this case the computers weren't at all primitive, but the company was bursting at the seams with personnel, and the programming staff were actually tripled up in 10' by 20' offices. The primary business of the company was selling telecommunications services, and it was growing fast. At least 200 customer service operatives were already scattered across three separate buildings, and more were being hired daily. The absolute availability of space within those buildings was severely limited, and competition for it between departments was fierce.
I also blew the negotiation for compensation and was significantly short changed once again. I did hire on for 80 grand a year, but the benefits amounted basically to zero, so I wound up effectively taking a cut from $50 to $40 in my hourly rate. I earn decent money when a broker handles the negotiation for me, but every time I do the negotiating on my own, I get burned.
As soon as I went to work for this guy, he started complaining to me about the owner of the company. I suggested on a number of occasions that he talk over his problems with the owner, but he was clearly intimidated by him to the extent that he found that impossible. I figured the intimidation was within my boss, not in the owner's behavior, that unlike me with my direct approach, my boss handled problems in his relationship with the owner by complaining behind his back all day. I worried nonetheless that the owner might be as bad as he said.
"He'll get an idea in his head and show up at your office and tell you to drop whatever you're doing and work on it," my boss told me. "He'll want it done that minute. I've seen him tell people that if they go to sleep before they finish, he'll fire them, and he'll stand over you until you get it done." Did that happen all the time, I wondered? "He hasn't done it for a while," my boss told me, "but he's done it a lot. He's a really good businessman. His ideas are really good, but he's awfully hard to get along with. He's very impatient, and he'll give you three weeks work to finish by the morning at 5 in the afternoon. He knows what he wants, and he doesn't care how hard it is for you to get it done."
I suggested what I thought were tactful ways to approach the owner to discuss these problems. Make it your problem, not his. Tell him how you feel. Ask him for his help in working your problems out. "You'll see," the VP told me. "If you disagree with him, he'll fire you on the spot. He's fired lots of people, especially people like you who come in here with ideas about how to do things differently. He'll go along with you for a while, but eventually he will get an idea and tell you to drop everything and do what he tells you. And if you don't like it, you'll be fired." My boss went on to tell me stories about a number of consultants the owner had fired. He also told me no one expected me to last more than a few months.
The department consisted of 5 programmers besides the VP. None of them had ever written down a lick of design. They were all accustomed to just sitting down and writing code, making it up on the fly. Their battle cry was, "We don't have the luxury of time to write design." Little wonder that their product was a mess. They were working full-time putting out fires at one customer site or another, and if they did manage to find enough time to do some new development, they found it hard to integrate into the existing product. Code was being shipped without having been tested properly. Customers were frustrated because they would install new releases and they would not work.
There was an MIS (data processing) department in company, too, a completely separate group from ours. We were systems engineering, under the VP who hired me. MIS was run in a blatantly ad hoc manner by the owner's sister. She was even more of a tyrant than the owner, I was told, and naturally had no formal training in software engineering, management, or MIS. Like her brother, she ruled by threats and intimidation. Her software was even more chaotic than ours, and it worked a thousand times worse. When I first signed on, for example, my telephone was billed for $600 worth of long distance calls to Mexico. Apparently, her software had captured my telephone number when the VP called me in Arizona, and it somehow charged me for a bunch of calls they had not been able to collect on. I was not even a customer of theirs.
It took them months to straighten out my bill with U.S. West, and that annoyed me greatly, particularly since I couldn't get them to straighten the problem out myself. Customer Service, and by implication the owner's sister, told me they would get right on it numerous times, but it wasn't until U.S. West's collection department started threatening my credit rating, which I guard with my life, that I was able to get U.S. West to deal with them directly and get it fixed. In all the calls I made to U.S. West about this situation, I never mentioned my being employed by the company I was working for. I was that ashamed, and I was afraid if U.S. West knew I worked for them, they would think that I was lying about those calls. Before I was halfway in the door at this job, my employer looked to me like a slipshod organization verging on the criminal, and I was already regretting working there.
I argued at length to my crew about the long term savings we could achieve by writing down our design before trying to write the code. "Rather than to code and fix, code and fix, making it up as you go, never getting it right, spending all of your time trying to make released code work the way it should, if you lay out clearly what you're going to do before you do it, you've got a realistic chance of doing it right the first time," I said. I explained the value of peer reviews, configuration management, source control, formal test procedures. I tried to sell them on software engineering techniques to move development forward in an orderly, structured manner. "With a good design, you can derive a solid test specification, so bugs are easier to find and fix. The software is more maintainable, because you don't have to figure out code to understand what the software does. The code is almost an afterthought," I said. "There's a lot more to making a software product than writing code," I said.
But the owner wanted to see results, meaning code, the others argued. He would promise delivery to a customer next month off the top of his head even though the work would take 6 months to complete if you did it right, so they'd hurry up and do it wrong and wind up fussing with it for the next 2 years. This damned owner was starting to be a pain in the methodological butt, and I was starting to regret having gotten myself into what was starting to look like another lousy mess.
I defined an organization to develop our new product and submitted it to my boss. I figured we needed four programmers for the switch, five programmers for the billing system, a test engineering manager and four testers, an installation and support manager to write the assembly process, a database engineer, and a couple of technical writers. The owner saw this product as the future of his company and was committed to whatever capital expenditures it took to make it happen. (Why not? Capital expenditures are tax write-offs, so what did he have to lose?) Salaries were another issue, though, and we put our org chart together assuming we had the budget to support it. The owner approved it without asking us about our budget, and we started hiring. Then HR noticed that we didn't have any money to pay the people we were bringing on board. That was almost the end of the project, but the owner wanted it, and he found us the money to continue hiring in a hurry.
The first time I met the owner was the day the VP and I went to see him with our org chart to ask for his approval.
I knew the guy was not as bad as everyone had said he was. He came across as a bright competent guy. He asked the right questions, like how much it was going to cost to find the people we wanted to hire, and he insisted that our answers be at a high enough level of abstraction for him not to get drawn into operational details that he as the owner of a big corporation didn't have time to deal with. He wanted answers not reasons. How long would it take to deliver the product with this organization? Eight months. What else did we need? Space, equipment. Talk to this guy, that guy. I was impressed. He seemed like a perfectly rational guy who knew what he was doing. His sister was a horror, I was sure, but my boss made a point of isolating our department from hers. I was hopeful again our project would succeed.
My boss and I started interviewing. We hired a couple of people, negotiated the eviction of some departments from our floor to make room for our organization, worked with facilities to build out our space, spent a lot of money on computers, software, hardware. Then the owner arbitrarily dictated that a critical space we were planning to house our testers in was going to be used as a show room. "A show room? We won't even have anything to show for at least 6 months," I said to the VP, "and we are short space as it is!"
"See?" the VP said. "This is only the beginning."
The next big shock came when our engineering group decided to use MS Word for our word processor. We did so for compelling technical reasons, how well it integrated with other software we were using, some editing capabilities, but the owner arbitrarily rejected the idea and demanded that we use Lotus Word Pro. Word Pro, which he used, could not read MS Word documents, and he wanted to be able to read our documentation (which he never did). This actually came down at a meeting he had called. That meeting was the first time I saw him as the rest of the crew had described him to me innumerable times before.
All hands were scheduled to meet in the main conference room on our floor at 1:00 pm. The owner didn't show. Five, ten minutes went by. People started drifting back to their desks to continue with their work. We would tell them when the owner came. He showed up about 20 minutes later and noticed a number of empty seats. Where is this guy? Where is that guy? We told him they had gone back to their desks to do some work. "Well get them the FUCK back in here!" he shouted angrily. Man, no one dared to breathe.
When the absentees returned, the owner said, "Now there's something I want you all to understand. I own this FUCKING company, and I pay the FUCKING paycheck of every person in this FUCKING room. If I call a FUCKING meeting for 1:00, I expect every FUCKING one of you to be here at 1:00, and if I am FUCKING late, I expect every FUCKING one of you to FUCKING wait until I am FUCKING here." He looked around the room. "I'm the one who decides who does FUCKING what in this FUCKING company. If I tell the lot of you to come sit in this room at 8:00 in the FUCKING morning and sit in it until 5:00 at night, that's what I FUCKING want you to do. Don't you worry about whether you get your FUCKING work done. All you have to worry about is whether you FUCKING do what I FUCKING tell you to FUCKING do. Now," he looked around the room, "if anyone doesn't care for this arrangement," he looked directly at me, "you can FUCKING get the FUCK out of here and pick up your FUCKING check on your FUCKING way out the FUCKING door." Then he went on to explain his vision for the new product we were going to FUCKING put together to launch his company into the FUCKING next century. It was quite a performance.
"See?" my boss said after the meeting ended and we were back in our area.
"Not too professional," I said.
I bit my tongue and tried not to speak out openly against the owner, but inwardly my hope dwindled for a sane communication. As weeks went by, true to my own form, I started being more outspoken about his attitude. In this case, however, I knew that if I spoke to the owner himself, I would be out the door. I confided in my team. I asked people for advice. I started feeling painfully stressed, agonizing over how to approach the owner to get him on my side. My relationship with him became in my mind a proving ground to verify whether I had finally learned the communication skills required to get along with difficult people. I wanted the project to succeed because it was an interesting challenge and was doable, but I felt that the owner was standing in our way.
The sister was worse than the owner, a Jenny Craig success story gone bad: way too-bubbly, still too fat, wearing too-short shorts, showing her stuff with a vengeance, convinced she was irresistible. The guys who had to deal directly with her would tease each other all the time about what she made them do to her to keep their jobs. "Bleeeeech!" was always the hilarious response, then "OMIGOD, you don't think she'd try it, do you?" She perceived herself as a person who knows how to "make things happen". To her this meant swearing at you loud and telling you you had FUCKING better make that FUCKING software work by tomorrow or you were FUCKING out of a FUCKING job. She was also the kind of person who needed to have things spelled out to her exactly. That was interesting to me, because I'd never noticed before meeting her that you can give the gist of an idea to some people and they'll fill in the blanks, but you have to give all the details to other people or they get confused. She was the kind of person who didn't possess the creative faculty to fill in the blanks on her own. The owner and his sister look like clowns from here, but imagine having to negotiate with people who feel entitled to be so rude. They are the FUCKING boss, and you had FUCKING better do what they FUCKING say or you are FUCKING fired.
I saw a classically done B movie on TV while I was working for them, and the boss of the crooks in the movie reminded me vividly of the owner. The crook's henchmen were not as smart as he was, and they'd fail whenever he sent them out to do something, because they were always making stupid mistakes. When they'd come back and tell him what they'd done, he'd cuff their ears and brow beat them in a sarcastic tone of voice, call them stupid, threaten to kill them in all sorts of gruesome ways. His men, of course, thought he was a brilliant guy and were unfailingly loyal to him no matter how mean he got, because after all they deserved the punishment he was giving them. Honestly, every time I see a character like that ringleader now, I think of that owner. After I was no longer working for him, I learned that he served 3 years in prison in Florida once for trafficking cocaine. It fit perfectly. Can you imagine a small time crook out a bad B move running a $100 million company? It is so absurd.
While I was building the organization, I tried to get the requirements phase of the project off the ground. The original team members were thoroughly confused by requirements. Their instincts were to write code every time someone in the company expressed the wish to see a particular feature in the product. It was a long hard struggle to get them to write all the requirements down. They kept trying to write design instead of requirements, and when we got to the design, they kept trying to write code instead of design. There did come a point, just before I was fired, where the team lead came to me and told me that he finally understood what he was trying to do. He told me he could see how thinking the details through before trying to write code would make for a higher quality, more easily maintainable product in the end. I know he wasn't just saying it, because he fought me tooth and nail every step of the way.
When I fought with the programming staff, I fought on the basis of the merits of technical arguments, analyzing, reasoning, simplifying. The crew conceded that I was technically strong, but they deducted points for being pedantic and not listening as well as I wish I would. They gave points back for trying to listen, and on the whole we had a workable intellectual environment. Some of the personalities were temperamental, some were overwhelmed, but the primary influence that dragged the project down was the hostile political environment fostered by the owner and his sister. Tensions were always high. It was not a pleasant place to work.
A couple of genuinely professional software engineers with plenty of years in the business came to work for me. Each was relocating to San Diego because his wife had been transferred here. One came from L.A., the other from Orange County. These guys could not believe the lack of professionalism on the part of the owner and his sister. Each one viewed the job as strictly temporary until they could get something else lined up. After I was fired, everyone I hired left.
The owner started arbitrarily reassigning people in my group to other projects. Progress started getting awfully hard to make. In fairness, he did need us to support his product in the field, but the way he managed us, threatening to fire people, not negotiating, not consulting with us, not soliciting alternative ideas, alienated everyone and made the atmosphere even more tense. One of the guys he reassigned eventually was fired, basically because the owner worked him into the ground. When the owner leaned on him that one last time, the guy was so stressed he basically told him to go FUCK himself. Another guy the owner reassigned quit because he was just worked too FUCKING hard. Eventually the owner sent the VP out of the country. He was supposed to be gone for two weeks, but he did not return for 2½ months. I knew when he left that it was only a matter of time before I would be fired. The VP had served as a buffer between me and the owner. If I had to deal with the owner directly, I was as good as dead.
I avoided the owner. I tried to hold the project together and make what progress we could on dwindling resources. We needed to interact with other groups in the company, but they were maxed out and had no time for us. We needed the sister's help to understand existing systems, but she stone walled us to see us fail. The fooling around was over. The playing at structured development was finished. It was back to business as usual.
Ninety-nine percent of people go to work every morning to do their job to the best of their ability, but one very strange percent go to work for a completely different reason, like that sister, who actually went out of her way on a regular basis to sabotage the efforts of people trying to accomplish work that would benefit the company as a whole. She didn't go to work to do her job. She went to FUCK with people, frustrate them, hurt their feelings, and make them feel small. It's hard to believe there are actually people like her out there.
One day the owner called me on the phone and told me to come to his office to help him write a marketing brochure. No matter that I know nothing about marketing. He conceived of himself as "Mr. Big" and me as a piece of meat in his employ. My job in his eyes was not to develop the product upon which the future of his company rested but to be at his beckon call. I guess he knew when he called me over there he was going to fire me. I had circulated a document called "Management Requirements for the … Project" for feedback from the team and submitted it to him. It basically said we needed our VP back and we needed people not to be reassigned off the project arbitrarily so we could plan our schedule reliably. He knew I was not all of a sudden going to kiss his ass.
He sat me in a chair and ignored me for about a half an hour. I don't handle long silences well. I tried to talk to him. He huffed disgustedly. "We're not talking about that right now, BILL." That certain emphasis in the way a person says my name, I know they do not like me. He opened his mail. He made some calls, tried to impress me by paging a few of his underlings, who responded instantly. I guess I could have stood up, smiled and said, "It was fun while it lasted," extended my hand and left, but I didn't want the job to end. Because I didn't want to quit and he was so volatile and hard to get along with, I felt nervous whenever I was around him. I didn't dare try to communicate with him in a forthright manner. I felt intimidated by him, but I wanted the relationship to work, which of course it never could. How can I contribute what I have to offer to a guy who threatens me and shuts me up? He felt inwardly that he was in control of his situation, because he intimidated everyone the way he intimidated me. That's how he feels safe. But he brought out the worst in everyone, and if you disagreed with him, he inhibited the expression of your best. Finally I said, "But I was hired to … " That was it. He jumped up out of his chair, told me I was fired, and marched me to the HR lady to get my check. Once again I was fired in San Diego.
I did not take this experience lightly. I had wanted that project to succeed, and for a couple of months I was depressed about having gotten fired. I kept thinking if my communication skills were better, I could have handled that guy and his sister more effectively. Eventually I accepted that their problems are beyond my control and regretted having allowed myself to be intimidated by them. I had tried too hard. I had cared too much about how things were going to turn out. In the relationship I had with those people, being their employee, there was no way I could help them with their problems. My only alternatives were to quit, be fired, or continue to be abused, because in their minds, they held all the cards. I know more about walking away now. I can do it without feeling in the least upset. The summer came. I spent a lot of time at the beach, went boogie boarding every day. I turned down a lot of recruiters who called me to go out of town. I started playing on the Internet, had a cybersex affair with a horny Canadian woman, even bought her a plane ticket to come and visit me. She turned out to be considerably more rotund in person than she led me to believe. Time went by. I was fired in May, 1996. In April, 1997, I decided to take on a short term programming assignment locally in San Diego to make a couple of bucks and see if I could not be fired again. To establish how much I was to be paid, I had to negotiate with a lady who was looking for a bargain. Rather than to wish her a pleasant day and leave, I allowed myself to be suckered into a fixed price contract. She interpreted our agreement to mean that I was obligated to work for free indefinitely to provide her as much functionality as she could possibly dream up. Fortunately, we had a written statement of work. I took her to Small Claims Court. The judge to told her to pay me. Does this qualify as being fired? I don't know. If the company had been anywhere but in San Diego, she would have paid me by the hour.
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