I wanna talk to the fulltimers in the audience today. Huddle up close, gang. This is going to be a tough one. To paraphrase my close personal friend Blaise Pascal, “I write you a long letter because I’m too damn angry to write you a short one.”
But first, let’s start with a happy memory.
DATELINE: Summer 2002
I was happy on the DigiStar team at Evans & Sutherland. I was working at one of the premier graphics companies in the world. Does your team have its own movie theater? We had our own frickin’ planetarium. My teammates were brilliant and great to work with. I’d been promised a fat bonus–about a month’s pay–if I could finish the core of the control system UI in under 12 months, and I was a couple months ahead of schedule–in fact I pretty much already had it in the bag if you didn’t count UI polish and the odd bug or two turned up by QA. Plus did I mention we had our own frickin’ planetarium?
I logged into my computer that morning and there was a message from Jim Oyler, President and CEO, telling all of us that though we were losing still more “team members” today, that he knew he could count on “the rest of the family” to be brave and take up the slack. I was bummed to find out that the company had let more people go, but I was really happy at my job and sure, I’d be glad to help Jim Oyler, President and CEO, take up the slack.
“Hey Dave,” came the voice of Neil, my boss’ boss, from the entrance to my cubicle. “Can I talk to you in the conference room?”
“Sure–” I said, as I turned around and spied the huge stack of papers in Neil’s hand, the topmost sheet of which was boldly titled Exit Checklist.
“Aw, crap, Neil! I’m getting laid off?!?” I blurted out.
We were in a cube farm. Neil had the good grace to look around sheepishly, and in a low voice said, “Yeah. I’m sorry, man. Can we go talk in the conference room?”
“Dang it…” I said, more quietly. “This was the best job I’ve ever had. Yeah, let’s go.”
So just like that, out of the blue, the best job I’d ever had was over with no warning. Neil started the exit interview with “This came down from over my head. I can’t tell you how upset I am about this. Terence (Neil’s boss, our VP) specifically named you because your piece is finished.”
I joked about failing “to commit job security in the code”. Neil laughed, and as we went through the checklist it started to hit me how much I was going to miss everyone on the team. I started on the DigiStar team on Monday, September 10th, 2001–and we had all bonded the next morning as we watched the 9/11 attacks play out on the news. I don’t know if these people were “family” but they were close to me.
The blow was softened by my getting a ridiculous severance package–all my vacation days paid out in cash before I walked out the door that day, plus six weeks of severance pay–all after just 18 months at the company! We’d had 2 rounds of layoffs before in my stint there, and I knew the policy was 1 week of severance per year of employment, so I wasn’t about to argue. As I walked back to my desk to clean it out, my team lead stopped by to tell me that I had her to thank for the severance package.
“I told them they had to pay you your bonus or I’d quit. Legal said that we can’t give a performance bonus and lay someone off at the same time. I told them that you getting laid off was bullshit in the first place, and they agreed to round up your second year and convert your bonus into a month’s extra severance.”
Janet was an amazing team lead. She was a wicked smart programmer but also had a killer instinct for office politics. (In fact, she told me on my first day to do my best to “stay off Terence’s radar”, because he had a nasty habit of laying off contractors and new people.) She also had my psyche dialed in perfectly, and broke me out of my impostor syndrome in my first (and, it would turn out, only) performance review by saying: “The thing that makes you unique on this team is that more than anybody else here you really love this shit. I mean, I go home and read a book, and I can tell you go home and write more code. You are the only employee I have ever managed that I think could get away with giving me a snow job. You could straight up tell me you spent the last two weeks dewarbling the frobblebats in the compiler and I would believe you.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Seriously. But don’t ever try it or I will fire your ass.”
I loved Janet, but I also feared her. I also respected her and would go to the mat for her in a heartbeat. I didn’t understand for years later that this was because she regularly went to the mat for her teammates, and when she did, she almost always won. I was too young to really understand how much political capital Janet had just laid on the line for me–a soon-to-be ex-employee that she would probably never see again–but even still I was deeply moved by the gesture.
They could have frogmarched me out of the building, given me squat, and told me I had to like it. Instead, they gave me generous severance, outplacement counseling, free admission to a really good jobhunting seminar, and best of all they let me take all day to clean out my desk and say my goodbyes. I took them up on the offer. It was 4:45pm when I finally walked out the door to go pick up my last check from HR. They had to fish it out of the mail drop because everyone else in the layoff had cleared out before noon, so HR had assumed I must not have come in to work that day and probably didn’t know I’d been laid off.
It didn’t really hit me for about a week that I’d just been screwed out of the best job I’d ever had by an accountant who couldn’t keep the company books straight and an executive team who couldn’t steer the company in any straight direction, let alone a viable one. And that I’d sat at my desk and silently eaten up every word of propaganda spewed out of the mouth of Jim Oyler, President and CEO, about being brave, taking up the slack, and most sickening of all, of “being a family”.
Meanwhile, Back in the Present…
Fast forward to today. A former client of mine held an all-hands meeting today to announce that they had lost their primary revenue stream and that the business was no longer a going concern. As a result, for all 400+ employees of the company, today would be their last day. There would be no severance package. They would not be receiving their last paycheck today, but at the regular payroll time when the accounting department–which was also now unemployed–could be bothered to get around to it. The company had a “Paid Time Off” policy instead of a vacation policy, which is legalese for “we don’t have to pay out any vacation time when we let you go.” In short, 400 people got told they were out in the cold with nothing more than a creepy speech about being proud of what they’d accomplished. He even asked them to not say bad things about the company in the days ahead because it would cheapen and demean them all.
I really, really want to go off on a tangent about all the bad things I have to say about that company and its top management in particular. It wouldn’t cheapen the fine folks that worked there and believed in the company one whit. But I’m not going to, because believe it or not, I have something much more important to talk about right now.
Most of the (now ex-)employees of my (now very ex-)client are in a blind, terrified scramble right now because they made a critical career mistake: They put their loyalty in the company. They put so much loyalty into the company, in fact, that they stopped nurturing themselves and growing and building their careers as a separate entity apart from the company. This was not entirely their fault; the company aggressively encouraged this. But let me be perfectly clear: that was straight-up pure evil.
Loyalty to a Corporation is SICK.
Being struck from the rolls at Evans & Sutherland out of the blue permanently broke me of any notion of job security, but more importantly it broke me of the concept of loyalty to a corporation. I’d been freelancing on and off for a decade, but after that day I went hardcore.
As a freelancer I occasionally experience friction with the full-time employees over tribal identity issues. I get called a mercenary. I’m told I’m not loyal. They say I’m not a company man, a patriot, a true believer. My point is that it gets made known to me, in many ways and forms, that I may work there, but I am NOT “part of the family”. Well, let’s get two things straight right now:
- You’re goddamn right I’m not
- And neither are you, you dumb shit
A corporation is not a living creature. It has no soul. It has no heart. It has no feelings. It can neither experience towards you nor enjoy from you even the concept of loyalty. It is a legal fiction, and it exists for one purpose only: to make profit. If you assist in this goal in the long term, your ongoing association with the organization is facilitated. If you detract from it consistently, you will be cut. Family is “where they have to take you in no matter what you’ve done.” A corporation is… well, it’s sort of the exact opposite of this.
Being loyal to a corporation is sick. It is genuine madness.
But Isn’t Loyalty a Good Thing?
Sure it is! Just be careful where you place it.
We Have an Awesome CEO…
No! Bad peon! No career enlightenment for you! The CEO of your company is a paid sociopath. I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course, but it is literally their actual job description to place the interests of a soulless legal fiction over the needs and desires of living, breathing, human beings with actual feelings. He or she probably isn’t inherently evil. But if they can find a way to make the company 100% more profitable by firing you, they have to do it. That is exactly what their job is. They are the chief stewards of an intangible set of legal rules comprising an attempt to get money.
I’ve worked with some genuinely charismatic CEO’s, and it’s hard to not feel loyal to them. And that’s okay! I am totally fine with you being loyal to another person! But seriously, out of everybody at your company, the CEO is your worst possible choice. If they don’t fire you when they should, they can be held liable for incompetence by the board of directors. And well they should! Because the board of directors are the circle of acolytes gathered around the altar of the soulless legal fiction, and if the soulless legal fiction needs your blood to survive, the circle makes sure the CEO doesn’t flinch from the knife.
So before you give your loyalty to a CEO, ask yourself this one critical question: would this person still have my respect and admiration if they fired me?
I’ve only been in that situation once, and I thought about it beforehand, and the answer was yes, and the answer is still yes. I would go back to work for him a heartbeat. Though I’m not sure he’d have me back, come to think of it, because I engineered my own termination at that company… and that wasn’t even in like the top five weirdest things that happened between us.
So, yes. You can be loyal to a CEO. But be loyal to them as a person, not as a position, because the day will come when you have to part ways, and it will break your heart how easy it is for your CEO.
What About Being Loyal to The Team?
I’m just gonna say it: Nope.
Surprised? Haven’t you been listening?
Your team is just another organization, a concept, an ideogram on an org chart. The Team is just a story you tell yourself about the collection of people that work in the same room as you. It’s just another fiction. Ask yourself this question: if the CEO replaced everyone on The Team with incompetent nephews (important: their incompetent nephews, not yours; I can see how that would complicate the issue), would your loyalty to The Team remain undimmed when the servers go down at 11pm on a Friday night?
The people that work in the same room as you are real. It is totally okay to love them. In fact, I encourage it! Be loyal to them! Go to the mat for them. But for heaven’s sake, don’t be loyal to “The Team”.
For the buzzword bingo players out there: you are “a team player” if you love your teammates and show them love and loyalty. But anybody claiming to have loyalty to “The Team” is engaging in office politics.
What About Loyalty to the Project?
Um. Let me get back to you on this one. I’m on a good rant here and I want to say no but my pants will just outright burst into flames if I do.
I fall in love with projects. My wife says I get married to them. For hundreds upon hundreds of nights she has known the loneliness of an empty bed as I toil the night away on the latest hot young project to catch my eye, so I guess she’s qualified to make that judgment.
You know, I was about to take this all the way to an adultery metaphor but I’m going to stop here instead and just say it’s probably bad for your relationship. I would tell you not to fall in love with a project but I’ve tried six times and I just can’t do it without making dreamy eyes.
But again, that’s love. Not loyalty. I might discount my rates to work on a really amazing project, but would I charge less because I felt I owed it to the project? Not a cent.
Be Loyal to One Person: You.
I guess I should say “be loyal to one person at your work” because it’s totally fine to be loyal to your family, your friends, your neighbors, your favorite sportsball team, your fellow citizens, and a whole host of other people that for one reason or another, you love.
Be loyal to yourself. Or, if you prefer, be loyal to yourself first. Show your strongest allegiance there. I don’t mean conceit, and I don’t mean selfishness, and I don’t mean be a jerk to other people. You cannot know or show true love until you truly love–and by this I mean proactively care for–yourself.
So if the company wants you to work nights and weekends, you need to ask yourself right now if your job is worth it. If the answer is yes, great! Choose to work late. If it’s not, choose to stand up, grab your coat, and clock out. You’ll either still have a job in the morning, or you’ll have stopped putting off that hunt for a better job that you’ve been cheating yourself out of.
And if you’re not sure? If you’re sitting on the bubble, trying to decide? That little L-word is going to pop up. And when it does? You squash it. Loyalty to a corporation is madness, and any CEO worth their salt will try to get you to buy into it for exactly as long as it suits their needs to keep you around.
Own Your Career. Because This WILL Happen To You.
Your career is yours and yours alone, whether you want it to be or not. The sooner you own it, and take responsibility for all of the consequences of said ownership, the sooner you will find yourself creating your own safety from the corporate predators who pillage and destroy in service to the soulless legal fiction they call your master. Not their master, by the way. Yours.
Anybody who wants to relieve you of the hassles and responsibilities of owning your own career wants to shackle you to an oar. They want the exact opposite of what’s good for you. They want you to toil away blissfully for years–which you will do!–until one day the drumbeat stops. You’ll step out into the sun, blinking tears away in the brightness, and realize that the deck crew is gone, they’ve taken all the rations, pirates are attacking, the boat is sinking, and all you have to show for the last three years of rowing is a pair of sackcloth britches and a piece of rope to hold them up. They didn’t even let you take the time off to get your MCOR (Microciscoware Certified Oar Rower) so you don’t even have that to put on your resume. And also the piece of rope is technically company property so you need to leave that on the boat before you throw yourself to the sharks.
In Summary: PLEASE WAKE UP.
I’d like to think that if the soulless legal fiction at the heart of your company suddenly became sentient, it would also immediately grow a conscience and feel terrible about all the things it’s done and not just automatically be utterly evil.
But it’s not sentient, and it’s not even necessarily evil–as long as its business model isn’t predatory, immoral or illegal. It’s just a collection of rules put down on paper. It is a thing. And not even a physical thing. A real thing, yes, but not a tangible one. Just a logical construct, fit only for one purpose: acquiring profit.
Being loyal to that is mere insanity. But being loyal to that over yourself is sickness.
Please, choose right now: Get medicine. Own your self, and your career.
Start saving yourself.
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I’m a little late to the proverbial party, but I really had to interject. This post (and the related subsequent ones) is one of the most lucid and painfully overdue treatises on the stark realities of the microeconomic marketplace. I haven’t read most of the responses (save the really flip Stromm sarnac one) but I had an almost identical experience back in the Tech bust of ’02. When I landed (back with a previous employer) I reported to a true corporate citizen who tried to vector me from a technical role to an administrative one (as she had done). I resisted,knowing full well that my agility in the market was driven by my technical repertoire–not to mention the fact that it would be cognitively dissonant 😉 After several years of surviving layoffs and being awash in corporate rhetoric I’ve found that although I’ve maintained a sober-minded ‘hired gun’ stance ultimately business cycles and org objectives override ‘loyalty’; most middle managers want someone who can deliver on time and under budget to help propel them forward in their careers. It’s essentially a game of give and take, no more, no less. Peel away the veneer of political savvy and tow-the-company-line is irrelevant. Case-in-point: knowledge workers being outsourced en masse exemplify the increasingly more tactical mindset that sees entries on a spreadsheet and EBITDA. At first I chalked it up to social irresponsibility and corporate malfeasance but I’m no longer that naive. The technical career track in the world of Inc can be vexing but it doesn’t have to be. For the uninitiated I’d recommend any of the Pragmatic Programmers career-related publications to keep in proper perspective.
Again, thanks for articulating this unnecessarily taboo subject in a manner that I couldn’t. Keep the posts coming!
Thanks for this comment! I feel the same way. I used to think there was something inherently evil about management, and then I ended up in there and started parroting the same things they did. Believing myself to not automatically just be inherently evil, I sat back and analyzed the the forces I was under, and realized that they were totally different from the traditional tech worker’s environment. I could also look up the chain from there and see that the forces get weirder and stronger the higher up you go.
When I wrote this post, I was certainly feeling a lot of passion, but for all my snark, the reality is that I’m looking at my CEO with an air of indifference rather than indignation. Corporate reality is his reality, no matter how weird or sociopathic it may seem.
Hi! Great post!! I lost track of you after you left LiveJournal, but your writing is still stellar. I’ve been at this job thing for a few years longer than you, and I’ve learned these lessons through many many layoffs. You articulate this amazingly well. A friend pointed me here today, and the timing is perfect. I needed this reminder because I’ve been handed the kool-aid and I was just about to drink it again.
Hiya VW! Great to hear from you! Glad this came a good time for you. Welcome!
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Yes! Double Yes. Every Junior Dev should read this. Thx! In fact I’m putting it in my Junior Dev Guide article together with the other advises I found about being a Dev.
Thank you kindly! And thanks for the poke about my blog. Past time I dusted this sucker off. 🙂