Reflections: Work & Change

This is a piece I started almost a year ago, set aside for polishing and never returned to. It started as a rant and morphed into a looking back at what, now, might be the fullness of a career.

It seemed like it might be a good companion piece to the recent post, Ground Rush, so here it is for your dining and dancing pleasure.

The original title was…

Vent: Work

Things have been changing recently at work. In fact, for two years or so, lots of things have been changing at work; you’ve probably noticed.

The economic and work scene has been chaotic and scary; our government appears out to lunch; a fix seems far off and challenging at best… The uncertainty and foreboding, not to mention the financial situation itself, has generated many changes at work and in our lives.

Me, I keep waiting for a change that doesn’t suck.

I keep waiting for change that will make things better.

I’m all in favor of change; in fact, I crave it (as you’ll see). But a lot of the change lately has not felt for the better.

Really, between the economy, the black abysmal suck hole that is modern politics, work becoming employee-hostile and growing old (by which I mean me growing old, but so is work)…

I’m waiting for change that doesn’t suck.

Maybe it’s the disappointment in Obama’s Change I Shouldn’t Have Believed In. Maybe it’s just the way that government and big money make it better for themselves while “the little people” (us 99%) keep getting screwed (and not in that fun way). The gap between the have nearly damn alls and the rest of us grows and grows.

All that money and power confers the ability to shape policy to protect that money and power and to gather more of it. It’s a classic positive feedback loop.

Or maybe it’s just mid-life.  I’m ready to stop working for living. With very few breaks, I’ve been earning a paycheck since I was in high school.  I’m increasingly restless in the corporate box, and, to be honest, my vision towards quality seems outmoded in a world that worships good enough.

In any event, I’m just post-transition and getting my feet wet in my eighth incarnation at The Company (TC). Since I started in 1980, I’ve had seven major positions at TC; I’m just starting this eighth one. [Editor: This was written in July 2011.]

At first I was a field service technician, and that was a blast. I loved going to different accounts and fixing their machines. That position took me into movie and television studios (I lived in Los Angeles at the time).

That was cool enough. What was even cooler for this life-long geek was getting inside telephone switching offices.

I’d tried several times, with no success, to get a job with Pacific Bell, but my job with TC actually gave me more exposure to all that nifty tech than working for Bell would have.

That led to my second position, my first desk job ever, working on the national help desk. Same technical work, same machines, but now supporting techs in the field such as I had been.

In my field tech days, I’d leaned on the support guys; now I was one. (I’d had a very good record in the field; when I fixed a machine, it stayed fixed, so they figured I could help others and invited me to HQ.)

One of the very cool parts of this position was traveling around the country doing installs and training.

I was the sole field guy for a leading-edge, if now historical, computer-driven device used by telephone companies, atomic power plants and the military!

That gave me a chance to visit even more telephone switching centers (big ones now), several atomic power plants (geek heaven) and a number of military facilities… including The Pentagon.

Once I was fortunate enough to be there on a July 4th, when my host invited me to his home for a party and to the D.C. fireworks show that evening.  That all might seem dull, or maybe even distasteful to some, but it was a wonderful time for me!

This all led to another position within the customer support and service organization: training field techs.

The field offices sent their techs to the main office for most of the training they needed. I’d enjoyed going to these classes for my own training; turns out it was also fun from the other side of things.

The “exam” after the week or two or whatever, involved the instructor privately breaking all the machines we’d used for training in class. Then the students come in and attempt to fix them.

I’m horrible at crosswords and the sorts of puzzles you find in magazines, but it turns out I’m pretty good fixing hardware and software. For me the exam was always the best part! Finding clever, but realistic, ways to break the machines was almost as much fun.

Being in the office at HQ made me more visible, which also let the company see my software background.  I’d whip up programs (“apps” these days) to help me do some aspect of my job, and people would be all, “Huh! Cool!!”

That ultimately led to full-time software design positions.

After that I moved to a completely different organization within TC. Different, but still a support business. Except for those first four years as a field tech, the rest of my career has involved internal corporate support of one kind or another.

This fourth position involved supporting engineers using computers and, in particular, CAD-CAM.  I was brought in to support the Apple Macintosh platform, but by the time I wrapped up my previous work and moved, TC had decided to support only Wintel systems on the desktop.

That left me without much to do, so I taught myself Unix. We did then have a base of Unix users (mostly Suns (“pizza boxes”), some HPs), and those desktop Unix installs were in our domain (workstations running commercial CAD-CAM software). That made learning Unix a good idea.  So I did.

Yet they never did find any real work for me to do until our small group was absorbed by a larger group doing the same thing for a much larger user base.

Our little group supported CAD-CAM for new products in the lab; the big group supported not just other new product designers, but also designers of the machines and facilities.

In that group, I transitioned from doing support and some software, to being solely a software developer. I wrote a web-app back in the 90s using only HTML 3.0 and no cookies. Back then the only browser was a thing, called Mosaic.

And that’s when my hobby software work declined. It’s easy to understand why. Even playing video games get old when your face is buried in a computer screen all day (at least it works that way with me; I never have returned to video games). In particular, writing software for fun wasn’t fun when I did it all day.

But I did still loved what I did at work! That particular position, number five, has some very fond memories. (There was the Gang of Three, lots of pistol shooting, parachuting, wild nights, margaritas, and I was working there when I met and fell in love with my [ex-]wife. Heady times!)

That was the best one until a co-worker was promoted to be our boss. He was an awful boss! He and I didn’t along at all anymore (truth be told, we had never really liked him in the first place; he was clearly a management dweeb, not one of us, and his software shit was weak).

He cared more that our asses were in our chairs at 9:00 than he did about the quality of the work (which he was incapable of understanding).

So it was time to move on.

My best friend (whom I’d met back when I first transferred back to HQ), told me about a position in his group. They were a manufacturing support group that wanted to offer software support (something more necessary in manufacturing all the time). To do that they needed a software guy.  I was a software guy.  Seemed like a match, and it was.

That was also a wonderful position.  I did some work in that group that was very well received, and with which I’m extremely pleased and proud.  (On the other hand, that is when my marriage went sour.)

We had a good group that provided a useful service to grateful clients within the company, so naturally the company closed our department.

First there was a big headcount reduction that axed my buddy (and nearly took me out, too).

About a year later they closed the business entirely, and said: retire, quit, find another position, whatever. That was the 60-day thing I wrote about in Ground Rush.

Which brought me to position number seven. That turned out to be a good position initially — in fact one of the best — but over the years the burdens got heavier (at one point I had the workload of three people), and some of our best people left for other positions.

Then came all the economic and political turmoil, and things changed everywhere. The work environment became hugely stressful; few of us were sure about our jobs anymore; many of us watched our retirement funds take a beating; not a fun time.

I decided it was time to move on again.

The future of the department was uncertain, the future of the business was uncertain. And it had been seven years, which is about what each previous position had been (give or take). It was just time to move on.

Which took some doing in those days of job loss. I’m lucky. It turns out my skills (software design) are still in demand, at least by some companies. If I were willing — or forced — to leave TC, I would likely be okay (maybe, all fingers crossed, whistle in the dark).

In some regards, this is the ultimate revenge of nerdy geeks against our childhood tormentors: we’re still employable!


Looking back on it, it’s funny how little actually changed in the past year despite all the change going on around me. That eighth position turned out to be something of a dud (actually, that’s putting it mildly); they never really engaged me or put me to good use (so you can see why my position got axed).

But that’s a story for another time (or maybe not; it’s not very interesting).

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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