Editor's note: This is a special guest column I wrote for Tom's anti-workplace page.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is kitten, and I had the experience of working alongside Tom at The Company. He has told you so many stories of agony and woe from the front line of combat against the forces of ineptitude; today it is my turn to share with you my own tales of misery.
In the beginning...
It was the summer of 2003, and I needed a job. As fate would have it, The Company needed a web developer to maintain their online inventory and sales site. As it was explained to me, the position essentially consisted of screwing around with databases, some rather uncomplicated photo manipulation, and a fair bit of technical writing to explain the products and other wares for sale. All in all, something I could easily handle.
Tom gave Ray my resume and an interview was arranged. Ray was almost half an hour late, and then kept me waiting in the front room for another twenty minutes before even introducing himself. This should have immediately indicated to me the level of professionalism and competence I was about to deal with, but when you're desperate for a job, such things do not occur to you, nor is there anything you can do about them.
At last, Ray made his introduction, and we went through the usual inane interview chatter. You know the drill -- act as though your entire life up until this moment was spent in breathless anticipation of obtaining this sole position at this very company and you would rather spend the rest of eternity performing your duties in this job than retire with a supermodel girlfriend and hefty lottery winnings -- that's the kind of dedicated employee you are.
After about twenty minutes of this, I was offered the position. Ray made a big deal of the salary negotiations by writing figures on paper and sliding them over to me, instead of just saying what I'd get paid and allowing me to say Yay or Nay. We quickly settled on a price for my services (I'm not a greedy guy!). In most normal situations, this is about where the interview ends. The employer says "Welcome aboard" or "Congratulations", you shake their hand and arrange the when and where of your first day.
Not so with Ray. He kept me there for another two and a half hours, while he prattled on incessently about the internal operations of the company. I realize that many employers like to do this, but there really is a time and place for such information, and besides, entry-level employees don't care. As a web monkey I don't need to know what the average sales composite index of the last three quarters were, nor do I need to know what incentives are offered to the
sales staff upon breaking the arbitrary barriers Ray sets up for them.
During his lecture about those incentives (which, I remind you, wouldn't even apply to me), Ray flipped over my resume and began drawing on the back of it. He entered some sort of alternate state of conciousness and began writing or illustrating everything he was saying to me. "Two hundred thousand," he'd say, writing the numbers down and underlining them. With every subsequent mention of "two hundred thousand", he'd add another underline. "I've run this company for twenty years," he informed me, drawing a 20 with a circle around it. Having been awake for well over twenty four hours at this point, I found this immensely amusing, but somehow managed to withhold my giggling.
Until the carrot.
Ray likened the sales incentives to "a carrot on a stick", and to illustrate this clever analogy, drew a picture of a carrot, evidently to facilitate my understanding. Apparently he felt that the simple icon of a carrot was not enough, though, so as he continued droning on, he then labelled the picture: CARROT.
It was about this time that I lost control and allowed barely-muffled snickering to escape from my lips. I couldn't help it. He knew I was laughing, but he couldn't tell at what and was unable to summon the temerity to ask what was so goddamned funny.
By the end of the "interview", the backs of both my resume and my references were covered, margin to margin, in blue-ink drawings, diagrams, and various scrawlings, the sum of everything I never wanted to know about The Company. Exhausted from both lack of sleep and the sheer effort of not laughing quite out loud, I dragged myself home and went to sleep.
And RAY said, Let there be pain, and there was pain.
Ray always seemed to have a great deal of difficulty differentiating between me and Tom, who was and is the network and systems administrator. He would often call meetings regarding things that only involved one of us, but would insist that we both be there for some reason. Naturally, the person who wasn't involved in the situation would just sit there because he had little to nothing to contribute to the discussion, meanwhile allowing work to pile up (for which he would later get bitched at).
Other times, Ray would come to one of us about a problem that was the other's responsibility. He'd haul me away from my desk to find out about faulty RAM modules or motherboard installations. He'd hassle Tom about image resizing. He'd whine at me about network configuration and he'd bitch to Tom about product specifications on the site. No one seemed able to convince him that our positions were entirely seperate, and that while we could both do a great deal of what the other could do, we had our own workloads to worry about.
A word about these meetings: They were called quite often but never seemed to materialize when expected. "Meeting in five, my office!" Ray would shout as he lumbered by. Three hours later, no meeting has occured. By closing time, we're all ready to leave, and this is when Ray remembers the meeting, for which we now have to stay late. These meetings usually consisted of him griping endlessly about things that no mortal human would possibly care about, and demanding answers to issues that didn't need to be resolved.
During one of these meetings, which was being held at 6:30pm (we close at 5:30pm), Ray decided it was of paramount importance to find out how many microboard cameras came with connectors. This is something that could easily have been dealt with the next day, or the next month for that matter, but Ray wanted to know now. He pressed Tom into duty, forcing him to call another co-worker who had gone home two hours prior, to ask this question. The answer came back: Three. Three of these cameras come with connectors. Ray was enraged. "Which three?" he demanded of Tom. "Call him back now and find out!"
Managers: Do not be this guy. Priorities are a good thing. Learn what is important and what is not.
When there's smoke...
Ray's idiocy extended well beyond his inability to judge priorities and set up productive meetings. Both myself and Tom enjoy cigarettes, so every 90 minutes or so, we'd take a quick break to step outside onto the loading dock and light up, shoot the breeze, and relish the chance to get away from our desk if only for a few minutes. This did not impact our productivity in the slightest; in fact it increased it greatly. It's truly amazing how much better one works after taking a short break, getting some fresh air, and bitching about work with a like-minded co-worker.
We continued this for about three or four weeks before Ray decided that the two of us smoking at the same time was an absolutely unacceptable breach of professionalism, on the grounds that The Company is small and he can't have all his employees lollygagging about in the loading bay because someone might need to take a phone call from a customer. On the face of it, this argument makes sense, until you realize that my position did not include, nor would it ever include, fielding calls from customers or anyone else. Whether I was outside or at my desk, I didn't handle the phones, so it truly made no difference whether or not I was outside at the same time Tom was.
Regardless, Ray informed us that if it happened again, dire consequences would arise, and so we took seperate smoke breaks for the next few days until one morning the entire network completely crashed, making it impossible for either Tom or myself to get any work done whatsoever until it came back up. Naturally, we took these few minutes to smoke, since there was literally nothing else to do, and Ray wasn't even at the office at that time. You can guess the rest -- when we came back inside, he was there, having a coronary over the fact that we willfully defied his holy mandate. After his temper tantrum, it was decided that we'd never smoke again if that would shut him up. Going into nicotine withdrawl would be worth it, if it meant avoiding the outburst he provided.
A cup of java!
Another amusing incident revolved around the old office staple: coffee. I made coffee one morning, and dumped the grounds from yesterday into the sink, poured fresh coffee in, and brewed a kittenlicious pot of futurecoffee, which is very futuristic. It was going to be a great day -- a cup of futurecoffee, and Ray out of the office all day.
When Ray was out of the office, worker productivity positively soared. Ray has a habit of standing behind you for ten minutes or more, without saying anything, just watching you work. It's absolutely nerve-wracking, and makes it impossible to get anything meaningful accomplished. His other favorite pasttime is to swing by your cubicle every few minutes, demand that you immediately stop what you're doing and get to work on something else, so that he can later castigate you for not finishing the first project. Because of these behaviors, nobody got anything done when Ray was around, but today he wasn't, so I knew that not only would I accomplish a great deal, but I wouldn't have to put up with his nonsense.
The day quickly turned less stellar when Tracey arrived. Tracey was Ray's girlfriend, and her sole job at the company is to produce the paper verison of the catalogue, something she has not done in two years. Instead, she putters around the office telling everyone how to do their jobs, which she knows nothing about, or else looking for ways to get people into trouble. My time had come.
I had neglected to turn on the sink to wash the coffee grounds down the drain when I made my coffee that morning. Any normal human might say to me, "kitten, you left coffee in the sink -- could you take care of that?" And then I'd say "Oh, my mistake," and turn the water on and hey presto: problem solved.
Not Tracey, though. Tracey felt it necessary to berate me in front of several co-workers about this unforgivable lapse of mine, and when I apologised and said I'd take care of it, she insisted that coffee cannot go down a drain, contrary to almost a century's worth of observation otherwise. To that end, I was told to use the shop vac -- one of those wet/dry numbers -- to vaccuum the coffee out of the sink. With zero authority to countermand her, I did exactly that. Sucked the coffee out of the fucking sink, put the vaccuum back in the closet, and because Ray wasn't there that day, managed to complete an entire section of product descriptions and technical specifications in a day.
The next morning Ray pulled me into his office, livid. The source of his consternation was that last night, when he came to the office (yes, he came in around 9pm, because he had nothing else to do), he noticed that the closet smelled like coffee, an aroma that most people find agreeable, but Ray apparently did not. Why he was smelling the closet at nine at night (or any time) is beyond me; nevertheless, I received a bawling out that would make a sailor cringe, despite the fact that it wasn't my idea in the first place, and in fact I had protested the notion of using the vaccuum for this task anyway.
Ray didn't have much in the way of sense in the fashion and humor departments. He was big on Casual Friday, even though our normal workaday attire was fairly casual to begin with. He practically insisted that I wear blue jeans one Friday, which I rarely do, but I acquiesed to avoid having to listen to him bitch about it. I'm a button-down shirt kind of guy, so I wore a shirt and blue jeans that day. Nothing unusual so far.
Ray, however, seemed to think it was absolutely outrageous for me to wear this shirt without tucking it in. A button-down shirt, says he, should always be tucked in. I'd like to inform you, loyal reader, than I am generally a well-dressed man. I don't expect to win any modelling contracts or fashion awards, but my attire is always clean, pressed, presentable, and generally suited to the environment I am in (with the exception of the time I got
tricked into going to a rave, but that's another story). My shirts are almost always tucked in, especially in an office, but since he made such a big deal about it being Casual Friday, I thought I'd be slightly more casual than usual, and as noted, this was apparently too casual for him.
Not that I see how it matters. I don't interface with customers. I sit at my desk and chew on keyboards all day. Push a button, pull a lever.
So, in a mild fit of mirth, I decided that the next Friday, I'd wear a suit -- and that's exactly what I did. If he's going to whine about me being too casual around the office, then I'll be as formal as possible. This, also, was not acceptable to him, for now I was just being a defiant jackass in his eyes. Admittedly, there was a bit of jackassery involved, but it was all in good fun, and although he never actually said anything about it to me, he bitched at Tom about it ("Am I kitten's keeper?") and harbored resentment about being one-upped for weeks.
Now with 50% more features!
As noted, part of my job was to come up with product descriptions. This seems like an easy task, but it isn't, because a great deal of the cameras at The Company are extremely similar. There's only so much you can say about them -- they have such and such resolution, come with whatever lens, and whatever unique features they incorporate that make them such a phenomenal product. The Company stocked several dozen run-of-the-mill color cameras, the kind you'd see in a convenience store, and I was expected to come up with unique descriptions for all of them, which is difficult since they aren't very unique.
Nevertheless, I did what I was told to do. I'm no Chaucer but I have a higher degree of linguistic prowess than does the average person, and certainly better than the person who had written the placeholder descriptions, which amounted to
little more than "This color camera. Highest quality." Additionally, I can readily adapt my style to suit the needs of the format and audience. So I churned out the product descriptions, inserted them into the database, and a few hours later Ray took a look at them and went ballistic, because they weren't what he wanted.
Well, fair enough. I'm not exactly married to these words and I'm not trying to win a Pulitzer by describing cameras -- if he wants 'em changed, all he has to do is tell me what he'd rather they say. And that he did -- by talking out loud and making me take dictation on a yellow legal pad, as he blithered for ten minutes about this camera or that lens. By the end, he'd come up with essentially the same thing I'd written anyway, but hey -- he's paying me, so I'm not going to tell the emperor that he's naked. I showed him the legal pad and asked "Is this what you want it to say?" He read it over, made a few corrections, and said "This is it, make them say this."
So I did.
Several hours later he was again flying into a frenzy because he didn't like the descriptions. Tom -- who had to attend the "these descriptions suck" meeting for some reason -- reminded him that they were his exact words, but logic never
derailed Ray from a tirade. After another half hour of deliberations, Ray decided he'd write something up and email it to me in the morning, at which time I was to immediately enact these changes.
Next morning, surprise, Ray hasn't emailed me anything. But he's incensed anyway that I haven't updated the descriptions, based on an email he hasn't sent me, which in turn is based on descriptions he hasn't written.
For your eyes only...
Other than calling meetings that never occured, pulling people away from their tasks, and glowering at us for no eadily discernable readon, another one of Ray's favored means of acting like a juvenile was to spy on the employees. As the owner of a company which sold a great deal of security equipment including cameras, almost every square inch of the building was under observation,
and most of these cameras could be accessed from any remote location via the internet. Ray would often hang around at home and watch people on these cameras to make sure they weren't doing anything subversive, like working diligently, which is what everyone did when he wasn't around.
Some of these cameras could even be controlled remotely, so he could aim them at any given spot, zoom in, and so forth. I don't know if you've ever had to work when there's a camera pointed directly at you, and you know you're being watched, but it is a harrowing experience -- almost as obnoxious as when he's actually standing behind you. He would zoom in on the employees, their computer screens, or examine spots on the carpet for hours at a time, looking for anything he could use to get angry about. If an employee had to get up from his desk and confer with another employee, as we often did, we could usually expect Ray to phone us and demand to know exactly what we were talking about and why.
I can understand the need to keep an eye on the goings-on at the office, particularly if the boss is also the owner, but there comes a point where the line crosses from elementary management to full-fledged paranoia, and Ray didn't merely cross that line, he obliterated it.
Step into my office.
There are several key elements to being a good manager. One sage maxim holds that a good manager should be able to leave his business completely unattended for days at a time, and not have to worry about it. His employees know their jobs, and do not need direct supervision every minute. As you are probably becoming aware, Ray utterly fails in this area.
Another important aspect of competent management comes with the handling of a problem, be it small or large. Good managers understand that there are degrees of severity in any situation, and handle each situation appropriately for its level of severity.
Ray does not understand this. If he were Windows, every process he ran would be set at realtime priority, from the phone call he's making to the fact that the building is on fire. When Windows is configured this way, doing something as simple as opening Notepad is likely to make the entire system crash, and the same is true for Ray. When the slightest thing didn't go according to his (constantly fluctuating and usually unrealistic) expectations, all logical processing went completely out the window and his mental kernel would panic, spewing out error messages and cryptic warnings.
One morning I awoke and discovered that my car would not start. I immediately phoned a friend to come pick me up and take me to the office, and then called Ray to explain the situation and assure him that I would be slightly late. I arrived about an hour late, apologised once more, and set about work. This being the first and only time I had ever been late, and given the fact that I had called to inform him of it rather than just sauntering in without explanation,
all should be forgiven. It happens to everyone from time to time, and unless it becomes a chronic problem, it isn't something to worry about. I should also mention that nothing of particular interest was going on that day, I was well ahead of schedule as is, and I'd stayed late often enough that this shouldn't be an issue.
Most managers would let it slide completely, or say "Don't let it happen again" at the most.
But not Ray. Ray simmered about this for the rest of the day, until it was almost time to go, at which point he asked me (and Tom) to come into his office to "discuss the situation". What proceeded was a two-hour heavy-handed lecture about the importance of being on time (note that Ray himself is never on time, and that I was always on time or early). He went into a brief dissertation about my problem with authority, an armchair analysis of my psychological problems, an op-ed piece regarding the nature of professionalism, and at the end of this debacle, finally concluded with "Be on time from now on."
No problem, Ray. I was late one time, I called ahead, it's not going to happen again. And it didn't -- I was at my desk on time every day from that point forth, just like I had been every day before. But evidently he felt it necessary to conduct a grand inquisition into this, and to hold Tom for two hours as well, who had absolutely nothing to do with anything.
This is just one of many examples of Ray's inability to determine priority levels, and to treat every situation, from minor to major, as a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. These impromptu lectures occured with appalling frequency, ranging from such topics as whose turn it was to take out the trash, whether or not anyone touched the thermostat, proper use of the intercom, and other such trivial issues. Ray would turn each of these into a Congressional hearing, wasting not only his own time, but his employees' time, and hence his own money.
You talkin' to me?
IRC is a wonderful thing. Not only can it be used to kill time and converse with people from around the world on nearly any topic imaginable, but it can be an invaluable tool for the workplace, particularly in technical environments. Need help with a technical problem? Jump on IRC and ask the experts. It's easier and less time-consuming to type a quick question, get a few opinions and solutions, and keep on trucking, than to try to re-invent the wheel every time you hit a snag.
I used IRC at a previous position to get answers to things that would have taken me hours to research and figure out on my own. I used IRC at The Company in much the same way. It's something to run in the background and ignore until needed, and most people are able to do this without affecting their actual job -- myself included.
Ray never seemed to quite grasp this concept, even when it was explained to him by me, Tom, and our webhosting team (who specifically requested that I use IRC to communicate with them rather than phoning). One fine afternoon I was on IRC during my lunch break asking a friend to write a perl script for me that would help automate the batch processing of huge numbers of images. Rather than renaming each of a hundred files in a directory individually (which I had to do frequently), I could engage this perl script and rename them all at once. Isn't technology great?
So I'm on IRC, telling my friend what I need done. Ray lumbers over and stares at the screen for a few minutes, then stares at me. I explain to him exactly what I'm doing, make it clear that this is work-related, and he even examines what I'd been saying in IRC to confirm to himself that I wasn't just slacking off. Sure enough, work-related, and hell, I'm doing this on my own time. This is my lunch break and I'm not really obligated to waste it trying to make things work more smoothly for the company, but I'm doing so anyway.
Naturally Ray loses it completely and decides that I'm probably hacking into the CIA, or laundering money, or something. Once again, rather than actually taking the issue up with me directly, he whines to Tom about it, who has nothing at all to do with it. But even Tom was unable to convince Ray that I was doing something work-related. I was subsequently forbidden to use IRC, and further forbidden to use Cygwin, which is something I would need to use in order to run that perl script my friend created for me.
Because of this I was forced to spend at least an hour a day renaming files by hand and moving them around, a job that could have taken five minutes and saved everyone a lot of time and effort, all because Ray couldn't wrap his brain
around the fact that things he doesn't personally use might actually turn out to be better.
All good things...
I could sit and write for the next five hours and still not tell every story of Ray's general lunacy, but as this column is more than long enough already, I'll wrap it up with a vignette about how I was fired.
Ray had been out of the office all week, thank the gods. It meant everyone was breathing a little easier, getting more done, and not absolutely dreading coming to work. Tom put together a few new servers, something he wouldn't have been
able to do had Ray been there breathing down his neck. I started and completed two of the largest sections in the product catalogue, and was making admirable progress on several others. Other employees were completing their work at a phenomenal rate and no thought was given to Ray.
At the end of one of these ultra-productive days, I was feeling pretty good about the work I'd been doing. I kicked back, wrote up a list of things I'd work on tomorrow, and got ready to leave. Tom came to my desk and told me to grab my stuff, let's get the hell out of here already. This was possibly the first time in two months that we'd actually be leaving at the alleged closing time, rather than a half hour later.
Once outside, Tom dispels the news. Ray had called him a few minutes earlier and asked him to fire me. He refused to do it himself, refused to give a reason, refused to say anything other than "tell him not to come in tomorrow". To be strictly accurate, he didn't actually say to fire me -- just that I shouldn't come in the next day, and would not elaborate on that point, nor clarify his meaning. His meaning became clear enough, but the notion that he would have a co-worker tell me this instead of doing it himself, and the fact that he wouldn't give a reason (to me or anyone else) was mind-boggling. I left that day with no idea what I'd done wrong, and to this day I still don't know. I'd been on time, was ahead of schedule, was getting lots done, hadn't been slacking off, hadn't taken any unauthorized smoke breaks. No one seemed able to come up with any theory as to what prompted this termination, although my personal theory
is that even Ray has no idea what he was doing.
So there you have it: Semi-amusing tales of managerial incompetence and ineptitude, to a degree that I have never witnessed before or since. If you are a manger looking for ways to improve your team and your own leadership, my advice to you is to scrutinize these stories and resolve never to act like Ray. Your overriding thought with every action and decision you make should be, "Is this something Ray would do?" If the answer is yes, or if you even think the answer is yes, you'll probably be better off not doing it, and coming up with a better solution.
Thank you for your attention. From Atlanta, good evening.