You know how the economy is a mess at the moment? And it's making it difficult for people to get jobs? And how it has hit the tech sector especially hard? That last part could be navel-gazing, I guess. Perhaps right this second somebody is writing a LiveJournal entry where they note that the economic downturn is particularly hard on realtors, let's say. But I digress.
For those of you too young to remember, the last time this happened was in 1992. Coincidentally, it was right about the time of our previous Mideast Excellent Adventure. It wasn't nearly as bad that time. I think it was over in a year or so, whereas the current malaise is looking like it might last half a decade. It was bad enough to affect me personally, though. The old-skool computer stores that had ushered in the PC era were becoming dinosaurs. Companies no longer needed any hand-holding to get PCs running, not even mid-sized networks of computers. I found myself out of a job.
The next job I got was much less prestigious than my previous one. I was hired at a company headquartered in Wichita, Kansas that operated a bunch of oil and gas pipelines. The main office was growing rapidly, they had over 2,000 people working under one roof. Whole departments would pick up and move from an old wing of the building to a newly remodeled one. I got a job on the "moving crew," where me and a few other guys would move the department's entire PC network from one place to another. Pretty lousy work, but the pay was about the same as I'd made designing and installing PC networks, and I figured it would eventually lead to opportunities for advancement.
This was the job where I discovered I am allergic to big companies. When you've got that many employees involved, the only way you're going to avoid a descent into cat-herding is to allow only a very small percentage of those people to think and make decisions. I was very definitely not part of that elite few, and I was reminded of that fact on a daily basis.
After about six months I was pretty sick of the place. The moves were tapering off so me and my krew didn't have much to do, anyway. They put us to work refurbishing old PCs. Here's a stack of 286 boxes, here's a pile of cruddy monitors, here's a pile of old hard drives, see how many PCs you can make out of this! The refurbished PCs would be donated to non-profits and small businesses. It was nice that the company wasn't just chucking the outmoded PCs into the trash, as I suspect most companies do, but for me it was pretty dreary work. It looked like the current economic slump might be ending so I started responding to ads in the newspaper.
One day while out on my "lunch break" I went to an informal interview in the Epic Center. It's an office building in downtown Wichita, the tallest in the state of Kansas, and at the time it was very new and prestigious. The company in question was using minicomputers with tape drives and drums and VT-100 terminals and all sorts of stuff I was completely unfamiliar with. But I had something much better than experience: enthusiasm! Hey old-timers, remember when that was worth something? Hard to believe, but it was. I asked a lot of questions -- how big is that hard drive?, what's the word size of this thing?, how many users does it support?, how many registers does it have?, what is its assembly language like?, do you have a printout I could look at? It was working. The guy who was showing me around was smiling. He nearly tripped over himself, trying to find an assembly listing for me to look at. I had found my way out.
I'm not sure how it happened, but the next day, my boss' boss, head of one of the company's large umbrella tech departments, got wind of the fact that I was looking for another job. I told no one inside the company, but he knew anyway. He couched it in terms of being peeved about me taking an hour-and-a-half lunch, but the way he said it, I knew what the real issue was, and he knew I knew.
So, here's what he told me. He said that, if I was willing to hang on for a week or two, he'd get me transferred to a different, slightly more prestigious department. They were involved in tech support and maintained all the gigantic, hulking servers needed to support thousands of employees. I wouldn't have to lug computers around anymore, or refurbish old clunkers. That department just happened to have an employee my boss' boss wanted to cherry-pick, and he figured he could trade me for her.
Now, here's where I'm not sure of the motivations. Was that guy genuinely sorry to see me go, and therefore made arrangements to make me happier? Or was he just using me as a pawn in an interdepartmental political game so he could cherry-pick that employee he wanted? I am betting on the latter. People working in big companies are not motivated by altruism, nor the greater good of the company.
In one of the biggest mistakes of my career, I agreed to the deal. I could have had an interesting job in a small company that rewards curiousity, but I went with the stultifying job in the big company that actively penalizes thinking. I was still acting like my parents: big companies equal stability and security, right? You can't go wrong working for a big company with health and dental benefits! Well, hey. I was still young and stupid.
I went to the new deparment. The cherry-picked employee went to my old department. I think I lasted about two months. The work wasn't that much better and the people in my new department were a lot less friendlier. I occasionally had to answer telephone support calls and I was terrible at it. People asked me stupid questions and I responded with curt, snotty answers. One of them eventually invoked the political chain of action and got me fired.
It stung for a minute or two, but ultimately I was very glad to get out of there. The whole tenor of my career turned around after that. I never again took a job at a big, stultifying company that discourages thinking. I started programming in earnest. My next job was in a small company that made Macintosh peripherals. They were doing their first cross-platform product, and I was hired to write a Windows driver for a DSP board. After that I interacted with computers almost entirely via keyboards and mice, I didn't have to get my hands dirty dinking around in their guts very often.
In summary, every single time I got fired, it was the best thing. I didn't want to be there, and the employer didn't want me there either, so the solution was obvious. I think I stopped getting fired after that because I got better at figuring out the situation for myself, and I'd quit before it turned dire.