The Lucky Ones Land in the Dungeon

April 26, 2008

So my former company (and those of you in the industry – but not in the know – might be able to identify it from what follows) has shut down the small (?) team that I belonged to during my tenure there, and put all the 80-odd people in redeployment.

And we all know what that means.

Except there’s this small sub-group that has not been put in the redeployment pool right away. Lucky buggers, right? Yeah. Those guys, who are apparently working on something too critical to be abandoned right away (and a project which is in deep shit to boot), have been put in the dungeon instead.

Dungeon? What’s that?

That’s what I asked when I heard of this the other day.

The dungeon process has apparently always existed in the said organisation, but I was blissfully unaware of it during my three long, dry years there. (Well, naturally, considering I never worked on anything critical and any projects nearby that had to be abandoned were abandoned without missing a beat. But that’s another story.)

So this dungeon process apparently means that the entire team of, say, 20 engineers, gets to work out of one single conference room all day long – and they work extended hours at that. There are scheduled hours (sorry, minutes) for coffee breaks – and probably for toilet breaks as well. (These would have to be staggered, though, to avoid people wasting time standing in queues, or, heaven forbid, getting carried away and actually chatting in neighbouring urinals! – most of the team members being male.) Anyway, miss your designated break, and you’re screwed. It goes without saying that, with 20 of your colleagues and your boss perpetually within spitting distance (literally I mean, not figuratively), personal calls or some leisurely web browsing is out of the question.

So these lucky guys had apparently already spent 2-3 months in this manner when the larger team was summarily disbanded and placed in other groups, or allowed to leave the company with a substantial parting gift. Meanwhile, these guys continue to slog their way through the dungeon. When their project is satisfactorily concluded, then they will be given the redeployment or golden handshake option. Bonuses and promotions? Rewards and recognitions, at least? Sure: “Great job, everyone, thanks for all the hard work. Now you’re fired.” Yup, that’s a great motivator when you want a team to put in long hours in stressful circumstances where they’re trying to complete some work which presumably is going to make (or save) the company a whole lot of money.

Anyway, as they say, it’s a great place to work.

Quitting Unemployment

March 8, 2008

It’s not so much about whether to be or not to be: it’s about what to be, how to be, when to be, and for how long.

In the past, whenever I’ve changed jobs, I’ve always hated the new job. I hate the new, unfamiliar workplace, the new work, the new colleagues, the new learning – basically, I just hate the newness. I don’t think I’ve ever joined a single job without wanting to quit in the first couple of weeks. Most places, I’ve wanted to quit even after three months on the job. I’ve never done it though – I always told myself to wait for at least six months. Almost always (with one or two exceptions), between the three-month and the six-month milestone, something changes, and the desire to quit quietly goes away. Usually, by the time six months are up, I’m into the new role heart and soul and enjoying every moment of it.

The change to unemployment has been different. Now that that six-month milestone is coming up, I can honestly say that I haven’t had many moments of regret or of wanting to “quit” unemployment.

Just recently, though, I did suddenly have a yearning for the good ol’ days of office gossip, meetings, deadlines, lousy coffees and noisy cafeterias. When I think back to those “good ol'”days, I don’t think of the last organization I worked (or rather, vegetated) at, but rather, of the one before that, KF, where I could have complained of many things, but never of boredom. KF was too stressful, too tiring, too hectic, had too many people, too much politics and was generally just a bit too much to handle; but the work was always interesting, challenging, fun, and the people I met there were simply amazing. Just briefly, the other day, I missed that madness and camaraderie of KF.

The park, which is nowadays the centre of my social circle of idle moms, was partly responsible for this sudden spark of reminiscence. Two or three of the half-dozen or so moms that I generally chat with, are looking for jobs or planning when and how they can go back to work. What about me, they ask?

I don’t really know, honestly. I have been very comfortable being home, doing my own thing, looking after the girls. I spend two or three hours on the computer every day, which is all I need to recharge my batteries after taking care of the household chores and the twins in the morning. Occasionally, I do feel that I’ve become too house-bound, somewhat isolated, overly family-centric; but I’m not sure if this is something I want to be worried about yet.

If I think of returning to work, first I feel lazy and reluctant – life will be so much more hectic and I’ll get so little time with the girls if I do that. I also feel a little guilty – like being a “good” mother means giving up work forever, which I know is a stupid way to think, but I don’t seem to be able to change it. I feel a little selfish – if I go away to work, who will look after the girls? Then, I feel a little ambivalent – what work do I want to do next, anyway? And finally, I feel surprised to feel a little excited – I want to be part of that dynamic, decisive, rushing corporate workspace again.

Then, of course, there’s a work-from-home or freelance option. That would answer the question of looking after – or at least supervising someone else who’s looking after – the kids. But, it doesn’t provide many of the features that working from an office does – office gossip, lousy coffee, noisy cafeteria… Chances are, too, that it doesn’t provide such a good opportunity for career advancement, equal pay, or equally challenging or exciting work. It might be convenient, but is it what I want to do?

I’m happy with status quo for the moment… but in another few months or a year, I will have to have some or all of the answers. Sigh…

Voluntary Unemployment

August 22, 2007

I finally quit my job.

I’ve done this many times before – different jobs, I mean – and it’s different every time. There’s always some sadness, but there are always so many other things mixed up with that. This time, there’s a dry sense of frustration, and a sense of resignation in addition to the sadness: sadness that I had to leave a great company for the sake of a lousy boss; sadness that in three long years here, there’s probably nobody in my team that I’d really like to keep in touch with; frustration that my skills, instead of being honed or extended, have been forced to rust; and resignation that a small, faraway voice, however persistent cannot change the way a biased, stubborn mind or an elephantine organization works.

It’s the second time that I’ve quit without knowing what I’m going to be doing next. In a way, I’m more apprehensive about it now than I was last time. That time, I thought I was on my way to making all my dreams come true. This time, I’m not so sure.

But I know one thing for sure: it just doesn’t make sense to keep doing something that’s giving you absolutely nothing back. Other than a pay cheque, I mean. In my current job, I have no challenge, no opportunity, no growth, no stimulation. It’s a brain-dead job in which I have practically no responsibility. It was good to start with; in the early days, I had a lot to learn. But then, the learning dried up, and so did the challenge. I knew a long time ago, that if something didn’t change, and soon, I wouldn’t survive long. In the past two months, though, I made a serious effort to force a change. And yet, finally, the “change” that was forthcoming still required me to work with my current boss, and that, I know, is just not a long-term solution. I can’t work with a boss whom I’m constantly battling and trying to outmanoeuver.

With this decision, maybe, my corporate career is at an end.

Ten years of working life has taught me a lot. I remember when I was younger and stupider, idealistic, passionate… I used to get into the thick of office politics, standing up for whatever I thought was right, and vociferously at that. Ten years has taught me to change all that. Now I simply talk to people I like and trust, stay away from people I dislike and distrust, do my job and go home. It is comfortable this way; so what if it is less fulfilling than the other way – when you are intensely, passionately, and completely involved in your work and thoroughly dedicated, committed, and loyal to your organization?

  • First, I worked for the money – as a college student, Rs 4000 or Rs 5000 a month was a breeze!
  • Then, I worked for the work – sales jobs didn’t suit my temperament, so I switched to journalism; the money, Rs 2000 or so a month, was a joke – even back then, it hardly paid the fuel bill.
  • Then, I worked for ambition – I set out to prove myself, to achieve, to excel, and to be seen as one who did.
  • Then, I worked for passion – I loved what I did, I immersed myself in my job, I enjoyed it, I was defined by it.
  • Then, I worked for stability – I just needed a nine-to-five that would keep me busy and pay the bills; I didn’t have to enjoy it, I didn’t expect to be thrilled by it, I didn’t care if I was merely mediocre at it. I had realized that there were other things in life than work.

The thing that strikes me most in this progression, is how at first money grew in importance, then waned as I looked for more satisfying work; then grew again, as I chased fatter and fatter pay packets, which were to me a symbol of my “success”; then waned, when I realized that the fat pay packet alone is not only no indicator of success, but is, moreover, insufficient motivation to persist with a plum boring job. As the saying goes, all pay and no work… well, it’s not as much fun as it should be.

When I first started working, I cherished every rupee of my miserable little income; later, relatively “flush” with funds, I spent my hard-earned money with gay abandon; still later, with more money than sense, I tried to spend wisely, save wisely; and now, my salary having at last crossed all bounds of what seems reasonable and fitting for one of my skills, I value money so little as to actively set about terminating my handsome income on the flimsiest of grounds. (I mean, really, who ever heard of anyone quitting because they didn’t have enough work? Almost as mind-numbing as someone quitting because they’re getting paid too much.)

Of course, as far as money goes, it’s easy to speak from a position of plenty – I know that even if I don’t work and earn, I will survive, and in a fair degree of comfort at that. But that, in itself, is sad, because it takes away one great motivator in life. The need to earn is an important factor, not only in one’s career, but in life in general. There’s a strange rootless-ness in knowing that you don’t “have” to do anything to survive. No wonder kids who are born obviously wealthy often grow up a little wonky.

As for me – if I find myself going a little wonky, I can always go back to work, corporate or other. But that would be a kind of defeat – that would mean that I hadn’t been able to work on other stuff, the stuff you don’t get paid for, the stuff that makes a difference to you and – if you’re very lucky – a tiny bit of difference to the world around you.

Doing a routine nine-to-five (or eleven-to-four, truth be known) till you drop dead of boredom is the easy way out. It’s easy to sink into a kind of vegetable stupor. Getting oneself out of that is tough. After so many years of it, I don’t know if I have – or if I ever had – what it takes to achieve anything that’s important to me. That’s the scary part. But, well, like it or not, here’s my second chance to try.

Honesty – The Worst Policy

June 21, 2007
My HR Rep has been setting up meetings with the rank and file of our department – don’t ask me why – and she set up one with me, to find out what’s good and bad about the company or something of the sort. I told her the company was great, but that I was “this” close to quitting, because I simply didn’t have enough work to do and hadn’t had for close to a year and therefore it was clear that my contributions to the company were not appreciated.

She immediately jumped up and did a few evolved and highly agitated dance movements, and then asked a few pointed questions and then promised to speak to everybody from the CEO downwards to see that my issues were resolved in the shortest possible timeframe, and meanwhile she pleaded with me not to put in my papers. I told her I had vacation time coming up and would think about it after that.

So what she did was to go and talk to the India site manager of my larger team (my office organization gets a little complicated, but let me put it this way – you remember those senior managers I went out with for our quarterly? This chap is the manager of the manager of that bunch). Normally, should I be delighted to be receiving attention from high up? Not in the least – attention from high up is something I’d be better off without in any circumstances. In this particular instance, I was even less delighted than I normally might have been. I don’t trust this chap an inch. You know how some of these ultra-senior managers are – all smooth, and suave and charming, and they know your name and they go out of their way to make small talk with you and not let you feel like the last, tiny, insignificant cog in the wheel of their hugely important machinery, all the while making sure that they convey subtly that they indeed think of you in exactly that way? Well, that’s exactly how this gentleman is, and I’ve seen him make mincemeat of small fry like me, in public at that, with the full force of his smooth, suave, charming manner. Do I think he cares one whit about whether I stay or go? Not on your life. And yet, once he’s informed of it, he’s compelled to go and set up a meeting with me.

Errrrrrrrgh – it gives me the creeps to have to talk 1:1 with this chap in a small room behind closed doors to boot. Next time, I’ll know better than to say anything the least bit honest to the HR Rep.

Oh what a tangled web we weave

When we don’t practice to deceive!


June 8, 2007
My office has this wonderful concept of quarterlies. (For those of you who’ve not met with this particular concept before, a quarterly is a team outing that happens once a quarter.) My immediate team, being a team of three who are in a constant state of barely-disguised hostility, has made a fine art of avoiding quarterlies like the plague.

Unfortunately, this was noticed by upper management and attributed to the fact that our manager sits halfway across the globe from us (which is in general a good thing). We were, therefore, cordially invited to join the senior managers in their quarterly, which was positioned as a quarterly for “managers and employees who report to remote managers”. This basically boiled down to senior managers and the three of us.

Since the civil war in our team has resulted in a two-against-one polarization, the person on the one side gracefully declined the invitation, leaving the two of us to face the torture. (Yes, torture – what else would you call being closeted with a dozen senior managers for an entire day???)

Well, we both were dreading it, but politeness demanded that we attend, and neither of us could leave the other to attend alone, so we decided to take the plunge together. And guess what… it wasn’t so bad. I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was fun, but then again, given that it was a bunch of senior managers, it was as close to being fun as is humanly possible.

Of course, there were mitigating circumstances. Some bright spark had elected for a resort near Mysore (!) so we spent close to eight hours in the bus, as opposed to about five hours in the resort. This is good, because how bad can a bus ride be? In the worst case, you can always look out the window, or pretend to be asleep.

In the event, this was not required, because we whiled away time playing flush and bluff (some of the players getting carried away and trying to play one while others were on the other – e.g. playing “blind” in bluff) on the outward journey. Inescapably some very terrible antakshari had to be endured, but this soon died a natural death. Finally, came the turn of dumb charades and this not only lasted a good four hours, but also provided a great deal of entertainment to all.

Oh and, at lunch time when drinks were being ordered for all, we four women were automatically offered a choice between juice and soft drink, so I did a gender-bender and asked for a beer!

So all in all it was an almost-enjoyable experience… though I don’t think I’d want to repeat it in a hurry. Mixing with senior managers, some of it might rub off! (Christina – are you listening???)

Effective Meetings

June 1, 2007
There are some things my office is very good at. One of these is meetings. We’re terribly good about meetings. We set them up weeks in advance, we send out notices, keeping a variety of time-zones satisfied, we block conference rooms, we book audio bridges, we accept, decline and tentatively accept meetings, sometimes we propose new times, and occasionally we cancel. When we don’t cancel, we have punctual and predictable attendance. No-shows are practically unheard-of… except in a few types of meetings, where they are common.

We have many types of meetings. There’s team meetings, staff meetings, department meetings, site meetings, business update meetings, project meetings, program meetings, bug scrub meetings, open forums, virtual meetings, live meetings, F2F meetings, and 1:1s (read – one-on-ones)… to name a few. Our meetings range from 30-minute sessions with a single person in a room that seats six (not talking to himself – the other participant is on the phone, of course); to 20 people and 20 laptops and a super sophisticated overhead projector and half a dozen polycom phones cluttering a room that seats 16; to a 500-strong audience that throngs into the cafeteria to watch a presentation on huge side screens, with mikes strung all over the place for people to ask questions, an interactive session that lasts two long hours.

Whatever the case may be, we’re very particular about the infrastructure. Our meetings start on time, they end on time, the projectors and sound system always work, we always have wireless network connectivity, we never spend more than five minutes setting up and tearing down connections.

Likewise, we’re also very good at trainings. We have almost as many types of trainings as we do meetings (and I’m not talking about subject matter here) and sometimes it becomes difficult to distinguish between a meeting, a training, a workshop, a roadshow, and a tea-break (to name the most popular forms of interaction). No sooner has a new “tool” (have you noticed how nowadays anything on the computer is generically a “tool”?) come out, than there’s a whole series of trainings associated with it. Once you wade through all the training, you find that all the buttons have been moved around, but other than that it’s basically the same as the old tool.

Conducting surveys and collecting feedback is another favourite pastime in my office. We have surveys (or sometimes feedback – and sometimes both) on office facilities, coffee and tea vending machines, trainings, computer systems support, quarterly events, shuttle services, cafeteria standards (everyone loves those!), managers, employees, blue boys, the postal department and the impact of the monsoons on work/life balance.

When no survey has been done for a while, things are bound to get exciting soon, because, in all likelihood, there’s a particularly exotic survey in the pipeline, keeping all the “surveyors” busy. Now, if you’re thinking, just how exotic can a survey be, let me assure you that some very interesting things are possible by combining surveys and feedback with meetings and trainings.

  • For example, once, we had a survey to find out exactly how much time people spend in meetings. It turned out that, across the board, people spend about 40% of their time in meetings.
  • The survey also tried to find out whether meetings were generally felt to be effective. The answer was, generally, no: too many participants, too broad and unspecified an agenda, no clear decision making or decision makers, too much overlap in subject matter or scope.
  • Guess what they did with this survey? The created a mandatory training (mandatory!) for ALL employees to explain how to hold “effective” meetings.
  • Then, they collected feedback on the efficacy of the training on effective meetings.
  • Next, I’m guessing, they’re going to do a survey on the efficacy of the survey that was conducted regarding the efficacy of meetings.

Like I said, there are some things my company is extremely good at – and we just keep doing what we do best.

Not Quite Enough

August 29, 2006
When I was being worked to the bone by the slave drivers of KF, I would have given almost anything for a quiet, peaceful job where I could set the pace, do my work, and go home at 6. And when I joined my current exalted company, I was promised exactly that. Even so, I was thoroughly surprised when I found that promise turn to reality. Despite some of my friends thinking otherwise, the truth is that I am a really lazy person, and a job that allowed me to get in to office around 9.30 and leave at 5.30 with an hour-long lunch break (including a mandatory post-prandial stroll) and a couple of leisurely coffee breaks sounded just about ok to me. And if the work was less than thrilling, it seemed a small price to pay in return for a peaceful existence.

But, lazy though I may be, I never asked for a job where they pay me for doing nothing. As it is, it was surprising enough that they gave me three months vacation last year. It was an unpaid vacation, true, but when I came back I found a nice package awaiting me in the bank! It seems that while I was holidaying in the high hills, they had not only given me my bonus, but also seen fit to give me an award.

Then things got better: less than six months back on the job and the annual appraisal cycle had been completed. I would have expected an average rating, but guess what I got? Outstanding: the highest rating (awarded to ~15% of the workforce – or less) and a promotion to boot! That totaled up to an astonishing 51% hike!

Well, I always said there’s no justice in the world, but for a change it was exactly the sort of injustice I could do with more of. Maybe it was a sort of compensationl for my grievances of KF, where I worked like a horse (dogs don’t work, do they?) and not only didn’t make much money but even got cheated out of 25 k at the end. (The short story is that my boss, after agreeing to a one month notice period, instructed HR to cut my pay for the balance 60 days’ notice period from my final settlement out of spite, because she thought I had snitched on her regarding her communal bias in recruitment, in which suspicion she was totally justified.)

Well, my current company, which is sooooooooo much better than KF and so generous too (despite all the troubles one reads about in the papers) is continuing with its munificence towards me. In addition to paying me for not doing any work, they periodically thrust upon me gift certificates of Rs 1,000. What did I do to earn those? Almost nothing. For instance, in one case I reviewed a 10-page white paper for an engineer on the team. (I only did it because I had absolutely no other work.) In another instance, a project was transferred to me, and the person transferring it handled all the documents and ensured a smooth release before the transfer. For this, I got an award. Whaaa…? Makes no sense, does it?

So, all things considered, it seems to be pretty much a dream company. Oh, and, just to make things easy for me *in case* I ever do get swamped with work, I’ve been given a contract worker to manage. So now, not only do I not have any work, I have also to generate futile tasks for this contract worker, who is stupid and obstinate and argumentative and altogether irritating and keeps interrupting me when I’m doing important things like surfing the net or reading personal emails.

So what am I complaining about (yes, I am complaining)? Well, it’s now six months since I had any work, and guess what – I’m bored! I’m frustrated! I want to do work!!! Not very much work, necessarily, but at least a nominal 4-5 hours’ work per day – is that too much to ask?

Apparently yes, because I’ve been asking my boss for pretty much the last six months, to no effect. Since he sits in the US and I talk to him 30 minutes on the phone every week, it’s very easy for him to forget that I exist and that I have no work – but, though he’s been trying real hard to forget, I’ve been making it really difficult for him. For instance, just yesterday I told him that if he has no work for me, he should start by kicking out the contractor, and if he still has no work for me, maybe he needs to think about kicking me out as well. Ok, I didn’t put it in quite so many words, but I skirted dangerously close to the idea. Playing with fire? Given the current situation in my company, definitely! But honestly, I don’t think I can survive without work much longer… I might turn into a cabbage or something.

Much About Nothing

March 7, 2006
It’s been three whole months since I went anywhere. Can you imagine that? Three months of Bangalore, Bangalore, and Bangalore. Now, you know I love this city. But three months without getting on a bus or train (or, at worst a plane) to somewhere, is just too much!

On the last weekend of this month, Amit and I will go to Kabini (yes, again!) in another vain attempt to spot a tiger. I believe it is simpler to go to Bannerghatta National Park (success assured) but then, you see, that’s in Bangalore.

At one point in my working life, I used to want to travel to get away from the horror of work. Yes, in the KF days. Nowadays, I no longer need to escape from work. In fact, sometimes I need to escape to work just to get away from the tension of life. Specially after a hectic weekend. My favourite day has now officially been declared Tuesday, which is work-from-home day. Since everyone else is in office (that is, Amit), this is a day I can really just relax and catch up with myself. And after the hectic weekends (two or three sessions of tennis, two half-day sessions of German and all the weekly housework that usually piles up for the weekend) I really do need a break!

Of course, I am supposed to be “working” from home, but it’s not too difficult. I leave the laptop on to collect mail while I wander around talking to parents on the phone, washing and putting out the laundry and picking up the previous installment, getting sundry other errands up to date, cooking something interesting for lunch, and reading a book. Sometimes I even take a short nap in the afternoon!!!

Periodically I return to the laptop (which makes an obliging ‘ping’ sound whenever mail arrives; wish you could program it to make different sorts of ‘ping’ sounds depending on who the mail is from) to read and respond to the mail. Usually (see earlier blogs Official Communication and Status Update for details) a response skillfully worded is enough to put the opposition in a spin for a few hours, at least.

Sometimes I wonder how long this state of grace can last. Surely something must happen to break the spell? But what could that possibly be? In my small team of 5, two people have recently moved on. We are now down to 3. And there’s a recruitment freeze in effect. Reason enough to be tearing our collective hair out? One would think so, but no. Projects get pushed back, management is sternly told that all deals are off unless we can get more people and everybody goes back to long lunch breaks, surfing the net, leaving early and “working” from home!

If nothing else, I think the boredom of not having any work to do is going to finally get to me. I might even do something stupid like looking for more work, or trying to change job within (or – heaven forbid – outside) the company! Hopefully sheer laziness will prevent me from doing anything like that.

So anyway, nowadays I don’t have to travel to get away from stress: I have to travel to get away from boredom! And I have to do it on non-weekend hours, becuase I wouldn’t want to miss German class. Which is why we leave for Kabini on a Thursday and return on Saturday. I only hope the tigers or panthers or whatever are obliging enough to show themselves to us this time.

Meanwhile, it’s back to my book of the month, Prince of Ayodhya, by Ashok Banker. It is the story of the Ramayana in the tradition of Harry Potter (though the writing style is quite different). So far, so good, but I’m only on page 27 .

I also seem to have attracted three copies of The World is Flat. “Attracted” because all three were somehow given to me. I’m not even sure by whom. The three of them are standing at the top of the bookshelf in front of me and staring down at me reproachfully, demanding their birthrights –  that is, to be read.

Enough about nothing.  I better go and check my mail, just in case somebody dodged the last googly I sent their way and boomeranged it back to me.

Office Update

January 23, 2006

My office is the best. We all spend time planning, re-planning, re-re-planning and hardly do any work. Right now, I’m in the happy situation of waiting for somebody to send me work, and somebody – who was supposed to have sent me work last week – has informed me that they cannot send it till next week. Happy days are here again! And, in case you’re thinking that, ha! well, she’ll have double the work next week, let me tell you, here things don’t work like that. I will simply reschedule next week’s work to the following week. Or maybe a week or two after that.

And as if that weren’t fun enough for you, there’s the added dimension of working with a team partially located in US (and other parts distributed around the globe). Typically, it goes something like this. The India tech team has a question, so someone writes an email to the US folk and then everyone packs up and goes home. The next day, there’s no reply. So everyone plays computer games and surfs the net. The following day, there’s a reply which is both incomplete and ambiguous, so someone bounces it back to the US and everyone goes home happy that progress has been made. Then comes the weekend. This is a double whammy. When it’s Friday for them, it’s Saturday for us, and no one checks mail. When we do check on Monday, it’s Sunday for them, so we don’t bother to reply.

Finally, by a stroke of bad luck (but how long can you postpone the inevitable?), the issue gets resolved. Of course, no one has bothered to keep the implementer in the loop, so it takes another few days before the resolution gets implemented and several days more before it gets into the documentation (and sometimes it never does).

The fun really begins when there are two teams working on related projects. Like someone’s working on an SDK and someone else is working on an application that runs on that SDK. So obviously, the SDK folks need to keep the application team up-to-date about what’s happening. Recently, I found that the app developers had got some information through a complicated network that had completely bypassed the SDK guys! Huh?

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