So, the last week wasn’t great times. Personally and professionally there were a lot of moving parts that never quite meshed among themselves or with each other.
Monday and Tuesday I worked from home and all was well, or at least it was well until the storms rolled through, trees fell over, and grid power crapped out and took my access to the internet along with it. No internet means no working from home. Which was a problem because Wednesday was a day where the general contractor was making a big push to get a lot of work done and I needed to be home. Chalk it up to an unplanned day off while the bathroom contractors did their work using generator power. At least someone was getting some work done.
By Thursday morning power and internet were back, but I couldn’t log in to my work computer. After six hours of sitting around waiting for the help desk to get back to me, I was duly informed of the reason why I couldn’t sign in. It seems I was delinquent at completing mandatory annual cyber security training and had been unceremoniously expelled from the network until I took the class, sent in my certificate, and genuflected six times in the direction of the IT office.
Under normal circumstances none of those things would be more than an inconvenience, but there’s a catch. Because of course there’s a catch. Because of reasons, this training can’t be completed from a personal computer. I had to be on the official network, which means I had to schlep in to the office and use someone else’s machine. That’s great, of course, except last week was a steady parade of general contractors and painters trying to wrap up my bathroom remodel. They had full days scheduled on Friday and Monday. With so many more or less unknown elements coming and going at different hours, leaving the house for any length of time just wasn’t something I was willing to do.
The net result between weather and home improvement was burning off three unplanned days of vacation time last week. Adding another 24 hours to the 64 hours of leave I’ve already burned this year to mostly hang out at the house while other people do work. It doesn’t feel like a great way to take the lion’s share of your yearly vacation days.
Yes, I still have a mountain of combined annual and sick leave on the books. If I don’t take any more vacation time, other than what’s already have scheduled, I’ll still carry over the maximum amount allowed, but also means facing the next five months with no impromptu days off. That feels… stifling. I have grave doubts about whether I’ll be able to pull it off no matter how my good intentions.
For my money, there’s no bigger official waste of working time than the dozen or so yearly online training courses that we’re required to take. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m actually a big fan of online education. It’s what allowed me to get a master’s degree while I was traveling around the country for work. When properly designed and executed, online learning can be and is an effective strategy to reach people who otherwise would find that educational opportunity unavailable.
That being said, the way it’s implemented matters. The “classes” I tool this week were exactly the classes I’ve taken every year for the better part of the last decade. I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. Clicking through the exact same information every year isn’t “continuing education.” It’s not education of any kind.
I can only assume that the people who control these online classes expect that the average person is too stupid to retain information for more than 365 days. That’s probably true for some segment of the population. If you want them to remember something you have to beat them over the head with it at every opportunity. Even so, it’s farcical to call a program like that “training.”
All I’m saying is that if the intent is just to check a box and say you’ve provided training on whatever topic to your employees, but don’t want to take the time and effort to make it meaningful in any way, how about not making it 95 separate screens to click though before I can print the certificate. If the instructional designers and leaders who approve that mess aren’t going to even pretend that content and engagement are important, you’d better believe that my only goal is to click though as quickly as possible so I can get on with my day.
I’m all for education. I’m a big advocate for getting more knowledge. I am, however, also violently opposed to time-sucking, procedural nonsense that has no purpose other than satisfying some obscure regulation. If that’s what passes for education, no one should pretend to be shocked when anything that follows is equally bland, uninspired, and quickly forgotten.
After a week off that was decidedly not a vacation, I’m back to work. Admittedly, it’s working from home, so it’s not nearly as onerous as it could be, but I wasn’t in any way ready to come back to the world of answering emails, fighting online systems, and generally being a productive and responsible adult.
Look, there’s nothing inherently bad about my particular job. I’m not out there laying asphalt in 100-degree heat or slinging hay bales into the loft. I’ve got a decent chair, a good desk, and a couple of monitors that bombard me with information for eight hours every day. It’s hardly rocket science. It’s not usually particularly hard work, even if it does demand pretty close attention to detail and some higher order processing skills from time to time.
I’ve been doing some variation of it since January 2003. By this point, there’s not much new under the sun. Sure, some of the details change. When I started, Iraq was the talk of the town. Now it’s Ukraine. Different players, same game. The broad strokes have changed very little. Do any job long enough and I suppose you’ll find a rhythm in it.
So, I’m back at the keyboard. I’ll do the work and I’ll do it well, but I won’t pretend to be thrilled or excited or meeting a great new challenge every day. I do my part to keep the gears of the bureaucracy grinding along because I seem to have a, perhaps unfortunate, talent for it. I’m trading my time for their money and will keep after it until I hit my own magic number and don’t have to do it anymore.
I’m most definitely a creature of habit, but this is one I’ll be happy to break out of at the first financially responsible opportunity.
There are any number of things I’m reasonably interested in. Some of those things I may even have a limited amount of talent for pursuing. I’m a passible amateur historian. I’m a tolerable planner… even though no one ever seems to make a differentiation between the strategic kind of planning and the weddings and events kind. I’ve managed to make a decent enough living from doing “operations stuff” in all its sundry forms.
What I am not, and have no interest in ever being, is a “contracts person.” Having wrapped up my second straight day of listening to people talk about contracts in all their glory, it’s hard to imagine something in which I could ever be less interested. I’m sorry, it makes paint drying or grass growing look downright engaging.
I know, at least intellectually, that getting the contract stuff right is important. This Big Green Machine of ours needs stuff and there are whole industries built around making sure we get it while they pocket a comfortable profit for their troubles. I’m never going to be the guy who makes it sound in any way engaging, though. It’s simply a fact of life… something to be endured… like dentistry.
You could be forgiven for wondering why a whole week of contracting stuff isn’t actually run by the contracting people rather than by some random guy from a different office whose dog isn’t even in the same county as the fight. I actually know the wildly bureaucratic reason why it’s the way it is, but don’t for one single minute think knowing the reason means I’m ever going to like it.
Day one of my Very Important Event is in the books. Nothing seemed to slide completely off the rails… although I couldn’t connect to the network there for a few hours so I honestly have no idea how well anything outside the room I was sitting in really went. That it went at all is pretty much a giant assumption on my part. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow if there are a shit ton of angry emails in my inbox or 1001 complaints that someone could use their eyes to find the right link. That’s a tomorrow problem, of course.
For tonight, I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to think. I don’t want to cook. I want to sit here in this mostly dark room nursing another gin and tonic and scratching the dog’s ears while the cat sheds on me. Anything else feels like it requires way more brainpower than I want to allocate… so I’m not going to.
I’ve done more than enough things I’d rather not do today as it is. These last couple of hours are mine and everything else can bugger directly off.
The only sure things in life, it’s said, are death and taxes. Those do seem to come with alarming regularity while most other aspects of getting by are a bit more sporadic.
There are, though, other truisms of life in the bureaucracy that feel as if they are just as certain. Unsurprisingly, the one I’m most focused on today relates directly to events… because no bureaucracy worth its salt can seem to resist the temptation to throw itself big, showy parties for no discernable reason whatsoever.
In terms of bang for the buck, I’d be hard pressed to give you any real return on investment for these adventures. I’m sure it makes someone, somewhere, probably those managerial gods on high Olympus, feel good. For the rest of us, it’s nothing so much as a good old-fashioned pain in the ass. One more thing to do on a list that never, ever gets any shorter regardless of how many items a day you manage to strike down.
The only thing consistent across the universe of these parties and events is that they start more or less on time, some bits in the middle go well, some others slide off the rails, and then they end slightly earlier than scheduled. Everything else is details and by the time the next week starts, no one remembers any of those as they race off to do the next Very Important Thing and try to scratch out a modicum of credit from whatever bosses they serve.
My career is well into its back half now. Mercifully the days of feeling the need to get every attaboy or head pat are long gone. Now, my only love language comes in the form of a time off. I’ve already got a box full of certificates and general officer notes that will never see the light of day again. Cash awards end up being taxed away before you even know you’ve gotten one. There’s no appetite for time off awards at echelons higher than reality, though. They mean for some fixed amount of time there’s some other Very Important Thing you’re not working on… and the bosses hate that.
I’ve reached a stage of bureaucratic enlightenment beyond the trivialities of cash, certificates, or time off awards. All I really want is for this thing to start so that it can eventually end and we can all forget the part in the middle. With this agonizing exercise in organizational self-gratification wrapped up, so I can think about something – anything – else for the next six months before the planning cycle starts for the 2023 version of my own personal hell.
And so it begins. The two weeks a year when I’m forced to put on a brave face and transform into a cheerleader, a producer, a confessor, a circus roustabout, a tyrant, and a Chatty Cathy all in the name of passing along some information that could just as easily be set loose into the world by putting it on a website.
“But that misses the personal touch,” they cry. Knowing how much money you’re going to spend and how isn’t enough. We can’t do without the networking, the back slapping, the crab puffs, and little finger sandwiches. Though they’ll howl just as loudly when we go back to charging $700 a head instead of giving the information away for free online.
COVID and the Plague Era has given me a great respite in that at least the last few iterations of this great dog and pony show have been online. No vast sea of party tents, no outdoor equipment displays, no tickets, no 700 extra people jammed elbow to asshole in an auditorium to listen to presentations they could have heard just as easily from home. Next year might be back to “normal”… and that’s a threat that hangs over me like a goddamned death sentence.
I’ve never been the kind of guy who goes out of his way to find more work to do. As far as I’m concerned, that falls under the banner of working smarter rather than harder. I don’t try to duck work that needs doing, it’s just that experience tells me that if there’s work to do it’ll find me sooner or later.
There’s another school of thought, of course. That school seems to be filled with people out there turning over every rock looking for things to do. They, as the kids might say, have no chill. They’ll find stuff to keep themselves (and you) busy whether it’s something that actually needs doing or not. The objective here, it seems, is to just be doing something.
If you’re looking for that kind of attitude, I’m not going to be your huckleberry. I’m a big fan of “meets standard,” or “technically acceptable,” or just good old-fashioned recycling of ideas from a three months ago that COVID put a pin in before they got off the ground. I’m not apt to recommend going out to find new work when the work we’ve already done is good enough.
Look, I’m a whore. I’m renting my brain out by the hour, so whatever the John in this tale wants, I’m going to give them. It just always seems to me that there are better ways to get after things than covering the same ground twenty or thirty times. It’s fine though. I’ll do it… but they’d better not try to kiss me on the mouth.
Due to a slight misunderstanding of the schedule, I spent the first two hours on the clock more or less happily oblivious to what I was supposed to be doing today. I mean I was still working on things, just not on the things anyone else expected me to be doing.
It’s exactly the turn of events that leaves me feeling as if I’ve spent the rest of the day playing (badly) a game of catch up. Don’t get me wrong, it was a better day in every way than any day I could have spent in the actual office… It just could have all been a lot less hectic and scattered if I had bungled the first 90 minutes.
Worse things, of course, happen at sea. I’m confident that today’s issues won’t repeat tomorrow. Tomorrow will be dedicated to making new and more interesting mistakes. I won’t say I never make the same one twice, but now and then something slides through. I try hard, though, not to keep paying for the same ground. For now, I’ll sit down with a good book and mostly forget that there was any turbulence at all today. I’m immensely thankful that I built a mental wall between work and life very early in my career. It’s proven to be a very helpful skill to have now that as often as not work is sitting within arm’s reach even when I happen to be home.
A big part of my philosophy of project management can be distilled down to one simple rule: Never have a meeting when an email will do. I conservatively estimate that on any given project that eliminates approximately 95% of meetings that otherwise would have taken place.
There’s a catch, of course. Periodically, the Gods on Olympus sneak into their questions about the status of whatever project interests them in the moment an inquiry like “When was the last meeting on this?” I can tell you from experience that the answer they’re not looking for is, “Uh, I think we had a meeting about three months ago.”
It won’t matter to them that you’ve got full command of all the pertinent information. It won’t matter that you’ve checked in weekly or even more often with all the people developing content and know that everything is on track. The only thing that will matter is that you haven’t had a meeting. You’ll never convince me that this minor obsession with meetings isn’t one of the big driving influences of why so many bosses are still hellbent on putting asses in cubes. Then, not only can they ask if meetings are happening, they can walk past and see people crowded into a conference room – pure management bliss.
Even though it’s not strictly necessary, I’ve been running a meeting once a month since before the new year. At least that way I can say with a straight face we’ve had meetings. Now that we’re closing in on the curtain going up, I’ve switched it to weekly meetings – because inside the 30-day window Olympian interest can become intense. At least I can tell them that, yes sir, of course we met on that just a few days ago and be 100% honest.
What I won’t mention, of course, is that these weekly meetings never take more than 20 minutes. In fact, today’s lasted a grand total of 21 minutes and conveyed exactly three new bits of information that I’d already sent out this morning by email. We’d have put up a better time but there were one or two technical snags that cost precious seconds.
But, by God, now we’ve had a meeting about it and nothing makes officialdom happier than knowing there was a meeting. I’ll shoot to get next week’s down to sub-15 minutes times. I feel like that level of success is really within my reach.