One of the great joys of working for my employer is that we’re absolutely comfortable delivering mixed messages. It’s such a regular part of business that I doubt most people even notice. I notice, of course, because it’s exactly the kind of random foible that I enjoy writing about.
I present the following by way of example:
On one hand, the message from the very top is that COVID-19 remains an existential threat to our ability to contest and not lose the nation’s wars. In light of that, every one and all of us must stay masked, be vaccinated, maintain social distance, and keep working from home because it’s dangerous out there.
On the other hand, the same organization is holding its last frenzied meetings about piling people from around the country into a large convention center for three days next week. I’m sure it will be a glittering affair with everyone fully following all published best practices and risk reduction strategies. You just can’t beat the synergistic effects of breathing all over each other to enhance lethality and multi-domain readiness… because it’s not so dangerous out there.
One of the great lessons I’ve learned during my career is that we are very serious about following rules and procedures, unless, of course, those rules and procedures are in any way inconvenient or interfere with what the gods on Olympus want to do. Then, it helps if you just think of them as suggestions and don’t take them seriously in any way. If you came looking for consistency, boy did you come to the wrong place.
1. Maxine Waters. I called out Donald Trump when he used his official position as an elected official to incite violence, so it only feels fair that Maxine Waters gets the same treatment. Using threats of violence to score political points with her base is precisely the activity that she scorned Trump and Republicans for doing over the last four years shows clearly that she’s a politician in precisely the same mold. Her calls to “get more confrontational,” should be as roundly condemned as were Trump’s words… but they won’t be in the prevailing media environment. In my books, though, a demagogue is a demagogue regardless of having an (R) or (D) after their name.
2. Excess savings. A CNN article this week blazed a headline that globally, “Consumers have $5.4 Trillion in Excess Savings” and positing that we’re about to see a boom in consumer spending. I only mention it because CNN also likes to run articles highlighting how bad we Americans are at saving for retirement or even just saving in general. The American portion of this “excess savings” is estimated (again by CNN) to be $2.6 Trillion. It feels like a perfect (and passed up) opportunity to encourage our countrymen to do something radical like open a retirement account, hold that cash as an emergency fund, or otherwise think beyond going on a buying binge as soon as the plague is over. I suppose soon enough we’ll be back to the inevitable stories about how no one is saving for retirement or can’t afford a $37 dollar emergency.
3. Reading for comprehension. I’ve responded to approximately 200 emails from people who “can’t find the schedule” for this week’s event. Look, numbnuts. You literally had to scroll past the schedule to find the group email address that lands stupid questions in my inbox. If reading for comprehension is a measure of how qualified companies or individuals are to provide services under contract, I’ve got an impressive list of them that should be rejected out of hand as not meeting minimum quality standards.
I sat through ten separate briefings about contracts today. Maybe it was one very long briefing. After the first hour, it mostly tends to bleed together with one contract being much the same as all the others. I’m sure to those who’ve dedicated their careers to the exciting world of government contracting or those companies who are hoping to score the next billion dollar contract from their Uncle Sugar, it’s all entirely fascinating. Being neither of those two things, it’s all largely something that just must be endured.
I’ve said for years that I’m completely agnostic about what people say or do once they’re on stage. I’ve rented you the hall, made sure everyone has a place to sit, talked to the guys who run the sound and video, and otherwise set conditions for you to succeed or fail on your own merits. What anyone chooses to do with it from there, is entirely between them and whatever gods they follow.
As a mostly disinterested third party, these several days of talking contracts does nothing for me so much as make me want to lay down and take a hard sleep. With no vested interest in any of the content one way or another, it’s all a jumbled wreck of dull, duller, and dullest when it hits my ears. You’d think after seven years of sitting through these some affinity for the stuff would rub off just due to long familiarity. Alas, it seem familiarity has only bred that other thing it’s famous for creating.
One of the many exciting “other duties as assigned” I enjoy during this, the worst month of the year, is that of circus roustabout. It’s toting, hauling, setting up, shifting, tearing down, followed by more hauling and toting. This time of year, my position description might as well read “Laborer, General” as opposed to anything that has “analyst” in its title.
Today’s major project was retrieving a dozen “VIP chairs” from one auditorium, loading them onto pickup trucks, driving them a thousand yards, and then unloading them into another auditorium so there could be a nice matching set on stage. I was reminded with every bit of toting and hauling why furniture moving is the kind of thing I happily pay someone else to do these days.
Believe me when I tell you I don’t in any way presume that moving furniture is beneath my dignity. I’ve had far worse jobs for far less pay… but then that’s kind of the point, I suppose. By the time you add up the hourly rate of all the people involved in shifting these twelve chairs and account for their individual overhead rates (to account for non-salary payroll costs), it would be far more cost effective to outfit each auditorium with twelve matching chairs instead of paying people to shuffle them from building to building as needed. If you assume a fifteen year life cycle for a chair that’s only used a few times a month, it’s an investment that would pay for itself in the first five years. That’s before you even look at lost productive time or basic opportunity cost of having a bunch of analysts move furniture around instead of working more “high value” tasks.
I’m sure there’s a parable about the nature of bureaucracy here. I try not to dwell on it too much.
I spent the bulk of today tinkering around the pre-start up necessities for a project that not even the second year of the Great Plague has managed to kill off. It will be my 7th time attempting to herd the cats towards this effort. It’s entirely beloved by the powers high atop Olympus, but has been, is, and apparently ever will be the absolute bane of my professional existence.
It’s safe to say that whatever restive effects of taking the last half of December off are well and truly used up now. I’m shocked they lasted into the second day, really. That’s almost twice as long as I usually manage to not be completely agitated by the unique joys of the bureaucracy.
The only perk of having done the same thing for seven years in a row is I have an awfully deep bench of templates to draw from. It’s virtual acres of ground filled with slide decks, Excel files, and narrative documents that help limit the amount of original thought that needs to be applied. The biggest hurdle is sorting through it all to craft a package that looks new and interesting enough that the great overlords won’t realize that it’s a great batch of recycled ideas.
The fact that this year, once again, will be in the format of a “virtual meeting” helps out a lot there. There are only so many ways to doctor up a Zoom meeting to make it look new and original. There will be allowances for that. Probably.
Still, today has been like meeting an old friend. The kind of friend who wrecked your car, slept with your girl, stole your wallet, and kicked your dog.
I spent the morning starting to think about the next iteration of the project that over the last seven years has become the bane of my existence. I’d have rather spent the morning crushing my thumbs in my bench vice… but since I used up most of the last two weeks finding other things to do that could theoretically excuse the lack of progress on this particular project, I had a hunch the forbearance of those at pay grades above mine was nearing its end.
We laid the 2020 version of this benighted event to bed back in June – all online and a shadow of the usual circus of a boondoggle we throw each spring. Maybe I had fever dreams that somehow it would never come back. More likely I had secret hopes that someone, somewhere would have realize that by being online we can get the same results without acres of “stuff” tacked on because everyone likes a party.
But here we are, starting to gin up a 2019-style plan as if we have learned exactly nothing from this plague year. I won’t even pretend I’m in any way shocked… but I will say a two-month break from this mess wasn’t nearly enough.
For most of my career I’ve been a jackass of all trades – a circus roustabout thrown at whatever needed doing at the time. Sometimes that keeps life from getting dull… but then sometimes you show relative competence in doing that which no one else wants to do and it becomes attached to you permanently. One of those perennial problem children raised its ugly head again this morning.
You see, it all started as a small conference that grew over time to include tents, a technology exposition, food trucks, and a weekend carnival before radically shrinking down to a simple online “event” under the weight of the Great Plague.
Today I was dragooned into a meeting based on the threat that the Gods on Olympus are dreaming up ways to reinflate the demandable thing in a new and potentially painful way.
It’s disheartening to discover that we’ve learned nothing in the last five months – that the plague hasn’t managed to kill off the whole idea of professional conferences / boondoggles as monumental wastes of money. The beginning of the plague year held so much promise of losing the old ways in favor of methods that don’t involve dragging hundreds of people around the country, jamming them all in the same room, and putting 20,000 square feet of parking lot under roof.
As always, even in a plague year, the bureaucracy often exists simply to lick its own ice cream cone.
1. Embedded links. We have you a nice, prettied up agenda. We even tucked the event links into the text of the document so it wasn’t a three line line long ugly-assed URL. But that doesn’t stop several hundred of you from not reading for comprehension and emailing that you can’t find the URLs. I mean how the hell hard is it to either click the embedded link directly or to right click and copy the link to paste it in your browser? Given that two thirds of your contemporaries managed to get it done without our help, I’m forced to conclude that one third of the total are just total mouth breathing wastes of space.
2. Podcasts. I haven’t deleted any social media friends as a result of COVID-19, protests, riots, or political affiliation but in the last week I’ve dropped a shit ton of podcasts that have vered way the fuck off topic. Everyone’s entitled to their position and perfectly free to use their platform to do whatever they want, but if I show up expecting insights on contemporary television and find deep dives on politics and current events, I’m out. I’m headed to my podcast list to avoid the general fuckery on television, not to find more of it. Hard pass.
3. Steady working. So far during the Great Plague, I’ve been steady working. I’ve missed my scheduled vacation and now the couple of days I usually take off immediately following the massive organizational vanity exercise that I’m nominally charged with carrying off every year. Yes, I’ve been working from home… but it’s still very much working and having my head in that space continually. Physically being back “on campus” these last few days just feels like heaping insult atop injury and it’s got me moody as fuck. Plague or not I think I’m going to need to start burning some days off that sweet, sweet pile of vacation time sooner rather than later.
Some will say I’m wrong, but for my money the happiest word in the English language, at least today, is EndEx.
Twelve months of bashing my head against the wall is now concluded – more with a whimper than with a bang. I’m fine with that. It means whatever cockups happened were transparent to anyone who didn’t know what should have happened. Ignorance truly is bliss for an audience.
So the big show is over for another year. Now we’ll unpack it, look at what didn’t work, and make recommendations for next year that we’ll all later ignore. The heavy lift is finished, but I’ve still got a few weeks of living left to do with it’s corpse.
Once it’s well and truly in the ground, it’ll be time to start planning for 2021. That effort usually kicks off in June – delayed this year because the Great Plague has delayed everything.
Every year someone cheerfully says, “Oh, we’ll tag someone else with this next year.” It’s a happy fiction, but organizational dynamics tell me that I won’t be relieved of this particular opportunity to excel except by retirement, resignation, or death. So I’ve got that to look forward to in the next few weeks too.
But today is EndEx for Big Event 2020. I’ll be savoring the moment for the next twelve hour or so before schlepping back to the office to deal with whatever fresh hell Outlook brought me overnight.