What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Virtually in person. Monday was one of those days where I was in the office fulfilling the (in my opinion) questionable requirement that our little team must always have a warm body in the building. Like the ravens at the Tower of London, the whole enterprise would collapse should we all simultaneously be doing the work from anywhere other than our assigned badly lit, gray-toned workstations. The only meeting I had that day involved seven or eight people… half of whom were also physically in the office. It’s awfully telling that despite so many people being on site, the whole meeting was held over Teams with everyone participating from their desk. If we’re all going to be meeting virtually from our own section of cubicle hell, I’d really love a non-corporate speak explanation of why there’s even a push to have more and more people in the office? You’ll never convince me it doesn’t defy logic and plain common sense.

2. Pulling rank. This week, as I may have mentioned, was the yearly spectacle where I attempt to stage manage / executive produce a three-day series of presentations. This year there were 9 organizations and 21 separate presentations across three days. This event rated permanent support from me, three guys who managed the IT infrastructure from soup to nuts, and a handful of rotating support personnel from each of the participating organizations that fell in for their portion of the event and then buggered off. By way of contrast, there was another event on Tuesday morning. This one lasted 90 minutes. It rated support from a staff director, six subject matter experts, three guys to manage IT, and another half dozen aides, support staff, and various strap hangers. If it sounds like I’m in any way angry and a little bitter, I like to think it’s justified hostility and just one of the many reasons why I hate the last week of April.

3. Choices. At the princely cost of $4.25 per gallon, I filled up the truck this morning from about a quarter tank and spent $77.60. I didn’t jump online to “Thank Brandon” or scream “Orange Man Bad” because I know the American president has next to no direct control over setting global commodity prices. I paid my bill without much comment, because paying his way in this endlessly beshitted world is a man’s job. Well, that and because no one twisted my arm 12 years ago in west Tennessee when I bought a big V8 powered pickup truck knowing full well that on its best day, I might get a little more than 16 miles per gallon. Brandon didn’t do that. I did… and so did everyone else who opted for size and power over efficiency. Want to find someone to blame? Take a hard look in the mirror.

Dull and duller…

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.

On the first day…

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.

My own personal hell…

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.

Now is the spring of my discontent…

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.

We don’t really do consistency here…

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. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

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.

Breeding contempt…

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.

Twelve chairs…

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.

Like meeting an old friend…

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.