(Note: This reads like an overlong draft. I was overwrought and confused when it wrote it in March of 2014. The detail gives a good roadmap of what I thought was in my rear-view mirror, and that is useful to me now, but it probably does not make for pleasant reading. Only now (late summer 2016) do I have an clear perspective on the whole affair.)
At the end of February 2012, Online Development finally vacated our rat’s nest on the 11th floor and moved up to 16, where we had clean Herman Miller cubicles, glass-fronted offices, and a fine semi-view of the new Bank of America tower across Sixth Avenue at 43rd Street.
A Chilly Little Department. For eighteen months this area had been empty, for eighteen months we had been assured that the move was imminent. Next month, in the new year, at the end of summer, six weeks from now. When it finally happened, all the tidiness, space and sunlight were off-putting to our self-image. We were no longer a ragtag band of ruffians shipwrecked on a far-off isle, but merely one of several departments in a humdrum office space. The self-congratulating camaraderie that had bound us together now melted away. We withdrew into our own little preoccupied isolations.
We had often gone out in groups for lunch: sometimes the whole mob of us, over to Shake Shack, or Szechuan Gourmet, or something Turkish or Japanese, or maybe Maoz, the strange vegan falafel place (Russ was a vegetarian). All this stopped when we moved to 16. We became a chilly little department.
Our new neighbors were not delighted with us. Many of them were old-fashioned corporate “lifers” who had been in place ten, fifteen, twenty years; the sort of people who bring meticulously prepared lunches from home, arranged in Tupperware containers and soft-fabric lunch-caddies that fill up all the shelf space in the tiny office fridge. The coffee pantry was a cramped little space to begin with, and now here we were doubling the local population. For some reason the pantry housed a fax machine, a laser printer, and a bin for the document shredder, in addition to vending machines for snacks and soft drinks and Fresh Direct “gourmet” lunches ($$$, as Tim Zagat would say); besides the little refrigerator, sink, coffee contraption, cabinets, and a single, tiny microwave oven. No more than three people could fit into the remaining space at the same time.
Your Friendly Facilities Manager. One day in the pantry I met a large blowsy woman called Tracy. Tracy was the VP in charge of facilities, and quite possibly the very person responsible for the novel multipurposing of the pantry area. I chatted her up with friendly banter about how I was with Online Dev, and how we had been looking forward to this move for a year and a half. Yessiree Bob—every month they’d kept telling us, Next month we’re moving to Sixteen! And finally we’re here, at long last love. We made it!
“Ooh noo!” said Tracy. “Unnh-unh. There was no plan. Nothing definite. They may have told you you were moving, but nothing was finalized, nothing was signed. I know. I’m Facilities Manager.”
“Is that right? Well anyway,” I said, “it’s good to be up here finally. That 11th floor was really awful. They never cleaned it. And those ridiculous melamine carrels or workstations, or whatever they were supposed to be! It sure doesn’t say much for the company’s regard for us, giving us the worst work-space in the whole building, ha ha ha!”
“Well that is not what happened!” quoth Tracy, again. “Those desks were your department’s choice! You people demanded them. They were custom-built. We said, They’re not gonna work. And they said, It’s what we want! We had regular cubicles there and we had to rip ’em out! So then finally the new workstations arrive and get set up, and the desks got set up, and the people down there go, These are too small! Take them back! And we said nooo, we warned you! This is what you ordered, now you have to live with it! Anyway we can’t take them back, the lumber’s already been cut and paid for.”
I had to assume that Tracy knew what she was talking about. For she was Facilities Manager. And a bitch on wheels.
Things fall apart. One week after we moved to the 16th floor, my young boss Russ Harper pulled up stakes and moved to San Francisco with his wife Nina and their baby Helen. Nina had a post-doctoral fellowship in genetics, and Russ got a comfy programming job at Bibulous Labs.
They took turns with Helen, who was now two. Sometimes Russ took her to work. Bibulous had a very nice creche, and only two other toddlers on hand, so she was more than welcome. Sometimes Nina took Helen to the genetics lab, where they experimented on her. That’s a joke, son. Lots of young ‘uns at the genetics lab, you bet, and loads of toys. Scientists always have the best toys, don’t they? Never mind the price, ma, it’s Science! The baby sometimes got left with a babysitter, but not too often, because half the time Russ or Nina or both of them worked from home.
Very cozy for Russ and family, for sure. But hell for the rest of us. We hadn’t fully realized it before, but Russ was our glue at Midtown Magazines. Once he was gone, things fell apart, and I mean almost immediately.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door. The first people to complain were the magazine editors. Their initial peeve was that Devland wasn’t giving them adequate support and hand-holding. Translated, this meant was that Russ was no longer around as their friendly, low-key, go-to contact. During those long months when Online Development didn’t have a director, Russ had functioned as de facto head, despite the fact that he was a mere programmer who had been there for only a year. To make the situation seem less incongruous, the higher-ups bumped Russ up to a “manager” level, bypassing a couple of devs who’d been there five years or more. After Narwhal finally moved in as director, and the editors pretty much ignored him for the first year. By the time they finally got to know Narwhal, we were headed into a slow-motion train-wreck.
One of Narwhal’s recruits from the video-game-boy world insisted we change our database for Wine & Dine, so we did so, right around the same time that we were migrating our servers and revising the basic design of the online magazine. This completely broke the “versioning” in Wine & Dine‘s CMS (content management system). So if editors rewrote an article, saved it, and then decided to revert to the earlier version, they suddenly found they couldn’t. The earlier versions still lived somewhere out in space, but there was no way to bring them back and reedit them them. Which defeats the whole purpose of having a CMS.
The “community” portal, where Wine & Dine fans posted recipes and pictures and bloggy little commentary, also broke. Personal data and images just disappeared—whoosh!—and we never got them back. A little later, something similar happened with the online edition of Fly + Buy. That travel site also lost its cute, popular photo contest. People would post their outdoor travel snapshots (some were quite professional, actually), our editors would pick their ten favorites, and then the fans would vote on these finalists. The monthly winner got some cheap prize–an underwater camera, e.g.–and competed for the annual grand prize of a trip to some oddball place like Korea, or British Honduras.
Our Fly + Buy photo contest really drove traffic to the site. The trouble was, it was housed at an outside vendor. This made it slow and wonky, and tricky for editors and developers to update. Narwhal and his merry site-breakers conceived great, grandiose plans to bring it all in-house. They’d rebuild the whole community site and photo contest from scratch, using the new, trendy technologies they’d heard about at the South By Southwest conference in March. This sounded like a sensible idea. But a few months later, Narwhal’s team announced that they had neither the time nor the resource for the project, because they were busy with other work. An outside vendor would have to brought in—much as we brought in an outside vendor to redesign the Wine & Dine in mobile-friendly fashion (an endeavor in which they did not really succeed, although we paid them $900,000 anyway).
That sounded like way too much money for too little result. Editors and content managers were incensed. You’re the developers, you’re the ones who came up with this plan. Now you can’t do it? And so died the photo contest. At first Fly + Buy announced it would be returning in 2014, but it hasn’t. In fact, Fly + Buy doesn’t even have a “community” portal anymore.
The Turn of the Screw. As soon as Russ was out of the picture, Narwhal and Jeremy began to pester me with petty abuse, provocations, insults, hazing, and strange “gaslighting” routines. One day they would tell me not to talk to people in Editorial, and a few days later they’d say I needed to communicate better with the people in Editorial. Jeremy had a recurrent routine wherein he’d darkly imply that Somebody in Editorial was saying Bad Things about me. No names, but he would always add something like, “Those people you think are your friends, they’re not really your friends.” He was trying to get a rise out out of me. For whatever diabolical, mischievous reason, Jeremy wanted to build a case that I was a Behavior Problem. Explosive. Difficult. But first he had to bait me sufficiently.This was my best guess.
Anyway I tried not to rise to the bait. Jeremy called my impassivity being “passive-aggressive.” I vaguely rationalized, in the abused-person sort of way, that this ill-treatment might actually be a Good Thing because… because it would motivate me to get the hell out of Dodge! A whipped cur is a wiser cur. And I suspected I wasn’t the only one having a bad time.
One, two, three developers quit; rats off the foundering vessel. Jeremy and Narwhal scoured the four corners of the Third World for second-rate replacements. As neither Jeremy nor Narwhal had managerial experience (or much corporate background of any kind) they didn’t know how to hire people. Instead of looking for capable team members with the right personalities, they targeted narrow, granular, specific “skills.” We ended up with newcomers who couldn’t communicate very well, although each one was ostensibly the master of some bright and shiny new techno-fad. “Bugalu knows Backbone.js!” Jeremy trilled about one of them. Maybe Bugalu did. Alas, we had no particular need for Backbone.js at that moment, and anyway, as things turned out Bugalu didn’t know much else. These new hires were treated much like the old East Indians from Cognizant: each was put on some specific narrow-gauge project, and then left to work and rework and re-rework it for months on end; while meantime a dwindling number of regular employees tried to hold the hold the magazine sites together.
No joy in Devland. In August 2012 I ran into one of the editors offsite and mentioned that I was constantly stressed out. Morale was very low in Devland, I said. The editor nodded sympathetically. “Narwhal giving you a hard time? We all hate him, we’re trying to get rid of him.”
This was an eye-opener. It had never occurred to me that the editors hated Narwhal. I thought they just preferred to ignore him. But like a magnet dragged through iron filings, this little nugget of information pulled together all the vague suspicions and baffling mysteries that had been nipping at me. I’d noticed that Narwhal had been sniping at me and giving me dirty looks ever since Russ left. Somebody was poisoning the well, telling stories about me, and it wasn’t our friends in Editorial. No, it was my new boss, Jeremy. For some time he had been telling doggie tales. He persuaded Narwhal that when Wine & Dine editors complained about lack of support, this was not targeted at Narwhal, but rather at someone else in the Dev group. Specifically young Margot.
As this campaign gathered steam, my co-worker Glynda, the only other female developer, gave her two weeks’ notice. She had had quite enough of Jeremy, Narwhal and company. When Jeremy first took over, he told us that we should pick a developer’s conference to go to, and the department would pay for it. However, when Jeremy and Narwhal and their video-game-boy friends went to South By Southwest in Austin, that expense ate up more than the entire conference budget for the year. So no conferences for the girls.
Glynda was fed up with other, more substantial things as well, mainly involving exclusion from departmental planning meetings, and lack of regard for her talents. She hadn’t whined about any of this; that was not her style. And as a practical matter it is very difficult to bring up sensitive, fuzzy problems like this until you get to that final HR exit interview (when Glynda did mention them). If she or I were to complain of exclusion from something, we’d get some lame defense on the order of, “Well, Bugalu wasn’t invited either. We don’t invite Bugalu to strategy meetings. So there.” Blah blah. Oh I see. Now I’m being put on the same level with Bugalu, whom you brought in—when? a week ago Tuesday?
I inherited all of Glynda’s work, and was pretty much back to where I’d been the previous year, doing the work of two people. Time for me to move on, too. I kept checking the internal job postings but couldn’t find anything.
Smackdown at Gregory’s. Jeremy went off to Europe for the very first time in his life in July 2012, using the $5000 travel voucher he’d won by cheating on the video contest. When he got back, Narwhal told him to put the screws on me ever harder, to make me quit or explode and be fired. One morning in mid-July they came by my cubicle and demanded I accompany them to a nearby coffeeshop.
While we walked around the corner to Gregory’s Coffee, I recalled a Wall Street Journal article from years ago, explaining how pharmaceutical firms had a set routine for firing their sales reps. They took them out to a “public place,” a restaurant or diner, because the poor sots would be less likely to cry and scream and generally cause a scene. Was this what they had in mind for me at Gregory’s?
It probably was. Hindsight tells me that my intuitions were usually correct. Jeremy laid into me aggressively with his prepared script, while Narwhal stayed silent. I had not kept my skills up with those of the other front-end developers, he began.
I giggled. For most of the past 18 months I had been the only front-end developer. “What other front-end developers, Jeremy?” I asked.
“Bugalu!” said Jeremy. “Bugalu knows Backbone.js! You don’t know Backbone.js!”
“Bugalu?” I guffawed. “Bugalu from Timbuktu? He know Backbone, why not you? That Bugalu? Stop me if I’m wrong, but Bugalu just started. He’s just a temp or something, isn’t he.”
“No! Bugalu is Full-Time Employee!” said Jeremy, banging his fist on the phonograph-record-sized table at Gregory’s Coffee. “There you go again, being very passive-aggressive!”
Presumably the plan was to provoke and prod me, make me incensed, get me to up-and-quit. Or just yell at them, throw hot coffee, beat them within an inch of their lives, or give them some other pretext to fire me. I again refused to rise to the bait. I was theatrically humble. Eyes downcast, I told them sadly I realized they didn’t like me for some reason, and that was okay, because maybe they should move me back to where I came from, down in Editorial…
“But you can’t do that! You’re a Developer!” said. Jeremy briefly went off-script. He was truly astonished. I had a flash of insight into his worldview, which put web developers at the top of the status hierarchy.
“I’ve done lots of other things,” I said. “You don’t like me, that’s okay, we can work this out amicably. Give me a few months and I’ll find another job in the company.”
Bad to worse, worse to worser. There was a seething verbal fight between Narwhal and Jeremy later in the week. They’d been out at a meeting, and when they got back after 6 pm they thought they were alone. I was in a room nearby. Embarrassed, I tried not to listen (why? I ought to have listened better) but I caught enough.
Narwhal was cross with Jeremy for having screwed up the Gregory’s meeting. Apparently I was supposed to have been fired then and there, but Jeremy got derailed by my suggestion that we find an amicable separation. Narwhal didn’t like the idea of me hanging around another few months. Narwhal told Jeremy he was being ungrateful for not working harder to fire me right away. After all, Narwhal said, he had done Jeremy the immense favor of booting him up to this managerial job and paying his admission to South By Southwest.
The company paid it, actually, said Jeremy, a bit snippy. We can’t get rid of Margot now because she’s doing all of Glynda’s work. So what do we do? HR departments have ways of getting rid of employees. You make out they’re a behavior problem or you say their skills are not up to par, and you put them on 90 days’ probation, and if they’re still there you fire them It’s standard HR procedure! I read it on the internet.
“Heh-heh,” thought I, “you just try some funny business like that and I’ll be banging on HR’s door.” I started drawing up a list of the various harassments I’d been subjected to since March.
A few weeks later Jeremy and Narwhal called me into the 16th floor conference room and presented me with a lengthy dossier of my supposed failings. Couched in evasive, vague phrases, Jeremy wrote, in sum: Nobody likes her. Everybody hates her. She can’t do anything. She is a problem child. We’ve tried to put up with her but she is hopeless.
The cover of the document said PIP: Performance Improvement Program. This is was the company’s version of what is known in the human-resources game as “progressive discipline.” Over two pages, Jeremy enumerated my vague failings and demanded that would complete a series of online video tutorials and quizzes during the next three weeks. This looked infantile and ridiculous, so with shaking hand I signed acknowledgment. If I had known then what I know now, I would not have done this. (Furthermore, a “progressive discipline” program was completely inappropriate in my case, since I had just had received a favorable review six months before, and in fact all my previous reviews with the company had been good.)
But I didn’t know what I was getting into. Many of the exercises were nearly impossible, and the websites were buggy and could not register correct results. One of the tutorial modules had 440 coding problems, many of which might take an hour or more to answer. The other modules each needed, realistically speaking, a couple of days to complete. All told, these exercises would take somewhere between 120 and 150 hours to complete: not really feasible within a timeframe of 21 days, even if I sometimes worked on them during office hours, along with nights and weekends. Nevertheless I got them done in three weeks or a little over. Smugly I e-mailed Jeremy my links. I half-expected congratulations for having passed with flying colors.
But this was not the end. Jeremy redoubled his persecution. He assigned me a new three-week task, that of creating the a new prototype for the Fly + Buy photo contest. As you may recall, this project had been shot down because it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars of development time, and take three to six months to complete and test. Nevertheless, here I was, assigned to do it all in three weeks. I came up with a couple of partial prototypes, quite remarkable given the limited time. I could not believe that Jeremy would keep up his little game after this. But he did, of course he did.
I tried to complain to HR. There really wasn’t anyone HR to complain to. I’d known a couple of chubby blond girls there, but now they were gone and my own department’s needs were being addressed by a couple of chuckleheaded black women. They both had weird, forgettable names, so I thought of them as Mammy and Prissy. Mammy was the senior-most, and quite hefty; her main job was shuffling the forms for the Manpower temp payroll. Prissy was young and shiny-faced, and had her hair done up in the shape of a broccoli floret. She was very friendly and sweet-tempered. However she was of absolutely no help. I told her about the abuse and provocation I’d been putting up with from Jeremy and Narwhal, but she didn’t care. “You signed the P-I-P,” she said. “That means you agree with it. We can’t do anything.”
I had a plan in reserve, one I never used. If things got really impossible, I would pull a sick day. Then another sick day. Then I’d go on sick leave, and extended sick leave, while I shopped for a new job. Why I never pulled this stunt is still unclear to me. Part of it was 1) It’s too complicated, and 2) I’m in the Right. Neither one is much of a logical argument. Had I finished law school, I would advise any legal client to avoid such self-indulgent crap. Such arguments are based on short-term pridefulness, and pridefulness butters no parsnips.
Really, I should have done the sick-leave thing.