Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Stopgap Job

It was my first staff meeting at the Foundation, maybe five years ago. I was going to be on display for the first time in my new job. I loved all the people I had met so far, and Faith, my new boss, had coached me thoroughly. I was to present the weekly fund-raising report, and make a few comments on the numbers (which she shamelessly supplied to me: this was not, apparently, regarded as cheating on my homework). Despite my nervousness in groups, I was feeling reasonably competent. I had, after all, a piece of paper to refer to, with good numbers on it: how far wrong could I go?

But before the reports, according to our agenda, we were to go around the table and each tell our good news, our accomplishments last week, and what we were going to do this week. I eyed that a little distrustfully. What about bad news? What about failures?

As it happened, my turn came early. I made a few wry, diffident remarks, highlighting my confusion and my obstacles; the unexpected difficulties of my first week, and how Faith had spent much of her time rescuing me from one pitfall or another. I was not far into this before I became aware that I was out of line. Merris, my grand-boss, was viewing me with concern. Faith wore a rather desperately encouraging smile, like a mom watching her seven-year-old blowing his lines in the school play. What was it? How had I blundered? I quickly wound up. There was a tiny, deadly silence, quickly broken by encouraging noises, and we went on to the next person. I was rattled, but the fund-raising report, later, seemed to go fine.

I didn't take me long to figure out that I had struck a huge difference in working cultures. My behavior would have been unremarkable at IBM. That was how programmers, and particularly QA guys, talked. We lived in a world in which everything goes wrong. We were detail-oriented, which generally means a defensive style, focused on avoiding catastrophe. To watch us slouch into a meeting, and mumblingly describe our last week, you would think that nothing whatever had been done, and that the best anyone could say was that disaster had, remarkably, been averted once again. You would never have guessed that some of these people were men and women who had had their doctorates in mathematics from MIT in hand at age 26, and strings of published papers in distinguished computer science journals; you would never have guessed that we were proud as Lucifer of being on a crack team doing groundbreaking work in software. You would have been reminded of nothing so much as of a bunch of bored teenaged boys sulking their way through a family meeting. None of us wanted to be there: we wanted to be at our computers, solving problems.

The contrast with the fund-raising specialists at the Foundation was almost comical. They swept into the meeting room, chattering and bubbling with energy. No one ever sat back in her chair. Not a lounging figure to be seen. All of them were bolt upright, sitting on the edges of their chairs, bright and alert as a bunch of meerkats. And I heard the word “fabulous” more in that first meeting than I had heard it in all my twelve years as a software engineer. Meetings were fabulous. Phone calls were fabulous. Donors were fabulous.

I gradually became acclimated and learned to translate. I had to recalibrate. “Fabulous” meant, roughly, “good,” or “good enough.” The absence of “fabulous” meant “possibly a problem,” and the (very rarely admitted) “difficult” meant “total screw-up.”

I would have rolled my eyes at this, except for one thing. For the first time in my life, I was fabulous.

I liked being fabulous. In fact, I loved being fabulous. And, though I blush to admit it, I've worked twice as hard, and gotten twice at much done, at the Foundation than I ever did at IBM.

I have never worked in such a functional organization. It's small, for one thing: just five full time people and three or four part time people. We get through an incredible amount of high quality work, with such a tiny crew. I'm not aware of any friction or unhappiness between any two people: and I don't think I've ever worked any other place I could say that. When a problem surfaces, the last thing anyone cares about is whose fault it is: beyond making sure the same kind of thing doesn't happen again, nobody has the slightest interest in that. What we do with problems is solve them. What we do with work is get it done.

I took the job as a stopgap, half-time work to keep some money coming in until my massage practice grew large enough. Now I plan to stay as long as they have me. A man would be a fool to walk away from a work environment this – well, what else can I say? – this fabulous.

4 comments:

Zhoen said...

Super!

Kathleen said...

Wow, that IS fabulous!

marly youmans said...

Nice tribute! I have a meerkat child, long and slim and looking about quickly.

And I like the meadowlark too... think that was about the only thing I missed after three years in Kansas, long ago.

Jean said...

Fabulous (really) evocation of a workplace situation that is sadly all too rare - you're right to treasure it.