Monday, May 23, 2016

Moby Schmoid

Book Review Time

I want to depart from the basic tech commentary for a week and discuss a different aspect of technology and that's art of making a living in the tech space.

I was recently sent this NYT review by my mother (thanks, Mom.  I think).  From that, I bought Disrupted and read it over the course of a month.  It should not have taken me that long because it is not a long book or a difficult read, but I had to put it down a few times.  I'm not really going to review the book as a piece of literature (or not much), but I do want to talk about how HARD IT HIT ME.

Some of this has to do with the similarities between the where the author, Dan Lyons, is in his life when he starts the narrative.  He's a middle-aged professional who suddenly finds himself between careers.  I'm a middle-aged professional who has spent the last year trying to shift careers.  He suddenly finds himself surrounded by younger people with a completely different mindset.  I'm trying to think in that younger mindset in order to move forward.

The rest has to do with the experiences I've had in working for one mid-sized company and one extremely large multi-national (ELMN).  Unlike Dan, I found my time with both companies to be very good: educational, affirming, stepping stones that helped me move forward.  They also had very clear end points: one went into bankruptcy and the other shifted its management structure at the same time that some things in my family life came to a head.  In both cases, it was clear to me that it was time to move on.

The challenge for me, and the real similarity, is what to move on to.  Like Dan, I found myself without a job and without a clear option to move forward.  In the past, when I've shifted careers, I've already been hired somewhere before I left the existing position.  When I left the ELMN, I did it not to further my career, but because I needed to be home for the MSD and not travelling (and my position was most likely going to be terminated in six months, but let's go with the daughter thing because that was the real inception point).

And then what?  I knocked around the house for the better part of a year.  I had a two month funfest with knee sepsis but that was mostly handled through the Affordable Care Act, at least monetarily (#thanksobama).  I had (and heavy emphasis on the past tense) enough savings to be more than a bit picky about my next job.  Which was good, because there weren't a lot of calls for tech enthusiasts without any practical skills in my city.

I'm a What?

And so.  And so I was a Beached White Male.  As Dan describes it in the chapter of the same name:

"...a whole generation of once-successful men who, having been laid off during the recession,..., were now shuffling around in their bathrobes, stunned, emasculated, psychologically destroyed, humiliated in front of their wives and children, drifting through life like castrated zombies."

This was me, minus the wife.  Also, I truly believe that the MSD appreciated having me around if for no other reason than that we went out for ice cream more often.

And that takes us to the mental attitude.  There is a part of my, maybe larger than it should be, that is in denial about being in my mid-forties.  I'm still really in my mid-twenties and am still cool/phat/hip/sick/whatevs.  (Right?  Right, guys?  Guys?)  My social media posts are light and jokey.  I don't post anything real because I don't want to bring you down or sound like I'm digging for sympathy.  Because I'm really not.  Even after leaving a good paying job working with people I liked, life is good.  I have more time for my daughter.  I have more time to do home improvement projects.  I can start a blog or two and remember what it is to write again.

But behind all of that sits two things, the same two things that really fixated Dan: financial security and identity.  The first of those is certainly the more pressing, but maybe not any less serious than the identity part.  Dan was proud to work for Newsweek.  I was proud to work for the ELMN.  Both were/are brands with history.  HubSpot was obviously not something with which Dan was proud to be associated.  Being unemployed was not something I was ashamed of, at least not to myself.  But it was hard to admit to another parent at my daughter's expensive private middle school.  "What do you do?" is a very typical question.  To say, "I'm between jobs" or "Nothing at the moment" or "Drive the MSD around" did not have the same ring as, "I work for ESMN."  That had always gotten a "Wow.  I've got one of their phones/TVs/appliances."  That always felt good (right up until the inevitable "can you help me fix it?" or "can you get me a discount?").

When I finally was able to wrap a corporate umbrella over me, it was with an growing brand in a rapidly emerging market space (not IoT).  It felt good.  I had an answer to the first question all adults ask other adults.  But it also required me to learn outside sales.  Cold calls.  Door knocking.  Invading people's privacy.  All things that I despise when others do them to me.  When Dan started writing about the time he spent with a desk down in the HubSpot outbound call room, what he calls the Spider Monkey room, it sounded a lot like the scripts that I see my fellow salespeople using (and I avoid like the impersonal plague and corporate CYA that they are).  Suffice to say that I now believe that this is a job that does NEED to be done, that there are people who are good at it and that I'm not one of them.  This sales job won't last.  I will miss quota one too many times and that will be it.  I know it will happen.  My boss knows it.  We nod at each other and don't talk about it, but we both know I'm not going to get the steak knives, much less the Cadillac.  And the end will be soon.

(It needs to be done because there are products and services that can truly help people, but that they won't discover on their own.  These products need a face to them that people can call, talk to, hold their hands through the process.  All things that a web page or YouTube video cannot do.  Is outside sales abused? Yes.  Is it annoying to be cold called?  Yes.  To have an entire industry crop up around blocking spam and online ads? Certainly seems a waste of time and effort.  Yet it works and is a necessary evil in the this capitalist society that we've built.  Enough justifying to myself.)

The People are the Brand.  The Brand is the People.

And the cult of the brand is also something that he writes about that I've experienced.  And not just with my latest employer, but with both of the companies that I worked with prior to this.  You must be loyal to the brand.  If the CEO says we're going in a particular direction, you jump and go that way.  Even if you disagree.  Even if all of your experience tells you that this is a mistake and will piss of our customers (both retail partners and end consumers).  I've called customers to invite them to listen in on an earnings call.  I've promoted products that should never have been thought of much less produced in mass quantities.  Because that's what you do.  That's how you get paid.  That's what's expected to be seen as a company player who will eventually get listened to when it really matters.

Ultimately, this book helped me realize that I'm in the wrong job.  I need to be doing something else.  I don't know what that is yet.  Maybe it's writing opinion pieces without an editor to keep me in check.  Maybe not.  But I think I'm going to find out.

And that's enough of this.  

I promise that I'll get back to actual tech opinions next week.  Maybe something on the fallout from Google I/O.  A week late and after everyone else has already chewed up and spit out anything worth spitting.  In the mean time, read Disrupted.  Learn about us Beached White Males living in our corporate cages.  But (and here comes the literary criticism), remember that the author was responsible for the FakeSteveJobs twitter account and is a writer on HBO's Silicon Valley.  Did these things happen to him?  I believe so.  Is there another side to all of what he writes?  Undoubtedly.  This is not unbiased journalism.

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