There are those who would call me a talented software engineer. I am grateful for the compliment. If one assumes for a moment that their assessment is accurate, one would expect to find a rather successful, reasonably wealthy individual with stature and prominence in the field.
The truth of the matter is, I am not successful in the material sense. Nor do I have wealth that rivals Bill Gates, nor am I really all that known in my field. I have made impressions at every position I have ever held, but my name is not spoken at the various software conferences nationwide. And why is this? Because every position I have ever held has been as an employee for a company. And it does not matter if the company is large or small; either way, I have still been a slave to the desires of some corporate machine.
Let me share an example from my past.
One day, Rita stopped by my cube, and saw a rather interesting quote on my whiteboard. Aside from the various bits of code which littered most of its surface, a quote, outlined in the corner, read: “BE A THREE.”
“Be a three? What does that mean?” she asked, with a puzzled look on her face.
“Oh, that.” A mischievous grin appeared on my face in response, for the quote had produced precisely the response I’d wanted. I proceeded to explain what being a three meant.
The traditional model of work involves an employee starting at a new job and making a good impression. This means working extra unpaid hours, showing that the new employee is dedicated to corporate goals. Before too long it is virtually assumed that said worker will always put in extra hours. This employee is dependable. Soon, said employee is now being overloaded with up to twice the normal workload.
What explains this is a curious twist of logic: do a good job so you’ll do well on your evaluation. That’s what this is about. Evaluations.
In the past year I had worked well over and above what any sane person ever would consider. I took work home. I would be up at 2AM driving to the office just to check on the status of a job I’d started before leaving earlier that day. And why? Because I wanted a good evaluation.
Public schools teach children to please their teacher. Do well to get a good grade. As children mature, it becomes more about standardized test scores (1600 on your SATs! 5 on your AP exams! Push! Harder! You need to do this to get into a good college!) and less about pleasing people, but don’t worry! The drive has been ingrained. I am not in the least bit ashamed to admit that I, too, am a product of this engineering. The result of this engineering, the schooling, the years spent in college, the training, the internships, all of this, is for one goal:
Get a good job, make your boss happy, and do well on your evaluation. After 40 or so years, you’ll retire on your pension or 401k. And if you do lose your job on the way, it’s ok, you’ll just get another job and keep going.
Folks, let me shatter your illusions. I did this. I did a phenomenal job. I made sure the team met its goals and deadlines. I wrote some great code, and furthered the the project along with everyone else on my team. I fully expected a grade of 2 on my evaluation (on a scale of 1 to 5 with a 1 being the best you can get).
Imagine my dismay when during a staff meeting, it was hinted that upper management was rather unhappy that my manager has passed too many “2” evaluations, and that many were sent back to be “normalized.”
My question of “What’s the problem of having a bunch of neurotic overachievers for a team?” went unanswered and should have been my first clue.
Now, as a minor aside, please let me point out that I have no illusions about my role there. I was a cog in the machine. I was a corporate tool. My job was to produce code, and produce code I did. But I never felt any true loyalty to where I worked (I did towards individuals but not to the corporate entity itself), not in the sense that I felt the company took any loyalty to me. And yet, I am still a product of my environment. Like everyone else, I fought for the evaluation grade.
After all that work, all I got was a three. A THREE! I was ‘meets expectations’.
The day that occurred, I made a decision. If all I rated was a three, all they would get was three-level work. Never was I staying late again. I would not push any harder than I had to in order to ‘meet expectations’. If a three I was rated, a three I would be.
The end result of all of this was that I was laid off. For all of my hard work, I was tossed aside with everyone else as the company moved in pursuit of ever higher profits, and had to cut expenditures such as the salaries of most of their employees. In retrospect, I was very pleased that I did not push as hard as I could. I did not bleed myself for the company’s profit and benefit. I’ll explain why this is important further down.
I sound bitter, don’t I? I sound like a man at the end of his years looking back at a field of broken dreams. Truthfully, I was more angry, than bitter, because I cannot abide stupidity. But I was actually elated to be on the layoff list, because all I could see was that things would only get worse. Besides - after I’d made my decisions after ‘being a three’ I’d already known I’d never be able to be to view my career the same way again.
What had I done instead of pushing harder and harder, ever in pursuit of that ‘2’? I travelled a bit. I enjoyed my evenings, for a change. And I took an opportunity to pursue a love of mine: music. I produced and released an album of music (find it on iTunes or Amazon.com), something I never thought would happen anytime soon. How could I have done this, by being the employee dedicated to his own demise?
The lesson I learned is this: know to whom you are investing your dreams and efforts. No one else but you will protect your aspirations. I am not suggesting that people should, en masse, quit their jobs and head for the hills. Bills need to be paid. Food needs to be bought. But the pursuit of these mundane tasks should not overshadow or otherwise replace those dreams where your heart lies.
Dream big. Do what you need to do to survive, but dream big. And remember to chase those dreams. No one else will do it for you.
Check out Joe's music on iTunes or here on his mySpace.com profile.