Wednesday, October 23, 2013

When a New Door Opens, or, Disgruntled Employee Tells it Like it Is

They say that when opportunity knocks, answer it.  They say you have to be prepared to answer it, too, and listening for the knock.  They say that if opportunity isn't knocking, build a door.  I've been building doors for years.  I've been prepared.  I have my tool belt strapped around my waist, my thinking cap on, my hands grasping for something to mold and my legs ready to run.  Finally, a door has opened.  It was not a door I expected to open.  It may not be a gateway to perfectly green pastures.  It is not even my favorite door.  But its a door, nonetheless, and a good one.  

It's funny; all career advice would bid you to never talk negatively about your current or former employer at an interview.  Yet its a well-known statistic that most people would leave their jobs if they could, and most people don't like their jobs.  Social convention or professional protocol or whatever it is that drives us to behave properly in interviews is, I think, silly at best and utterly dishonest when it comes down to it.  I think we should be able to talk more honestly without fear of rejection; instead of having to lie that I'm always in the market for new opportunities, I would have loved to spill out my heart.  I don't know if it would have actually helped my image, so I guess it's better I didn't.  But I also wish I could say, "If you want someone great an interviews, I'm not your person.  If you want someone to outperform, exceed expectations, drive change that you never saw coming, and improve everything about your business, consider me."  

On the other side of things, there's never a good time to leave a company.  Nobody's projects are ever going to all wrap up at the same time, where you can say, okay, I'm done here, there is nothing else I want to or am able to help with, and you would be better off without me from now on.  Every person that leaves takes some knowledge, experience, insightful eye or undeveloped idea with him or her.  Two weeks is never sufficient to transfer all the knowledge, know-how, data and instinct to a person's backfill, and rarely is the backfill in place in time anyways.  I learned this early on in my career; I loved my first job, but was a bit bored after so quickly becoming an expert.  I tackled any project I could and volunteered my time to develop new and exciting systems and processes.  The decision to leave was devastating because I liked the people I worked with, I liked the product we dealt with, and I saw so much potential in the projects that I would leave incomplete.  When I put in my notice, I was shocked and flattered that my boss quickly came up with a counteroffer to match the pay of my new position.  I think that made it even harder for me, but my mind was made up.  I made the decision based on what was best for me, and never looked back.  

That first career move was a tough decision.  I was also a bit tormented by my decision to leave that second position; it was within the same company but it was a promotion into an area I despised and had no desire to pursue.  I accepted unhappily because it was the only career move I saw available at the time, and I was 100% correct about my perception of the area.  I was miserable pretty much from time I took that job to the time I made my most recent decision to leave.  It is for that reason that this career move has been the easiest decision of my career.  A no-brainer, really.  They offered me more money than I expected, they matched my current vacation allowance (which I thought for sure I'd lose), and the job comes with a potential of a decent bonus.  I've never had a real bonus before.  I've never been offered more than I expected.  I've never wanted to leave my current job more.  More importantly than the money, I've gotten a good sense of how this team operates, how I can shake things up and be a star, and I see already the recognition that I am going to be valuable to them.  The outstanding offer demonstrated to me that they appreciate what I have to offer and are willing to stretch to get me.  That's a fantastic place to be.  How could I say no to that?  

Still, I do feel bad and will feel bad for the people stuck with having to pick up my work; they are not as technically savvy as I am, they do not have the experience and insight that I have and they will not be able to fill my shoes completely.  I'm not saying I'm irreplaceable, I gave up that notion long ago.  I'm just saying that my absence will be felt, badly.  I have taken full responsibility of making the hole I leave as minimal as possible with my remaining time, but there is only so much I can do with the resources, people and time I have to do it with.  The clock is ticking, and I still don't know who is taking on a majority of my workload.  Yikes!

Which brings me to my next point.  I have no idea if I will have an exit interview.  With the cold shoulder I've gotten from my manager since giving my notice, I expect nothing short of "return your laptop, get out and don't let the door hit you as you leave."  He's already tried to give away my desk.  But I want to be prepared for an exit interview, just in case.  And again, much like interviews for new jobs, exit interviews are "supposed" to be generally positive.  But I just don't think I can grit my teeth and say nice things this go round.  This is what I want to say:

Look, every company has its problems, especially from an insider's perspective.  But this company takes the cake.  I have been personally injured, held back, misguided, deceived and wronged, and I have seen others treated inappropriately as well.  I've had my car smashed into by a colleague who opted not to leave a note, leaving me to deal with the damages; and security failed to document my report TWICE and then did nothing in the end anyways.  The 100% tuition reimbursement was revoked just before the start of my masters degree program.  No raises were given when the company stock was rising.  Decisions here are made for bad reasons.  Our supposed leaders are weak, and the loud-mouths get their way.  Child-like, unprofessional behavior is rewarded.  Rational, logical arguments are silenced.  If you don't drink the kool-aid, you will be beat into submission.  But don't worry, as soon as you start drinking the kool-aid, you'll be hammered by all your colleagues who are still holding out, and get no support from your leadership.

I have a sign above my cubicle that a colleague made for me.  It says, "I told you so."  It was made immediately after my superiors were denied their bonuses (I was not and am not high enough on the food chain to be eligible for such a thing) in great part due to essentially ignoring my advice from 15 or 18 months prior, and acting contrary to my advice.  It was an interesting scenario, because I was brought into these meetings as a consultant because, despite having left the position that gave me the expertise, I was considered the subject matter expert (SME).  After hammering on my point, from the position of being the SME, I was told, not asked, (and I'll never for get these words): "What if I say your opinion doesn't matter?"  Over a year later, things fell apart exactly as I predicted for the reasons I had stated.  The project was canned.  I was brought in as a consultant to fix things under a veil of secrecy, which in and of itself is shameful and a signature of weakness.  I never said the words "I told you so".  I just accepted the sign as a reminder to myself that I am valuable, and I pointed to it whenever I once again proved to be right in a controversy.  

By far, the biggest problem I've seen is that the company is just too big.  The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing; we aren't leveraging our size, our size is defeating us.  Our VP bragged that we had 250 simultaneous projects going on - I wouldn't be bragging about such idiocy.  Do you think any of those would succeed without conflicting and damaging at least one other project?  The core rationale behind most of those projects is flawed - you can't simultaneously reduce inventory, reduce past due demand and increase delivery performance and responsiveness just by focusing in on each aspect in a silo.  It's a simple supply chain concept: inventory goes with responsiveness, reduce one you reduce the other.  Especially in an industry with unique, complex product with extensive lead times from suppliers with rigorous, favorable contracts, heavy government regulations and customers that are allowed to walk all over us, there has to be one fundamental direction or we're all just left to wander about aimlessly, shooting at moving targets and never achieving any of our goals.  We don't just get hammered from both sides, we get hammered from the top, too.  But the way we've worked is have one group work on improving responsiveness while another group work on decreasing inventory.  It's absurd; they are working against each other BY DESIGN.  Then you have groups working on minimizing pick time and optimizing shelf space, and when another group breaks their progress for something that is incredibly valuable, it gets challenged.  This issue is called local optimization.  There is only one global optimum, which is ultimately the best thing for the company.  But instead of driving to that, everyone is driving to local optimums, bringing us further and further away from the global optimum.  The solution is simple: set the direction from the top, and have everyone aligned to achieving the various aspects of that.  Keep it simple.  Don't introduce metrics that counter the direction, don't introduce redundancy where its not needed, and don't allow exceptions.  One number, one direction, one team, one project.  Get rid of the fat: lay off anyone who isn't supporting and contributing to that goal.  

If I could say these things, and if I dare, I doubt it would fall on anything but deaf, or at best, sympathetic ears.  It wouldn't change anything.  It wouldn't make my life better.  It wouldn't make the lives of my colleagues (or future former colleagues) any easier.  I don't expect the company to come crawling on their knees, begging me to return, promising me whatever it is I demand (although a girl can dream).  It would just make me sad.  Sad for my colleagues, sad for this world, and sad that I wasn't successful in making it better.  I have done some great things, mind you, and I am very proud of my accomplishments.  It is those achievements that I leaned heavily on to so impress a brand-new company that they were willing to extend such a tremendous offer to me.  But I was unable to kill the local optimization that suffocates my current employer company.  I was unable to take charge of the ship and steer it in the right direction.  It's a better decorated ship, thanks to me, but a better decorated ship going in the wrong direction.  I've sent out small scavenger boats to get help, but who knows if they'll ever return to the mothership with aide, or if they will just decide to escape, as I am now escaping.  No, I don't expect that anything I can do now will have a real, positive impact.  One of my matrix managers confessed that he'd actually like to see major failures felt as a result of my departure; only when we fail do things get fixed.  When things are band-aided over and hanging on by a thread, leadership sees it as going okay.  I agreed with him; its not that I want to screw over my company and make them suffer, and I'm still going to do my best to minimize the impact of my departure.  But the best thing I can do for the team is to leave enough of a gap that it gets attention and resolution.  It's a sad state to think about, but it's true.    I'm relieved to be leaving, absolutely thrilled.  But it makes me sad that I have to leave; that this is what it's come to.  

My Dad is my biggest fan and primary career adviser, although I take what he says with a grain of salt.  After all, he made his career climb in a different era, and is of the other gender.  Whether or not I agree with it, I always remember his advice.  One of the things he always tells me is that the money will come; do your job and be great and the company will compensate you fairly.  If they don't, they know they are at risk of losing you.  Yet somehow, despite my best efforts, the money hasn't come, the recognition is lacking and the promotions made scarce.  As for my manager, he has canceled meetings with me, been short with me in the few conversations we've had, has tried to give away my desk before I've even left.  Is he surprised that I'm leaving?  I don't see how he could be; and yet, he's bitterly unsupportive.  No counteroffer from him, that's for sure.  I know I'm not crazy; I've had countless colleagues tell me they agree with my decision, that I've been screwed (not exactly those words, but effectively the same meaning), and that this is the only choice I have.  It not only confirms my decision, it makes me feel like I've been a fool to stick around so long.  And thus, I am looking forward to starting anew.  

My new company will have its own challenges.  I may feel a bit suffocated by the standardization and the oversight from across the sea.  That is my biggest concern.  But you know what?  That is a refreshing concern to have.  It's not going to be perfect, but I have no doubt it will be better.  I'll take standardization and strict oversight over tug-of-war, being thrown under the bus for doing the right thing, and babysitting the negative effects of 250 projects any day.  I would have liked to leave my job because one of my startups took off, or because I made a nice fortune by selling a brilliant idea, or because I got a promotion from someone who knows from experience how brilliant I am.  But opportunity isn't knocking on those doors right now.  The door that opened was this one, and there's no doubt in my mind that this is the right decision right now.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

MarsOne Motivational Letter

I recently threw my hat in for a one way ticket to Mars, via the MarsOne application.  As part of the application process, we were required to submit a wordcount-limited motivation letter.  I thought I'd share mine.  It was intentionally a little silly, to show off my sense of humor, as well as self-promoting.

    I love traveling and experiencing new things; Mars is the ultimate destination.  I'm allergic to most places on Earth, so I'm sure the Mars atmosphere will suit me.  I love the color red.
    When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an artist, gymnast, writer and astronaut.  My eclectic variety of interests is unmatched.  I'd imagine most applicants are more focused on getting to Mars; they are probably space geeks through and through, and I adore that type very much. I urge you, however, to consider someone of a diverse background, like myself. My knowledge and experience in so many different areas enables me to pull together solutions that other, more specialized people, don't see.  I'm sure the people of Earth will want to know about life on Mars, so you would want to have a creative person to share her story.  I am that person; my followers on facebook say they live vicariously through me.
    An endeavor like the Mars mission is going to require people who can balance innovative engineering with the spirit of adventure.  It's going to take talent of all kinds, and challenge people like never before.  I don't care how mentally stable those people are when they leave Earth, these trials are unprecedented and certain to wear down even the strongest of willpowers.  Empathizers will be needed to help the crew stay sane and ensure they don't kill each other before arriving or shortly thereafter on the red planet.  I think astronaut ice cream is tasty.
    Pick me.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

A New Economy: Industries of the Autonomous Vehicle

I'm intrigued, excited and fascinated by the autonomous vehicle for so many reasons.  Many are personal, but I am also anxious to see how it plays out on a macro economic scale.  Disruptive technologies always shuttle in with them new business needs that most people wouldn't have imagined just years prior.  Whole industries crop up as a result of the technologies or ways of doing business differently.  There are ultimately winners and losers, and even the winners will eventually get replaced.  The history of innovation fascinates me, but what really gets me going is what the future could hold.  When self-driving cars are the norm, whole industries will be demolished, and brand new ones, unfathomable ones, will rise up.  The developed world and emerging economies will look very different, and what they look like are what I want to explore here.  

The Driverless Vehicle
Most of us see autonomous vehicles as modes of transportation for ourselves that are automated.  This is, however, just one exciting application of vehicle autonomy.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, we will no longer need truck drivers, taxi drivers, chauffeurs or valets, because the vehicles can operate without humans inside.  Just imagine calling a cab from your smart phone (or whatever device we use in the future), and getting into a completely empty vehicle, being driven to your destination, and getting out so that the cab can go pick up another passenger.  Packages will be shipped across the country in trucks with no cab and no human; thus they will not have to stop for sleeping breaks or food, and will be faster and safer.  When your own self-driving car brings you to your destination, it can let you out at the front door and go park itself.  Then you can call it to come get you when you are ready to leave, combining valets and chauffeurs into a single function independent of a human to pay or tip.  

Rentals and Contracted Services
Autonomous vehicles will ultimately reduce the price of cab fares, because they will not require a human to be able to make a living off of the profits.  The price will compete with public transportation, which has its own drawbacks (slower, sitting next to weirdos, uncomfortable), and thus the use of public transportation may also become extinct.  People own private vehicles today for many reasons, but some of those are basically to combat the negatives associated with the alternatives: cabs are too expensive and public transportation stinks for reasons previously alluded to.  So as the expense of cabs comes down (and the lack of some creepy immigrant who can't speak English as the driver), they become a favorable alternative.  Thus, fewer people will own private vehicles.  In addition, many private vehicles will be put to use on some sort of contract basis as a cab.  See, it would seem silly to have a perfectly functional vehicle sit in a parking lot, baking in the sun or getting drenched in the rain or snow while you are working for 8 to 12 hours a day.  Sure, some people won't want strangers in their cars, but others would find it a marvelous opportunity to send their car off after its delivered them to their office and have it earn some supplemental income while they are working.  Sure, it puts mileage and wear and tear on the car, but if owned, it will probably be more profitable than just letting it sit each day.  In-car camera systems will be installed to detract from vandalism; customers will be automatically charged by the contract service for any damage done.  

More Entertainment and Productivity Technologies
There are already entertainment packages available today, but most of them consider distraction of the driver as a threat and take precautionary steps towards not distracting the driver. With no human driver to distract, consumption of video, music and game entertainment will go through the roof.  Imagine streaming the likes of Netflix into your car while you are transported to work, and picking up where you left off on your return trip.  Your car will have surround sound, 3D (or 4D) entertainment systems and satellite-enabled video conferencing with internet connectivity for your devices.  Carpooling?  A soundproof barrier can separate you and your companion so you can work on or enjoy separate activities without plugging your ears with headphones.  

Destination Parking Grounds
I don't know exactly what to call this, but DPGs sound just as good as any other name I came up with (Potels, anyone?).  This will be a new industry for the avid traveler who can work remotely or needs to travel for work.  It's a mix between a motel and an RV camping site.  Let's say you have a destination 6 to 8 hours away.  You need or want to be there tomorrow.  You pack your things, set your destination and depart at night.  You curl up in your comfy car bed while your car autonomy does the driving.  You get a full night's sleep, and when you awake, you are in another state or perhaps another country.  The car has pulled into a DPG, where there are showers and dressing rooms available at a minimal fee.  You grab your bag, hop in the shower, get dressed, and return to your car.  Now you have just a few more miles to drive to get to your actual destination.  Or, if you are going to be working remotely, you set up your office computer in your car, and start taking calls and discussing metrics, or whatever it is you do.  When work is done, then you get to go have drinks with your friend in the area, or visit that fantastic restaurant you read about.  Travel no longer requires a day, you travel in your sleep so you can maximize your time awake.  With DPGs, some people may give up their homes and live out of their cars, hopping from DPG to DPG, traveling the country or world while still being able to get work done.  Their cars may be equipped with small washers and dryers, mini-kitchenettes and wine refrigerators.  

Insurance, Law Enforcement and Lawyers
DUIs will be a thing of the past, so law enforcement and DUI attorneys will have to find something else to do.  But new types of insurance will exist; there will be specialists for cars with human drivers, and the majority of car insurance policies will assume no driver liability.  Insurance prices should go down overall, and regulations may drop the requirement to have insurance on autonomous cars.  Law enforcement and insurance will be more concerned about people hacking the settings on their autonomous vehicles.  Lawyers and IT security experts will concern themselves with people hacking into others' cars.  

While people may still flock to car racing with human drivers, there will be some sports fans that will favor autonomous vehicle racing.  These races will be all about the logic used in the programming, the equipment in the cars, and the ability of the cars to navigate and react to their surrounding competitors.  These cars will be willing to crash and burn, making for spectacularly brutal attacks that human drivers wouldn't risk.  

Better, Real-Time Navigation Systems
When I automate a process at work, there is an added bonus that the programming also captures data that I would otherwise not bother capturing.  Likewise, when autonomous cars are commonplace, they can transmit commute time and traffic data to centralized locations to allow other cars to better adjust their routes in real time.  If that sounds too Big Brother-ish, consider that at a minimum, the cars can determine the best commute routes by time of day and seasonal trends for the specific owners' commutes (without transmitting any data to anyone else), and recommend departure times to their drivers based on historical statistics.  "Best" commute routes can be defined by fastest, most consistent, most energy conservative, or safest.  Can you even imagine having that kind of analysis today?

Modular Vehicle Assemblies
The customization of your car's interior will become an industry onto itself.  Car design can take on a whole new string of innovations, from sleeping arrangements and vanities to finish getting ready for work while commuting.  You could get a massage on your commute, or practice your Italian, or curl your hair and put on makeup (without the near misses and accidents if attempted today).  But don't expect to have too much time, because when all cars on the road are autonomous, commutes will be much faster, with less stop-and-go reactions than human drivers.  No matter what your needs, there will be products available to fit them.  High-end car manufacturers will sell complete, luxury packages customizable on the web before the car is built, while economy car manufacturers will sell a shell for which you can add on and replace modules as you see fit throughout the life of the vehicle.  

Driverless Drive Thrus
Your car will be able to run some errands for you while you are at work or asleep.  It can pick up your prescriptions at Walgreens, order and pick up Jack-in-the-Box for lunch, drop off packages at the post office, and pick up Christmas gifts bought online at Best Buy.  Stores and restaurants will adapt by having a special drive thru line for autonomous vehicles to transmit their orders via technology like Bluetooth (or to keep the cars off the grid, generating a QR code that can be scanned) and then the drive thrus will have robot arms to deliver the orders into the autonomous vehicles.  They will get their own car washes, and maybe even go to the gas stations themselves (attendants may need to fill the tank).  Forget your wallet or some paperwork at home?  Send your car home and have your wife or son put the wallet or paperwork in the car, and then call your car back to your location.  Of course, wallets and paperwork may be on their way out, but surely there will be something you will need.  

I'm sure there are other industries which we can't even imagine right now, but I think these are already going to rock the world and change the lives of millions.