Monday, 18 April 2011

Two strikes

There were three occasions when Bashir threatened my job, but in the end he was not the one who swung the axe, and mine was not the only head to roll.

In the first two incidents I can claim innocence. The third... not so much.

The first time, the warning came through my manager Eric, no Bashir. "Jared," he told me, "Bashir says I need to warn you that some people have complained about you."
"What did I do?"
"Well... it's the hours you work. You always leave by 5:30, and they stay until 6 or 8."
The other guys would start work at 9:30, 10am, even 11am sometimes. I was working normal business hours, as stated in my contract... not to mention nights and weekends when required, along with everybody else. I was certainly pulling my hours.

I think Eric could tell, from the look on my face, what I thought of this complaint. "I know you start work early," he said (which he did, because there was spyware on every employee's computer, monitoring our every move.).
"Are you asking me to come in to work later and leave when the other guys do?"

I knew that Vlad, who occupied an office close to mine, started work even earlier than I did and left before I did in the afternoon and I was about to bring this up, but Eric said "No, not really. It's okay, but Bashir says I have to tell you there's a complaint."
Which of course meant another black mark in my file, even though it was not something I had actually done wrong or could be disciplined over.

The second time I was threatened, it was over somebody else's mistake.

A device that our customers regularly used with our software had modified their data format, and because it was such a popular device we had no choice but to update our software. I was initially pleased to have had the work assigned to me, since it was the first time I had been given anything real to work on since the debacle of my first assignment. I was given a document written by Kerry which actually resembled proper analysis of the problem, too. It was actually looking good...

... until I actually saw what I was going to have to work with. The existing code for the prior version of the data format was convoluted, riddled with gotos and nested switch statements and bleeding across several dialogs. It was ugly. I gritted my teeth once again and spent a week on it, checked it in, and forgot about it.

A few weeks later, at the end of one of Bashir's quarterly release cycles, I happened to notice that Sam had checked in some code in the same area. Once the data was imported from the device our application would shell out to a Runtime Access app to allow the users to do some postprocessing and at that point it was unclear from the vantage of the C++ team what happened to the data at that point. Sam had tried to clean up that area of code (like I said, it was ugly and unintuitive). I was pretty sure that what he had done wasn't going to work, but there would have been no way he could tell: the problem was buried many layers deeper than the area he had been fixing. I gave it a try and sure enough, the importer was broken.

It was the day before the release and QA had already signed off on the new version. Sam wasn't in his office, so I went directly to Neelam and told her there was a problem. Then I went and got a coffee and moseyed back to my office to get on with my regular workload.

Ten minutes later I heard Bashir come storming down the corridor. "Who broke it?" he demanded. "The release is tomorrow. Who screwed the pooch?"
"Jared said..." said Neelam.
"WHO WAS IT?" he said again, in a voice that suggested that punishment was about to be meted out. "WAS IT PIKEMAN?"
I don't think he realized that I could hear him, despite the fact he speaking loudly in the hallway and my door was open. He certainly seemed surprised when I poked my head out and said "Nope," I said. "I'm just the one who found it. Would you like me to help Sam fix it?"
"Uh... yes, okay," he said. I think the only thing that saved me was the fact that I said that in the corridor where everybody else could hear it.

Sam and I fixed the bug within about fifteen minutes and that was it. The release would have gone out on time, except that on the following day the CD burner broke. I could have cried a river.

The third occasion that my job was threatened came about a year into my tenure at the company. There has been mysterious consultants wandering around the company and we all knew that something was afoot. About 6:30pm the next day I received a phonecall after work from one of my best friends in the building, Connor. "Pike, just want you to know that Bashir was looking for you this afternoon," he said. "He wouldn't say why, but he looked serious." Despite the earlier warning, it appeared that Bashir had forgotten that I worked regular office hours.
Next morning when I got in to the office I spotted Bashir coming out of the kitchen. "You were looking for me, Bash? What can I help you with?"
He looked startled. "No, no, I wasn't, it's nothing."
"Okay great," I said. I went back to my office, and forgot about it.

Late in the afternoon Eric came to my door, looking extremely uncomfortable. "Bashir wants to speak to you," he said. "Come with me." One the way to Bashir's office he ran at the mouth about the next tasks that I was going to be assigned. It was quite out of character for him and I realized that he was trying to reassure me.

Eric followed me in to the office and closed the door. I sat down in the seat Bashir indicated, and Eric stood behind me.

"Jared, you haven't been a very good employee lately," said Bashir. There were complaints in my file. I was recalcitrant about fixing problems where there was no clear resolution. I lacked enthusiasm. I was too critical of the codebase. I wasn't fixing enough bugs. He himself had observed me sleeping at my desk.

This was all true.

I said I was sorry. I didn't quite grovel, but I'm sure I was a pitiful, sitting there in the hot seat, fearing for my job and, more specifically, my work visa. More than anything else that happened to me at that company, the one thing I most regret is that display of contrition.

"I'm going to give you one more chance," he said. "Because you know a lot of stuff and you bring a lot to the table, but this is your only warning."

I was didn't quite believe what I was hearing. Had he actually said that to me? Every time I had tried to improve the quality of our processes and our code my input had been dismissed out of hand, and sometimes it had gone onto my permanent record. This sounded a little bit like validation.

Why the change of heart? My guess is that Eric (who I certainly had my differences with) had come to my defence when he thought I was being victimized. My opinions were unpopular with the senior programmers, but the junior programmers... especially the newest hires... seemed to privately agree with me. What I didn't know at the time was that a sea change was coming and that suddenly the company realized that it was going to need to demonstrate a more, ah... modern... approach to programming.

The following day layoffs were announced. Two programmers (dead weight;  who had been hired because they asked low salaries or they were friends of friends) were let go, as well as a handful of people in other departments.

The day after that, a stranger arrived to explain that our company had been acquired by a much larger one. Any questions?

I asked when we would be given the free t-shirts.

The stranger gave me a disbelieving look and then looked for another question. I think that Bashir was probably angry that he had kept me on. But, right after question time the t-shirts were duly passed out.

Despite my cynicism, I was thrilled and excited. There was a lot of fear in the business when that was announced, but I could not have been more pleased. Not only would this give me exposure to new technologies and new opportunities, but surely our new management would put our house in order. A new broom was exactly what we needed.

I had no idea what I was in for.

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