Persistent Corporate Naïveté


It’s embarrassing for me to look back at my years in the company where I began as their first computer programmer trainee.  They had no program for trainees then, but I had volunteered to work for very little until they could evaluate me, since I had none of the qualifications they had specified in their ad; so they created a job description for a low-paid programmer and stuck it on me. 

It was a new occupation back then.  I loved it so much I felt a little guilty for getting paid to do it.  There were a lot of weirdos in the mix, as the job requirements had not yet been settled out.  I did my part —

grew an Abe Lincoln beard,

learned to inhale,

bought a pair of pince nez eyeglasses at an antique store and had my prescription installed,

bought some wide neckties with large garishly-colored flowers on them,

learned to flail about to the sound of Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary”,

and I was set to play ‘Sixties.

Company officers in those early days would bring guests back to where we were caged, evidently for viewings. No words were spoken. Spectators would stand outside the entrance to a cubicle at an angle, and peak at us.

The embarrassment came from my persisting much too long in thinking that in the higher part of the management pyramid there must be people who were at least moderately wise.  I also thought that if I could see that something they did  was dumb, several others would also see that; but recent studies indicate that the brightest students are not actually attracted to business careers, which seem more desirable to materialistic plodders and, here and there, a sociopath.

The Peter Principle is about people rising to their level of incompetence, but the generally-held belief is that those people only occur infrequently; yet they are actually everywhere, and the problem is insoluble.  People with superior understanding of human behavior are rare, and aren’t chosen for promotion anyhow.  Managers in my department, for instance, were promoted because they had been good programmers; so if one turned out to have leadership talent as well, it was a coincidence since those who are inept are unable to discern competence in others — the Dunning-Krueger Effect. Three examples:

The Story of Rich

I began life in the foreign land of this corporation, where I worked in a cubicle with Clark Kent. He was a sweet man, very carefully put together, and the most methodical programmer I ever knew.  He drove his boss crazy since for a while there was no sign of busy-ness.  He drew a flow chart, and contemplated it for a while before finally starting to slowly write code.  But when he got around to executing it, it was already close to perfected.

I, on the other hand, wrote my programs freehand on the backs of old listings.  When I began to be unable to read my own writing, I would stop and keypunch what I had.  There was a master software program (the compiler) that translated our programming language to machine language, and did what it could to see if the program made basic sense.  I would run my partial deck through that compiler just to get the program printed, so it was legible to me.  Printed along with it were  a couple of pages of probable errors, which I  would tear off and throw away.  Both ways worked, bu my way caused Rich to avert his eyes.

Rich went for coffee at 10:00 and 3:00, so I did too because I didn’t know what else was OK.  I discovered later that people joked about setting their watches by our passing their desks.  Rich was soon made a manager, and he became my boss. 

In the beginning of this new relationship,Rich often spent a long time looking out his  office window.  He did this whenever I presented him with something he didn’t understand.  I pictured his mind as a roulette wheel, with the ball circling interminably.  Always, in  the end though, it dropped into a pocket.

I told him once that money was not very important to me.  “Wait!  Why did you make such a stink about your last raise then?!”  “Because that’s the only time all year when the company lets me know, in terms that are  important to them, what they think of me.”  He was gone, out the window.

We were forever foreign to one another, but you can imagine how uncomfortable he was in the management world that changed constantly, and was no longer predictable.  He had been permanently ejected from his comfort zone. And yet we remained friends, maybe because we each knew the other to be dependable, and fully authentic.  That’s rare, and invaluable.

I love you, Rich, wherever you are.

The Story of Frank

Frank, our general manager, the plantation overlord, was a friendless sociopath, and an emotional cripple.  He had made his bones somehow in our parent company, one of the “Fortune 500”, before I arrived on the scene in 1968. He could  tell that the local IT management talent was inadequate, for example, so when there was a high-level vacancy he went scouting at the parent company in New York, looking for the ideal martinet.

He was a sucker for the glint from a brass halo.  He’d spot perfection at a distance and haul another guy (always a guy) back to Chicago.  He  always thought he’d found someone submissive who would also bully his subordinates (a common combination — called “suck up, kick down”).  If he judged well, the guy would unfortunately soon be quarantined by his own staff, as Frank was himself.

Frank invariably found the new victim wanting, on closer inspection, and began beating the hell out of him — which froze him in his tracks: severed from his roots, and realizing too late that he’d made a horrible mistake.  If he  was gifted with some social intelligence, he would soon figure out that his only hope for emotional support lay, ironically,  with his peers and subordinates — those people Frank had told him were all incompetent.

I used to warn the new man that if he kept going through Frank’s open door, he would soon enough come out one day carrying his head in a bucket.  No one ever listened, because each one thought he was superior to his predecessors, and had Frank wrapped around his little pinkie.  Alas.

A peer of mine once told his boss how much he liked working for him, to which his boss replied, “Don’t ever say that to Frank.  It’d be the kiss of death.”

We quarreled often.  He did sometimes make me afraid, but because I have a defiant personality, my belligerence was mostly greater than my fear.

Many years later I was persuaded to go to Southern California to revive a struggling subsidiary.  (Instead I fell flat on my face — but that’s another story.)  The Chicago people had a farewell party for me. Since everybody knew I hated Frank, a friend arranged for everyone to don “Frank masks” to surprise me.  What’s so interesting about that is that Frank never heard about it, even though several people who reported to him were there.  That pretty well personifies organizational dysfunction.

Frank was soon sent to the California company as a consultant, a job into which he’d finally been placed to nudge him into retirement.  When I agreed to go to work at that company I had only one stipulation: that Frank would be gone by the time I got there.

This did not happen.  The president (Dick, who had made the agreement with me) explained that he was nervous about going solo.  I explained to him that  going solo would be far better than absorbing Frank’s poison.  What was unspoken was that any hope of our building the essential trust relationship was gone.

Dick, this prince among men, did try to help me sell my Illinois house, by advising me to bury a St. Joseph statue upside down under a bush in the back yard.  (It had worked for him, more than  once.)  I was appalled, and getting genuinely apprehensive about the company having such poor judgement as to give this kind of responsibility to Dick.

I was recruited for this job because of my reputation as an effective manager; but there were hidden problems.  First was that both Frank and Dick had known me since I began working there as a programmer trainee.  The other was that they were both old–school authoritarians who simply could not accept that managing without an occasional temper tantrum could possibly work, and the hell with my reputation.

****

Frank soon came to me with a destructive idea for the  organization, and I explained to him that I had no intention of implementing it because it was so dumb.  I then told him he could bless me or curse me but either way he was outta there; I got up, went to the door, held it open for him — and out he went. 

“You shouldn’t take these things personally, Mac.”  “That’s only in books, Frank. This is not books.”

I never saw him again.

The Story of Nick

Nick was a high-level programmer working for me who lived nearby.  Lenore and I used to go to his house for dinner sometimes.   His wife was quiet and reserved, and he often treated her with contempt, which flags a moribund relationship.  Yet at work, among his friends, he repeatedly and enthusiastically exclaimed, “Isn’t sex great?”  This was not usually a conversation-starter.

His wife was not nearly as enthusiastic.  She told Lenore that Nick required her to wake him up when she went to bed, so they could “have sex” — whatever that meant under those conditions.  It struck me as a form of masturbation.

One evening Nick and I were both well-lubed when he told me that what he liked about me was that I wouldn’t mind when he “passed me up” (presumably through promotions).  Now, I’m a nice guy, but that was a reach too far.  In the first place, he was fiercely authoritarian, and would have been a rotten manager.

Silly me.  By and by, he passed me up — going up, and soon, going back down.  Frank had spotted him and anointed him manager of a large clerical department, which was stressful enough under Frank’s guidance to often force him to tears.  Meantime his wife predictably took up with the man she was doing typing for part-time.  Nick thought for a while that the bottles hidden in his bedroom meant that Annie had turned to drink, but actually she had begun frolicking with her employer (and later married him).

At one point, before it was finally over, the interloper, under the influence, sent Nick a photostat of Annie’s panties, referring to Nick (who was German) in a note as “Herr Ober”.   He was, of course, enraged.  (I was by then just amused.)

Eventually,  he shifted his focus back to his career.  He possessed a programming skill we particularly valued, and presented me with a list of what his grandiose expectations were for his next performance review, along with a barely veiled threat to quit if I failed him.  I failed him, he quit, and I happily set about replacing him.  (He had unwittingly threatened me with the briar patch, and I was willing to go there.)

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