September 15th, 2009

New Look

Why You Shouldn't Work for People That Treat You Bad

"Listen! It's a tough universe! There's all sorts of people and things trying to do you, kill you, rip you off, everything. If you're going to survive out there.... you've really gotta know where your towel is."

- Ford Prefect speaking to Arthur Dent, The Hitchhiker's Guide of the Galaxy

For those of you that know me or have worked with me, I've now arrived at my 18th anniversary in the working world since graduating college back in 1991. That's right, the young'un freshmen arriving at this next school year in the Land of the Jayhawks were born about the time I walked down the Hill. In my journey hopscotching across from Kansas to California, I've had many ups and downs, and many hard lessons, but none so obvious as the one I present tonight.

I've worked in the Tech Biz the whole time and seen many things, but they have been in many different settings-- in everything from telecom to GPS systems to the educational world, to software and hardware companies and little shops installing servers back in the early days of LANs-- but one thing remains the same throughout all of them.

You see, we work in a biz where whatever we work on is going in the trash in a few years. I've installed networks at places and then ripped them out a few years later when they became obsolete. In The Valley, we all work on products that, if you're lucky, end up at Weird Stuff Warehouse. If not, nobody remembers what the hell that stuff even was.

What matters is the people. The relationships you build, the friendships you forge, the technological fire you help stoke to bring the next great thing are what matters. The hardware and software? It all ends up in the junk pile sooner or later. Nobody cares about the balance sheets from twenty years ago or the tech that made them happen. I see the world fly by in sped up Koyaanisqatsi-esque acceleration here in The Valley as I get older, and I've learned that the people last a helluva lot longer than the code and the hardware.

As a consultant slinging cable and hauling servers at all manner of business and shops in Kansas back in the mid-90's, I got to see lots of places. Factory floors, insurance companies, automotive repair shops, art and design places, medical device manufacturers, and all kinds of other places in my travels. Being in Kansas, the weather was terrible and the pay was bad. It was not easy, but I learned some important things.

In my travels I've seen many work environments, many of them meat-grinders. In both Kansas and in Silicon Valley I've seen people get treated badly and had to stand by and watch as I was only the consultant or the SysAdmin. I know because I've watched people spend twenty years at a company and work their entire career there to get dumped in the street, and I was the guy that would have to delete their login and come get their PC. I have watched some particularly nasty pointy-haired bosses do terrible things to their people. I have watched as tech companies got bought by evil and soul-less acquisition corporations only interested in rape and pillage get rid of the very people that made the company what it was, and then wonder why no more products were coming out. I've sat through meetings where the CEO would fire people in front of everyone and then lament why morale was so bad at the company.

I know all too well what working in such places are like, and I know they take years off your life. I have seen co-workers work themselves into sickness and despair. I've had to witness it destroy people when they work under terrible people that are abusive, controlling and nasty, that eventually screw over their people. And I wonder why.

BTW for those of you that understand Scott Adams' humor, the "Dilbert" comic strip is funny because it's true.

So I say unto ye...

Don't work for people that treat you bad. Life is way too short for that.

This may sound like a 'Well, duh!" revelation, but I've seen many people willingly go in and work for places that treated them badly, ragged on them or threatened them, and destroyed their self-esteem, all without paying them what they were worth. You could say it's somewhere between misplaced loyalty and battered-wife syndrome, where the victim defends the abusive husband right up to her own death at his hands. I've seen people willingly go back to such places or work for bosses at new places that treated them badly at the old one.

If you work for people that treat you badly, they probably won't change their mind and treat you better later.


There are good places to work and I have spent most of my career searching for them, but most of the resignation letters I have written in my career have listed as their first reason that they need to treat their people better, starting now. I have watched places bring in eager and talented people only to screw them over and treat them badly, and then the place collapses and implodes. I've seen it with start-ups, and I've seen it with big corporations in impressive marble buildings. They all crumble sooner or later, and eventually word gets out about such places. Especially with the 'net. The old Chinese adage, "You cannot wrap fire in paper" holds even more true these days.

I realize this may ring hollow for some of you in a recession with a bad economy, but I have personally lived through three Bush Recessions and two economic recoveries from such, and know that these things go in cycles. If you are stuck in a bad place that is grinding you down or messing you up, you and you alone hold the power to someday walk away for a better place. Don't forget that. Sometimes all you can do when you get screwed is pick yourself up and walk away with your dignity, but that's better than staying.</p>

"So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key

               - The Eagles, "Already Gone" (1974)

The same thing holds true for things you do for fun, across any fandom. About ten years ago I actually worked on staff at Renaissance Faires with my friends, and we worked for a tempermental guy with long, flowing hair that was always cranky and irritable. Sometimes he was a great guy, and the rest of the time he was insufferable. For some reason he needed a new staff to work his booth at Faire, and we figured, what the hell, we could get passes if we worked Faire and drink till we passed out. He dicked people over and drove them away before my friends and I walked away a year or two later. As one of them said, "I'd never put up with that sort of crap for my day job! What the hell was I doing putting up for it for free in my spare time?".

If you're doing something for fun and it stops being fun because the people you have to deal with are terrible, is it for fun any more?

If there was any song I could FTP to my younger self when I eagerly walked down the Hill on graduating college 18 years ago about what the future would hold, it would be Kenny Rogers' The Gambler, with the ever-popular refrain that I remember as a kid:

"You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done."

               - Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler"

My Dad was a research scientist for one of the Big Pharma companies in the Chicago area. In 2003, After 17 years of working there, his company gets bought by an even bigger Pharma company and sells the deal to the shareholders that they can eliminate 20,000 jobs and entire research facilities. My Dad took the retirement buyout and my parents moved out to the West Coast to start a new life when my Mom took a job at a biotech firm that, it turns out, was a particularly dysfunctional and messed-up place to be that, as it turned out, treated her badly. She wanted out, but was stuck there on a contract and a big signing bonus that they bought a big, fancy house with. She spent most of her night stressed out, upset and in tears because of the company, and after she got out of there she went into retirement, three years ago. I was so happy for her getting away from such a place.

Folks, my mother died on August 7, 2009. I hold her ashes now as we plan her funeral and burial, and the big, fancy house that she and my Dad worked so hard for remains empty as he lies a hospital bed. Was all that job-related stress and pain that my mother went through for the fancy house and the perfectly manicured lawn worth it? She taught me the most important lesson of all... life is short. You can either spend it doing things that make you unhappy for people that will use you and treat you terribly, or you can do what makes you happy, for people that will help you chase your dreams... If you're not afraid to go seek them out.

The choice is up to all of you people, in all the paths you choose to follow in all your lives. Think about it, and Go Forth and Decide. For only you have the power to change your situation away from a bad one.

  • Current Music
    Kenny Rogers "The Gambler"