THE FOUR YEAR PLAN
or What I Want to be When I Grow Up
My adult life has acquired a pattern of undergoing metamorphosis every three or four years. While my childhood is epic worthy, I don't wish to delve too deeply into that here. Never the less, a few snippets may prove effective by way of preamble. Know first that I have always harbored the same ambition. And while that ambition has evolved significantly, it has not been transformed so much as it has been refined. Actually, the first title to which I aspired, was 'Astronaut'. Even as a toddler however, I had an inkling that being a space-man wasn't a full time gig, and after Apollo got eighty-sixed, my sole professed career objective settled on 'Scientist'. I hadn't much of an idea of what a scientist did exactly. My notion consisted primarily of images of white lab coats and test tubes. During my early teenage years I realized that chemistry was not my line. My fascination was directed more along the lines of the inner workings of machinery, and so 'Scientist' became 'Engineer'. What's more, I wasn't captivated so much with what could be learned with ones hands as with that which be must be conquered through intellect. Long before I graduated high school, I had named my chosen profession as 'Electrical Engineer'.
Once out of high school, I fled as far from hearth and home (both literally and figuratively) as my reach could take me. That being in my case, the University of South Florida - Tampa. Released from parental, nay from all supervision, I indulged myself generously in the excesses of youth. The neo-dweeb list of which, included; loud music, hard liquor and soft drugs. Despite my best and ceaseless efforts, and the copious ripe nymphs in attendance at coppertone U, sex failed to make the list. Having enrolled in 20 credits of freshman engineering, I returned from Florida with but a single passing grade, in Chem-I oddly enough (not my best subject). The next three years were spent under parental eyes and at the county community college. The community college had a surprisingly good pre-engineering program notwithstanding the infestation of half brained, liberal-art matriculating, mathematically illiterate, "I just want to help people", students. Or perhaps they should be better referred to as 'enrollees'. At this point posterity demands that I to give mention to my first, and one of very few academic gurus; Prof. Ed Martin, the master of partial credit exams. Living at home slowed my indulgences measurably but not significantly. After failing to achieve a two year degree in three years of pursuit, I decided it was time for something drastic.
One morning I woke up in boot camp. The party such as it was, alas was over. I didn't do badly in my academic endeavors. It was just that they were haphazard and mediocre. I had thought that the military would have been thrilled to have the likes of me come traipsing across their threshold. Indeed, my recruiter seemed on the verge of salivating during the entire induction process. Upon arriving in the fleet however, I was astonished at how poorly my superiors expressed their gratitude for having one so much smarter than themselves at their command. My career goal was to be discharged prior to being individually persecuted by anyone higher than my division officer.
The most memorable character from my navy days was Arif Ameen (sp?). Arif and I went to school together and because our names appeared one and two on the muster list, we were assigned to clean many a toilets together. I won't bore you with the lengths to which Arif would go in attending a commode. Suffice it to say that he won the coveted 'Platoon Member of the Month' award, and all the benefits thereof, three months running. So what you ask is so memorable about Seaman Ameen? Was it his dedication to duty? His neatly pressed uniform? His meticulous attention to detail? No, what makes Arif stand out to my recollection, is that about one week after I left the Great Lakes Naval Training Command, Arif decided he didn't care for the way a certain Master Chief expressed his gratitude for Ameen's efforts, so he shot him dead. Let the lesson of Arif serve as a warning to all managers: The more someone strives to become what you wish them to be, the more trouble they will end up causing you.
In spite of the remedial training I was subjected to at the hands of naval instructors, I managed to gain some insight into electronic equipment. Later, I picked up some technical info on copiers from the folks at Xerox. Also on the up side, I was able to set foot upon several locations scattered across the European side of the Mediterranean. Mainly though, military life to consisted of steady doses of misery and fear. It was at this time that I first put a name to the beast, that most vile and evil devourer of life; Bureaucracy. Eventually, I succeeded in the goal I had set for myself and thus received my discharge with no more than a few paragraphs on what a disappointing sailor I was to mar my record.
The plan going into the military was: Save money for college, get through active duty, drop back into school. But by the time I got out of the navy, I was so twitchy and it had been such a long time since I had been permitted to think, that the thought of returning to the world of academia struck me as absurd. So I set out to make my way in the world as an electronic technician. I was also a member of the naval reserve during this time. The reserve was closer to annoying than terrifying, but it still managed to significantly decrease the quality of life.
Life rolled along in slow undulations for a few years. I was working as a test technician. The work was good, not great but good, the money was fair, the benefits were nonexistent. I was working for a company that sold radios to militaries around the globe. A big multi-national in an over regulated market, but still a step in the right direction from actually being in the military. This was my first encounter with that corporate fraud known as 'Quality'. At that time the 'quality' data for the plant was plotted on a big chart in the center of the plant. Every general, admiral and ambassador that passed through was invited to gaze upon it. Trouble was, at one point the Year-to-Date data continued to climb despite the fact that the Month-to-Month data hit a new low. Now, it doesn't take a rocket scientist, your average GED holder should be able, to spot the flaw with that (so granted, you are still pretty safe with generals and admirals). I eventually pushed the point to where I was walking the guy in charge of the quality program for the city through the paradox. I never got a response (beyond, uhh yea there's got to be something wrong somewhere) and the graph stayed up for as long as I worked there. Around that time the US and some mid-east countries started killing each other in small numbers (thankfully your humble narrator's days as a full-time target had come to an end). The upshot was that we weren't allowed to sell radios to anyone in charge of any group of people who were currently occupied with shooting at our good ol' boys in uniform. This cut into the companies business considerably and wide spread lay-offs followed. A year later actual war broke out and the US armed forces enjoyed an influx of money to buy radios and other toys with. I was hired back for a time, and then laid off again. That was the third time I had lost a job in under two years. As I contemplated the utterly distasteful tasks of, updating my resume and hustling after interviews, I said to myself, "for this kind of aggravation I could be back in school". At least I'd have been out of better work. And so I headed back to the land of books.
After enduring my soul stripping past I began to poke a tentative eye stalk from beneath my battle scared psychological shell. The complete separation from the worlds biggest red tape producer was accompanied by separation from the corporate world as well. Casting off the shackles of administrative policy coupled with the academic pursuit of knowledge was a positive tonic for my psyche. I hit the ground running, finishing my two year degree with straight A's. My momentum carried me from the community college (where Prof. Martin was no longer permitted by the political powers to give partial credit exams) into the local prestigious engineering institute (Where I met my other academic guru, Prof. John DeLarenzo). Alas, my momentum slowly died away. It took me four years to complete three years of study, and my last quarter was my poorest showing. Here I'd like to state for the record that all of the work I handed in for grading was my own. Aside from lab reports I authored jointly with my lab partner, there were no contributing sources to any piece of graded material I signed my name to other than those of your humble narrator. Not exactly the stuff banquets are held in honor of, but I have to make the most of such acts of character as I have to my credit.
In those years, half of my time was was spent working as a co-op student. Most of my co-ops were spent at a very small private company fixing printed circuit boards for Xerox copiers. It was an absolutely wonderful position. The best part about it was that no one in the whole company knew more about my job than I did so no one could tell me how to do it. Later I went in search of more money and did some time working for Xerox directly. Being there on a short term basis kept me sufficiently insulated from the big evil corporate machine thing.
Obtaining my BSEE was the most significant milestone thus far achieved in my life. I was at my peek and I felt like a member in good standing of the human race again. It was a long road I had walked since having dropped out. Definitely one of the less traveled ones, but at long last I had obtained the credentials to work in my chosen field.
I graduated prior to having secured a position of permanent employment. I have the most dismal job hunting skills. I have not been able to develop them because I find the whole process repugnant. I don't care what your selling, if you're a salesman, you're in the bullshit business, and landing a job is a process of selling yourself (otherwise known as prostitution). When I see the parade of useless idiots that claim to be engineers, I'm embarrassed to count myself amongst them. But I ask you, who is the bigger moron? The guy who claims he can build a satellite uplink from a wrist-watch and a ball-point, or the fool that believes it and hires the ignoramus?
It was therefore while I was afflicted with a growing sense of desperation that I accepted a position in South-East Michigan and the auto industry. I know, I know, I was marching into the belly of the beast. But when I was starting out things weren't nearly as bad as that. I was working for a fairly large company, but I was working for a rogue division far removed from the parent offices. They were gearing up for the main phase of this huge job they were doing for one of the big three automobile manufactures. It was the best of both worlds, loads of big company money available, with none of the big company bureaucracy. It was too good to last of course. Even during the early months we were being warned of impending doom. I distinctly remember one meeting which ran for over three hours into a Friday evening, consisting almost entirely of low level management types reading 'quality' procedures at us. The unmistakable message conveyed by the monotonous droning was; 'Despair oh ye insignificant mortals. Soon the weight of these inappropriate and oppressive laws shall be lowered upon you and your professional lives will be reduced to that of endless form filling, in.' At the end of the meeting we were informed that our management wasn't being compelled to unleash this demon of destruction upon us, but that they decided to do it anyway in the name of 'team spirit' because that's what the geniuses in charge of the rest of the company were doing to it.
Over the next few years, there was significant turnover in personal. We were hemorrhaging from the top, and acquiescing from underneath. In other words we were loosing our best and brightest at a steady rate while hiring a mixed bag of nuts on the cheap. Along the way the whole company was sold to an even bigger, publicly traded, corporation. A few extra layers of management were thrown in for good measure. The big job we were doing wound down, and very little had come along to replace it. What little work we had, was scattered all the way to Mexico. Hoping to avoid the terrors of job hunting, I held out as long as I could. Eventually, insulted and under-compensated, I was forced out.
I wasn't in fact, up to the task of landing a new job and decided I couldn't bring myself to work for anyone. The decision to become an artist may seem, and in most ways is, a complete change in direction from my past life, yet the newness lies in the title and the purpose. The work itself is a natural extension of everything I have been building up to my whole life. So now I'm a starving artist, struggling to combine my abilities into a significant contribution to this life. Just remember, you have to go through pretense to get to profundity. Keeping things up in the air for the next three years is a good milestone to head for. I don't know if I can make it but in many ways the experiment is already a success.
The moral of the story is this:
Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to do their job.
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