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our menu options have not changed March 31, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Did I Hear That Right?, Technology Trouble.
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The general outrage over automated telephone systems has abated in the past year or so as people have gotten accustomed to the fact that, no matter what they do, there will never be enough customer service representatives to guarantee timely, adequate service. The current commotion is over “press one for English” or “si habla espanol, oprima el numero ocho”. Once you’ve moved past that point, though, what’s the first thing you hear that isn’t a message of introduction?

90% of the time or more it’s this:

Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed.

CC-licensed photo by Achi Raz.

CC-licensed photo by Achi Raz.

Let me clue you in: they haven’t. You know they haven’t. The company knows that. Maybe the menu options changed at some point in the last two years, but why edit a perfectly good message that might occasionally convince someone to listen to the whole thing instead of repeatedly jamming the pound or zero to get to an actual person.

Sites such as GetHuman help you bypass these automated answerers as quickly as possible — even the really smart ones that recognize your voice — but companies will continue finding ways to force you to listen to the entire message, even if they have to do a long recording reiterating the menu options with no way out after you’ve managed to find the “talk to a human” key combination.

I personally use the pound key more often than the zero, but I guess it’s down to personal preference. When I called my insurance company today, it only took two pounds to get to a nice musical recording and a pleasant voice that said “we are experiencing higher-than-normal call volume”.

Oh, and that’s another one that I got today:

We are experiencing higher-than-normal call volume. Did you know that you can access our full-featured website at bighonkinginsurancecompany.com and get your questions answered, find a physician, pre-certify medical procedures, and generally waste your time figuring out that your specific question isn’t addressed anywhere on this site? Just go to bighonkinginsurancecompany.com! Or, stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order it was received.

Would’ve been a lot more convincing if the message hadn’t cut off after the word “questions” — I’ve heard a lot of these recordings, which is how I extrapolated the rest of it — and allowed me to talk to an actual (very helpful and friendly) human being.

I vaguely remember, back when GetHuman first started — though I haven’t found anything about this on their website — some noises being made about a standard for automated telephone systems where every insurance company would use 1 for claims, 2 for physicians, 3 for billing, etc; every retailer would use 1 for product inquiries, 2 for tech support, 3 for locations and open/close times; and everyone would use the exact same button to find a human. Of course, that last one would completely defeat the purpose of having a phone system, but theoretically if you could go to GetHuman’s website, click “insurance company”, and get the buttons you must press to reach a person in Worker’s Compensation Unpaid Claims instead of having to re-explain yourself to three or four different people in different departments, I for one would be quite pleased.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep changing my menu options.

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guessing games March 30, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Management.
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CC-licensed photo by Rich Anderson

CC-licensed photo by Rich Anderson

The most famous guessing game at CorporateSpeak happened in early January 2007. I had just rolled out a complete rebuild of our website and there was one feature that the Big Boss was very enthused about, but was not thrilled by the name we gave it. He asked us to come up with a new name. We did, and we submitted it to him.

He said no, and told us to try again.

We tried. We submitted. We were denied.

Three more times this happened until he finally hauled my boss up to his office and said “this is what I want”.

It was, I kid you not, a one-word change from what we originally had before all the changes.

So why couldn’t he just tell us?

Anyway, just a couple of weeks ago, despite knowing how annoying it is when people do it to him, my boss made me play a guessing game. He said “I want some sort of differentiation between the left two columns and the right rail of this microsite.”

Took me three tries to get it right. Of course, had he just come out and told me “make the color substantially lighter”, I would’ve had the change made in about a minute, instead of going back and forth for an hour.

When the good parts of a project are besmirched by nitpicking back and forth, it sullies the good feeling you get from doing a great job. And that causes problems with the already-fragile morale that exists across pretty much all of corporate America. Managers, don’t make your employees play guessing games. It hurts everyone.

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when the big boss calls just before quitting time March 27, 2009

Posted by That Guy in A Very Corporate Something, Did I Hear That Right?, Experiences.
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The problem with working on a team that services every other department in the building is when you have conversations like this:

It’s 5:10. I’m scheduled to leave at 6:00. The phone rings. I glance at the caller ID and note the extension number with a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Me: Hello.
Big Boss: Hi, That Guy.
Me: Hey, Big Boss.
Big Boss: So you’re going to stay until the Marketing Department’s crisis is over, right?
Me: *two-second pause* Sure, I guess so.
Big Boss: *airily* Great. Thanks. *click*

This happened a few weeks ago, and I ended up staying until 9:30pm and getting back the next day by 8am (which meant fighting almost a full hour of traffic and skipping my daily trip to the gym). And what did I do? The online equivalent of mailing brochures to people.

Never mind the fact that there was another guy in my department who was scheduled to be here at that time — and got conscripted into helping marketing too. Never mind the fact that I don’t work for marketing. Never mind the fact that I get to work almost 45 minutes early every day, which meant I’d already been at work for almost ten hours. Never mind the fact that I’m on salary and don’t get overtime, so if I had a part-time job or freelance gig, I’d be losing out on that work because you don’t tell your primary boss that you have to leave to go to your other job when there’s a crisis.

No, when the Big Boss calls, you do what he* says. And if you’re lucky, someone will order pizza and you won’t have to pay for it. That plus a thank-you is all you get, because you’ve already screwed up too many times for it to count in your favor when it’s yearly review time.

Y’know what I would’ve appreciated? For him to ask me. For him to say, “hey, That Guy, Marketing’s having a crisis. Can you stay until it’s over and help them out?” At least then it sounds like I have a choice in the matter, even if we both know I don’t.

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* He knows I have kids. If the Big Boss was a woman — and I admit this is a little sexist, but it’s happened to me before — and you said “I have to get home to my kids”, odds are good you’d be allowed to leave. Instead, I missed seeing my family that night and had to leave so early to go to work the next day that I didn’t see them in the morning either. Welcome to the corporate world!

That Guy’s Tips for Corporate Success, #16 March 26, 2009

Posted by That Guy in A Very Corporate Something, Tips for Corporate Success.
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No one watches company rah-rah videos on the intranet no matter how much you want them to. Not even when they offer a prize.

Your company just laid off 10 percent of its workforce. You got a memo saying you’ll have to take a furlough. You’re being asked to take on more work. No one else in the office believes accountability is important in any way. All of these things happen over the course of two days — following what I’m tentatively calling the General Theory of Shit Happening*. And just when you think the deluge is over, you get this:

Dear Colleagues,

The CorporateSpeak Nationwide Employee Awards Ceremony is scheduled for April 1**. You can view it by logging onto our intranet site, http://corporatespeak.intranet. It begins at about 4:00 Eastern. Here are the nominees***:

Outstanding Innovation In The Face Of Increased Workload With No Additional Help: Chuck Bartowski, Burbank; John Casey, Sacramento; Sarah Walker, Portland; Bryce Larkin, Spokane-Coeur d’Alene.

Best Manager: Aaron Hotchner, Denver; David Rossi, Austin; Emily Prentiss, Albuquerque; Penelope Garcia, Computer Services, West Division.

Diversity Award: Neela Rasghotra, Chicago; Greg Pratt, Detroit; Catherine Banfield, Indianapolis; Archie Morris, Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Unsung Hero: Colby Granger, Birmingham; David Sinclair, Tupelo; Amita Ramanujan, Slidell; Larry Fleinhardt, Greensboro.

Corporate Employee of the Year: Simon Cowell, Human Resources; Paula Abdul, Public Relations; Randy Jackson, Legal; Ryan Seacrest, Marketing.

We look forward to seeing you online!

No one from my division of CorporateSpeak is on that list. Why should I bother showing up? Why should I care, when my co-workers are being fired and my department is being halved in staff but quadrupled in work? Why should anyone?

With the sheer amount of work people have to do these days, the odds of anyone just “showing up” to an online meeting — audiocast, videocast, or interactive session — without being ordered to do so or without having a vested interest… let’s just say they approach infinity-to-one. Hell, at CorporateSpeak, we have weekly online meetings about a piece of software I use every day and I’ve not attended a single one. I have too much other work to do.

If I don’t have the time to show up for something that might actually benefit me, I won’t even entertain the idea of going to a corporate rah-rah webinar. Who in their right mind would?

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* I suppose the Specific Theory would be when the shit only happens to you.

** Where I really work, they were smart enough not to pull that one.

*** Even my creativity runs out on occasion. Hence the use of characters from popular TV shows.

on the dangers of being a generalist March 25, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Economic Downturn, Management, Observations.
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I have, for my entire working life, been something of a generalist. That is, I can do a lot of things well, but am an expert at few (if any) that can actually help me in my current career.

When the economy was better, people branched out and learned the basics of more and more skills so they could say to potential employers things like, “sure, I can work in your PR department, but I can also post things to your website and take pictures when you do events.” It became a contest to see just how much value companies could get for a single employee.

In a way, it still is. But now companies don’t want a team of generalists. They don’t want to have to pay five people to do five jobs as a group when they can pay two people — one to do four relatively easy jobs that nonetheless have a high degree of specificity, and the other to be an expert at something really complicated, like network engineering. One by one, the generalists get eliminated, and they find out very quickly that no one is hiring people with their skill set.

This worries me.

I personally am good at a lot of things that are done at CorporateSpeak, many of which are not in my job description but that I’ve taken the time to learn about anyway. However, I’ve started narrowing my focus and being somewhat less-helpful to other departments — not because I dislike people in them (though that is sometimes the case) but because I need to devote myself more to my primary task (that is, making pretty things on the internet). I need upper management to realize that, though I may have been hired as something of a generalist, they’re in a position now where releasing me would mean they don’t have a web designer anymore.

Though the way our corporate online department is going, that may happen eventually anyway.

But it’s worse for managers. Managers by their very nature are generalists — they have to know how to do everyone’s job and they have to be able (and willing) to step in as needed. If the manager can’t do the job better than the employees, then the manager isn’t worthy of being a manager*. So while the manager of (for example) the preproduction department needs to know how to look at artist renderings and layouts and decide what’s good and what’s not, that manager ultimately reports to a marketing director who reports to a Big Boss, who has final say anyway.

Companies have begun cutting out the middleman (or middlewoman). They fire the preproduction manager, and the artists and designers begin reporting to the marketing director. The preproduction manager, who once upon a time developed some pretty great layouts for advertisements and product packaging, suddenly finds him- or herself in a world where no one needs a preproduction manager. To join a new preproduction department, s/he will need to take a sizeable pay cut… that is, if s/he even has anything new to show off in a portfolio.

There’s no way to win. You become a generalist to stay competitive, but you find yourself lost among the specialists when your generalist job disappears. The only way to even attempt to keep up is to give up your free time and spend it learning something, becoming an expert at something somehow tangentially-related to your job so that when you say “I’m an expert with Quark Xpress” and the interviewer says “show me something you made with it that helped your last job”, you aren’t left trying to explain that you learned it on your own. No matter what anyone tells you, interviewers look down upon skills you developed but haven’t proven in a business environment.

So what do you do? Do you stay a generalist, get your fingers into as many pies as possible, and hope they can’t fire you? Or do you become a specialist and jump from job to job until you’re forced to become a generalist again and restart the entire process?

There is no way to win.

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* The exception is with managers of technical and engineering-type folks. The head of IT may not know how to rewire an entire building, but the engineers who work for him/her are experts at it. Unlike retail or corporate management, technical management involves so many changing technologies that if the managers need to keep track of every single development, they’d never get any managing done. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

Image of Kirstie Alley and William Shatner courtesy the Star Trek Magazine.

don’t be surprised March 24, 2009

Posted by That Guy in A Stunning Example of Synergy, Pictures, Seen Elsewhere.
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This is becoming much less common with the epidemic of downsizing these days, but if you look hard enough, it’ll happen.

just not the way you do it March 24, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Meta, Pictures, Seen Elsewhere.
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Keep this in mind when you’re doing your job in a way that the company doesn’t approve of.


An administrative note: as of today, whenever I post a picture or comic with a one-paragraph remark, I will post a second time later in the day with another similarly-short post. That way, you won’t feel cheated (if you’ve been feeling cheated, that is). It’ll show up at 4:00.

furloughs: volunteers and high salaries March 23, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Economic Downturn, Management, Observations, Seen Elsewhere.
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The Wall Street Journal published a piece last week on the politics of volunteering for a furlough. I’ve written about furloughs a bit, as has the WordPress community, but in much of what’s written, employees are being forced to take the unpaid furloughs and their only choice — if any — is when.

Some companies apparently are making furloughs voluntary, and that’s all well and good. And in some cases, by taking a furlough you can make it abundantly clear to management just how important you are to the operation. Just be careful of the reverse:

“In this job market the last thing you want is for people to think they can do without you,” says Marie McIntyre, an organizational psychologist in Atlanta and author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.” If you seem eager to take much time off “you may be viewed as expendable.”

One of the most difficult parts of reading articles about furloughs, though, isn’t the increasing number of them being required. It’s seeing the amount of money managers are losing:

University of New Mexico President David Schmidly sparked a controversy when he announced the voluntary program, which is set to begin in July. Numerous letters appeared in the campus newspaper protesting the program as unfair to average workers, and calling on senior administrators to shoulder more of the cutbacks. Mr. Schmidly himself plans to take 15 days off, forfeiting nearly 6% of his pay, or roughly $20,000, according to a university spokeswoman.

Let’s do a little simple math. If 20000=0.06x, then Mr. Schmidly makes about $333,000 a year. To someone who makes that much money, $20,000 isn’t very much. But to someone who makes $50,000 a year, six percent is $3000. Car payments for a year are often about $3600; mortgage payments are $1000 a month or more. We’ve all gone into debt during the boom years, and now it’s coming back to bite us as the recession settles in for the long haul. But what’s worse is that we’ve become accustomed to a certain type of lifestyle and are unwilling to give it up even if we lose a significant chunk of money due to furloughs.

The WSJ article warns employees to make sure their managers are taking furloughs too, and for the most part, you’ll find that they are. Here at CorporateSpeak, everyone from the CEO on down has taken a furlough week. But when the CEO makes more money in a month than you’ll make in a year, he or she won’t even notice. It’ll just be an extra week’s worth of vacation — one where the company cannot contact you by its own policies*, so you may find it even more relaxing than the usual kind.

My Big Boss took his furlough the same week as me — just a coincidence. He’s pulling down about a million a year. He’s not the kind of guy to flaunt his money or spend frivolously — he drives an early-2000s vehicle and his suits look about the same as the kind I might buy at the store — but he’s not going to miss his six percent loss nearly as much as I am. And that’s just one thing that frustrates people about furloughs: it’s not always about the money we lose, or the time we lose; it’s the money our bosses don’t.

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* That’s the policy at CorporateSpeak. Your mileage may vary.

dangerous phrases March 20, 2009

Posted by That Guy in A Very Corporate Something, Management, Observations, Seen Elsewhere.
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The extremely-insightful Clay Shirky has made a tsunami’s worth of waves on the internet over the past week or so with Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, which basically says, in unflinching terms, that newspapers (and the news industry as a whole) are clinging to the outdated model instead of embracing the internet age and truly engaging in multiplatform journalism. I’m friends with a lot of journalists (I spent several years in the news industry myself), so I’ve heard this from both ends. The younger folks think Shirky’s right on the money (and I happen to agree with them), but they fume at the powerlessness they feel because their managers are, for the most part, stuck in the old paradigm.

I suppose I understand the point the managers (and their managers) are making, which is, “if we try something new and fail, then we’ve wasted money and time with no tangible results.” They forget what those of us with backgrounds in science or research learned long ago: a negative result is still a result.

Anyway, all of this was inspired by this quote from the late Grace Hopper, called a “computer science babe” by the oft-NSFW-but-not-in-this-case Synthetic Pubes:

The most dangerous phrase in our language is ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

I’ve just printed that out and put it up on my desk in large print.

don’t forget the most important part March 20, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Lessons Learned, Pictures, Seen Elsewhere.
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People spend so long preparing for their job interviews that they often forget the most crucial part, so wonderfully illustrated in this episode of Wondermark: