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let’s just do it ourselves August 21, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Big Boss, Did I Hear That Right?, Management, Technology Trouble.
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This was going to be a post about cargo cults and social networking, but a friend of mine recently told me about something her company did that put the average company’s cargo culting to shame.

Celia is a graphic designer for a web marketing company. You’ve probably seen her work in some of those silly Flash games showing up in banner ads when you check your e-mail or visit popular websites. Anyway, Celia was part of a series of meetings where various companies pitched their services in building iPhone apps out of their more-popular games. It would have been Celia’s job to make sure the art was available to these third-party vendors.

Celia told me her boss went back and forth with their Big Boss several times over the cost of doing business with the vendors — not that it would’ve cost a ton of money, but in this economic climate no one wants to spend cash if they don’t have to. Celia’s boss got to the point where a contract was drawn up and vetted by both legal departments… and then her Big Boss said “let’s just do it ourselves.”

One of Celia’s co-workers is named Larry. Larry is a Flash developer; he takes the art Celia makes and puts it into the games. Larry knows Flash and ActionScript, and a little PHP, but he’s not an expert with the iPhone SDK or the programming language that the iPhone is built upon. Still, the Big Boss said Larry could do it, so Larry had to teach himself the SDK (of course there was no training budget). Celia helped as much as she could, but she’s an artist, not a programmer. And none of the web guys at Celia’s office knew how to do it either. Larry seriously considered hiring an iPhone developer to do it for him, but he couldn’t afford it.

Two weeks later, Larry had his first iPhone app ready to go. It was a very simple side-scrolling shooter based upon a Flash game he’d coded for the company. Celia sent me a copy.

CC-licensed photo by William Hook, remixed by That Guy

CC-licensed photo by William Hook, remixed by That Guy

It was awful. The controls weren’t good, the graphics weren’t good, the game was slow to load and clunky to play, and it didn’t have the slick look that the iPhone is so capable of presenting to users. I can’t see how anyone would pay $1.99 for this app — that’s what the Big Boss wanted to charge for it, so that’s how much the company was going to charge.

I feel really bad for Celia, Larry, and their company. Celia, because she has to work at a company that will cut corners this way; Larry, because his first iPhone app is so bad — I’ve seen Larry’s Flash work and it’s frankly amazing; and the company, because they’re going to have their name attached to an absolutely atrocious piece of software.

Let this be a lesson that no company will heed: there are some things you just have to pay for because doing it yourself will make it look like ass. You don’t necessarily have to spend a ton of money, but sometimes you do have to spend it to make it. Given the size of the iPhone’s user footprint and the sheer visibility of everything iPhone, that’s one place where you should pay someone else to make sure you do it right.

Hopefully Celia’s Big Boss learned his lesson. Doubt it, though; Big Bosses never do.

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Big Boss Week 5: Joking with the Big Boss June 5, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Big Boss.
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Today marks the end of Big Boss Week.

Photo by Tom Godber

Photo by Tom Godber

I have one simple rule for joking with the Big Boss: don’t.

Look, I get it. I’ve been a boss. Bosses like to be both approachable and respected, with a touch of fear thrown in. Some of them stay in their ivory tower and only come down when you screw up; some of them walk among the commoners. Some of them inject themselves into meetings just to show willing; some of them actually get their hands dirty.

But no matter how many times you work with the Big Boss, no matter how many times he makes a humorous comment, no matter how he tries to get you to joke back… don’t. Don’t go down that road. Sure, it’s possible you’ll achieve success and make a friend, but more than likely you’ll end up saying something that will get you put into a doghouse from which you won’t ever escape.

Be polite. Be respectful. Laugh at his jokes. But don’t make any of your own. Trust me.

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Big Boss Week 4: Getting Away from the Big Boss June 4, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Big Boss.
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Part 4 of “Big Boss Week” on CorporateSpeak.

As I said yesterday, the current chain of command at my office is Me ==> Big Boss. While I’m still technically working for every department in one capacity or another, my only official direct supervisor is the Big Boss. Think of me as the mouth, the webmaster as the stomach, and the Big Boss as the intestines. CorporateSpeak just did a gastric bypass and laid off my boss.

gastric-bypass-diagramGraphic, I know, but it was too good an analogy to leave out.

I’ve got two vacations coming up. They’ll be the first ones I’ve taken since the axe fell. Both were approved before the layoffs, and the Two-Year-Old has assured me that all vacations approved for the year before my boss got laid off will be honored. I appreciate that.

But what happens when I’m out of here and there’s no one to do web design or development? The company announced their solution to the lack of webmasters, but it’s not in place yet. What happens if there’s a last-minute client (as often happens) who needs something built in two days? Who’s going to do that? There are no web guys (or girls) left in my entire division. In fact, the only other person even somewhat competent at web development will be on his furlough at the same time I’ll be on my vacation.

Oh, and I won’t have my work laptop, either. Well, I call it that, but it’s really just the old laptop I use to VPN in when I have to work from home because my real computer has 64-bit Vista, which is (naturally) not compatible with our VPN. What will the Big Boss expect me to do? Just walk someone through designing a webpage, step by step?

Actually, I think the Two-Year-Old probably thinks I can do that. In fact, I probably can. Don’t tell anyone.

When you work directly for the Big Boss, you’re never off-call. You always have to have your phone, and you always have to answer it because if you don’t you might just be the next head on the block. Most of the time I can troubleshoot and make changes over the phone or, at the very least, stick a bandage over the gaping wound someone’s left on the web. I do it every other weekend, it seems. But when I’m on vacation, out of the state, with my family, at a water park, what do you think the odds will be of me wrapping my iPhone in waterproof plastic and wearing it on a string around my neck as I take one of my kids down the 21st-century equivalent of a log flume?

Do people even call it a “log flume” anymore?

Yeah. I guess I’ll have to find a way. Because when you work for the Big Boss, you don’t get away.

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Note: I realize I haven’t talked about the layoffs much until now, but there are some posts I’ve got coming up next week that address it in full. I happened to schedule “Big Boss Week” before the layoffs happened, so that’s why those posts come up later. Bear with me.

Big Boss Week 3: Working for the Big Boss June 3, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Big Boss, Economic Downturn, Experiences.
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Part 3 of “Big Boss Week” on CorporateSpeak.

One of the easiest places for companies to make cuts is in middle management. Who needs a preproduction manager when your four preproduction specialists can report to the production manager? Who needs a local operations manager when everyone can just report to the district operations supervisor? Who needs a webmaster when the site is pretty much handled by the director of content development and the webmaster is just a figurehead toward the end*?

I work in a cubicle. No one knows who for, or where. I like it that way. (Photo by Tim Patterson)

I work in a cubicle. No one knows who for, or where. I like it that way. (Photo by Tim Patterson)

With big legacy departments like production, sales, and IT, multiple layers of management exist because the departments have been around long enough to amass middle management — usually people who get good at their jobs and get promotions because it’s cheaper than giving them bigger raises. But when it comes to new departments like web development**, there’s often just the peons, the webmaster, and the Big Boss. It probably started with someone in the art department hiring a web designer, and when the web suddenly became more important than anyone expected, that designer got promoted, got his or her own staff, and reported directly to the Big Boss so the Big Boss could demonstrate how important the web was to the company***.

But because no one really understands the web except “those techie guys who fix my computer when I download viruses from Napster”, no one bothers to build layers of management. It remains the peons, the webmaster, and the Big Boss.

Then the webmaster gets laid off, and the web department is slashed to just one person… who has no idea who his boss is****. I mean, sure, the Big Boss is the boss, and that’s the name on the checks, but who do I go to for all the administrative stuff my boss used to do? Who keeps track of my vacation days? Who schedules people to cover for me? Who do I talk to when I have a problem? Certainly not the Big Boss; the reason the Big Boss has the big office upstairs is to remain insulated from peons like me.

The hardest part of working directly for the Big Boss is answering questions like the ones in the previous paragraph. Often when a big company drops the axe, they don’t think about how it’s going to affect anything other than the bottom line. They leave it to the individual offices to figure that stuff out.

My office still hasn’t figured it out. I currently work directly for the Big Boss. Pretty much that only means two things:

  1. Don’t draw attention. The last thing I want is for the Big Boss to notice me. I just need to keep my head down, complete whatever projects are assigned to me, and not screw up.
  2. Don’t ask questions. If I ask too many questions about who I work for, odds are good I’ll get an answer I don’t like. Right now I just sit at my desk in the cubicle farm just off the production floor. I keep doing my job, and the checks keep coming in. Why buck the trend?

Of course, as you’ll see in tomorrow’s post, sometimes the Big Boss finds you.

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* I’m not bitter about how my boss has been treated by others in the company. No. Not at all.

** Which I’m writing about because it’s what I know, being a web developer/designer. But I’m sure you’ll still benefit from the example.

*** Often actually refusing to spend money or make forays out into new technologies like social networking until it’s too late. As That Guy said in the 1980s episode of “Futurama”, “it’s all… about… appearances.”

**** Yes, this has happened to me.

Big Boss Week 2: Correcting the Big Boss June 2, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Big Boss, Management.
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Part 2 of “Big Boss Week” on CorporateSpeak.

Today’s tip for Big Boss Week comes from Top Cultured’s list of ten preventable professional mistakes: don’t correct the Big Boss.

I touched on this yesterday — being careful to e-mail your big boss so as not to say it’s his fault. Well, Top Cultured says:

Correcting your boss will rarely endear you to that person. If he or she made a mistake, try to correct it in as low-profile a way as possible. Perhaps you can talk to your boss during a break? However, you may (and should) publicly correct the boss when the boss in wrong about being wrong. In that limited circumstance, public correction is okay.

Don't even try to correct this guy. (Photo by Alistair Rickman)

Don't even try to correct this guy. (Photo by Alistair Rickman)

Okay, here’s the problems with that statement when it comes to the Big Boss:

  1. You never, ever want to draw the Big Boss’s attention to you — whether you’re doing a good job or a bad job, if you attract the Big Boss’s attention, that can only spell trouble.
  2. The Big Boss is always on his cell phone during breaks. Woe betide the person who interrupts.
  3. Don’t correct the Big Boss when he’s wrong about being wrong. That contradicts #1, and anyway, there’s bound to be a suck-up who’ll do it for you.

There is, of course, a drawback to this whole thing: when the Big Boss is wrong and it’s going to mean hardship for everyone.

My boss is on the executive committee here at CorporateSpeak, so the chain of command goes Me –> My Boss –> Big Boss. My boss can tell the Big Boss he’s wrong… but he’s just as afraid to as everyone else. Even the most powerful members of the executive committee walk on eggshells around the Big Boss. The Two-Year-Old even steps carefully when he says something. That’s a separate problem — when no one stands up to the Big Boss, there’s no checks and balances.

Anyway, tangent.

When the Big Boss runs rampant with his power and doesn’t realize it, he makes unreasonable demands and forces the employees to find work-arounds with scotch-tape and pretty pictures in hope that he doesn’t scratch the surface and discover the lead beneath the gold paint.

Mixed metaphors, but you get the idea.

When the Big Boss is wrong, everyone’s screwed. That’s pretty much what I’m saying here.

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Big Boss Week 1: E-mailing the Big Boss June 1, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Big Boss, Management, Technology Trouble.
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This week is “Big Boss Week”, where I’ll present five days of useful tips for dealing with the Big Boss.

When it’s raining on your boss, it can sometimes be difficult to convince him that the problem is with his computer, not with yours. This happened to me recently.

Here’s the situation: we were running a live webcast on one of our sites. I had nothing to do with this webcast, but even though the Two-Year-Old — with the Big Boss’s blessing, no less — had slashed my department in half and taken away content management duties, it’s still my jot to troubleshoot.

If your Big Boss's IE is still in version 6, you might as well give up on getting any work done.

If your Big Boss's IE is still in version 6, you might as well give up on getting any work done.

So I troubleshooted — or is that “troubleshot” — in the simplest way possible: I opened the webcast on a computer that was not the Big Boss’s — which of course he could have done by calling his secretary and asking her to do, but that would have been more complicated* than just calling me. I told him I was viewing the webcast just fine.

Now, I’m not an IT guy, and I don’t know a whole lot about troubleshooting computer issues**, so I told him I would check a few more computers just to make sure and get back to him. The webcast was fine on all those computers too.

So I composed an e-mail to the Big Boss. But I didn’t hit send.

Because I had to think.

This is the first e-mail I composed:

I have checked the webcast on four computers and it has appeared on all of them. If exiting Internet Explorer and restarting it does not fix the problem, then you may need to contact Bob and ask him to figure out why your computer is experiencing difficulties.

What did I do wrong?

  1. Blaming the Big Boss: It’s never the fault of the person who signs your paycheck no matter how badly s/he screws up. In this case, it’s not the Big Boss’s fault, but I can’t very well blame him or his computer.
  2. Telling the Big Boss to Do Something: Never tell your boss to do something via e-mail. You can’t adopt the properly-servile tone of “pathetic underling” when you’re just sending words.
  3. Implying You Don’t Understand: Sure, you can tell the Big Boss you don’t know how to do something, but that’s not something you put down in recordable form. By saying someone else has to figure it out, you’re saying you can’t figure it out.

And so, this is what I came up with:

I have checked the webcast on four computers and it has appeared on all of them. If exiting Internet Explorer and restarting it does not fix the problem, then Bob or another IT person may need to check the computer and see why it is not displaying the stream.

I haven’t heard anything further, so I can only guess that the Big Boss made this someone else’s problem. And really that’s the goal of sending an e-mail to someone trying to make something into your problem: make that person shift the blame to someone else.

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* Because the Big Boss’s secretary at every company is completely incapable of using any technology beyond the phone, e-mail, and paging system. Nevertheless she (it’s almost always a woman) ends up on every committee and takes on a ton of responsibilities that all end up falling to someone else.

** Around here, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.