Law Thirty-Six

You gotta go with what works

The secret to great comedy

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They say the secret to great comedy is timing. The secret to management is also timing. That’s not to say that management is a joke, although if it is, I think Pulp got it right.

I’ve written previously in warm, nostalgic terms about the first company I worked for, but that’s not to say that every day working there was a delight. It was a small company trying to become a bigger company, learning that practices and procedures that worked when the organisation was just a bunch of mates trying to make a living didn’t scale indefinitely.

The HR handbook was written in Comic Sans and used lots of clipart as visual aids. That was meant to make it accessible, but it also sent a message to the managers as well as the staff about how seriously it was taken.

Dressings down that should probably have been done in a quiet room were sometimes done by email to the whole company.

For example…

The office was networked using a 10Base2 network at the time, in which computers were connected together in a chain. Each PC required its own T-connector to join it to the loop, and a break anywhere on the chain would bring down the network for the whole chain. It was notoriously unreliable, and we were having consistent problems in one part of the building.

I jokingly jumped on the email thread to suggest that this corner of the building was haunted, and was swiftly and publicly rebuked by the Technical Director. He felt there was a risk that some of our newer employees might have believed me.

A different story started at that point in a training course where the instructor says ‘This is an Excel 5 Intermediate course – is that what everyone else here is expecting? If not, raise your hand.’ One of the delegates raised her hand and said that she thought she was coming for a Microsoft Project course, and it turned out she wasn’t joking. The account manager was called, and yes, we had indeed booked this person for an MS Project course but scheduled her onto an Excel course.

I was in the office but not training that day: we used to call that ‘being on the beach’ (if you weren’t out there earning money, you were presumably on the beach relaxing.) I could teach the course, so in about 20 minutes I grabbed two computers and set them up in one of the upstairs offices for an MS Project course. I scribbled out a note and stuck it to the door to say that there was a course in progress since this room had never been used for client-facing meetings before then.

The day went well. The delegate understood that we were going the extra mile to recover from our mistake, and so there was no damage to the client relationship. We were making good progress through the material and even covered some additional topics since we had time. That should have been the story.

It wasn’t.

Part way through the morning, the MD had sent an email to the whole office asking who had put a handwritten note on the door. It should have been laser printed. It wasn’t professional to let a client see a notice like this, and whoever had done this clearly didn’t understand the way we did business. I’m not saying that I lost sleep over this, but it struck me at the time as being unfair.

Two examples did stick with me for a long time, and one of them I think about every time I think about working at this company.

Another day, another course. This one was in our London office. There had been a scheduling issue and at the very last minute, I was asked if I could teach a SQL Server 6.5 Administration course. This was a five-day Microsoft Official Curriculum ‘green binder’ course, back in the days when they came in a green binder and a black Microsoft bag. I had sat in on the course before, had copious notes from that session, taken and passed the exam, but I’d never trained the course.

It was a busy weekend of cramming. This was followed by days that started with the 7 am train from Oxford to London, teaching through the day, back in Oxford by 7 pm and then further cramming until 1 am or 2 am or until fatigue overtook me. It was a crazy lifestyle (I look back in horror at the amount of long distance driving I did on just a few hours sleep), but that was part of what made it fun and exciting.

Mid-week, I got an email from my boss asking for a piece of work to be done. It would take a few hours to put the information together, so I emailed back to say that I wasn’t going to be able to get to it before the weekend because I was doing a ‘first teach’, but I’d get to it as soon as I could. I received a somewhat terse response telling me that I couldn’t just check out of my other responsibilities because I was teaching that week.

On the training side of the organisation, the Managing Director had only recently stepped back from classroom training. All the other directors and managers still taught. And to be fair to my boss, SQL 6.5 Administration was probably no harder to deliver than teaching people how to attach a document to an email. The SQL 6.5 Programming course I attended when he was delivering it was one of my favourite weeks spent working there. It was a masterclass both in terms of technical mastery and training style, and memorable for him telling one of the delegated to ‘f*** off out of my classroom’ in response to a question without causing any offence at all.

But for me, teaching the course was extremely challenging and had to be the only thing I focussed on.

I read this email at about 11 pm during a break in my course prep, and just stopped work. I replied to explain exactly what hours I was working and pointed out that the only time I had left in my day was during the few hours’ sleep I was getting each night, suggested again that I do the work on Saturday, and tried to turn my focus back to SQL Server. That proved difficult, and my mind kept coming back to the email from my boss, and the imagined conversation I would have were he in front of me right then. Most of these imagined conversations ended up with me getting fired for insubordination.

Not only was there a lack of empathy in my manager’s response, but the timing was also wrong. If he felt the need to tell me off over the way I was prioritising my time, it probably needed to be the following week. It really shouldn’t have been in the middle of the course.

One last story on this topic. Like all the others, it’s still in my memory some twenty years after the event, but this one had a lasting impact on me.

The story begins at an IT exhibition in London – one of these big events, probably at Olympia or Earls Court or somewhere similar. I wasn’t there, but our company had a stand set up. And at some stage during the event, one of our sales team had put his laptop down on the stand, turned to talk to someone, and when he turned back, the laptop was gone.

Twenty years ago, laptops were expensive. You couldn’t buy them from the local supermarket – they were premium items and we were spending anything up to £2000 per machine. They were also notoriously hard to insure, and I don’t remember the company successfully claiming on its insurance for any of the laptops we lost.

The MD had obviously had enough of this, and from memory I think the insurance company had also had enough. He sent an email round the company telling everyone that from that point, people would be personally liable for their laptops: if they lost them, they would need to pay the company back. If anyone wasn’t prepared to do that, they didn’t have to have a laptop and should hand it back.

These were the early days of my career, and although we were paid very well for what we did, I didn’t have very much by way of savings.

I liked having a laptop, and I took it everywhere with me. I got great value out of it, and as a result, the company got great value out of me. But if I was going to be personally liable for it, in my mind I needed to do one of two things: either insure it or keep over £1000 set aside as a contingency.

But this wasn’t some game of Monopoly where one of the other players has just put hotels on the dark blue properties, this was real money that I had other plans for.  And looking into the insurance question, it seemed that I couldn’t insure the laptop myself because I didn’t own it.

It was no different in my mind to the company asking me to be jointly liable for the company credit card I carried. As much as I might have understood the reasoning, it wasn’t something I could afford.

So I made moves to give it back, or at least not to take it out of the office.

And then things started to get messy. There were conversations. Well, there were arguments. I kept explaining my point of view and pointing back to the MD’s email and the wording about ‘if you don’t like that, give it back’. But I wasn’t persuading anyone.

If you’re reading this and thinking that I was just being stubborn, not setting a good example to my colleagues, and that I should have just got on with it and made sure I didn’t lose my laptop, you’re probably not alone and you certainly weren’t alone at the time. But an article about how stubborn I can be would be far longer than this one and will have to wait for another day.

It came to a head one Friday afternoon. My boss asked for a meeting to go through some parts of my job description. We went into a meeting room towards the end of the afternoon, and inside was the HR manager and, in its little bag, the laptop. And it was clear that this meeting was going to be about something else.

When they pulled out a copy of my job description, they only looked at one paragraph, which talked about being responsible for the company’s laptops. What it meant was that I was one of the people who got to decide which trainer got which laptop, although in practice I wasn’t the one doing that. They interpreted it as meaning that I needed to have a laptop to do my job, and my contention had been that I didn’t.

There was mention that the MD had had enough of my behaviour, and the HR Manager used the sentence ‘I can’t do anything more to help you.’ It was notable partly because I hadn’t realised she’d been doing anything to help me so far, but it also signalled that they were ready to move from these kinds of discussions towards something more serious.

I had to leave the room either with the laptop in my hand or without it.

I took the laptop.

But this article is supposed to be about timing, not about all the occasions I’ve been told off at work and how unfair that was. So here’s the timing point.

I left work straight after that meeting, went home, stowed my laptop somewhere I hoped would be secure, and packed my suitcase. The following day, I got on a flight to Tokyo for a two week holiday, meeting up with a friend from University who was on the JET programme (and who is now my wife). It was a trip that I’d been looking forward to for several months.

As I drove home that day, I brooded over what I saw as the unfairness of the whole issue. I was angry about the deception in the way the meeting was called. Looking back over 20+ years, both of those things cooled with the passage of time. One thing has not.

What I really resented was that this work issue dominated my thoughts all the way from Oxford to Tokyo – an eleven-hour flight is not ideal for someone who is brooding over something. I didn’t manage to shake off thoughts about work during my two weeks in Japan and would find myself dwelling on this issue in quiet moments throughout the trip. And I was still reliving that final meeting as I flew back from Tokyo to Oxford, not entirely sure that this was the end of the matter and not convinced that I would still have a job when I came back.

Did I think I might get sacked over this? Yeah, I really did.

I understand the manager’s perspective – let’s not wait two weeks while this person is on holiday, let’s deal with it now. My view was that they got the timing completely wrong, and I resented them for that for the rest of my time with the company.

That day, driving home from the office, was the first day I contemplated leaving what seemed to be a dream job and working for one of our competitors. I dusted off my CV as soon as I got back and had a couple of interviews, although I didn’t get anywhere with them. In the end, after a promotion, I decided to stay a while longer before the news that the business owners were trying to sell the training arm of the company scared me into leaving and setting up on my own. But the idea that I wouldn’t retire from this job started on that day.

I kept that laptop more or less until I left the company. As we bought newer, faster laptops, I allocated them to others in the team, slowly edging down the league table of laptop users until I had one of the slowest, least expensive machines in our inventory. If it was an act of defiance, it went completely unnoticed by the company and therefore failed. I prefer to think of it as an attempt to manage my financial exposure. Others will just see it as stubbornness, and they may well be right.

I never did lose the laptop, and although others did lose machines over the years, I don’t think anyone was ever made to reimburse the company for it. As Leo McGarry would ask, what prize did they get for the trouble caused?

Timing is everything in management, just as it is in comedy. But the risk attached to getting your timing wrong is not just a bunch of people not smiling.

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