Staff Meeting

The announcement of a staff meeting in our office is always an unexpected diversion. Deadlines may prevent any gathering for up to half a year, only to overcorrect this lack of communication with a frenzy of weekly meetings that leave us exhausted and incommunicative. The pattern is oddly similar to my wife’s estrogen cycle before she had children. Both ought to have occurred monthly but did not. Both vanished without a trace with the application of sufficient environmental stress. Both were unpleasant facts of life, but accepted in the natural order of the world. When they appeared, we cheered the break from the mounting tedium, and when they were over, we cheered even louder. And they have one other thing inexplicably in common: after my vasectomy, I stopped fretting about them.

Yesterday’s staff meeting arrived with no warning at all, though I should confess that the fault may have been my own inattention. I received a message in our company chat room informing everyone that the sales team was meeting at 1:00 PM. Forty-five minutes later, I received a personal IM message politely inquiring when I was going to join. As a computer programmer, I am usually not considered part of the sales team, but I dialed in anyway.

We gathered in the meeting room in Seattle, a speaker phone as my proxy. We are a friendly cohort in general, but there was an additional comradery. We had not met as a company for several months, scourged and repressed by two very large and late projects which had superceded our virtual conversations around the water cooler.

They were now complete, after a fashion. Our projects are never truly complete, but they do get delivered, or at least, they sit on our network disks in a deliverable format until the client remembers they want them. If that sounds odd, consider that there are usually three clients involved in the process.

The first person is someone from the Business Office who really doesn’t understand software, who is blissfully ignorant of the technical details, but who is responsible for providing the purchase order. In theory, we are not obliged to start a project without a PO. The PO is the client’s written promise to pay us when we deliver. Thus it makes no sense to deliver, or even begin construction, until we have a PO in hand. In theory, we could complete an entire software project, deliver and install it, and send someone from our office to sit in one their cubicles and run it for them (and we have done all these things at times), and still the client wouldn’t have to pay us unless we got the PO. So when we are especially busy, not having a PO would certainly offer a good excuse for delaying a project, which in theory would be awfully convenient at times, and very legally, though perhaps not strictly (ahem) ethical. So much for theory. The reality is that they PO is always late, sometimes months late, sometimes even years late, and often the best way to get the PO delivered is to call the business office and tell them that the project is done, sitting in our mail room, gathering dust and (worse yet) growing obsolete.

The second person involved is someone from the Information Technology Department. This person is responsible for installing and running the code. This person is usually the overworked, underpaid guru of the organization, though just as often they are a hapless and incompetent victim of the Peter Principle. In either case, once the code is delivered to them, it will sit on their desk until they have time to install it. The amount of time varies enormously.

The third person is a middle manager who ordered the project in the first place. This person is the only one who cares, who wanted the code yesterday, who calls every week or every day to see how the project is coming along, who name appears on our caller ID more and more frequently as deadline approaches. They are usually the person who can motivate the other two people to action once the code is deliverable.

So at the beginning of our staff meeting, there were two such projects, one delivered and one deliverable, and life was sweet. The conversation around the table bubbled. Not a single person had a monkey on their back. Those clients whose every whim must be catered and who sadistically provide our provender, they now had the monkeys on their backs, those capricious and obnoxious project monkeys, fond of throwing their excrement about as monkeys will do.

Our meetings are usually round-robin presentations. Our boss then summarizes and brings up topics germaine to the company as a whole. There were two new employees, swelling our ranks by 25%, so that the meeting ended up taking more time than usual. My proxy phone huddled in the corner, occasionally making a noise of consent in chorus with the others, or even an obnoxious buzz whenever a client called for help cleaning monkey excrement, but otherwise remaining quiet and unobtrusive. By dint of which, I successfully avoided my turn and shaved perhaps five minutes off the meeting.

Then our boss did something uncommon. He gave us an overview of the current financial sector melt down as he saw it, what he thought would happen in the future, both to the world as a whole and to our company in particular. He had studied this sort of thing in school and followed it diligently in the papers. He used a word – “engaging” or “fascinating” or such – that conveyed his enthusiasm for the the topic without appearing callous at the suffering of million of homeless innocents. He reminded us that the company had been through tough times before with 9-11 and the dotcom bust, and he thought we would weather this storm too. In the past, we had become Hoovermatics, sucking up every crumb of project work available and getting any dime a customer might have to spend before someone else got it, because there wasn’t likely to be a second dime. It wasn’t to that point now, though clearly he thought the situation would worsen before improving. Even if it did get that bad, he didn’t anticipate any lay offs.

Then he solicited general comments. There are two MBAs on staff with a third on the way, and several intelligent, childless employees who have time to read the New York Times through page C34 every day. They all had opinions. This was before the election, and some mentioned the problems that would face the Next president, whomever that might be. Others mentioned quieter events in the world that indicated the magnitude of the problem more than the front page articles. Ten minutes later we still dissecting the corpse of the American financial establishment, when my boss said, “Harry, are you still there?”

I stopped trimming my fingernails.

“I sure am.”

“Have you any comments to offer?”

“Umm. Not really. Except to say, that I’m glad I sold my house when I did, which was about two months before the bottom fell out, and glad I moved to a place with one of the cheapest costs of living in the US.”

There was an uncomfortable silence on the phone, and I realized that at least one person in the room had recently bought a house which was already worth tens of thousands of dollars less than what he paid for it. I bit my lip, which was a neat trick with my foot in my mouth, but of course you can’t see that on a conference phone.

“Yes,” said my boss. “You know, I really need to consult with you about business decisions more often.”