In the job


I’m now 2 weeks into the new job and I remember now what it’s like.

When you’re a supplicant for a role you imagine all the hurdles you must clear to gain the role. In your mind you expect they are terribly professional and competent and to do well you must be at your very best. It’s wise to presume, but in my experience it’s very rarely the case.

When I think of the places I’ve worked I struggle to remember one that has been entirely competent. Most places have one or two areas of the business at which they excel, led by switched on management and staffed by nimble professionals. Other places have some semblance of that throughout, though perhaps stultified in part. Some places are just a mess from top to bottom.

I’ve moved into my new role and been made to contend with the same old frustrations. I try to get information and can’t, trying one person after another. I send emails that don’t get answered. Dealing with bureaucratic process a request that might take 5 minutes to resolve I’m told won’t be looked at for 3 weeks. And the work itself often seems random and unconsidered.

I’m not good in those situations. I become frustrated, both practically and philosophically. I can’t get my work done properly, and at the same time wonder how such a situation can be tolerated. I shake my head searching for the person responsible for a process, a function, an application, and no-one putting their hand up. And the discourtesy of people ignoring my emails grates on me, though it doesn’t surprise me altogether either. I’m old school enough to think it unacceptable behaviour, no matter who you are, and I take note for future reference those who ignore me.

All the while I’m attempting to do my job, pushing hard and agitating, asking questions and shouldering my way in. I’ve forced responses from people by scheduling meeting requests they must respond to, and at other times walking over to them at their desk. Progress is made, but not as surely or as swiftly as I would like. I’ve had no support from above.

For the most part any doubts I had coming into the role about my suitability have been dispelled. I was always confident, but until you’re in the seat can’t be sure – and anyway, this might be the place where you must excel just to get by. It isn’t though.

By and large I feel more professional and switched on. It’s become evident to me that at least I have experience in something which others have been appointed to without. There are very clever people, but the general operational process is messy, confused, and bureaucratic, and without an overarching strategy.

There are exceptions to that. Two of the people I’m dealing with are very competent, even if one is an unreliable communicator. Theirs are the functions that seem to excel because they have the knowledge, and the confidence that goes with it. I was in a meeting with one of them during the week, a very switched on and attractive woman in her early thirties. It was all at her fingertips, not just the details, but the permutations of those details. That’s what I want, but I felt a little abashed trying to come to grips with something I knew little about.

While I’m busy doing my work my mind is ticking over and I think of how much better things might be done, and occasionally I’ll make a note. That’s what my sweet spot. At the same time I find myself wondering at the function I’m working in: Continuous Improvement. It sounds fine and right up my alley, but I’m not sure that’s actually what I’m doing. I believe the function of continuous improvement is proactive, identifying issues and opportunities, assessing options, and designing solutions. I believe it should be approached in a holistic sense, knowing that everything is connected.

It seems to me the function I’m a part of is entirely reactive, boiling down to service delivery. I may be harsh, and after 2 weeks there’s a lot I’ve still to learn. And given my manager has been absent most of those 2 weeks still much I haven’t been advised off. It’s a conversation I’ll have in the coming weeks.

After such a long break from it it should be strange returning to a job of this nature, but it isn’t. It’s like something I’ve always known and I slip back into it. More surprising maybe is that I seem unchanged. After all that’s happened I might have expected some hesitancy. Except that it’s not really surprising. I’ve probably changed profoundly in some ways internally, but I still react the same way. I’m still brazen and confident. If anything I feel re-validated. If anything is lacking it’s that hard rock of inner conviction.

For years and years I had that bulletproof conviction and it was resounding. It was not something I needed to question, it just was. Of course since then there have been endless occasions when I’ve had to question that, and much else. That’s not a bad thing. What was automatic before is now something I have to think about. What I took for granted now requires consideration. If I am to return to that then it will be based on something more than inherited vibe.

Though I don’t as yet carry that formidable conviction, my behaviour is not much different. I’m still confident enough that I can get by comfortably without that certainty, and I suspect in the eyes of others I occasionally become a bold character.

I have to guard against this. I’m in the job to get back in the game and to put something more substantial on my CV. I have to do my time, and be humble. That’s the idea. Yet it’s not me really. I’ve always been careless of authority and position. I’ve had my eyes on the job and the best way to get it done. That’s what motivates me. I see so much that can be different, and how the function I’m a part of may be better aligned. In my mind I know how to go about it, what needs to be done – and I want to do it! I can’t keep it in, but if I’m sensible I’ll let it out slowly and with respect.

That’s the difference between me and my manager. She is a lovely, very smart lady who I don’t think knows a lot about the nitty-gritty of continuous improvement. I suspect she was appointed to the role because she is a very good manager, and knows how to work the system. I know the nitty-gritty, and while I’m a good people manager my instinct is to subvert the system. I’m not the diplomat I should be, nor do I have the patience to be a decent politician. I’ll write about this another time – it’s one of the insights I’ve gained in recent years. Basically though, I have to learn to work within the system, rather than rebelling against it – and it all comes down to identity.

The boy whose hand I held


After sharing my travel memory yesterday other memories came flooding into my mind. I realised how lucky I’ve been, not just in the range of places I’ve visited, but also the many vivid and memorable moments along the way. In the conversation yesterday I said that travel is the best education because, if you’re open to it, it gives you perspective and insight, and hopefully compassion.

My travels are my most precious possessions. Travel was finishing school to me – it put into context so much I’d been formally educated, and otherwise had observed along the way. I was wide-eyed and open to it, curious and bold and social. There was joy in humping a pack or figuring out a map or hoisting myself onto a bus or train, or just to sit in a cafe and watch the local world go by. Even the difficult stuff – awful accommodations, mixed up flights, stuff stolen, the occasional confronting image – was of some value. I flatter myself by thinking that I was open to learn, and in doing so gained a measure of wisdom.

Back in 2001 I ended up in Vietnam towards the tail-end of a tortuous and unpredictable journey. I had flown to Singapore, and from there to Paris, then after roaming the French countryside I returned to Singapore again, more in hope than expectation. It all remains so vivid to me. From Singapore I took off to Vietnam, I don’t remember why now.

I was weary, in spirit as well as body. I had left home with hopes of something only to have them disappointed. I had fled to Paris, a familiar place, to get away from that. I remember laying in a bathtub in Deauville and sobbing (yes, real men do cry, sometimes). I walked the streets and sat in bars and looked out windows at passing scenery and rationalised my circumstances and attempted to come to terms with what had happened. I was all inward.

On the other side of the world back at home my family and friends wondered what was happening and worried after me. In Singapore the woman I left there sent me concerned emails, guilty at what had occurred. I thought much about all of that, but didn’t connect with any of it. Rare for me I kept to myself on my travels, self-absorbed and self-contained. After a couple of weeks the raw wound had mended sufficiently for me to return to Singapore.

I festered in Singapore for another week or two staying with friends, not with her. She reached out to me, but I was not ready yet to meet with her again. I lived quietly in the spare room of my friend’s apartment in a modest, Muslim suburb of Singapore. I was not yet ready to go home, but nor could I stay.

I suppose that’s how I ended up in Vietnam. It was somewhere I’d always wanted to go, it was nearby, and well, I had nothing better to do. I flew into Ho Chi Minh city had adventure there, then travelled down the Mekong. I was physically tired, as I said. I felt as if I’d been hoisting the same pack for months. I was sad to, but there were moments when I found myself come to life (by the end of my trip I had revivified sufficiently to have a friendly encounter with two very sporting Japanese girls staying at the same hotel as me in Hoi An – but that’s another story).

I returned from the Mekong and found myself staying in the Vice Presidential suite of one of the fancy hotels facing the river. I had rocked up bearded and untidy and wanting a decent room I could make myself human again. I’m sorry sir, the concierge had told me, but the only room available is the Vice Presidential suite. I prepared to turn and go when he spoke again. Would that be alright? No extra charge, of course. I told him it was fine. For three luxurious days I lay in the huge bed and splashed in the luxurious spa bath and read sprawled upon the sofa. I braved the city, taking off as I had learned from the locals, from the curb and trusting that the stream of motorcyclists would pass about me.

I looked at my map. I read my guide-book. I decided to try Vung Tau, and if not there, then further north to Long Hai. I caught the hydrofoil to Vung Tau and didn’t like the look of it and hopped aboard a taxi for Long Hai.

In the middle of Long Hai was a an old French Colonial building, easily the biggest in town. It was the hotel too, and I was the only guest. Out the back was a weary ent te cas tennis court the hotel workers would play on, there was the smell of lavender in the air, and geckos curled, fixed to the hotel walls.

That first morning I took a walk by the beach. Pulled up on the sand were fishing boats the fishermen tended to while their children roamed at their feet. Every person I saw looked up at me and smiled, and said hello. Every one of them. I answered everyone too. Hello, I said, hi, xin chao, how are you, and so on. It was the same every day with every person I met.

I walked by the water’s edge towards the distant headland. I had become a great curiosity and to my great surprise found a growing band of children trailing me. They gathered one by one, joining the curious crowd while their fathers looked up from their work and smiled at it. There must have been two dozen of them at the peak. I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

I stopped once and tried to talk to them. It felt odd to be such a celebrity. I wrote my name in the wet sand with a piece of driftwood, and said it aloud for them. There was great amusement in that, and one small boy wrote something in the sand beside my name.

By the time I reached the distant headland only one remained, a small boy of about 8 with a book of lottery tickets in his hand, the same boy who had written in the sand. We climbed the stairs to the promontory, and at the top he slipped his small hand into mine. At first I felt embarrassed by it; then strangely warmed.

I imagine if you saw that now all sorts of connotations would come to mind – a tall, fair-haired haired western male hand in hand with a local boy. I don’t think that occurred to me then. It was not the place for such thoughts. It was simple and kind and I gazed out over the sea with his hand in mine, glad for the affection.

It was a memorable place of great hospitality. By night I would sit in one of the open air ‘cafe’s at the edge of the breakwater and have beer with a great shard of ice in it, or a sweet Vietnamese coffee, or a refreshing lime and palm sugar dink – I couldn’t get enough of those. They would fuss over me grateful for the reflected celebrity my presence gave them. None spoke English. We would nod and gesture and smile and I would look out to sea as the fishing boats lit by small lanterns bobbed with the swell in the night sky, like fireflies in the distance.

It was what I needed. It allowed me to recover for Hoi An, where something more of myself returned. I went back to Singapore, and eventually to home – 2 days before 9/11. But that’s another story too.

The kindness of strangers


Have I told this story before? Probably, but I’ll tell it again anyway.

Nearly 20 years ago I was on extended holiday and had made it to Paris, where I was staying on the Left Bank. On my third or fourth evening there my wallet was stolen, ironically at an Aussie bar. I returned to my hotel, and from there went across to the bar I’d got in the habit of visiting each evening.

It was a typical French bar with grizzled locals sitting around drinking beer or Pernod and discussing the week’s events, just as they probably had for many years previously. Though he had little English, and my French was scratchy at best, I had become friendly with the French owner and managed to communicate with him by a combination of gestures, nods and a pigeon version of Frenglish.

On this night I walked in and found a place at the bar and waited for the bartender to serve me. It was a Friday I think, and the bar was full and lively. I ordered a beer and when the owner asked how I was I mentioned in passing that I’d just had my wallet stolen. His brow creased with concern. He stood upright, and after a glance at me began addressing his regulars in French. I watched on as he spoke too fluently for me to understand, but felt at one point all eyes turn to me.

He had told them that my wallet had been stolen. Outraged that this had happened in their home down those lovely men shouted me one drink after another that evening as if it were their duty. I was roused and moved by this, and fell into broken conversation with them, who were interested in me as an Australian regardless, and as rugby supporters one and all felt some affinity with me (Australia had not long defeated France in the final of the rugby world cup). That bond was strengthened by the sympathy of my plight, and in the act of generosity to support.

The story doesn’t end there.

In the bar was an Australian who had lived in Paris many years and was a regular at the bar. When my situation became known the bartender tried to get him to speak to me, if only to translate. The Australian was unwilling, but finally relented.

It turned out he was the son of a communist who had been effectively hounded out of Australia, something that made him very bitter towards Australia. He relaxed as we continued to speak. I found out he was a documentary film maker and had a French wife and son. I think I was the first of his countrymen he had really conversed to for many years, and as he warmed to suggested I was unrepresentative of my country. I thought that unfair, but understood the sentiment – bitter memories make for bitter thoughts.

I ended up going with him back to his apartment at around midnight. He introduced me to his wife and then in a French manner we sat around his dining table talking, and drinking red wine while nibbling on cheese and ham carved from the bone. I left finally with him offering to lend me money to cover the deficit my stolen wallet had created. I refused him.

I’m a very proper person in many respects. Though I’d had a memorable night and was grateful for the support I received I thought it improper to take money from a man I hardly knew. I wish I had now – not because I needed it, but because it might have been the right thing for him. I failed to recognise the gesture, forgetting sometimes that it’s a kindness to accept a favour from someone offering one. In his case, as an estranged Australian, it might well have had extra significance.

I never saw or heard from him after that night, and I regret that I didn’t pay more attention to that. Years later I tried to re-visit the bar, but never found it. It was like one of those mysteries where something is found and then disappears forever afterwards. My mum, with Fred, tried to look it up to, but without luck.

It was a memorable evening and the loss of a wallet insignificant against the rich human experience. I’m very grateful to all those so kind to me that night. It’s one of those precious memories that only travel really can give you. I hadn’t thought of it for years though, until a conversation earlier today recollected it for me.

I’m glad I can share it again here.

 

Hardened


I had my day in court last week. It says a lot about my life that I’m becoming accustomed to the courthouse – though familiarity has not made it more pleasurable.

This time I was in court to contest the ludicrous charge of having my feet up on the train seat. You might remember when I wrote of this back in August, when it happened. A trivial moment in time, but an exorbitant penalty, which is what impelled me to challenge it.

Given I was a few days into a new job the timing was pretty ordinary, but at least in my new role I have some flexibility with my hours. The hearing was set down for 1.30, and so I wandered down ahead of that on a bright, sunny day, subjected myself to the usual security protocols, and found myself in the allocated courtroom – only to find they had conveniently adjourned for lunch.

I waited around for about 20 minutes before the court clerk came in. I gave my name and when she asked how I would plead I answered not guilty. She suggested that I speak to a prosecutor before the hearing began to discuss my options – I was welcome to change my plea at any time.

The prosecutor found me. She was young – a little under 30 – attractive, and very reasonable. I explained the situation and circumstances to her and she agreed the penalty is ridiculous, saying that it is deliberately set so to be a deterrent. I explained how I intended to plea and she informed me that if I did so then the case would be adjourned for a later date with witnesses being called. Alternatively I could plead guilty and have it settled today. Worst case scenario with a guilty plea was the penalty stands; best that I’m let off with a warning. Most likely was something in the middle – a discount on the penalty, or an order to pay a nominated amount to a nominated charity.

It seems counter-intuitive, and somehow wrong, that the easiest option is to plead guilt, even when you dispute it. Upon reflection though that’s what I did.

Fortunately I was the first person called. One thing familiarity has done is ease the nerves. There’s something quietly amusing about being in such a situation. You find yourself observing as if from outside yourself. There is something peculiarly surreal about the situation which doesn’t seem quite real. Who? Me? In court? Get out of here!

Coupled with that is the formality and the rituals associated with the process. I know it intimidates some, and perhaps intended to, but as an observer it feels a little as if it takes itself too seriously. I guess there’s an excuse to think that when it’s some trivial transport violation being heard. I imagine if it were a capital case the solemnity and ritual would seem entirely appropriate.

In any case I pleaded guilty, making it clear all the same that I disputed the listed record of events. The magistrate said his bit and at the end of it I was asked to donate $80.00 to a charity and to stay out of trouble for the next 12 months – effectively a suspended sentence. I could handle that.

It was a huge relief to have it over and settled. I walked back to the office with a skip in my step. Unfortunately further court appearances likely await.

First week


Finished my first week in the new role, and by Friday afternoon had it sorted in my head. Come Monday morning doubtless the story will be different, but right now a-ok.

Having said that, wasn’t terribly impressed. There was zero handover on the job, which meant I had to pick up the loose threads myself and make sense of them. That was made more complicated by there being no project manager to refer to, seemingly no project plans, and project docs either non-existent or the equivalent of something written on the back of an envelope. I get regularly astounded by the lack of professionalism and governance when it comes to project management, but I shouldn’t be – I should be used to it by now. Few companies do it well.

On top of that I was expected to get across some quite complex requirements that crossed into different functions – functions which I had no knowledge of. Without anyone to refer to or docs to brief myself I attended meetings where most of it went over my head. The only solution is to make it work for me – which means sitting down and studying the different functions closely, and mapping them out (seemingly never done previously). When I know how things work I can then make some informed decisions about it.

That’s one of the other challenges though. I rely on the cooperation of other areas and their managers to get that done. I’ve spoken informally to a few, and others I’ve sent emails hoping to schedule meetings and discuss situations. The people I’ve spoken to are agreeable, but fixing a time is an issue. My emails have largely gone unanswered.

Again, this is no great surprise. They don’t know me from a bar of soap and I haven’t been introduced, as I should have been. This was a concern going in. I have to do it all myself, which at the moment is a matter of persistence. I’ve got no cut through, and I need it.

I have the sense that these things were piling up waiting for me to begin. Then I arrived and they were basically dumped on me. I think work-loads played a part in that, but ultimately I think they were holding onto these things not knowing what to do with them. It was with relief that were finally able to hand them off to me. They became my problem.

I know what to do, but it’s at odds with the (lack of) system in place. I’m happy to push through and just do things when I have to, but I’m a firm believer that you need structure around your projects. I reckon 70% of the work goes into the planning – it’s then just a case of following the plan. There will always be challenges, but if you’ve done it right you have contingencies to.

There appears little real planning outside of the objective. It’s like setting out on an expedition with a compass, but no map. You know where to go basically, but not how to get there.

I’ll be implementing some structure, even if it only applies to my area. I’ll be insisting on some proper introductions, and looking to meet the key people in charge of key functions (there’s no application manager, and seemingly no clear-cut ownership of the major applications). I want to know what’s in, what’s out, what talks to what, and how, what is possible, and what isn’t. I want to begin tying things together.

The way I work is from knowledge. I like to understand things from the inside out. Once you do that you can spot the opportunities and the gaps. This is the only way I’m going to do it.

Off the horse


Walking home last night at about 3am with lipstick smeared across my face the thought occurred to me that I had turned into my parents. It was an odd thing to think, if only because – in my case – it’s so untrue. The link, or the echo, was some long ago memory as a child laying in bed and listening for the sound of the key in the door signifying that my parents had returned home after a late night. As I thought about it though even that seemed a false memory. We were never home alone without a babysitter. And generally I would be fast asleep. I wondered if it was a fabricated, even idealised memory. And then what it meant.

I was returning from the annual Sinterklaas celebration at the Cheeses. This is an occasion I look forward too each year, and in fact I forewent the work christmas party to be there. They are happy, joyous, often silly nights of many laughs and good fellowship. It’s the nearest thing to Christmas for me these days, yet last night was different.

The occasion itself was much like previous years. What was different was me. I never quite entered into the spirit of the night. Someone commented that I had been serious all night, and it was true. When you’re in that mood everything that’s not serious seems frivolous – but frivolity is very much the order of the night (and how I came to be wearing lipstick). I wasn’t disapproving, and I participated, but there was something distant and hesitant in me. I was sad knowing that, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I can be moody, but generally I’m pretty well-managed, and on these occasions can be as silly as anyone. It wasn’t moodiness last night – I had been looking forward to the party up to the moment I walked in the door. What happened is that I sat there something crept up on me stealthily. I came to feel all that I don’t have anymore – all that I have lost.

It was the occasion to some degree, and the people about me too – though no-one would wish anything but the best for me. These are dear friends who care for me. Still.

A part of the night is reading out poems and giving gifts. The first poem I read addressed to me was funny and kind and once more made reference to the journey I’ve been on. Almost universally the people who know me respect and maybe even admire me for my endurance. I have battled and survived and while I’m as glad as they are it’s not something I want to be defined by. It’s like a note from mum excusing me from sport because I’m delicate – I don’t want to be delicate, and I don’t want to be excused. It’s a form of kindness, but it makes me feel like a tragic but stoic figure – and there’s no fun it that, let me tell you.

That’s not to say that’s why I felt the way I did – I felt it much earlier than that. It’s true though that I feel separated from the rest by virtue of what has happened. It can be summed up in few words – I’m just not as important as I used to be, and not as important as others.

So what does that mean, important? Well, once upon a time I made a difference with my work and I was smack bang in the middle of life and surrounded by opportunities. Now I’m on the fringes of it scrabbling for the scraps, and talking big, thinking big, to make up the difference. And I know it. Once upon a time I was important because I was a part of a family that loved me. Now all I have are my friends, who have their own life anyway, and Rigby.

It sounds pathetic, but it’s been true for a long while. What I’ve done is power through it, which is why I’ve endured. It’s the truth at the heart of things though, and if I haven’t dwelt on it much before it’s because there’s no value in it. Soon again I’ll revert to type, I’ll power up and set my sights and grind my way through it. I don’t want to do that yet though – I don’t want to ignore this because that’s my tendency.

Right now I feel sad, and maybe that’s a better descriptor of how I was last night. I feel weary at the thought of all I’ve got to do to change the story, knowing that I must (and likely will at length). And I feel a subtle ache remembering my mum and the family I had and missing her and all of that, and me, who I was then.

I wonder if I’m capable of sharing this with others, and if it’s something I should do. It would probably be healthy, except that I don’t know that I can. There are one or two that very sporadically I open up to, but it feels as if I am defined by reputation. It’s my fault that I am seen as resilient as stoic, but I feel a little trapped by what that means – as if it forbids me from anything else, just a little bit, and just sometimes. People don’t expect it of me and nor do I – but when the rare occasions it’s there I can’t share it. And instead I’m serious and solemn and sad, not that they know it.

Now I’m grizzling and feeling sorry for myself, but I think I need that too – and in controlled doses it’s fine. You know and I know that come next week I’ll be back on the horse and following the long, slow, but steady path back to some kind of importance. I’m dedicated to that, but don’t forget the truth behind it.

Ho-hum


Typical first day in the job scenario where everything is slow to develop, my phone hadn’t been set-up, and I wasn’t given complete access to the drives I need. Result is very low productivity and a bit of thumb-twiddling. 

The phone now works and I have the permission’s I need, but I’m still a tad adrift. I walked in this morning and was taken aside for 5 minutes by my new manager to be advised that in a month she will become my old manager. In the meantime she told me the projects she wanted me to work on, but without any detail and little background. I was then invited to a sprint meeting that lasted about 10 minutes and made little sense to me as I don’t have the background. 

I had hoped to get a complete briefing, some background documentation to get up to speed with, and advice on what precisely my role is in these projects. None of that was forthcoming and for about 5 minutes I wondered if it was indicative of the way things work. I was afraid they didn’t know themselves, and expected/hoped I would invent my own role. 

In a sense that’s what I’ve begun doing. After my 10 minute meeting at 9am I’ve been left entirely to my own devices, with nothing concrete to work on. In the absence of any of that I’ve scheduled and attended meetings with supposedly key people in the projects I’m part of. Problem is there’s no clear project manager, the project owners are pretty vague, and by my observation it seems there’s a bunch of people who have a little bit of the project with little to tie them together. I may have that wrong – I’m sure I must have – but in the meantime I can’t even get a clear take on where things are at.

There’s only so long I can be exasperated by that situation. What’ll happen is that I’ll push into the gaps and start asking the questions that might stir things up. If I’m not careful – and it’s not something I want to happen at this stage – I’ll start assuming some control of the projects. I hate these indeterminate and messy projects – it’s the total opposite of what they should be. I won’t endure that for long.

A part of the problem is what I alluded to yesterday. There exist processes but they’re incomplete, vague, and/or without formal protocols. It’s hard to be certain, but there appears an overarching methodology, but with big gaps in it. Otherwise the different areas have their own methodologies, but thus far I’m uncertain how they tie together. That’s where you miss a PM.

I’ll survive it. It’s been a little frustrating, but I’ll end up doing exactly what I think it needs to be done.