Pushing on

Friday morning I headed to Crown for a marketing seminar. I’m not a marketing guy, and if I can I try to avoid marketers en masse. I have a marketing clue, but I’m no –one’s idea of a marketing type. I’m part of a couple of projects which overlap with marketing and so I thought it a good idea to get some background.

Breakfast was served, and then a host of speakers got up to present their little pearls of marketing wisdom. I was probably the only non-marketing person in the room, so there was a lot of preaching to the already converted. As a result there were acronyms and trade lingo which took me a moment to parse, but overall it made sense and was interesting, but it was the final speaker who elevated it from being just another promotional breakfast.

He was a marketing dude from Uber, flown in for the occasion. He was dynamic, confident and fascinating. For someone like me, a marketing novice, it was very educational. In a strange way it was also inspiring.

It’s not so much what he said or how he said it, but rather it was an attitude he embodied, and the fact that he had his own very individual ideas. That he had managed to parlay those ideas into functional reality was the crowning triumph. And here he was on the far side of the world telling us about it.

It forced me to reflect on my own circumstances. I’ve always fancied myself a similar type of character, confident, creative, determined, a big thinker. I’ve been lucky enough to use those attributes consistently through my career, and generally been valued for them. It’s different now. I struggle and strain, but I’m in a state of almost perpetual frustration. I still think big, but whatever I push is filtered and compromised by a conservative leadership and an incompetent system. I’m left to fiddle at the edges, doing small things and pushing against ever encroaching constraints.

Listening to the speaker from Uber I remembered how it used to be. I remembered how bold I had once been. The many thoughts and ideas repressed by circumstance bobbed to the surface. I felt energised, wanting to be that person again, to do those things. There are no meant to be’s, but I can confidently say I’m better suited to taking things on than I am simply maintaining an inadequate status quo.

I caught the tram back to work afterwards with these thoughts buzzing in my head. It was self-evident that – regardless of the glittering promotions they promise me – it was impossible to be the person I wanted to at an organisation such as the one I work at. They are fatally compromised both structurally and philosophically. They are a mess of competing objectives, managed in ad hoc fashion. I don’t fit in.

I still have a lot of ideas. I was mildly surprised, and much gratified, to find that getting back into the system that I had lost none of that in my absence. I’m just as capable and just as driven as ever I was. What’s different, I’ve discovered, is that the fripperies of behaviour and attitude have fallen away. I’m blunt, honest and direct, just as I’ve ever been, but more so.

Directness has its own simplicity. You see in straight lines. The way there may not be as straight-forward as that, but you know what you want, what you need, what must be. The question is how to get there. End of the day you just want to be what you can be. You want to be true to what’s inside you.

It’s that truth I want to live by, and ultimately that means I have to find a different pathway. I have no faith in this organisation. I don’t want to be a part of it. This is not the way for me. I’ve put things off at the promise of things different, none of which have yet eventuated, and may never.

I won’t rush things, but I’ve made up my mind. I can’t work like this. I applied for a couple of roles over the weekend, and I’ll keep applying until something comes up.

Absurd truths

Wednesday night TV is the most fun night of TV in my house. I start off with Micallef on the ABC at 8.30. I couldn’t miss this. Not only is it bloody funny, it’s right on the money more often than not.

I reckon Shaun Micallef is some kind of absurdist genius. He takes the events of the week, most of them political, and presents them satirically. There’s a lot of material these days, and much of it naturally absurd – which is the pity of the times we live in. Doesn’t matter how much they are mocked by clever comedians, our politicians blithely continue doing their dumb and evil things.

Despite that Micallef has a unique take on things that will often get me laughing out loud – a rare event, believe me – and sometimes wanting to cry at the cruel truth of it. If you haven’t caught it you should.

Right after that is Working Dog’s production of Utopia. This is probably the fourth season, but just as with Micallef there’s a never ending stream of material.

For those who haven’t seen it it’s another satire, this one set in a government organisation called the Nation Building Authority, or NBA. They are tasked with conceiving and executing huge nationwide infrastructure projects. It’s a sexy sort of organisation and naturally subject to the whims, fancies and political nonsense of the minister and the government of the day.

Tony is the much put upon head of the NBA. He’s a voice of sense and reason who each week is overwhelmed by the collective nonsense of marketing spin and political expedience. I watch it laughing, knowing that so much of it is real. It echoes the headlines, and sometimes anticipates them. It’s true all over.

It’s familiar in a more personal sense too. Often I’ll watch with a knowing eye having witnessed or been the victim of similar shenanigans within the office.

This weeks episode was a case in point. It focussed on a doomed government portal which had been much hyped, but proven to be a technical disaster through it’s many manifestations. The experts at the NBA, asked to assess it, advised it was too expensive to fix and it should be dumped. The minister seized upon the idea that it could be fixed, and with a political glee chose that option, waving off the cost.

Recently in my office there was a substantial and poorly managed project rolling out a new function to customers, which included as key requirement a website customers had to log into. I sat listening to all the stories of woe as the project rolled out, sometimes shaking my head, sometimes laughing at the absurd improbability, and sometimes at the blind incompetence.

The website broke several times. It was replaced with different versions. Each one failed. In the end they created a simple façade without the functionality they originally conceived, but at least it would crash. It meant a whole lot of extra work though.

Most of that could have been prevented had it been properly planned and tested. There should have been load testing and testers should have been asked to try and break it, and all the usual things, none of which happened. Typical of the planning was a date field that had no validation, and so when people entered a date in a format other than what was expected an error would occur. Elementary stuff really, but very real.

Last week I was involved in something which is a good example of how political and marketing imperatives overtake operational need.

One of the issues in ops here is that people don’t close jobs. They keep them open because they’re not sure, or because they over-service, or because they want to game the system. The result of that is open jobs clogging the system and poor productivity.

Now these people have been told repeatedly they should close these jobs and have been provided with data sheets telling them what to do. It still happens, and it frustrates management mightily.

One of the things I know about people is that everyone takes in information and direction differently. Some people are visual, others verbal. Some like detailed instructions, others just want the vibe. Some need to understand themselves before they take it on board, and others don’t need a reason.

In any case I created a pithy solution to make it simple, and complement the other advice that’s been provided.

I created a poster. It was simple, direct, but had a little humour. Have you…then close the job. Have you…then close the job. And so on. Do not pass go, close the job.

The kicker was at the end. It needs to resonate. Slogans are good. Catchcry’s. You want to get their imagination and have them engage with the concept.

The poster finished with: Pull the trigger! Close the job.

That lodges in their mind. Pull the trigger. They get reminded by their colleagues: have you pulled the trigger?

Naturally it got knocked back. Too politically incorrect. Too violent.

Good grief!

A winter’s heart

Sometimes when you sit down on a Sunday night you’re looking for a particular kind of diversion. For me, often, it’s pure entertainment. If I can watch a decent mystery, comedy, or action movie then I’m happy. Sometimes I need a laugh, sometimes a thrill, but it all amounts to the same thing. For those couple of hours I want to escape my world for the fantasy world on screen.

Other times – rarer for me – I’m looking for something more profound. I like to think, I like to be moved, but movies of that ilk are less common, and often on a Sunday night – the night before work – I don’t want to think too hard. Besides, I have books for that.

Last night was different. What it was I couldn’t say, but I felt the need for a deeper mode of entertainment. I wanted to be stretched, less so intellectually than emotionally. I wanted to feel, and in feeling to ponder the profound meaning of that feeling.

What I settled on was an old French movie, A Heart in Winter (Un Coeur en Hiver).

This is one of my favourite movies. It’s intelligent, artistic, and heart rending. It’s sat there on my movie queue for about 2 years, and though I’ve paused often at it, until last night I hadn’t clicked on it. Last night was just right though.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it now. About 4 or 5 I reckon. It came out in 1992, which seems an eternity ago now, and whether I saw it then or later I can’t recall. In my mind I group it together with other French movies of similar type and from around the same time, particularly those of Krzysztof Kieslowski (his Three Colours: Red, Blue, and Double Life of Veronique are also all time favourites I wish I could share with others).

A Heart in Winter is, like those other films, profoundly human. It deals in the fears and frailties, the hopes and delusions of common man. That’s the appeal of films like this when done well. You can watch these movies and recognise so much. As always in the best art you come to a truth of something you know deep inside, but which previously has not been raised to a conscious level. We live and operate with these truths just beneath the surface of our skin. They influence our behaviour without our conscious awareness. We are those things, but it’s rare we acknowledge or understand that.

A Heart in Winter happens to be thematically inspired by one of my favourite books, by Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. It has an extra significance to me for that reason. I read that book at one sitting in the mid-nineties lying on a couch at my dad’s when he lived in Potts Point, having bought it at a local bookstore. I was drawn into the story and identified strongly with the main character, Pechorin. As in the movie, the book is intelligently done, and is the study of a flawed, but highly capable man.

The movie is heart-breaking, and the last forty minutes or so difficult viewing – but it goes beyond that. What could have been a mere drama of sorts goes further to become a tragedy of great human dimension. You recognise it though, or at least I do. You feel it inside you like an echo that doesn’t still until hours later. It makes you think, it makes you remember, and it makes you reflect on the more profound elements of being a human being.

That’s why I chose to watch it last night – I wanted to feel that again. You skate across the surface of things mostly. Life happens by rote and routine. The days and weeks gather up and pass by. Sometimes you remember there is more to existence than that. You recall that the most memorable moments of life are when you are forced to deeply feel something. You miss that. You wish for more of it, but don’t know how. But at least there is a movie there in your queue to experience it by proxy. It’s not enough, but it’ll do in a pinch.

One of the great things about this movie is the music in it. There are some great pieces, but none more so than Ravel’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello. I listen to it and it’s as if I experience it from the inside out. It seems to mirror human emotion, give musical expression to human frailty and hope. I’d just about do anything to have written something as beautiful and true as that. I can’t write music, but it’s what I try to do in my writing – give allegorical voice to a truth we can all come to understand. If I could achieve that, just once, I’d die a happy man.

Broken covenant

I caught up with the most recent instalment in the Alien series on Saturday night: Alien Covenant. I figure how you respond to this movie depends on whether you’ve watched the other movies in the series, or not.

Assuming you come to this movie without pre-conceived notions and without the legacy of the previous films you would probably come away a happy viewer. It’s well made as most Ridley Scott movies are, and beautifully shot. It’s competent, interesting and entertaining. As a stand-alone sci-fi thriller it ticks most of the boxes. You’d watch it, enjoy it, and move on.

It’s different if, like me, you’ve watched every movie in the series leading up to it, and most of them multiple times. I’m not a fanboy, but Alien and Aliens are great movies, two of the best of their type ever made. Subsequent movies haven’t lived up to that standard, but it’s a tough standard. I still come to each instalment with anticipation verging on excitement.

On that basis Alien Covenant was disappointing, though certainly better than several of the earlier efforts.

On the plus side it returned to the basic and classic concept of the original movies. A group of humans essentially trapped or marooned with a marauding alien (or two). There’s no way out, no real way of defending yourself, and all of that is ratcheted up by the lurking menace somewhere in the dark. Having said that it’s nowhere near as scary as the first two movies.

I found it pretty predictable in the end. Half an hour out I pretty well knew how it would end, but was desperately hoping I was wrong. I wasn’t. That comes down to the screenplay, but also how it was done.

As someone who grew up watching these movies I felt as if there was a subtle betrayal in this instalment. It make entire sense to me, and even if you accepted the premise I felt it took it away from what these movies are about.

This is where the spoiler alert applies, so up to you if you want to read on.

As in most of the Alien movies an android plays a key role. In the most recent movie in the series (Prometheus) we saw the sole surviving scientist (Elizabeth Shaw) of that expedition fly off in an alien spaceship with David, the loyal android played by Michael Fassbender. David turns up again in this movie, but playing a different role.

There’s a bit of I, Robot in how this has been written. From the loyal and obedient android in Prometheus David becomes someone/something different in Covenant. Between movies, off screen as such, David’s ‘consciousness’ had warped. From the loyal servant of man in Covenant he is sinister and bitter, with violent designs upon mankind.

This did not ring true for me. I know it is a classic convention, but it seems contrived in this version. (I rued the lost opportunity of another movie where David and Elizabeth Shaw might encounter the mysterious giant race of Aliens – in this they have been previously destroyed).

What this contrivance means for the story is critical, and in large part foreshadows the predictable ending. It runs counter to the meaning of the series too, in my view at least. It’s like an element has been introduced to artificially direct an outcome, when the beauty of the early movies was that they had their own spontaneous logic.

As an Alien aficionado I’m disappointed – it’s just another movie, and I fear for the next instalment. As a movie fan it is just another movie, albeit entertaining – but no more than that.

Not so dire prospects

Coming back this morning after getting my daily coffee I thought to myself that I could go the hipster barista lifestyle. Grow the beard out, wear one of my beanies, assume the attitude – none of it was too strenuous, and it had a certain appeal. It was a cool, clear morning, before 8.30am when everything is starting to rustle to life. I felt comfortable in the café. I shared a joke with the beard and beanie wearing owner and the whole carefree notion of providing coffee for a living was mighty appealing. I was heading back to an office: spreadsheets, emails and forlorn expectations.

Like I alluded to the other day I’m over that, more or less, but there’s the matter of the rent. Since I last wrote about work things have moved quickly, and though I’d rather be doing something else there is the expectation that the dire prospect handed me the other day may only be temporary.

As promised I made my feelings known after being given such a pitiful pay rise. I was called aside and asked if that meant I would be looking for a role elsewhere, to which I basically said ‘you betcha’ (though with a touch more elan than that). A discussion ensued during which it became clear that my management were frustrated with the events as well. They’d asked for more, HR had given me less. I was told I was given the maximum 4% increase, to which I responded that 4% of fuck-all is fuck-all. I got a laugh out of that. She said that she had been given the go ahead to apply to HR to have my role re-classified – just 8 months after I requested it. How much extra do you want? I was asked. I was caught on the hop. I hesitated, quickly calculating. I’m probably about $20K short of the market, but there was no way they would give me that. I told them $10K on top of the pay-rise I’ve just got, then kicked myself I didn’t ask for more. Ten grand would make a difference though.

Then I was told there were changes coming. Basically the team was disbanding. The other two would move to other areas – happening next week – while I remained. When I left the role wouldn’t be filled. So, where was I going?

As has been long mooted they’ve been pitching to have me join the office of the CEO. That’s a much nicer role with a lot more money, and with the support of the CEO, may actually be able to get things done. It’s not easy to join, however, and both my manager and hers have had to justify the promotion and highlight my credentials for it.

Sounds good, but no surprise I’m a sceptic. It’s likely to happen, but until it does I’m not going to get too excited.

First step – a better pay-rise. Second step – a better job. Third step – a hipster barista?