Go with a smile!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Work Life

There are different levels of maturity for a person to go through. There is young adulthood, and there is late adulthood. A person who has attained young adulthood is able to hold down a steady job and make a living. He can probably maintain a few friendships and fulfill a few of his life ambitions. But late adulthood is the real and ultimate test, and the making of a man. That is the ultimate: heading a household, maybe taking up a leadership role at work, and balancing work and family responsibilities. I usually attain maturity a few years too late. I mastered how to be a proper teenager only in my late 20s. I only mastered young adulthood around the time I was 30. And I don’t really know if I’ll ever make that transition into late adulthood. That’s almost the only thing left for me. I don’t really like giving up a carefree lifestyle, but it just might come down to that.

I just realised that I have never done any of these things:
1. Secure a bank loan for a house / car / whatever
2. Had a steady girlfriend in the real world
3. Been a rock star
4. Turned down a job offer (except maybe one teaching scholarship offer)
5. Started a business
6. Handled the insurance / complicated business of owning a motor vehicle.

I started this blog one or two years into my working life. Nothing earthshaking has taken place since. No internet has been invented. OK, Singapore has changed a lot. Maybe the first 10 years of the existence of the blog has seen the transition between the “old Singapore” which was still dominated by “native Singaporeans” and the “new Singaporeans” where you can’t say that either “native Singaporeans” or foreigners dominate it. Cracks have appeared in the PAP’s dominance for power, and the “new normal” has arrived. Several major bookstores in Singapore have closed down. My grandmother’s dead.

But then all these things have taken place on the other end of 25. My sister’s gone: she’s always been gone. The real watershed event of my life was Snowy Hill. It’s divided my life neatly into two. My first big rite of passage was my annus mirabilis. The second big rite of passage was national service. My third big rite of passage was Snowy Hill. And that was my biggest. I still have other rites of passage. My fourth one was my first real job, which I will actually – for the first time – blog about. My fifth one is my Mexico adventure. Then there will be others that I will look to take on – finding a life companion, maybe even having kids. And who knows what else. But the big one was Snowy Hill. After that, on the other side of 25, nothing’s really shocking anymore.

There are only a few people who know my real identity in real life, and most of them were former co-workers at my first job. That’s why I’ve never really blogged about my work life. I’ve tried not to be too political but I just can’t help it – political science is one of my main interests. I sound really critical when talking about the government but I know that it’s always half a cup full – Singapore is not the worst run country in the world, no matter what the electorate says. I’m not happy about Singapore having too many foreigners, but many of my co-workers and friends are foreigners and they are good people, and I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

Now I’ll blog about my early working life, and I’ve never done that before. I’ve mentioned about three periods of my life that were difficult, and probably there will be more to come, but three have stood out so far. First was sec one / two. Second was JC / NS. I’ve described them here. The third period was the first few years of my working life.

I was an indentured labourer. Yes, I got a free university education, and for a not inconsiderable sum. But there are downsides. There were relatively few positions in the organization where having a good degree from a prestigious university was of much use. Many of the other overseas scholars left after a few years. Only a true geek like myself could bear to wait that long.

To say that I didn’t really fit in at the beginning was a bit of an understatement, although I was far from being the biggest misfit. (That honour goes to a more senior member of the department). At the time that I joined, they decided to second me out to the frontline. Not just for one or two months, but for three months. It was a disaster. Somebody else might have done better, but I floundered. My Chinese was not fantastic, I couldn’t convince people to show me the ropes, they didn’t have patience with somebody who wasn’t going to join them. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to cut that stint short, but then I was concerned that it was an admission of defeat. I don’t really know how long the people after me spent on the front line, but for me it was way too long.

That wasn’t a good start. And after returning to the home department, it wasn’t great either. I started with a pretty weak hand. They didn’t like the fact that I had gone to Snowy Hill and didn’t come back with fantastic results. It took a year or two to convince my bosses that I was pretty sound academically. And this was a place which was pretty snobbish about who they took in – almost everybody had a first class honours or some fancy graduate degree.

At the time that I joined, there were two main factions in the department. One was the management associates, and there were the rest of the gang. It did make sense for me to hang out with the management associates, but I knew right away that the rest of the gang was going to stick around the longest. I knew which gang it was more important to join. I was right – two of the management associates left very soon, and the third one also joined the main gang. It wasn’t a big thing, but it was the first correct decision that I made.

Unfortunately I wasn’t very successful at joining that gang. The (self-appointed) leader of that gang was a guy who I later nicknamed Sniper. The name stuck, so it was a bit of my modicum of revenge on him. We had a frosty relationship. We didn’t hate each other or anything, but there were things about each other that got on our nerves. He tried hard to edge me out, but wasn’t really successful. But I appreciated what he did for the department. He tried to foster some kind of brotherhood amongst the people in the department. He organized events, and he organized weekly sports games. There was a good spirit in the department that was in no small part down to the work done by him, and that spirit lasted long after he said goodbye.

I kept my head low and flew under the radar. I didn’t do much during my first few years. I tried to observe and listen but was usually waved away. My work was usually with a direct supervisor. Because of my traumatic experience with the front line in those days, I didn’t have much contact with them. It wasn’t until much later that I managed to correct that.

The first big event in my work life was the retrenchment. There were six people who were cut out of the department. Two of them were older workers who had almost reached retirement age, and the retrenchment didn’t affect them financially because the payout more or less compensated for their lost earnings. Two of them were junior staff who faced an uncertain future after that. Two of my peers who were let go, young people like me who could always find another job. But the build-up to the retrenchment was almost unbearable. Almost everybody thought they might get it. Including the supervisors. One or two started opening up. I suppose this was the beginning of warmer relations with the older people in the department. Even Angler, who was one of the smartest guys in the department, thought that he might get it.

I still wasn’t out of the woods. In fact, years later when I was out for lunch with a few of my colleagues, we bumped into one of the guys who was let go. He was astounded to see me talking with the rest like we were old friends, as though he had seen a ghost. That reminded me of how much of an outcast I was at the beginning.

Other people came in. People who hadn’t had the chance to see me flounder. There were always good guys in the department, like Shingot. Shingot was probably the glue that held the department together, was always good to everyone, always joking and laughing with everyone. And because of that people forgot to notice that he was smart too. Not razor sharp smart like one or two of the others in the department were, but smart in his own way. Everybody missed him when Totoro poached him away to join her company.

One absolute nadir for me was the first performance review. I had been assigned the worst grade possible that did not merit disciplinary action. For me it was appalling, and it’s a horrible thing when a person’s contracted to work with you for six years and you tell him those six years are going to be pretty miserable. On top of that, right after I was told of that grade, I had to host a Christmas party and smile and pretend that everybody was having a good time. I did that, but I’m not ever going to forget that experience.

Gradually, things got better. People left the department one by one, and I picked up on their projects one by one. The retrenchment “exercise” was not really necessary: the company did expand. But it was an excuse to get rid of deadweight, and some of the people who were let go were let go merely to fulfill some quota. It was one of the most pointless things ever.

I evolved a strategy – it was called the patient waiting game. I kept my head down a lot, and focused more on learning and thinking and reflecting before I tried to make myself visible. It was a gamble, because if I sacrificed my visibility, it could work against my career. But at the same time, I could avoid meeting people too much and rubbing them the wrong way. I tried to avoid making mistakes by confining my contacts to a relatively small number. The time to become more visible was when you were more sure you weren’t going to open your mouth and sound like a fool. So I just made sure that I would never be high profile enough to make a big disastrous high-profile error. There could never be a mistake big enough to force me to leave the department before I wanted to.

Eventually it came to the point where among the people in the department, there were as many people who had been there longer than me, as there were people who had been there for shorter than me. I suppose I had risen up in the pecking order.

People had doubts about me, but those doubts were addressed one by one, although not very quickly. People thought I wasn’t technically adequate. That proved to be wrong. People thought that I was messy and disorganized. I’m a messy person, but I could get it together if I wanted to. And I was pretty analytical. People thought I didn’t understand what was going on on the frontline. But there was a lot that I understood on a good enough level.

One of my biggest weakness was that I usually had my own way of seeing things that often conflicted with other people’s persistent views. It was surprisingly difficult to be truly creative in a place like that, even though it was supposed to be an engineering department which prized organizational change. The thing about being creative is that if somebody comes up with an unconventional approach, you would look at him first. If you think he’s dumb, then he’s got it all wrong. If you think he’s smart, then he could be on to a innovative and fresh approach to things. Everything depends upon whether you’ve won peoples’ trust or not. I wouldn’t say that everything, or half of everything that I proposed in my earlier years were really sound, but I still felt that I was second-guessed a lot in the early years.

There was a supervisor of mine who took a long time to trust me. But suddenly one day he asked me to take charge of a project where I was supposed to liaise with an external consultant. It was a project that was highly technical in nature, and involved a fairly complex software system. It was hard work, because much of it involved concealing weaknesses in our portion of the software system from the consultants, so that they didn’t pick up on it and report it to the higher authorities. And of course my supervisor didn’t want the consultant taking away our jobs. I think my work on that project was a turning point for me, where I finally convinced him that I was a worthy member of the team.

The department wasn’t in good shape for the first five years that I was there. We were often distrusted and shut out of the discussions with the front line people. Of course for many of those years many of my colleagues have tried to engage with front line people on a more personal level. Because we focused more on longer range issues, we were rebuffed by the front line people more often in the early days. People could not integrate our output into their daily work. I started to realize that maybe I should have expected the lousy reviews that they gave to me when I was a new kid. There were people who came in after me, people who did better than me, and they also got lousy reviews. I realised that it was a little political, a few people in our department had to get the lousy grades, and since I was a new guy who was unlikely to leave the department in the near future, I got the lousy grade. In contrast, the work on the front line was hard and demanding, with a high level of turnover. So they usually got the lion’s share of the good reviews.

Quite abruptly, there was a guy, a former military man who came in out of nowhere to head the department. He instituted a lot of changes to the department. At first, I welcomed him. Until I found out that I was constantly being left out of his plans. It turned out that he was more of a “front line” type of person and he was more attuned to their way of thinking. I preferred the more technical approach, and we didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. He didn’t really have a place for me, and he told me that if I had other opportunities, I was free to leave the department. My contract with the department was up at that point. It was around that point that I got tired of procrastinating (that takes a long time to happen) and set in motion the long and arduous process that would eventually lead me to Mexico.

But at that point in time, Mexico was still two years away. So I negotiated with him, let me work with the front line people. He didn’t like the idea but he allowed that to happen, since people were leaving the department anyway. I wasn’t fantastic, and I took some time to learn the ropes, and I think I showed some value. In fact I still have some ideas on how to further develop what was being done for the frontline department, some more advanced forms of analytics that they weren’t doing, my new grad degree taught me a few skills that could be tried on that department. Our department had been accustomed to thinking that it was associated with a certain academic field of study. But we could just as well also use knowledge from a totally different academic field of study. I had my own ideas about what scientific techniques I wanted to or did not want to use, and in my earlier years, that would have been interpreted as stubbornness or even stupidity. But I had been around long enough that I would have gained enough good karma to do that.

I got the sense that people did not want me to leave the department. That’s a far cry from the way that people initially greeted my stint in the department. I didn't know what military guy thought, but by then he had already drifted away from the department. It’s also true people don’t really value the new guys, while the old guys have a lot of knowledge and experience that will be gone when they leave. There was a six month period when I kept them guessing about whether or not I was going to leave. And while a lot of the uncertainty was genuine, one of my supervisors (Monty Burns) had been with me from the beginning, and I don’t think he really stuck up for me in the beginning. I wanted to see what he was going to do. To my surprise, he was hinting that I might be in charge of a few interesting projects. A more important reason why they didn’t want me to leave, at that point, was that my departure coincided with a few people leaving the department. My departure was at the tail end of a long exodus. I had witnessed around 30 departures from our department, a turnover rate of more than 150% in the almost 10 years I had been there. We knew that people leaving would leave behind more work for the next guy to take over, but we never truly begrudged all this because we knew that people leaving the department was a win-win for all except maybe the managers of the department. The ones who got left behind got to step up. They got opportunities to advance their careers either by cannibalising an old friend’s project, or by having fewer people to contend with for places at next July’s announcements. The ones who left left for greener pastures.

I wouldn’t say that mine was a fantastic career. Some of those who left, indeed left for better things. And indeed – a few are doing really well elsewhere. There were those who stayed, and for good reason: the work was pretty decent. The bugbear with the department was that in the early days, at least, it didn’t get a terribly good reception from the rest of the organization. The new management has improved this, although there’s still some way to go. For me, it way it turned out was that what seemed like a truly terrible road to ruin in the beginning slowly morphed into slow but steady and respectable levels of progress. I won’t rule out going back there for a short stint in the future if I have to return to Singapore.


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