Go with a smile!

Thursday, June 25, 2015


It would be almost two years since I started work at my office. These two years have flown by in a twinkle of an eye. The two years I spent getting my master’s felt much longer than that. Also the 1+ year for me getting ready for and applying for my master’s degree.

I’ll be talking about some things that you don’t see that often – at least I didn’t see it that often when I was working at the Factory. When I joined the Factory, I was contracted to them to work for a certain number of years. So maybe I was unfire-able, or maybe I was not. There were rumours that were going all around that some people were to be terminated. What actually happened was that there was this perception that during the fat years when the factory had a monopoly, people became complacent and fat. After things started to slide, the Factory management made a disastrous decision that resulted in a big customer defecting to a rival. After a year or two, there was a decision made to flush people out. People on the factory floor were largely spared, but those people on the back end got screwed.

I still remember how jittery it was that people faced the prospect of getting terminated. People got together and talked about their fears. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Because I had that contract, I hardly bothered to go into the job market and look for work. I would have had very little experience of hunting for a job. Perhaps in my entire life, I’ve only ever spent a maximum of two years in a job hunt. But I wouldn’t be screwed. The only issue was whether or not I was ever going to land a good enough job.

On the day of the retrenchment, nobody was in the mood to work. So we just sat around the common area. The boss of our office (who didn’t fare very well in the years after this and until I left the Factory) was in the next room, and I didn’t see him all day. I didn’t want to see what it was like in that room. They took the table from the computer lab and the boss would be sitting at that table, and solemnly announcing to everybody that they had been terminated. There was a colleague of mine, she had come in around the same time as me, perhaps she started earlier than me. She was on a contract, maybe a shorter contract. She didn’t think she would get it either. The thing is, on the day before, we tried to log her on to her enterprise resource system, and we weren’t able to do it. So I had a bad feeling about it. In fact, I suspected something, and then I tried to log myself on, and I managed to get in. So I didn’t tell her what I was thinking, but I was aware. In fact, I had met her while going to work in the morning, and I did think to myself, “this is what it feels like when somebody is going to work for the very last time”.

Everybody who was going to be fired was assigned a buddy that day. So the buddies were the first to know they weren’t going to be fired. They were going to take care of people who were let go. There were six people who were let go from my department, not because they were lousy, but because somebody higher up from my boss told him to choose six. Two were people who joined around the same time as me: one joined earlier, and that girl I mentioned earlier. Two were the oldest analysts in the department, who were effectively given an early retirement. Since people received a gratuity of 1 month of pay for every year they had worked with the Factory, it was a very welcome golden handshake. But the two most tragic cases came from the clerks. The clerks were – well I didn’t know what they did. Mostly filing and odd jobs. That’s the thing, since they were older but more junior, I didn’t feel that it was right for me to go boss them around. One of them was obviously chosen. He was kind of mentally slow. But we had to choose another one. There was a clerk who was actually a Nanyang graduate, and he was the brightest of the lot, almost capable of doing the work of an analyst, but he didn’t have to, so he didn’t. Another was the boss’s personal assistant. That left a choice between two people. One of them was a little grouchy, but surprisingly good at English, the only one who spoke with perfect grammar. The other one was lazy as heck. But the lazy as heck one didn’t end up getting fired. Instead it was the one who had the faculty at English. Why? At first people speculated that it was because he was good friends with the boss, and both of them went to the same church. Later on, it hit me that it doesn’t really matter whether you’re good friends or not. You do not want to let go somebody you’re going to continue seeing socially. The girl who was let go, I heard that she was crying a lot on the way out. Later on I was asked to meet up with her, and my friend, Shingo, asked to meet up. I was feeling tired that day and declined, but maybe it wasn’t really a nice thing to do. It was a very hairy experience. I didn’t think I was a good performer at that point. It could have been me, and probably would have been, but for the fact that they were holding out for me to fulfill my “potential”. Well, at least they were right that I had potential.

Things were a little different at my Mexico office. I had long heard that American offices were much more willing to fire somebody, and small offices were also much more willing to fire somebody.

The next person in the office to be hired after me – they were interviewing people, and then this hot chick (call her Jane) turned up and seemed to be a good fit. I saw the meeting minutes, her boss even described her as a “keeper”. I was hoping they would hire her when she turned up. But I’ve blogged about her before and I won’t do it again.

I have to admit that during that incident, I was listening to a bit of “Something Better Beginning” by the Kinks. “Is this the start of another heart breaker / Or something better beginning?” In this case, I never got to know her. I did try to talk to her a couple of times, but that would probably be the last time I was so forthcoming with a colleague in that office. And I would probably say that her firing was the end of my honeymoon with the office. I used to think of it as some really great utopia for a while. But no more.

Later on, there was this admin assistant. On the first day that she came, you know she delivers the parcels and she was asking whether that person was me. I was vaguely saying yeah who else could it be, and to my surprise she took umbrage at what I said. One thing you have to remember as an Asian in America is that white people will take offence at some innocuous things you say, and they’ll do it fairly quickly. I was careful around her for the remainder of the time that she was working.

One day, a colleague of mine invited a few people over to go have a drink at the bar after work. Unusually, I joined in. It was a Friday. We got that “XXX has just left the company” email on Monday.

And there was a third time that somebody got fired. And it was the most unusual case. For the other two, they were on probation, and we wanted to know whether a person was suitable to work in our company. In both cases, the answer was “no”.

This guy, P, was different. He had been working in the office for four years. Just reached 30. Just became a father. He was the marketing manager, and he helped promote our company and give it a brand name. He was around for a couple of years before I joined the company, and he helped to bring this company from a start-up into the era where it was starting to get comfortable. I didn’t know him very well, but he was friendly, a Midwesterner who rode a bike. Somebody said that he had a playful side. This was different. With L, she was always staying back to finish all her work. So they just picked a night and fired her.

I didn’t know P very well. In fact, he was the only guy in the office whose real role in the set-up was not something that I really understood. Perhaps he had been cruising for some time and not being involved in his work. He just had a kid and occasionally brought him to the office, and everybody would start cooing over the baby. I’ve had lunch with him once or twice, never had anything interesting to say. There was a time when I met him while hanging out at the roof. He had gone there to hide away, and he muttered something about having a really full lunch. I didn’t say anything and continued bashing away at my laptop. There was another time when I met him when he was going back home early at the end of the day. Those of you guys who knew me from my factory days would not be too surprised that if I were to pick what time to go to work and what time to knock off, I would turn up at 11 in the morning and leave at 8 or 9 at night. In fact, if I really had the choice, I would start in the afternoon and end at midnight. There was this time, when we went for bowling, and for the last game, he would be fooling around, trying out trick shots. The last thing I think he did was to do a translation of our software into a foreign language.

I talked to the chief clerk after that. The chief clerk was a good friend of P, and she sometimes baby sat their kid. She was distraught at having to prepare the paperwork to fire P, and couldn’t tell him. She told me that they spoke soon after the firing, that P could never work at the same place for too long, that possibly he felt hemmed in, that maybe he needed a change. I hope that he’s alright. I also hope that his son is alright. I also spoke to another former colleague and he wasn’t working with us anymore. He knew that P was trying to start something up on the side, but didn’t know if he was successful. I also learnt that he had a run-in with one of the two bosses (but not the one he reported to). He had heard P’s work being talked about positively but that was maybe a while back.

It was a little unnerving seeing a veteran get kicked out like that. The “farewell” email by the boss read, in part “while I appreciate what he’s done for the company and for me personally, we’ve been growing apart for a while now”.

Well if it’s any omen, there’s an eerie echo of the Factory: clerks, newcomers and veterans being kicked out in equal proportions. Hopefully I don’t have to see a firing any time soon.


Monday, June 22, 2015

What school doesn't teach you

I haven’t been blogging much because it’s all replaced by quora. Yes, I’m writing anonymously on Quora at the moment. I don’t really want people digging through myself, but I’m pretty comfortable with people reading my stuff without knowing who I really am. Maybe I get more feedback from strangers. There are a few people who know my real life identity but a lot of water has passed under the bridge and I’ve been away for years and peoples’ lives grow apart.

I haven’t that much to say on this blog at the moment. I’m living in “Mexico” now, not Singapore. I’m starting to get not very interested in Singapore at the moment. But I’ve seen this article criticizing the Singapore education system and I think I should add on to it. It's not my first commentary on the education system of Singapore. It's good for certain things but not at others, so we should just sit back and take the large view of things instead of always being dazzled by our high PISA results.

I should probably count the ways in which real life is not like Singapore’s education system.

1. In real life, there is no true authority figure like the teacher in the classroom.

2. In school, you just do as you’re told. In fact, in many ways, school is the perfect benevolent dictatorship, which is why Singapore is probably so amenable to it, and which is why high schools in Singapore are so prominent in Singapore public life in a way that is not true in the United States.

3. In school, vying for honours is a zero sum game. In real life, you can always have win-win situations, or lose-lose situations. However, the prisoner’s dilemma is also possible in school, where you can persuade all your classmates to study less hard, and the teacher will grade everybody less harshly as a result.

4. School emphasizes the precise learning of many facts that do not have much to do with each other. Unfortunately a lot of these “facts” are forgotten very soon after the exam is over. In contrast, in order to accomplish a certain practical task in real life, you have to learn skills, not merely facts. These skills are very closely related to each other, and very often enhance each other. So in real life, not only do you have to learn, and not only do you have to learn how to learn, you also have to make an active choice about what to learn.

5. A design task would involve asking very different questions from a test taker. One of my favourite examples is how I discovered that the process of writing a place is so different from studying for a literature exam. When you are writing about literature, you will analyse the theme of the work, the characters, the literary devices like symbolism. It is a very structured analysis. But when you are writing a play, the most important task is something that literature hardly ever focuses on: designing a plot. That always comes first. It is related to everything else, but I was a little startled to see how the irrelevant stuff took precedence. Like people were totally forgetting that they were supposed to write a story.
6. In school, everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is in a way quite structured. In another way, as I have mentioned above, it is not that structured – textbooks are a loose collection of facts. It is possible to score 100 for a test. In real life, a task can never be divorced from its larger context, and therefore you have to ask questions about the larger situation. You can design a device which is great from an engineering perspective, and it will still be a business disaster.

7. In school, your work is individualistic. In real life, you have to find real collaborators, and do the politically messy work of getting people on your side to help you.

8. Related to the previous point, in school, you don’t have to do the political work of making your work more appealing than it is. Negotiating for better grades with your teacher is generally frowned upon. You don’t get to sleep with your teachers in a way that maybe a few people will end up sleeping their way to the top. School truly downplays the importance of schmoozing. School gives you the impression that the world will always recognize a certain form of merit, and that’s definitely not true in the real world.

9. School places undue emphasis on academic results. You are supposed to concentrate 80% on academic results, and disregard most of the other things in life. In the real world, the equation is probably inversed: being good at academic stuff only counts for 20% in many cases. The rest involves making contact with other people, seeking out opportunities, making sales pitches. It’s not that school does not teach people skills. There is nothing more valuable than going to school every day and spending hours with other people your age, when it comes to teaching you social skills. But even that experience is not nearly good enough, and downplays the importance of social skills in real life situations. Thankfully, for many males, national service will be a wakeup call.

10. School emphasizes the importance of academic knowledge, and might even convey the impression that academic knowledge is even superior to real life knowledge. Personally I don’t think so. I also do not think that academic knowledge is more intellectually challenging than trying to figure out real life. There are people who turn away from real life situations in order to live the scholarly life, maybe I’m biased as an engineer, but there’s no reason why it has to be this way, and it’s a shame that people think of going into fields that are not lucrative, and they may not serve mankind well. What is true of intellectually challenging tasks in the real world, is that the knowledge that you need will cut across a lot of different academic disciplines. Peter Drucker talked about management science as the ultimate liberal arts discipline. So the pity is if school introduces and reinforces a view of life where you have a lot of knowledge, but they are all stored in mutually exclusive silos. Then there is this artificial divide between the sciences and the arts that I don’t like very much, but is reinforced in school. I’ve had a tough time of crossing that line.

The issue, of course, is that a lot of the way that schools are run comes about because that’s the easiest way to run a school. And it may not always be to the benefit of its students. The student has a dilemma. On one hand, going to school is supposed to only form a portion of what it means to grow into adulthood. Some may disagree with me, but it’s not actually supposed to take over your life. On the other hand, schools are also the gatekeepers to a premium higher education. Every year, a small but not negligible number of students – including myself – attend some of the top schools in the US. In fact, maybe I didn’t appreciate this, and maybe I’m one of the extremely lucky ones to stumble upon a very good situation, I was only told to do the best that I can do for the “A” levels, and that good things would result from me doing very well. I did not fully realize until much later that those “good things” would include me going to Snowy Hill.

But as well as thing turned out, I wish that I had gotten started on all the other aspects of my education – how to stay out of trouble with your boss, how to live a good life, how to be happy – during my school years instead of learning them much later, when I was already an adult.