Chicago Boyz

                 
 
 
 
What Are Chicago Boyz Readers Reading?
 

Recommended Photo Store
 
Buy Through Our Amazon Link or Banner to Support This Blog
 
 
 
  •   Enter your email to be notified of new posts:
    Email *
  •   Problem? Question?
  •   Contact Authors:

  • CB Twitter Feed
  • Lex's Tweets
  • Jonathan's Tweets
  • Blog Posts (RSS 2.0)
  • Blog Posts (Atom 0.3)
  • Incoming Links
  • Recent Comments

    • Loading...
  • Authors

  • Notable Discussions

  • Recent Posts

  • Blogroll

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Archive for the '25 Stories About Work' Category

    25 Stories About Work – Experience

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 1st December 2016 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, 1990s through today

    I just finished reading the book “Disrupted” by Dan Lyons about a journalist from Newsweek who takes a job at a start up which eventually goes public called Hubspot.  Mr. Lyons is out of place from day one as he describes how the company acts without much oversight, firing workers on a whim (they ‘graduate’) and rapidly turning over employees as the company attempts to get to the public markets before the money runs out.  To make this even stranger, the author also writes for the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley” and Hubspot allegedly goes after him to stop this book from being published, and the board finds out about it and fires / sanctions some (but not all) of the managers that he portrayed in the book.

    All that aside, the purpose of this post is to talk about experience, and how it changes you over the decades, and its value and detriments.  Reading that book caused (not “inspired”) me to think about my own views and how they’ve evolved over the years.

    It is strange when you go from being the “new kid” to being the grey-ish haired “experienced” one.  Recently I was at 1871, the incubator in Chicago for new start-ups at the Merchandise Mart in River North where I used to live.  As I walked around I noted all the fresh faces, the beer on tap, and the grown men riding around on razor scooters to get from meeting to meeting.  Then I realized – hey I am just an old guy here.  I’m not one of them, although I could probably be a boss of some sort in one of these companies (depending on what they are looking for).


    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Book Notes | Comments Off on 25 Stories About Work – Experience

    25 Stories About Work – Getting a Review and Thinking Like Your Boss

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 22nd November 2016 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, 1990s through today

    If you are ever looking for a great book to read, I would recommend High Output Management by Andy Grove, the late former founder of Intel. I picked up a hard copy on the internet for just a few dollars including shipping and although it was written in the mid 1980s (and updated in the early 1990s) much of the book is completely relevant for both new entrants to the work force and those that have been engaged for decades.

    Andy Grove had a passion for getting the most out of his employees, since he was focused on productivity and his staff represented a large cost (and opportunity) for his organization. He approached productivity in two main ways 1) by leveraging process and eliminating bureaucracy he could move faster at lower cost 2) by training and motivating his staff, he could achieve greater outputs. For the purpose of this post we will focus on #2, although it should be remembered that Andy Grove also essentially popularized key elements of the “open office” plan where executives sit amongst their staff which I will cover in a future post.

    For his employees, he defined motivation as getting the maximum that he could achieve. His motivation would broadly be considered “engagement” in the modern definition. “Engaged” employees go the extra mile and are passionate and drive for results, while “dis-engaged” employees are an active drag on the business and your company would frankly be better off if they just stayed home. Most employees are in the middle of the spectrum, neither actively engaged nor disengaged.

    Training and feedback are the key elements of this post. Andy pushed training in his business and held his executives to a standard that they needed to teach and be part of the process of investing in employees. I remember when I was starting out in my master’s program many case studies held up Motorola as ahead of their time with the “Motorola University” of classes to train and advance their employees. All of this was done before the internet with papers, books and physical classes and it represented a significant investment for the company. Today, these programs have mostly been minimized at large corporations, although many service firms (financial and technology) still invest heavily in training and grooming their own staff, and most large internet / technology firms have more extensive orientation and learning methodologies.

    For feedback, there is a template for an annual review in this book from the 1980s which contains all of the key elements of an employee review that you might receive today. The employee is supposed to do a self-review prior to the meeting, and the manager goes through the strengths, weaknesses, and areas of improvement and seeks out feedback from peers in order to develop a thorough analysis. Andy Grove mentioned how important employee development and feedback was to him and how he forced other top executives to be part of and even care about the process although many of them did it in a perfunctory manner (complying with the process but not the “spirit”).

    From my personal experience and from those of my work acquaintances across many industries, the formal personnel appraisal has been dying for many years and is usually done in a perfunctory manner if it happens at all. If you are in a services business (consulting, law, finance), your personnel review is essentially done for you in the course of your engagements, since “good” staff are selected for teams and “poor” staff are shuffled around and / or “ride the bench”. Leaders have an incentive to collect (and shield) the best staff because they make the most money for their groups by pleasing clients and billing lots of hours while the poorer performers are not selected and (mostly) find their way out of the organization (or into the back office bureaucracy where they don’t face clients). While the service firms’ HR departments would vehemently deny this statement, it is the “broad” truth.

    But if you are in a corporation or smaller business that is not service facing, you will be most impacted by a poor or minimalistic review process (as an employee), because you won’t get valuable and direct feedback that will help you grow and improve. In today’s corporate environment, re-organizations are frequent and managers rotate through departments (or are thrown into direct work), so supervision routinely moves to the back burner. There is little incentive to groom and work on staff (as a manager) if you aren’t going to be around for 2-3 years in the same job because it takes time to invest in staff and improving processes and behaviors and there is no purpose in putting in this sort of investment if you are just going to move on to the next job anyways.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Book Notes, Management | 12 Comments »

    Midnight Rock & Roll – Adventures on the Night Shift

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 5th March 2016 (All posts by )

    The second of two parts – the overnight shift at the AFRTS radio station at Hellenikon AB, Athens, Greece in about 1984. The base is long-closed, the radio station also closed. Practically all the technology discussed, as well as the various broadcast media are antiques from another era.

    Program out, hit the ID, time hack… and this time I hit one cart for playback, another for record.
    We need to pre-record and review every newscast and news feature that we air, because of the host-nation sensitivity issue. Every allied country where AFRTS operates has its own list of things and issues that we may not, as tactful users of their airwaves, and considerable of a shadow audience among their nationals, broadcast in any way, shape or form. Well, every country but Denmark, tolerant and broadminded, who have stated that really, they can’t imagine taking offense to anything AFRTS might broadcast. Greece, on the other hand, has a lengthy list: any mention of Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, NATO or the EEC (European Economic Community) is red-flagged, even the most brief and casual mention. We are supposed to get clearance from the NCOIC/Radio, the Program Director, Station Manager, PAO, and maybe even elevate it to the JUSMAGG PAO, depending on the seriousness of the mention. Or, just pitch the newscast, if it is a one-time only mention, and hope for better luck with the next newscast feed. Given the Greek propensity for taking hair-trigger offense, and our location in Athens, with a large, English-speaking population… well, it is the only way we can operate, but we all become very paranoid, about reviewing the newscasts.

    I have an abiding nightmare that in the middle of some innocuous interview with some Hollywood nit-wit, when I am only paying half-attention, someone will say, “Oh, by the way, did you know that the Prime Minister of Greece routinely performs sexual indignities with barnyard animals?” I suspect the capacity for perceived insult is inversely proportional to the grasp of rapid, colloquial American English . One of our troops had a reference to a “greasy spoon restaurant” in a locally produced spot, and some high-up in the government made it out to be an offence on the culture of Greece. We had to pull the spot, I don’t know if anyone ever attempted to explain the difference to the objecting gentleman, but on the whole, it was fortunate that a lot of what Wolfman Jack said went straight over many heads. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 2 Comments »

    Midnight Rock & Roll – Adventures on the Night Shift

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 3rd March 2016 (All posts by )

    Since I did the TV overnight shift for one of my ebooks, I thought an archaeological reconstruction of an overnight shift on AFRTS-Radio would make a nice balance: This is a shift I would have worked at EBS (European Broadcasting Squadron) Hellenikon in 1984ish, and is part one of two.

    My daughter has already been asleep for several hours. She is used to being carried downstairs, wrapped in a blanket and strapped into the car seat in the back of the orange Volvo sedan for the short ride to the sitters, over in Sourmena. Her friend Sara, whose mother is our babysitter, is already in bed. In the morning, Sara’s mother will take them both to preschool, and I will collect Blondie from school. We’ll have the afternoon and early evening for ourselves. Blondie curls up, thumb in mouth, fast asleep as soon as I have tucked her into the bed she will share with Sara. I say good night to Sara’s parents, and drive down hill towards Hellenikon. It’s 9:30 at night; by Greek standards it’s the best part of the evening, especially in summer. The shops have just closed, but the restaurants are doing a booming business, and traffic is heavy on Vouliagmeni, the main boulevard between downtown Athens, out to Glyphada and the coastal road south to the temple at Sounion.

    Hellenikon Airbase is a narrow strip trickling downhill to the airport runway, a single road zigzagging from the entry gate, all the way down to the MAC terminal and weather station, at the bottom by the ramps to the flightline. A professional baseball pitcher could probably fling a baseball entirely across it at any point.

    The entrance gate is on Vouligmeni, set back a little way from the traffic, and heavy concrete balks, the size of trash dumpsters force vehicle traffic to zigzag slowly, in a single lane. The base is regularly targeted by protestors, and threats of violence. Those threats are delivered upon often enough to make the Security Police, as well as the rest of us, very, very wary.
    I show my ID card to the SP, and continue down the hill, past CBPO, and the short road towards the car wash and BX gas station. All the base is to the left or right of the road, which splits into a one-way loop halfway down the hill, below the Chapel and the BX complex.

    Across from the chapel are the old radio station building, and the Post office; further downhill are the barracks buildings for single airmen, the hospital. The new radio station building is behind the post office and the Rec Center, backed up nearly to the perimeter fence. I swing into the parking lot and run in to see if there is mail in my box: Letters and magazines, and goodie, a pink cardboard slip, meaning there is a package for me to pick up at the window sometime the next day, but until then duty calls.

    The new building replaced a tiny structure the size of a three-car garage, into which was wedged with fiendish ingenuity two studios, a radio library, a work area for the engineers, a teletype room, a small office/work area, with an even smaller one for the station manager, and a lavatory not appreciably larger than the station managers office. In the old days, there were not chairs enough to seat the entire staff at one time, or the space to put them all if there had been. For the last eight months, we have been reveling in the generous space afforded by the new building: two lavish stories, three studios, and a huge high-ceilinged work area with a curving stairway against the wall. Security lights keep the outside nearly as bright as daylight; I have never had a moment of worry, working alone at night. There is a telephone extension in a metal box by the door: I use it to call up to the studio for the swing shift guy to let me in, and wait until he comes down the stairs.
    “Anything much going on?”
    “Nope… the voiceline’s dropping in and out, I called Comm already. Same old, same old, trouble at Mt. Vergine, it’s fixed when it’s fixed. I’ve left you two newscasts. Can you voice a couple of lines for a spot? Just leave the tape on the desk with the script.”
    “No problem. I’ll take over now, if you want to split.”
    The previous operations supervisor, a man not long departed from the unit (to the profound relief of most of the junior broadcasters) had insisted that the only voices used for produced spots be those of the assigned military staff. As I am the only woman assigned to the unit, anyone wanting to use a female voice for a spot must use mine. Frankly, if I weren’t me, I’d have been sick to death of the sound of my own voice. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 8 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work: History Became Legend, Legend Became Myth..

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 1st July 2015 (All posts by )

    And some things which should not have been forgotten….
    Have not been, because they are either funny or excellent cautionary tales. The Teflon Man, for instance: he bestrode the small world of military broadcasting, providing a rich legacy of horrible gaffes, cringe-inducing miscalculations and antics which reflected no credit whatever upon the unit to which he was attached. Spend more than a couple of years as an NCO in military broadcasting, and you will know everyone, or know of everyone, and the Teflon Man was a legend, like Bigfoot or Elvis, because nothing ever seemed to stick. He had more lives than Wylie Coyote, bouncing back time and time again from incidents that would have seen any other military broadcaster sent back to civilian life, working the overnight TV board shift for the last-rated station in Sheboygan or Bakersfield.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 5 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – From College to Work

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 21st June 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, early 1990s

    Today it seems like everyone goes into college after taking many Advanced Placement (AP) courses with a lot of college credits. When I did this in the late 1980s, however, it was much rarer. I was able to cut out an entire semester with credits from high school and with summer school and a heavy course load I was able to graduate with an undergraduate and graduate degree in accounting in four years.

    I remember finishing college at the end of May. Back then we didn’t have air conditioning in our house nor in the buildings on campus and I remember just sweating so much that my arms stuck to the coursework. In graduate school we had a number of group projects which were harder to schedule back in the day before email and cell phones; we had to pick a time and actually stick to it in order to collaborate. Exams were long and we had to turn in all of our projects and I was kind of exhausted.

    Immediately after completion of exams I took the CPA exam. Today the exam is much different and it is commonly taken “in pieces” but back then most people sat down and in two days tried to knock out all four sections at once; you needed a score of “75%” to pass each section and I passed all four the first time, although one of the sections was right on the edge with that “75”. The exam was in McCormick Place, South of the Loop, and on Friday around 6pm I decided to take side streets (Ashland) up from the South Loop to the North Side. That turned out to be a terrible decision; at that time Chicago was extremely dangerous and this was before gentrification of the South and West Loop; there were large groups of people milling about in the street and burning trashcans like that scene out of “Rocky”. I got through it but it was something I’d never recommend trying again.

    By the middle of June I was starting my first job. The accounting firm tried to get me to start in the fall, when the vast majority of new staff joined, and asked me why I didn’t want to just take the summer off.

    “Because I don’t have any money” was my answer.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 19 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – The Unfortunate Incident In the Base Housing Area

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 11th May 2015 (All posts by )

    (A retelling from my extensive archives of a certain unfortunate incident, and the efforts involved in keeping a straight face when broadcasting about it on the local radio station.)

    As it so happens with so many unfortunate incidents, it came out without much warning, and piece by piece, the first harbinger being in the form of an emergency spot announcement brought around from the front office by our admin NCO. The radio and television station at Zaragoza AB was situated in two (later three) ancient Quonset huts. The radio and engineering sections occupied the largest, which was two of them run together at some long-ago date. (We were never able to get permission to run all three buildings together with an extension— the cost of building such would be more than the real estate value of the three buildings being combined, and so, of course, it couldn’t be done. My heartfelt plea to build extensions to the existing buildings which would take them within six inches or so of the other structures and let us fill in the gap with a self-help project was routinely and cruelly rejected. Base Civil Engineering can be so f**king heartless.)

    Sgt. Herrera found the radio staff in the record library: a small, windowless room almost entirely filled with tall shelves roughed out of plywood, and filled with 12-inch record discs in heavy white or manila shucks. A GSA metal utility office desk, and a couple of library card-file cabinets filled up the rest of the available space, which was adorned with outrageous and improbable news stories clipped from the finest and most unreliable tabloids, Far Side cartoons, and current hit charts from Billboard and Radio & Record. The morning guy was putting away the records that he had pulled for his show, the news guy was using the typewriter, and I was supervising it all, and prepping my playlist for the midday show.

    “The SPs want this on the air right away.” He handed the slip of paper to me. “The dogs are real dangerous.”
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Humor, Miscellaneous | 5 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – It’s All About Cash Flow (Part II, Large Companies)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 3rd May 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The USA, early 1990s to mid 2010s

    When we have new staff I usually orientate them on the concept that

    You should assume that many outside vendors who bill us don’t care about getting paid

    Although this concept seems astonishing and against basic capitalist principles, it is often the case.  While each vendor is different, a share of the vendors bill us months and months after the fact and often the bills are incorrect and  incomplete.  Sometimes we have to initiate the process and call the companies to demand the invoices, so that we can match them to the purchase documents and receipts, as well as check the taxes, quantities and costing components.  If we don’t reach out to these laggard vendors and push for complete and accurate billing, we will have a crisis on our hands quarterly when we attempt to accrue for what we are owed and sort through months and months of late and incomplete bills and partial payments.

    The only time some of the vendors start to care about collections is when the bills are so delayed that the sales teams’ commissions are at risk.  At that point the company typically springs into action and is “Johnny on the spot” attempting to reach out to resolve any issues because the sales teams at the vendor have significant power in the organization and complain with vehemence whenever their compensation is at risk.

    While some vendors are laggards on collections, they all are focused on closing deals at the end of each quarter so that they can “book” these deals as revenue per accounting purposes.  There are criteria that must be met (the hardware must be shipped from their dock) but the firms will generally stay up all night or jump through whatever bureaucratic hoops are necessary to complete the deals for that quarter.

    These notes specifically apply to public companies that aren’t in major financial distress.  These companies are aligned to GAAP principles, which focus on earnings and not cash collections, so they often don’t stress timely and accurate invoicing and collection of their bills.

    On the other hand – private companies or those that have been taken over by hedge funds and other sorts of shrewder operators, are completely focused on cash flow.  If you are a private company, earnings matter (especially if you are “prettying” it up for sale) but CASH IS KING.  Private equity investors like to pay themselves cash dividends out of the companies they acquire, so they definitely sweat the timing of payments and keep a close handle on cash flow.  These same private companies also work strenuously to minimize taxes which stand in the way of dividend payments to the owner.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 5 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – It’s All About Cash Flow (Part I, Small Companies)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 12th April 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The USA, early 1990s to mid 2010s

    Recently I saw this little blurb in the NY Times business section which perfectly encapsulates one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in all my years of working – it is all about cash flow.

    The simplest measure of success for a business is bringing in more cash than you pay out and having a positive bank account balance at the end of the month. When you are in charge of a business and attempting to make your payroll these sorts of concerns should always be “top of mind”.

    Cash Flows in a Smaller Firm

    When we started our consulting firm you had to put up enough capital to pay salaries for a while (we took a small “draw” to keep us afloat, not our former total compensation) until we were able to bring in cash from customers. However, this is a longer process than you might imagine if you weren’t educated in the realities of all the crucial steps in the chain necessary to get paid. Since we were accountants and finance people we went into this with “eyes wide open” but I can only imagine the types of trouble that creative types meet up with when facing this same conundrum.

    Thus our sequence of cash flows at a high level when starting up a consulting firm looked like this:

    – Additions – capital contributions from partners. Based on the equity you wanted in the final firm, you needed to put in capital (that maybe you’d never receive back) to start up the firm
    – Additions – loans. We didn’t take out loans but we could have. Banks generally never loan you money unless you have collateral and we didn’t so it would have been credit card debt at the time
    – Reductions – office space and rent. We needed to start somewhere. Initially we just used a room in our boss’s house, which worked out fine, and later we rented a space near a bowling alley. Note that everyone you are renting from eyes startups with a rueful glance and you can’t expect to get much in the way of credit because they don’t want to end up holding the bag
    – Reductions – insurance, legal fees, taxes, office staff, computers. All the ephemera of an office needed to be purchased but we did it second hand. We also used our own skills rather than hiring third parties whenever possible (almost all of the time)
    – Reductions – payments to core staff. We used “draws” which were minimal amounts to cover life expenses and in a way were payments in advance of what you’d earn, not like a salary that you receive regardless of the end state of the enterprise and your personal contribution. For office staff we picked up later we needed to pay them a normal salary

    All of this happened before we even met a potential customer. Then we needed to fly out and meet customers (we already had a lot of connections; much of our early success came from bringing on existing clients from former consulting firms), convince them to sign us up, agree on a price and contract terms, and then begin doing the work.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 14 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – TV Knights & Radio Daze

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 11th April 2015 (All posts by )

    The guys at Far East Network-Misawa in the days of my first duty station in the Air Force and my first overseas tour were a joke-loving lot, much given to razzing each other, with elaborate practical jokes and humor of the blacker sort. Practically none of it would survive scrutiny these days by a Social Actions officer, or anyone from the politically-correct set, either in the military or out. The nature of the job means the successful are verbally aggressive, intellectually quick, and even when off-mike, very, very entertaining. Some broadcasters I encountered later on were either sociopaths, terminally immature, pathological liars, or otherwise severely maladapted to the real world. They could generally cope, given a nice padded studio, a clearly defined set of duties, and a microphone with which to engage with the real world at a remove. Regular, face to face interaction with others of their species was a bit more problematic. But all that would come later. The people during my first tour or two were something else entirely.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Humor, Military Affairs | 7 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – New Technology and Productivity

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 10th April 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The USA, early 1990s to mid 2010s

    Oftentimes I can remember clearly the first time I was exposed to new technology. Unfortunately these stories don’t have “light bulbs” going off in my head like in a cartoon; it usually involves me being befuddled and trying to determine why this technology is innovative or even useful.

    In the early to mid 1990s I was at a client in Reno, Nevada when the manager on our engagement showed me their “calendar” application. This application let you set up meetings with other employees, or show if you were going to be out of office or unavailable. The interface was very simple (like a mainframe “green screen”) and I kind of stared at it for a while. Why can’t you just call around and set up a meeting at a particular time, I wondered aloud. However, we were consultants, so while we worked all day (and into the night), the client’s staff were forced to attend meetings during most waking hours. It still seemed like overkill to me to have a giant system just to set up meetings, however. Obviously history has proven me wrong and calendar applications are the “killer app” of the modern productivity suite.

    At around that same time I was at a client in Cincinnati, Ohio when another consultant showed me a PDF document format. He explained (very patiently, in hindsight) that if you created a PDF and then had a viewer application it would work on every kind of computer, whether or not they had the software that you created the document in. I was confused. Didn’t everyone have Microsoft office? Couldn’t they just open it in word? Once again I missed the big picture.

    Email was around for a while but it didn’t catch on fire in our profession (consulting). A lot of this was due to the fact that we spent our days at the client site and the client (where we did most of our work) was on a different email system from our consulting company’s email system. Thus the most useful email wasn’t your firm email, it was the client’s email, because this would let you know when meetings were occurring and get important data from the client’s directly (although we usually used shared drives). I do remember my sense of accomplishments when I sent my first marketing email to a known client in the mid to late 1990s… I was waiting like that kid in “A Christmas Story” who wanted his secret decoder package from Ovaltine for a response to my meticulously crafted email… and of course it never came because I was late to the party and the potential customer had already gotten used to be inundated with marketing email (and ignored it).
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Tech | 6 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – When It All Goes Wrong

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 4th April 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The USA, early 1990s to early 2000s

    During the course of my career I have been involved in many cases of companies dying, bankruptcy, and other negative corporate events. At times I was there until the bitter end; often I left before the final events occurred but could see evidence of encroaching doom. When you are first starting off as an employee with little experience these signs are harder to understand; as a veteran I can now unfortunately pick them up right away.

    One of my first memories as a public accountant was the day that they fired all the administrative assistants. Not the ones for the executives – the ones that helped the new staff get orientated. These women (they were all women it was the early 1990s) ran each of the floors and it was the first time I’d seen anyone get fired en masse. This was before email I think they left us all some sort of strange voice mail or something (voice mail was big back then). It seemed very sad at the time.

    In the early 1990s there was a lot of tension in the public accounting firms between audit / tax vs. the consulting side. I was a staff person and was invited to one of the partner meetings (because I played bass guitar but that is a different story) and I could see the vitriol between the two groups. When the audit partners’ asked “how could they help” the consultants the answer was to “get out of our way”. This was not the happy story that I was being fed as a staff person, for certain.

    Later that accounting firm went belly up but I was long gone by then. We started up a small consulting firm and it was fantastic for a while. However, it all started to fall apart as key founding members left after a dispute with the main owners over compensation and eventually I was one of those that departed. The departure was even more difficult since many of my friends and family members were also involved with that firm. Unlike most of the other companies in this piece, however, that firm thrives until this day. So we can conclude that I was not indispensable…

    At various points during my career I had a “choice” between two firms. Often I chose the wrong one. At the time I didn’t realize that right before you go public, you shave out all of your costs for a quarter or two and you accelerate all the revenue into the current period (to the extent that this is possible and legal, of course) in order to make your company look great for the IPO process. Living in a company that is doing this is very painful and I left but that was before the company became one of the first successful IPOs of the era (a completely unexpected and unprecedented outcome) and I missed out on an opportunity for those founder stock options.

    As the dot.com era came to a close there was a giant shake-out in the Internet and Consulting sector. I worked with three companies in succession that eventually went bankrupt. The first of them had an IPO (in the era of voice mail plus a bit of email) and I noted that it was odd that most of the IPO funds raised went to pay out one of the primary investors (they took the cash, we retained the stock). In hindsight of course this was another ominous sign.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Chicagoania | 2 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Days Gone By

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 31st March 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The USA, early 1990s to early 2000s

    For over ten years I traveled mostly five days a week.  Back then we flew out on Sunday night so that we could be on site Monday morning at 8am, and we left the job site on Friday after 5pm which meant that typically I’d get home in the wee hours of the morning on Friday, since often we had to drive for hours to get to the airport before we could even fly home.

    Those years are a blur.  I joined the work force during a recession in 1990 and everyone was happy to have a job; no one was complaining.  Right as the dot-com boom ended in about 2001 we had changed our ways and most of the team was flying out Monday morning and leaving on Thursday and “worked from home” on Fridays.  This was viewed as “the good life”.

    However, for most of those years, life was a blur of travel, packing, unpacking, and working.  It would likely be impossible to motivate staff to work and travel like that nowadays; back then no one thought anything of it and we really didn’t even complain as people got divorced and their personal lives crumbled into dust.

    Going into the workplace in 1990 there were three things that you could count on:

    1. You were going to work all the time, very hard
    2. You were likely going to work for a bad boss who would drive you with a whip
    3. Often times everyone would go out and have some drinks and a good time
    With these expectations, it was hard to be disappointed.  We worked all the time and then we went out for dinner and drinks and then got up the next day and did it over and over again.  From our perspective, this was the way it always had been and the way that it always would be.  These sorts of expectations are built into the name of our blog “Life in the Great Midwest” and it sums up the world view and baseline of our careers.

    Certainly people washed out from this insane grind.  It was mostly a male-dominated profession, although there were a few women consultants and auditors who mostly found roles where they were able to minimize their travel.  This was a zero sum game, however – since they took the roles that didn’t involve much traveling, often you had to travel that much more.  Someone had to service all of the clients and many of them were located in cities with few local staff, and those local staff often didn’t have the skills that the client needed.  Thus the same road warriors showed up and did the work, and every year a few more of them fell off the team due to family reasons (or they just “wised up”) but were always replaced by new fresh faced kids eager to earn what seemed to be top dollar or a wizened ex-corporate type needing to make more money.  The kids often worked out but the older ones didn’t; it was difficult to adjust to a life of heavy travel midway through your career.

    The consulting firms went public – the biggest one was Accenture, but all the big names (with a few exceptions like McKinsey and BCG) eventually monetized and to some extent it was like the Silicon Valley of that era.  Many got rich and I had the opportunity to participate in a couple of the smaller ones but ended up taking the choice that didn’t lead to my own riches; but that’s my own (bad) luck.

    Consulting and auditing pale in comparison to investment banking; I never have seen people that put in more hours than investment bankers.  I have no idea how they do it; a couple of years ago I went out for dinner and a couple drinks with a good friend of mine who is an investment banker in his 40s, and afterwards he went back to his hotel room and worked for a few more hours on a “pitch deck” for a client meeting the next day.  Whether it is practical work or not isn’t for me to judge; but as a long term “road warrior” I can tip my hat to them as being completely off their rocker in terms of how much time they are willing to invest in a client.

    Perhaps the new “road warriors” are the Silicon Valley start up people.  I have been at a few of their companies and I can see the drive and stamina oozing from their pores as they stare at their computer screens, working to make their riches.  They are a bunch of young men as I was once right out of college as an auditor and they are hurling themselves into their careers and trying to make the immense riches of stock options and to be part of something great.  I’m sure that there are many women in there but the vast majority of the staff are men and they are attacking these opportunities like we used to as consultants.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business | 12 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Training and Learning on the Job

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 7th March 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, early 1990s

    When I started out as an auditor I actually had to attend a 2 week class to learn how to create audit work papers.  This was my first “real” job out of college and I was very motivated to do well.

    Looking back, the “teachers” were mainly auditors with a few years of experience.   This worked out fine because they were still immersed in the details while the top executives had long since forgotten about the details of day to day existence.

    I shared a room on their “campus” with another first year auditor.  I was astonished when he brought two pairs of work shoes (wingtips) – he said if you switched every day, your shoes lasted longer.  I never had considered something like that.

    The training was very stressful and I had “dreams” about how to create work papers.  Many of the other students had been interns previously so this was old hat to them but for me it was difficult because it was meticulous and seemingly pointless work.

    At various points we went into formal classes on specific industries; I was in the regulated practice so I attended a one week course on how utilities set their rates and recover their costs. The class was good and I will never forget when I walked up to the guy teaching it afterwards and introduced myself and said my name and he said

    “Who gives a f&ck about who you are?”

    It was a good lesson because from his perspective (and the client’s perspective) we were just low level auditors there to do a job and we should put our heads down, fill out the paperwork, go through the same tests as last year, and get the heck out (and on to the next job).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 5 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – On Your Own Time

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 26th February 2015 (All posts by )

    The posts about work in the not-so-long-distant past brought to mind this essay, the original of which was posted in 2005 here, at The Daily Brief)

    Believe it or not, the military is full of enthusiasts, amateur devotees of all sorts of arcane arts and pursuits in their off-duty time. Drinking, carousing and other hell-raising have been from time immemorial associated with off-duty military, and the economies of entire towns have been built around providing the venues for that sort of amusement but the little-recognized truth is for most adults, they eventually pall, in the military and on the outside. The advantage to the military is that that there is really no rigid set of socially acceptable off-duty pursuits as there are other walks of life. What you do, when you go home and take off the uniform is pretty much your own business for enlisted people; as long as it is not illegal, embarrassing to the service or the US government, and does not impair you in performing your regular duties or showing up for work on time the next day. There is very little social pressure to conform in your choice of hobbies and amusements, which may seem a little outre for a profession which many civilians expect to set a standard for conformity. In reality, the officer-class is a little more constrained, and expected to be a little more conventional and middle-class in their leisure pursuits, and the very top enlisted ranks are supposed to set a good example, but among the lower ranks it doesn’t really matter if you are off on a weekend motorbike road trip to Burning Man, taking classes in economics or obscure martial arts, building houses for Habitat for Humanity, puttering around with your kids at soccer games, or out in the ville drinking to excess with your friends. On Monday morning the reaction among your co-workers is guaranteed to be something along the lines of ‘Hey Dude, whatever.’
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, History, Media | 4 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – The Difficulty of Verifying Cash

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 25th February 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, early 1990s

    For a long time many governmental entities did not have audits from outside firms.  Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s it became common-place for them to have to open up their books and bring in third party professional audit firms to review their accounts.  If they had not been audited before, we called it a “first time through” audit because the amount of work was exponentially maybe one and a half to two times higher – you had to document the controls, figure out who was who at the client, validate the opening balances, etc…  Typically after the first audit it was much easier because the 2nd year audit just followed the work papers of the prior year auditors (unless you were like me and asked a lot of questions, which is a story for another “25 stories about work” article).

    Recently I thought about my experience when I read this article about the state of New Mexico while reading this article from Bloomberg (a fantastic news source) titled “New Mexico’s $100 Million Accounting Error”. From the article:

    New Mexico can’t balance its checkbook.
    Cash in the state’s bank account is at least $100 million short of what’s recorded in the finance department’s ledger, pushing officials to adjust reserves by that amount, to about $650 million. The blame, the current administration says, lies with the introduction of a new accounting system in 2006.

    While it would seem astonishing that in this day and age, when you have on-line bank statements and immediate access to data for personal accounts, that a governmental entity could be that far off the mark, it wasn’t shocking to me. As a new auditor at this first-time through audit, I was given what was thought to be the simplest of tasks – auditing the cash on the books and reconciling this cash balance to the bank statement.

    How you and I and almost everyone else operates is that you have a checkbook balance and as you make a payment (write a check), you deduct that amount from your available cash and you then know how much money you have left in your account. Since deductions can come in many forms (ATM withdrawals, auto-payments, and manual checks) you need to balance your checkbook periodically to make sure you don’t miss anything, but other than that it isn’t that difficult conceptually. The same process obviously works in reverse for deposits.

    The governmental entity I was auditing in the early 1990s, however, used a totally different philosophy. They assumed that they HAD the cash forever until you proved that the check was cashed by whomever they sent the payment out to. Thus when you started to look at the bank balance “on the books”, it showed hundreds of millions of dollars. When you looked at bank statement (from the bank), you saw a few million dollars. Thus my nearly insane task was to reconcile out the hundreds of millions of dollars in payments that had been made over the years to get from all the cash deposited back to the few million dollars left on hand. To be fair, staff at the governmental entity had taken a “crack” at this task and there was lots of manual records attempting to bridge the gap, but it was still a giant effort. New Mexico apparently uses the same “model” today – per that Bloomberg article:

    Officials commissioned a study on the variances between the state ledger and its bank accounts from fiscal 2007 through February 2013.
    Contractors could match only 2 percent of 160 million entries to a corresponding bank transaction, according to a Jan. 19 memo to lawmakers from Legislative Finance Committee staff.
    Hundreds of thousands of transactions totaling more than $836 million are absent from the system, the study found. It estimated that the state could have from $76 million to $400 million less than its records reflect.
    Clifford said he requested $3.4 million to create processes to properly record cash balances. It will take about two years to achieve a “clean” annual financial report, he said. Should the imbalance exceed $100 million, the gap would come out of reserves, he said.

    I still remember writing up memos attempting to explain this situation to the partner on the engagement. We did not have a lot of time set aside for auditing cash, which is supposed to be simple, and when you bid out these governmental jobs we were already doing the work at a loss (compared to standard billing rates) so there was little or no tolerance for spending extra work at this unprofitable client. Thus I was not only handed an impossible task my own firm was not pleased with my careful documentation of this situation which caused them to have to spend even more time writing memos to provide credence to the numbers so that we could complete the audit.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Big Government | 21 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – “Don’t Run” and Rental Cars

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 22nd February 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, late 1990s

    Along with air travel, renting a car is part and parcel of the traveling business person’s experience. Over the years I have rented hundreds if not a thousand rental cars at airports across the USA.

    In the earliest days we’d always get a map from the rental car agency and then use it to navigate our way around town. Rental cars are typically near the airport and kind of tucked away often with lousy signage, so you need to know how to find your way out and how to find your way back. Nowadays most of the airports have a “single system” for rental cars where all the buses drop you off at the same facility, but back in the day each one had their own pros and cons.

    The big innovation in rental cars came when Hertz implemented “Neverlost”. Neverlost was the first in-car navigation system that I was aware of and we started getting it in their cars in the mid to late 1990s. Neverlost spoke to you as a woman in an English accent and she was forever telling me to

    Return to the designated route

    In her peeved manner whenever I made a wrong turn or disobeyed her orders. Any sort of new directions took a long time to take effect, and the system was remarkably clunky compared to what’s available on your smartphone, but back then it seemed like an enormous leap forward. One negative element of this is that I started listening to the machine rather than learning the cities I drove through – in particular Memphis is a city I should have explored with a map but instead sat like a zombie and was told what to do by machine.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Tech, Transportation | 9 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Unions in the Service Sector

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 24th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The Midwest, early 1990s

    When I was first starting out as an auditor I worked in Wisconsin at an electric utility. In your initial jobs as an auditor you were given the least interesting assignments, such as plant accounting. Assets like generating plants don’t usually change much in value from year to year so reconciling the plant assets was a job for the lowliest accountant.

    At the time the records for this plant were kept on what we called “13 column” yellow paper. I never thought about it until today but 13 columns was obviously chosen so that you had 12 individual months plus a thirteenth column for totals. The client’s records were partially computerized but some items (such as the plants built in the ’70s) were done manually.

    The guy who ran plant accounting was old, irascible, and disliked a young kid like myself who asked a lot of questions. They also were frustrated because ever year a new guy (or girl) took a look at the plant accounting records, since it was an entry level job, so they had no continuity and had to re-explain everything (badly) each year.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 18 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – The Furnace Toboggan

    Posted by Dan from Madison on 11th December 2014 (All posts by )

    Carl’s great stories have inspired me to share a few of my own. First some background.

    I work in HVAC/R distribution. HVAC/R means Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration. The function of my company is to house manufacturers goods on a local level, mark them up, sell them to licensed HVAC companies and facilities, and then collect the money. It sounds simple, but that is what I do. In general, we get paid to come up with solutions to people’s problems – sometimes very quickly. If you are suffering because of the weather, I am happy because the extremes make me money. Nobody cares about me when it is 75 degrees outside. However, we also have a commercial refrigeration piece, and that business is year ’round.

    HVAC in general is a relatively tiny part of our economy, and most numbers I have heard put it at around $25bb annually here in the USA. My job is very demanding, requires long hours, and is extremely competitive.

    Everyone has had an experience or two with their climate control systems. When I go to parties and people find out what I do, the conversation always ends up with me in the basement looking their mechanicals over and giving a recommendation or two.

    I have a lot of friends when the weather gets below zero or above ninety degrees.

    For those of you who have never experienced weather below zero degrees, I actually recommend you travel somewhere and see what it is like. Just once.

    I get lots of calls from people wanting me to open up the shop after hours. One frigid night back in the 90s, a good customer called and needed a furnace. This night, it was a blizzard (and I mean a literal blizzard where you couldn’t see anything) on top of the extreme cold temps. It was mayhem. I questioned the guy on the phone and said “really it can’t wait for tomorrow”?

    Well, this furnace apparently heated a tiny room at a very large insurance company that housed their servers. If this area wasn’t heated up and the pipes burst it would cause untold millions of dollars of damage. They had redundant heating systems but those had failed too. I sighed, kissed my wife goodbye (hopefully not for the last time) and got in my vehicle for the long drive to work to open up the store.

    Normally the drive took 15 minutes but this night it took almost an hour. It was the craziest thing I have ever done. A cop pulled me over on the way and asked me what the f@ck I was doing (he literally said that) out in this blizzard and I told him and he understood and let me go.

    When I got to work the wind had been blowing so hard that my parking lot was encased in three feet of snow and ice. I had to park on the street. I walked up to the front door and dug it out and opened up the shop. My customer arrived a few minutes later. As I was gathering the things he needed for this furnace changeout, I asked him how the f@ck were we going to get the stuff from the building to the street? After talking a bit, I came up with the idea of the “furnace toboggan”. I had a bunch of cardboard in the warehouse and strapping material. We wrapped the furnace in this cardboard and pushed it outside to the lot and pulled it through the snow down to the street (approx. 50 feet). We repeated the process with the rest of the materials he needed for his job. He thanked me profusely for what I had done for him and offered me a (terrible, canned) beer from his truck. I said “what the heck” and had one with him – we were both exhausted from pulling the heavy toboggan through the snow twice and needed an attitude adjustment. He is a good customer to this day for saving him that account although I do not support boozing in your vehicle especially when you are going to soon be wiring and gas piping. I found out a few years ago that he had quit drinking – obviously he had a problem.

    On the way home I got stuck twice and pulled over by the same cop who laughed when he saw it was me again on the way home. He said the only other people he has seen on the road are drunks, which I believe since they are probably the only people crazy enough to be out there in that mess – besides an HVAC distributor helping a customer out of a bad jam.

    Next episode – Tormenting a Fortune 500 CEO.

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 10 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – the Henpecked Guy

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 10th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, Illinois, early 1990s

    One of the clients that I had was a (rare) financial services firm in downtown Chicago. This was a great client because I didn’t have to travel or do anything strange like audit a maximum security prison.

    The job was also interesting because the firm we were auditing took in investor funds and turned around and invested in myriad hedge funds. As a result, during audit time (year end) we had a lot of work to do because in order to complete OUR audit, we had to receive reports from all the individual hedge funds that the firm’s clients invested in. Back then we were barely computerized and used lots of paper, and all the audited financials came in at the last minute, so we worked non-stop to attempt to meet customer deadlines.

    At lunch we went out as a group and they brought the auditors along. Most of the time it was just me since I was fairly competent by that time so my manager usually left me on site to do all the work and just checked in on the results periodically. I was a workhorse, charging in hours from early morning to late night every day and on weekends during busy season. Since this firm made a lot of money, they didn’t care much how many hours we billed, they just wanted to complete the audit on time so that their clients felt confident in investing with them.

    The manager from the client was interested in hiring me. This is typically how you got a job as an auditor – you impressed the client with your intelligence and work ethic, and then they hired you to join their internal audit staff. Since most of my clients were in government or distant utilities in undesirable (at the time) cities, this was an unusual circumstance for me.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business | 9 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Working in a Maximum Security Prison (Part II)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 7th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Joliet Illinois, 1992, at a Maximum Security Prison. Here is Part I of the story. This prison is where the Blues Brothers movie was filmed along with “Prison Break”.

    After I got acclimated to the prison, it was time to select the assets that I would audit during the summer. Typically you “randomly select” assets from the asset listing, take a statistically significant sample (perhaps 20-50 items), and draw conclusions about the whole pool of assets based on whether you were able to find the selected assets in the location where they were said to reside. I did this at first and the results came up with many assets titled “XXX-780” and I asked the accountants working for the facility what they were. The accountants said that these were individual prisoner beds and that was the cell number and the way to audit those assets would be to go in and unlock the cells and I could flip up the bed and check the number. I thought about this for a few minutes and then said “f&ck this” and decided that I would use “judgement” to select my assets instead of the random method and I selected 30 assets myself for my project.

    The quest to find the assets took me throughout the facility. If it was a gun that I selected, I would go past the guard into the armory, through the tunnels under the building, and up the ladder into the tower to manually check the serial number of the rifle or other weapon that was picked to be audited against the building records.

    I selected what turned out to be a sniper rifle. These guns were kept in storage at the armory, and they brought out the sniper to show me the weapon himself because they didn’t let other people touch it after he had calibrated the scope. The sniper asked me a question:

    Do you know why they pick snipers out of the staff in the prison?

    No, I said.

    Because in Attica there was an uprising and the prisoners took over the yard and then the prison brought in outside marksmen to ensure they could not escape. During the melee the marksmen shot many prisoners but it turns out that the prisoners had changed clothes with the civilian hostages, so some of the individuals gunned down were actual guards or workers. Thus the snipers were prison guards from that facility because they could pick out the inmates from the guards and workers.

    I said that if he ever saw me in his scope wearing an orange outfit, please don’t shoot. It wasn’t a joke.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 5 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Working In a Maximum Security Prison (Part I)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 4th December 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Joliet Illinois, 1992, at a Maximum Security Prison

    When I was an auditor I worked with utilities and governmental entities. These were the least popular clients because they often required a lot of travel and if you left the public accounting firm you generally worked for a client (or a different firm in the same industry) and this would pigeonhole you into working in regulated industries.

    When I thought I’d seen the least appealing clients possible, a new low occurred – I was assigned to a maximum security prison. The Joliet Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois. The prison hired an accounting firm to do an audit of their property records and my job was to inventory the physical assets deployed throughout the facility.

    The only guards with weapons were in the towers or overlooking the prison walls. Once you were inside the facility the guards had nightsticks but no guns. This was to prevent the prisoners from overpowering the guards and taking their weapons. The prisoners could seize control of the facility at any time and hold the guards hostage but they could not exit the facility because the guards in the towers had rifles and would be able to fire back and would be difficult for the prisoners to overcome.

    You entered the facility and went into the armory. From the armory you could take tunnels under the facility and then you could go up into the tower via a ladder. Only within the armory and up the tunnels were the guards armed. This facility was built in the 1860s and it was disgusting in the tunnels underneath with standing water and rats. I would go through the tunnel and yell up and then they would let me into the tower via a ladder and I would climb up a couple stories in my suit with my briefcase. I remember distinctly that the guards seemed somnolent and they had a picture of the warden with a hand drawn mustache and graffiti on it; probably because there was no way he could sneak up there for a “sneak” audit. The guards in the tower always knew that you were coming.

    I took an initial tour of the prison with an assistant warden. She was an African-American woman perhaps in her 50s and the predominantly African-American prisoners treated her with great respect. They spoke to her politely and stayed out of our way rather than glaring and intimidating you to move out of their path, which would happen to me later when I walked alone throughout the facility.

    The first thing you noticed in the prison was how LOUD it was; everyone was screaming the word “motherf&cker” in about 250 variants. It was a cacophony of yelling and noise and very disconcerting. The prison cells were very small with 2 inmates each; one stood menacingly at the bars and one was usually on a bunk bed (there wasn’t really enough room for both of them to stand). If you walked too closely to the cell they might spit on you; if you walked below the high tiers they might throw urine down on you.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 7 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Small Unit Cohesion

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th November 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, 2010, at a Shooting training center

    In 2010 my dad and I went to an all-day class to learn how to shoot properly. The first four hours were in a classroom and the last four hours were outside when it was a brisk fall day and we learned various techniques of how to shoot and spent over 800 rounds.

    In the beginning of the class, the instructor asked everyone about their background. My dad and I said we were complete amateurs. When the others talked about their experience I didn’t fully understand what they were saying until later but many were ex military who were now contractors in Iraq or elsewhere with very extensive experience. They were attending for what must be some sort of required periodic classroom time.

    The reason that this is interesting is because the instructor went through firearm basics that was all news to me but must have been the most banal and simplistic discussion that these guys have ever heard. It would be like sending me back to school for mandatory training and showing me a balance sheet or explaining the very basics of systems technology. In five minutes of this I would be agitated and distracted and frankly a bit insulted that someone wasn’t properly valuing my corporate and career experience. Because that is how a corporate or business person would view the process, but not a military person. Each of the military guys sat in their seats for four hours and if anything they constructively helped the instructor, who was ex-military himself. In hindsight no one was joking around or making a mockery of anything.

    When we were shooting the guys all helped each other and the team immediately without asking. We had a lot to cover so they leaped up and changed the targets and moved and anticipated and everyone was part of a larger mission. After a while it was completely obvious to everyone that me and my dad (who was in his late 70s at this point) were behind the game so they subtly starting helping and coaching us in addition to what the instructor was doing. Sometimes you had to shoot multiple targets to clear a level and I think a few times guys helped me by shooting my targets too.

    Only in hindsight did I recognize the “cohesion” concepts that SLA Marshall talked about in his famous book. He talked about the value of leadership and training in motivating and getting the best out of the men under your command. While these sound like commonplace lessons, and ones the military has likely long since learned in its recent brutal wars overseas, these lessons are usually nowhere to be found in corporate America and most private businesses.

    I watched “The Last Patrol” (highly recommended) last night on HBO and they had a similar observation. The protagonists are walking across America (even in Baltimore, I was scared for them) and asking people what is great about America. These ex-military guys and ex-combat photographers (with 20+ years in the middle of all of it) were trying to wind down and find their bearings without the adrenaline rush of combat and surviving possible death. They met a woman in an American flag bikini and she said she worked in an old folks home for veterans and she said that they all helped and looked out for each other. However, she said, it wasn’t like that once you left the facility – it’s not like that outside in America today.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Military Affairs, Personal Narrative | 7 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Building a Web Site, Then and Now

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 17th November 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, around the year 2000, before the dot-com bust

    Back around 2000 I worked in an “incubator” that was a digital design agency. At that time everyone was moving onto the web, and it was a giant land rush.

    This was the first time I worked in an office with any type of serious amenities. They had free coffee, lounge areas, and the occasional foosball table. Previously I had been a buttoned down consultant, auditor, programmer and project manager – and all of the sudden the world changed and we engaged with a whole host of “creatives” and designers on joint projects.

    Back then we all wore suits. I remember one day very clearly; one of the designers sat immediately in front of me. I was looking up and I saw “Victoria’s Secret” – she was showing off the new style where women were wearing their pants so low that their underwear was showing. To a consultant that charges hundreds of dollars an hour (not like we collected it, but that’s a different story) this sort of behavior and style just screamed WTF.

    When we bid on a client our clashing styles were immediately evident. I started out the template to respond to the RFP (request for proposal), and was tasked with estimating the cost to reply to this opportunity. The creatives didn’t seem to understand any of my questions, which seemed pretty simple to me:

    What are we delivering, and how many hours will it take to build it?

    They couldn’t be pinned down. Were we making a logo, or a web site? Would it allow them to run transactions? At the time that was just a tremendous amount of work and seemingly an insurmountable task.

    We ended up bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars for what, I still am not sure. The company who was “buying” our services was VC funded and was just about bled dry, without having even launched anything substantial. The era of the dot.com companies had petered out and we were entering a recession.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 4 Comments »

    Twenty Five Stories About Work – The School of Rock

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 9th November 2014 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, the 1980s

    Recently I was at an art exhibition and I saw a book about the “School of Rock” which takes kids with an interest in music and sets them up in a band situation and allows them to work together and perform live. I think it is a great idea and I have a friend whose son plays drums and has really gotten a lot out of this in terms of confidence and poise.

    I had my own experiences learning an instrument and playing in a band which really were formative to my business experience, although I never really thought of them as “formally” part of my background until I looked at that photo and remembered these 25 posts.

    Back in the 1980s I used to play bass guitar (switched from regular guitar) and was in various local bands with friends which typically went nowhere except maybe some free gigs in a public place or someone’s backyard. I absolutely am not a good musician nor was I particularly talented.

    However, the act of participating in a band in that era had many of the hallmarks of being in a small business. First of all – you needed to have some money to buy gear. You needed a bass guitar, a few amps (one to practice on at home, and one to leave at the primary practice space), and if you had extra money – a PA system which we could use for the entire band and microphones for the drums, vocals, etc… Actually having gear and these extra pieces of equipment immediately made you a more attractive potential band member, regardless of your skills.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Music, Personal Narrative | 9 Comments »