“Then We Came To The End”

Then We Came To The End” is a novel published by first time author Joshua Ferris. The novel is about an ad agency from the height of the dot-com boom down through its eventual nadir, when almost everyone gets laid off.

This book received good reviews from many sources and I was eying it for a while; recently I have been down for the count and had a bit of time to catch up on my reading so I pulled it off my shelf and read it cover to cover.

I used to work at something “close” to an ad agency; during the height of the dot-com boom many firms were gluing together their existing consulting and technology practices with ad agencies to put together a dot-com sheen that led to high (short term) market values. Thus I have some level of experience with the environment that Ferris is describing.

Ferris is pretty funny when he describes the camaraderie of a small firm, the petty infighting over titles, and the need to “look busy” especially as layoffs claim more and more victims. His fictional firm gets smaller and smaller by the day as staff and supporting functions are reduced in size; security, the partners, and the office coordinator are mostly what’s left at the end.

We had this too; as we lost clients supporting staff like HR and payroll were fired along with any consultants “on the bench” (not billing). This type of activity is like eating your seed corn; you are eliminating any chance of coming back later if there isn’t any infrastructure in place.

As in the book, huge swathes of territory (floors) were abandoned; you could walk around and just see tangles of network wires where the machines were disconnected and a bit of detritus and personal effects.

There is an inherent dread in knowing that you can be fired at any time; it brings out the worst in anyone. As in the book, the smallest events like how you conduct yourself at a meeting or the perceived quality of your latest, insignificant assignment might be the difference between staying and leaving.

Our firings were more chaotic in real life than they were in the book; people did cry, and they also stole whatever they could get their hands on. CD burners and laptops were of high value back then and a frequent target of ire. In the book they also received organized severance packages; towards the end my company didn’t even pay the medical insurance dues, as I found out to my dismay.

Another part of the book that rang true was the meet-up at the end; one of the advertising employees was an author at a reading and everyone got back together to discuss their lives after all the layoffs were done. Most of them went back to similar jobs at other firms, and life went on, but a few left the business entirely for dramatically different occupations (one joined the military).

In the book, most of the people (with a couple of exceptions) spent most of their day gossiping and scheming, and telling stories. The fictional agency did not seem like a well run place; this matched my experience of dealing with the “creatives”. I had the hardest time trying to get them to write proposals, describe their deliverables, and execute on their plans. Much of this work that was fetching top dollar during the dot-com boom (and able to support big buildings, many executives, and lots of staff) melted away with the dot-coms. Consulting, too, took a horrendous hit during the downturn, but was able to reconstitute itself by going back to system implementations and “body shop” tactics. I haven’t been with the “creatives” since, but I tend to think that they haven’t come back close to their 2000 ‘ish’ heyday.

The weakest parts of the book concern a detour into the lead partner getting sick and questioning her commitment to a life of work… yawn. Much funnier are the fictionalized rant of a corporate malcontent who goes off his rocker and spends all day on elaborate pranks and even comes back as a clown with a paintgun after being fired.

Cross posted at LITGM

2 thoughts on ““Then We Came To The End””

  1. Oh, I worked for a small consulting firm that followed more or less the same trajectory – although, as the office manager, I was most particularly essential and was the last person out the door. Morever, I had a settlement that allowed me to work from home for the last two months, to settle the various client obligations. Everyone else had already bailed – even my supervisor, the VP had taken on another job!

    The warning sign is… when they start asking you to stall the vendor’s invoices for goods and services already delivered. Kiss of death, that. Start updating your resume at that point.

    I got off lucker than some of my readers, when I blogged about this experience – some of them told tales of having come to work and discovered the entire enterprise had done the midnight flit, owing paychecks to all and then some!

  2. Funny, in the book the office coordinator was also immune from layoffs, being necessary to conduct business.

    Also interesting is that the “new economy” was supposed to be so different, bringing your pet to work and all, but then I never saw so many people walk away from their obligations.

    My experiences were closer to the worst ones you mention than otherwise. But I was lucky enough to keep finding work so I just moved on.

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