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  • Archive for the '25 Stories About Work' Category

    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 »

    25 Stories About Work – Consulting HR and the Tragedy of the Commons

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 1st 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)…

    Baltimore, the late 1990s

    In the late 1990s I worked for a large, now defunct, management consulting firm. This firm had recently gone public to great fanfare and morale was high. As a senior manager (a title right below partner), however, I had already seen a lot of booms and busts in this arena and was skeptical.

    Consulting firms have large pools of skilled resources. You can classify the resources many ways – by skill set (MBAs, engineers, programmers, project managers), by industry expertise (finance, government, utilities, technology), by region (a large firm might have 30-50 offices scattered throughout the US and nearby countries), or by level (staff, senior, manager, senior manager, and partner). Each of these categorizations is valid in some dimension.

    Consulting firms and audit firms used to have everyone come “up through the ranks”. They rarely hired from competitors, and when you left you weren’t welcome back. This has changed 100% today with staff at all levels jumping ship to competing firms, out to industry, and back in. The firms today also have an active alumni outreach plan to bring back talented staff that may want to return to consulting.

    At the time the firm I was with was organized mainly by “industry” regardless of your physical location. I was in the utilities group along with many other individuals scattered throughout the USA. This firm did not have a thriving utilities practice so we were often fighting uphill for assignments and our staff were often “seconded” to other verticals to fill needs on sold work.

    Our utility engagement was in Baltimore. Baltimore at the time was at a low ebb, with the downtown populated by crackheads and other undesirables. It didn’t matter much to us since we were staying in a hotel a couple blocks from our client.

    The partner on our engagement (who was the boss) was an ex-Navy SEAL. He was a very fun and interesting guy. I wasn’t there but one time another staff person said that they went to an antique store and the partner took a knife from the display and started doing that thing where you put the knife blade between each of your fingers in a pattern, going faster and faster. At some point the partner nicked the web of his hand and started bleeding but didn’t even flinch. It sounded plausible to me.

    For a variety of reasons the HR department of the consulting firm was investigating this partner. Since work is done on the road there is little supervision but somehow bad news about this partner got to HQ so they sent out a hapless HR partner. The HR partner sat down with me and started asking questions. My response was

    I don’t have anything bad to say about a guy who could kill me with his pinky

    The interview obviously ended soon after.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 6 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Lost Productivity and Typing

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 23rd October 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)…

    Vermont, the early 1990s

    When I was interviewing for my first job I had a chance to visit IBM in Burlington, Vermont. At the time IBM had a large contingent of workers and management staff at that location. On an unrelated note, IBM still has about 4000 workers in the state, and recently offered a company $1B TO TAKE THEM OFF THEIR HANDS. To confirm, they were willing to sell this business for negative one billion dollars (to quote Dr. Evil). And the sad thing is that the “buying” company wanted IBM to PAY THEM two billion, so they rejected the “offer”. Read about it here.

    I had been on a plane maybe once or twice previously and was completely clueless about what to do. I packed my bags and took a cab to the hotel. In the morning, before my interview, I got into the shower and turned on the water. I did not think to check what the temperature was before I got into the shower and it happened to be set on a scalding level; I ended up falling back out of the shower, grabbing the curtain on the way down, and scattering the shower curtain rings throughout the bathroom. I wasn’t seriously hurt. To this day I always check the shower temperature while standing outside the shower stall (or tub) and I only go in when it is at an appropriate level.

    The day started out on an ignominious note (with the shower incident) and the interviews were a disaster. I think we ended the day with a discussion that maybe someday I would at least utilize IBM equipment (they were primarily a manufacturing company at that time) since it seemed obvious that I wouldn’t get a job offer in Vermont.

    What I remember most of all was the endless sea of desks. IBM had workers that manually calculated their managerial accounting reports and they sat in a giant room that seemed to go on for infinity. I don’t have a photo but in my head it looks something like this…

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 8 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – “Don’t Hang Up” and the Recruiter from Detroit

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 19th October 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)…

    Champaign, early 1990s

    As I graduated from college in the early 1990s, I went through the interview process on campus. About half the companies really liked me and about half the companies hated me. I guess I was a polarizing interviewee but who knows I had little idea about what to expect in an interview or how to behave. I do remember buying a suit with my mother for about $400 which seemed like an astonishing amount of money at the time.

    In addition to the on campus recruiters, I also fielded some phone calls. Looking back before the age of cell phones it is amazing that anyone ever got in touch with anyone else – they must have called me in my dingy hellhole of an apartment in the 5 minutes that I happened to be there in between class, prepping for the CPA exam, and going out drinking. I guess we had an answering machine but I’m not even sure about that and my roommates at the time weren’t exactly the most reliable.

    I was enamored with the idea of work and getting the heck out of Champaign so I was like a happy puppy when anyone called. The joke is that I would select the last recruiter to call.

    One day I did receive a call: Hello. I’d like to talk to you about a job opportunity in the transportation industry, he said. I was interested. I was always interested. Then he said something I’ll never forget.

    The job is in Detroit. Don’t hang up!

    The recruiter combined both sentences into almost a single thought, with urgency, because he apparently was used to people instantly hanging up as soon as they heard the job opportunity was in Detroit.

    I didn’t hang up. But I surely did not pursue that opportunity. Because it was in Detroit, of course. No wonder that city went down the drain…

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 18 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Office Hoteling and the Elusive Consultant Desk

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 16th October 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 ’90s…

    When I first started out as an auditor I had a tiny cube that consisted of just a desk and a chair with a big phone in a giant warren full of other cubes. There was a big bay window that let in the sun and lights far overhead. I didn’t know anything and was happy just to have a place to call my own.

    How accounting worked at the time was that you were assigned to clients and were “on the road”. If you were in the office you charged a code for down-time and struggled for something to do. You could take a training class, do research in the library, or more often than not you’d be assigned some sort of drudgery administrative work. Most of the time I ended up photocopying our audit files when clients transitioned to new auditors, which is much more work than it sounds because you had to dis-assemble the work papers, copy them, and then re-assemble the files again. The copier tended to regularly jam and you soon learned how to take that copy machine apart, as well. Not a good use of a master’s degree…

    After a while the managers learned who was good and who wasn’t and I was constantly busy as a result. We worked and traveled all the time and often I had overlapping clients, meaning that tasks I couldn’t complete onsite piled up for me at the little cube while I was at a different client. This was before any concept of telecommuting and we didn’t even have our own laptops. The only way to get work done was to show up at the office (on Saturday or Sunday, since I traveled all week) and do the remaining tasks.

    One time our office engaged in some sort of ISO process and they decided that having a “clean desk” was mandatory. So the (usually worst) staff that were in the office packed up everyone’s desk and sent it off site so that when the office tour occurred, my little rat cube was completely clear. Thus when I showed up on a Sunday a couple of weeks later to follow up on some annoying task from a parallel client, all of my papers were gone and that was an entirely wasted day. The fact that I still remember this over 20 years later shows how angry I was at this bureaucratic stupidity.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Chicagoania, Personal Narrative | 6 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – New Mexico Is Part of the United States

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 11th October 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)…

    El Paso Texas, the ’90s…

    I supported a financial analytics system for a utility based in El Paso, Texas. Before I visited El Paso for work I knew virtually nothing about the area, the economy, or the people. One of the most interesting and unexpected benefits of my career was the opportunity to extensively work in areas of the USA that I never would have visited otherwise.

    One thing I did know is that 1) Texas has its own electricity grid that ‘walls it off’ from the rest of the USA called ERCOT 2) the El Paso area was “outside” of that grid. Thus while Texas may be its own separate country in their mind, El Paso was something else entirely.

    Another realization when you are working in El Paso is just how damn big Texas is. It can take longer to drive from El Paso on the western side of Texas to Houston on the eastern side of Texas than to drive from El Paso to Los Angeles. It was also extremely hot and the sun was blazing; some of the women brought umbrellas to shield themselves from the noon-day sun.

    The managers I met in El Paso said it would likely make more sense for El Paso to be part of New Mexico, rather than Texas. Many of the managers lived in New Mexico. A funny story they told was how many Americans believed that New Mexico was NOT part of the United States, and stories like this were collected in the back page of a local magazine and they were often hilarious.

    While flying to New Mexico one day I sat next to a gentleman that was frequently in El Paso for business. At the time, Ford Expedition SUVs were all the rage. He said that the last three times he visited El Paso, he selected an Expedition from the local rental car affiliate, and the car was stolen (and likely driven over the border into Mexico). I didn’t ask him why he was so stubborn and kept renting them.

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

    25 Stories About Work – Brooklyn Before Gentrification

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 4th October 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)…

    Brooklyn, New York City, the ’90s…

    I was assigned to do a regulatory audit of a large utility in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1990s. At the time Brooklyn was nothing like it is today. When I got off the plane at LaGuardia and hailed a cab…

    Me to the Driver – I want to go to Brooklyn. The Driver – Hell no, I’m not driving to Brooklyn

    After I finally convinced a cab driver to take me to Brooklyn (with much New York style yelling), when he dropped me off in front of the office building, he would whip the wheel around as fast as he could and do a U-turn right in front of the facility and high-tail it off to the highway to get out of Brooklyn. They couldn’t get out of the neighborhood fast enough.

    The utility was based at what appeared to be the only newer office-type building in Brooklyn. There were NO hotels that you could stay in Brooklyn at the time. We stayed in Manhattan and took the subway to work every day. We seemed to be the only boring white accountant-type people in suits going TO Brooklyn in the morning and we were the same distinct minority returning to our hotel every evening. Our partner onsite was kind of distracted so we had to stay on him to get out of work at 5pm so we weren’t taking the subway at night because that seemed to be a dicey proposition.

    Whenever there is a strike at a utility the union guys who read meters and make service calls walk off the line and management comes out to do essential tasks (along with other people that they hire). Thus the management people that we spoke with had harrowing tales of visiting completely dilapidated and burned out homes throughout the borough while they were on strike duty. Management seemed to live everywhere except Brooklyn and it made sense why – there were even a few who lived in Pennsylvania and made epic commutes to and from work daily.

    One manager talked about a scam where people wrote checks to the utility to pay bills and often they used a 3 digit acronym rather than spelling the whole utility. He said one of the customer service agents took those first three digits and added a last name and opened a bank account themselves under that combined name and took the checks and deposited them, running off with the money. We laughed a lot because that seemed like a scam that was doomed to fail after a while but a bit clever.

    There were no cabs in Brooklyn. You had to hire a “car service” which was usually a completely beat up Chevy Impala or the like driven by someone who spoke zero English. They usually had no idea how to get to the airport so I had to give them directions. A few times I was very scared that the car would literally fall to pieces while we were driving; they were probably old taxis that had given up the ghost and given a second, desperate life through this method

    One Monday morning when I was flying in I felt dizzy and ill and when I got onsite in Brooklyn at the only standing office building I came down with the flu very badly. I kept throwing up in the stall and getting progressively weaker. I was the only person onsite from my company and didn’t know the client people well enough to count on them to take care of me so in the few minutes between throwing up I somehow got back to Manhattan (probably via the subway, I don’t remember) and arrived at my hotel early. For some reason I remember this clearly – the band Rancid was pulling up and their hair was spiked up and they had real “rock chicks” with them in miniskirts and fishnets and covered with tattoos right when I arrived. They said my room wasn’t ready yet so I told the clerk “that’s fine, I will just projectile vomit onto you” and amazingly they got me a room right away. I just sat in there and was sick for a few days and then flew back to Chicago. That was not a productive week at all, obviously.

    Today Brooklyn has changed immensely and seems to be almost completely gentrified. I even have friends that I visit there and it is quite charming. It is amazing to think of all these changes that have occurred since I first went there in the early 1990s.

    Cross posted at LITGM

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

    25 Stories About Work – Industrial Decay

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 3rd October 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)…

    Somewhere in a Northwest Indiana formerly industrial city, the ’90s…

    We had a utility client in Northwest Indiana. The city used to be a large industrial town but had been hit hard by various plant closings and also the rout of the US steel industry in the ’70s and the ’80s. A friend of mine joked that you wouldn’t be surprised to see a dinosaur walking around the abandoned ruins of the nearby towns and city. For some reason I thought that was really funny after working there for a while.

    At our client they had multiple buildings that were connected by walk ways that were sometimes rounded or with all around glass. We called them the “habitrail” just like the hamster homes you could buy for your pets.

    The work onsite at the client was grim. I was given the least exciting areas to audit, the balance sheet and plant accounting. The balance sheet had assets that were not documented that were stagnant for years. At that point in auditing all you did was to re-word the notes from the prior year accounts and then put them back in this year’s file. After just a few hours as a novice auditor I pointed out that the notes didn’t make sense and started to do a bunch of new analytics when they told me to stop and just gave me something else to do. This is where you get the joke

    Why did the accountant cross the road? Because they did it last year.

    If you tell that joke to an accountant I am telling you they will laugh their heads off. It isn’t really funny to anyone else but it sums up the drudgery of what auditing used to be.

    One day the partner came out. Now we were all packed in a grimy little room. These were also the days when you could smoke like a chimney in the office and we all wore wool suits so I might as well have smoked 3 packs a day too. I stunk. It was after noon and I was hungry and I broke the silence by asking if we were going out to lunch. The whole room swiveled their heads at me and I got a tongue lashing later from the manager. I wasn’t supposed to talk or ask any questions while the partner was on site. Live and learn.

    Driving to Indiana from downtown Chicago was a long effort. The air conditioning in my car wasn’t great so I’d usually just drive in a T shirt and change when I got near the facility. One time I was pumping gas in a gas station nearby when the auto shut off didn’t work and I got gasoline all over my suit. That did not make for a pleasant afternoon of work.

    Another time when I was pumping gas a deranged, toothless local came up to me with his arms waving.

    Don’t sign the deed! he screamed. Don’t sign the deed!

    I didn’t.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 13 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Plains Blizzard

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 2nd October 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)…

    Somewhere in Iowa, the ’90s…

    I was an auditor for a long since merged together utility. We used to fly in and out every week, leaving Sunday night (in your suit, in case your luggage was lost by the airlines) and leaving the office at 5pm Friday and driving to an airport 3 hours away to arrive home about 10pm Friday. We did this every week for the “busy season” which lasted about 3 months or so.

    For Thanksgiving weekend one time we left on a Wednesday. A giant storm was coming up over the plains as we drove across Iowa into Nebraska where the airport was for flights into Chicago. At the time we didn’t really have cold weather gear, we just had long wool coats and leather gloves to go over our suits. We didn’t even have boots, just work shoes.

    We stopped at a gas station and the wind was really whipping across the plains. When I got out to pump gas I was almost knocked flat on my back. While shivering in the car after pumping gas I told them we ought to turn back and just give up for the night and stay in Iowa.

    I was the lowest ranking guy so I was overruled. There were obvious reasons why everyone wanted to get home for Thanksgiving and away from work in Iowa.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 10 Comments »