Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Dilbert-Style Management

I was in industry for a handful of years. Back then, I didn't read Dilbert for the same reason I don't read the Ph.D. comics today. These comics that others find so funny, I find utterly depressing. They just reflect things in my life that I find miserable. I had the pointy-haired boss. I was Alice, always trying to manage my temper. Now I have the demanding advisor. I watch people piss away several years trying to graduate. Why sit and read a comic about my own pathetic life? I'd rather spend my time trying make change.

In this place, I still see pointy-haired bosses. Advisors manage their groups using the same management style that I saw in my first job after graduating in 1998. I quit that job after two years.

Consider a small subsidiary of a huge company. The small subsidiary has to make enough money to be viable, otherwise, the huge company will close the subsidiary. Cut its losses. Hand out the pink slips. Reduction in force, or RIF, is what they called it at my subsidiary. I think they call it "denied tenure" here. Worse, my subsidiary had to suffer the decisions of the huge company, and yet we had to make money based on those decisions. Their decisions pitted us against Intel.

Question: How much money does a subsidiary of 45 second-rate engineers and 5 good ones make when competing against Intel?
Answer: $27.50.

Whenever we got a customer (which was once every three months or so), we had to completely reorient all our goals. Qualcomm signed a contract, so suddenly everything we did was about cellphones. I started work on a soundcard driver. Then Wacom, and everything was about tablets. That only lasted a couple of weeks, then they cancelled the order. Then Nintendo gave us a look, just a look, and we were immediately simulating Mario Bros games on our hardware. I worked on a flash memory driver.

I never finished a project at that company to any successful degree. Admittedly, the soundcard driver limped along, and I could at least read and write to flash memory. I was miserable. I had four bosses. People asked me "howseitgoing?!" all the time. I got in trouble once for yelling at one of my bosses.


Got a letter in the file for that one.

Like I said, I quit after two years. Then I worked for the best place in the world: Dragonfly Consulting. That Dragonfly Consulting doesn't exist anymore. In the wild, dragonflies only live about four months. In a capitalist economy, it's five years.

I miss that job. Had it not been bought by an evil corporation, I might still be sitting in my little cube, working happily on hardware. I worked on small focused projects until I got them done. I learned a lot. I wrote software that brought a computer to the C-prompt: TLB handlers, boot loaders, memory partitions. I could read Assembler as fast as I could read English. I could debug anything with just two LEDs. I worked with five very smart people. It was the perfect combination of great pay with a grad-school-style working environment. Except that they insisted nobody work more than 40 hours a week. West Coast hippies.

Eight years later, history repeats itself. Again, I am suffering from the "1-big customer" management style. Again, I am miserable with meaningless work that changes faster than I change air filters in the furnace.

Except this isn't a job I can quit.

Let's just hope I can catch another Dragonfly.

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