There is a special feeling I get on a Sunday evening. Sunday is the weekend and I am home relaxing with my family after a well deserved break. But Sunday evening is the end of the weekend, the end of that pleasant break. I have to go back to work the next day. This is the time I like to sit by the kitchen table by myself, thinking about a better future. One where I don't have to obey the traditional rules of work. I don't want to put my life on pause on a weekly basis and dedicate the time to my employer for a modest fee.
Instead, I want to get up on a Monday morning and go for a hike in the beautiful mountains of California. I want to sit by the beach, people watch, breathe the ocean air.
On this particular Sunday evening of September 2013, I was burnt out. My job had beaten me to a pulp. I couldn't tell exactly why I was exhausted at work. It's not like I was doing anything physically taxing. Yet I found myself increasingly grinding my teeth.
I logged onto my computer and did something I never thought I was capable of doing. I asked for help. I went on to Hacker News and started a thread. I didn't know what to say, how to say it. But my fingers typed on the keyboard therapeutically, until the issue revealed itself on the screen. This is what I wrote:
We may get fired and I don't know what to do.
I worked as a full-stack developer and I had become comfortable with my job. I was the go-to guy. I knew the ins and outs of all the projects in my department and then some. In a company of a thousand, everyone knew me by name. I've created dozens of tools that are still used in the company to this day.
One day, my manager called me for an impromptu one on one. It was unusual since we already had our one on one that week. When the door closed behind me, and I sat in the closet-sized room aptly named Claw Sets, I thought I was in trouble. She did not mince her words: "I am leaving next week". We were a very close team and we knew each other well. She had just lost a family-member, the decision could have been related. I didn't want to pry too much, I accepted it. So, she left.
A month later, it was like déjà-vu when the lead developer called me in the same closet and repeated the process. He left the company.
Hell broke loose. It was complete chaos. The business team ran right and left pulling their hair out, trying to figure out what to do. Our department was the most profitable at the time and it was without leaders. The company scrambled their resources to get them replaced as quick as possible. My team and I, voted for the most senior developer to take on the role of interim lead. It was our secret ploy to get her to become the new lead. In no time, we got the situation back in control.
While she was a great lead, we saved the managerial position for someone who was more suited for the job. Someone who could talk engineer and business all at the same time. Someone who has been groomed for the job. A leader everyone knew and trusted, so to say. Our ploy was foiled when the VP of Tech promoted a manager into our team. This one came from a department that was now defunct. Rumors were that he burnt it to the ground. When he joined the team, he wasted no time and brought in an outsider as the new lead.
The new manager and his new lead immediately took the department into a new direction. A new era. Less than a month into his tenure, the new lead called for a gathering. He called it a Power Up meeting. Here he presented the new product he wanted us to work on. At first I thought it was an honest mistake from a newcomer. After all he hadn't had a chance to learn what we currently did.
When he finished his speech, I raised my hand. I told him that the project he had described did exist. In fact, it was the exact tool we had been building and improving for over two years. He didn't take it very well. The meeting ended and over the next few weeks I started noticing something odd. Developers were dropping left and right out of our main projects. A bunch of tickets where left unsolved and it fell to me to fix them.
When I asked the manager about it, he literally ran away.
And then, I started getting meeting requests from my disappearing coworkers. One by one, they started complaining to me. They had been assigned to the new project.
"I don't really have much power here." I'd tell them. "I don't really know what I can do to get you back on your projects, but I'll try."
I was assuming a position of leadership, I was very popular, yet I had no power. My coworkers started requesting more and more time with me to complain about the new system. It took a couple months for the business team to notice that there had been a sharp decline in revenue. That's when I realized that this project was done in complete secrecy.
All eyes turned to me to do something. What was I supposed to do? I was the developer on the 11th floor that you call for technical issues. That was about it.
"My God, we are all gonna lose our jobs," someone said. I didn’t want that to happen.
When no one was watching, I sneaked out and went to hangout on the 9th floor where the business team was. I "accidentally" bumped into the director of our department.
"Hey, I have some insights about improving the shopping department. Let me know when you have a moment and we can discuss this."
"Yeah?" He replied. "We have a meeting with the managers after lunch. Why don't you join us?"
I got myself a place at the table. I told no one else in my team and went to attend the meeting after lunch. My manager almost gasped when he saw me enter the room. He was quick to interrupt me every time I started to talk. At some point, I stopped talking and showed everyone what the issue was. I plugged my computer to the big screen and showed them one of the websites that was losing money.
On a particular page, a form that was only supposed to be accessible to editors was available to all logged-in user due to a bug with roles and permissions. The text field was only hidden with CSS instead of being removed from the page. A user noticed it and started spamming the entire website with inappropriate keywords. Google flagged the entire website as a result, sinking our revenue. I told the business team that it could be fixed in a matter of minutes.
"The problem is that the current developer working on it is swamped with other tasks even though I think this should be a priority."
The manager found a way to turn this around, dismissing me entirely. "Our rate of decline is no longer negative." he said. He shared his screen where he showed a chart that showed our rate of decline. On the left, it was steep, plunging head first into the abyss. But then it curved, and turned almost into a line parallel to the x-axis. "Now it is stable". He promised that it was only a matter of time until it starts growing again, adding an upward dotted projection into the future.
"There is a disconnect between software development and business that we will hopefully address with our new lead." he concluded.
I was never invited to a meeting again. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was not as competent at my job as I thought. Maybe I had received one too many compliment and my ego overflowed. I asked my coworkers to send me the specs of the new project. Maybe I wasn't seeing the big picture.
"There are no specs or documentation. It's all in his head. He said that way we don't get attached to things that don't work." a coworker told me. To work on the project, the lead would come to your desk, take over the keyboard, create the necessary files, then you’d work on it.
I wasn't alone. Everyone thought he was crazy.
That Sunday evening, I turned to the Internet and asked what to do. At first, I wrote out of rage. But then, I realized that it could backfire if I was identified. So I removed things here and there, then added a few things to throw off the reader. I ended the message with these words:
Maybe it is this ugly weather here in London that is causing me to rant but I had to share my frustration. I am stuck and HN I need your advice.
The Internet responded.
I really would not talk to upper management. If the guy got moved to a profitable department, it means he has friends there. You're gonna lose, and risk a bad reference which would make it difficult to get a new job.
This was insightful.
You can either resign silently, or step up and go talk honestly with higher management with the risk of getting fired. In any case, you shouldn't continue working like that.
This also made sense.
Resign, if you can. This seems to me an organization with a toxic ecosystem that's neither healthy for you or your co-workers.
The comments kept coming and it was becoming overwhelming.
An incompetent manager is moved to the most profitable division? This indicates that the individual is highly connected in the company.
It was like people knew exactly what I was talking about.
The weather in London is not ugly right now. Just for the record.
He was right, I should have googled that.
A day job isn't supposed to be this political and stressful. Get the hell out of there.
That's how I felt.
While its personally satisfying to be a "hero", it will just get you fired.
That's what I feared.
Stop being a lamb. Speak up or find a new job.
I closed off my laptop and went to sleep.
Monday morning, I arrived at work, sat on my chair, and a message popped on my screen. It was one of my coworkers. The message had a link to the Hacker News thread and these words:
"Lol, that sounds just like us."
To which I replied "Lol, totally does."
I read all the comments on the thread and made a decision. If this was normal, why would they be building it in secret? I collected all the evidence I could get to prove my point and scheduled a meeting with the VP of Tech. Every three months, I met with him for a regular evaluation. I knew him well enough and I thought he would be the right person to talk to who had influence on our department.
"They are building it in total secret. No one in the business team is even aware it exists. The project is called Hydra. Because of the many heads you know." I said.
"Really? In secret you say? That's weird. Well, thank you for bringing it to my attention." He stood up and shook my hand and I left his office. Heading back to my desk, I noticed that he was right behind me, walking in the same direction. We arrived together to our department. With a whistle and a flick of the finger, he called both the manager and the lead to his office. They both got up and followed him.
I sent a message to each of my teammates, telling them that I told the VP about our plight. "He will do something about it!" I typed.
Not fifteen minutes later, we heard people laughing hysterically in the aisles. All three of them, the VP of Tech, the manager, and the lead, they walked into our department and started talking out loud and laughing for a good five minutes.
There was only one thing in my mind. "I've made a huge mistake."
A minute later, a coworker sent me a Facebook link. I was afraid to click on it as if I knew what was going to appear on my screen. I clicked anyway, and saw a picture. There were 4 people in it. The VP, the manager, the lead, and the CTO casually partying at a bar.
"A huge mistake!" I had denounced the two bandits to the leader of the pack.
Nothing changed when it came to work. But everything had changed. There was a cold silence every time I was in the room. I was asked to report the number of hours I worked, and what I worked on. Any additional minute at lunch was scrutinized. In the past, there was no set time on when to come to work as long as you did your work. Now, there was a strict 9 am start of day.
A few other coworkers were caught in the fight. What they did was come to me. Ask me if there was something I could do. There was nothing I could do. The whole team was now working on the new project full time. Everyone except me. People started quitting.
Next to our department, was another hip group I was familiar with. I often consulted with them for their front-end needs. Their manager often joked that he would steal me from my team. So, I got up from my chair, walked up to him and said:
"So, you guys have space for another developer?"
I left the team. I had spent 3 years there, learning, growing, making friends. Now, I walked to the next row, where they could still see me, and abandoned them. To my surprise, I was still getting meeting requests.
Not long after, I left the company. In the new team I still had to deal with the VP. It wasn't comfortable anymore. I hated it. I left so I could wake up on a Monday morning and drive on the Pacific Highway and hike in the beautiful mountains. I moved on.
I felt that since the first manager and lead left, there was no more room for me to grow. In fact, I found that the two had quit and secretly started a competing service.
The relationships I made in this company, refused to let go of me. I still am in constant contact with my ex-coworkers. Some are at different jobs now, but others are still there. We still go to lunch, I still recommend new graduates to my recruiter. In fact, I was invited some years ago for lunch in the building right at my old desk. The elevator door opened and who was there to great me? The manager and the lead.
"Oh my God, what are you doing here?" The lead asked. I joked around, keeping no grudges about the past. I had a good time, reconnected with old buddies, and scared the interns. But the two bandits still held a grudge against me. A couple days after my visit, a coworker updated me that a new memo was in circulation. It said:
Employees are no longer allowed to invite outsiders into the facility. They'd first need written permission from a manager.
Coincidence? I don't think so. I hold no grudge. The department is now defunct. They lost so much money and were never able to recover. The project Hydra was a complete failure. Other departments rose, the company changed its business model and was bought for 1.1 billion dollars by a private firm.
And then, there was a restructuring. Both the manager and his lead have been fired... Just kidding. They were not fired. They were promoted. The manager is now the Vice President. The lead now leads in the most profitable department. The old VP is now Chief Product Officer.
It’s a happy ending. I don't know if there is a lesson here. But if you are bad at your job, it pays to have good connections.
Hello there! If you like this story, it is part my of unfinished book Just Fired. In a country where your Job becomes your identity, what do you do when you get fired? Follow me through my journey of discovery.