Introducing an exclusive extract of Just Fired, my book currently in progress. The 40 million dollar job is part of a completed chapter. Feel free to subscribe to stay informed.
I was at my desk wearing headphones that played no music when I heard my name being called. I do not listen to music while I work. In fact, I cannot work while listening to lyrical music. The only reason I wear headphones is to repel those invaders that are so excited about the open office plan. They come to distract you without any warning. Usually a long persistent silence repels them.
I ignored the call and focused my eyes on a single pixel pretending it was the most important thing in the world. A second later, he patted me on the shoulder. I had no choice but to take off my silent headphones and turn to him. It was the VP of Tech, and he needed my help.
"I need your help," he said while handing me a yellow folder containing a resume. "I want you to interview this guy. He passed the test, but I suspect he got some help."
"OK," I said. "I'll go through his resume and let you know. I'll come to your office after lunch."
"Hmm... Can you just take a quick look right now, he is in Claw Sets waiting."
This was the very first interview I was asked to take part in, I was to evaluate a candidate for his technical skills and I was not prepared. Claw Sets was the smallest of the interview rooms. It was named so after the CEO thought it would be a good idea to have employees come up with names for each meeting room. Claw Sets was once a closet, and we thought it only fair to give it a name that would remind us of its origin.
I took a notebook, and went to the closet where I met Jason. Jason was a man in his late forties and had been recently laid off from his previous job. I come from a culture where you are required to respect your elders. Here I was interviewing a man that was twice my age. I was uncomfortable, but I could clearly see that he was much more uncomfortable than I was.
The job was for a front-end position, which was my expertise. I wanted to make it as short and simple as possible so we can get it over with. Jason struggled. It's not that he didn't know the answers, but his hand was shaking when he wrote the code on paper. I reassured him that syntax is not important as long as the general idea is there. He started each question well but then he would just butcher the ending. I thanked him for his time then asked him to wait while I see what was to be the next step.
The VP of Tech was waiting for me at his desk.
"So, should we hire him?" He asked.
"I think he was stressed out, but I'm sure with a little refresher he can do just fine." I had not prepared for the interview, I was in no position to deny someone a job. Jason was hired. But to the best of my knowledge, they never let him write a single line of code.
Few months went by and I was asked to update an internal tool. The task was to write a script that would refresh dozens of pages at a random interval. I thought it was a ridiculous task, but a job is a job. I made the update on my machine, but before I deployed it on the server I decided to have a little chat with the people using the tool. There is often a disconnect between people who use the tool and those who develop it, so I wanted to make sure I was not breaking any functionality.
Jason was the main guy using this tool. He was excited to see me and was eager to talk. I sat down next to him and enthusiastically asked him what he was working on.
"Well, I make sure that these website are always working." He opened up the page on his computer where I saw the dozen or so web pages opened in a grid and each loaded. "I refresh the page and see which one of them fails. When a page fails, it turns gray, or sometimes there's a big X, or there is a message that says it failed. Then I find the person responsible for it and send them an email."
"That's interesting." I replied. When I walked away, I couldn't help but replay the scenario in my head. His job was to refresh a page and monitor which website failed. It's like his manager was punishing him. His job was bullshit and my task had been to automate that bullshit. With my new update, he wouldn't have to refresh the page anymore, just sit down and watch the screen.
Eventually, someone would write a script that pings each website, read the error code and notify the developers if there is a failure. Very common practice today. And, they'd have to find another job for Jason.
Every time I read about Bullshit jobs, I am reminded of Jason. Though, I prefer Alain De Botton's term better: Misemployement. It's not that the people who are misemployed are so unskilled that these jobs are all that's available to them. In fact, it didn't take long for me to feel an acute sense of uselessness at my own job.
My bullshit job was nothing like Jason's. I had the important title of Operation Engineer, and the actual work was important. I worked on this project that I will call Floodlight. I was the main developer after the previous lead was assigned to a new secret department. What made my work feel important were the praises from upper management. They often said that we used to pay 40 million dollars a year to run a call center that did a bad job. "But now, with Floodlight, a single engineer is running the show."
When the time came for me to leave the company, in good faith, I gave them a three weeks notice so that the transition would go as smooth as possible. I wanted my absence to be unfelt. The next person would take over without any interruption of work, no one would even notice. It would be like I came back the day after my last, only I will have a different face and a different name. So I documented all my work.
From the time I came in, to the moment I left the premises, I wrote down all the things I did. I left post-it notes on all the hardware I worked on. I left comments on all the applications I worked on. I wrote documents after documents. I wrote about known failures of the system. I wrote about unknown but possible failures. I wrote about the dangers of wanting to upgrade the system.
I presented it all to my manager. I gave her a list of every single task I performed and what a potential hire would need to know to replace me. I called ex-coworkers and asked them if they are open for a job. I probed them and selected the best three potential hires. I gave my manager their information and I left in the best possible terms.
From time to time, these candidates would call me and ask if there were any news.
"It's a large company." I would tell them. "Things happen in a very slow pace here, but they happen. Be patient."
Three months down the line, I am standing in line ordering a coffee and I am patted on the back. It's one of my old teammates. We exchange pleasantries and remember the good old days, before the machine. Then he tells me that as soon as I left, our manager took all my recommendations to the director. The director was not impressed.
"Can we just, um, eliminate that position."
And whisk! The position was eliminated that same day. It's an incredible feeling. It's not the same as getting fired, but it brings up a similar feeling.
I remember the times when I would get calls in the middle of the night about an outage. I would get up and rush to work without brushing my teeth or washing my face. At least once a week, the business team would meet and propose a new tool to perform a new task. They'd invite me to their meeting and I would tell them: "We already have that data. I will add a new page to the current tool to display it."
Just like that, their plans to build a cool promotion inducing application in two to three months was resolved in a day. What could have resulted in tens of thousands of dollars of their budget was now a quick task that would only cost them hundreds of dollars.
I felt I was important in this company. But as soon as I left, they fired my job, turning all my work into a useless cog in the system. In less than a year, "they dismantled the entire department," my recruiter told me. She was now having a hard time placing developers in the company. We laughed about it, but it was a sad laughter. More like a suppressed cry. My department had been lifted clean out of existence.
In work, I had found dignity. But as I navigate through my career, I realize that any job you hold, no matter how important it seems, can be swept from under you at any moment. For me, 40 million dollars was a titanium plaque I hung on my wall of achievements. To this company, it was busy work. They dismantled Floodlight. But to the best of my knowledge the problem it used to solve is still there waiting for a manager in need for a promotion.
The misemployed is aware that his work is unimportant. But he does it anyway because of the salary he gets in exchange. In my career, I have had jobs that didn't make the world a better place, but somebody had to do it. But here, I genuinely believed that I was doing important work, though my employer did not think so.
In the true sense of the word, I was misemployed.