I respect one law over all others…the law of unintended consequences.
I can’t think of a better example than government boondoggles, after the fanfare of a new program or regulation when all hell breaks loose over something unexpected. In the public world of the public trust, what looks like a benevolent hidden hand running things eventually turns out to be just another guy pulling levers and spinning dials without a clue.
My personal favorite lately: A couple of Governors ago we started outsourcing all state IT work to a gigantic computer contracting company. With eyes apparently shut tight, a contract was signed and delivered. The plan was to save money, create jobs, improve services and make everyone look good. The result has been lost money, a screwed up job market, disappointed customers and yards of of bad press for both sides. Throw in a broken economy, and we have a train wreck. Something hard to watch but too macabre to turn away from.
This whole public-private arrangement is so massive that it’s warping the IT job market as if an HR darkstar is hovering in orbit, bending the space/time continuum. Projects that are priorties tend to create weeks of employment ads, recruiter calls and interviews. But when there’s bad press and or an argument over state fundng, the interviews disappear and cutbacks start. Reminds me of old movies where the workers file in and out of the factory gates, working one day, locked out the next. At least they had snappy Hollywood dialogue to fall back on.
All that sturm and drang has created some cynical workers. Recently, a veteran of the contract wars showed up on my team. She’d been in big data center projects, then jumped to the state, the got rebadged, downsized, rehired, and finally hit the two-year limit. We all know about the two-year limit for non-employees, created by. . . wait for it . . .The Government.
(hint: Microsoft sued by Feds gets ruling that anyone contracted more than 24 months is really an employee)
What the state provides, the Federales can take away. Our new friend lands back on the street again, due to the arbitrary 2-year limit, arrives in our midst for the requisite number of months, and then will cycle back out again. Like the rest of us, she’s lost the social contract of work-for-security that our parents enjoyed. We now have built-in clocks counting down the 730 days until we have to leave, even before we get our first paycheck.
Which creates another odd consequence, the two-tier society. Itinerant workers don’t have the same status as full time employees. We temps often outnumber the permanent fully-employed by a wide margin, but they get the benefits, time off, parties, free flu shots and career paths. We get a check and a slap on the butt (not that there’s anything wrong with that) as we head out the door when our time is up.
IT and tech aside, are we headed back to our agrarian past, with every worker an independent business like the family farm with a modern twist? Or will we swing toward the Big Contractor model where we become worker bees for one entity while really working for another. The third option, companies hiring people on their own payroll, is sounding out of touch…old-school.
(hint: European courts have found that many countries – Spain was cited recently – as having well over 50% of workers actually contractors, mostly due to the EU employment laws that make it impossible to fire deadbeats after they’re on the payroll)
On this side of the pond, we still hold up individual liberty and responsibility as the model, but the IT market is global. Examples like this state-private IT contract show that we need better leadership here at home to avoid the disintegration of stable employment that the grey-beards in Europe have caused. We still have a shot at building careers in technology, and avoid just job-hopping, if we can upgrade the talent pool at the top.
At minimum, we should elect leaders who keep at least one eye open when they sign on the dotted line.
In ‘98, when computers were all beige, and Gates and Jobs still hated each other and Sun was the golden child of the bubble, the story of the rats and the little people came out. Their cheese went missing, and apparently being Lactose deficient, Sniff and Scurry immediately ran off to find some.
After pounding down an all-cheese diet day after day, I’d be looking for a green leafy salad to unblock things. . .just to avoid awkwardness in a confined space, if ya know what I mean. . .and I think you do. But in the story there were no bathrooms, so maybe food followed function in the maze.
In any case the two rats took off on their creepy little pink feet to find more Winsleydale and Stilton, while the little people settled in for opportunity to come knockin’.
It all seemed magical, if a bit childlike.
Change was different 10 years ago. The bubble was swelling up nicely, so we all cruised across its overstretched skin, enjoying the smooth ride to a shiny future of tech job security. Changes in the market were exciting; it was what made us go find the big cheese that brought big raises back in ’99.
Today, change is like opening the fridge and the light doesn’t come on. Squinting into the guts of the box, none of the formless shapes look appetizing. But we have to eat, and the fridge is where the food is. So we reach in and grab whatever job opportunity we can find, even if it’s half-a-loaf compared to our old bread-winning gig.
I kept thinking that we’d been through this before. Heck, in ’02 budgets for IT projects shriveled like forgotten grapes, but we rode that one out. This time, kicked out into the maze with severance in hand, I joined the legions milling around the job market like zebra on a river bank. But there was only one option, so in we went, fighting currents to make it to the other side and job security.
Back at the maze, we find handwriting on the wall, put there to give little people courage in the confusion of change. The first messages aren’t all gems: “Having Cheese Makes You Happy” sounds like Yoda in his early years, before he figured out how to warp syntax to sound sage. (“Happy you are, when Cheese you have”).
Around the corner, the advice gets better, if a bit deep for the likes of rats and lilliputians. “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I’m thinking, Not Die, first of all. Fear of large moving trucks and bungee jumping have kept me on this mortal coil so far. To paraphrase Gekko, “Fear is Good”. Still, it’s a more useful piece of graffiti than Yoda’s pre-teen advice.
Then it gets serious. “Smell the cheese often so you know when it’s getting old”. Aside from evoking disturbing images, that one could be useful. I may have seen the layoffs coming and jumped into a safe public tech position, insulated from the economic sturm and drang outside. But I wasn’t really like Sniff, so I kept telling myself the work isn’t stale so much as just getting sort of a strong odor. It was becoming Bleu cheese, or Gruyere, which my dad said smelled like gym shoes after they’ve been in the locker for a week. But I digress.
Overcoming inertia, anxiety and the worst recession in decades – we reach our (predestined?) destination. The memory of what we just went through can’t stop our old habits – we love having our cheese and eating it too – so we’re snoggers for the next bubble once again.
But there’s one more piece of writing on the wall. Not inspiring as much as sobering. Maybe the only takeaway from this whole experience.
“They keep moving the cheese”