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Archive for May, 2002

Gone with the wind

Thursday, May 23rd, 2002

I started updating my résumé. The only version of it that exists at the moment is a Web page that includes links to the companies I’ve worked for (and some other relevant organizations like the STC chapter I was once president of). This HTML résumé is actually a leftover from my last job search a year ago, but it gives me something to start with. I’ll undoubtedly want to create a PDF version as well.
Since I haven’t looked at it for the last year, I thought I should test all the links to make sure they were still valid. And I discovered that one of them was not: the Web site of Pliant Systems, the company that I worked for from February 1993 to March 1996, is gone. And when I did some digging, I discovered that the company is gone as well. It went bankrupt last July.
When I started work there in ’93, the company was a small startup called BroadBand Technologies. It was located in leased office space at One Park Center on Miami Boulevard, at the edge of RTP. A few months after I joined them, the company (which was expanding rapidly) moved to a much larger office complex on Stirrup Drive (off Miami Boulevard just a short distance away). The One Park Center space that we vacated was taken over by Bell & Howell, and I believe both Virgil and Miles worked there before B&H moved to other quarters. Today that space looks like this; the lack of a permanent sign suggests that it continues to serve as temporary quarters for companies that are making more permanent arrangements elsewhere.
By the time I left for Alcatel in ’96, the company was struggling. BroadBand had a innovative technology for transporting large amounts of data over optic fiber, but they never did figure out exactly how they wanted to market it, or to whom. At first they tried to sell it as a means of providing video-on-demand services to cable TV companies, but trials of that concept never generated much interest. Customers just didn’t want it. Later, the technology was presented as a means of providing broadband Internet connectivity, or distance learning capability, or DSL. This is a classic management error in high-tech companies dominated by engineering types: they devote a lot of money and time to developing a new technology, assuming (without actually doing any market research) that there will be a demand for it. Eventually, the new technology is ready, the products begin to roll off the assembly line — and the company realizes that it has to find someone to sell them to.
Unfortunately, BroadBand never found the market it needed. After I left the company, it fell on hard times. The stock price plummeted, and after being delisted from NASDAQ, the company changed its name to Pliant Systems. The last time I checked the pliantsystems.com Web site (in April 2001), it was still operational. When the company imploded, I was no longer in touch with anyone still working there, and I didn’t hear about it.
On my way home, I stopped by the Pliant headquarters to see if I could find any trace. The space formerly occupied by the company stands vacant; the owner is renovating it in the hope of finding a new tenant. A Pliant sign is still visible on the outside of the building that it shared with Marconi, but the Pliant name has been removed from the parking lot sign. If you look closely, though, you can clearly see where the names “BroadBand Technologies, Inc.” and “Pliant Systems” used to be.
I worked for another small startup company, Millidyne Inc., in 1990. Today that company is also gone without a trace. And while Alcatel is still in business, the Raleigh site where I worked is a mere shadow of what it was in 1996, and I won’t be at all surprised if it closes. I seem to be leaving a trail of devastation behind me as I wander from company to company. Am I the Typhoid Mary of Research Triangle Park?

Logopolis

Thursday, May 23rd, 2002

This blog’s original name, Scribings, was inspired by the Scribe Scroll feat in D&D. The word literally means “writings,” but it also suggests writing in a deliberate and careful fashion, as you would do if you were creating a scroll. (In 3rd Edition, one cannot create a scroll in less than a day, so it’s definitely a painstaking and time-consuming task.)
That’s what the name was supposed to communicate, but it has failed. When people mention this site to me in conversation, they almost always pronounce it “Scribblings.” I wince when I hear that, because it means rushed, sloppy writing — the exact opposite of what I had in mind. I’ve been thinking of changing the layout of the site anyway, so I may as well rename it at the same time.
“Logopolis” means “city of words.” I borrowed it from a classic Doctor Who episode that first aired in 1981 (it’s the last one in which Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor, appeared). The new look of this page is the result of applying a template called Block Head, courtesy of BlogSkins.com.
Historical note: Block Head only lasted until February 2003, when I changed the template again. I ditched the name “Logopolis” in May 2007.

Double whammy

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2002

I found out that I had been laid off at about 10:00 this morning, when my manager called me into his office to break the news. As readers of this blog know, I had been half expecting it, but finding out was still a shock.
The first thing I did, once I got back to my office, was to try to contact Marie and let her know. But she was working at the front desk, and thus wasn’t reachable by phone or AIM. I left her an instant message to call me on my mobile phone and went to Bob’s office to inform him of what had happened. I’m not sure what I expected him to say, but I had to tell someone. After a few minutes, I decided to go see the outplacement counselors that IBM had brought in for laid-off employees to talk to. They gave me an overview of the services they’re offering (skills assessment, resume development, interviewing tips, that kind of thing) and signed me up for a three-day seminar that starts Friday. While I was talking to the counselor, my phone rang; it was Marie, and I broke the news to her. She was shaken, of course, but recovered quickly. (We’ve been through this before.)
When I got back to my office, I looked through IBM’s internal job posting database. Nothing suitable presented itself. Marie IMed to tell me that Denise had seen a position listed on SAS’s jobs database. As I began looking at the SAS Web site to see if I could find it, Bob appeared in my doorway, looking distraught. He had just been informed by his manager that he was laid off too, and he was in deep shock.
It was lunchtime, and getting away from IBM seemed like a good thing to do. We went to Chick-fil-A in Durham and talked the situation over. At this point we’re both still just coming to grips with the news, so we didn’t do any actual planning or anything like that. (Bob can write about his reactions in his own blog, if he wishes.)
We got back to IBM at 2:00, and I ended up leaving, with my manager’s approval, at 3:00. As luck would have it, one of our regular family counseling sessions with Cheryl (Ruth’s therapist) was scheduled for tonight. Marie and Ben arrived home shortly after I did, and we picked Ruth up from her school and went to dinner at a cafeteria, where I broke the news to Ruth and Ben. They took it amazingly well, saying that they were sure I would find another job because I’m good at that. (I sure hope they’re right.) Then we went to see Cheryl. I won’t go into detail about what we discussed with her, but the subject of my job loss certainly came up.
The tone of this post is very strange: it’s too clinical and detached. I should be describing my emotional reactions here, but I’m not very sure what they are. Some shock and worry, but I feel oddly calm about the whole thing. Either the full significance of the day’s events hasn’t hit me yet, or I’ve been through this routine too many times before.
The last couple of times I was laid off, I started a job hunt journal, as a way of maintaining a record of networking, job leads, resumes sent, interviews, and so forth. I’m going to do the same thing this time, but my journal will be here at this blog. Stay tuned for further developments.

The axe falls

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2002

The rumors are true; IBM announced a resource action today. My position is being eliminated, effective June 21. There is a separation package that, in my case, provides four weeks of pay. So that means I have two months to find a new job.
This will not be easy. I’ve inquired about openings within IBM, and there don’t seem to be any. IBM is providing outplacement services, and I’ve signed up for a three-day workshop that starts Friday.

Startling news

Friday, May 17th, 2002

For the sixth year in a row, Minnesota has been named the most livable state in the country.
Minnesota?
I’ll be the first to admit that any state boasting both Jen and James Lileks has something going for it, but most livable state? How is this possible?

Friday Five: The politics of hair

Friday, May 17th, 2002

I detect a certain pro-youth bias in this week’s Friday Five. All of the questions are about hair. But what if we don’t have hair? Fortunately, I still have some left.
1. What shampoo do you use? White Rain Naturals. Simple, inexpensive, and gets the job done.
2. Do you use conditioner? What kind? No, there’s really no point with hair as short (and thin, in places) as mine.
3. When was the last time you got your hair cut? I don’t know exactly, but it must be about a month ago, because I’m due for another haircut. We have a hair trimmer at home, and Marie uses it to cut my hair to a uniform length of 1/8 inch. This has to be done every three to four weeks, or it starts to look uneven — apparently, the hairs have differing opinions about the best growth rate. I’ve tried to get them to agree on a single standard rate, but they don’t listen to me.
4. What styling products do you use? I used to try to do that. I experimented with various mousses and gels to try to get my hair to stay the way I combed it. I finally realized, about six or seven years ago, that what I was attempting was futile. My hair was thinning on top, and as a result, the hair density there was insufficient for those products to work. It’s a matter of sociology, really. If the population is too low and the individual hairs live too far apart, you just can’t generate the sort of solidarity and community spirit that is needed if the hairs are going to cooperate and point in the same direction. They become rugged individualists and each goes its own way. The fabric of society was breaking down. Riots and looting were imminent. Something had to be done.
I decided only two responses were possible: resign as their leader and let anarchy reign, or impose a fascist dictatorship. I chose the latter and got a crew cut. The individual hairs are now free to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t involve growing more than half an inch. This enabled me to dispense with not only styling products, but brushes and combs as well. Once I’ve stepped out of the shower and dried my hair, I’m done with hair care for the day.
The loss of individual freedoms is regrettable, but at least I’ve made the trains run on time.
5. What’s your worst hair-related experience? Believe it or not, at my mother’s urging I actually got a perm once, sometime in the late ’70s. I was so horrified at the result that I made them remove it immediately. Whatever you’re visualizing as you read this, it was worse. Best not to think about it any further.

Thinking outside the box

Tuesday, May 14th, 2002

I picked up a box in the hallway yesterday. IBM uses a lot of paper, so there are often empty boxes around, of the sort that hold ten reams of paper. Usually I take them home; they have handles and removable tops, and make good storage boxes for all kinds of things. But I didn’t take this one home. I took it back to my office and tucked it between my desk and the storage cabinet. If I have to clean out my desk, I’ll need a good sturdy box.
I’m not saying that’s going to happen. I just want to be prepared. And I like dramatic gestures, so I’ve decided that the box will stay where it is until I have to use it . . . or until I’m sure don’t need it.
I’m also making a mental list of the things I’ll do with all the extra time I do find myself unemployed. (Why should Greg have all the fun?) This is all part of my strategy for turning the whole matter into a no-lose scenario. If I get laid off, I’ll feel smug about having snagged a box before the rush started. And I’ll get to sleep late and spend more time blogging (in between job interviews, of course). If I don’t get laid off, well, I keep my job! Either way, I win.
UPDATE: Perhaps I should write down the URL of this Slashdot thread on a piece of paper and stick it in the box, just in case. And maybe this one, too.

Layoff anxiety

Friday, May 10th, 2002

I’ve been an IBM employee for a year now; the beginning of May was my anniversary. I hope I will still be one a month from now. But that may not be the case.
The Wall Street Journal and other news sources are reporting that IBM will announce layoffs in its U.S. operations later this month. I’ve been expecting something like this. Technology companies are not doing especially well right now, and IBM’s earnings for the first quarter were disappointing. The stock price has fallen, and investors want to see evidence that costs are being cut. The traditional response is a layoff.
If my team is affected, it seems inevitable that I’ll be the one to go. I was the last one hired, and even after a year of acclimation, I’m still not as effective as my colleagues who have been here longer. Letting me go would be the logical thing to do. I can only cross my fingers and hope my team won’t be affected.
When I was laid off from Alcatel a year ago, I found a new job almost immediately. But I was very lucky: I had a brother already working at IBM who was in a position to put my resume in the hands of the right person at exactly the moment when a position opened up. That sort of thing is not likely to happen again, and job prospects in the current market are pretty grim.
But if it comes to that, I’ll find something. I always do. I’ve spent most of my technical writing career as a contractor, and that experience has taught me that any job can end without warning, whether it’s “permanent” or not. (In fact, my five-year stint at Alcatel was arguably the most permanent job I’ve ever had, even though it was a contract.) You just have to suck it up and hit the street the next day as a full-time job hunter.
In theory, it’s better to have a little warning that something like this is going to happen. But in practice, there’s not much you can do about it except worry. I’ve been laid off without warning before, and I actually prefer it that way. At least it’s over quickly and you can move on.
Well, if I didn’t want to know about this, I guess I had no business reading the Wall Street Journal. Nothing to do now but update my resume and then try to think of other things until the announcement comes. Either way, life will go on.

Double-take

Wednesday, May 8th, 2002

I was shopping in Wal-Mart recently (looking for a Mother’s Day card and some cardstock for printing a board game), when I heard a baby crying. That’s not unusual in a place like Wal-Mart, but it got my attention for two reasons. First, this baby was really howling — not like it was in pain, but seriously cranky. And second, the crying sounded slightly odd, in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. After a few minutes, I decided to follow the sound and find out where it was coming from.

 
The source turned out to be a young woman — a teenager, really — in the handbags and accessories department. Sure enough, she had a baby, and she was briskly patting and rubbing its back, trying to get it to quiet down. Then I looked closer and saw that it wasn’t a real baby. It was a life-size infant mannequin. The crying had sounded odd because it was artificial — a digitized recording of some kind. This clearly wasn’t any sort of doll; it was a robot baby. And the girl caring for it wasn’t playing. She seemed quite serious about what she was doing.

 
I didn’t want to stand there and stare, so I walked on. But as I continued shopping, I kept trying to figure out what I had seen. Where did that robot baby come from, and why was she carrying it around in Wal-Mart? As I left the store, I noticed that she was sitting on a bench just inside the front door, feeding her “child” from a bottle. I got half a dozen steps into the parking lot, and realized that I couldn’t leave without finding out what was going on. Retracing my steps, I approached the young woman and said, “Excuse me, but I’m curious about your baby. Can you tell me what it is?”

 
She smiled and explained that she was participating in a Baby Think It Over class, designed to give teenagers a taste of what it’s like to be a parent. The “infant” was a RealCare Baby infant simulator. The baby is programmed to need feeding, changing, and so forth at unpredictable intervals, and records how well you care for it, so you can’t just leave it in the trunk of your car while you go shopping; you actually have to carry it around with you, just like a real baby. (That’s why she had it in Wal-Mart.) The student has to wear an wristband with an identifying disc that fits into a recess on the baby’s back. This is to ensure that the student actually cares for the baby personally, instead of palming it off on someone else. When I saw her patting the baby’s back, she was also inserting her ID in the recess so the baby would recognize her.

 
I had no idea this technology existed, but it sure strikes me as a good idea. Any new parent can tell you that you can’t really know what you’re getting into before you’re confronted with the reality of a baby that you are responsible for, twenty-four hours a day. I see that the RealCare Baby comes with an operating handbook for the instructor, but none for the “parent.” Just like the real thing.