Dec 03


I just noticed that it’s December 3, which means that exactly thirty years ago, I was laid off by Millidyne Inc., my employer at the time. I’ve been laid off numerous times in my career (it’s just a fact of life for technical writers), but this particular layoff stands out in my mind because it holds the record for short notice — just three hours.

Millidyne was a small startup company in northern Raleigh, and I had been working there for a year. I had actually landed the job by responding to a Help Wanted ad in the newspaper, the only time that has ever happened to me. (In 1989, the Internet as we know it didn’t exist, and neither did job-hunting online. So reading the classified ads was actually useful.) During that year, I was the only full-time technical writer.

I was doing my work on an IBM PC running DOS, probably version 4.01. (Windows 3.0, the first version of Windows to achieve significant sales in the business market, wasn’t released until halfway through 1990.) It was my first job using a desktop publishing application (Ventura Publisher), and while I had used laser printers in previous jobs, they had always been shared with many other users. This was the first time I had a dedicated laser printer connected to my office computer. And since I was the sole custodian of it, I was also responsible for its care and feeding. I learned how to clear paper jams and replace toner cartridges (which involved ordering more cartridges and disposing of the used ones).

Like many small startup companies, Millidyne fell on hard times financially, and this led to a layoff of about 40% of the employees on December 3, 1990. At 9:00 a.m., every employee was handed a manila envelope by their manager. When you opened it, you found a letter inside. Some employees got a letter telling them that their jobs were being eliminated. The others got a letter announcing the downsizing of the company. I was in the first group, of course.

The laid-off employees were asked to leave the premises by noon — three hours notice.

I was asked to bundle up all of the documents I was working on and transfer them to my boss, who would have to take over the technical writing work. I don’t remember exactly what that entailed, but it probably involved handing him a stack of 5.25″ floppy disks, because that’s what we were using at that time. I do recall that three hours wasn’t enough time to get it done. Fortunately, they didn’t throw me out of the building at noon. I was allowed to remain long enough to complete the handoff process, which took until about 4:00 p.m.

Early December is a lousy time to lose your job. For my family, it wasn’t so bad, because Marie was still employed. We were able to pay our bills while I hunted for another job, and we had a more or less normal Christmas. But it was tough for some of my coworkers. Millidyne had planned to hold an offsite Christmas party for the employees. A committee of my coworkers had been planning it for months, arranging the location, the catering, the entertainment, and so forth. After the downsizing was announced, the party was canceled.

The announcement caught us by surprise, but of course it hadn’t happened suddenly. A layoff of that magnitude takes weeks or even months of planning. I don’t know why the executives of the company chose to keep the whole thing a secret until the last minute, but they knew the Christmas party would never happen. In order to keep the secret, they let the committee members carry on planning it until the morning of December 3, and then pulled the rug out from under them.

That seems cold to me. I guess they felt it was the best way to break the news, but I’m glad I didn’t have to help keep that secret.

As I recall, I was able to find another job pretty quickly in early 1991. I think that’s when I went back to IBM for my second term as an 18-month contractor. More than half of my career has been contract work, and one of the advantages of a contractor’s life is that you usually know about when your contract will end, and you can plan for it. (Not always. My job at Alcatel around the turn of the century was open-ended. It was technically a one-year contract, but they kept renewing it year after year . . . until they didn’t. Still, they kept me employed for five years, and I’m grateful for that.)

Most of the times I’ve been laid off, I was given a week or two of advance notice. Sometimes it’s been less than that; when Alcatel laid off my whole team, we had until the end of the day to clear out. Other times it’s been more; in 2002, IBM laid off a bunch of employees, and it gave us two months notice. But thirty years later, the three-hour notice I got from Millidyne is still the shortest.

It’s a very bad sign when a company lays off 40% of its people in one day. I figured that Millidyne was in deep financial trouble and would not last much longer. And I’m afraid that I was right. A year or two later, I ran into my ex-boss at a restaurant, and he told me that the company was gone.

Ironically, that same ex-boss had received the longest notice of a layoff that I have ever heard of. He had previously been a college professor, teaching courses for a specific degree program. The college eventually decided to eliminate that degree, which meant that his services would no longer be required. But although no new students would be allowed to enter that degree program, the ones already in it would be permitted to complete it. And some of them were freshmen. His teaching position would not be eliminated until the last of those students graduated. So he was given four years notice that he would lose his job.

I’m not sure I would want to know that far in advance.

Oct 20

Job titles

I’m starting a new job tomorrow, and I noticed with amusement that, at least on paper, I have been given a job title that makes no sense. I am a technical writer; I write and edit documentation for computers and software. And in most of the jobs I’ve held, my job title was Technical Writer or something similar. But not always.

When I was hired by IBM a couple of decades ago, I was given the title Staff Software Engineer. Of course, I wasn’t writing computer programs, and I wasn’t really an engineer of any sort. But that’s what the paperwork said.

My most recent job ended a couple of weeks ago, and my official title there was Engineering Planner II. I’m not even sure what that means, but I still wasn’t an engineer, and I wasn’t planning anything except my own work as a technical writer.

And now I have a new job, where my title (according to the paperwork I’ve seen so far) is Manufacturing Engineer. Needless to say, I will not be going anywhere near a factory floor. I’ll be writing technical documentation at my dinner table, since this is a remote job.

I have no explanation for any of this. It’s probably the result of administrative or HR issues that I know nothing about. In any event, I’m not complaining. They can call me whatever they want, as long as I get paid on time. But I think it’s funny.

Aug 29

Dropped from the Dow

I saw a headline stating that Exxon Mobil is being dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and I clicked the link because I was curious to know why. I learned that Exxon Mobil has been a part of the Dow since 1928, making it the oldest member. So what happened?

As I read the article, I realized that I had misunderstood what this means. I was confusing it with being delisted from a stock exchange, which usually means that your company is circling the drain and its stock is almost worthless. (This happened to one of my former employers, Pliant Systems, in 1999.) But the Dow is a stock index, not an exchange. Basically, it’s a bundle of stocks that are selected to represent the American economy as a whole. As such, it needs to be updated as the economy evolves.

This particular update was triggered by an impending Apple stock split, which would alter the blend of manufacturing and technology stocks in the index. So the Dow is adding some tech stocks: Salesforce, Amgen and Honeywell. Also being dropped are the drug company Pfizer . . . and my current employer, Raytheon Technologies.

That was a bit of a shock. I’ll try not to take it personally.

Sep 19

For the record

After I was laid off in 2002, I wrote a lot of stuff in this blog about the experience of losing my job, searching for another one, and returning to the ranks of the employed. The same thing happened again this year, but I didn’t blog much about the process this time around. Mostly that was a good thing, because I covered that ground pretty well in 2002-2003. But it’s unfortunate that I didn’t write anything about those events, because I sometimes use this blog as a reference when I need to know the exact date of a major transition in my life — like the day I started or left a particular job.
When I was using Blogger, I had to find that information by skimming through the archives. But thanks to Movable Type, this blog now has a search function. So I want to go ahead and note a few dates for posterity.

  • On Tuesday, 7 June 2005, I was informed that my contract assignment at IBM Retail Store Solutions (RSS) would end the following Friday.
  • On Friday, 10 June, I finished cleaning out my desk and left IBM.
  • On Monday, 18 July, I started a new contract job at John Deere in Cary. However, it became apparent after the first day or two that they had nothing for me to do. (It was a odd internal misunderstanding at Deere — the manager who brought me in believed his team needed a writer, but his people eventually admitted that they had misjudged their requirments.)
  • On Tuesday, 26 July, I left Deere, having “worked” there for only seven business days.
  • On Thursday, 1 September, I started a new job as the sole technical writer at Openfield Solutions, a small startup company in North Raleigh.

There, now I don’t have to worry about my faulty memory. If I need those dates three years from now, I’ll be able to find them here.

Oct 04

Alcatel in the news

I worked as a technical writing contractor at Alcatel for five years, from March 1996 to April 2001 — the longest I have ever worked at the same job. I had three managers during my time there, and all of them were pleased with my work. The last two even attempted to get me hired as an Alcatel employee instead of a contractor, but were never able to get approval to do so.

The reason had nothing to do with me; it was just bureaucratic reluctance to hire any new employee. The paperwork would languish on some vice president’s desk for months, waiting for a signature, until it was out of date and had to be rewritten and resubmitted. The only justification we ever got was that the company’s human resources budget didn’t allow hiring another person.

So I remained a contractor until the morning of April 2, 2001, when I was laid off along with most of my department. The company had fallen on hard times and had to reduce costs — or so we were told at the time. But now I learn that a few months after Alcatel decided it couldn’t afford my services, it paid a $2.2 million bribe to Costa Rican officials in order to secure a lucrative contract to install cellular telephone systems in that country. An investigation is under way, and the officials in question may well end up behind bars.

I shouldn’t take this personally. I really shouldn’t.

May 01


Readers of this blog may be starting to wonder: does this guy ever write about anything other than his job and/or lack of one? That’s a fair question. When I created this blog, I didn’t define a specific subject for it. The idea was to post whatever I felt like writing, on whatever topic happened to be on my mind. In recent weeks, that has been employment. But really, what else would you expect? The major events of my life have all been job-related lately: starting a temporary job, changing shifts, getting inquiries about IBM contracts, interviewing, receiving an offer, and starting the new contract. As I settle into my new job and it becomes just another part of everyday life, I won’t be so preoccupied with the subject and I’ll start writing about other things. I promise.
But not today, because I’ve embarked on a new occupational adventure: working two jobs at once.
First, a little background. When I started my temporary job at the healthcare company on March 10, I was asked what my shift preference was, and I said it didn’t matter. So they put me on the night shift, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. The reason was simple: the company’s office space was maxed out in the daytime, but they could bring in more people at night and put them in the cubicles vacated by the day crew at 5:00. As turnover created vacancies on the day shift, night people would be moved to the day. That’s what happened in my case; after a couple of weeks of working nights, I switched to daytime.
We temporary employees were hired to help the company meet a major deadline at the end of May, and it was made clear that our employment would end as of June 1. (I had no problem with that — a temporary job is much better than no job, and it gave me more time to find something less temporary.) Now, normally, when you are offered a new job, you have to quit the old one. But it occurred to me that in this case, I could overlap them. I could ask to be moved back to the night shift, and keep my temporary job until the end of May as originally planned. Was I insane to consider this? Perhaps, but I decided to do it for two reasons. First, my temporary employer had done me a big favor by hiring me when I badly needed the work, and I didn’t want to repay their kindness by leaving them shorthanded when they needed me. And second, my family can really use the extra money.
So now I work at IBM during the day, and when 5:00 comes, I drive to my other office and work until 10:30. This means that except on weekends, I’m always at work, in my car, or sleeping. I could never adopt a lifestyle like this on an ongoing basis, but I only have to endure it for a month. How hard can it be? Performing in Cinderella last fall was pretty grueling too, with rehearsals and performances almost every day for about six weeks. I got through that experience OK, and I think I can survive this one too.
My phone may have stopped ringing, but the demand for my services continues to outstrip the supply. I’m overemployed!

Apr 30

Getting started

My first day as an IBM employee was April 30, 2001: two years ago today. It’s nice of IBM to commemorate the occasion by bringing me back as a contractor, even if they did miss the correct date slightly. Actually, April 30 was the first day of a two-day orientation class for new employees. My employment did commence on that day, but I did no work whatsoever until May 2. For that matter, I probably spent the rest of my first week obtaining the logins and passwords I would need, getting a phone and a computer installed, and attending various meetings. Which is what I’m doing now, too.
It’s amusing that IBM thought I needed two days of instruction on how to work there, since at that point I already had about four years of experience writing IBM manuals. I started doing that in 1987, when I was an employee of a documentation services vendor that had IBM as its major client. I wasn’t an IBM employee and I didn’t work at IBM, but 100% of my time was spent developing IBM manuals with IBM tools. (In fact, I would go into our computer lab, sit down at a terminal, and log on to one of IBM’s mainframes to do my work. I was “working remotely” before it was cool.) When I left that job in 1988, it was to accept an offer to go out to IBM’s main site in Research Triangle Park and work as a contractor — not employed by IBM, but sitting in an IBM office and using IBM tools to document IBM products. I did about three years of that, in 1988-89 and 1991-92.
So by the time I became an actual IBM employee in 2001, I had already “started work” as a developer of IBM manuals several times. And on none of these occasions did anyone spend two days explaining my job to me. They basically showed me where to sit, gave me some books to read, and left me to figure it out on my own. Which was just fine with me; I learn faster if I can move at my own pace, skip the stuff I already know, and don’t have to listen patiently while other newbies ask dumb questions. Now I’m back as a contractor once again, which means no orientation class. What a relief! If I ever do manage to return to IBM as a direct employee, I hope they won’t make me sit through two days of handholding again. Honestly, folks, I do remember how to do this job.
But Human Resources bureaucrats move in mysterious ways. Before I could start this latest contract job, IBM required my contract agency to hire a security firm to run a background check on me. Of course IBM ran a background check of its own before hiring me two years ago, but I guess they had to be sure I hadn’t committed any new felonies since they laid me off last June.
It seems appropriate that Building 002 — where I went yesterday to have my badge made — has a revolving door. If IBM didn’t have one of those, they would need to install it just for me.

Apr 29


June 21 of last year was my final day as an IBM employee. Before departing, I wrote these words on my office whiteboard:
I’LL BE BACK. — A. Schwarzenegger
It took me a while to fulfill that promise, but today I am back at IBM as a contractor. In fact, I’m posting this from my new office. Said office is not where I thought it would be — although my interview took place in Research Triangle Park, it turns out that I will be working at IBM’s site on Six Forks Road in northern Raleigh. I didn’t even know IBM had a site here. But if this is where Big Blue wants me, then so be it.
As is typical on the first day of a new job, not everything was ready for me when I arrived. For example, my phone has still not been turned on. (I have my mobile phone in my pocket, though, so I’m not exactly incommunicado.) However, my e-mail account was activated a couple of days ago. When I accessed my inbox for the first time, I found that I had a half dozen routine messages about things like passwords and voicemail access. I also had twenty-nine spam messages.
UPDATE: Number thirty arrived while I was posting this entry.

Apr 18


They didn’t keep me waiting. The recruiter who arranged yesterday’s interview called today and said, “Would you like a job?” Apparently the folks I met with at IBM yesterday really are eager to bring in a new technical writer. In fact, they want me to start on the 28th — that’s a week from Monday. I accepted, of course.
The recruiter relayed something the IBM folks told him. They said that I was “far and away the best candidate” they had interviewed for the job, not just in terms of experience and skills, but also in terms of personality fit. They think I’m highly compatible with their team and their style of doing things. As it happens, that’s exactly the way I see it. IBM is my favorite place to work. I’ve known since the first time I set foot on an IBM campus, fifteen years ago, that the company and I were made for each other. And while it’s hard to judge on the basis of half an hour of conversation, I liked the people I met yesterday and felt that I would enjoy working with them. Evidently it was mutual.
It may seem that I’m boasting here, but consider the context. Being told that I’m the best candidate comes at the end of ten months of the opposite: having prospective employers tell me that I’m not the best candidate, or (in most cases) that I’m not a candidate worth interviewing at all. After that experience, I think I’m entitled to savor my victory.
(Of course, while you’re considering the context, it may occur to you that if these IBMers are in such a hurry, they can’t have interviewed all that many candidates. Being “far and away the best” is not as big a deal if they only talked to a total of, say, three people. But if that’s what you’re thinking, I don’t want to hear it!)

Apr 17

Another visit to IBM

Today’s interview went quite well, I think. It turned out to be a sort of combined interview for Managers G and H. As I understand it, the contractor they plan to hire will be a shared resource, doing work for both groups. When I got to IBM, I met first with Manager H and two members of her team. After chatting with them for about half an hour, I was ushered into another office to talk with a member of Manager G’s team. (G himself was offsite today.) They seemed to like what I had to say, and indicated that they would be making a decision quickly. This is consistent with what I was told later by the recruiter who set up the interview — they are in a hurry to fill the opening and will probably make a decision in the next few days. So at least I won’t have to wait long for a response.
Not that I’ll be sitting by the phone, biting my nails. Friday is officially a holiday at Perigee, but those employees who would like to earn extra money are welcome to work on Friday and Saturday, so I plan to do so.