atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#3831: I was going to write a stunning essay on the decline of work culture in America...

...but then I realized that I'm too lazy to do all that work on something that's not going to pay me any money.

Sorry. When you're getting free ice cream, don't expect Haagen-Dasz or Ben and Jerry's or Frujen-Gladje, at least not all the time. Sometimes you're going to get "generic artificially-flavored iced milk product".

Sadly, around here, it's usually the latter.

Which, if you think about it, kind of proves the point.

The aborted essay was inspired by this Anchoress piece, which links to another piece on the idiocy of human resources departments everywhere.

I've experienced the kind of transformation that Elizabeth Scalia mentions.

Back in 1998, when I started as a contract technical writer for Rockwell-Collins' Business and Regional Systems, technical publications was a cost center (rather than a profit center) and most of the books needed revision. The backlog was large because there was simply not enough money to revise all the books. (Later I wrote a temporary revision for a book which had not been revised since before I was born. Yeesh.)

I was instructed to come to work, do my job, and go home, to work 40-hour weeks, and not to overwork myself in a desperate attempt to impress anyone. I followed that advice and was hired as a full-time employee six months later.

And six months after that, Rockwell-Collins decided it was going to start charging for technical documentation. Other companies charged for theirs, and some bright boy in upper management realized we're leaving money on the table! so R-C must do the same.

The first thing they did was to organize writing teams. Before that, each book had a cognizant writer, someone who was an expert on the material in the thing. He was in the loop whenever the book was revised, even if it was just a one-page temporary revision being issued to correct a part number or something. The cognizant writer need not revise the book (any writer could do that) but he would be involved in the process, because he was the expert on the subject matter.

After moving to a teamed environment, book revisions were handed out approximately at random to whichever team needed a project. Writing teams now had to charge their time to specific cost centers, of course, and it changed depending on what they were working on. Because everything was so tightly scheduled, the technical writers no longer had time to understand the circuitry in order to write detailed circuit theories; now the writer instead had to beg the engineer to do that part.

Naturally, the engineer had to use his own budget for that. Some would not; they'd demand access to the writing time code, and I can't say I blame them. Otherwise, tech pubs was offloading some of its work onto other organizations for free.

To make matters worse, then, there came the imposition of "Simplified English" as a writing standard. Since the books were going to be sold all over the world, they would be used by people who had English as their second language...and they wouldn't be able to understand it unless it was simplified. Naturally, all the writers were trained in SE, right?

Of course not. No: the quality assurance guys, the guys who read the newly revised books to ensure there were no grammatical or typographical errors, they got trained in it...and in Dilbert-esque pointy-haired boss fashion the management assumed that writers would learn SE by osmosis when QA sent back their manuscripts, festooned with post-it flags:
QA guy: "This isn't in Simplified English."

Me: [unable to see how I could possibly explain it any simpler.] "Well, how should I write it?"

QA guy: "That's your job."
There was a bit of a joke floating around the department about SE and its application. It went like this: "A signal enters IC 1 on pin 3. The signal is changed. The signal is output on pin 4 of IC 1."

In my ignorance of SE, and my desperate attempt to write an error-free detailed circuit theory which anyone in the world could understand without any training or even a list of approved verbs--the equivalent of trying to hit an invisible target in a dark room with a gun that randomly fires sideways--I routinely got bitched at by the editor/composer on our team. "This is very poorly written!" Excuse the fuck out of me; you know, when you're trying to describe how the main receiver in a navigation display demodulates a single-sideband AM signal, and you're not allowed to use phrases like "the demodulated signal" or "noise rejection threshold", it MAKES IT JUST A LITTLE DIFFICULT TO WRITE FUCKIN' PROSE THAT SINGS, BITCH.

Meawhile, management also decided to implement the "more is better, as long as it doesn't cost us anything extra" paradigm. If you were an exempt employee, you were expected to put in 45 hours per week, period. It doesn't matter what you were doing or how efficiently you did it; you had to put in 45 hours per week because We're Professionals And We Stay Until The Work Is Done And We Have A Backlog.

The need for everyone to buckle down and work harder was so dire that non-exempt employees were forbidden to work any overtime.

In other words, it wasn't about getting more work done; it was about management being able to force salaried employees to work overtime without having to pay them anything more. It was, in fact, hard for exempt employees to get anything done when all the non-exempt people had left; it was overtime for the sake of it--"work harder, not smarter."

So when five o'clock rolled around and my work for the day was done, and I had no way of getting more work to do, what was I supposed to do?

When I was on the temporary revisions team, I was one of the two top producers on that team. Me and the other person, we switched places every week--one week it was me on top of the page count list, the next it was her, and so on--and I worked a 40-hour week and she worked 45. At the end of every day the input shelf was empty and we had no work left to do; and since the person who processed the temp rev requests--who pulled the books from the library and collected the technical info needed to do the TR--since that person was limited to 40 hour weeks because she was an hourly employee, there was no more work to do on a particular day.

Was I supposed to sit around for an hour every day and do nothing? We weren't supposed to charge anything to 90-9002 (the "general overhead" charge center, which I obviously still remember 12 years later) and there was simply nothing else for me to do. What was I supposed to do?

...when I was an on-site computer technician, my speed and efficiency were an asset to me, personally, because it made customers happy to see me getting their problems solved as quickly as possible. It was an asset to my employer, because I could make more money for them--both short- and long-term--that way: I could run more service calls in a day, and our customers would keep calling us back for more jobs because each particular job cost them less money than it would if someone else did the work.

But at R-C, after tech pubs became a profit center, it was a liability to me, because my employer simply did not care that it was an asset for them. They also simply did not care that there was no way I could do more than I was already doing, that adding more work hours to my week would not result in more work getting done.

I would have been much better off if I had just slowed the hell down and took 45 hours to do what was--for me--40 hours' worth of work. Me spending 45 hours per week at my desk was what was important to them, not the quality of my work or my efficiency or even how much I got done. I'd probably still be working there if I'd done that; instead of trying to do my best work every day in a timely and efficient manner I should have just sat back and taken my sweet time with everything and not worried so much about integrity and honor and honesty. Charge 45 hours per week to whatever charge center it was I was working on, regardless of what it was and what I was doing and how long it actually took me to get anything done. Waste money so the level two manager who was lovingly dubbed "the little dictator" could preen in the mirror about how much work he was getting from his serfs.

I'd bet that I still would have gotten laid off after 9/11, though, because I have a degree from f-ing DeVry.

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