The Job Experience, IT Plumbing: Year #7

Screw Bert

In a role reversal, Hemlock creates a mystery instead of solving one.

In a shocking role reversal, Hemlock creates a mystery instead of solving one.

In the midst of all of the conflicts with Cthulhu, what I’m really obsessing about is how to fix my perception problem.  I’m now aware that Evil Bert is my real issue — he’s been talking behind my back, broadcasting all of the negative things I’ve said about management during lunch hours that I incorrectly supposed were private.  Despite our discussion from a few nights ago, I didn’t have any indication that he’d stop, and indeed, Cthulhu continued to complain about my attitude in our 1:1s.

Fixing Bert is Fixing Work, I told myself.

It took me a while to figure out a solution that I thought would be effective.  And it was a rotten solution which required me to stoop to Bad Person levels in order to carry it out.  Still, I couldn’t help but implement it, even though I knew what I was doing was completely and utterly wrong.  If anyone found out, it would be a big problem — much, much bigger than any so-called issues of reputation and attitude at FinancialCompany.  I’d surely be fired, and there was even the potential of legal action being taken against me.

Still, I justified it by saying to myself:  Do unto others what has been done to you.  Bert had been steadily dicking me for close to a year now.

It was payback time.

Bert was the expert on a couple of messaging technologies that the rest of the team barely understood, but played a vital part in the flow of information between systems.  Put simply, when this stuff isn’t working, lots and lots of stuff breaks.

So I decided to learn a bit about Bert’s specialty. Not too much, mind you. Just enough to do some damage.  You don’t need to know nearly as much about human anatomy if you’re just removing an organ as opposed to putting one in place.  I can cut livers out of cadavers all day.

In the meantime, I worked out a scheme to make it difficult to trace any activity back to me.  (For the uber geeks, this involved using a consultant’s desktop while in the office, then hitting multiple jump servers before using group IDs to finally log into a machine in our secure network, sudo’ing to a priviliged user, then making use of our passwordless SSH system to hop around further systems before landing on machines that Bert owned. On the way out, I purged audit logs of login information and sudo activity.)

Once I had a plan in place, I stopped by Bert’s office for a quick conversation.

Have you changed your mind about anything?

Nope, he said, without even turning around.  And would you please leave?  I’m busy.

Sure, I understand.  Just wanted to let you know that if you ever need help resolving an issue in the future, I expect you come around on this first. Either we’re teammates and we support each other or we’re enemies.

Whatever, he says.

The next day I put my plan into action — I get into Bert’s systems and mess them up.  (Again, for the tech-heads:  I copied shared libraries from an outdated machine onto the current boxes and also pulled in a couple of old configuration files from two years ago.)

A bit of explanation here. I didn’t do any of these things in a live environment. Companies always have test environments which are mirror images of their production sites. Example: also has something like which is a replica of the website that end users see and use. I sabotaged Bert’s systems on the test environments, so there was no real business impact to FinancialCompany’s traders.

The current version of me recognizes that what I did was morally reprehensible and probably illegal as well.  If I could go back and un-do it, I would — I really regret doing this.  But I have to admit that, at the time, it felt exactly right to finally put the screws to my nemesis — it seemed to me that he deserved it, and no one would deal out the required punishment but myself.

It was my duty.

The next day, it’s immediately apparent that our test environments are broken. The majority of applications are no longer working as expected, or, at the very least, features are missing.

By mid-afternoon, it’s turned into a semi-crisis. Bridge calls are opened. Developers, application owners, and guys from my team are trying to figure out what went wrong.

We use divide and conquer troubleshooting methods to quickly narrow things down to Bert’s systems. I’m sweating it out. Will anyone find something that makes them think these issues were caused intentionally?

Bert frantically works to try to identify the source of the issues. We all go home around five thirty, but he stays in the office, cranking away. I pass by him on the way out and he looks at me, furious.

He knows, for sure.

This continues for two straight weeks. Bert opens tickets with the product vendor and even the support guys can’t figure out what’s going wrong.   They try restoring from backup, but that fails too because backups are not complete system images any more; in an effort to save on storage, the non-production systems only have a subset of data replicated nightly, and this subset does not include some of the damage I caused.

During this time, I’m totally on edge.  Will I be found out?  Bert’s antics provide some relief for my anxiety because watching him scramble around is just terrific; I’m taking genuine pleasure in seeing him struggle to resolve a problem that he didn’t cause and doesn’t know how to fix. (Yeah.  Humans are kind of sick sometimes, yours truly included.)  It strikes me that this is exactly the same type of problem that he created for me; a nameless, unsolvable bitch of an issue that threatens your career.

In our team meetings, this issue is all we talk about now.  Most development teams have been halted because they need these environments to be working in order to proceed programming application updates.  So as a direct result of this issue, FinancialCompany has an enormous quantity of worker-bee hours just idling, money being wasted, features not added, manpower gone to waste.  The issue has been escalated all the way up the chain; even the CIO is aware of Bert, and The Problem.

We’re all racking our brains, but no one is getting close to the solution.

Right when we’re closing in on the end of the second week, Cthulhu says if it’s not resolved in two more days, they’re going to engage the software vendor to come on-site and do a full assessment of all systems.  They will solve this unsolvable problem — this issue that Bert, our own top specialist, cannot.

I’m thrilled.  When vendor consulting has to be engaged to fix a problem, it’s a black eye for the individual that couldn’t resolve it on their own.  Everyone becomes aware of the failure, judgment is cast, reputations are ruined (at least temporarily.)


That night, after most everyone else has gone home, Bert stops by my office and asks me to fix whatever it is I broke.

Broke?  I didn’t break anything.  Although there might be karma in play here.  Karma’s a bitch.

You know what I mean.  I’ll do what you want.

I don’t want anything.  We’re already bosom buddies and terrific teammates.  What could I possibly expect from you that you’re not already providing?

I’ll tell people I was wrong about you.  You have a good attitude.

Of course I do.  Everyone already thinks that.  You don’t need to say it.  In fact, do you know who people don’t think is so hot right now?  It’s you, Bert.  You, who owns the broken systems .  

That night I have a crisis of conscience.  Yeah, I know — it’s about time. I don’t really want to ruin Bert — I just want my life at work to function more smoothly.  The crux of the issue is, as I’ve already mentioned, that only a horrible person would do what I’ve done, and I’m furious with myself that I’ve allowed the job to change me into a deplorable human being.

So I get into the office super early the next morning, shortly after 5AM, and restore the environments.

By the time everyone is in the office, all systems are working again.  We have an impromptu team meeting and Cthulhu congratulates Bert, who isn’t sure what to say or do.  Instead, he looks at me, as if in question:  Did you finally fix this stuff?

I nod.

Two weeks later I’m in a 1:1 with Cthulhu and he brings up the subject of perception again.  For the first time in more than half a year, the script changes.


That’s terrific, I say, even though I haven’t seen or talked to the guy in months.


And that’s basically it: the whole thing is finally over.  Bert clearly started telling Cthulhu and my Director that I’m a wonderful worker.  The interaction with Cthulhu is really anticlimactic in every respect: this big pulsing issue simply dropped off the radar.

This is a microcosm of every high-profile issue I’ve ever faced in the office.  Some pressing problem gets resolved, and you don’t even really enjoy the after-effects, because no one is interested anymore.  They’ve already moved on.

It’s almost like it wasn’t that important to begin with.

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26 Responses to The Job Experience, IT Plumbing: Year #7

  1. Damn son, I need a drink after reading this post (at 8 in the morning).

    Cthulhu makes my bosses seem like the fun uncles everyone wants at the party.

    • livingafi says:

      Thanks for reading, GC. I hold Cthulu up as the model for bad bosses everywhere — he’s just absurdly, comically terrible at all times, almost as if he’s deliberately making an effort to be the worst ever. Every time I think about being rid of him, I involuntarily smile like crazy. He was let go from FinComp half a year after I left, btw. Lots of choice things said about him on the way out to HR by me and Beaker — and Statler and Waldorf started in on him soon after. There is occasionally justice in the world.

  2. Holy moly! This series is E-P-I-C.

    It’s a good reminder that whatever gripes I have with my job, things could be 140% worse.

    I manage a team of software developers in the Boston area, and I would never treat my employees this way. Plus, good engineers are in such demand that we’d lose anyone with half a brain. The market is insane!

    I’m hoping you get to have a decent manager before this series is over! 🙂

    • livingafi says:

      Absolutely – my next boss is pretty terrific, all things considered. He’s proof that there’s a wide range of jobs and manager types out there, even within a particular industry. To your point about mistreated workers leaving their companies: that’s where the golden handcuffs came in. FinComp compensated people such that they felt entitled to increased expectations, on all fronts. BTW, please don’t EVER take my comments about some of my bosses personally — I know there are good ones out there from experience, and it seems like you’re doing your best to be one yourself. Cheers!

  3. Gamergirl says:

    Wow, I’m honestly surprised you lasted as long as you did there.

    I also had deja-vu reading the part about the call two days before Christmas. Had you mentioned that moment in a different post before?

    • livingafi says:

      GG: You have a good memory. There was a thread on MMM which requested examples of people making use of their FU money, and I posted the Cthulhu quit story there – I’m sure that’s where you picked it up. I ended up lifting the text directly out of the forum, making minor edits for style, and dropping it in place here, its true home 🙂

      • Gamergirl says:

        Ah, yes! That is where I saw it. 😀

        Love getting the entire story here.

        I still find it funny that after everything Cthulhu boss put you through, being called on Dec 23 was your breaking point. The weekend work would have had me walking away long before. I’m surmissing it’s a bit like the frog in boiling water analogy, the phone call woke you up to the fact that you were being boiled alive by work.

      • livingafi says:

        I think that, honestly, I sort of knew by June or so that I was going to have to quit. But I *really* wanted the end of year bonus, and in addition I was continually, stupidly hopeful that something would happen out of the blue to fix the boss issue — like maybe a piano falling on his head or spontaneous tentacle combustion. Re: weekend work, you’re right on target with your boiling frog analogy, I really like that. It’s amazing what we get used to.

  4. I had a maniac boss from 2011-2013 and my stress level was insane. He was fired last September and I took his job. The first thing I told the managers under me was “If I become a psychotic MF like him, let me know and I will gladly go back to my old position” So far so good. The funny thing is about 10 employees that were fired or quit over the last couple of years have come back to work. That is a personal reward that far exceeds any financial benefits. Also I dig the run therapy you started. I know may people have various issues that may need professional help, but I think if many people summoned their inner “Forrest Gump” and just started running many problems would be solved.


    • livingafi says:

      Keep it up, MDP – the world does need good managers. I’m absolutely sure your employees are very glad to report to a reasonable human being, and the fact that some have returned is validation enough. Interesting that you call it ‘run therapy.’ I probably should have sought professional help, given the situation. (I bet an analyst would have told me to quit, and I probably should have.) At any rate, I’m continually thankful to have all of that stuff firmly in the rear-view mirror — and now that I’m not in the middle of it any more, I’m sort of surprised to find that I’m glad to have accumulated these experiences. Even the bad ones.

  5. Steph says:

    I have really enjoyed his series. You put up with A LOT. I left a very stressful job about 8 years ago. I had to or I would have gone completely crazy. I haven’t had a full time job since. It destroyed my confidence in many ways. Now my child is getting older I am thinking about work again. These posts are a good reminder why I am better off working for myself. I am studying to be a bookkeeper. I look forward to reading the rest of your story.

    • livingafi says:

      Hi Steph, thanks for stopping by. Sorry to hear about your own bad employment experience. There are better jobs out there, though — the real challenge is separating the good from the bad prior to accepting a position. So I agree with your comment that in many ways, working for yourself can be better than a company — at least you’re in control of your work to a greater extent, because you report to yourself instead of Random Manager Person. I know what you mean about the bad experiences leaving an imprint, though. Good luck with your search.

  6. cic says:

    These are such great posts – I’ve enjoyed every one of them and am on my way back to the start to read them with more attention (first time through I was bingeing…). I’ve been wondering about something – you give great detail about the money you were paid, and salary/benefits you chose to forego, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about putting a number on what bad management was costing the company. For example, what financial gains you could have delivered to them if they’d let you choose your priorities rather than pressuring you to manage whatever is at the top of the queue. Other ways companies cost themselves money through bad management include turnover, obviously, but also sabotage, absenteeism, opportunity cost – the good people who chose not to work there – and so on. I think a lot about this because it seems to be a persistent market failure that bad managers keep their jobs for so long, so I wonder what forces keep those people in those roles.

    Have you ever speculated about what Cthulhu’s management cost the company?

    • livingafi says:

      Glad you’re having a fun romp through my employment history. No sarcasm there, sincerely – These are meant to function as edu-tainment.
      >>”they’d let you choose your priorities rather than pressuring you to manage whatever is at the top of the queue” — No doubt. One of my favorite things to do is automate stuff so that the “top of the queue” problem slowly goes away as a result of fewer incoming items to the queue itself. That’s value-add. But no, I’ve never put a number on potential gains for AnyCompany had I been freer to pursue goals that I personally felt made sense. Cthulhu is a different story — He directly cost FinComp 3 employees (myself, beaker, and another person I didn’t include in the tale) plus he generated a fair amount of inefficiency due to his work style. Given the dollars involved replacing workers, retraining them, etc, I’m sure he’s personally accountable for a minimum of half a million that the company would not have spent, had management been better. Honestly if I had a good manager (or hell, even a decent one!) I would have stayed there, if not forever, at least a few more years. Terrific comp package, that place.

      • cic says:

        Hey, thanks for the reply. Have you read this piece by Michael Lewis?

        The bit about Aleynikov writing elegant code for a thankless employer is kinda heartbreaking. I read this a year ago and still think about it.

      • livingafi says:

        Love Michael Lewis, and it’s a fascinating article. He’s such a good writer — the analogies are spot on, e.g. Goldman’s Rubber Band Ball of code that needs constant patching and maintenance. And funny — the FBI guys thought it was suspicious that Serge was sending code to a “Subversion Repository” — as if subversion has anything to do with the word subvert. I read Flash Boys a while back and it contains the story about Serge but in a different format; clearly it’s been edited for Vanity Fair, but interestingly, the changes don’t make it any less appealing or informative. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Leigh says:

    Every year for the last few years, I’ve maxed out my 401(k) a little early in the year because I ended up with a manager like Cthulhu and then would have missed out on the full match had I left early. My now-employer will give me the same amount of match regardless of when I contribute the max to my 401(k), so I’m going to lump sum going forward.

    My last Cthulhu (though not nearly as bad as yours), didn’t even say goodbye to me when I left. I think he secretly wanted to get out too.

    I keep having to read your story in multiple sittings because so much of it is resonating with me (minus the drinking – that’s never been something I’ve done much of).

    • livafi says:

      Re: loading your 401(k) early, I agree with your strategy.
      >>I think he secretly wanted to get out too.
      I’ve come to the conclusion that most people secretly want to get out — particularly people who have been in their industry for at least 15 years. Most people also want to be rich, though, a drive which contributes to most people doing things like climbing the corporate ladder or picking individual stocks. Everyone’s hoping to win the lottery one way or another so they can have more control over their own lives. The thing that most people don’t do is save a huge percentage of their income, making it possible to leave work early without requiring the assistance of so much luck.
      >>minus the drinking
      Good for you. My life has been much improved without that stuff. Nevermind what commercials say: It’s a lousy coping mechanism and doesn’t usually make you feel any better.

  8. Troy says:

    Hey man, the amount of brutal honesty you put in your stories (drinking problem, work place sabotage) really makes me respect not only your writing but also you as a person. Takes a lot to own up to undesirable behavior.

    With that aside, you have made me appreciate my job so much more after reading about your horrible boss, so thank you. It really feels like you went through hell and managed to come out not only FI but also not ass an asshole nerd.

    I also work in tech (Infosec) so i am able to relate to much of what you write. I will say the sabotaging of test environments sent a chill down my spine, a lot of non industry people don’t realize exactly how big a problem and threat malicious insiders are to companies.

    Also just want to say I know you have stopped writing but you have a real talent for writing, if you don’t wanna blog anymore that’s cool but if you wrote a novel or something I would read it.

    • livafi says:

      Glad you’re getting something out of the posts. I still feel shitty thinking about that particular behavior – fucking up FinancialCompany’s systems just to settle a personal score and perhaps fix my reputation. There were other and better ways I could have handled the situation, some revolving around direct communication with Bert, others requiring a pistol and a body bag. I shouldn’t have hurt my employer — that was a bad move.
      Anyway. It’s great you’re striving for FI. It’s a terrific goal. I don’t know anyone who has saved and invested a bunch of money and said to themselves later on: Gee, I really wish I hadn’t done that.
      By the way, I’m still writing. Just not blogging. I was able to write freely for the blog back years ago — it felt safer because a) no-one read the thing back then and b) the internet wasn’t quite as polarized, crazy, full-of-trolls and folks feeling like they have the right to personally attack you just because you strung some words in a row and published them online.
      Some people would call this cowardice. I describe it differently, though — I feel I’m simply pursuing goals that make me happy while choosing to avoid bullshit. (I will also add that I don’t have much to write about in this space any longer.)
      Wish you the best, thanks for the comment.

      • Troy says:

        Thanks for reply! If you don’t mind my asking what have you been writing?

        I feel like when I FIRE most of my time will be taken up with reading, writing, exercise and video games/movies so feels similar to you :).

        Also if you would prefer to chat in private feel free to email me via the email I provided.

  9. says:

    I’ve read this series 10 times. I’m reading it at work (at midnight) now. I love the writing style and the mix of story telling and side tangents. I would be so excited if you wrote more about your post work experience.

  10. Sandra says:

    This blog is so fantastic I feel compelled to reply. I understand utterly what you have been through as it mirrors my own corporate America experience so completely. I’ve absolutely been in jobs where there’s completely unreasonable demands on time and the boss Does.Not.Care. Never will. There’s nothing you can do or say to negotiate or change their mind.
    However, we all choose how we react to these situations. You quit. I don’t. At the time you quit FinancialCompany, you weren’t yet FI, but you had FU money. That’s the position I’m currently in. I don’t believe in quitting – ever. Since all jobs suck; let them fire you. Most likely, they’ll engineer a “layoff” so you’ll get severance and unemployment, which is far better than quitting, where you won’t get anything. Make them pay you NOT to work.
    How do you get them to lay you off? You do what you want to do – you didn’t want to come into work on Sunday, you should’ve said “No.” That’s right – no. Better yet – don’t even pick up the phone on Sundays. Turn it off. Likely, your mind is screaming at me right now – “you don’t understand the demands! We’re supposed to be on call at all times – no exceptions!” We must learn to turn down unreasonable requests for our time and money or we will be taken advantage of – period. There’s no negotiating on this topic, there’s no gray area or in-between. For some people this is very hard to do. I struggle with it. If you are a good, honest, decent person (and I’ve no doubt you are) it may take a lifetime to draw healthy boundaries.
    Let’s think about what would’ve happened if you said no –
    1. You’d be fired on the spot. Who cares, you were quitting anyway. However, this is unlikely, as in these corporate places they have to make some trumped-up charge against you (likely lots of paperwork, evidence of wrongdoing, witnesses, etc.) in order to justify your termination in the case of a retaliation lawsuit. All this takes time and work and Chthulhu probably wasn’t going to expend that effort. Not to mention all the time and money it will take to hire your replacement, even in good economic times. Most employers will characterize your termination as a layoff, unless they have real proof of wrongdoing.
    2. Ultimately, nothing. You may have a target on your back for a while, but they know you’re a valuable employee and when push comes to shove, they’ll learn your boundaries. As long as you don’t abuse your newfound freedom (taking 2 hour lunches, etc.), you may find that in the long run they’ll expect less of you and the job may actually get easier. You may actually turn your crappy job into your dream job.
    How bad are either of these outcomes, really?
    That’s why I never quit unless I have something else lined up, no matter how bad it gets. I tell my employer my boundaries and let them do the work to either eliminate my obstacles or work around them. I’m not yet FI, but I do have FU money. I don’t think the grass is greener anywhere else than at my current employer, so I try to do exactly what I want each and every day. Not to get all existential – but no one really knows how long they have on Earth. Sacrificing the holidays to work is a non-option and so’s actively quitting a job without a replacement. I look at what you did and I see someone who sacrificed so much to get work completely out of the way as soon as possible. Trouble is – we never know how long we’re going to live. You could’ve gotten hit by a car the very next day after you retired and it would all be for nothing. Live every day the way your gut feeling knows is fair, right and just. If your employer doesn’t like it – let them fire you.

    • livafi says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.
      Look, I agree with everything you wrote. I was young when I wrote these entries, and younger still when I was swimming through these oceans of experiences.. When you are me — a sweaty twenty something with poor parents, siblings with nothing, and no-one to fall back on, it seems crazy to quit a job. These factors added to my difficulties overcoming corporate (and managerial) demands and sticking up for myself. Put another way: I a) didn’t yet understand just how terrified companies actually are of firing people for fear of litigation, and b) couldn’t imagine just working less and asking them to fire me. I felt emotionally (not rationally) that it was a huge risk.
      You are completely correct that when you evaluate the worst case scenarios with a jaundiced and rational eye, they’re not that bad. Indeed, they’re preferable to putting up with relentless bullshit.
      Thanks for the truth telling and checking my ancient analysis. Corporations are indeed scared shitless to fire competent employees without at least putting them on a performance plan first — they desperately want to avoid being sued. It is a fact that had I stayed at financialcompany and simply worked less, I would have probably remained sane and definitely reached FI a lot sooner. And you are also right that there are definite benefits to being fired versus quitting.
      Best and good luck with your plans.

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