The Job Experience, IT Plumbing: Year #7

bert bert bert bert bert

What's that on your face, Bert? Could it be a mole?

What’s that on your face, Bert? Could it be a mole?

For the rest of the day, my brain is stuck on Bert.

Is he the one spreading rumors about me?  Why would anyone do this to a direct teammate?  Aren’t we all supposed to get along?

As Hemlock, I considered the evidence:

Bert hung out with Cthulhu frequently.  They occasionally had lunch together, and walked to their cars together, and sat next to one another in meetings.  The more I thought about it, the more surprised I became that they weren’t constantly holding hands and necking in public.

So they were likely friends.  And it follows that friends gossip about stuff that might be of use to one another. Bert would recognize that Cthulhu would find it very interesting to know that his guys were complaining about him during lunch.  I realized the second-most vocal complainer was Statler, and he was the only other person who was getting this same kind of you-have-a-bad-attitude feedback in his 1:1s.

This didn’t explain the whole director thing, though.  How or why would my director think I have a bad attitude, unless Bert told him?  And why would Bert go a level above Cthulhu just to smear a teammate?

It came to me later in the afternoon while I was browsing emails in Outlook.  I passed along an older memo detailing the promotion of some middle manager to VP level, and the light-bulb flickered on.

Cthulhu is seeking a promotion, and once that happens, someone else will need to lead the team.

Bert’s been at FinancialCompany for five years already and is eager to move up.  He’s doing all of the right things — schmoozing, getting his styrofoam nose repainted in brown, and worrying more about perception and visibility than real work.

Still, why is he going after me?

Simple:  I’d been the strongest technical performer on the team since the reorganization.  It’s provable through our ticketing system, and openly acknowledged during our weekly team meetings.  I’m assigned to the toughest problems, period.

From his perspective, I’m the primary competition for the management position that’ll open up after Cthulhu moves on.  It’s therefore in his interest to weaken me.  He’s like Tonya Harding clubbing Nancy Kerrigan’s ankle to clear the way to a skating medal.

Of course the last thing I want is to take Cthulhu’s job.  I don’t even like the bit of management I currently have to do, being responsible for Consultants A&B.

But Bert didn’t know that.

The more I think about it, the more likely it seems that this is exactly what’s going on.  In fact, I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.

Bert’s been evil all along.  And he’s been spying on us.


It’s Friday, which is production release day.  This is the time when everyone on Team Cthulhu deploys new applications and infrastructure into production, to upgrade apps and make them live.  Everyone except Cthulhu himself, of course, who goes home at five like a normal demigod should.

Around eight, our releases are all done and the office is totally quiet.

I slip into Bert’s office and close the door.  He’s finishing the paperwork for the changes that just went in.  I stand behind him and, without any introduction or social grace to precede it, ask the question I need answered:

Bert, are you telling Cthulhu or anyone else that we complain about him?

His first response is to ask why I’d even ask that question.

Well, what I know for sure is that someone is.  And I’m thinking maybe that someone is you.

He says no but won’t look at me.  Now he’s shutting his computer down.  I don’t think he finished his paperwork.  I see lots of programs still open as he clicks the tabs to initiate the poweroff sequence; he’s trying to avoid me.

Look, Bert, if it’s you, it’s OK, I’m not going to be mad.  I just need to know.

He repeats it’s not me.  At this point he’s frantically shoving items into his laptop bag so he can get out of his office and avoid this conversation. I close the distance to the door and stand in front of it, blocking his exit, and push the conversation.

Tell me.  I’m only going to ask one more time.  I have to correct this issue or my job might be at stake.  I’ll be the first person I’ve ever known to get fired over an attitude problem that they don’t have.  Come on, is it you?  

He asks why on earth I’d think it was him.

You seem to like him.  And I complain about him in front of your face.  At lunch today it seemed like you weren’t happy about this, and were trying to defend him.

He sighs and looks at his feet, shuffles them for a second before bringing his gaze back up to eye level.  Then Bert says that I shouldn’t complain about my manager, ever.  Because he’s my manager, and that’s reason enough for respect.  We all report to him, plain and simple.

Is that an admission?

No, he says.  He repeats that I simply shouldn’t be saying bad things about Cthulhu, and people notice when you complain.

Bert, who notices?  You noticed, that’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?

Yes, he says.  I noticed.

Respect is something that’s earned in my world.  His mistreatment of the team makes it awfully difficult for me to look up to him.

Bert doesn’t agree.  He says we must always adhere to the hierarchy.  And then he adds something very interesting:  “That’s how you move up.”  (Note:  He actually said this.  Really.)

In a second, he’s confirmed 100% of my suspicions and I swing instantly from being nervous about our confrontation to being pissed.  The volume of my voice gets raised to something significantly above acceptable levels for the office.  What I mean is, I’m probably shouting at this point.

Call me a hopeless corporate romantic but I think teammates should trust each other, and be allowed to bitch about shit together.  We’re supposedly comrades in the trenches, not tools to use to fuck each other over on our way to a promotion.  I’ve always put the job first in my life, at a great personal cost.  But just because I do that doesn’t mean I have to also put Cthulhu on a pedestal.  In my world, my relationship with my manager has absolutely nothing to do with my actual job performance.

He says: I’m not screwing anyone.  I’m just telling management the truth about what I’m hearing from other people on the team.  If someone is bad-mouthing someone else, that person deserves to know.

 Exactly.  Which is why you should have told me you were bad mouthing me a long time ago.  I deserved to know.  So tell me, in your opinion, does anyone else deserve to know about what a management-hating asshole I am?

He says:  Sure.  Everyone at Cthulhu’s level and above in the management structure.  Anyone who is responsible for you in any way should be aware that you are a problem.

I never understood the phrase “seeing red.”  When I get pissed, I go nearly blind. I step away from the door to let him out and  feel him walk past me from the movement of the air.  As he’s walking away, I do this awful lame defeated supervillan-thing and monologue a bit, warning him to be careful and watch his back and I’ll get you next time and that sort of crap. I’m trying to follow him a bit so I can keep yelling at him for a while but I can’t see much and the hallways are fading to black on account of my levels of excitement and eventually I need to give up and sit down.

The last thing I shout down to him is, “SOMETIMES BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD SYSTEMS, ASSHAT.

Pretty positive he hard that final bit.

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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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