What I Do Here
It’s time to talk about the most boring aspect of the job, which is the job itself, of course. What exactly is it that I do, again?
For the most part I’m supporting internal application teams, architecting infrastructure solutions, and providing systems level support for problems and outages. This is very similar to the stuff I’d been doing back at FinancialCompany, if you care to review it.
In addition I’m asked to learn some new networking technologies, so there’s some amount of knowledge upload going on, particularly the first year.
I’m on call, but in the close-to-three-years that I’ve been at my current position, I’ve been tagged a total of six times, which is not that bad. Most of the time I don’t even think about the fact that I could be contacted at any moment to work, because it happens so infrequently. It just doesn’t bother me that much.
My manager does ask me to become a team lead in my second year (and, by ask, I mean that he tells me I’m going to do it, of course.) Although I’m not super excited about performing in this function, I agree to it because he’s really keen on it. What can I say? There were three other choices for him to pick from on our team and I felt like: I’ll be damned if I have to do what they tell me to do as well. It’ll be better if I only have to take orders from one person.
And that’s pretty much that.
Same Old Shit, Lower Intensity
To this point in my career, I’d become used to madness.
And when I say “madness” what I really mean is unfettered chaos, being pulled apart in multiple different directions like a man being drawn and quartered daily, only to be reassembled at night and put to the same torture on the next.
Going into academia, I had this strange and unfounded expectation that everything was going to be better. I thought I’d be working with plant-eating dinosaurs, slow and non-aggressive, the sort of relaxed people that spent a lot of time grinding their cellulose-rich diet between blunted, flat teeth before taking a mid-afternoon nap in the bog and calling it a day.
I quickly found that people in academia are pretty intense, after all. There was a decent amount of work to do, and some people were passionate and interested in moving things along and being productive.
In particular, the people near the top of various management chains were stressed out and anxious, just the same as they are at any company in any private sector. A couple of teams had pretty terrible director and VP-level personnel filling positions and as a result, stress trickled down through the ecosystem until it made its way into my own air supply.
Funny thing was, it didn’t affect me in the slightest.
I’d become so used to breathing the smog of work stress that I barely notice when the air is fouled up anymore. Also, the levels of stress in academia are much, much lower, overall. I’d essentially moved from Beijing to LA. Yeah, there’s occasionally a couple of thick clouds hanging over the valley, but most of the time the air is perfectly breathable. I never have any thoughts of putting on a gas mask like I did back in China.
Other people who hadn’t become accustomed to much higher-stress environments didn’t realize how good they had it, though. They hadn’t been conditioned to it. So when certain people occasionally said jump, other certain people, lower down the chain, would not only jump but would keep leaping around continually without even being ordered to until exhausting their energy and breathlessly collapsing in a heap on the floor.
The bottom line is that although I observe roughly the same silly patterns of human behavior in academia, the volume and intensity have been dialed way, way down, and that makes everything seem easy. Put another way, there’s the same bullshit, but much, much less of it.
Another analogy fits, too: I felt as though I’d just gone from the major to minor leagues in <sport of your choice.> I retained major league skills but was now facing lower-level competition across the board. The game slowed down and became a cakewalk.
I seem to be the only one that realizes how good I’ve got it at this place, though. Another constant everywhere is that humans love to complain about work — my coworkers gripe about anything and everything. This point was hard for me to accept, actually — it was hard for me to believe that morale sucked at a place that seemed so awesome and easygoing to me.
My morale didn’t suck, though. Like I said about ten billion times already: I just can’t be bothered to get all excited about the same things that other people do anymore. At work, I’m now optimistic and happy most of the time.
And I don’t even have to fake it. No joke.
I Don’t Fear The Reaper
There’s one director in particular that makes people crap-in-their-pants anxious. She’s aggressive, controlling, and rigidly believes in the order that a hierarchy of command provides. Let’s call her Dolores.
Fortunately, Dolores doesn’t have any direct control over me. She leads a few application teams that produce <stuff> for the University. Our team has to work with these application teams, though, and pretty much every member in our group dreads this sort of contact because of the stress and ridiculous expectations — they (Dolores’ team members) work from a default position of panic. This means that everything is an enormous fucking emergency for them — all functional tasks they request have to be completed A.S.A.P. and they complain loudly when they perceive they’re not being properly taken care of, like a mewling cat missing its cream.
Here’s a typical conversation with a coworker on this subject.
I can’t believe that Dolores wants all of this crazy shit done by the end of tomorrow. They just opened the work request today, for fuck’s sake. It’s so unreasonable.
Yeah, I guess so.
It’s always the same thing with that team. Everyone’s always falling over themselves to give her what she wants. Nobody pushes back, which means I can’t either.
I’m going to have to work extra to get this stupid stuff done now, and they’re so internally dysfunctional that once I’ve completed it, they’ll probably tell me that it’s all wrong and requirements have shifted.
Maybe. If you’re so certain they’re going to change requirements, though, you should have them solidify things up front so you’re not working so inefficiently.
No way. If I try to get a meeting with them right now they’ll go crazy and blow their stack. They always do.
If they’re going to blow up either way, might as well get that explosion over with now. Or at least escalate to our manager first so he knows what’s up.
Not a chance. I want to reduce my exposure to Dolores, not increase it. Our meeting should be as far out in the future as possible, and any extra work I have to do to kick the can a bit is worth it. I hate her, she’s so difficult.
If you say so.
Of course, I’m thinking, Dolores isn’t the only one being difficult in this situation, dude. During exchanges like this, I speak softly, don’t waver my tone, and assume my best glassy-eyed look of apathy. I just don’t care enough about anything to get deeply involved.
Truth is, once you’ve worked for Satan and Cthulhu for a while, having a single Umbridge running loose will leave you utterly nonplussed.
For the record, when I receive requests from their team I process them exactly as asked. Sometimes I’d rush them if I think the work is extremely sensitive and sometimes I don’t. Occasionally things blow up, and that’s OK with me, too, because it gives me a chance to calmly state to my management team that I wasn’t given enough time to complete the tasks, so the burden is therefore on Dolores and her team, not me.
IDGAF about it, you know? Getting involved in the politics is a complete waste of energy. As I mentioned before, it’s not as though there is any threat to my job security. I was learning that this place is exactly the kind of environment that allows employees to push back without consequences.
It’s worth pointing out here that I generally feel better about my contributions to the university than I did for any of my previous employers.
I mean, sure, I understand that the costs of higher education are way too high and many of the institutions run their supposedly not-for-profit organizations as though they are, in fact, for profit, with yearly 5-10% tuition increases and steadily rising endowments and all of that. And I get that lots of students leave with a mountain of debt that takes forever to repay — hell, I was one of those students, not too long ago (although of course the scale of the problem has since increased).
But even so, I’d prefer to be donating my life energy to the cause of higher education than, say, making it easier for banks to make money off of consumers.
I’ll also add that in my current position, most of the work I do is actually worth doing. There’s value in it. Back at FinancialCompany, many projects were created just for the sake of having more work to do; their primary reason to exist was to put a feather in someone’s cap.
I don’t see it this way at my university. We’re working to modernize old stuff so that we don’t fall behind certain technology curves. Think of it as periodic home renovations: if you don’t occasionally update your bathroom, at some point it’s a liability when you go to sell, and it’s also possible some pieces are no longer up to your state or town codes. I’m helping to keep certain bits up to code to increase reliability and day to day functioning of services. This ultimately allows data to move around and eventually transform into useful things like financial aid documents and employee paychecks and Harry Potter’s 1,000 acceptance letters.
It’s a nice feeling to know that most of what you’re doing has a measurable and positive purpose beyond the walls of your building.
And at the very least, I’m certainly not making the world worse anymore.
If you’re waiting for me to call my work rewarding, you’re reading the wrong blog, though. This is about as close as I’m going to come: It’s no longer completely unrewarding. There’s still no chance whatsoever that I’d perform in my function without pay.
Honestly, though, this is a pretty fantastic development and I’m very grateful for it.