Wednesday, March 6, 2013

By Definition

Paranoia is the unreasonable fear that someone is out to get you. This isn’t the exact medical definition, but it works for our purposes today. Now, remember the fear has to be unreasonable. But I’m not going to talk about the unreasonable fears. It’s hard enough just dealing with the reasonable ones.

Let me back up. There’s this guy at work I’ll call Sam. No, that’s not his name. It probably says more about my character than his that I protect his identity. Usually they say the names have been changed to protect the innocent. “Sam” is not innocent. But it may not be Sam I’m protecting here anyway.

Sam is The Office Terror. After working with this person for years (I mean seriously, he might not even be a guy, ok? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he’s a real person), I’m pretty sure Sam actually thinks up ways to make people go crazy with passive-aggressive strikes.

Honestly, we had been enjoying something of a lull in activities. Oh, I don’t mean work wasn’t busy; it has been. There have been surprises, intrigues, disappointments and little victories. It’s been the workaday world. But Sam hadn’t really struck yet this year.

But, it’s the Year of the Snake and somehow I sense that Sam may have shed his old skin just to come out with shiny new scales with the same old venom he’s packed for years. Does this latest trip to the zoo signal a renewed effort on his part to be dissembling and destructive?

We work together, not in the same organization, but in different roles essential to develop, enhance and maintain software in a certain business area of our company. After many years of working in technology, I have a certain perspective that suggests that the needs of business override the needs of technology and it is up to technology to provide the tools the business needs to fulfill its goals. As an overall corporate requirement, there may also be the need for technical tools to make all that possible, probable, affordable, fast—oops, fast is actually a business goal and so is affordable. But you see what I’m getting at. Basically, unless the company is a software company, it’s in the business of doing its business.

One of the things we use in our different roles is a facility to share documents pertaining to this work, a repository of essentials to do the work of software development in all its phases: “discovery” with its “what if” tools, analysis, requirements statement, development, testing and quality assurance, deployment of changes and post-deployment support. There’s a lot of stuff out there needed to do each of our jobs and there’s no denying, by me at least, that it takes all of us to do it.

That’s where this 3 of Pentacles “teamwork” card starts to turn over and look like team-sabotage, team-foibles, team-panic, team-“need to know”-ness. Our internet world opened up a whole new vista of sharing of information. This was actually a terrible shock to just a few old-timer programmers who had been used to being treated like local gods, having the hearts of young trainees and unsuspecting business staff cut out on a stone altar…well, ok, not exactly. But some people were very much into hiding what they do because they saw it as the secret to their longevity. If people knew what they knew, there goes the indispensability thing.

The new thinking is that the sharing of information and teamwork is what you are valued for. It's the idea you bring to the table today and the way you work things out with others. That’s the theory.

Sam’s not into that. Sam, I’ve come to understand, has a completely different story going on. Sam recently cut off nearly everyone’s access to the shared facility without notice, citing a self-righteous reasoning that people should put their stuff somewhere else. Basically, if he didn't want to read it, then it wasn't important. People should share elsewhere. This is typical, nearly predictable.

For one thing, he likes nothing better than to get everyone riled up. He will not only start, but continue email wars with co-workers. Instead of the friendly co-worker’s response to something new such as, “Hmm, I see what you mean. I have some concerns about that, but before jumping to conclusions, let me ask you a few more questions or go back and think it over for some possible ideas,” Sam has a couple of patterns.

He might ignore the request, then claim never to have known about it until it was too late.

We learn to date and timestamp requests and make them official with witnesses so that doesn’t happen—as often—so he might also just start arguing with the person about how much time their request is going to take. Usually the argument lasts much longer than doing the request itself, proving that he actually did have time to do it but time is on Sam’s side.

Once he wastes yours, you can’t get it back. The best way to deal with this is to refrain from engaging Sam in conversation. Sadly, Sam is in a position of minor power, a first-level supervisor who manages the workload of his team.

One of my favorite (not) variations of Sam’s approaches is to make sure that an assignment is given to one of his team members with insufficient or incorrect information, even to the point of saying, Do what I say, not what is in the document. While the programmer is working on the incorrect solution, Sam makes sure that no one talks to the programmer but himself. During testing, when issues arise with the change not being according to what was requested, Sam declares it too late to fix anything by the release deadline and presents all management, for Sam loves to perform in front of crowds, with the long list of things that had been promised but will no longer be possible because his team must now fix the thing that shouldn’t have broken in the first place.

(Yes, I’m still breathing.)

We end up spending more time in “Sam-maintenance” than we do in getting actual work done. Thus is the downfall of civilization, I expect.

Such sterling behavior could not flourish, especially for years as it has, without management support. It is my opinion that Sam’s boss likes him in the abstract and really wants to keep it that way. He only occasionally is forced to look into what Sam is actually doing. The deadly combination of support and neglect allows Sam to curtail the activities of at least thirty people who otherwise could make good progress and work things out. Needless to say, even his own employees are tired of it.

I’m lucky to have a good relationship with many of them and can ask such unprofessional questions in jest—IN JEST, really— as I did recently to another victim of Sam’s reign of terror, “Is it still against company policy to kill Sam?”

My friend hesitates. He is a wise and kind person with a quiet sense of humor.

“Company policy?” he asks, “Or popular vote?”

We move on from there having come to our agreement that company policy does indeed preclude that as a possible solution. Somehow, we make things work.

Best wishes.

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