No Limits Life at ePrize By Mike White. When I got back from lunch there was a smoke machine by my desk. I practically tripped over the bulky wires from the makeshift sound system and had to dodge seven stands that were draped in green butcher paper...

When I got back from lunch there was a smoke machine by my desk. I practically tripped over the bulky wires from the makeshift sound system and had to dodge seven stands that were draped in green butcher paper.

The office had been decorated the night before in our garish company colors: red, green, and purple. It was time for our annual roll-out of the new catch phrase. In late 2004, our space was transformed into something resembling a Chinese whorehouse with paper lanterns, dragons, streamers, and so many fortune cookies that we were snacking on them into June the following year. That was "The Year of the Client," the bastard child of Jack Mitchell’s Hug Your Customer and Kenneth Blanchard’s Raving Fans. In a nutshell, YOTC (or "yutz," as it was often called) gave a phrase to the "you’ll do it and you’ll like it" mentality of bending over for our clients. Late nights, weekends, whatever it took.

I didn’t have a clue as to what the new theme could be. It probably related to our book club again. Whenever upper management read anything, they immediately bought into it. It was the "any kind of change is a good change" mentality that threw us into some precarious spots, only saved by the figurative blood—and literal—sweat and tears of the peons that pulled us through those poor leadership choices. But where would a smoke machine fit into all of that? (Unless they would provide the smoke, and mirrors would be provided later.)

The smoke machine belched out a putrid cloud while music bellowed from the sound system. Running into our midst—like a pack of wild idiots—came our entire management team. They were all dressed in black t-shirts, black pants, sunglasses, and purple capes. Like something out of an episode of "Batman," (or my darkest nightmare) they all began posing and mock fighting for what seemed like forever.

A Hard-Pressed Three-Word Gesture
If I could have snuck a peek at my personnel record from my former company, I’m sure that everything could have been encapsulated with three simple words: "Mike Fears Change."

I had been at the company for years, seeing it grow from a typical "Internet Startup" to a booming ad agency. I had survived scads of firings and waves of hirings. Moreover, I had initiated countless programs, created processes, and actively participated in making the company a success. If I feared change, then I was at the wrong place. I would have been petrified by the daily growth and rapid transformation. So, where did I get the bad rep?

As far as I can glean, it all came from an exchange that occurred after I’d been at the company for about a year. There was an emerging discussion about redoing the company’s website. When I was interviewing there the site online was nearly enough to make me tell them to shove off. It was a gaudy collection of concentric circles that looked decidedly broken in Netscape 4.x, my browser of choice in those days.

When it came time for the site’s refresh, one of the software engineers started rallying that the site should be redone in Dynamic HTML (DHTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Meanwhile, another coworker was running Flash up the flagpole to see if anyone would salute. It became my obligation to put things in perspective for everyone.

For our company website—the site that our potential customers were going to peruse—we should utilize the technology that we were using for all of our current sites, and not rely on technology that either needed Third Party plug-ins or that was incompatible with half of the world’s web browsers. Yes, DHTML, CSS, and Flash were cool, but they were impractical for our purposes at the time.

For the next few years my semi-annual reviews all said, "Unwilling to learn new technologies." It didn’t matter that my boss didn’t even know what DHTML was or why I didn’t want to adopt it, he only saw me not jumping feet first into a new (albeit impractical) area. From then on, I was a marked man. Whenever I would bring up a point of caution, I was viewed as being some stick-in-the-mud who was throwing up roadblocks to progress ("You may not want to put your hand on the stove burner. It’s hot.").

It was never remembered or considered that I helped to implement quite a bit of change at work, including pushing us from HTML 1.0 "table-based" layouts to fully standards-compliant extensible HTML (XHTML) and Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) driven websites, when the time was right. This was done via consensus-building (rather than mandate-setting, as done by the former "leader" of the team). We proved out that our web audience was finally to a point that would support this technology and showed that adopting it would save us a considerable amount of time, while making client changes far easier and faster to do. In a business where every minute counts, any kind of time saving is appreciated.

All Tomorrow’s Parties
The theme to 2006 was revealed: "No Limits." It was some kind of superhero theme. Corporate buzzwords such as "Creativity" and "Kaizen" accompanied various caricatures of employees. WTF is "Kaizen?" Good question.

Kaizen, it turns out, comes from Six Sigma (considered by some to be a "codification of mediocrity") that is defined as "continuous improvement; taken from the Japanese, ‘Kai’ means continuous and ‘Zen’ means improvement. Some translate ‘Kai’ to mean change and ‘Zen’ to mean good, or for the better." Par for the course.

After revealing the various "super heroes," our fearless leader went over the company’s eleven top ten goals for 2006. When one of them was moving from #3 on the "Promo 100" list to #1, the COO began chanting, "We’re number one, We’re Number One! WE’RE NUMBER ONE!" People joined in... The room became filled with droning, almost desperate, cries of this mantra. I could only think of Homer Simpson when he chants, "U.S.A!" Eyes askew, Homer personifies mindless patriotism.

While they put on this display, I pulled up and began to search for a new job.

When The Interim Stops
It wasn’t just this bizarre company meeting that had put me off of my employer. What really had been bothering me was the tender spot between my shoulder blades where I had been stabbed in the back a few weeks prior.

After a year and a half of being quasi-promoted to the position of "Interim Group Leader" of my team, I requested my annual review (the last one had been eighteen months prior) in order to remove the "Interim" and make me official. And a pay raise wouldn’t hurt, either. Rather than a laurel and hearty handshake, I was given a "three-month improvement plan," since I was seen more as "a manager and not a leader." If you’re scratching your head at that one, keep in mind that this was another of the company’s brilliant ideas lifted from a book. In this case, it was Marcus Buckingham’s and Curt Coffman’s First Break All the Rules.

Frankly, I kicked ass on this three-month plan, despite one month of it being completely engulfed by a nightmarish project that had me working late every night and through every weekend. At the end of three months, I was given the brush-off each time I tried to discuss my progress. I finally managed to get my boss and his boss into a room together. Oddly, we were joined by a few other players. These guys were two additional layers of management that had previously slipped through the cracks.

My boss remained silent throughout the meeting. It was these other guys who talked the most. I don’t remember much of what they said, as I went into some kind of state of shock when I realized that they were not only passing me over for my rightful promotion, but were demoting me and putting my latest hire into my position. But, not to worry, there was a "plan" for me. I wouldn’t be back to square one for long. No, I was promised a spot either as a video editor or internet architect. Both of these interested me greatly and they dangled that in front of my nose in order to soften the pain from the knife being slipped into my flesh.

It turns out that a "plan" can take shape in several ways. As carrot ("If you do a good job with this, we’ll create a new position for you or move you to the department you want"), as set-up ("We want to put you in a position where you’re destined to fail so we can get rid of you"), or as bluff ("We want to keep you around, so we’ll tell you that we’ve had you on a career path you weren’t even aware of").

Needless to say, I wasn’t a happy camper. I was less enthused about working my usual sixty- to hundred-hour weeks. Worse, it wasn’t like I was being ousted by a rock star. The guy taking my place as leader of my group was a far cry from an expert at anything other than being a suck-up. He was perfect!

This wasn’t the first time that I’d been left out for a promotion. My boss had promoted someone over me (who later crashed and burned), and had hired a potential replacement (who crashed and burned before he was put in my place). I was the fly in the ointment; the monkey in the wrench. I was a friggin’ boy scout at work—loyal, trustworthy, and true—but I was constantly bumping heads with my immediate supervisor, who saw me as some kind of naysayer.

Just Because You’re Paranoid
My employer was not to be outdone by my job search. I had heard rumors that our e-mail and internal instant message system were open books to be read at will. This seems to have been true, as shortly after I sent a missive to an old employer of mine via the email system, I was dismissed. The email was sent approximately December 18 while my dismissal came a little over a week later, just two scant days after Christmas.

Like the good little soldier I was, I worked on Christmas despite having driven myself to the Emergency Room at 4AM to be diagnosed with strep throat. I took a nap when I got home and then immediately fired up the laptop and got down to business. Even when I tried to call in sick the next day, I was pummeled with requests and kept working from home. On December 27th, I went into work.

After I confided in one of my best coworker pals that my recently appointed "supervisor" was being more of a hindrance than a help to our department—due to his substandard coding skills—it was only a matter of hours before I was shown the door. The reason I was given during the dismissal process was, um, less than illuminating. When pressed, my boss told me that I was being fired for my "bad attitude." Usually, when it comes to performance, there are things that come up on a review or that you get sat down and talked to privately about. I didn’t have these discussions—no clear cut "we have a problem with these two or three things" lists. I had one panicked talk after I asked about the stock options for ex-employees, but that was before I started actively seeking new work.

My dismissal came out of left field. With every employee that I had to let go, there were several discussions and, often, these were well-documented. When I had a problem with people, I didn’t want any grey areas. I listed out examples of the behaviors I needed modified and provided examples of less-than-stellar performance. I also made sure to have weekly check-ins with folks. None of that happened with me.

At least I got a huge severance package for my loyal service, right? Think again. I got no more than if I had been working there five months rather than five years. And Unemployment? Yeah, they tried to fight it. Luckily, the State found in my favor—perhaps for that aforementioned lack of any kind of paperwork or warning.

As Sweet As The Punch
Before I left, it looked as if my entire team was on their way out. In a bold move, one of my coworkers seized power of his group by promoting the idea that the entire company would move from HTML-based promotions to Flash-based promotions. This plan included an entirely new technology to build architecture for these promotions using some "bleeding edge" Flash, PERL, and XML. Luckily, he and his team had just the right guy to do this—one of those almost scary computer geniuses.

The irony here is that after my departure it was deemed necessary to utilize several outsourcers in an attempt to replace me. I’m not sure how many people it finally shook out to equal one of me, but I do know that these folks were unable (or unwilling) to use the XHTML+CSS. Thus, they were allowed to take two steps back and go old school with HTML tables, or they’d over code their XHTML+CSS, leaving a mess of <div> tags peppering their work.

I guess they feared change.

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