Confessions of a Corporate Drone

You probably know the type. Those people who go to work just to get a paycheck, seem to coast and not care about anything? That’s me. Well, off and on. I didn’t used to be like this, and I struggle with it still. I have a work ethic, intuitively look for process inefficiencies to fix, let people know when I spot metaphoric trains peeking through the other end of the project tunnel about to run us all over. But now that I have close to 30 years in the corporate world, I think I have enough experience to be able to explain how good workers get beat down into couldn’t-care-less workers.

I have so much to talk about that I may break this into a multi-part series if people are interested in the discussion. Here is confession number one.

Actually, first I need to quickly establish my background. In my 30 year career, I’ve worked for small startups, small established companies, local government, and major corporations. I am currently on Career Job #8 and every place I’ve worked has been completely fucked up in one way or another. In the past ten years I’ve realized that it now only takes me two years with a company to fully identify it’s fuckedupedness. I start every job fresh and excited, thinking the work sounds interesting and challenging and feeling eager to contribute. So it really makes me sad, cynical and bitter when all of that enthusiasm gets so quickly beat out of me every time.

Corporate rule #1 is that no matter what they splash on their career page, in the media or even to your face during your interview about wanting rock stars or fresh talent to lead the company into the future, what they really want is people who sit down, shut up and do what they’re told. Or phrased another way, they want people who just work for the paycheck, coasting and not caring enough to speak up when they see inefficiencies or problems. Because otherwise you’re rocking the boat and they hate that.

Okay, so here is one specific example: systemic, cultural inefficiencies and a complete unwillingness to try better ways of doing business.

Flash back to the 1990’s when most places had their own IT shop and their own programmers to support the business and when I was a programmer. One of the companies I worked for had us re-writing the pricing logic for their invoicing/ordering system Every. Freaking. Year. Your discounts change from year to year? Not unusual. But instead of putting them into, say, a database table so they’re easily configurable, why not have your small team of programmers hard-code them into the business logic of your computer system? Eh, you pay them a salary so they may as well re-write it all every year to earn their keep. They don’t have anything better to do, right? And it was unheard of at the time to have a separate team of testers, so after they recode it all, those same programmers can then spend a couple of months testing their work. What’s wrong with that, it works for us!

A few years later, still a programmer, at another company we also had a “cowboy” development method. At that point, Windows programming was taking off in the business world and more companies had QA teams with dedicated testers, project managers, and development tools like code management systems (CMS). But my gig? We walked barefoot in 5-feet of snow to school every morning, uphill both ways, did our own requirements gathering, programming, tested our own stuff, managed our own projects, and did our own tech/customer support. We were Tough, and we were proud of it, by golly! Until I personally got tired of managing different versions of the same code without a CMS. This is the part that really killed me. Every external customer had their own customized version of our software. And to support them, we had to have a copy on our systems. We frequently had to work on different projects on the same code bases simultaneously, which meant (without a CMS) we had to have multiple copies of their systems. And as each one launched, we had to manually merge the code changes. I tried to explain to my manager the benefits of CMS and was answered only with “we don’t need that here, we manage just fine”. The time I was assigned tech lead on a large project with several programmers, and was held responsible for failing to correctly merge my team’s changes because at the time we had four distinct versions of the customer’s system in-house, was the end for me.

I bailed out of software engineering at that point and became a business analyst thinking I was leaving that kind of shit behind me. So it’s with bitter irony that today I find myself working on a team that manages documentation that… you got it… frequently requires different changes with long review periods that require us to manually merge changes to keep it all synchronized.

But that’s tangential to my last example of systemic inefficiencies. In the place I am now, along with the stupid process of manually managing document versions, we don’t believe in project management. A couple years ago, after one of the bigwigs here told our entire division that if we worker-bees had any suggestions for improving the company, we should let him and/or our managers know. So I suggested to my boss that we might benefit from some project management training. Oh no, we don’t need that here. We do just fine… setting and publicizing project deadlines before we know the effort required to deliver… setting up deliverable milestones by pulling dates out of our asses… not worrying our pretty little heads about risks… and just doing what we’ve done for the last fifty years because nothing new can possibly be an improvement over what we’ve always done.

So, yeah. I don’t have a good ending to this post, other than to admit it was triggered by being required to do some stupid busy-work that may take weeks to finish on a large, already-behind-schedule project that I know will need to be redone because it’s wrong but I can’t get the managers to understand why. Okay, I’m going to just shut up and collect my paycheck now. Thanks.

Everyone has problems at work. It’s why they call it work.

Pretty self-cancelling, if ya ast me.

Substitute “life,” "marriage"or even "sports"and it’s not much more meaningful.

Employment/career does not HAVE to be an unpleasant grind. Perhaps not something you’d do for free, but it can be something that’s worth the daily time invested, over and above the paycheck.

And you now know that the fact that nothing works properly doesn’t really matter at all. That must come as a great relief.

You care. Stop it.

Not really, I think it’s sad!

I just wish there was more honesty in all of it, that’s all. If the company is fine with mediocrity, just say so and stop doing the rah-rah corporate cheer-leading about having the best and brightest employees, work hard and play hard, being industry standard-setters, and a million other false claims that are put out daily.

Part of my bitterness about it all is that I strive to be a conscientious professional with a high work ethic and want to work for one of the companies with high standards of quality that people have sworn up and down to me exist, and I’ve never managed to find one in my 30-year career. Either they don’t exist or I’m not good enough to be hired in them. And if I’m not good enough for them, then I really wonder where that bar lies.

You may wish to stop for a moment and reflect upon the possibility that they aren’t fine with mediocrity, and that, in fact, other people are just as smart as you, and care as much as you. You are not in their heads. Furthermore, if you have found inefficiencies and such in different jobs, you might wish to consider the possibility that running a business is very, very hard. Getting a bunch of people together to perform a large number of tasks is in fact immensely complex, and beyond a surprisingly low point far too complex for one single person to understand. It is systemically impossible for an organization of any significant size to NOT have things that are inherently inefficient, repetitive, or outdated.

It is not possible, do you think, that you have adopted a bit of a critical point of view, and fail to see excellence in others? Or to put in statistically, which do you think is likelier; that you, personally, alone amongst all people you know, are a wonderful employee, or that maybe you are not accurately assessing the different in skill and dedication between you and your co-workers?

Look, I live this sort of thing; I am my company’s quality manager and trying to improve the place is literally my job. We have a HUNDRED things that need improving. That’s a low end estimate. But that’s not because my co-workers are stupid, or lazy. On the contrary, they are quite smart. We have Ph.D’s by the dozen working here, and they look to me like they’re working hard. It’s because business is complex, complications arise all the time, and people only have so many hours in a week to do their jobs, so stuff starts to get old and rusty.

I’ve been an IT professional (consultant) for nearly 30 years now. Colour me cynical.

I’ve been through what you’re going through. I get it.

Do good work so that you can feel good about the work you’ve done.

Let go of the rest. None of it matters.


Jc, you are describing my life. I am a drone most of the time. I do find meaning occasionally in my job but my co-workers don’t hesitate to undermine that. They’re people, well similar to people anyway, they’re mostly engineers and comp sci majors, so they look sort of like people but would freak out if you started telling them a story about a tortoise in the desert. Anyway, it’s a job, it has good parts on top of the salary, they’re just hard to find sometimes. I’m being recruited by one of the company’s customers right now and I’m considering taking the job even though it will pay less because it’s a smaller company and I won’t be bound up in the endlessly more complex attempt to maintain coherence at the precipice of chaos. Yet I also know the grass only seems to be greener on the other side of the fence. Or as they say, a bird in the hand will leave birdshit on your palm. It’s gonna be a tough decision. Either way I’ll face the same issues in a different form. We all struggle to endure. I wish I had some comforting words other than to tell you that you are not alone.

RickJay, you’re absolutely right and I hope that I didn’t sound like I assumed everybody else I work with was stupid. But one thing I have noticed as a common thread is a high level of close-mindedness. I’ve seen two varieties of this in my job:

  1. Simple unawareness that there might be better ways to do things and lack of curiosity in exploring the possibility. I see this in the companies that have had very long-term workers, like the one I’m in now where many of my coworkers started working here as their first jobs and are still here. My coworkers like this are extremely smart, they know the details of their jobs and our products extremely well. But they don’t know what they don’t know, and since they’ve never worked anywhere else, they don’t know there are better ways of doing things. They may have the titles of project manager or business analyst but they don’t realize that there are some really good, commonly accepted practices that go along with those titles. For example, evaluating risks and striving for accurate work estimates in project management, or how to really dig out tricky business requirements and clearly document them for the business analysts.

When I suggest some of these to try to be helpful when I see them struggling, I can tell they don’t really understand what I’m talking about. Like the coworker/team lead right now who has me transcribing a few hundred software test cases into English prose because he doesn’t see the difference between that and business rules. Several of us have been trying to get him to understand that describing hundreds of test cases will not suss out the over-arching business rules that the developers need to code by. (Why we have test cases before the business rules is a topic for a part 2 post probably.)

  1. “Don’t need it here” mentality, generally held by management. When I tried to explain to the manager that manually merging changes of 4 different branches of a code-base was inefficient and error prone, and that there are code management systems that automate that for you, his response was “we don’t need that here, just be careful”. When I suggested implementing formal project management to my current boss, and explained how it would benefit us, she said “oh that will never fly here”.

Also, I have to note, you say you are your company’s quality manager. That’s interesting. None of the companies I’ve worked for has had someone in that position. The very fact that your job exists tells me that it’s possible that your company is one of those mythical unicorns I’ve heard about but never managed to get a job with.

Plus the majority of most employees’ time will be taken up with busy-work seeming tasks, by the simple fact that they take the most time and someone has to do them, until the robots take over. Once you automate the inefficiencies, a new set of inefficiencies is bound to take over the majority of your tasks. Unless you happen to be a dynamic rockstar who does nothing but streamline processes – that devolve on to other people to finally complete, who in turn consider them more like busy work. And even then you’ll spend a lot of time futzing with Word and PowerPoint.

Amen. I have a personal commitment to doing a good job no matter what I’m working on, even though it’s probably true that no one notices or cares very much. I’m happy enough that my personal standards of quality are being met.

Actually, I’m with you here. I had my dream job last year (even though it was temp/contract, I thought I could sway management to hire me full time); I was good at the job, got along with the employees and management, and when I asked about my prospects, they kept saying, “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

They finally posted for my position, telling me they had to take internal candidates first, then I’d be able to apply after a week.

A week goes by, I hear nothing, see nothing about the qualifications, etc. I ask, and was told they gave “my” job to a recently hired supervisor. Who, I find out through the grapevine, is allegedly the BIL of the manager.

We, as a country, seem to have set the bar pretty low. Because in the ensuing months, I’ve had several interviews, but nothing has panned out. I’ve come to the conclusion that (for the area in which I live) I’m overqualified, but undercredentialed.

Somehow, and this may apply to the OP, I rub people the wrong way, even when I am very conscious not to.

One thing though I’ve learned in previous sales jobs: It’s as much about timing as anything else. When job hunting, you have to reach not only the right person at the right time, but they have to be in the right frame of mind. There’s nothing you can do about that.

TL;DR: The world screws you. It’s best to accept it and keep trying, or else just give up and stop complaining about it.

People don’t like change. It’s scary & difficult.

Threatening change. You’re telling him how things can be improved and all he’s hearing is that he’s been doing it wrong all this time.

Expensive change. New software to buy/license/implement/support. Cost of training. Disruption and temporary chaos. Even loss of control for those who feel insecure about their role in the organization.

But that’s the problem I encounter in job after job. My personal standards of quality are violated, not met. If you’ve not worked in software development, you may not understand my example above about transcribing test cases. Let me try to think of a generic example… how about shelving books in a brick and mortar bookstore? That’s typically done alphabetically by author’s last name, right? (There are other ways, and brick and mortar is old-fashioned now, but stick with me here.) Easy to organize that way, easy for customers browsing to find what they want. What if your employer required you to instead shelve the books in numerical order by the total number of pages, because it made sense to him? Even explaining to him that you’re losing sales and customer are getting pissed off at you because they can’t find what they want, doesn’t change his mind. That’s the kind of bizarre crap that I struggle with.

All true. You know what else is true? A lot of times they’re okay with the expense of doing things over, instead of paying to do it right the first time. Or doing things very slowly because they have trouble measuring the cost savings of doing it efficiently. It’s all an evaluation of ROI, you’re very correct. Another metric that’s difficult: cost of training as you mentioned, versus cost of losing a great employee like when I finally bailed on that company.

There was also that more recent situation with my current company when the C-suite executive solicited ideas about improving the company. He explicitly said “anything you guys can think of that can help us be a better company”. And then my idea was not given more than 2 minute’s worth of consideration. I guess it wasn’t actually the kind of change he was looking for when he said “anything”.

Of course. Change is inherently risky, and there are no guarantees that the change will be successful. Status-quo is safe, assuming your business has an established history of being at least somewhat stable and profitable. It was okay yesterday, so it’s not unreasonable to assume the same will be okay tomorrow, and in any case, no one is going to blame you for “just doing your job.”

If you want to see change in an organization, you need to attempt to drive the change yourself. And with that assume, at least in part, the personal risks associated with that attempt. That is a much different proposition than spitballing ideas in a 1-on-1 about some moronic process.

I’ve been doing IT of one sort or another for 20 years. What I used to view as “mediocrity” is actually people, for the most part, working hard to fight off never-ending business obstacles to stay afloat and survive. Organizations genuinely filled with a large percentage of unmotivated, uncaring workers don’t tend to coast on their mediocrity; they tend to rapidly sink.

Anyway, I didn’t want to steer this into a “why won’t they listen to me” whinefest, or a discussion about change management. It was really my attempt to explain how complacency and cynicism builds up in an originally enthusiastic corporate employee until that person is just another “there for the paycheck” drone. Every now and then on the intertubez I read some scathing remark about lazy coworkers who don’t care about anything other then collecting a check and leaving at 17:00 on the dot. So hi, here I am, and this is one reason why.

In my younger days I always thought it was to your advantage to step up, take on new work, etc. I was completely flabbergasted the one time a co-worker flat out said no when management came around looking for volunteers to help out on some new work. But I’ve learned over the years that it may be better to just keep your head down and out of sight. Or as our fairly new-ish DBA said to me a while back, “I’ve noticed they tend to punish the people who step up.”

It’s pretty much a requirement in pharmaceutical research, but it’s a requirement in a lot of companies.

If a company is registered to ISO 9001, for instance, SOMEONE has to do it. Below a certain number of employees, you can give the duties to someone who manages something else. Above a certain size and complexity, it’s a full time job for at least one person.

This is the other problem I’ve experienced with management. I was at one job (sales) where I was doing better than everyone else as a percentage of month-to-month and year-to-year (I had small dollar accounts, as opposed to big box stores, so this is the best comparison).

My boss told me I was making everyone else look bad. Because I was increasing my sales, and they weren’t.

Managers need to realize that when their employees do well, they (the bosses) look good, not bad.

When I was a supervisor at one point, many of my reports were promoted to my level and beyond. I took pride in that, saying “I trained them!” instead of being shitty to them because they went ahead of me.

I honestly think that if management took a more prideful role, instead of the shortsighted, selfish outlook they have, and thought about how their underlings success reflects on them, we wouldn’t have this situation.