16 January 2008

On the bench

I initially wanted to write a post about liveblogging a sales meeting at Microsoft. We had about ten Mantis folks in the room, including a principle and all four directors. Our sales manager for this client couldn’t be there in person and I’m one of the few people around comfortable speaking unvarnished truth. I can also read people well and type quickly, so she asked me to provide running commentary in IM. It’s the first time I’ve liveblogged and it actually made a difference, giving her the opportunity to step in and save the day (at least) once, in a way that she wouldn’t have known to do since she couldn’t see her clients. But, as it turns out, both of us had prudently disabled the history feature of our respective IM applications. So no record exists. This is probably for the best as I had some unfiltered and unflattering things to say about both our team and the client.

Instead, I’ll talk about being on the bench. I’ve groused before about being overcommitted. But I face the opposite problem at the moment, so it’s been weighing heavily on my mind.

Due to the poor integration of the product design discipline into my current employer’s processes, I occasionally find myself unoccupied. I usually give it a few days – catch up on old or low priority tasks, do some casual research, detox from whatever large project I’ve just wrapped. Then I let the Powers That Be know that I have a clear calendar. My calendar fills back up and the cycle repeats.

Not lately. For a number of unsatisfying reasons (organizational reshuffling, miscommunication, negligent oversight, politics, crazy internal policy), I have not had a major assignment since… November. My primary role has been to support business development at Microsoft. I’d be concerned for my future (see the list below), but that is a non-issue*. In any case, being on the bench can lead to reduced visibility. Poor visibility in this instance promotes a vicious cycle in how to apply you, getting you off the bench. The longer you remain out of circulation, the more likely the following sorts of things are to happen.
  • Your intermittent work, no matter how well done, cannot be fully recognized for merit. Promotions and raises will be difficult to negotiate.
  • For the executives, the shine comes off your field. You are offered/forced to take a different job or get laid off. Sometimes, rather than lay you off, the work conditions are made unbearable – not hostile, just so happiness-wrecking that staying causes you continuous and ever increasing pain. If intentional, this is one of the most contemptible managerial ploys to get you to quit. If unintentional, you never had a future there anyhow and you'd be a fool to stay.
  • The managers/executives get distracted by something shiny. You languish unseen and unheard in a company backwater. For some, this is a hugely sexy prospect: a fat check for almost no work! For me, I go stir crazy, my schedule collapses, I wax acerbic, I vanish from the office, after a while I update my resume and find a position with a rival.
  • Since you are between major projects, you do short stints of work that are frequently given away to clients for free. For the record, something that is free has no value.
  • You are inappropriately assigned to projects just to get you back on the books as a revenue generating employee. Supposedly huge tasks are accomplished quickly. Supposedly trivial tasks drag on for weeks or months. Your work load becomes unpredictable, unmanageable, or both.
  • You are denied sufficient resources for training. If you want to remain professionally competitive, you can pay for it yourself or skill up on your own time – probably both.
  • You are shuffled through a procession of new bosses or boss surrogates.
  • The temptation to quit quietly increases until a magic happens or you quit.
You can˚˚ plan for your employees to go on and off the bench. It’s a great opportunity to schedule vacation, internal projects, training, mentorship – any number of possibilities. I rarely see this sort of planning or action. I'm told it is viewed as expensive. I can't see how it is more expensive than the alternative: badly benched or overcommitted staff.

* Either a miracle will occur and my discipline will suddenly have a career arc that puts me in line for a directorship in short order or I’ll walk myself to the door long before recognizing that they’ll never get their me-related ducks in a row and lay me off.
˚˚ read: must

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