Dilbert Cartoons Are So True!
Today, right in the middle of my week’s vacation — a term I must use loosely — I hit a tiny milestone: it has been five months since I started my day job in the corporate world. That means it’s been about three-and-a-half months that I’ve been making calls and identifying myself as “Maurice from [one of Canada’s largest banks].” And, judging from how the hundreds of clients I’ve spoken to speak to me, I am blown over by how they assume I know all there is to know about business banking and that I’ve been around for much longer than I have. Of course, I never admit to them that, before this job, I had only a very vague idea of what wire transfers were. 😛
I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I get to work at home; the shock of going from running my own business at home to taking a corporate job where I would have had to show up every morning at a desk and computer in some office tower would have been too great. Moreover, I don’t know how well I would have adapted to being surrounded by so many co-workers. It’s not that I’m anti-social; it’s just that I know that I get distracted easily with other people around me and that I work better in solitude. Also, after 10 years of working in a corner of a living room or a bedroom converted into an office, I’ve come to see that kind of setting as my ideal work environment.
The downside of working at home, whether it’s to run one’s own small business or to work for a large corporation, is that you end up working longer hours. It’s weird, but even though I’m only a few steps from my own fridge and stove, I almost always skip lunch. And with the new job, I tend to work later than if I were in a “real” office. Granted, part of that has to do with how I volunteered within my team to start some of my days later in order to be able to make appointments with clients on the West coast, which is four hours behind the Atlantic time zone. But I have a knack at booking my first appointment of a day at 9:00 my time, and later agreeing to an appointment at 4:00, which is only noon in British Columbia and 1:00 in Alberta. So by the time I’ve finished my notes in our database and replied to all my phone and e-mail messages, it’s often 6:30 or 7:00 when I sign off. My supervisor agrees that I should schedule occasional 4- or 5-hour days to make up for such 10-hour days, thus averaging the 37.5 hours per week for which I’m officially getting paid. But I have yet to schedule such a short day, and I can’t remember the last day I worked only 7.5 hours.
Last Wednesday, for instance, I spent nine solid hours on the phone. As I explained to you when I landed this day job, I am one of a team of four whose project is to assist clients in “converting” from PC-based to Web-based business banking applications. The length of each call should depend on the number of applications being converted. In theory, a call to convert to a non-transactional module that merely reports balances and transactions shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. Similarly, a call to convert a single database of pre-authorized payments or direct deposits should last 60 minutes at most. But in a twist that’s turning out to be the norm rather than the exception, my first call last Wednesday, which was for the latter variety, lasted a few minutes shy of 2.5 hours. I barely had time to have a pee break before starting my next call one minute late.
The big eye opener for me has been to discover how many of those who have been entrusted with the task of collecting pre-authorized payments from their company’s customers have only a sketchy idea of what they’re actually doing. Little wonder, therefore, that there are as many as 1,000 mistakes a day in Canada. Before I worked for a bank, I would have been inclined, like most people, to blame the banks. But now, I’m more likely to think that the banks’ fault is that they’re putting software in the hands of idiots. I know that’s a very ungenerous and sweeping generalization, but anyone who has ever worked to provide any kind of tech support is likely to understand exactly what I mean.
Let’s say that you were using a program like ACCPAC or Simply Accounting to prepare your pre-authorized payments every month. Prior to conversion, once you had finished your preparation, you would either use the generic hyperterminal function or go to a secure website provided by the bank to send a file of data — a listing of how much to withdraw from which accounts — that the bank would process for you. Yet, quite often, I completely “lose” clients when I say, “Now let’s retrieve the last file you sent to the bank so that we can edit it slightly and send it through the new way in test mode.” A moment’s silence follows, and then comes — usually in a hushed tone — “What do you mean by file?” I then have to give a quick explanation that would be laughed out of Computer Studies 101 about how what they’ve been doing all this time is a bit like sending a document as an e-mail attachment, except that they were sending that document via hyperterminal or the secure website instead of e-mail.
Despite this explanation, I’ve even had someone ask if he could fax me a post-transmission report from the bank. In such instances, I’m brought back to my teaching days, when a student would give an answer or make a remark that was such a non-sequitur that I’d be at a loss to find even the tiniest sliver of accuracy from which I could segue and save the student from total humiliation and disgrace. Sometimes the only thing I can say is “No” and pause as I try figure how I’ll ever manage to bridge the gap between the manifestly lamentable lack of understanding and how I need the last bloody file to complete the task at hand.
I had two such calls last Wednesday alone: the first, as I mentioned, lasted 2.5 hours; the second, 2 hours. Throw in two more client calls, one conference call with the boss, and several calls to return voice-mail messages, and, nine hours later, I was a babbling idiot who could hardly string two sentences together. (I always agreed with my Web hosting company‘s long-standing decision never to offer phone support, but now I get it even more.) And at this point of the conversion project, my colleagues and I are likely to encounter more, not fewer, difficult calls like the ones I’ve been doing lately because many of the clients we’re converting now are those who’ve resisted moving to online banking. Much of their resistance wasn’t due to a fear of using the Internet for online banking; it was due to hiding how they don’t adapt well to change when it comes to technology.
But now the crunch is on: we’re telling clients that tall have to be converted very soon because we will no longer support the old PC-based software. However, as true as this statement may be, there is one itsy-bitsy problem: there are more clients needing to be converted than the four-member conversion team can possibly do in the alloted time. Everybody knows this, but even among ourselves, we’re not suppose to state the obvious at the risk of being branded a nay-sayer or “not a team player.” Whenever the terrifying and impossible deadline is mentioned, we’re all suppose to nod in agreement that it will be met even though we all know it won’t. For me it’s completely crazy-making; I’m the kind of guy who simply can’t ignore the elephant in the room. But I suppose that, from a management point of view, this tactic yields the desired effect: I, for one, end up booking more appointments than can be done in a 7.5-hour workday, even though I know the outcome will be that we’ll only be a few millimetres closer to reaching our target on the morning after the deadline. As a team, we’ll be able to say we’ve done all we can and then some to meet the deadline, but I guess we’re to feign ignorance that we knew all along that the deadline was impossible.
This leaves me with a lot of mixed feelings towards my new job. On the one hand — and honestly, what first comes to my mind — there are the positive aspects of the job, both personally and professionally. Personally, I will have cleared more than half my debt by early September. Professionally, not only have I learned much that I am already able to apply to my own business, but also I have the priviledge of working for an employer that generally treats its employees very well and with some of the brighest and most energetic people in the industry. But on the other hand — filed under “there’s always a ‘but’ category — I find it difficult to cope with the gap between official and practical reality. I also find it difficult to silence my own professional opinion just because it is at odds with the official line. Of course, I can’t be any more specific because I would be breaching the rules of conduct to which I willingly agreed, but I hasten to add that it’s not like I’m being made to do anything that is even remotely shady.
Because of the positive aspects, I have reasons to want to find a way of staying on in some capacity after this project is done. But at the same time, I have to be honest with myself: positive aspects aside, working for a large corporation in this manner is not the career goal of my life. Simply stated, I’m more interested in work that generates wealth for a small business (preferably my own) than a large multinational. However — and this is yet another positive aspect — with the new job, I have proven to myself that I can survive, even thrive, within the corporate world. I wasn’t sure I could, but now I know I can.