Thursday, November 09, 2006

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, I'm free at last!"

Being the resourceful fellow that I am, as soon as I made the decision to leave my company, I told everyone I knew that I was looking, and asked if there was anyone they knew of who I could speak to. Their responses fell into three major categories:

1. "You're the big hotshot: Why are you asking me?"
2. "I don't know of any job openings in that area."
3. "Why don't you look in the newspaper / go to / call a recruiter?"

Notice that none of these answer my question, which was simply if I could have a few contact names. Frustrating? You bet. But, rather than alienate them by reminding them how stupid they are, I merely repeated the question, slower, until I got an answer--which was usually, "Nope, don't know anyone."

Conventional wisdom says that you don't look for jobs in the newspaper, or online, because everyone is looking there. You must network, the experts say, and find jobs that are not listed on websites, so as to reduce your competition. Sure, it makes some sense, but nonetheless, I posted my resume on Monster, and Careerbuilder, and received daily email updates on new jobs. Then I spent every free moment calling contacts, reading job descriptions, and waiting.

Monday, August 14, 2006

I see an interesting job on Monster, and before applying, I tweak my online resume to highlight my relevant experience. In so doing, I changed a few keywords. Over the next three days, something amazing happened.

Recruiters called me. A lot of recruiters. The keywords I had added apparently were exactly what some of them were searching for, and by the end of the week, I had four interviews lined up. It was like guessing a password that opened a vault.

I had to explain repeatedly why I was leaving such a high-level position, and why I was willing to go elsewhere for less money, if necessary. I explained that my personal life was important, that the amount of work was oppressive and that it didn't figure to improve anytime soon. I got my share of skeptical looks after this explanation, as if I had actually gotten caught screwing the boss's wife.

I was phone-screened and interviewed. I found myself telling the same few "work stories" repeatedly, when asked about my abilities as a manager. I like talking to people, and I sure didn't mind the ego boost of reliving what I have accomplished.

If I was reading their faces right, most of the interviewers were very impressed with me, but one by one, they turned me down. "We went with another candidate." "Your experience doesn't quite fit our company." "This job would not be challenging enough for you." "It doesn't pay enough."

That last one really bothered me. I was truly willing to take a pay cut, if it meant I would have my life back. But you can't just walk up to an employer and say, "I'm desperate. Give me whatever you want!"

"I'm getting a job anyway," Tim said. "If the offer seems reasonable, take it. We'll get by." She's more or less dumped her catering business and is trying to find a job as a chef at a restaurant. Funny thing about that: No one will hire a woman chef. Sure, these same guys who won't hire a woman probably go home and eat their wives' cooking every night, but they somehow still think women are incompetent to cook for a living. But that's another story.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Looking for a job can be full-time work in itself. Along with the job I already have, I won't be able to keep up this pace forever. When I'm too exhausted to keep looking, then what?

Today I have a meeting with a disgruntled client. They are so frustrated that they asked for Dan Johnson himself to come out and meet with them, but Dan called and convinced them that I could respond to all of their concerns, and that he would follow up with me personally afterwards. Dan has a gift: He can blow you off and somehow still make you feel special.

Dom takes a seat at the boardroom table across from me, and two of our colleagues sit at opposite corners, fidgeting noticeably.

Dom and I have been through this too many times before to be nervous. I find that, if I know someone is going to let loose on me, it's never that bad, because I'm ready for it. It's when I get ambushed that it goes poorly.

You might as well never be nervous for something like this. The worst that could happen is that you don't know an answer. So just be ready for that! Figure out what you're going to say if you honestly don't know something--but try and avoid answers like "I have no earthly idea." People are very understanding, as long as you don't look like a moron.

I like to question people to death when they are badgering me. Keep clarifying, and restating, and taking notes until they lose motivation. They can't stay at maximum pissing rate for long.

Bert, our client's CEO, strides briskly into the boardroom, slamming a heavy pile of books on the table. Several people jump in their seats, startled.

"Steve, right?" He says, looking at me.

"Yes sir," I say, rising and offering my hand.

"That's okay," he says, waving me off. "Just so you all know, I don't sit for meetings. I don't sit for anything. There's no chair in my office," he pauses, scanning the room to see if we believe him.

"You don't have a chair--" Dom begins.

"I injured my back skiing 20 years ago. It hurt to sit down, so I worked standing up. I've been doing it ever since. I use a cordless headset for my phone, and my computer is on a podium. A business magazine came in here and did a story on me," he adds proudly.

"My girlfriend would appreciate that," I say. "She owns a catering business, and she never gets to sit--"

"She doesn't get to sit," Bert says, straightening his cuffs. "Interesting. Not to cut you off, but my time is very valuable, and we need to cover a few things today. With me, you get it straight, and I want you to know that our account is in jeopardy. Are you willing to work to retain our business?"

"Yes," Dom and I say.

"Three hundred fifty-six thousand, two hundred twelve dollars and thirty-eight cents," Bert says, writing the number on a dry-erase board behind him, in six-inch-high digits. "That's what we spent on premiums with you last year. Did you do three hundred fifty-six thousand, two hundred twelve dollars and thirty-eight cents worth of work?" he asks, and all eyes turn to me. So much for spreading my team out.

"I have your policies in front of me," I say, slowly, opening my folder. It's strictly for effect; I've memorized the numbers. "Do me a favor; write a number underneath that one."

He uncaps the marker and looks at me.

"Twenty-eight million," I say.

He writes the number.

"Now write thirty-five thousand." He does.

"We insure this building, your company's vehicles, we insure you against employee dishonesty and theft, we even insure you as an executive, Bert, in case you go skiing again."

The group explodes in laughter, but I get the impression that it's as much about me diffusing the tension as it is about being funny.

"I'm using rough figures, but you see the point. As an insurance company, it's our job to protect you against unfortunate contingencies. Your company is a good risk, so we cover you. For that three hundred fifty thousand, we assume twenty-eight million dollars in risk. Twenty-eight million," I repeat, and it's scary how much I sound like Dan Johnson.

"The thirty-five thousand figure represents the portion of your payments that are used to cover our expenses. It's about ten percent; very low for this industry, but you're a long-standing customer and we don't believe in huge fee increases. It's my job to use that thirty-five thousand to pay my employees, to cover time and materials, underwriting, and any other overhead. Did we do thirty-five thousand dollars' worth of work last year? I guarantee it. I wouldn't be surprised if it was fifty thousand worth of work--but that's my problem, not yours."

The room falls silent. Whatever vitriol he had whipped up among his team is gone. Now, we can have a civil discussion.

The rest of the meeting was uneventful. We ran down the client's list of issues and assigned most of them to our customer service manager. We scheduled a thirty-day follow-up call, at which point all issues should be resolved.

After the meeting, I gather my papers and walk toward the door. "I need to speak to you privately," Bert says, placing a hand on my elbow.

"Is your resume on Monster?" he asks, as we retreat to a side hallway. "I believe I saw it there."


"Are you looking?"

I'd better be careful here. Dan knows I am looking, but if it gets back to him that I admitted that to a customer...

"I would be willing to consider a move if the right opportunity came along," I say, diplomatically.

"Don't worry, I'm not gonna call your boss," he laughs.

He withdraws his BlackBerry. "Are you free next Tuesday at three?"

Tuesday, August 22, 2006, 3:00PM
Bert's office

"I need you to coordinate our implementations," Bert says, squeezing the sides of his lectern and rocking it idly from side to side. "You'll supervise a small development team in Asia, as well as a couple of implementation consultants here."

The company is not exactly in the insurance business, but they make software that many insurance companies use. The job calls for thorough industry knowledge, as well as technical savvy and management ability. It's an unusual skill set, and Bert has been trying to fill the position for months.

"I probably can't pay you what you're getting now," he says, and waits for my reply.

We talk salary. We're not as far apart as he thinks we are. Evidently, my company wasn't paying me shit.

He makes me an offer on the spot. It's $4,000 less than I make today.

"Increase it by $5,000, and I'll say yes right now," I say. Wouldn't it be something if I ended up getting an increase in salary out of this?

"Twenty-five hundred is the best I can do."

"Deal." We shake hands.

And that, my friends, is how I got out of a shitty job for the low low price of $1,500 a year.