Thursday, April 16, 2015


Outside the conference room my manager congratulated me. As usual, I had sat quietly through the first part of the meeting, absorbing the atmosphere and soaking up the arguments. The client had come, as usual, mob-handed and opinionated: their technical team had been sold on a centralised solution by our competition – sweetened with easy payment terms. Our own kit was smaller, more distributed and our presentation was not going well.

I asked a few questions, probing their likely go-to-market strategy; the rate of uptake of their product-set in today’s challenging economic conditions. As usual, I saw that people began to pay attention to what I was saying; it usually takes about ten minutes. Carefully I outlined the CAPEX profile of our offer – its greater flexibility and enhanced alignment with their future revenue streams. I could see they were taking it on board.

As our customers were led out of the sleek boardroom through plush front offices, I exited into the warren of dingy corridors and flickering fluorescents which bore witness to our own struggle for margins. The coffee machine was next to Anna’s desk at the entrance to a cluttered, open-plan office. Anna was a manager in HR, mid-thirties and quite tall with a short blonde bob – I found her rather attractive. She was talking to some female underling, a dumpy woman with long, mousy-brown hair. Anna caught my eye as I came in but turned away. I heard her quietly confiding to her companion, “We’ve been having meetings about him,” indicating me with a small nod of her head.

The mousy one gave me a side-long glance as Anna continued to whisper to her, “Some of the stuff he’s written. It was quite a lot of trouble clearing up after him.”

I felt I was not really meant to be overhearing these remarks so I ignored them. The coffee was now ready – I prevent scalding by always using one plastic cup inside another – and I walked past Anna, quite struck in a way by her appearance.

“Anna, you’re looking really great today,” I said with a smile. My remark was measured and honest and I was sure she would be pleased to hear it. I swept from the room, followed by her impassive gaze.

Next day I was sufficiently concerned to obliquely raise the topic with my boss. He was a solid kind of person, about ten years older than me, and although he in no way sparkled, he seemed to fit well into the management hierarchy. At least he kept all the logistics out of my hair. Sometimes I wanted to go to some of his meetings – I was sure I could sort out the endless confusions and stupidities he was prone occasionally to remark upon – but to my minor irritation I never seemed to get invited. “You need to spend your time on the important stuff,” I was told, “Leave the routine meetings to me, that’s what I get paid for.” Somewhat mollified, I would return to my online manuals, research papers and computer models.

So I broached the subject with him when I next passed him in the corridor.

“HR seems to be having meetings to discuss ‘my case’. Any idea what that’s all about?”

I had intended the question to be ironic or droll but his eyes slid obliquely past me and for some reason he seemed a trifle uncomfortable.

 “Well, you know HR. They’re paid to calm people down. I expect those rather lengthy emails you sent recently explaining the weaknesses of our current product line might have caused a stir. Some of the senior executives aren't exactly used to direct contact from the technical staff, and some of them are a bit conservative.”

I was prepared to be stroppy about this news - idiots! - but since my manager seemed to share my views ... . And besides, he was still talking.

“And of course we value your customer-centeredness; the customer is at the centre of everything we do. I’m sure we get added value and future credibility when you frankly point out to them some of the weaknesses in our current product set. Still, you can see that some of the sales execs might get a bit over-excited.”

“What do they know,” I snorted derisively.

“Yes, well. And no-one has ever formally complained about your dress-sense in front of clients – obviously you don’t look like a salesman, but your suit sort of fits, the shirtsleeves aren't unacceptably short, and no-one is going to be looking at your ankles anyway.”

I checked my current apparel. Today I was relaxed, just doing my normal job, no outsiders to worry about. I was wearing a faded pair of denim trousers, comfortable if a little washed-out; yellow suede desert boots (which I also used when working in the garden at home - there were residual cement stains); a checked shirt - rather worn around the neck; and a green coarse-wool pullover with shrunken sleeves which, as usual I had rolled up. It was the outfit I used to think with.  I sniffed:  hmm, perhaps I should have showered this morning.

I gazed back at my manager with a degree of annoyance. Wasn't he paid to keep those annoying bureaucrats and managers off my back?

Ⓒ Nigel Seel, April 2015. 

I'm currently preoccupied with the concept of "biting the hand that feeds you" - something I see everywhere at the moment. So amusing where it occurs. I'll leave it to others to gauge how much of the story above is autobiographical.

Previous story: Phytocide.

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