Through an unlikely series of events, fiercely independent IT consultant Jerry Barkley finds himself in the middle of the Bullseye Breach incident and must rise to the challenge. Years earlier, Jerry faced another life defining challenge that set him on a path to meet the Bullseye Breach head-on.
“How many vice-presidents does it take to change a lightbulb?” That was the popular question for the day as Jerry Barkley read yet another memo about yet another company service and consulting division reorganization, this one signed by not one, but two corporate vice-presidents. The memo, obviously vetted by the legal department, was distributed on paper stuffed in legal sized envelopes to thousands of employees around the world.
As a software consultant in the Minneapolis field office, Jerry Barkley, tall, thin, and balding, would normally be interested in his new boss’s boss’s boss’s bosses. But he no longer cared. Disgusted with what the company he was once proud of had become, he wondered how much money the politicians in charge wasted sending out this worthless mailing. With printing costs, paper, envelopes, labor to stuff envelopes, and an average of $1 in postage per piece, it had to add up to a big number. He shook his head and filed the piece of paper and the envelope in the trash.
Jerry knew he was a small fish in a global company pond, and he also knew that pond was becoming more polluted by the day. How the company descended from a fast growing, computer hardware, software, and consulting powerhouse into the dysfunctional mess it was today would be a story for future business historians to study on how to do everything wrong. It was shocking. And disgusting.
Today was the first Monday of another quarter, and by now Jerry and the rest of the company employees knew the pattern well. First, the mysterious offsite managers meetings. Then the hushed, informal gatherings in darkened hallways trading rumors and speculation about who was getting the axe this time. And then Monday morning, when managers called employees into little conference rooms and delivered the news. Tuesday opened with survivor meetings, organized by what was left of the HR Department, where managers gave sugarcoated presentations with assurances this was the last one and this time they really mean it.
There were always a few good questions. But never any good answers. One question from the last survivor meeting stood out. “What is this company supposed to look like once we get through all this?” The answer from the visiting regional manager who should know better was shocking. “We don’t know.”
Through it all, like spraying Soma to quiet rioting Epsilon semi-morons in Brave New World, HR professionals across the company blanketed the company social media network with soothing messages. Jerry’s favorite was, “We know change can be uncomfortable at times. But we’re here to help.”
Except employees of this company were far from Epsilon semi-morons. Many represented the computer industry best and brightest, and customers paid dearly for their expertise. The moronic word games only generated more cynicism and distrust.
Even though the word games fooled nobody, they continued. The geniuses in charge decided “layoff” was a bad word. So they invented an acronym—TFSO—for Transition Financial Support Option. Employees weren’t laid off. Instead, they “transitioned.”
Standard transition meetings were the same across the company, no doubt scripted by a team of lawyers. After escorting the employee into a little conference room where an HR representative waited, the manager started with, “The management team has determined that your contribution is no longer consistent with the direction the company needs to follow. Therefore, the company needs to initiate an involuntary separation. Recognizing that this a transition, the company is offering you a transition financial support option equivalent to one week’s pay for every year of service with the company. If you wish to take advantage of this offer, please initial each page that you agree and sign at the appropriate spot at the end.”
Still following a by-now well-rehearsed script, the manager next took out two copies of a multipage document filled with legalese sentences in teeny tiny print and placed it in front of the employee. The document relieved the company from any past, present, or future legal liability and prohibited the employee from a long list of behaviors the lawyers thought should be prevented. It had “I agree” in a larger font on the top right corner of each page with an underline next to it for initials. It also had a sentence in large font at the end that said, “I agree with the terms and conditions as set forth in this document on _________(date)” with some white space and underlines for the employee signature.
This was usually followed by a few informal scripted words of false encouragement. “Take your time and read it thoroughly before you sign. But the next meeting in here is in fifteen minutes so we’ll need to wrap it up by then. If you are experiencing emotional issues, we have complimentary tissues available for your convenience.”
The TFSO meeting and the document were supposed to be confidential–revealing its contents was one of the prohibited behaviors–but in the dawn of the era of digital communications, it didn’t take long for meeting summaries, parodies of meeting summaries, parodied translations for “TFSO,” and electronic copies of the document to begin circulating around the company internal social media network.
The process was not always so antiseptic. In at least one case, shared widely in the company social media network, one employee won a company Excellence Award. An Excellence Award winner earned a week-long trip to a resort hotel. In better times, that resort hotel was somewhere exotic on the other side of the planet. This year, it was in San Diego, at least for US employees. The problem was, the Excellence Award trip happened to fall on a TFSO week and the employee was not available to meet in a little conference room in the local office. So the field manager had to improvise. He delivered the TFSO message via voicemail while the US national manager recognized the employee for excellent service with a cheap plastic plaque.
Jerry tried to take comfort in a project assigned to him six months earlier. He was charged with setting up a software training curriculum for hardware technicians in his branch office. The idea was, software tech skills were becoming more valuable than hardware tech skills as the price of hardware plummeted. Jerry took it a step further. Most of the hardware technicians came to the company with a high school diploma and some electronics training. What if they could get real college degrees?
The company had a tuition reimbursement program and Jerry found a local university willing to set up a specialized program with flexible class times to accommodate busy service techs. In a few months, dozens of hardware techs could begin earning a real college degree that nobody could take away. Instead of a 5 day lecture/lab class for how to install Windows, this degree would give them foundational knowledge they could apply to all software and business challenges. It could be a model for the rest of the company to elevate its workforce and return to profitability. Despite the chronic company gloom and doom, the local techs were excited about the opportunity and started working on a plan to cover for each other’s service calls to free up classroom time.
It was great plan until management killed it. Jerry’s manager delivered the news shortly after the latest survivor meeting.
“Jerry,” she said, “the company’s cancelling the tuition reimbursement program. The only training we’ll pay for is training directly relevant to the job. College degrees aren’t relevant to the service techs’ jobs and we can’t afford to pay for it.”
“So that’s it, the company is chopping off its own future?”
“I wouldn’t characterize it that way, no. We just can’t afford unnecessary expenses right now, and this training is unnecessary.”
“You’re kidding, right? A high-tech leader is saying that education is unnecessary?”
“Oh great, what now?”
“Your MBA training. It’s not relevant to your job, so we’re also stopping reimbursements for that.”
Jerry sat back in his chair, shocked.
“Look, Jerry, if it’s any consolation, I went to bat for you. I lost. Maybe they’ll put the program back when times get better, but right now the company just can’t afford it.”
Jerry looked down, fighting bitter disappointment. He wanted to break something. Or somebody. He felt an urge to hit his manager, even though he knew she was just the messenger. He sat on his hands to keep from doing something stupid. Mychelina was a good manager and Jerry liked her. She did the best she could with what she had – and right now, she had nothing to offer and they both knew it.
Finally able to speak, he said, barely audible, “Myke, thanks for going to bat for this program and for me. I appreciate it. But if this company doesn’t want to support educating its own employees, I don’t want to be part of it anymore.”
“Jerry, I can see you’re upset. Why don’t you go think about this for a couple days and then get back to me?”
More forcefully now, Jerry said, “You’re right Myke. I AM mad. But I’m not going to change my mind. That tuition reimbursement program is the only thing left keeping me loyal to this company. If the company won’t pay for my education, I’ll find a way to pay for it myself and I won’t be loyal any more. This company is headed into oblivion and I want out. When the next layoff round comes, and you and I both know it’s coming, lay me off and keep somebody else here who wants to keep a job. I’ll use the TFSO money to build my own life.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Yeah. I’m sure. And I’ll tell the group I’m sorry our education program didn’t work out.”
Three months later, Jerry woke up on a Monday morning with a fever, chills, and a sore throat. Dreading another TFSO day in the office, and in no shape to go to work anyway, he picked up the phone to call in sick. But then he realized, there was nobody to call – everyone in the office who might answer the phone had been laid off. He left a hoarse voicemail for his manager, rolled over and went back to sleep.
The phone rang around 10am. “Jerry, I need to see you in the conference room in one hour.”
“Are you laying me off?” asked Jerry, groggy and feverish.
“Let’s talk about that when you get here.”
“Myke, can we do this over the phone? I think I have strep and I shouldn’t be around anyone today.”
“No, you need to come in.”
Jerry showered, dressed, and made his way to the office. The meeting in the little conference room went smoothly, duly witnessed by an HR representative flown in from Corporate.
“Thank you,” Jerry mouthed silently to his manager. She gave a barely perceptible nod in reply.
That was the last time Jerry ever saw his manager, but he carried a debt of gratitude to her for finding a way to honor his wishes. He used the TFSO money to start Barkley IT services and finish his MBA degree. He vowed never to trust another big organization, unless he was a leader in that organization. And he developed a stubborn streak and a taste for white socks and tennis shoes.
That stubborn streak would serve him well years later when he fought the Bullseye Breach.