The Christmas Blitz

This page written circa 11 January, 2002.

The last few weeks have seen further cuts at Agilent, a serious decision regarding employment in Sydney, an apalling week where the four of us had various diseases in rotation, and a period of generally being down, in spite of the triannial visit of our friend Warwick. Oh yes, Christmas and Merinda's birthday were in there, bringing some cheer, but mostly a capitalist frenzy for the kids.

In November I was trying to ferret out an old contact on the web, and inadvertently came across an ad for an engineering job at a startup located in Redfern. The job read like a good fit to my skills, was in an exciting startup, and it was in Sydney, a few hundred metres from where I worked at SU for many years. I could not ignore this.

I must digress, to tell you about a very excellent technique for making decisions, devised by my friend Stephen Hart. Suppose you must make a decision. The choice is not clear at all. The method involves undertaking to make the decision by tossing a coin. You toss the coin, then you ask yourself if you are happy with the outcome. If not, take the other path. This sounds absurd. What is even more absurd, it works better for decisions with dire consequences, and it works better if carried out in company.

Did we want to take the RIO job? Huge salary, relocation to Sydney and old friends, new technical challenges fitting my skills, but demanding we leave SR and our friends here, abandon employment security (RIO may well auger in next December), replace cars and appliances long before time, sell and buy houses. I did not literally toss a coin, but a long talk with RIOs excellent CEO painted a positive picture (even to offering to set me up in the CA office), but the decision to go just felt wrong. This is the Hart technique in another guise: Find something to push you into a decision, then stop and examine your reactions to see if you will be happy with the impending outcome. I do not think we would have been---it did not have the same positive feeling that we felt facing the move here---so we abandon the decision.

Passing up such an opportunity might seem more odd given the situation at Agilent. December brought news of a return to reduced pay, plus another round of layoffs. They are not actually called layoffs; rather one is "selected to participate in the workforce management program", to use the corporate euphemism. I am ashamed to be working for a company that feels it has to resort to such language. Bill and Dave might not have been able to avoid cutting staff as is claimed, but I am sure they would have had the courage and honesty to call it laying off.

Amongst the cost cutting measures, one stands out as mindless managerial megalomania. Not content to simply remove the subsidy to cafeterias (understandable), Agilent corporate entirely removed food service at some sites, and has given the food service contract at remaining sites to a company whose main advantage is cited as being its ability to provide service at every site worldwide. The sole advantage anyone can see to this is that future corporate control of food service will be easy---they can turn the screw at all sites by sending one single fax. We can see no other advantage since food is necessarily a rather short-range product, unless they intend to feed people on non-perishables shipped worldwide.

The management announcement ran in part: "This change [...] will reduce annual food service costs by nearly $5 million in the U.S. while maintaining or improving quality. Prices will remain at or below market, with some increases on selected items. Of course, this is deceptive managementspeak. Most of the savings come from removing the subsidy (requiring no change except in prices) and from entirely removing the cafeterias from sites with less than 750 employees. Nevertheless, it was not at all as rosy as they promised, even at our site where they said there would be, and I quote, "no change".

Our cafeteria, once one of the best in corporate America by all accounts, was nearly destroyed. When the new people opened on January 7th, it was awful, with vastly reduced variety, increased queues, and decreased food quality. There was a shockwave of complaints, from the suggestions box to the division manager's suddenly-crowded office. I will bet that nowhere has seen improved quality, and our prices are mostly 20% to 40% higher. Things have been improving, and may yet return to the previous level, but I expect recovery of quality may never be complete. The greatest pain is seeing the hippocracy of management.

There have been some lighter events. We saw both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings at the movies. I went to an AES event at Skywalker Ranch in Lucas Valley. This was quite fascinating---security guards with Skywalker uniforms, and guest policies reminiscent of serious industrial companies expecting spies galore, took us into a fabulous, subterranean, art-deco theatre where they lectured us on everything from the IT guy describing how they cope with the storage and network needs of 50 sound editors all working on a film at the same time, to the loudspeaker guy telling us all about the THX sound system he developed for this very theatre. It started 20:00, finished 23:30, and the seats were so plush my bottom did not notice the time.

I received an email recently, commenting on a soapbox on this web site written long ago, and it ran in part:
> I have been researching thrills - or more precisely 'engineering the
> thrill'. I'm a research fellow in the Interaction Design department
> at the Royal College of Art, London
I replied in part "I reckon one needs some or all of (1) danger, (2) rarity of event, (3) challenge or sense of conquest, (4) overload of or rush to the senses---or the illusion of same created by a trigger of the imagination. The illusion of rush must necessarily be a personal thing". I think that working for HP was once a thrill, a challenge in engineering, a rush to have access to so much technology, and a rare honour to be in the pinnacle of Silicon Valley's founding high-tech group. It was still rather like that when I joined. Now the rush is on hold, and the honour has been forfeit, but good things still happen to us... don't they, Toto?

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