Friday, September 09, 2005

NT: A New Day, A New Job

This is the first in what will probably be a mini-series of blogs, mostly about my time at Nortel. Names have been changed to protect the guilty. These will be darker than some of my other blog entries. You have been warned.

Back in 1989, I graduated from UQAM - Université du Québec à Montréal in Computer Sciences & Administration. The last semester was especially difficult. I had an interview during that summer that panned out very nicely indeed, so it was hard to concentrate on my studies since I already had a job lined up.

The eighties in general had been a problem socially. The recession and the political unrest only contributed to produce loom and gloom. Myself, along with many of my classmates were less than hopeful about our future. Computers was the place to be apparently, but the old guard was slow in picking up the pace. Machinery was still expensive, the recession might have something to do with this.

When I go my job at Nortel, I was ecstatic and jumping for joy, against hope I actually had something lined up. A job! ANY job, in my field! Woohoo!

Little did I know.

I had been told that the Technical Crisis Service was a pressure cooker. I took this in stride and bode to do well. This was a front-line support group for telephone offices. If an office went "tits-up" to quote the phrase, we would be called in to get it back on-line. This was a 5-minute standby, usually one week at a time, on call 24 hours a day.

The stress of carrying a pager wasn't that bad. You had to be armed with enough knowledge, and a decent dose of arrogance to do this job. You had to convince yourself that whatever the problem was, you'd be able to solve it. In fact, there were a great many things way beyond your competence, but if you stopped to think about how inadequate you really were, you'd forever live in fear and potentially you could lock up when the call came in.

Many claimed this was just a job, and not to take it personally, but always present was the spectre of catastrophe. Note that when the phones are down no one can reach the police, fire service, hospital nor ambulance service. With a simple call to your pager, you are now the only thing standing between several thousand people and utter mayhem.

Don't take it personally indeed.

No one ever talked about this aspect of the job. A tough shell allowed you to keep going. As time passed your knowledge replaced the arrogance with actual superiority and not so much the impression of superiority. At this point, you were ready to move on. I'd had a good time with my teammates and a couple of brilliant managers. It was with ready but heavy heart that I moved on after 2 years.

I came upon another on-call job, supporting the infrastructure to these men and women of Crisis Services. I was in systems support. Arguably, this was the best time I'd have at Nortel. The guys I was working with were all very good. All of them, including me, had strong personalities, all very different. I still wonder to this day how we all got along, yet it seemed to work really well. I guess we all did different jobs, so we were never in each other's way. One was a quiet know-it-all, one was a quiet bulldozer, one was sex-obsessed flamboyant youngster, one was a spirited and direct, I was the one deemed, and I quote: "abrasive".

My manager of the time, we'll call him Arthur, was caring, knowledgeable and understanding. He had somewhat of a flash temper when it came to incompetence, but always encouraged us to try our best. If a mistake was made it was summarily corrected and we moved on. This man had wisdom which he readily imparted. I grew by leaps and bounds in this environment, truth be told, I was always working on the "abrasive" bit, but I'm not sure I ever got the hang of it despite Arthur's best efforts.

I was with him for 2 years and became team-leader and chief systems-administrator. As with all systems groups, we were acutely understaffed and very definitely unappreciated, but all this mattered not, since we had a tight-knit team who pulled together well. Enjoyable to work in and the job satisfaction was clearly present. This was a beautiful example of being loaded to the gunwales but enjoying your work, simply because of the people you work with, and especially in this case working for Arthur.

Upon the 2 year mark, Arthur was removed to work in CTS, and a new manager was installed, and a new team-leader was named in my stead. I was relegated to my previous post. I liked my team-leader enough; but the new manager, Calvin, and I didn't seem to hit it off. Even to this day, the reasons for this are completely unknown to me. I think in a sense, Calvin was afraid of me, but I didn't know why. Still don't.

During this time I planned and effected a move of all equipment and workstations to a new locale we were moving to. I had exactly one weekend in which to do this, as the CTS team needed to be back on-line on the Monday morning. After months of planning the move was done and absolutely all the equipment and workstations were back on-line come the Monday morning. I was a huge job.

This was my proudest moment. I had done something that wildly exceed my comfort zone and my experience level, and delivered a 100% working environment on time. I was on a high. I was motivated, I loved my job, I had done something outstanding for my fellow co-workers, CTS was back on-line. I loved life. As anyone can tell, I have very fond memories of this time.

Then Calvin presented my case at the annual review board. Apparently, not only did I not warrant a promotion, nor raise, but all this work was simply what was expected of someone at my level (band-5). I find it somewhat humorous that the next move about a year and a half later was planned and effected by Calvin who was 2 levels above mine (band-7).

I came to the conclusion that I was clearly unappreciated, but by whom? Nevertheless, I remained steadfast, although some bitterness had set in that I was never able to shake off completely. It seemed that Calvin was a spineless jellyfish and that everyone, not just me, was feeling the pain of his incompetence. Everyone in the team got lousy reviews that year. It begs the question as to how everyone in a team goes to the dogs, when just the previous year the same people were matching and some exceeding expectations.

During the following year there were many shuffles in the organisation. I reprised my role as de-facto team-leader without the recognition of management of course, but the people in my team needed someone to look up to, to rally them. I may have needed this as much as they did. Given the damage that Calvin had done, morale was not good. Abysmal even. We did get a new manager in the shuffle. He was an old hand who'd been around the block a few times. This was a welcome and sorely needed change.

I was sent to the UK in 1995, in order to train their systems support team. My assignment was for 3 months. The team over there was nothing short of brilliant. Their team leader was a man wise beyond his years and had a knack for leading and rallying people. Equal balance of encouragement and political savvy he was an inspiration to me, and I suspect to many others in the UK office as well. We spent hours discussing business, office psychology and organisational behaviour. This was not a good time in my life, but work-wise, I would not trade it for the world.

Upon my return, I carried a letter from the UK managers to present at my annual review. In a nutshell, they were singularly unimpressed that I was still a band-5 (tech engineer). Not only should I have obtained a promotion years before, but they would actually consider me as a band-7 (manager) candidate.

My current management could no longer argue the point. This was finally enough to secure a band-6 (team-leader) position.

It dawned on me at the time that maybe my abrasivness had not totally been eradicated and that my past was haunting me. A change of organisation was in order.

Nortel Bands: promotion and salary system
Shortly after I began at Nortel in 1990, the band system was implemented, it was updated once and then changed completely before I left, but at the time, as I remember:
Band-4 : Technical new hire
Band-5 : Technical engineer (not to be confused with P.Eng. - unrelated)
Band-6 : Team-Leader
Band-7 : D-Level or people-manager
Band-8 : C-Level (sometimes manager)
Director and beyond weren't referenced as "bands"


Blogger Martin said...

It's sad eh, Steve, that the world of management is full of dorks like Calvin. I believe that there aren't THAT many Calvins in actuality but they do leave a huuuuge shadow, and give the illusion of great numbers...

Plow on, Steve, plow on...


September 13, 2005 3:42 a.m.  

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