The Last Day
Nothing prepared us for the last day. I arrived at work as usual, after leaving my daughter at school. A too bright Monday morning and sunny for early February. The weather had been mild during the weekend, much warmer than it should for the season.
My wife, Mary, complained about the warmth, worried this would be no good for plants and the garden.
“Everything’s waking up. See all the buds? They will burn when it’ll freeze again.”
Indeed, those days felt like early spring. I liked that.
The whole winter had been harsh with average temperatures way below freezing. To leave home and take my little princess to school on my way to work was an exercise of will—even more so when my day started at 6:15 a.m. and it was still dark outside.
“I go to bed and it’s dark. I get up, dark…yet again! You know how it bothers me,” I told Mary every time she asked, “What’s going on, sweet pea? You’re pensive.”
She still called me that even though it had been years since we were high school sweethearts and I’d played quarterback for our school team. Thank the Lord, she never said it in public. No one protects a “sweet pea” quarterback or fights to catch his passes! And let’s not even think about the harassment from teammates.
Mary had just turned sixteen when we first met. Something of young lovers remained between us, even after thirty-two years, a twelve-year-old daughter, and life in three countries. We had an easy way to keep count of the time the two of us had spent together: ten years of dating, ten of marriage and then our first and only child. Total number of years? Twenty, plus our daughter’s age.
When I got to work, I waited as usual for the gate to open. The gate was a solid slab of metal and it stood next to the guard house, a bulky construction with thick tinted windows and dark concrete walls. Sliding slowly on its rails, the mechanism paused long enough for me to drive through, reminding me this place was not meant for everyone.
I could never tell whether anyone was seated in the guard house or not. The first times I passed that gate I wondered if I needed to wave good morning to some invisible man. Now I simply drove through, conscious of my right to cross the thin threshold separating those inside from the rest of the world.
I had to cross another barrier before entering, had to swipe my badge and be greeted by the welcoming green light. I went down the ramp slowly, giving the gate below time to open, enough to let me pass without having to wait. With the years, my timing had become impeccable. In the underground garage, my place, Number 98, was in the last row so I had enough time to realize something obstructed my place. I slammed on the brakes and raised my hand to hit the steering wheel in exasperation. Two wood crates sat in the middle of my slot.
The parking also served as a reception area for the Publications Department. Slots in the middle section had been eliminated to give room to the storage areas where all deliveries received by the Pub's colleagues were collected and where confidential publications were packaged for shipment. No one thought that arrangement to be efficient and sustainable. At times, I had to wait for small crate lifters to operate. A short wait but frustrating when colleagues waited for me at a meeting. Complaints to Human Resources and Logistics & Operations had so far produced no results. And now this.
I stepped out of the car to check for any of the storage workers but no one was around.
The crates were empty. They weren’t particularly heavy. I only had to slide them a short distance, zero risk of injuries or other silly things like tearing my trousers or jacket.
Although I didn’t train anymore, my body still enjoyed the results of those past years of football practice—semi-professional level—and the task took only a few seconds: no sweat. I parked. Weird. Things like that were not supposed to happen; the workers had a list of unoccupied places which they could use.
With my badge in hand, I walked toward the third security point to cross. I swiped it and entered the monthly code on the keyboard. Invisible eyes witnessed and recorded the entry. The transparent bullet-proof glass doors opened and let me in to the buffer zone, a concrete walled box with a painted red little square on the floor.
The procedure required to stand still on the red mark without moving while something or someone evaluated my credentials. I hated this last step. After all the security steps I’d gone through so far, hadn’t I proven my identity, my right to be allowed into the premises? I almost questioned the invisible guard about those crates in my parking place but I hesitated. This was something to sort out with the Hospitality Team instead. They look after logistics and other annoying stuff.
Besides, if I moved or wiggled too much while standing on the little red square, the glass door behind would open and I’d have to go through the whole procedure again, suffer a lecture from the guard and waste even more time, his time. I stood as still as I could...and waited.
It took a few seconds more than usual and I thought to complain when finally I heard the welcoming beep; the opaque entrance glass doors slid aside and I walked in.
From the parking level entry, one accessed a hallway dotted with settees aligned along its gray walls. In front, a huge glass wall spanned the whole height of the building and showed a magnificent view of Lake Lemano and the mansions of rich Swiss and foreigners wealthy enough to enjoy the scenery from their large estates.
After a last glance at the glorious day unfolding outside, I started down the stairs to reach my desk one level below. The entire organization believed in full visibility so, to foster collaboration and communication among personnel, it had no offices...just open spaces and vast halls filled with large desks.
No cubicles, a la North American style, but shared spaces in between with desks arranged in islands of four separated by panels with a transparent top-third. Though you couldn’t look at what your colleagues were doing, you had a clear view to establish eye contact; everyone sat in sight of everyone else. Hard to say whether this architect’s dream resulted in any real increase of communications between teams. I still have my doubts.
Entering the hall, I peeked to see whether my highest-ranked collaborator and friend, Rose, had gotten in already. We had an established tradition between us: the morning cappuccino.
“Hi, Rose. How’s it going?”
“As usual. The guys from Microsoft say they should be able to finish in time.”
“Good, good start for the day. Cappuccino?”
I led and defined the effort for a major collaboration platform of the highest security. It included all possible technical bells and whistles, video conferencing, and social networking to support all the initiatives running worldwide with our constituents.
Highly confidential matters were discussed on our system, especially on the encrypted video conferences and we enforced an absolute off the records policy. Journalists and others, I am sure, would have loved to eavesdrop on what we heard those days, particularly Arab League’s discussions with the Americans.
Everything we did to support and enhance the platform was required yesterday and costs or efforts were never a factor. High pressure constantly, criticisms always abundant, congratulations scarce. The kind of demanding task and thankless job any sane person would avoid. How in the world I ended up in that trap is still an open question. Anyway, as the only director who had been able to herd the cats, we had released a working platform in spite of everything and within the agreed timeline. Not exactly Big Brother, but Orwell would be proud of us.
A few desks away, I spotted the American consultant. Hired and imposed on the team to speed up the project and automagically solve all scenarios. He looked at his emails, showing no interest in our conversation or our whereabouts. The guy only knew one thing well and kept selling that as an IT panacea: A framework—and not among the best ones—to create websites. He advocated the solution as the ultimate silver bullet.
It proved no good for us; rather it had been the source of problems and discussions during many of the past months. Much time and money miserably wasted. Yet, somehow, he had secured the ears of our upper echelon bosses. Despite the lack of promised working prototypes, and even failing all tests and missing deadlines, he’d succeeded in imposing his view. A spin doctor, cum laude. Could not happen at a for-profit organization where pennies were counted.
“To a hammer, every problem is a nail,” we joked on the team but we called him ‘the screwdriver’. We were confronted with stubborn nails and we needed a sledgehammer. Screwdrivers do not understand nails, so he wanted us to cut a slot on the head of every nail. Makes sense? Of course not. He kept neglecting crucial details about the project, things like ‘nails have no threads’. We judged his solutions and vision as simplistic. There were other forces at play so our judgment didn’t matter at all.
When we came back from our cappuccino, the consultant—even though now formally hired he still acted as such—had left the place for unknown destinations. Surely busy with bending people's opinions and buying support at every occasion. Grinding his way, or ‘screwdriving’ around, and forcing some head rolling in the process: move out of his way or get crushed.
The cell phone beeped: Time to start working and accomplish something, I thought. A message from the HR Chief: “Dear Dan, did you receive our meeting invitation?”
Our invitation? Who was he referring to? From the details, I had to be in the Board Room in five minutes...with him and the ‘screwdriver’.
“Rose, I just got summoned to an urgent meeting with Carl and Brad. If I don’t come back,” I said half-jokingly, “gather my stuff into a box, will ya?”
Rose looked at me with a worried expression. We’d had discussion after discussion covering the unsustainable situation we faced. The entire team, a group of twelve, had envisioned every possible scenario involving changing jobs, projects, duty stations, or even resignation. Everyone expected me to prevent all this from happening.
I climbed the stairs to the level of the Board Room, thinking what would be my reaction if I had been shown the door. We’d had meetings with big brass in the organization explaining why we were wasting our time and money, but we’d received orders to halt an evolving project in favor of some already failing chimera, a quick solution requiring very little budget and exceeding functionality: the typical silver bullet that would not work. So annoying.
I hadn’t realized yet how strong was the external support the new hire had.
I entered the Board Room without knocking. It was a large rectangular space with floor-to-ceiling wood panels; a grandiose oval table enthroned in the middle, capable of seating thirty people on leather chairs of the highest quality. Screens on the two long walls allowed for video conferencing. The side facing the lake had the usual glass wall overlooking the gorgeous scenery. The institution spared no expense on showy excess. It dealt with head honchos used to luxury and, thus, needed to impress as part of doing business with them.
Carl and Brad were already seated and Carl greeted me first. “Thanks for coming, Dan. Please have a seat.”
“Hi, Carl...Brad.” Now I didn’t doubt what the meeting was for that early in the day. I knew the answer but I asked anyway: “Is anyone else going to attend?”
“No, just the three of us,” said Carl, “and allow me to get straight to the point…”
I interrupted him. “Brad is here so I think I can guess why we’re meeting. Brad and I have divergent visions on how to proceed and toward which goals.” I grinned. “I am surprised this comes right after some recent proof of the weakness of his proposed solution.”
I didn’t even look at Brad. I cared only for Carl, with whom I had frankly exchanged opinions about the whole thing.
Carl went on describing how everything in the institution should perform as in a Swiss clock. All parts and wheels contributing and turning in unison so that the mechanism could do its job. I had been a great wheel so far but I didn’t spin with the others anymore.
An overused analogy and strident with reality: the clock ticked before hiring the help so Carl threw out the baby with the bathwater. He seemed to recite from a spin doctor’s book. He kept talking, not sounding convincing at all, or even like he was convinced himself. He came to the conclusion of his speech.
“The Board has decided to terminate your work contract with us. Your last day of employment will be on the 31st of May, in accordance with the legal requirement outlined in the staff handbook. So as to provide you with as much time as possible to plan your future steps, we agreed to free you from any obligation to work until your legal termination as of today. We confirm this does not affect your rights to your salary through the 31st of May as well as a prorated 13th salary bonus and holidays not taken during the period. You will find more details in here.”
Carl handed me an envelope which I took without looking at it. I smiled.
In a way, I felt relief. All these months seemed like fighting against windmills. The issue had nothing to do with aiming at a better platform. Someone wanted to achieve a firm stance in a power struggle which had begun in the previous months. The COO had been forced to leave only weeks before. I acted as his right arm in many initiatives, besides the one I led. I’d become an impediment for someone higher up, refusing to put lipstick on pigs.
Carl raised his eyebrows and caressed his chin. The hint of a smile raised his lips. “You’re reacting way better than I guessed. This morning, I tried to imagine how this meeting would unfold and nothing I could think of comes close to this. Are you…happy?”
“Look, Carl…” No one paid attention to Brad, who kept watching Carl and me having this conversation, acting as if he wasn’t in the room or had nothing meaningful to say.
“We both know what is going on in here. We’ve discussed this endless times.”
I clenched my jaw and clutched the sides of the chair fighting the urge to stand up. I sighed. “We, nope, you guys will waste even more resources. I can’t tell you how painful it is to deal with this nonsense we are forced to pursue. It is not going to be my problem anymore and that is a relief, believe me.”
The meeting had come to an end. No further discussions needed, a scenario played already. Brad left the room without saying a word while Carl and I remained seated. When alone, Carl was more sympathetic.
“What are you going to do now?”
I snorted. “I’ll go home, relax, cure the acid reflux afflicting me these past months. Remember my words, Carl. At the next Global Meeting, there will be no system to show. Ours, de facto, is to be wiped out and retired. The new one will be recycled to do something else, much smaller in scope, less ambitious, and unable to work as intended or reproduce what we did so far. It falls short now, it will fall short then. At most, you get a new website.” I laughed bitterly. “The most expensive website ever with a newly hired CTO to act as its webmaster. Congratulations.”
Carl grinned and did not argue. “I need you to go through some formalities.”
Everything fit now, the parking place occupied with the wood crates; the delays in passing through the gates. Security knew that today I would have only a virtual presence on the premises.
“Your badge is disabled by now.”
How predictable. Poor Rose, I thought. She had to collect my stuff for me and put everything in a box. The rest of the list was quick: email account, the blackberry, various cards…
“We need those now. I am sure you understand.”
Of course I did. Badge, corporate credit card. I also handed him the lunch card. “I’ve still some 100 Swiss Francs on it. I guess you’ll be able to credit that to my last paycheck?”
Carl chatted with me all the way to the coat room. Then he walked me straight to the employee entrance at the garage level, making sure I would leave without incident and without talking to anyone. Still early in the morning, the entire meeting lasted no more than ten minutes; employees were arriving and starting their work day. No time for goodbyes. No one noticed.
“Is the Chairman in? I’d like to say goodbye.”
“He’s traveling. I'll tell him.”
“I see. Well, nothing holds me here now. Have a good one, Carl.”
The sliding doors opened, and I reached my car while texting Rose on my iPhone. “Rose, get that box. I’m fired. Leaving now. Talk to you later.”
“WHAT!!!!” I read her shocked answer.
I texted again, “Talk to you later.”
I had mixed feelings. Had nothing to blame myself for, had done everything right. I refused to oil squeaking wheels or lick boots. I reported all risks and listed the reasons why, too. I never took offense or grew angry over constructive criticisms, always considered the facts, trying to never get personal. And it led me to this end result. We were in a world where facts were being ignored and trains were leaving the stations, speeding up toward… Nothing.