Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reality? Bah!

My dislike of the entire genre of "reality" TV shows is reaching a fevered pitch. The longer they survive, the less reality is involved. Even shows I will watch, like "Deadliest Catch" are pissing me off. Who watches the really crappy shows like "The Bachelor", "Super Nanny" and "Big Brother"? And if you do - have you no shame? I know of no clearer demonstration of the decline of the human race than the rise and persistence of reality TV shows.

I'll speak plainly - these shows are to television as the WWE is to ancient Olympic wrestling.

It's hard for me to believe that the same industry that produced "Sopranos" and "X-Files" is happy making seven seasons of the "The Biggest Loser".

I do get the whole "they are cheaper to make" concept. I really do. But that is exactly what is now causing me to call bull crap. The latest round of reality shows have become more and more manipulated through editing and other post-production games. They are shooting more and more hours of film in order to edit it down into the fabricated storyline the show wishes to tell. The scenes are displayed out of sequence, out of context and with all vestiges of "reality" removed. Characters are born, drama is created and the heroes live to fight another day. What we are left with is a show that is as much fiction as a sitcom - but with really lousy actors.

I think what has sent me over the edge was a recent episode of "Deadliest Catch". The previews and commercials showed one of the main characters calling the Coast Guard on the radio, with a cut to a Coast Guard helicopter taking off from a frozen and ice-laden dock. Uh-oh - this is Big Trouble! As the episode progressed, the boat is shown laboring through increasingly dense ice flows when one of the main engines blows - oh crap! Of course, the very next scene shows them reaching the dock safe & sound. The Coast Guard? Oh yeah, that was actually a call made by the captain as he was *leaving* the dock (with his engines repaired) to ask the Coast Guard how far out from the harbor the ice went. The answer? "About a quarter mile." The next scene shows them happily steaming out of the harbor free of the ice. Umm - OK, I guess that was mildly entertaining, but this is the equivalent of a traffic jam caused by gawkers of a freeway accident hoping to see a dead body in the opposite lanes. You got me to look, but there was nothing to see.

Of course, this isn't really the first time reality shows have been on TV. Aren't game shows and talk shows really just another form of reality TV? We watch because we are hoping someone will do something incredibly stupid. Wasn't that the entire premise of "Let's Make A Deal"? Monty Hall picked the most outrageous person in the crowd, and we were all entertained by making fun of them as they were humiliated on national TV. Good clean (and cheap) fun.

What's really missing from today's reality shows is the reality. I say show 'em live and uncut. That's reality - the hours of boredom, the passive-aggressive relationships and the endless toil for very little gain. Yeah, right - I would rather watch "Wheel of Fortune".

My prediction? Reality TV "contestants" will eventually require a SAG card, and they will demand higher pay and royalties. Hopefully, that will mean the end of this nightmare.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Turn At The Trough

Being unemployed means applying for unemployment insurance from the EDD. This is a brand new experience for me - until now I had previously been continuously employed since graduating from college in 1984. I successfully negotiated the EDD UI web application and also had a short phone interview with an EDD rep. I then waited for the first check to arrive...

After waiting the obligatory 10 working days, I began to get worried. So, I revisited the web site looking for a status. They have an automated phone IVR system that can be used to get status. The first time I called, it required me to go through an incredibly bizarre process in order to set a PIN. The IVR asked me the following questions:

  • Social Security Number (not followed with a #)
  • UI Check Dollar Amount (whole dollars before taxes only - no cents - followed by a #)
  • Zip Code Used On Application (5 digits not followed by a #)
  • My Birthdate (6 digits not followed by a # - does anyone remember Y2K?)
  • Phone Number Used On Application (no area code - 7 digits only - not followed by a #)
  • My new PIN
Holy touch tone Batman! It took me 4 tries to get my PIN set. If you enter a number incorrectly, it gives you one chance to correct it, and then it disconnects you, forcing you to call back and start from scratch. Not counting the EDD phone number to get connected, that process requires 22 key presses just to set my PIN. I probably did over 100 key presses due to my finger fumbles and screw-ups.

After 30 minutes and two index finger cramps later, I was finally past the PIN gate. I am then told: "There have been no checks issued on this account". Well duh! That's why I'm calling! So much for the automated system - another fine example of technology making everyone's life just a little better.

Being the persevering professional that I am, I moved on to plan B - calling the EDD support line. So, after removing the ice pack from my index finger, I called. I was met with an automated answer that said: "We are currently receiving more calls than our system can handle. Please try again later." *CLICK* Click? Click! What the heck? This is a support line? I've seen more support for the Taliban at a Bush family reunion. So, of course, I assumed it must have been a fluke - I called back - same thing!

I then found the following little ditty in the EDD FAQ:

Why can’t I get through on the telephone?

When our telephone systems receive too many calls the telephone network becomes temporarily overloaded. If that occurs, you will hear a message that states, “We are currently receiving more calls than our system can handle. Please try again later.” This tends to happen between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., and the problem should resolve itself in a few minutes. This is also likely to occur on our busiest days (Mondays, and days after a holiday).

Once you have reached our telephone system, and you make the menu selections to speak to a Representative, the system routes your call to the location with the shortest wait time. However, if it appears that your call cannot be answered within 10 minutes because of the number of callers already waiting, you will hear a message advising you to call back later. To avoid this possibility, you may want to call on Wednesday or Thursday, which are our least busy days.

OK! Once again, technology has made everything better! We can now automatically hang-up on people whenever we get too busy - perfect!

The EDD is getting hit with a double whammy. With an 11.5% unemployment rate in California, they are being swamped by a huge spike in unemployment insurance claims. In addition, the disastrous California state budget means the EDD can't hire any additional help.

Hmm - here's an idea - how about we route all the phone calls coming into the EDD to the floor of the California legislature? I mean why not - those assemblymen & state senators don't seem to be accomplishing anything with the budget, so they might as well do something constructive. Plus, if I am going to be hung-up on by the state, it might as well be by the guy that is supposed to be representing me.

While we're at it, here's another idea - how about we randomly select 500 people waiting on hold in the EDD support line queue and have THEM fix the state budget. Could they do any worse? Could I? Heck, I'll do it for half the salary of a state senator, and I promise that when I get a real job, I'll step away from the state trough. Show me a politician willing to make THAT promise!

Mr. Governator: I am available to start immediately.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Corporate Recruiting Is Broken

From my first post, you know that I am looking for a new job. I have to admit it's been quite a while since I last looked for a job (ie. the previous century). However, I have now been on both sides of this story - I have been a hiring manager trying desperately to find great employees, and I am now a employee desperately looking for a great company. One of the big changes since I was last in the job market is the use of 3rd party "talent management" systems to allow the corporate HR departments to manage job postings and collect information from applicants. These systems are typically integrated into the corporate web sites and allow the applicant to search and apply for the current opportunities at that company. Sounds good so far, right?

I'm here to tell you this system is broken. With very few exceptions it is an excellent example of technology in search of a purpose and of a process that the majority of the users will not complain about - because they are all desperately trying to get a job, and it is unlikely that telling the HR department their process stinks is a good opening gambit. Sounds like a job for a devil may care cynic...

Let's start with step one - many of the companies use the same 3rd party providers. A couple of the largest vendors are taleo and kenexa (apparently, having a meaningless name is a prerequisite). I see these two quite often and each time I do I *cringe*. Each company is a completely separate instance of the talent management system - which means I am required to create a new profile for every company. Yes, I know that's more secure, data segregation & protection, yada-yada - but please, couldn't they have allowed me to create ONE user profile that could be reused at each of the companies I visit that use taleo? I have typed my name, contact information, job history and education into taleo dozens of times. It's a huge waste of time. Ironically, taleo & it's ilk are most often used by the largest companies. Smaller companies tend to stick to the large job boards, like Monster, Hot Jobs, etc - and at those sites I *can* create a reusable profile.

OK, that one I hang on the talent management system vendors. Time to move on to the hiring companies themselves. The information they collect from each applicant just for the slim chance they may *possibly* give the applicant a call back is bewildering. You need the name and phone number of all my previous supervisors? Really? You need my salary from a job I left 10 years ago? Really? Why? I'm a firm believer that information that isn't actually used shouldn't be collected - not because of any privacy concerns, but simply because it's a waste of time for the user to type it in and a waste of server resources to hold on to it. If it isn't needed to decide whether to call me back, then don't collect the information! They are collecting data from hundreds of applicants and actually using 10% of the data from maybe 4 or 5 candidates. Madness.

Finally, I need to state what is perhaps obvious to job seekers, but not often discussed within the company. The HR recruiter's primary focus is NOT to find the best candidates. Every job seeker knows the truth - the HR recruiter's primary job is to eliminate candidates such that whoever is left, must (by definition) be the right candidate. The overly-complex talent management system and the pile of collected data is all part of that truth. The more data that is collected, the more likely it is that something will be noticed that eliminates that applicant from further consideration. Hmm, does that mean the candidate with the best chances is the one who provides the least information? I think this is especially true when non-high tech companies are trying to recruit high tech employees. The in-house recruiters are simply not knowledgeable enough on technology topics to evaluate the candidates any other way.

As a hiring manager, I was always frustrated by the lack of qualified candidates being forwarded to me by my internal HR recruiters. A common practice of desperate hiring managers is to get outside recruiters to send them resumes, and to then forward those resumes to the internal recruiters. Of course, the internal HR recruiters hate that - they don't want to deal with outside recruiters and placement fees. But think about it - what this really means is that the huge fees paid to taleo and the other talent management vendors aren't actually working at all - that entire system is a waste of time and money for *everyone* - job seekers, HR departments & hiring managers. It all sounds good, and I'm sure the sales teams do a masterful job of showing the value of the solution during impressive demos - but does anyone stop and actually consider whether the technology has made the process better?

When good candidates can't get to the hiring managers, and the hiring managers can't find good candidates - that is a broken process!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cynicism 101

I recently saw this line on a company's employment site: "Cynics, pessimists and curmudgeons need not apply." Well, that certainly caught me up short. I am a self-professed True Cynic, and I am also hunting for a job, does that mean I need to stop and reevaluate my life? Am I holding myself back by having a "bad" attitude? That's not good!

But wait, is being a cynic a bad thing? Maybe I need to back-up and figure out what the heck a cynic really is.

I hate stories that contain a dictionary definition of a word - that is so lame. However, looking up the word "cynic" returns a rather interesting history. A history that has significantly changed the meaning of the word from it's origins.

It starts in ancient Greece, with a wacky group of philosophers that called themselves the "Cynics". These dudes believed that happiness meant living in agreement with nature, and that this world belonged equally to everyone. Suffering was caused by making false judgments about what was important in life. They rejected *everything* associated with the conventions of their modern society - religion, manners, style, money, power & decency - they believed in only the pursuit of virtue through the most simplistic and non-material living. Wow, that sounds like a barrel of fun, doesn't it?

Historians believe ancient Cynicism gave rise to Stoicism, and may have led to many of the austere aspects of Judaism, the rather socialist ideas of early Christianity, and ultimately to the Vow of Poverty still practiced by many orders of Catholic monks and nuns.

Sometime in the late 18th century, the term cynicism took on a different meaning. It focused on the distrust and rejection of the motives of others, and on the jaded & negative attitude toward just about everything and everyone.

That's pretty much where we are today - a cynic is generally regarded to be someone who questions the motives of others and who looks for the black heart in the silver lining. So, is this bad? And, more importantly, when I call myself a "True Cynic" am I aligning myself with the ancient Greek philosophers, or with the modern pessimistic curmudgeon?

The short answer is both. I look at the world around me and I see plenty of false judgments causing suffering. There is no doubt in my mind that this world would be a better place without the petty power struggles that happen at all levels - from a married couple to entire nations. However, I hesitate when we begin to talk about everyone having an equal share of this world. We may have all been *created* equal, but apparently a huge number of us were dropped on our heads shortly after that. Isn't it possible that many of the "false judgments" made by people are simply because they are stupid? Is it a false judgment if they *thought* it was the right thing to do, but they were just too dumb to see the outcome?

This is also where I begin to part ways with the modern definition of cynicism. I do absolutely doubt the altruistic motives of most people, most of the time. In business, looking for how someone benefits from the position they are expounding is very rarely the wrong path. However, I also think there are many instances when the person is not evil or purely power hungry - they are just plain ignorant. The implication that a cynic always thinks a person generally acts in their own best interest is incomplete - I think a person generally acts in what they believe to be their best interests. That doesn't mean it really *is* in their best interests!

So what am I defining to be a True Cynic? Well, I believe the world really is a very silly place, and most of that silliness is caused by the fact that humans as a whole are a VERY silly species. We are capable of producing individuals that can achieve wondrous things - and we are also capable of creating entire civilizations based on truly idiotic tenets. Therefore, when I call myself a cynic, I am speaking of the world and the human species as a generalization. The trick is to find the subset of our species that was not dropped on its head, and when you do - hang on to them! Call me a cynic, ironic, sarcastic, sardonic - just so long as you call me to dinner.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Is Introspection For The Weak?

Driven, focused, assertive, high-energy - I often see these & similar traits listed in job postings for middle and upper management positions. And certainly, it's hard to argue against a company that wishes to employ leaders who can actually lead. But it also seems to me that there may be another side to that coin. If all of your leaders are gung-ho generals ready to charge up San Juan Hill and carry all of their troops with them, is there anyone in your organization willing to stop and consider whether a frontal assault is the best strategy - let alone whether what's on the other side of that hill is even desirable? Shouldn't an organization also have a few folks that are occasionally willing to look inward and question their own judgment? Or is introspection only for the weak?

In my experience, corporate senior executives are never wrong. They might have been misled by subordinates, or given insufficient information, or even taken a calculated risk that was predicted to be the correct path - but they are never simply wrong. Now, don't misunderstand me, their superiors in the corporate food chain might think they were wrong - and that is usually followed by a company-wide email announcing that another executive "has left to pursue other opportunities". And that (of course) simply teaches the rest of the executive team to never be wrong.

The first rule of sales is "Always be selling" - and I think the predominance of Sales & Marketing executives being elevated to the top spots in corporations has led to a breed of senior executive that is incapable of introspection. They are always selling - their ideas, their strategies, their tactical plans. Anyone who has been in a budget planning meeting with an executive knows it is a pure sales pitch - you are trying to convince that executive to buy your plan. The senior executive probably has no idea whether your plan will work or is even feasible - but they know a good pitch when they hear it, and if you aren't supremely confident, you will be roasted alive.

OK, so the pitch was good and you get your budget - now you MUST deliver. The executive approved your plan, so your plan must be good - to think otherwise would mean the unthinkable - that the executive was wrong. That can't be right. So, the only alternative is that your plan is fine, and YOU are wrong - you simply need to buck-up and git 'r done.

So what have we done? We've created an organization where no one is ever wrong and failure is not an option. I call Bull Crap. Such an organization doesn't exist. Stuff happens and no amount of planning sessions, executive reviews, service level agreements or consultants will create the mythical zero-defect organization. You have two options: 1) Pretend you live in the magical kingdom of Never Wrong and start lopping heads whenever you are disappointed by your underlings, or 2) Be willing to admit that EVERYONE needs to be willing to set aside their narcissistic, ego-driven sales mask and recognize when it's time to take a step back. If your subordinate is willing to risk your wrath by questioning the plan - then encourage that level of introspection. If ALL of your subordinates are willing to do the same, then you can listen to a raised concern and be confident that the rest of your team will give you their honest opinions and either confirm the issue or have reasons why you still move forward. On the other hand, if you surround yourself with employees that simply feed your ego, you really can't trust any of them - and you will blissfully charge forward to your doom.

Is introspection for the weak? I say no - I think introspection requires MORE courage, MORE focus on the end goals and MORE commitment to success.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Not A Smart Move

Every site giving tips on finding a new job tells you to be careful about what you post on the internet. That makes sense - you certainly don't want to scare off any prospective employers with discussions of your depravities & deviant proclivities. So, what's one of the first things I do? I start my very first blog. Not a smart move.

Why would I do such a silly thing? Well, it could be because I'm absolutely convinced that a prospective employer will read *my* blog and instead of thinking I'm a moron, they will be so awed by my deep insights and mastery of language that they will be compelled to instantly offer me a position on their executive team as the CGMO (Chief Grey Matter Officer). Or, it could be because I have decided to shuck the yoke of corporate life and make my living as a thinker and writer, and this blog is my first step down a road that will bring me fabulous fame and fortune. Or, it could be because I'm an idiot. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets!

In my humble opinion, the best blogs hold to some sort of theme. The posts are not just random nonsense on anything that tickles the author's fancy - they are *specific* nonsense that tickles the author's (and hopefully the reader's) fancy. So, what will the theme of this blog be? That has been a very difficult decision. After MUCH more thought than I anticipated would be required, I kept coming back to the same point - cynicism.

Those who have spent any time with me will tell you that underneath (and not far underneath) my outer facade of jovial, good-natured professionalism lies a True Cynic. I'm cynical on a wide range of topics - from the future of the human race to the genre of reality TV (actually, those two topics are connected). If I am successful, I will challenge your preconceived ideas, amuse more people than I offend and be considered a complete idiot only by those who know me best.

And for any prospective employers out there: No, I wasn't really thinking about the long-term ramifications of this decision, but now that you have pointed it out, I think you are right - it really wasn't a smart move.