Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

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Freetime vs. downtime

"We'll never replace you with a computer."
-- John Bear on how to assure somebody
that they're not getting fired in his book,
Computer Wimp (Hutchinson, 1983).

Two of my coworkers were "let go" this afternoon.

"Let go."

That's a helluva euphemism:


This is an enormously large, dark room. The walls are lined with jungle foliage, and we can hear a fountain circulating water. Windows line the walls at the extreme ends of the room, but all are covered in thick, drawn curtains. One curtain is open, and a shaft of sunlight rests on an antique and busily humming stock ticker.

In the center of the room is an expensive mahogany table, so long that the far end vanishes in the distance. The board of directors is seated around the table. They are all impossibly old men, and each is illuminated slightly by a squat but elegant lamp on the table in front of him. Although we can’t see him, Richard A. Saxxon sits at the head of the table.

Corporate Lackey #27B-6 is just finishing his weekly report to the Board.

27B-6 ...and this morning I personally oversaw the execution of our entire legal department so that they might meet with this God person and see if we can’t reach some compromise regarding this antiquated and frankly silly idea of free will.

There is a smattering of applause from the other lackeys. 27B-6 nods politely and takes his seat. An intercom makes a muffled chirp, and the applause stops immediately.

SAXXON What is it?

RECEPTIONIST (over intercom) Mr. Meeks is here to see you.

SAXXON Who? Oh yes. Send him in.


After a moment of silence, the elevator ding!s, and we hear the low, heavy sounds of a cumbersome locking mechanism being opened. The door opens, and Jeffrey Meeks steps into the room. He wears a simple gray suit with a black tie, and is clutching a matching hat to his chest.

MEEKS You wanted to see me sir?

SAXXON Ah, Mr. Weakes.

MEEKS Meeks, sir.

SAXXON Yes, of course. Are you comfortable, Mr. Pitts?


SAXXON Excellent. Good. Glad to hear it.

For the first time we become aware of something lurking in the shadows of the room. It blinks two unnaturally luminous, yellow eyes as it shifts its position. We see the suggestion of wings and horns as it moves.

SAXXON Yes, Mr. Brown. I have -- and by “I” I mean “we,” and by “we” I mean “various and sundry underlings, minions, underlings of minions, lesser servitors, familiars and the like” – I have evaluated your position, weighed and measured your value to the miserable bacterium that is your department in the Petri dish of our company, and I (that is, we) have decided to let you go.


SAXXON Yes Watson, we have held you at tether long enough. Your years of subservient bondage – how many, incidentally?

MEEKS Er, fifty three, sir.

SAXXON Yes Luffner. Those fifty three torturous years as a –

MEEKS Sub-Sub Peon, Second Class, sir.

SAXXON Whatever, Grier. The moment of your liberty is at hand! Take wing, Mr. Johnson! Soar, like the mighty hawk! Ascend! Ascend, and leave behind you the fetters of pension and financial stability! Wilson!

MEEKS Meeks, sir.

SAXXON No, Wilson!


SAXXON Wilson, pull the lever! Grant the man his freedom!


SAXXON And – oh, Meeks, wasn’t it?

MEEKS Yes, sir.

SAXXON Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Meeks screams as a trapdoor below him opens. He falls, and a pillar of flame bursts briefly through the trapdoor as it reseals itself. In the brief flash, we see that the members of the board are all animated corpses in various stages of decay.

SAXXON Gentlemen, I’ll relieve you for the rest of the day.

The board members begin to gather their things and file out of the room. Saxxon presses the button for his intercom.


SAXXON Fetch my pineapple. I need to be alone.
I'm really not sure what that was all about.

We'd known about the staffing cut for a long time, but it got postponed when my boss' boss quit unexpectedly, and her replacement wanted to get a feel for the department before making any major changes. The company did a bunch of hiring during the aftermath of September 11th. It took quite some time for things to slow down, but eventually they did. On top of that, Visa has been bringing a lot of their process up to date. Systems that had once been handled via paper correspondence are now handled over the Internet. Incidentally, MasterCard did this like, five years before Visa did. The point is that things are changing, and thanks to automation, a few humans had to be cut out of the picture.

If our department were a homogeneous group, I would have been the first logical person to go. I was the newest hire. I don't do grunt work (peons in my department have some degree of job security because the repetitive, boring tasks they do require a great deal of training), but I lack the knowledge and experience most of my coworkers have. The department is split between specialists who handle merchant disputes and specialists who handle cardholder disputes. I guess I got lucky by choosing to switch over to the merchant side of things back in 2002. Our tasks are such that we have just enough work to keep four people occupied. Gaining or losing an employee wouldn't be a good idea. The cardholder side has been "sorta kinda overstaffed" for awhile, though, hence the cuts.

My boss says that deciding who to cut was a tough decision -- that's why she "makes the big bucks." I don't envy her position. Choosing two people to cut would have been difficult, and considering the two who got cut (not that I have any better ideas), I think her primary criteria must have been "is ___________ happy here?" I can't speak for both, but at least one of them was miserable and couldn't admit it to herself. I think -- I hope -- that this will be the catalyst she needs to begin work on all of the major life changes (things like "move to Seattle") that have been piling up on her to-do list.

Myself, I'm just trying to look worthwhile. I entered the job market right after September 11th, and it's not like anybody was looking to hire untested programming talent. I ended up going into a different field entirely. It's really too bad since I'm so good with COBOL. Everybody needs COBOL programmers because everybody designed their first mainframe system with it. COBOL programs are cumbersomely huge and hulkingly convoluted, but the prospect of migrating from your IBM 390 to a Windows or Linux or Mac (scratch that last one -- let's be serious) network is expensive and daunting and fraught with opportunities for failure. COBOL isn't a well-liked language, but it's a stable one that isn't going away. Nothing says job security like designing a vital system which nobody else can maintain.
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