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Who Moved My Furniture? (Small Company Life)

Friday, July 23, 2004
On January 31st 2001 the company I worked for closed the doors. A company near Philadelphia had bought all the rights to the software and intellectual property of the former company, and 4 of us were given the opportunity to work for them on a short term consulting basis, starting January 2nd. I had a lead on going to work for a startup company in the video game industry, but it was taking some time to pan out, so I prepared to spend 3 days a week in Philly.

I have to admit I had a bias against Philadelphia going in. When I was a just a young ‘un my parents would drive to Philly to visit an aunt. I have only one memory from these trips, and it goes like this: We are getting ready to go back home. My dad leaves the house to take luggage to the car. Several minutes later he reappears at the door, luggage still in hand, and announces: “somebody stole the car”.

As a kid, the fact that there were people in the world who stole other people’s cars came as a traumatic revelation to me. Based on this experience, and on seeing Eagle’s football games on TV, I hold a terrible stereotype that the city is full of thugs and car thieves. For the longest time I thought the “City Of Brotherly Love” was more of a sarcastic joke instead of a description, but I then I think how close Philadelphia is to the state of New Jersey, so maybe these sayings are all relative.

One morning we arrived at the new company from the hotel at the same time as a tractor trailer. By the time we walked up to the sidewalk the back doors of the trailer were opening. I peered inside, and lo and behold, there was the furniture I used to see every day at work. Suddenly it all came crashing down on top of me. The old company was gone. They new company had really bought everything. I wasn’t just at a client site for a few days. I was a 1099 employee with no office to call home.

Over the next few days we tried to tell people at the new company what great furniture they were getting. We assumed they would love it, because the cubicles they had were old, and small. By contrast, our former company had spared no expense on furniture. Yes, we had cubicles, but they were the nicest cubicles I have ever seen. Spacious, with lots of nooks and crannies for storage, built in lights, and low walls. I hate cubicles as much as the next person, but these were decent.

I have a feeling the employees there were apprehensive about the new cubicles because they didn’t offer as much privacy as they were used to. We knew at least one software developer there who snoozed in the afternoon, but unless you got in really close, which was hard to do, it was impossible to tell.

The lack of privacy at our old office was actually sort of funny, because you knew just a little bit about the lives of other people. It wasn’t eavesdropping you know, it was just hard not to hear conversations like this one from a fellow architect:

“Yes honey, I understand it is your sister’s family, but I’m not just giving them money to go grocery shopping. We’ve tried that before and they waste it. I’ll take them grocery shopping, and I’ll tell you right now, they won’t be buying shrimp and brand name cereal on my dime. If they want cereal they get the generic stuff from Walmart.”

Other people at the other company had a different definition of private matters than I do. One developer sent an email to the staff alias that read like the following (I’m not making this up):

“Does anyone know a good dermatologist in the area? I need to get something lanced.”

When this email hit the inbox, you could just hear it ripple threw the building. People would gasp, or chuckle, or choke on coffee. To this day we still refer to the guy with the nickname of “Lance”.

Seeing familiar furniture in the building only added to the odd feeling I had there. It is tough to adjust to a new corporate climate when you know you are not desperate enough to relocate and stay. For one thing, they took everything too seriously. I tried to spread some cheer by making their Laser Jet printers display random funny messages, but it took them weeks to notice.

During my three weeks in Philly I was amazed to see some of the sales people from our old company appearing at the new company for interviews. I thought this was interesting because the old company went out of business due to a lack of sales, but it didn’t surprise me, because I had learned that sales people have no shame….