An Open Letter To My CEO
talia jane
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Hi Talia,

I’m probably in a very small part of a venn diagram — since I’ve both been poor in a shitty job and homeless in an expensive city (London) as well as someone who’s now moderately successful, at least by comparison.

I’ve also never spoken about some of this stuff before — it’s personal but important.

I remember when I was working 14 miles away from the homeless hostel I was placed in for 9 months, in a room that was 2 feet wider than the bed.

The rail fare was expensive — and my weekly benefits had been cut (hey, I was in a job now, which only paid out 1 month later, in arrears. My employer wouldn’t give me an advance.).

I was so hungry that my stomach growled as I passed a fish and chips van — and it was agonisingly hard to decide. I only had enough cash to either eat (and walk 14 miles home) or get the train (and continue to starve). My employer had no free food I could steal and no sympathy for my situation, so my friends at the hostel subbed me some food and credit until I could get paid. A currency of infinite value to me then and now.

I find myself agreeing both with people encouraging you and from some of the posts which are critical. So I wanted to explain why your piece resonated with me and why I can help from a viewpoint in later life.

Firstly, the ‘oh you chose to be in SF, did you’ argument — doesn’t stack up when you’re judging others objectively. Who the fuck cares why I ended up in London or whether I even knew what the rental landscape was like. I was there. I had connections and friends. I knew the place. I *wanted* to be there. I had no idea how hard it would be to actually live there. I think both you and I can be forgiven for our poor economic and logical modelling which was at fault there ;-o

Whatever the reason for choosing or being there, people telling you this doesn’t make it easier to live in an expensive city, where costs are so high that low paid jobs become truly marginal. People in london are growing up in areas that their children will never live in. Your detractors here display logic but no empathy — I’ve been in the situation so I don’t think this argument is solid and is based on being a dick.

However, when it comes to your pay and benefits, these are clearly only marginally workable in the bay area — but you’ll find the same in a call centre or warehouse in London. The wages paid are often low, the hours long, the conditions and treatment uniform but harsh by ‘normal office worker’ standards and the turnover high (either from the transitory nature of the marginality of the employee pool or more likely, because it really sucks and pays badly).

In a capitalist system, I see why this comes about (what I don’t like about it is a whole article in itself) — but it’s a little gravity well that you can become sucked into, or reach escape velocity from.

So in my first job, I got up at 6am, ironed my shirt on an old plastic suitcase I had — using the bed in my room as the ironing board, showered (in the communal showers) and headed for work on a 1.5 hour commute. I coded for minimum wage and took every opportunity to read all the books (no internet then) and talk to everyone in the company I could. I got stuff out from the library and wrote my own stuff, some of which I sold but mostly to improve my skills. I went home at night, cooked food in the hostel kitchens, read and slept. I felt I’d improved enough after a year to go looking for something better.

At that time, not having a degree went against me in the job stakes (now, my practical skills are sought after) — many employers wouldn’t look at me or interview me at all.

I was lucky enough after a lot of lousy offers, to get a job at PWC doing computer networking stuff and I made that my learning ground. Thankfully they encouraged and supported this, so my quest for knowledge and skills finally got some payoff. Don’t worry — they worked my little wheels off too — it was a symbiotic relationship. I got better paid. I finally got out of that goddam awful homeless hostel.

I’m sitting in a nice house in London 30 years later, looking at the garden and thanking my lucky stars for all I have. Jesus Christ though, it was hard work getting away from where I was back then — living rough, near the river, on the southbank, in the middle of fucking March. I *clawed* and scratched my way out of that hole — because I wanted to escape — and I probably know how little truly separates all of us from being in a similar position — it’s so easy to trade places when life hands you a curveball.

I have every sympathy with how you feel but it’s your reaction from now on that counts. Sending some suggestions to your employer is not a relationship, or something trust can be established upon. I get suggestions all the time but if I had suggestions from everyone I knew, rather than people I trust, I’d spend lots of time sifting through them.

Don’t assume that you’ll get instant kudos, even if your idea is the best thing around — you’ll need to package, PR and sell your ideas to people more persuasively. Get a relationship first and then make the suggestion.

It *appears* that your employer is lacking empathy — by not noticing this problem. I wonder how much it probably costs them in motivation and performance, never mind turnover. I wonder how much it costs to continually train people, if you’re just going to lose them and replace them?

I’d love to see employers embrace not treating certain ‘classes’ of employees like dogshit — and finding out that there’s a balance here. You don’t have to pay the least and you can’t afford to pay significantly more than everyone else. It’s a catch 22 (at least according to those people that think that way. However, they’re forgetting the COSTS of not running an alternative operation, that was much more PRODUCTIVE for the growth and culture of the company.

As an avid experimenter and someone who’s worked with a lot of teams, my guess is that if you helped employees with their living costs or paid them wages which motivated them to improve further, it would create better effects for everyone.

If I was the CEO here, I’d figure out a way to both design and prove that a better system was possible, which didn’t rely on suffering gnawing away at the heart of an employee-employer relationship. If money is this tight, how can you expect ‘world class performance’. Ass.

As for the ‘waiting a whole year’ to get to do other stuff, I have no sympathy. I had to wait freaking decades or years to move up ‘levels’ or switch jobs or disciplines. Don’t expect progression to be laid out like a red carpet at an awards ceremony. It’s something you earn — there is no overdraft fucking facility at the career progression bank! You gotta earn some to make a withdrawal, ok?

So, in common with Sushi chefs and call centre workers, I’ve had long periods of ass jobs but generally managed to find a way to volunteer, execute, optimise or support other people in a way that then sprung me out of there. I learned, networked, analysed and optimised my way out of the potential traps, because I didn’t see barriers there — or a ‘year of boring calls ahead’. I saw an escape pod.

Some of the best hires I’ve made have been people who came from the call centre, customer services or warehouse teams. I guess I’ve been good at spotting people who have stuck out, shown willing, appeared to be itching to do more, discussed things, suggested stuff and built relationships across teams. If I had been in a call centre, I’d not have despaired at the wait for a year to progress — I would be trying to find ways to make it happen earlier, to break the system, the mould, the process or just make myself so damned annoyingly useful that it would happen.

So on the whole year thing — yeah it kinda feels bad, looking at it as a barrier. But it looks even more exciting as something to try and smash out of your way, through your desire to get to the other side. If you genuinely go out of your way to do stuff, it really helps, you bring other people with you, it has evidence to support your idea and you’re NOT rewarded (and btw — this doesn’t mean an email exchange about ideas) — then this will never become a good job, ever. I’d just refine your technique — because as good as an idea is, it’s only as good as you sell it, explain it and pass it along (I guess, like a meme, shared). You know how this works on social media, it’s just that real life takes a bit more work to get the relationships and transmissions, memes and ideas going. Don’t be disheartened — just get WAY better at this, is my advice.

Remember, companies are run by bosses and if you are unlucky enough to have an asshole boss, who has no empathy line in their dna makeup — that’s just unlucky. Everyone else knows they’re an asshole but unless you can all figure out how to get rid of them, this can be the problem, not the company. Seen it loads. Read a book called “The No Asshole Rule” — funny!

I think your employer would have baulked at encouraging customers to help employees (or finding out that employees were cross subsidised by customers). Ultimately, all the wages are paid by the investors and customers — so having a situation where publicly (or in the background) — there was tacit acknowledgement of the problem, puts them in a hard place. They then HAVE to have a position on this, so your suggestion isn’t ‘wrong’ per se — it’s just not a logical step to take, since it puts them in a position of acknowledging a problem they’re trying to ignore (or blame someone else for). It would be like a department store asking you for a tip at Christmas, to pay for dinner for the employees. I expect your employer to fund this, rather than me explicitly having to donate!

SUMMARY

For what it’s worth, I’d be pissed if I was the CEO, because this is like throwing all our laundry into the street — it would give me a headache in many different ways and if I was an asshole, I’d probably be angry, fire you and sue you.

Actually, I’m a nice guy but I’d still have fired you — probably for breaking your work contract. What would then grieve me was why nobody in my organisation, especially myself, knew what the FUCK was going on — and never bothered to tell me about this stuff. So I’d fire all the ass lickers or KPI chart stickers that acted as an absorption layer for what was really going on.

If you have decent managers, senior managers and leaders (and a top down culture that works) then this would be known about and something done about the situation. Personally speaking, I would try to find a way to leverage company discount to find something (housing, transport, internet, food) across all my employees on marginal wages — that I could subsidise or provide, that would be fairly distributed. This would be quite hard to do but I’d start with data and people.

If I couldn’t find a way to provide a benefit (at lower cost to the company than the worth to the employee) then I would have to pay people more or move the company. I couldn’t stand to have this tension, if it exists widely, within any part of my organisation, because the customer is going to suffer, if my employees are suffering.

Could you imagine a hospital, where everyone who worked there had the flu, walked around in plaster casts or had a neck brace on — you’re hobbling your organisation if you expect people to work with background conditions that are untenable.

I’m a glass half full kinda guy — I like to think not of the cheapness of people, as units or resources to be squeezed, but I love to think of the potential value, of what can be brought out, encouraged, developed. With the right kind of motivational structure and decent pay, you can not only make sure you’re carrying good people (rather than just a wide and high turnover of staff) but you’re also building intellectual property in the business over time.

I hope you find a better employer and a less marginal job. I encourage you to learn and read and listen — and act — in ways that will help you to find another step up. I don’t think you’re showing a streak of self entitlement — you just see no visible and easy path to a better future, so I feel sad. I was there once myself.

I once had a guy help me from the Warehouse when I was working in the IT team at a very well known company. His english was good but not stellar but I was intrigued — he seemed to know more about digital video than anyone in our company. Turned out he did this as a hobby and all his spare money and passion went into that. I had a fight on my hands to get him a job — my boss even asked me if he spoke english <sigh>

He went on to become a senior developer and is probably the best front-end developer and javascript guy I know on the planet. I guess him and me came together at the right time but getting a break I’ve found is luck and you get luckier the harder you work, the more you learn and the more helpful you become.

I’ll leave you with my comment to my boss when he said “You want to give this guy a job doing what? Does he even speak english?”

I laughed — he looked confused — I replied —

“So, tell me, with my workload — When the fuck did I manage to fit in a crash course in ‘How to Speak Slovakian’ in the last week?. Of course he speaks fucking english.”

I wish you the best of luck and hope you will get a job where you can learn, flourish with others and get onto a better track. When it happens, I hope you, like me, will never forget — and treat others accordingly. When you’re the CEO someday, there’ll be one less asshole boss in the world.