By Larry Teren
There has been plenty discussed lately about the work rules established by Marissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo. She laid down the law that employees can no longer work from home via remote connection to the office. They have to show up in person at the office 40 hours a week or go find another place to work.
This brings to mind an incident that occurred in 1981 when I was working at a computer consulting company in Chicago’s north suburban area. Yes, Clive- they did have computer consultants back then. It was not something conjured up in this century.
A year earlier- 1980, I had my first foray in working as a computer consultant. I took an unusual route to get there by studying a handful of courses at a community college in 1979. I quickly realized- or thought I did- that I knew enough to go out and work in this burgeoning field. Five years earlier I graduated from college with an English degree. This made me intelligent but not smart enough to figure out how to make real money. So for a couple of years I had a dead-end job. I was making okay money but nothing that would put me ahead of the game.
Through a series of on-again, off-again work opportunities, I was able to get some practical experience as a sole practitioner. I soon realized that without good connections I would languish in getting itsy-bitsy projects. I needed to latch on to a consulting group. That’s where the north-suburban group came in.
At the job interview, it didn’t take long for the guy who would be my so-called supervisor to realize that although I had less formal schooling than he, I was light years ahead of him in real field experience helping businesses with their computerization needs. Remember now- this was work that I had accomplished only in the past twelve months. So you can imagine how new this field was- selling and supporting downsized minicomputer systems to businesses. (As opposed to IBM mainframes which had been the previous generation of typical business implementation)
After several minutes of interviewing- and it seemed as if I was doing more of the questioning, he told me to wait in his office while he went to the head honcho’s office. He came back out a few minutes later and told me I was hired. At a salary of $280 a week before taxes. That was a lot of money to me back then. Eventually several of those paychecks bounced. It was not the first time I had experienced such a situation. It obviously created a lot of heartache and uncertainty but each check was always made good.
The head honcho immediately gave me a project. He dumped- and I am not exaggerating- about a dozen computer system users guides on a desk and told me I had to read them all before I could even touch the computer. He also told me that I was in charge of doing all the programming related to business accounting. I had no problem with that. The only problem I had was that when I was finally allowed after a week to start programming customer requests, I had to beg my supervisor- the one who hired me- how to use the compiler and other system utilities. The supervisor was more interested in doing his own programming projects and didn’t want to bother with training. My colleagues were working on databases that used a different programming language so were not about to help, either.
It didn’t take long to comprehend why the accounting projects were tossed my way. No one else wanted to bear the responsibility of making sure they didn’t screw up a client’s business. I never had that problem. Maybe I was stupidly fearless, but over the years I’ve always felt that to be an asset.
This brings us back to the Yahoo incident. Maybe you can surmise that we all worked independently
of each other in that consulting office. We either spent the day in the office or went to a client to deliver payload (so to say). There was no working from home as that option didn’t exist in any convenient fashion back then. One day a visitor to the office made an off-handed comment to the head honcho that he allowed the office staff to work a little too freely. Maybe we needed a little more discipline. So, the boss hired a consultant to come in and study our operation and make recommendations.
After the lady observed and took notes, she submitted her findings. Our boss, the one who was already on the defensive making up excuses for why it seemed every other paycheck bounced, gathered us together and read her recommendations out loud. From now on, we would have to be at the office unless directed to go to a client. We would all take lunch at the same time and there would be a weekly rotation of a designated person staying in the office during lunch and taking phone calls and messages.
Dear friends, you just don’t tell computer programmers lost in algorithmic thought to answer the phone. And you don’t tell them when to take lunch. Especially since they usually don’t. They may grab something quickly but usually they sit at the keyboard while also eating.
Our collective response to the new rules were to shout, “Great! We actually get to have lunch and not think of programming.” Our boss said, “Wait! I was just kidding.” He tore up the recommendations into bits and pieces and said, “never mind.”
When I permanently went into business for myself in 1983 I mostly worked at client sites rather than at my office or home. Then a wonderful creation called Carbon Copy allowed me to remote into client’s computers and save trips to resolve emergencies. It wasn’t the world’s fastest connection- in those days the standard was first 14k, then 28k and finally 56k modems. But it did save some aggravation.
Today, most of the work I do is handled remotely over a relatively speedy Internet connection. Billing is based on mutual trust. I don’t feel I have ever lied to a client about the hours I bill. But, there are benefits to being on site as well. The customer sees me and hopefully it leads to more business. The world is constantly changing and I have to adapt to what the person writing the checks decides. Hopefully it is not something that can be used in a basketball game, if you know what I mean.