Invisible Cubicles – The Planning Company

Three whiskey sours into the evening Ray was starting to lather himself up into another story. I was eyeing a woman across the bar that I thought I recognized from my recent and failed attempt to interview at Google. I was pretty sure she was the HR woman who showed my into the interview room, the torture chamber where I spent the next few hours stretched out across a whiteboard, and brought me coffee. I thought she smiled at me. Rather, I know she smiled, but thought maybe she was actually being more than just polite.

Before I came to any conclusion, Ray started up, so I spent the next few minutes stealing glances while she stirred her martini and watched the door.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” he said.
“Stop,” I said. I wanted to talk to the girl, but he plowed onwards.
“I once visited a company that fully embraced collaboration. When I first visited them everyone had their own office. The company was profitable and growing, and offices are an inefficient use of space. And anyway, collaboration was the fad then, so out with the offices, and everyone was herded into a wide open floor plan. Only the VPs and Directors had their own offices, but after a few more visits they were out on the floor too. It was good for collaboration, they said.
“The meeting rooms were next. ‘All meetings would benefit from the input of all stakeholders’, which pretty quickly became everyone. The entire company would grind to a halt as every meeting, no matter how trivial, became a free for all where every idiotic suggestion or petty grievance had to be treated with respect and reverence for the collaborative process.
“So pretty soon, nothing is getting done,” said Ray, rising unsteadily to his feet.
The girl, meanwhile, had finished her drink and was looking uncertain about ordering another. Someone, theoretically, could have walked up to her and bought her one right then. She might have even smiled at them.
“So things are going to shit, and everyone starts trying to ignore the meetings and get work done. Then the boss is pissed off because while the marketeers are debating the merits of san-serif fonts in email footers, the coders are trying to work, and while the coders are arguing about verbose method signatures, the analysts are pivoting their spreadsheets. So he put video cameras and monitors up, so that no matter which way you looked, you could see a screen of who was talking in the meeting. And he had the entire floor wired for sound, so that no-one could escape the voice of whoever was rattling on at the meeting.
“Last time I went, as they were finally running out of money, it was just the CEO and his department heads having a quarterly planning meeting that had run on for 18 weeks. All the employees had left for other jobs, but all the video cameras and microphones were still on. As the CEO and VPs argued over whether it was possible to ‘prove’ a business plan that was little more than throwing shit against the wall to see what stuck, their faces danced across a hundred screens, throwing shadows against a hundred empty desks.”

Ray stopped to barf his whiskey sour into a potted plant.

I looked up in time to see the girl walking out of the bar, alone. I could have caught up with her easy enough, but something must of made me stay.
Probably the thought that’d something rash like that, walking up to a girl that might have maybe smiled at me, would require more planning. Perhaps, I thought, pulling Ray away from the plant, I could schedule a meeting.

Invisible Cubicles

Ray is one of our older salesmen, a grizzled veteran of the marketing wars. Being a grizzled vet, he’s been at a dozen or so companies over the years. The weirdest gig though had to be his time at Microsoft during the bubble.
He was a bit of a rising star at the time, and had attracted the attention of upper management, which at a company the size of Microsoft is a no mean feat. He was a human lamprey. A flatworm salesman who’d get pulled effortlessly into the intestinal tract of massive multinationals and come out the other end clutching millions of dollars of software licensing deals.
Gates himself pulled him into his office one day. He said he had a new assignment for him. Microsoft had conquered the industry. All that was left were companies making hardware for Windows, or making software that would run on Windows.
Like any emperor he did not have time to properly survey his holdings. His news came from sycophants, CEOs of companies that came offering tribute to avoid being crushed, or CEOs of companies that wanted to be bought. He needed someone inside, someone he trusted, to tell him what was really happening out there, in this bubble, this Cambrian explosion of internet companies with odd names and delusional business plans.

Ray told me all this through his first three whiskey sours. He had no one to talk to, to drink with anyway, now that Franz had gone, so he picked me. Why these dinosaurs, these fossilized executive cadavers have suddenly singled me out for attention I couldn’t say. Ray, like Franz before, may be making a horrible mistake, but it’s not my place, I’d guess, to tell him.

Two drinks later, after trying and failing to get me to explain why the coffee machine hated him, he told me the story of the first visit, the first travels he made for Mr. Gates.

“I traveled to a company that sold employee monitoring devices. RFID chips that tracked all employee movement, and software that created complex and beautiful visualizations that were displayed on the ceilings over the cubes, flowers that danced and twisted above the workers as they typed and got coffee and shifted slightly in their seats. Teams of accountants sat in the hallways, watching the patterns, looking for signs of who to fire in the flowing shapes.

They were their own biggest customer, and every quarter the company’s operating costs declined, something they were very proud of. They were, they said in their marketing literature, proof of their own success.

When the company ran out of engineers to fire the accountants turned on the HR department, then the executives. The last time I visited the VP of Finance was sitting alone in the hallway, watching the walls which, with both the patterns and employees that made them long gone, had shifted to steady and unmoving blue.”