Pass The Corn, Ruth

After twenty-five years or so of making my living in recording studios, I decided, a few years back, with two kids to put through college and the recording industry in ruins, to take up software engineering. I taught myself the programming language C++, and managed to get a new career off the ground (though I still do some recording, usually an album or two a year).

The hardest part of the career change — apart from the obvious psychological letdown of going, at age 45, from being a globe-trotting Big Shot to an entry-level programmer, surrounded by cognitively undamaged and dauntingly sharp-witted kids literally half my age — was adjusting to working in Corporate America, which is, I can tell you, a very different world from the one I had been accustomed to. I’ve never in my life “fit in” well, or been anything remotely resembling a “team player”; in my early youth I was a pudgy little bookworm, and even once I became a strapping young man the only athletic activity that ever appealed to me enough to take it up myself was martial arts, which is essentially a solo pursuit. I spent my adolescence playing drums in various bands, imagining that I would grow up to be a wealthy rock star, and in pursuit of that goal, wheedled my way into a job at Power Station Studios in 1978 as an assistant engineer. I soon realized, though, that I was in no position to compete with the world-class drummers I was recording, and found my place on the other side of the glass instead. In 1986 I left the Power Station staff to “go freelance”, and worked happily as an independent engineer for many years.

The life of a freelance recording engineer, as you might imagine, is a comparatively unstructured one. There is a lot of money being spent at these sessions, so dedicated professionalism is expected, but there are few strictures regarding dress, language, and so forth. The hours are quite random, and one simply moves from project to project as sort of a hired gun. There are, effectively, no rules whatsoever, other than that you are expected to do a good job, stay cool under pressure, and make the music sound great.

This is all utterly different from the life I now lead. I work in the New York division of a medium-sized corporation with many hundreds of employees; the company provides a high-tech service to a fast-paced industry, and does a very good job of it, too. My office is in a large tower in midtown Manhattan, and I sit in a chest-high cubicle, writing and maintaining code for an enormously complex piece of software that the company uses to do what it does. I am expected to dress presentably, and work regular hours. There are extensive guidelines regulating employee behavior, glossy brochures describing the corporate “culture” and “values”, and so on. I attend lots of meetings, in fluorescently lit meeting-rooms. To enhance cohesion and esprit de corps we have social events, company-wide pep talks, and motivationally themed coffee mugs.

None of this is out of the ordinary in any way; all corporations are like this, I’m sure. Managing large teams of people so as to maximize their productivity and morale has been the subject of a great deal of research, and I imagine that my working environment has been carefully optimized in accordance with the very latest methods. And the company I work for is really a very nice place: they pay me well, treat me with respect, and the work they do does nobody any harm, while providing a useful and innovative service at a fair price. The people I work with are very pleasant indeed, and extremely intelligent. By any measure I have a very good job, and I’m glad to have it.

The only fly in the ointment is that even after six years or so as a corporate employee, the whole thing still feels utterly alien to me. I blend in as well as I can, and enjoy the work, but privately I still feel like an outsider, like a lump in the gravy. I guess one’s middle forties is maybe just too late in life to change in some ways; I’m just too used to being on my own, to saying whatever’s on my mind, and to spending all my working hours with other odd folks, like me, who don’t quite fit in. Every now and then I slip: for example, today the head of my department, a highly competent and intelligent woman whom I like and respect a great deal, emailed us all asking that we clarify our citizenship status. I immediately dashed off a note to let her know that although I was born in Canada, and had held a green card until 1999, I am now a naturalized citizen. In addition I explained that, having lived in the US since I was five months old, I am “as American as apple pie, NASCAR, and creationist politicians.”

I rather wish now that I hadn’t put it quite that way; I have a nagging suspicion that employees are expected to refrain from sprinkling religious and political sarcasm into corporate correspondence. I think it might adversely affect mindshare in our vertical, or something.

One Comment

  1. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – You have my deepest sympathy, which is sincere, since I know whereof you speak. I spent most of my life as a happy go lucky academic bum, with occasional forays into tech transfer when the spirit moved me. Because I was more a “hanger on” than an “insider” even in the academic world, I was usually able to avoid the corporate aspects of university life (which aren’t so very different from what one finds in other large corporations). Corporations do not understand or appreciate sarcasm (or other human emotions).

    Posted January 8, 2008 at 10:16 am | Permalink

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