Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Words of Project Management Wisdom

(I can't take credit for these, but they are pretty good.)

Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn't have to do it.

The bitterness of poor quality lasts long after the sweetness of making a date is forgotten.

A little risk management saves a lot of fan cleaning.

Everyone asks for a strong project manger - when they get her they don't want her.

The project would not have been started if the truth had been told about the cost and timescale.

Activity is not achievement.

The nice thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Want Some Passive with that Aggressive?

What happens when you are forbidden to talk about mistakes or snafus or be negative in any way in the workplace? When you are told to be nice or else? It's called passive-aggressive and here's a little sampling of how anger was processed in an old, old job of mine. I am honestly surprised that I remember these details so clearly.

1. Chocolate.
Loads of it. It was on every desk, tucked away in the corners of the copy area, available in the main conference room, right by the phone. It was inhaled.

2. Holding Important Project Material Hostage.
If I can't punish you, I will punish your project. I will insist that I cannot release something to you because I need to (do something important and mysterious to it) and I will not tell you when I can get it back in your hands. If you try to offer solutions to help speed the process along, I will make up excuses as to why your suggestions will not work until I exhaust you.

3. Playing Dumb.
Did I see that? I'm sure I didn't see it. Honestly, had I seen it, I certainly wouldn't let it go out the door like this. Unfortunately, we'll need to re-do all of your hard work.

4. Selective Hearing and/or Reading.
I'm sorry, I didn't hear you. Did you really say that? Oh, dear, I'm sure I would have responded right away if you had notified me. You sent me an email? I guess I didn't receive it. What's that? You have a copy of it? You must have sent it the day we had all those network problems.

5. Talking in Circles.
Since I am too stubborn to supply things to you on your terms and within your timeframes, I don't have the very important deliverable at this time. Rather than give you a specific idea of when I might be able to produce it, I'm going to talk about other aspects of the project. The stuff that I control. You will leave my office in a state of utter confusion. You will ask yourself, "What just happened in there?"

6. Dodging Bullets/Boomerang.
Wow, that was a very direct question. I recognize that answering the question honestly will certainly incriminate me and reveal my incompetence. I think I will respond to your question with a question, preferably something that suggests that you're the inept one.

7. Creating Diversions.
So we're in crunch mode and we've got an immovable deadline. I think this is a good time to host a baby shower for whats-her-name down the hall. I’ll start the planning right now!

8. Shopping.
I'm aware that you've asked me repeatedly for the status report, however, there is a sale at the boutique across the street. I've got priorities, you know. I swear, I will only require that you to ask me once more.

9. Forcible Lunching.
Since you've all worked so hard on this project to make up for my lack of planning and urgency, I'm going to treat you all to lunch. How does that sound? Oh, you'd rather smack yourself in the back of the neck with a two by four than spend any social time with me? Well, guess what - you WILL have lunch because I SAID SO. Now, put your goddamn coats on.

10. Neglecting to Divulge Important Information
By the way, I'll be on vacation for the next 3 weeks. Since I am a very important part of this project, I suppose everything will need to go on hold until I've had a sufficiently wonderful time in an exotic place. I know I should have told you sooner, but that would have been the considerate and responsible thing to do. I suppose you are really screwed now, aren't you? Well, that matters very little to me since the additional resources you are going to have to hire to make up for my little excursion will be coming out of your department's budget, not mine. As usual, I will come out smelling as fresh as a sprig of rosemary.

11. Becoming a Martyr.
Another breakneck schedule, huh? Well, there goes my weekend! Thanks a lot. No, no, no, I don't need any help. I'd prefer to breath heavy sighs, day in and day out. Did I mention that I'm also a crisis maker? Because of the suppressive nature of this company, I can't be negative toward people, but there's no rule about being fatalistic about the project. If I detect a minor flaw, be warned that I will exaggerate it until we are all downright fatigued.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Chapter 7: William Penn's Founding Joy, PA

I was much better suited for my next venture, a non-profit company in the arts. Although my salary was substantially leaner, my work life was pleasant. I was not only managing marketing projects, but I was also managing people. Four people, to be exact. Two designers, a marketing coordinator and an administrative assistant. After this experience, I still wonder why it is that some folks insist on having direct reports. I have ascertained that it is a huge pain in the ass. This is perhaps because I tend to be less confrontational than I’d like to be. My direct reports picked up on that and used me as a sounding board for all their petty office irritations. I can’t tell you how much time was wasted on this nonsense. One of the four would waltz in and mechanically shut the door at least once a day, sometimes twice. This was a sign that bellyaching was about to take place. First, a problem was diplomatically and delicately presented. Next, an expectation was placed on me to take action. Since I rarely did this, my direct reports were usually content enough if I listened and nodded and justified their anger. Once validated, they would exit and gossip with their co-workers. The problems were rarely serious, usually speculation and hearsay, but I was the boss and my office was the dumping ground for their grievances. I didn’t care so much about the tittle-tattling. I cared about the work. And chitchatting always got in the way of work. Less talkie, more workie, I thought to myself. How would I communicate this to my folks without risking their friendship?

Still, I accepted this. I mean, it was a small price to pay for the terrific relaxation I was afforded. Rolling in at 9:15, rolling out at 4:45. There was plenty to do, including the creation of procedures, but nerd that I am, this is work I really loved. And the people I managed appreciated the order and attention to detail. Evidently, my predecessor was fixated on the managing people part and less on the process part.

We (me and my direct reports) actually had a lot of fun together. We impersonated our favorite Office Space characters, cracked jokes, and engaged in very silly behavior most of the time. I found it easier to make excuses for their late work than confront them about it. Bottom line: I don’t like being disliked. I understood, shortly after I took this job, that it would be the last time I would consider direct reports. I’m much too buddy-buddy and I’m not a very patient listener. Actually, I’d listen patiently – the problem is that 9 out of 10 times I just didn’t care and would rather not have been bothered. I’m a project manager, a contingency planner, an issue tracker, a schedule maker. I like lists and minutia and flow charts. I relish the carving out of processes, tracking and analyzing and reporting. How can we learn from our challenges? How can we streamline this or that? How can we reduce the margin for error? I am not a personnel type person. I am not good with, what is that called? Human resource stuff? Not for me, I’m afraid.

I stayed with this organization for a year or so. Financially, I was really starting to struggle. One of my direct reports, somehow, made a lot more money than me. Also, my boyfriend and I got engaged and decided to move back to the Boston area. What can I say? I missed home. I missed the Red Sox.

Chapter 6: An Uneventful Town Outside Philly, PA

It wasn’t long before I began working for another technology company. I should have seen the warning signs before I jumped on board. First, I was approximately 2 hours late for my interview due to a horrendous set of directions. It was late June and steamy. My car was not equipped with air conditioning and I was wearing a suit with a long sleeved shirt. I had to keep calling the poor corporate recruiter for new directions, apologizing profusely for my tardiness. By the time I arrived, I had large wet splotches under my arms and on either side of my crotch and my hair was stuck to the sides of my face and neck. I was feeling and looking less than professional. I almost blew it off, figuring that there was no way in hell they would extend an offer to someone looking like me. Rather than cutting my losses, I entered the building. It was a masochistic move, but I must have been hungry for complete and utter humiliation that day.

I waltzed in, trying my best to keep my sweat from becoming the main focal point. The CEO of the company greeted me in the lobby and escorted me into the conference room. Since I was certain that this would not work out, I thought I would take a smug approach, overcompensating for my appearance. I answered every question with such a self-important tone that I was beginning to make myself nauseous.

It turns out that this company focused on the back-end development and was just beginning to get their feet wet with visual design. This was a problem for me because I was far more effective in the front-end stuff. I figured that this would be the deciding factor. I was not a good match, plain and simple. In fact, I was very candid with them about my experience with back-end development to that point. When the interview was over, they thanked me and I went on my merry way. It was the worst job interview I had ever been on. I couldn’t wait to strip off the suit and hit the job boards again.

Two days later, I got a call from the corporate recruiter. Not only did they extend an offer to me, but it was a few thousand dollars more than my preferred salary. Suddenly, I started to view the opportunity through a sunnier lens. I thought that this could be a good chance to gain more than just the front-end experience. Little did I realize how much “back-end” know-how I was about to get.

The interview, I think, set the tone for my whole experience with the company. Something was not quite right. I never really felt as though I was actually accepted. My lack of savoir-faire with technical development always seemed to outweigh any solid project management skills I brought to the table. It prevented me from exuding true confidence. I felt like a phony.

After a day of acclimating myself at the office, I was off to meet my client. In preparation, my boss explained that they (the 2 main contacts) could be, at times, demanding and that they had unusually high expectations. Well, that was nothing new to me. How many clients could be described in as fair, easy-going and satisfied with the work you do for them? Very few.

As we boarded the elevator to the floor they resided on, I could only summon one word to describe the atmosphere in the cramped lift. Farts. An intense odor permeated the small space. This was another foreboding sign. I thought that perhaps my boss had let one fly by accident, but after a few rides, I came to realize that this was a constant aroma.

When I stepped into the client’s office, I realized that the line between my new company and the client’s company was blurred. We had a definite presence in their building. They paid us to essentially be their IT department. They sprinkled in a few of their own IT people, but we represented the lion’s share. I was beginning to get a very bad feeling about it, especially after I was told that I would be spending most of my workweek on site as well. We were the “catch all” folks, and in a brilliant move by the client, we were forced to respond to every little IT task with a giant shit-eating grin. Any display of attitude or lack of urgency could hinder our company’s business.

The first person I met was Renee. I am still not sure what her title was, but if you could have cherry-picked the person least qualified for her position, it would be her. Renee, it was rumored, started out as some kind of glorified administrative assistant. When the company first heard about having an online presence, they treated it with triviality and tossed it in her lap. “While your making copies, how about working on this web site thing?” Little did they realize how significant this web site thing would be. She teamed up with competent folks and began the groundwork for the interactive arm of their business. I can only imagine how painful those initial days must have been for the web development people. For working with Renee was like pressing sharp nails into your temples constantly. She looked a lot like Meryl Streep, but with a greasy face. It was literally as though she substituted liquid foundation for a few pads of butter and smeared them about her cheeks, chin and forehead. Not attractive.

Renee’s communication skills were atrocious. On a scale from 1 to 10, I would put her at a 3. She was great at raising red flags, but became overwhelmed and flustered when she was expected to articulate the reasons behind them. More often than not, she came off like a pouting, frustrated 7th grader. She would identify a problem with their web site (whether minor or not) and immediately call me and a few other IT people into her office to work it out. She cried wolf incessantly. I remember feeling like we were at Defcon 5 and in the middle of chemical warfare – everything was an emergency, all the time. I am sure that it is no shock, too, that Renee would change priorities around several times a day. You might set up your team resources to begin a project or troubleshoot a problem when Renee would call and ask that everything get shifted around to make room for something else (that could easily have waited). If you tried to explain that you had already set priorities for your team, Greasy Face would retort with “We really need you to be flexible. It’s one of the requirements of working here.” It was amazing. We ran around treating every little thing as though it were a stick of dynamite, about to explode in our hands.

Renee’s boss was Hugh, the 2nd coming of Don from New Jersey. A self-described hard ass, Hugh thought he was the hottest shit going. When I introduced myself to him, he asked, “So, are you any good?” No “hello,” no “pleasure to meet you.” Evidently, before Hugh came on board, there was a lot of corporate fat in desperate need of cutting. Hugh was the perfect axe man. He was unapologetic, insensitive and arrogant as hell. I am not sure if he was respected, but he was definitely feared.

Hugh was up at the crack of dawn. I knew this because he made a point of dropping this tid-bit often. I suppose it was to insinuate that he was not lazy and if you wanted to be viewed as anything but a slacker, you’d better be up at the crack of dawn, too. Waltzing in the door at 8:00 was certain to raise brows. First, you would receive pity eyes from others. Someone might grab you into their cube, and strip off your jacket while another sympathizer would dash to your computer and turn in on, placing a mug of coffee by your mouse pad. If the evil dictator spotted you, you would be subjected to public ridicule, regardless of your reason. “Oh, look who decided to get out of bed this morning! Hey, thanks for coming in!” he would shout, only half kidding. Or perhaps not at all. Then he would casually mention it to our company’s CEO.

Hugh began scheduling bi-weekly conference calls at 7:00 to get up-to-speed on all the IT initiatives. It was painful. As you would expect, Hugh was never satisfied with what he heard and made no bones about telling you so. Constant criticism was never really the problem. It was the swearing and explosive fits of rage that annoyed me. The funny thing is, no one in my company really talked about it. I thought that if I brought up my dissatisfaction, I might be seen as a wimp. I was dumbfounded at the unwavering tolerance of this man by my teammates. Through his battery of abuse and sophomoric banter, they remained stoically determined to keep eating his shit sandwiches.

Soon, I realized that I was nothing more than a patsy. Instead of seeing the sweat stains on my suit that day, they saw a sucker. For good measure, they threw a couple of thousand dollars extra into the deal. It seems that every project manager that had been hired to deal with these folks was either canned or left immediately. It was the position with the highest turn over rate at my company. During a one-on-one meeting with Hugh, I was told how he felt about all the fuck-ups our company dealt him over the months. This was a warning, of course, that I’d better not disappoint him or I might wind up like the others.

I felt that I had made a huge mistake in accepting this job. I began to dread getting onto that fart elevator every morning. I knew that I would be subjected to the agonizing jolts of Renee’s numerous and indistinct requests. I also knew that I would have to paint a huge smile on my face or feign concern. It was exhausting. I could actually see the wires in her brain overheat, then burn out. Hugh, Mr. Let Me Chew Your Ass Out, actually defended the nincompoop. At least in front of us. In private, though, I guess that he must have read her the riot act more than once since, sitting on her bookshelf were self-help titles like “Take the Bully by the Horns.”

I finally decided to ask my CEO for support. He didn’t act at all surprised to hear what I had to say, but he wasn’t very helpful, either. “Be patient,” he said. He also advised me to “hang in there,” but there was nothing specific about his plan to help. Hang in there for what?

During one excruciating 7:00 conference call, I decided that I had had enough. As I remember, one of our employees dared to defend work our team had done – work that Hugh and Renee were not pleased with. I remember bracing myself for the inevitable blast. And boy, was it bad. I immediately called my supervisor and gave my notice. I did not have a job to fall back on and I did not care. To this day, I don’t regret leaving, even though my tenure was approximately 3 months. It felt like an eternity. My leaving was an act of self-preservation. Needless to say, there is a 12-week hole in my resume. [Incidentally, September 11th occurred during this short period. How poignant.]

Chapter 5: City of Beans, MA

Right before the crash, I left my comfortable job for an opportunity at a start up. My father thought I was insane. “What are you going to go and do that for? You get paid to sit on your ass all day! What’s better than that?” My boyfriend’s former colleague, Chad, left their large company and began working at a small, but promising technology gig downtown. They were looking for project managers.

My initial interview was a casual phone conversation between Chad and me. Chad was social, extremely driven, and a bit ostentatious. In groups, he would talk over you or sometimes refuse to acknowledge your comment. Unless, of course, there was some kind of subtle praise for him buried in it. His large ticket purchases were no secret, either. Before long, I knew all about the new furniture, the new car, and the posh new condo. He kept a picture of the girl he slept with on his desk, in a sleek frame, for the world to see. He bragged not only about her looks, but also her anorexic body. This seemed to him, her most coveted attribute, which struck me as odd, considering the pooch he carried around. Despite the chip on his shoulder, though, Chad was an okay guy. He got me into the start up, after all, and he was never downright mean to me. Once I had been there a while, he even grew to respect me.

Our space was a bit tattered, but by no means the worse I’d ever worked in. To me, it was entrepreneurial, pioneer-like. I thought: Someday, when we are all rich beyond our wildest dreams, we’ll look back at this space and think of it fondly. I mean, the Beatles had to start in a dumpy Liverpool practice space, right? Behind every great success, there was a humble beginning.

After familiarizing myself with the corporate methodology (which was, essentially, a paraphrased version of every other internet start up company out there), I became the project manager on the redesign of a web site for a Fortune 500 company. This was a lucky break for me, mainly because their corporate headquarters were in Miami. I had visions of myself powering up my laptop underneath a beach umbrella, resting my cell phone by my cooler. I dreamed up personal theme music for myself (I’ll Take You There, The Staple Sisters), reserved only for the times I would travel to the Sunshine State on business, designer sunglasses a permanent fixture on my face. The music would follow me everywhere from the moment I stepped out of a cab.

The reality, although far from my fantasy, was not exactly bad. We had an aggressive timeline with our project, and a modest budget so rather than staying at The Delano, we opted for The Doubletree next door. We still enjoyed wonderful Cuban fare and phenomenal mojitos, but this all came with a price. Flights scheduled at 6:00 in the morning, extremely long work days and humiliation sessions imposed on us by the client.

The head of the client’s e-commerce department, Jill, was a strong, bright woman who knew how to work every tool in her toolbox, especially when it came to interacting with members of the opposite sex. In low cut blouses, and with a throaty voice, she would flirt shamelessly with the male members of our team. Perhaps to fill a place plagued with self-doubt, perhaps to move us gals down a notch or two – who knows? On one occasion, she reprimanded us for attempting to manage the scope of the project in front of her higher-ups. Incensed, she found it was necessary to get up in the middle of the session and inform our client partner to “talk to our team” during the break. Evidently scope management was in her court, but we forgot to pack our crystal ball that morning and therefore we were punished. Once alone with us, Jill yanked a swivel chair into the middle of the room, leaned back and pivoted around while warning us not to cross the line again. We were ashamed, but also confused. Scope management was part of our job. Adding to this chaos was the fact that she was not only the director of our project, but also the wife of a bigwig in our company. This is how we got the account. Naturally, this was not disclosed to our team right away.

After this exhausting day, we went out for a nice meal, and attempted to relax. We did impressions of Jill, slouched in our chairs, conjuring our best Demi Moore voice and running our hands over our bodies. Suddenly, Jill arrived at our table with her husband. Psycho Jill, though, had somehow managed to propel herself from “don’t fuck with me” to “hey, we’re all friends here, right?” mode. It was very unsettling. This was not the only time Jill joined us unannounced. The motive was a mystery. Did she really think we were excited to see her? Was she truly out of her mind, or was this some kind of control tactic? Maybe the underlying message was: don’t get comfortable while my company is footing the bill.

Once a week, the CEO of our company would gather us all in the lobby for a pep rally. At first, I was as on board as one could get. I listened intensely as he and other executive level folks swished their pom-poms in the air, telling us about all the great projects in the works, just waiting for a few minor details to get sorted out. We were lead to believe that we were always on the verge of a massive flood of work crashing through the door. A number of these perky sessions came and went, and never were we actually awarded any of the great big projects we had bid on. I began to grow very skeptical.

One day, we were informed that we would be moving to a new building, which I took as a positive sign. As we toured the space, our mouths were agape. It was gorgeous. Evidently, it was the home of another start up that had met its demise. It had beautiful hard wood floors, giant ceiling to floor windows with a spectacular view of the city, cozy little side rooms for small meetings, large conference rooms for more formal ones. We ran in and out of the rooms like children at recess. This was such an amazing upgrade – we could hardly contain ourselves. During pep rallies, we were given updates on our new home and projected dates for the move. The details were becoming more and more vague. This, combined with rumors about venture capitalists refusing to give us more money, was starting to raise doubts.

Finally, we were asked to pack up our desks for the move. One minor revision, though: The location had changed. We were heading a few street blocks away to occupy the first floor of another abandoned office space. When we ultimately arrived, I was shocked. It was worse than the place we were coming from. No new hard wood floors, no elegant conference room, no beautiful view. Instead: Crummy carpeting, peculiar smells, grimy furniture and best of all - no working phone lines. Initially, we were told that the phone lines would be active once we settled in. Wrong. To conduct our business, we were expected to use our cell phones. This is back when there weren’t a heck of a lot of economic plans. Reception wasn’t the greatest either, so often my calls with the client would break up during crucial moments. And forget conference calls, altogether. Mercifully, we had internet access.

In the old building, I shared a private office with one other colleague. In the new building, we had an open space, shared with half the company. Directly in front of my desk stood the ping-pong table. Aggressive ping-pong matches were conducted as some of us tried to concentrate on our work. I lost my patience quickly. After an especially heated match, I stood up and walked out the door. Fuming, I marched into a nearby sporting goods store and purchased a wiffle ball and a plastic yellow bat. To the dismay of the ping-pongers, I sauntered in, stopped in the doorframe, threw the ball up and smacked it hard at the table with the bat, officially ceasing ping-pong during work hours.

Next, we were handed “salary adjustments.” Pep rallies went from “We’re going places!” to “It’s not so bad” to “Okay, we’re fucked.” Those who didn’t get salary adjustments were laid off. It was a truly pathetic time and also very sad since many of the folks the company employed were quite talented. After the salary adjustments came the “sorry, but your checks are going to be a little late this month” spiel. This was the last straw for me.

Meanwhile. My boyfriend was offered a job by one of his clients, a solid financial company outside Philadelphia. After 6 years of being back in Boston, I figured that it was time to give Philly another shot. My project was winding down, so I quickly made plans to reunite myself with the City of Brotherly Love.

Chapter 4: A Very Snooty City, MA

This organization was my oasis. I liken it to a kind of panacea. Reasonable compensation, excellent benefits (including ample vacation time), convenient location, quality product. All in all, this was a healthy organization. Coincident with my employment was the adaptation of email. I didn’t realize the difference this was going to make in terms of lessening my anxiety. It’s amazing how traumatized one can become when being paged and phoned a thousand times a day. I was receiving electric shock therapy on a daily basis and I didn’t even know it. Email enables you to have carefully crafted and professional correspondence with others. There is nothing more annoying than some ding-dong leaving a long-winded voice mail, paraphrasing—in every possible way under the sun—what could be said in a sentence or less.

This new opportunity not only afforded me the chance to work on the other side of the fence (I was now considered a print buyer, rather than a print seller), but I could do it without all the pandemonium. In the cube farm that was to become my home for the next 5 years, all was perfectly silent but the clickety-clack of fingers and keys.

We developed something called a workflow. We created a large diagram, constructing every facet of a project’s life. From copy to design to print to mail – a well-oiled machine, it was. Checklists + Signatures + Responsibilities = Good Planning. How elementary. People actually started projects when they were supposed to, much to my bewilderment.

At times, I felt spoiled. On what might qualify as a bad day, all I would have to do is unearth a memory from New Jersey and I would soon chuckle to myself, shake my head and sigh. I took secret pleasure in listening to the endless complaints of my old work mates, those not fortunate enough to escape. “She said what? No!” I would lend a compassionate ear to my old pals, smiling shamelessly on the other end of the phone.

While I continued to drink from the cup of the company’s sweet nectar, I got my ass kissed by every printer in town. It was sheer delight. I received tickets to sporting events and was treated to elaborate meals at la-dee-da restaurants. I sat back as the sales reps tripped over each other, competing for my attention. A more perfect professional existence, I could not imagine.

My small department would make secret plans to take a day off and drive to New York City to catch a Broadway show or schedule a tour of Fenway Park. All events were followed by cocktails and lounging.

After several years had come and gone, I began to grow bored. It was also around this time that the great Dot Com Era was born. My boyfriend worked for a large, worldwide technology operation and along with him, I enjoyed many over-the-top luxuries, all at the expense of his clients. If my work environment was an island paradise, the Dot Com Era was Nirvana. There was no end to the joy we experienced at this time: pricey hotels in mid-town Manhattan, hundreds and hundreds of dollars in meals and booze, private parties, you name it. It was an endless celebration.

Overnight, we had become super snobs. Long gone were the days of hanging out at the local pub. No, no, no that was too dirty. God forbid we have to slum it at the Sheraton. Rent a Honda Accord? Are you out of your mind? If it didn’t have a trendy edge, it wasn’t going to get our patronage. Fresh limejuice in my cocktail, please. The snobbery was infectious. We tried to contaminate our non-dot com friends who would have been perfectly happy to hang out and play pool. We forced this lifestyle on our poor families who just wanted an affordable meal and good company. If it wasn’t top tier, it wasn’t happening.

These technology companies, which popped up like weeds in Boston, employed young, energetic techies (and poseurs) and paid them unheard of salaries. Those lucky enough to work for a company that went public found themselves in a position to retire before 30. Rumors circulated about 25-year-olds who wrote checks for half a million bucks in real estate transactions.

Magazines like Wired, Fast Company, Business 2.0, and Industry Standard were suddenly everywhere. Everyone was outfitted in various shades of Banana Republic grey. A sleek, full-of-yourself look was in vogue, and also necessary in order to accomplish what the dot comers set out to do: Take Over. Teams of them would jet off on sales pitches spouting their “We Know Best” rhetoric to the highest levels of brick and mortar operations – companies that had years of consistent and vigorous profits to show for themselves. The objective was to do what ever it took to convince them that their enterprise would soon be obsolete without the addition of an online operation. The buzz was everywhere and phones were ringing off the hook with terrified CEOs who were desperately battling to have online presence before their competitors. To be fair, I must say that these techie teams were not outright lying. They sincerely believed that the corporate world was changing and that they were in the unique position of being an integral part of this change. Cold sales calls were unnecessary. In fact, some potential business had to be turned away.

Strategies were built, frequent flier miles were accumulated, bullshit was slung, deals were made, and guarantees were doled out. It was all very glamorous and fast-paced. In the midst of the hubbub, programmers and designers burned the midnight oil, trying their best to out-do their dot com rivals. Overpromising client partners paced the halls, wringing their hands over bandwidth problems and other unforeseen snafus. Contractors gutted out old warehouses, making way for this new wave of business. What was all the rage this morning was archaic by afternoon. It was both exciting and scary, and I think we all knew, in our heart of hearts, that it had to slow down.

Chapter 3: A Town By the Water, MA

I considered this printing company to be a real improvement from the last. The owner, Gerald, really talked it up during my interview. Gerald was also a salesman, and when I first met him, I thought he was my savior. My previous professional climate was so damaging, I needed a swift rescue. The salesman in Gerald fudged things here and there, but the stuff he fibbed about really had no bearing on my day-to-day life.

Again, I found myself employed as a CSR. The main difference between the places in New Jersey and this place was the quality and timeliness of the product we produced. Here, printing jobs were cradled through by a group of caring individuals. Folks were held accountable and they stayed until their work was done. Of course things got lost in the shuffle, but the bulk of it was done on time, on budget, and mistake-free. This amazed me; I spent the first few months waiting for the other shoe to drop.

One of sales folks I worked for was not only a woman, but she was the highest grossing salesperson. If one of her clients asked her to lie down on the train tracks for a while, Nina would answer back with an resounding “You got it!” She was one of the greatest forces of nature I have ever witnessed. Even while 9 months pregnant, she would plow through the office like a steam roller, reams of paper in her arms. On numerous occasions, she would throw the stacks of job specifications, work orders, or what have you down on our estimator’s desk, regardless of what he might be in the middle of. A very loud, throaty and exhausted-sounding, “Hi!” would signal that she needed his undivided attention right away. She would then fire off, machine-gun style, all the things she required of him. Nina felt entitled to preferential treatment because of the highest grossing sales person thing. She wore it like a World Series Championship ring. Didn’t matter whose job was slated to print first – she would spit fire at the press manager until she or he reluctantly agreed to shuffle around the order in her favor. After she took me on a few sales calls with her, I realized why she was so successful. She promised the world to her customers, she was an unbelievable charmer. When she got back to the plant, though, the bullying and browbeating would begin.

I couldn’t help but admire her for her persistence, even though she irritated the hell out of me on most days. She used to take Fridays off to spend time with her kids and saddle me with the brunt of her work. I could have lived with this arrangement, had it not been for her obsessive “checking in” calls that interrupted my workday. If there was a problem, the f-bombs were released and threats were made to call Gerald. “What do you mean, they haven’t started folding those brochures?! What the fuck are they doing down there in the bindery? That’s it! I’m calling Gerald!”

After a call to Gerald, one of the Meyers brothers might catch hell. They both operated the folding machines. They were related, but oddly, they looked nothing alike. Both David and Peter came from a long line of folding machine operators. I tried to imagine what the holidays were like at the Meyers house. All the conversations about faulty equipment, difficult folding jobs. “One time, I had a gate-fold job, which is a pain in the ass anyway (understanding nods from family members), and this thing, I’m telling you, was soaking wet! Right off the press - no drying time, no nothing! And it was a coated stock, too.” Coated sheets always took longer to dry than uncoated sheets, thus becoming the bane of a folding operator’s existence. I envisioned portraits of famous Meyers Family Folders decorating their walls.

The Meyers brothers were sweet as pie, though. They were perfect targets for a military tank like Nina. Peter, especially, would get so thrown off balance by one of her scoldings, he was pretty useless for the remainder of the day. David might retort by sparking up a joint, doping himself into numbness. Of the two, Dave was the most entertaining. He had a thick Boston accent that was only decipherable by another Bostonian. He would make a wise crack, then throw his hands up in front of him, and wave them back and forth, saying “Nah! Nah! Just kidding! Just fooling!”

Our company had an interesting time off policy. Upon getting hired and up to your first year of employment, you got 5 days off. This was your sick, vacation and personal time, all lumped together. I was truly stunned at the pettiness of this. One day, I approached Gerald and asked him about it. “So, you’re telling me that if I am sick for 5 straight days with something serious, that counts as my vacation?”

“It’s all in the employee handbook. Look it up.” He smiled widely, then made a very abrupt exit.

It was like a scene right out of 60 Minutes. I played Mike Wallace, and he was the crooked bio-tech CEO, spewing some vague management speak and then vanishing. It was also another salesman technique: Smile at you while I am screwing you.

There was some ambiguous corporate incest going on at the plant. Gerald was somehow related (cousins, I think) to a number of folks employed there. First, there was Joe, the guy who ran a giant copier in the “print on demand” department. Joe was a good 7 feet tall and easily weighed 300 pounds. He had a deep laugh and breathed loudly like Darth Vadar, but with a mucousy crackle. You did not want to get on this guy’s bad side. I would, when I had to, visit him to inquire about something that was urgently due. His standard response was: “If you ask me again, it’s not getting done. Now, get off my back.” He wore loud surfer-style shorts to work year-round and heaved an entire grocery bag full of food for lunch.

Another cousin was Mike, the bindery manager. Always cracking jokes, always boisterous and always helpful. He had cute names for me like “Needle Nits” and “Slipper Face.” I’d come over to see him and he would give a hearty greeting, “What’s up, theeeeeeeeeeere, Nits?” He had all the charisma of Quint, the shark hunter in Jaws, leading the bindery folks through their busy word day. I loved him. Not just because of his unwavering jovialness, but also because he wasn’t afraid to stand toe-to-toe with Nina. Mike knew his business and when he said something was so, it was so. And if anything went wrong in the bindery, Mike was the first guy to apologize and make it right.

Our press manager was another lovable man named Kip. Kip was openly gay and acted more or less like our press mother. Workers flocked to him for protection from upper management and he sure as hell went to bat for you. He stuck his neck out for guys on a daily basis. But he also aimed to please the demanding sales staff, forcing him to cram 15 hours of press time into 5. At the end of the day, no one was more exhausted than Kip. On especially frustrating days, the tattoo-clad press manager would dash out of the press room, facetiously screaming “We LOOOVE printing!” He also pacified rabid sales folks, clients and CSRs by promising to put “dryers in the inks” to speed up the process. I still have no idea what this meant or if it was even possible, but it placated us. He must have lifted it from the book.

The only other openly gay employee was the head of the sales staff, Fred. Fred was not really one for pushing himself too hard. When he went on sales calls, we would tease him by saying, “Enjoy the matinee!” Fred would smirk and pop out the door, sans briefcase or any other necessary sales tool.

Fred and others became fodder for a number of practical jokes performed by a fellow CSR named Lenny. Lenny was the ultimate prankster. Often, he would disguise his voice and call Fred to the front desk via the intercom. Fred, time and time again, would get up and walk over to a front desk, see no one, shrug his shoulders and walk back to the sales department. Lenny would call the receptionist and in the most demanding of tones, ask to speak to the estimator. His unprovoked anger would send her to the estimator’s desk, “Some asshole is on the phone for you!” she would say, visibly shaken from the experience.

Lenny’s masterpiece was crafted the evening we were treated to a plant tour and fancy dinner by a large paper distributor. There were about 5 of us, altogether. A stretch limo picked us up from the plant, which was a major mistake. There were 5 empty stomachs, and 1 mini bar. It wasn’t long before we were all half in the bag. We were having such a good time, we hardly noticed that the limo driver was seriously lost. Once this came into our collected consciousness, we were merciless. “Where the hell is this moron taking us?” we shouted. While this banter continued, Lenny found the button that controlled the window between the confused driver and us. He quietly pushed the button, the window came down and we all zipped up, except for Bob, who, while gesturing to the driver with his thumb, emphatically stated, ‘This fucking guy doesn’t know where the fuck he’s going!” It’s important to note that Bob was the only one who was sitting with his back to the window at the time the button was pushed.

The corporate “kiss up” was one of the pre-press managers, Rich. He had what can only be described as a frizz mullet: a poofed out, but carefully shaped coif. He had enormous gums with little baby teeth. Rich’s most distinguished characteristic, though, was his speech impediment. You might ask Rich about the ETA on a blueline proof from the prepress department and he would likely respond (whether it was true or not), “Oh, yeah, it’s being pwoofed wight now. Fwee minutes, tops!” Rich jumped at any opportunity to rearrange the truth for upper management as to paint himself the hero while pointing the finger at everyone else. He was always wight and every else was always wong. Strangely, his version of things was very convincing to the company V.P. and, like Howard the Informant from New Jersey, he always managed to get off scott-free. Needless to say, he was not popular among the masses.

Our receptionist, Alicia, was, inarguably, the most dim-witted individual I had ever known to that point. Comments like “Don’t you think my boobs are HUGE?” were fired off, no matter who might be standing around. She was without boundaries and my sympathies went out to the typesetter who sat close by. Poor Donna was forced to endure all the uncensored details of Alicia’s sex life – stories she would iterate in between fielding phone calls. Alicia had a habit, too, of not knowing when to end a conversation. All the obvious signals meant nothing to her. Whether you tried quick get-aways or slow-getaways, she would continue to talk and talk long after you walked away. She clung to people during lunch breaks and could never figure out why folks would politely excuse themselves. You felt bad for her, but never bad enough to put up with her.

Not long before I left this place, we were informed that Gerald had sold the company to a large corporation. My last few months were spent in a haze, new folks stepping in, old folks stepping out. A friend of mine informed me of a job opportunity at an impressive non-profit publisher. After 2 interviews, the offer was made and I was out the door. Gerald staged a very dramatic scene when I gave my notice. In addition a bridge burning accusation, I was also told (I am not kidding) that I would be sorry someday.

Chapter 2: Anytown, NJ

To this day, I wonder how I endured working for this tightfisted, uncaring company. I suppose it was because I didn’t have much to compare it to. My father’s words often came to me during especially difficult moments: “If it were fun, they wouldn’t call it work, would they?”

For starters, we, the customer service girls, were sequestered in one room of the entire plant. Each of us had a number of clients to attend to and our main responsibility was making sure that their work went through without a hitch. This would be a relatively easy task if our company wasn’t such a sloppy mess. Though we were a mid-sized printing company, we carried a few surprisingly well-known clients. Our customers were mainly in the New York and Philadelphia areas and all were very demanding.

There were approximately 5 CSRs, including yours truly, conducting our business in this small space, our desks butting up against each other. Also in this room was our quality controller, Eddie. This was an interesting choice on behalf of the owners. Why not stick the guy who requires a reasonable amount of peace and quiet in order to successfully do his job in the same room with the chaotic day-to-day lives of 5 CSRs? I forgot to add that Eddie had very little patience and spent nearly every second of the day either cursing the company for its shoddy work or cursing us for the noise that was necessary to conduct our jobs. “Can we do ANYTHING right? Who the hell are we, Shitty Printers, U.S.A.?!”

The only folks who had any privacy were the salesmen and upper management. Each had either a quiet cubicle on the other side of the plant or a fully furnished office with a door. This made sense, of course, since the sales staff was generally out of the office on sales calls or hanging out in our confined room, talking about the previous night’s football game.

Our general manager, Don, had an office adjacent to the hell room we worked in. Before he became the general manager of our printing company, Don sold shoes. It stands to reason, then, that his next job should be this one. During my first week on the job, Don sat me down to give me a crash course in printing. On his yellow legal-sized ruled pad, he sketched out various printing impositions: Work and Turn, Sheet Wise, Work and Tumble, etc. I had a Bachelor’s Degree and thought I was a fairly quick learner, but his lessons were all lost on me. He interjected every step with “You follow me?” or “You see what I’m saying?” I hadn’t a clue. He appeared to explain things out of sequence, and at times, I got the sensation that he himself didn’t truly grasp the concepts he was attempting to lay on me.

Over time, I grew to believe that Don was the anti-Christ. And I wasn’t alone. Like, Eddie, Don had a short fuse. It matched perfectly with his short body. Actually, Don’s torso was shaped like an ear of corn. He lacked shoulders. Sometimes, I found myself staring at him and wondering if it was some kind of odd birth defect. If you crossed Don, even if he heard from another source that you might have suggested something negative about him, it was hell to pay. There were usually two tactics he employed in order to retaliate a wrongdoer. Usually, he would call one into his office and draw the blinds. Since his office was centrally located, the “drawing of the blinds” was a very theatrical display and his audience was immediately aware that he meant business. You would see the poor so-and-so slowly swagger in the direction of the office, a mix of humiliation and pride. It was a lot like watching an inmate walk from death row to the electric chair. The longer the blinds were drawn, the more serious and heated you imagined it was. People would silently group together and whisper, everyone wondering what was taking so long. I had visions of Don reaching for his bookcase and throwing it down in a fit of rage. In reality, it was more of a power play meeting, a way for Don to assert himself and remind the offender who was boss. Don would start the meeting standing up, hands on hips, looking out his window. He would keep his back turned while he explained, in excruciating detail, why he was angry. Like a fourth grader, the pitiful sinner would have to apologize and promise not to do it again. The second method was the “straight on, drop everything and run out to the bad guy to teach him a lesson in front of everyone” approach. Imagine that you are doing your job, minding your own business, when out of nowhere, Don comes bolting at you like a cannon ball. BAM! He would use a lot of body language – fierce finger pointing, arms flailing, the whole kit and caboodle. Nine out of ten times, the criminal was innocent.

Like a mob boss, Don had an informant named Henry. He operated one of the presses and everyone knew that Henry fished around for information on Don in exchange for immunity. If he screwed something up on press, so what? He found out what Larry the shipping manager said about Don. It always got him off the hook. Henry invited me out to lunch one day, but I was wise to him by this time. “So, what do you think about Don?” he asked me, slamming the bottom of a ketchup bottle. “He’s a peach, “ I responded.

For the most part, the only sense of urgency at the company existed in exchanges between CSRs and shift managers and poor Eddie who thought we were all a bunch of buffoons. Beyond that, the attitude was “I’ll get to it when I get to it.” Take, for example, Harry, the older gentlemen who operated our flatbed scanner. I once watched Harry measure and re-measure the same stinking piece of line art for an hour. Every time I checked in on this very time sensitive scanning job, Harry would look up at me, smile, wink, then get back down to the business of measuring.

As a company, we had also mastered the craft of misplacing things. Important things. Hundreds of dollars worth of film and printing proofs: Poof! Vanished. You think your work is going to go out in the morning as planned? Don’t bank on it. If the company loses the original art supplied by your client, you are up a creek, without the proverbial paddle. And it was always chalked up to mysterious forces. Ghosts on third shift lurked the plant in search of 35-millimeter slides to share with their ghost pals. “Oh, it’ll turn up,” our shift managers would say.

Since a CSR cannot explain the missing art or the blown deadlines to their clients in honest terms (“Oh, it’ll turn up” or “We’ll get to it when we get to it”), we have to whip out the book. The book is called 101 Great Lies for Printing Professionals. It contains a lot of very proven and effective fibs to feed clients and it was a great resource when our company fucked up. Each CSR had her own personal copy of the book. Much of the time, blaming technology for delays and problems in printer proofs was the best way to go. Throw a lot of “techie jargon” at your client and hope they are too busy and confused to give it any credence. A lot of folks – primarily those who had no direct contact with clients – preferred that you put the blame back on your customer. They cited lots of specific problems with digital files supplied by clients and asked you to, in essence, scold them for their ineptitude. This would be a fine solution if the problems weren’t presented the day the project was due.

The company employed two men, Barney and Jerome, whose primary jobs were to file and pull printing plates. These are large, heavy plates that are hung on presses. We used to store them in the event that a customer requested a reprint. Barney and Jerome reminded me of the two guys who sat in the audience in the Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf, with their constant complaining and heckling. As far as I was concerned, they had the best job in the plant. File the plates, pull the plates, file, pull. What was so hard? Apparently, there was more stress to their jobs than I was aware of. Barney, who had a very unfortunate birthmark covering most of his face and a raspier voice than Burgess Meredith, would get really ticked off when approached for simple requests to pull plates (remember: this was his job). It was as though you were asking him to fork over his paycheck. The request was then followed up with an angry stomp to the plate room and grumblings under his breath. He would emerge, moments later, with your plates. Handing them over would be the civil thing to do, but Barney thought it better to ferociously slam them down on the counter, sending you a very clear message: Just in case you didn’t know, you pissed me off.

Jerome was less huffy and more fault-finding. Most of us knew better than to ask Jerome for anything, because it was usually came with a verbal list of the many things on Jerome’s plate that day. How on earth would he have time to help you? He was just too damn busy. In between, though, Jerry found a lot of time for smoke breaks and criticism. “The problem with this company is (fill in the blank).” Jerry always had a remark, an opinion or a tip. He would eavesdrop on your conversation and present you with lots of helpful advice. One time, my fellow CSR complemented me on a new pair of Chuck Taylors I had just purchased, within earshot of Jerry. “You better go out and get those Odor Eaters!” he offered.

Our clients were an interesting bunch. I had a beaut of a customer by the name of Kappy. He wore his glasses fashioned to his head by way of a wide stretchy band. He ran a product photography studio in west Philly, a real soup-to-nuts operation. Kappy not only provided photography services to his customers, he also created their catalogues and promotional materials. The graphic design arm of his business—traditional paste-up, performed the same way since the sixties—was void of all technology. His designer resembled Cousin It and smelled like patchouli, coffee and cigarettes (with a hint of pot). In fact, opening the front door to Kappy’s studio released billows of smoke ala Cheech and Chong’s van. All the employees smoked up while they worked (this included his mother, the receptionist). So addicted was Kappy, that our company’s owners permitted him to chain smoke in our plant, as he strolled through, inspecting his jobs.

Kappy was the laughing stock of the company. Even our shift managers got in on the joke by inserting Crappy, Sappy, or Flappy in place of his first name on the paperwork that circulated with his projects. Like most jokes, though, it was doomed to go too far. One of our technicians decided to airbrush “Crappy” into one of his digital images, with every intention of getting rid of it before it found its way to the shipping area. One regrettable distraction propelled the prank into the hands of Crappy himself. As luck would have it, however, Kappy missed it on the proof. Between all the smoke in the studio and the tight elastic band affixed to his head, it’s really no wonder. The blunder made it all the way on press. An enraged Kappy had some turbulent words with one of the owners after he discovered his beloved nickname on the printed, folded brochure. Crappy was not happy. Several hours after the fateful package was delivered, a technician was on route to the unemployment office.

Because our company had a reputation for substandard work, we were often forced to settle for substandard clients. We worked on several pornographic magazine covers, which I always thought was interesting. Most of the publications were the size of TV Guide and contained erotic letters, stories and adventures. I secretly wished that Kappy would get an eye full of that as he wondered through the shop.

Ironically, it was Kappy who threw me a few freelance illustration projects. I was asked to create drawings for little candy tins. A snow scene, a produce market, a women’s boutique. They were full color drawings and the final product was sent off to China where the metal was printed. To this day, I have yet to see a sample. Kappy was also a grudge holder, so upon hearing that I was going to leave the company and go back to Boston, I was essentially dead to him. He labeled me: Ingrate. His punishment to me was the deprivation of printed samples of my work.

In 1994, email was not popular. In fact, none of us had computers. Our single communication channel was the phone. I remember making my first professional call to a client. I was told to call the customer, introduce myself, and ask for clarification on one of his print jobs. Pretty straightforward stuff.

As soon as I dialed the number, I drew a complete blank. The equivalent of a shy bladder. My heart started racing and I seriously thought about hanging up and starting over. Too late. A voice on the other end responded to my call. “This is John.”

I can’t remember exactly how I butchered this call. I raced through some parts of it, stumbling on my own words. At other points, I paused, totally forgetting my purpose. I am pretty sure that I repeated some things, too. All I know for certain is that I felt mortified when put the receiver down. John, my frustrated client, gave me some advice. “Call me back when you know what you’re doing.” This was one of my first lessons in humility and a very valuable one. Confidence, even under pressure, is a must-have for project managers.

Two years after I left my darling Anytown paradise, I received a call from an old friend and fellow Shitty Printers alumni. I got out of Dodge in favor of another printing company closer to Boston, but she and I remained in contact.

“Are you sitting down?” she asked me. She then proceeded to explain, in the juiciest of details, how Don was finally canned. Shackles fell off wrists, rays of glorious light poured down from the heavens above and a band of angels began to sing. All was right with the world. Albeit the place and the demons were behind me, it was still so comforting, like bathing in a pool of sweet justice. It wasn’t one huge mistake on his part (though the story would have been far more interesting and climactic had this been so), but more a series of things: good workers who left and cited him as the main reason, incorrect paper orders placed, random loose cannon behavior. It all added up to a shiny pink slip.

In the years to come, I would encounter several Dons, Howards, and Eddies. Like a swarm of angry killer bees buzzing about my head, following me from job to job.

The Professional Martyr’s Catalog


One Man Twister: This is a game for one person only. They have to manage to put their hands and feet on all the circles by themselves while other people take turns telling them what they need to do. The more impossible the positions, the better.

Solitaire 2.0: Especially designed for the worker doing everything alone (version 3.0 available soon!)

Crusades: Played like Charades, except all the answers are religious in nature.

Confession Monopoly: The cards you draw tell you how many our father's and acts of contrition you have to say, etc. Instead of jail, it's purgatory. The property you own is in heaven.

Consecration (played like Concentration): The cards are like the parts of mass (chalice, bread, cloth) and other sacred things. The winner is also consecrated. They can declare themselves a saint.

Operation Becomes "Crucifixion": The parts of the body are like "sore feet" (from being on them so much), carpal tunnel (from all those long hours, correcting other people's work), stomach ulcers, headache (from wearing the crown of thorns because, of course no one else cares), aching back (from the cross).

Mental Keep Away

Mystery Mood

What's Worse - Dealing with Me, or Having Your Foot Amputated with the Side of a Protractor?


Mini Plastic Ball and Chain Anklet
Extra Large Shoes (my shoes are mighty big to fill)
Albatross Necklace
Thorned Head Bands
Atlas Back Packs, especially good for taking lots and lots of work home with you
Saint Masks (Look at me, I'm Mother Teresa today!)


Jailbird Jumpsuit (Bright Orange Prison Wear, for the hostage that you are)
Sacrificial Lamb T-Shirts
Ghandi Gowns (bald cap included)


Holy Water Squirt Gun (bring it to meetings and douse all the positive members of your team)

Martyr Clocks: The numbers on the face of the clock are replaced with reminders: “time to complain to the person over the cube wall” “time to send out group email, reminding everyone of your endless burdens”

Woe is Me Talking Doll (pull the string, let the whining begin)

Plastic Zeus Lightning Bolts, used for striking down the advice and assistance of concerned friends and coworkers

Self Flogging Devices: How to Beat Yourself to Oblivion in 5 Minutes or Less

Plastic Halos and Wings

Starvation Kits

Crystal Balls (to give to your coworkers so they can read your mind)

Empty Vile (Fill it with your blood, then distribute.)


"How to Maximize Your Pity"
"A Whine from God"
"You Can Never Be Too Thin or Have Too Much Sympathy"
"Martyr Stewart's Living"
"Self-Inflicted Mental Munchausen"
"It's a Dirty Job, But Someone Has to Annoy Everyone"
"Dodging Good Advice: How to Make a Difficult Job Worse"
"Taking Guilt Up a Notch: What to Do When Your CoWorkers Don't Respond"
"Feel Bad, Be Heard: How to Cope if No One Seems to Care"
"Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Squeakiest Wheel of Them All?"
"Martyr vs Martyr: What to Do When You Have a Competitor"
"All Work, No Play"
"Martyr Fitness: How to Successfully Dangle from a Ledge”

Chapter 1: Nashville, TN

Personal circumstances brought me to Nashville. In a nutshell: The guy I had been dating for a few years was a song-writing major at a well-known music school. There were few places he might be successful and Nashville was one of them. Several of our friends, also music people, had planned to move down there at the same time. I figured, new scene, something completely different, could be fun.

I began to realize that getting freelance illustration work was not going to happen overnight. I was forced to kick it 9 to 5 in the meantime. I scanned the Nashville paper for job possibilities. I was thinking: in-house illustrator. But the closest I got to this was something called color separator. I saw the word color and thought I was perfect for the job. I had extensive training in color theory, not only understanding color relationships, but I understood the mixing part, too. I had my fair share of vermilions, cadmiums, cobalts, and siennas. If there was one thing I could offer the world, it was color. So, I quickly shot my resume off and waited.

I got a call from the head of human resources within a few days. The voice on the other end of the phone was perky and kind, very Southern. I pictured Minnie Pearl. She wanted to schedule an interview with me - I was thrilled. The pieces were all coming together now. A career in color awaited.

I went to the local Walmart to purchase an appropriate outfit for the interview (anything boutique-like and remotely glamorous and/or professional was not only out of my price range, but because I was new to the area, I was hard-pressed to find stores that didn't carry fringy cowgirl wear). I settled on a rust-colored top with brassy buttons and a matching floral-printed A-line skirt. I can't recall the shoes I wore, but I am sure they were hideous.

The interview went well, I thought. It turns out that Mrs. Andrews - aka Minnie Pearl - was not so mini. She was proportioned a bit more like Mrs. Claus, and even had her gentle features, down to the silvery bun. "I just loved your resume. That little bird was precious! I must admit, it's the reason I called you." Because we were illustration majors, we were encouraged to sprinkle a smidge of our work style into our resume. I had used toucans in more that one of my pieces, so I thought it would tie in nicely with the resume. Little did I realize that the bird would get me in the door to a vague job opportunity, something to do with color. "I thought, We could use this friendly little girl in our customer service department," she said and grinned. My resume, like most recent college grads, consisted of a string of ordinary jobs. You try to put a spin on them to make them appear more important somehow, but when all is said and done, there's nothing impressive to say about making bagels.

Mrs. Andrews then proceeded to give me a tour of the plant. I felt like I was in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory, except I had no idea what I was looking at. It was a high-tech dream. There was something called a Command Center. We walked through the immaculate halls, shining linoleum floors like mirrors at our feet. I had no idea what kind of activity was taking place around me, but one thing was clear: this was a tight ship. "Here is our Scitex Department. Everyone thought we were crazy for investing so much into these machines. Who's laughing now, I ask you?" She could have been talking about Ferris wheels. I was a perfect deer in headlights, wondering when she was going to show me all this color stuff. I nodded knowingly and tried not to look so naive.

The company's main objective was digitally enhancing and preparing pages for printing. I was amazed when I saw their list of customers - enormously popular newsstand publications. As we continued to walk through, I caught glimpses of the work on several monitors and noted the computer operators selecting parts of the images or text and clicking, pointing, dragging, dropping. I didn't really understand the goal, but it seemed like serious business.

I was offered a job as assistant customer service representative, or assistant CSR. Astonishingly, I had my own office. My responsibilities were mainly tracking things and making copies. All days blurred together. Copy, track, fax, pull papers, file papers, route this, package that.

I did, though, get a very in-depth understanding of digital file manipulation and color separation, and some of the things I witnessed blew my mind. Famous actresses and celebrities look good for a reason: Photoshop. I once saw a request marked on a photo to take a sliver or two off the thighs of an already dangerously thin-looking model.

Since the plant basically functioned on autopilot (something I truly took for granted when I was an employee), the only points of interest were my fellow workers. One gal, Jan, was the very picture of "woe is me." She could have been the inspiration for many a sad country song. At age 28, she was already divorced and remarried with 2 children. She had back problems and chronic migraines. Yet, Jan was a beautiful woman with icy blue piercing eyes and brunette locks to die for. She was sharp as a whip, extremely competent and fast. Jan was a bit of an eccentric dresser, missing the boat on what was deemed professional. I once saw Jan strut into the office wearing a turquoise, off the shoulder, tight fitting number with fishnet stockings and heels.

Jan also had a knack for exaggerating the truth, mainly to gain sympathy. She led a lot of folks into thinking that she was constantly on the verge of death (health problems) or involved in a dangerous domestic situation. Naturally, her 2nd husband was a supposed cheater with a PhD in verbal assault. Her wedding photo sat on her desk, next to a couple of framed shots of her kids. I didn't realize, until she told me, that the picture of she and hubby number 2 was taken on their wedding day. They were both outfitted in jeans and t-shirts and stood outside the City Hall.

Jan couldn't refer to any man without inserting "ole" before his name. Ole Roger. Ole Harold. Ole Randy. She used cliches - often. "I've got to pee worse than a Russian racehorse!" "Ole Jimbo? He's dumber than a bag of hammers!" "I'll tell you what – she's got one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave."

It wasn't long before I grew a tad homesick. I thought the world of the company (still do), but after an amiable breakup with the song writer, I started my way back up north. Not ready to go back to Boston just yet, I decided on the greater Philadelphia area. I also thought that I would give my freelance illustration dreams another shot.


If you had asked me how I felt about project management on May 28, 1993, I am sure I would have either laughed or asked you to define it. For on that late spring afternoon, I graduated from art school. Granted, I was not a glass blowing or basket weaving major, but it was still art school. I was going to become a world-class, wildly sought after children's book illustrator. I was going to scrape by and make ends meet until I had an agent and a shiny, crisp portfolio filled with legitimately published illustrations, carefully weeded of all school projects. This would, of course, happen within 6-14 months post-graduation, I was sure (I think this could have been a generous suffering period in my old mind).

Because, to that point, I felt I had scraped by. I had suffered. My parents insisted that I pay my rent and other living expenses from sophomore to senior year. Translation: full time school and full time job. Even in those days, Boston was expensive. My 94 dollar per week paycheck (no exaggeration) allowed me little to spare after rent. My best friend, Kara, and I shared a tiny (again, no exaggeration) studio apartment in Back Bay. It was not only in a severely roach infested building, but it also lacked drawers. Not even in the "“pantry."” By efficiency standards, the kitchenette was still absurdly miniature.

I would guess that we had approximately 500 square feet or less. We purchased a set of child-sized bunk beds to save on space. Each mattress was fashioned with brightly colored spaceship fabric and each was about as thin and as comfortable as a stick of Wrigley's chewing gum. We positioned the bunk beds in a small "nook" so they would not stick out that much (although they still did), allowing for maximum traffic space. One of the walls on the side of the beds was adjoining to the kitchenette. This wall had a window cut out of it, so if you were lying on the top bunk, you could see who ever might be helping herself to a glass of Tang. Though we fancied ourselves young intellectuals, we did not operate with a great deal of common sense. Thus the can of knives we placed on the bottom part of the "peek-a-boo" window. The can itself was adorned with elaborate acrylic brush strokes. One unfortunate roll-over in your sleep, though, and it was time to call an ambulance.

We lived on instant noodles (10 packages for a buck) and banana bread (often times we became impatient and had the raw mix). We thought we struck gold the night we saw someone at the 24-hour convenient store throw away day-old doughnuts from the bakery kiosk inside. We began waiting outside the store at midnight, anxious to take the stale bear claws and corn muffins off their hands. Since we usually crammed 10-hour homework assignments in the evening before they were due, the fried sugary goodness was just the fuel we required to make it through the night. We felt little-to-no shame as we traipsed across the street carrying the leftovers in a trash bag, Santa-style, up the steps.

We were real Bohemians, what with our forest scene second-hand rug and 3-legged dining table. We had 2 classy features in this apartment, however. (1) A fireplace with a fancy mantle and (2) a huge porcelain bathtub. The fireplace had a small radiator stuck inside of it and the bathtub was so big, it made mobility in the narrow bathroom nearly impossible. But this was our first apartment, so we were determined to enjoy it, no matter how cramped and in denial we might have been. In fact, we had friends over often. On exceptionally warm days, we would crank "“Play that Funky Music"” and pile out on the porch with a fist full of beer. Yes, we had a cement balcony that was meant for show, but dammit, we would spare nothing for the sake of entertaining guests. We piled about 4-5 friends out there without a fearful thought in our naive little minds. The decorative feature of the brownstone building was likely built for the occasional pigeon, but we threw caution straight to the wind in those days.

Project management meant nothing to me in those days. My life was a series of projects that I managed for free. I didn't realize that people actually made a living with this skill. Also, I got involved in project management in a somewhat ass-backwards way. Or maybe my destiny drove me to it. But in May 1993, all I could think about was getting out of Boston and breaking into the oh-so-hot illustration scene.