Editor’s note: Although we have confirmed that Ravi Desai worked at Quantum, we can not vouch for the contents of these “Diary” entries. For the complete explanation, see this “Press Box” column.
Anyone who thinks business travel is glamorous has clearly never been out of the office. Even a short trip leaves me feeling weeks behind. When I check voice mail this morning, my mailbox is full. I also quickly realize that if I go into the office, I will get sucked into a vortex of meetings.
The only way to catch up in these instances is to work the phones aggressively–out of the office. This dovetails nicely with sudden personal travel plans. Having read one too many self-help books, I empower myself. I am the hurricane. I decide to telecommute. Telecommuting only works on a highly occasional basis; there’s still real value to meeting people in person. On the other hand, the people you meet while you’re in the office aren’t always the people you want to meet. Telecommuting offers absolute selectivity. If you don’t like Bob, you don’t have to call him.
I reel off a series of phone calls, which would have taken 10 times as long in the office. I’m secretly gratified that almost no one answers the phone, since this allows me (empowers me?) to leave long messages and skip the fake pleasantries of a real conversation. I also spend time wondering why the word “empower” has become quite as popular as it has. A candidate interviewing for a job a few months ago asked me whether Quantum “empowered its employees.” I stammered out some sort of affirmation, but I still don’t know quite what the word means. Fond as I am of power–and happy as I am with my ability to make decisions–I’ve also come to another realization: Empowerment entails an endless downward delegation of responsibility. The practical effect of this game of musical chairs is that the really crappy decisions are always made by someone else, sitting in a cubicle elsewhere, who just happened to be “empowered” to make them. This actually doesn’t happen very often at all at Quantum, but at another company I know well, the level of finger-pointing that resulted from an empowerment program made me wonder how people still got phones dialed and noses scratched.
By mid-morning I feel a surge of satisfaction. At this time on a typical day someone would be knocking on my office door, suggesting we spend a few minutes talking about our choice of Web browser. Despite knowing absolutely nothing about the relative merits of Web browsers, I’d still feel obliged to sit and listen. Instead my list of messages has shrunk by half.
The real benefit of telecommuting is that it allows me to–in effect–close my office door. Closing my door when I’m actually in the office is a borderline faux pas; it suggests some secretive, closed-minded instinct incompatible with the kind of culture we want to build. Not wanting to seem like some black-helicopter conspiracy theorist, I leave the door open almost all day when I am in the office. This in turns creates a magnetic force field, which draws in every insufficiently empowered employee who happens to walk by and wants to offer a view about something. Last week I spent a half-hour discussing our advertising strategy with a computer-science intern from Chico State who is spending his fall semester on our IT help desk. It occurred to me that at his age I would absolutely not have had the courage to walk into my office and offer views on advertising strategy. Maybe he’s seen more ads than I had at the time.
Closed doors have their costs, though. By the afternoon I’m going through office withdrawal. I continue to work the phone and get odd bits of work done. (A typical call involves speaking to a consultant who claims to understand how our industry will evolve, and wants to come give a speech about it. I gently suggest that speeches of any sort aren’t received well around here. He continues. I do not receive his speech well and abruptly end the call.)
After running a series of errands, I work my car phone on the way home. Between calls I watch the extraordinarily strange set of billboards lining the highway between San Jose and Palo Alto. Each sign tries to coax engineers from one firm to another. This applies even to firms with particularly poor track records; somehow Informix, a failing database company, seems still to want developers. Several years ago, I drove from Memphis to Nashville. On the way I stopped at Stuckey’s restaurants, all of which sold the most delicious pecan pies. The signs told me this. Around here, the signs contain acronyms only accessible to Stanford Ph.D.s: “ASIC Engineers, Apply to 3Com.” Every sign is bright red.
I wonder what lay behind this display of color. Although I suspect the advertisers are catering to engineers’ baser instincts, I question what those instincts are. The marketing department at my firm decided that our gift at Comdex this year would be a discreet maroon polo shirt. I now have a dozen of these. I have a dozen only because no one wanted them. They were insufficiently loud, and insufficiently pleasing to the people to whom they were handed out.
I think I know why. On my flight to Las Vegas, my neighbor wore an extraordinarily nice suit, a perfectly tailored Armani. He was an analyst for an investment bank. Everyone else on the flight wore extremely bright U.S. Robotics T-shirts and joked about the flaws in Microsoft’s latest beta release of Windows 98.
The Armani suit earned my neighbor no respect. On the other hand, you can’t beat a bright color, especially when it’s on a free T-shirt.