Organization Men

Lucas Miller is a detective with the NYPD. Andrew Shuman is a development manager at Microsoft. This week, Slate has asked them to compare the organizations they work for.   

I am a little jealous that you can get your Slate writing done between tasks at your day job. The department requires me to obtain permission to work anywhere else. It is actually quite liberal, as evidenced by my being allowed to write for Slate, but I am certainly not allowed to get in any writing while on duty.  Having to complete this dialogue entry has prevented me from volunteering to go off to Brooklyn with some of the guys in my squad to find a couple of genuine pistol-packing desperados. The sacrifices I make for, uh, art.

The conspiracy theorists are probably our most common ground. I bet they are some of the same people. I don’t know if it is worse having people believe that cops, and particularly those crafty detectives, are capable of manufacturing vast, interwoven plots or if it is better that they know how difficult it is to get people to work together for entirely legitimate purposes. If only we were capable of getting multiple units of officers who have never met to carefully fabricate a case in order to send people to jail whom they have never seen before, it would be so much easier getting a legitimate case together, with guys who work in the same office every day, to convict a suspect who is so undeniably guilty that his own defense attorney is scared of him. The O.J. Simpson case is a good example not because it is unlikely that that many cops could get together to make up the evidence, but just because it is unlikely that cops would get together to go after a football hero. I suspect that, black or white, if you polled L.A. cops on the day before the murder, they all would have said they were fans of  O.J. 

I love the idea that there are organizations in America capable of huge, intricate, and diabolical conspiracies, but I am afraid that if the richest man in America at the helm of one of the largest collections of smart guys can’t trick the trust busters into leaving him alone and the president can’t cover up … well you know, there are no such conspiracies.

To answer your question, the NYPD does have technical interviews. In fact I learned about a good one the other day. A guy I work with had applied to the Emergency Service Unit, which is our version of SWAT combined with some other missions like rescue and animal control. His first test was to go to the range and shoot a shotgun proficiently. I guess a lot of guys can’t, so they test that first. 

We all have to demonstrate proficiency with our on-duty and off-duty weapons first in the academy and then on a regular basis thereafter, but it is pretty easy stuff, and not many people fail. In practice, of course, our judgment is tested far more often than our marksmanship.

I did have an interview once with a pretty elite unit that was probably a little closer to your experience. They needed a guy who could create a database for them in MS Access to keep track of a large and lengthy case that they were working on. A couple of captains grilled me for a while about my knowledge of Access, and I am pretty sure that I did as well as any other detective there that day. I certainly knew more about Access than I did about the particular syndicate that they were watching. I did not get the job. In the long run I was relieved. After spending six years in Narcotics pretending that I am not a cop, it is a great relief to be in my current squad, where when I knock on people’s doors I can tell them exactly who I am and why I am there. I do like the idea of you telling people you work for a small Seattle area software firm. I would sometimes tell people that I am an orthodontist or a drummer.

Unfortunately, the size of NYPD, the potential for one kind of corruption or another, and the litigiousness of society have made the interview process less important than the civil-service test for promotion. The tests are very technical, but they require a huge amount of rote memorization and are quite hard.

I am most curious about the morale at Microsoft. Certainly there is ample reason for pride in the company and products. I have some idea of the pay, and it seems easily competitive with that of the other software nerd shops. The negative hype could even justify an inflated sense of power in the world. Yet I don’t get the sense that you feel that you are saving the world through easier networking or a better-integrated office suite.