Monday, April 05, 2010

High-Stress vs. High Frustration

I wrote the following post back in January, but never got around to posting it. I hate to let it go to waste, because I was trying to communicate the difference between a high-stress environment and a high-frustration environment. I can handle stress. Needless frustration is a very bad thing. I was ultimately let go from the job on March 18, 2010. That saved me the trouble of walking out. It's pretty sad when working conditions reach such a low point that you begin to pray to be fired, because you have nothing else lined up and are at a disadvantage if you quit.

I've done my best to change the language of this post from present-tense to past-tense. It's now written from a perspective of a former employee, rather than a current employee.

I plan to write only one more blog post about that job, then I will lick my wounds and move on.

This begins the original post, High-Stress vs. High-Frustration:

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook from November 2009 to March 2010, you know that I was highly frustrated at work. I figured I would take a few moments to explain why.

I guess I’ll repeat: I despise the concept of cubicles. It sends a great message to the kids, doesn’t it? Work really hard, get a degree, and someday, you too can sit in a box with little privacy where people can sneak up behind you all day long. It’s a great incentive for education and hard work, isn’t it?

Cubicles frustrate me. I’m a knowledge worker. I get paid to think, and turn that thinking into product. But, it’s hard to THINK when people are talking all day long. I also don’t do very well when people sneak up behind me. The project leader I worked with liked to sneak up behind me and grab my shoulders. I somehow managed to stop myself from coming up swinging. I don’t care if some of you think I’m whining. I don’t like it, and it hinders my ability to work. I’m not comfortable in an environment where people can sneak up behind me and grab my shoulders like that.

Then there were the conversations. People in offices like to talk. I understand, so do I. But it’s hard to concentrate on work when the conversations all happen right outside of your cubicle. Cubicles are one of the most anti-productivity concepts around.

Enough about cubicles. I know, there’s nothing I can do to change them, but they are frustrating. On to why the actual work was frustrating.

As you may know, I was fired from the project I was originally hired for. My company was nice enough to keep me around for a while. They had one project that I could help out on. It wasn't actual engineering or technical work, but it brought in a paycheck.

The problem was, the project brought in lots of frustrations. It was never planned out properly. I think our customer didn't know how to do the job, but it had to be done so they outsourced it to us. They constantly changed their minds about what they wanted. Some of their requests actually prevented us from doing a good job. Basically, they wanted a product that they could redline and show their program management that the job was done.

On top of that, the people who led the project hadn't planned very well. Some of the instructions we were given earlier caused more trouble later.

Several times, I got so frustrated that I started wondering just how badly I need a house, or a car, or food, or anything. I don’t like being frustrated enough to walk out, but what we were doing was literally like digging a hole and filling it again. I would be given an assignment, then have it taken away and passed to somebody else while I picked up where somebody else left off on another assignment. There was no ownership, and I had no part in the planning of the project at all even though my expertise would have helped make it run smoother. 

I got frustrated one day because I was given a spreadsheet. We were tracing requirements to documents that we had written. We should have done the requirements trace as we went along, but were told not to and “we’ll do it later.” Somebody else supposedly traced these requirements, but I had no idea which document they were traced to. It took me a while to find the right document with the help of the guy who did it. He was given confusing instructions, so I had to repeat work that he already did. He would have done it right had he been allowed to.

It didn't help that I read this one night in the middle of all that frustration:

…Jewish law mandates that no employer may direct a subordinate to dig a ditch one day and to fill it in the next, only to have him reexcavate it on the third day. Early years of experience in mass production and assembly lines during the twentieth century showed that treating workers like automatons and depriving them of meaning in their professional lives was not only immoral but also economically stupid. – Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Thou Shall Prosper, Chapter 4.

During one point where I contemplated walking out in frustration, I gave some thought to this. Obviously, I had to stick around at that point because I’ve got bills to pay and a family to support. 

I generally liked the people that I work with, even the project leader who frustrated us. I think he just didn't have any experience in running a project like this. He also didn't seem to know how to communicate, which led to our frustration. His emails were in riddles, he confused acronyms, and he confused the terms “test procedure” with “step within a test procedure”. That one lead to no end of confusion until I figured it out. That’s as bad as in my last position where people didn’t know the difference between a test procedure and a test plan.

It’s not that that was a high stress environment. I can handle a high stress environment. I actually somewhat like it. I wouldn’t go out of my way to create a high-stress environment for the heck of it, but I don’t mind them. I don’t mind working 12 hour days and traveling half the time AS LONG AS SOMETHING MEANINGFUL IS BEING ACCOMPLISHED. It feels good to get things done and make things happen.

But when your professional life consists of the equivalent of digging a ditch only to fill it back in again, it leads to a high-frustration environment. I don’t deal well with frustration. Stress I can handle, frustration I can’t.

I like to be effective. Just tell me what you want done and get the heck out of my way while I do it. I like to work like that. I like to know what has to be done and make it happen. I wasn't getting that in the months before I was ultimately let go. Sometimes, the assignment changed twice an hour. I was told to do it one way, then to do it another way the next time I talked to my project lead. One time, I had him convinced and had permission to write a new document, then the next time I saw him, “no, we’re not writing new documents. Match the requirements to what we already have.” They don’t match. “It doesn’t matter. Match them.”

OK, would you like me to defy gravity while I’m at it? Grow wings?

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