Sunday, March 11, 2012

In the Belly of the Beast

Now comes the twilight of my mediocre engineering career. My skills are outdated and I have grown too expensive, I'm told, to perform technical work on my company's dwindling portfolio of government projects. My career has become an illustration of the Prostitute's Lament, as formulated by business writer Everett T. Sutors: "If you keep doing the same thing long enough, you'll eventually end up doing it for a lot less money."

Last year I was a fat target in the cross-hairs of my company's "greening" initiative (i.e., geezer ejection initiative). To avoid demotion or forced retirement, I fled the technical ranks in November to become a Functional Manager. My title is misleading; I perform no management. Rather, I have joined my company's employee placement system for staffing technical projects. I help hire college kids; I shuttle workers between projects – those workers still young enough to have viable careers – and I commiserate with workers my age who are being booted into a premature retirement. In short, I escaped being a victim of "greening" by hiding within the very belly of the beast.

I am preparing for my new role in the employee placement system by reading an early edition of John Gall's landmark tome Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail (1975). Gall provides a concise summary of his thought on the back of the dust jacket:

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Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a system, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the system itself. New problems are created by its very presence. Once set up, it won't go away, it grows and encroaches. It begins to do strange and wonderful things. It breaks down in ways you never thought possible. It kicks back, gets in the way, and opposes its own proper function. Your own perspective becomes distorted by being in the system. You become anxious and push on it to make it work. Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is what you really wanted all the time.

At that point encroachment has become complete. You have been absorbed. You are now a Systems-person.
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I have not learned enough to achieve absorption yet. After all, it is difficult to fathom the workings of real-life systems, as Gall explains in the book's Introduction:

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If young people lack experience and interest for understanding How Systems Work, older people are already defeated. They may have learned from direct experience a few things about systems, but their experience will have been fragmentary and painful – and in any case, for them the battle is over. No, only a handful – only a lucky few – ever come to a clear awareness of this dread and obscure subject.
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I mean to be one of the lucky few. I may be old, but I'm not defeated. I may be bruised and battered; but I'm still in the battle, even though I'm currently hunkered down in a fox hole out of the line of fire. I will devote myself to understanding the inner workings of the employee placement system. My goal is complete and abiding absorption within the system as an inextricable Systems-person (at least until the time comes when I can retire on my own terms).

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