Oct 29, 2006

Everybody takes a beating sometime.

You might think you know who we are, but we  know  who you are This is one of my favorite quotes from GOODFELLAS:

You might think you know who we are, but we know who you are.

Oct 27, 2006

...And Sometimes The Project Manages You

Doing something "differently" doesn't always translate to "better." However, it's remarkable to see how differently project management is done at other companies and where the boundaries of that position lay from one place to another.

Project Management at ePrize is a pretty tough yolk to bear. Among other responsibilities, PMs interact with clients, modify wireframes, write copy, deal with production resources (also known as SEs, IDs, MMSs, QA, etc -- some of whom can act like bratty children), oh, and manage projects.

A byproduct of this is the boilerplate / cookie-cutter nature of wireframes and copy decks. This used to frustrate me to no end, reviewing a promotion that should be strongly branded only to find that same tired old "We're Sorry! You forgot to enter the following fields:" language. It was only when dealing with clients or third party vendors that employed writers on projects that would strip out or modify the boilerplate enough to make the text relavant to the item being promoted.

Meanwhile, some of our clients would actualy pay attention to the site map that came along with their wireframes. Pity those poor fools. Sitemaps were an afterthought at best and rarely reflected the actual flow of pages in a promotion. In other companies, these sitemaps and wireframes might have gotten a little bit of attention from an internet architect.

Again, that's not to say that other companies that use dedicated writers and internet architects are necessarily better but it's just interesting to see how many roles the poor PMs at ePrize play. Couple this with the fact that these PMs are often straight out of college and given a terrible wage -- usually promotion from Associate PM to full PM doesn't include an increase in pay, only in title -- and it really becomes something else.

We Care A Lot

Get On The Bus With all of the predictions given to the media of humungous growth of the company, it's surprising (if not altogether puzzling) that ePrize would move their headquarters into a building that had such limited parking. Even with re-striping the main lot, the parking situation was ideal for the lean, mean company of early 2005 but abysmal for the behemoth of 2006.

Even in the summer of 2005 the situation was tight. I was recommended to Upper Management (I refuse to say "Leadership") that they park in the side lot over on 10 Mile and walk the extra few yards in order to show that they were giving the "primo" spots to the regular working stiffs. Wow, what solidarity! What example!

Eventually it was decided that off-site parking was needed. Inconvenient? You betcha. And as these winter months engulf us, I can remember the cold biting into me as I would stand waiting for the bus that would take me over to the Detroit Zoo (with the other animals) at the end of the day. Through the Michigan darkness I could still make out the empty parking spaces all around me in the main lot. Despite getting in later and leaving earlier than we poor saps who took the bus, that whole thing about Upper Management volunteering for slight inconvenience / self-sacrifice went out the window once the bus to the off-site lot started running. Wow, what solidarity! What example!

Not only did they park in the main lot, but — on those days that we might get out on time (to go home and work that night) — we got to take in the sight of a certain BMW conspicuously occupying a handicap spot as we stood in the cold and rain. This is the same spot that my pregnant coworkers were denied use of since they weren't "officially handicapped."

Rabbi Parking

Oct 24, 2006

What's In A Name?

A rose by any other name still smells as sweet, correct? While reminiscing with some fellow exprizers today, we got to talking about the poor Interface Developer group. Those guys went through quite a identity crisis over the years.

When I first started at ePrize, the group of four or five guys were just getting used to being called "Interface Developers". Some people were against this title change as it sounded too much like "In Your Face." Um, "Get A Grip."

Apparently, it was quite a struggle to come up with "Interface Developers." This was the final entry in an endless list of names.

Before they were "IDs", they were "HSs" -- Doesn't roll of the tongue, does it? That stood for "HTML Specialists". As far as I'm concerned, they could have just as easily had been called "Code monkeys" and had more respect. They were branded with that name in order to "keep them in their place." Before they were "HTML Specialists", they were more jacks of more trades. By "calling them out their name," they were being told to not do the things that they were capable of doing and leave this up to "the experts."

This controversial moniker replaced their original job title: Design Technologists. That was a pretty fair name. In their original role, the DTs (not to be confused with "delirium tremens") were partially responsible for look-and-feel and also for creating the back-end of promotions (created via a relatively simple fill-in-the-blanks interface).

Why didn't they go back to "DT" after their period of punishment as "HS" was over? You've got me. To make things even more confusing, they eventually split into "IDs" and "MMSs" -- MultiMedia Specialists. I suppose that "Flash monkeys" would have sounded too harsh.

Oct 22, 2006

One Big Happy Family

I recieved another email today with this attached to it. It's a very rough sketch detailing some of the relationships behind the scenes at ePrize. I won't swear to either it's validity or accuracy but it does explain a few "how did he get hired?" and "why is she still working here?" scenarios. Feel free to post any corrections or clarifications.


Muddah, Faddah kindly disregard this letter.

Nevermind Well, gosh, don't I have egg on my face? Here I was ragging on how ePrize is but I found out that it's all peaches and herb now. Via email I recieved a missive in which I was informed that ePrize is now a worker's Utopia.

Enough employees (and all qualified) for the workload, increased morale, locked down processes, rewarding folks for a job well done. It's practically the land of milk and honey!

Gosh, I'm sorry if I brought anyone down. I don't want to harsh your cool, man. I didn't realize that there had been such a radical shift in the last few weeks. Bravo! Enjoy the halcyon days!

Oct 21, 2006

Ours Is Not To Reason Why

As I mentioned in my last post, I often wonder why exactly I was dismissed from ePrize. The reason I was given during the dismissal process was, um, less than illuminating.

When I think about it, I often come back to a few things that may have contributed:
  1. My Wall Quote: See last post.

  2. My (Percieved) Antisemitism: One of my friends still insists that I was targetted as being a bad egg when I was joking around with the company's resident comedian, comparing Jedis with Jewish people due to the midichlorian versus bloodline connection. It's true that, for a comedian, this guy had no sense of humor. So maybe my joke offended. (No one ever bothered to find out my own background on this...)

  3. El Diablo Bobblehead
  4. My Private IMs: It was only a matter of hours after I confided in one of my oldest coworker pals that my recently-appointed supervisor was being more of a hindrance than a help to our department due to his substandard coding skills that I was shown the door. Could all those rumors about our Jabber convesersations being an open book to anyone who care to read them be true?

  5. My Oldest Coworker Pal: Maybe I had misjudged just how good a friend this guy was. After all, he was the hatchet man and had been the messenger when it came to my autumnal demotion.

  6. My Seeking of Greener Pastures: As Jabber was an open book, so were our emails. Any sending of resumes probably set off some klaxons. Likewise, my appearance on Monster and Career Builder undoubtedly popped up on the radar. It was akin to sin to even think of playing the field. As one guy who had his job offer rescinded was told after he asked for a day to think over the two offers on his plate, "ePrize doesn't play second fiddle to anyone."

  7. My Concern For Others: I was always the guy who asked "uncomfortable" questions at meetings in order to make sure that all of our bases were covered. I brought up risks and ran possible worst case scenarios just to ensure that we might avoid pitfalls. Thus, I was occasionally seen as not being a team player. This was most noticable when I queried about a person's stock options if they ever became an ex-employee. I asked this with a problem ex-employee who demanded an optional bonus after they were dismissed in mind. How ironic, then, that I would be the ex-employee...

  8. My "Fear of Change": I was the fly in the ointment; the monkey in the wrench. I was a friggin' boy scout at work -- loyal, trustworthy and true -- but I was constantly bumping heads with my immediate supervisor who saw me as some kind of naysayer. During my time there he promoted someone over me (who later crashed and burned), and hired two potential replacements (both who crashed and burned -- one of them before he was moved into my position, one after). Add to that my caution when it came to adopting asinine technology and I was on the minus side of the spreadsheet.

  9. My Suggested Goal For 2006: Each year we're asked to provide a goal for the company's "top eleven" list. For 2006, after not having had a raise in 18 months and knowing how little my team members and I were making, I requested that a survey be made of all local agencies and that our pay rate be adjusted according to industry standard.
Okay, that's it. Usually when it comes to performance there are things that come up on a review or that you get sat down and talked to privately about. I didn't have these discussions -- no clear cut "we have a problem with these two or three things" lists. I had one panicked talk after I asked about the stock options for ex-employee thing but that was before I started actively seeking new work. If anything, that conversation might have been a contributor to my need for a new employer (that and the "No Limits" campaign).

My dismissal came out of left field. With every employee that I had to let go, there were several discussions and, often, these were well-documented. When I had a problem with people, I didn't want any grey areas. I listed out examples of the behaviors I needed modified and provided examples of less-than-stellar performance. I also made sure to have weekly check-ins with folks. None of that happened with me.

In other words, it was an exceptional experience -- in many senses. At least I got a huge severance package for my many years of loyal service, right? Think again. I got no more than if I had been working there five weeks. And Unemployment? Yeah, they tried to fight it. Luckily, the State found in my favor -- perhaps for that aforementioned lack of any kind of paperwork or warning.

I was surprised that there wasn't a paper trail a mile long that I wasn't privy to, however, since I had been instructed to keep a diary of any "problem employees." If that diary happened to be, um, generated after the fact... them's the breaks.

Quote Unquote

When you read articles about ePrize you often come across passages describing the "inspirational quotes" that line the walls of the Pleasant Ridge location. From George S. Patton to Seth Godin to Abraham Lincoln with even ePrize luminaries like chief investor (and Rock Financial magnate) Dan Gilbert; the walls resemble a John Bartlett fever dream.

When you're a cog, you expect to get moved around a lot. The wheel keeps on turning so you keep on moving desks -- usually to a smaller and smaller location. Luckily, I never had to sit at a folding table, I managed to snag a desk each time in my dozen or so moves.

With my last move I had my workspace reduced be half. The, uh, "good part" of this is that I got to sit in a newly renovated portion of the factory. That meant all new quotes to stare at every day.

Out of breath from my trips up and down the back stairs to move my stuff -- half to my tiny desk, half out to my car -- I was just starting to unpack when the CEO wandered by and asked me something. It took me a while to figure out what he actually said but I thought he asked, "Any quotes today?"

"Yeah," I said, thinking of trying to pack up all of my things and fit them onto my new desk, "Here's my quote: 'It's like packing ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag.'"

What he had asked was my opinion on the quotes on the wall -- as if I had had time to read them. I often wonder if this was one of the moments that contributed to me being dismissed a few weeks later.

Hang In There In retrospect, the quotes weren't so bad as having those darned "Hang in there" kittens or those crappy Zig Ziglar-inspired (and Gary Busey-quoted) "TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More" / "FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real" posters.

I didn't know just how self-satisfied Upper Managment was with these quotes until I heard that there was actually talk of trying to get some of them into Bartlett's next edition.

Oct 18, 2006

Wherefore Art Thou, QA?

A former ePrizer sent me a link to a current Instant Win promotion for Harrahs. Wow. I'm curious what happened in the short amount of time since I'd been at ePrize when everything on the front end looked tight. In my earlier posting about ePrize reverting to "old school" table-based HTML. At least with that the front end looked okay, even if it wasn't optimal from a back end perspective.

This Harrahs promotion, though, whew! It stinks on ice. Take a look at the homepage.

Not only is there no font face specified in the CSS (desipite tons of span tags that refer to an undefined "textTimes13" class) but there are also these funky line breaks all over the place. Taking my font down from its "natural" setting on Firefox makes the text line up correctly but there are hard-coded <br /> tags all over the place. That's just the first page. Let's not even talk about the placeholder "Back" link on the error page that is referred to as a "Back Button" despite it not being a button. And then there are the monstrosities disguised as pop up windows for the FAQ and Rules pages...

I can only say that neither the Interface Developers (or whatever they're calling themselves these days) nor Quality Assurance caught this and raised a fuss. I remember hearing horror stories of how stringent QA could be and I just don't see the folks of old allowing such slop to get through to the public.

Oct 17, 2006

Beware the Ides of March

The Winner I wasn't invited to this reindeer game so forgive me if I get the details slightly incorrect.

One of the things that I found most distasteful at ePrize wasn't (insert roster of gripes here) but a little something I found out about much after the fact. Apparently during March Madness, there wasn't simply one bracket going around the office but two. One was the typical playoff flowchart of college basketball teams while the other was some kind of sexist configuration of "the hottest chick at ePrize."

Boys will be boys but you'd think that this idea would be poo-pooed if not outright squashed by anyone in Upper Management that got wind of it. You'd think that, but the truth was that at least one of them endorsed the idea via his participation. Knowing that he was being a very naughty boy for this behavior, he was able to deny culpability by engaging members of the IT department to submit his brackets for him. No sense in leaving a paper trail!

As I write about this, I feel my stomach turn yet again. Objectificaiton, humiliation, sexism, and harassment. These are the words that roll through my mind in time with my gut. I'm done. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Oct 16, 2006

Iron Sulfide

Do I think you're a fool if you still work at ePrize? No, not at all. This Blog is not meant to insult the finer folks trapped in the purple, red, and green prison in Pleasant Ridge. That'd be like making fun of the cons in Folsom Prison.

Sometimes you just need to shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Likewise, sometimes you just need to take a job that's going to pay you lower-than-industry-standard wages to perform an insane amount of work at a breakneck pace. Added benefits include giving up your tedious family and doffing your self worth.

ePrize is a terrific job for kids right out of college. They get a taste of the corporate world (disguised as a "we're just a big happy family" mom & pop shoppe) and get an addition to their nascent resume. They also get some war stories to tell around beers at the local brewpub and maybe enough scratch to get an apartment.

The biggest challenge that these young pups will face is finding the time to update that resume. Often job hunting can be a job in itself.

So, no, I don't think that you're a fool for sticking around. I realize you're busy. I only think that you might deluding yourself if you feel that you've got a career on your hands. It takes a very specific cut of person to fit into the tribe of "lifers" there. Even those folks can make the mistake of resting on their laurels for a moment and find themselves kicked to the curb without ceremony -- or a decent severance package.

Oct 14, 2006

Content To Be A Jerk

"...[W]hy are you obsessed with bashing the company? Was it because your attitude sucked while you were here and you [got] fired for it?"

I used to be a Kool-Aid addict. Not only did I drink it, but I'd put a few drops behind my ear each morning. I even sold it. I parroted the Company Line like it was gospel. Like Paul of Tarsus after his experience on the road to Damascus, I was a zealot.
  • "We only hire A players..."
  • "This isn't a nine to five job..."
  • "We value the ideas of every employee..."
  • "Someday a company's going to come along and put us out of business..."
  • "We want to get the right people on the bus..."
Jim Jones I preached the Company Line to employees old, new, and potential. I was the calm, little center of the world. The danger of such an ethusiastic Kool-Aid addict? I was so fervid in my dedication that I was a powderkeg of loyalty. My love was like oxygen.

All it took for to set it off was betrayal. When I found out that the Company Line about "hard work deserves rewards" was a fallacy I became disillusioned. My undying allegiance soured. Alas, alas, alas.

Thank goodness for dizgruntled who opened the floodgates, demonstrating that blogging is a terrific form of therapy. Likewise, it's validating to read about the experiences of others and find that we shared so many of the same traumatic episodes.

I guess it's difficult to not come across as bearing a "victim mentality" when you've been victimized. :)

Oct 12, 2006

You Shall Know Our Velocity

Even if you leave on good terms, don't worry. You'll soon be vilified by your former fellow employees. There were a million little things you did that were wrong, if not criminal. You may have been Employee Of The Year but you'll be remembered as being a surly prick. Scorn will be heaped upon you and you will be burned in effigy.

If you didn't leave on the best of terms, this will only be worse. Heaven forbid if you were terminated. You can count on lots of lies to be told about you: "We gave them plenty of warning and had spoken to them on numerous occasions."

That could be true. Or it could have been that it just came a time when upper management just decided, "This Friday we're going to let some people go. Let us know who you'd like to see go." I wish I was lying, but... (see comments)

Don't let this fear of being the brunt of aspersions or having your good character maligned keep you from doing what you may need to do. You can either take the abuse now or just be scapegoatted after you're nothing but a bad memory.

Idea Factory

When I first started at ePrize I thought that the coolest thing going on was the "Idea Meeting" that the ID team lead each week. It was a no holds barred gathering of people who were paid to be creative as well as Sales assistants, PMs, QA guys, and Sales people. Even the secretary would show up. Other than one blowhard IT guy, the eclectic (and ever shifting) group thought outside of the box (much like the ePrize logo).

The format of the meeting was simple. Each week various Sales people would come in with a handful of clients and they'd give a bit of background on who they are and what they wanted to accomplish. From there it became a freeform riff that dipped into the arsenal of already developed tools ("How about a scratch-n-win where we had...") as well as completely off the wall (and usually brilliant) ideas that would have pushed the envelope. As the head Sales guy always said, "The bigger the idea, the bigger the budget." We were encouraged to think big.

The coolest part of that meeting was the aftermath. Here we were throwing around ideas for a client one month and building our ideas the next. I got to see some of my ideas used in national campaigns! Moreover, it was a great team building exercise as our brainstorms were fueled by the energy and creativity of one another.

I wasn't paid to be creative. That wasn't in my job description. But here I could be as creative as I wanted. I even did some sketches! And I wasn't the only one spreading my wings. I mentioned the secretary being there -- she often came up with some of the best ideas!

Sadly, this revelry didn't last for long after I got to ePrize. This meeting was taken away from the ID team and given to a newly formed department -- Strategy.

"Department" is kind of a strong word for Strategy as it was one guy running it -- the COO's cousin. The weekly idea meetings carried on briefly and then suddenly stopped. After that there was the only occasional meeting, usually for a larger client. Gone was the big group brainstorm -- we were split into groups and cast into different areas of the building. And, after a few of these, the idea meeting stopped altogether.

By the time we moved from the Farmington Hills location to the Pleasant Ridge location the Strategy team had expanded (to at least two) and only grew after that. Oddly, the most Strategy people we got, the less we heard from them. We would get a random email newsletter that pretended it was sent on a regular basis. There were also some "Lunch And Learns" (another excuse to have to stay at the office for lunch) where participants were subjected to dull power point presentations of facts and figures that were seemingly related to our business model but never quite fit.

During my last few months at ePrize I can't recall seeing, much less interacting, with anyone from this mysterious department of misfits. I don't know where the ideas came from anymore but there seemed to be a dearth of them.

We've Got The Neutron Bomb

Admiral Akbar: It's A Trap! Just a word of warning to anyone that might be employed at ePrize... If your boss ever tells you that they've got a plan for you and your career path: run. Get that resume out and start pounding the pavement (I know, I know, it's hard when you're working 100 hours a week to find time to interview or even put a CV together).

"A Plan" can take shape in several ways:
  1. It's a carrot. If you do a good job with this, we'll create a new position for you or move you to the department you want.
  2. It's a set-up. We want to put you in a position where you're destined to fail so we can get rid of you.
  3. It's a bluff. We want to keep you around so we'll tell you that we've had you on a career path you weren't even aware of.

Oct 11, 2006


Despite the chanting (see "Beginning of the End" post), it looks like ePrize is, indeed, running in place. They're at the same place on the coveted Promo 100.

Out of curiosity, did Ray Clark send any smarmy notes when this announcement was made?

Chariots of Fire

In the pursuit of beating a metaphor horse while it's dead, I'm going back to the "running in place" idea.

The quote from Amanda Cooper's Entrepreneur Magazine article of November 2004 has been said ad nauseum in the hallowed halls of ePrize: "Some day, a company will come along and put us out of business, so it might as well be us."

Of course, some at ePrize are so full of themselves that they feel they are completely alone in their field; alone without competition. To that end they made up a fake company to motivate employees (as if the constant fear of firing and sweatshop mentality isn't enough).

Says CEO Josh Linkner in Leigh Buchanan's Inc magazine article of September 2006: I decided if a nemesis doesn't exist, let's create one. I made up a company called Slither. Slither is our head-to-head arch-evil enemy; its CEO is Gordon Gekko. They never have a down quarter. They have better clients and margins and employee retention than we do. They're more efficient and are growing faster.

Lame Wall Street reference aside (at least it wasn't Severus Snape), it wouldn't take a Slither to ePrize out of business -- that is, to shed the old skin of a promotions company (where "eSweeps are made Easy") where the latest innovation is a rehashed idea for the early days of the company (SweepsXpress) and branch out into new, cutting edge technologies.

In a company that touts ideas as being their most important asset, a sometimes a great notion gets tossed out on its ear in favor of sticking to the safer ground. Every time I see a commercial, promotional spot, print ad, or even supermarket standee that says "Enter for a chance to win... Text ______ to ______ and..." I think of one of the Project Managers at ePrize who tried to champion TXT/SMS/WAP as the next great frontier of interactive promotions.

He was poo-pooed for months. After he put together a terrific presentation of the presence of TXT in the U.S. (don't forget that TXT is far more popular in Europe where ePrize struggles to make a splash) and the potential of TXT in the industry... not a lot happened. There were and are a few odd promotions that tie into TXT but if there are more... I'm not seeing them.

Personally, I always felt that it was silly to outsource or utilize vendors for some of the simpler tasks that could be internalized. And, here again we could provide more services and more customized solutions to clients.

"The NEXTEL promotion generated over 2 million SMS messages generated in a 10-week period." Oddly, this fact was removed from "The ePrize Factor" page of ePrize.com
Who knows how many other ideas died on the vine or went unnoticed despite the alleged desire for feedback (see Project Gold Medal post). These are the ideas that could "put ePrize out of business." Undoubtedly, these are the kind of things that Slither can offer to its clients.

After the first press release from the fictional Slither company, there were reactions like: "Who are these guys? I checked out their website and couldn't find it.". What Linkner may not realize is that he did too good of a job selling Slither. The report I got from several employees (most of them ex-employees now) was that they started looking for Slither's website to see if they were hiring!

I'm surprised that there wasn't a fake website with a fake "employment" section in order to entrap disgruntled employees. Knowing that putting one's resume on Monster.com is a "red flag" to an employee's loyalty, the lack of this refined shiftiness shocks me.

Project Ostrich

Of all the lunch meetings I had -- and these were anywhere between four and five a week -- one of the two that I actually looked forward to was the gathering of all the discipline leads. Once a month this would also include upper management. When upper management wasn't around the leads managed to hash out some differences and create processes that made work life a bit smoother. This was also the time to openly bitch and see if anyone else was having the same issues or problems.

It was theraputic and productive.

However, when upper management was in the room I was surprised that there wasn't a folding card table set up for the leads to sit at like Thanksgiving at Grandma's. "You team leads sit over at the Kids' Table."

When the grown ups were around the discussion became rather one sided. We were being told what to do, not asked. Odd things would come up, usually around the "dis-employment" of an employee.

In one meeting it was kind of halfheartedly tossed out that the company would be firing one of its PMs who "just wasn't working out."

Rather than placidly taking this comment in stride, there was a tension immediately introduced to the table. I was first to break the silence. "Wait... I thought we were moving him to another position rather than getting rid of them." (The whole "putting the right person in the right seat on 'The Bus' being a key idea to the person proposing the firing).

Another person spoke up, "Right, if we were firing him, why did I go to all the trouble to test out his skills for my department?"

A general murmer of discontent rounded the table. It was made more ironic that the person proposing this firing had just been chiding "the kids" for not being clear in their communication and here he was with a completely different message than any of us had gleaned in previous conversations -- and assignments.

Believe it or no, but we went around the table to get the general concensus of the group. "Did you think that we were firing him or moving him?" All but our intrepid upper management representative was under the (mistaken, of course) impression that we were moving this employee to another position in hopes that his skillset would mesh better and that he would be able to bloom in a new role.

This person moved to the new role and was summarily fired six months later -- no discussion that time.

These leads meetings eventually were kiboshed altogether. This happened after one lead -- who had been bucking to get into upper management -- decided to pick a fight during this meeting with the wrong person; me. He started ragging on my team and talking about how inefficient they were. Likewise, he wanted to offload some of his teams' responsibilities onto the shoulders of my team members. I wasn't having any of this. I kept asking that if job task X, Y, and Z were being done by my team, what the F would that leave his team to do?

Apparently, though this was a lively discussion, it wasn't deemed to be "productive" enough and, thus, five minutes after the end of this meeting a cancellation notice went out. We never had another leads meeting again.

Oh, and four months later this person that was bucking for an upper-management position got it. He demoted me and heaped those aforementioned tasks onto myself and my team.

Oct 10, 2006

Company by Max Barry

Company by Max Barry Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program [...] I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. -- Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) from The Matrix.

What if the creators of The Matrix had started their own company rather than designing the ultimate virtual reality? In Company, author Max Barry describes the too-typical American company, Zephyr. A holdings company with no clear purpose or source of profitability, Zephyr is a behemoth of mismanagement and corporate dogma. We witness the lunacy of Zephyr through the eyes of Jones (first names promote unnecessary fraternization), a new employee who dares to ask difficult questions such as, "What does Zephyr actually do?" The answer he gets most often is to not rock the boat.

Barry does a great job capturing the idiosyncratic quirks of all the expected archetypes, Catch-22 logic, and overused buzzwords (“You want me to de-prioritize my current reports until you advise of a status upgrade?”). In long screeds, Barry describes – among other things -- the psychology of upper-management, the self-loathing of employees, and the desire to outsource (“The truly flexible company [...] doesn't employ people at all. This is the siren song of outsourcing. The seductiveness of the signed contract. Just try out the words: no employees. Feels good, doesn't it? Let the workers suck up a little competitive pressure. Let them get a taste of the free market.”)

Highly recommended.

Oct 9, 2006

Not to sound like Mr. Pink...

I'm a consumer whore. I admit it. I'm a sucker for drive-through service and overly processed foodgoods. But there's got to be a place where I draw the line. I'm not sure how much the baristas at Star Bucks make but I just can't bring myself to tip them more than the change from my order, especially as the ones taking my drink order are usually surly.

But I just can't bring myself to tip when I use the drive thru at Star Bucks. I'm already paying upwards of six dollars (!) for a damn cup of coffee and a muffin. And they want a tip on top of that? Worse yet, I couldn't reach the tip jar unless I was Reed Richards.

"I don't tip because society says I have to. All right, if someone deserves a tip, if they really put forth an effort, I'll give them something a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, it's for the birds. As far as I'm concerned, they're just doing their job."

Oct 5, 2006

A Fun Game

Here's a fun game. How many employees in this picture from July 26, 2006 are still employed at ePrize?

Note the Kaizen poster in the background (back, left)


I've never one for stating the obvious. Moreover, I've never been one to write a report to state the obvious. But I've done it. Oh, yes, I've done it.

Before the well-publicized hiring frenzy at ePrize it was pulling teeth to get new bodies into the Production Department. There were arguments, there were justifications, there were pleads, and there were reports.

I was told by my boss that, according to one weekly report that our comptroller provided, my department should be running at 75% efficiency. As it was, the overworked and underpaid group was running at 110% on average. That means that more than every hour of their days were billable (lunch isn't billable, remember). So, I broke out my abacus to cypher the correct number of employees to put people down to 75%. I was so proud of myself, I even figured in vacation time for the current amount of employees plus the time allotted for any new folks (though piddly it be).

I gussied it up, threw in some charts, and all that jazz and presented it formally to my boss.

Again with the punchline: "We reconsidered that number last week. We actually think that people should be working at 85%."

Okay, so even at that amount, we need more employees. "Write it out and submit it. We'll think about it."

Oct 4, 2006


Two things always stuck in my craw when it came to data integration. Certainly there's always security concerns but why would I, as a user, want to put in my information when registering for a Yahoo or NWA promotion when they already have my info? If I have a Worldperks number, that means that NWA has my name, address, et cetera. At most they should want to ask me to opt-in for more information or reminder emails if the promotion has multiple chances to win. Alas, each time a user registers for an NWA promotion, they have to enter in all of that info time and time again.

The real shame, I suppose, is that we managed to get buy in from Yahoo that a user can enter in their Yahoo ID and, if it validates, their registration form will be pre-populated. None of that re-registering malarky. The sad part is that we invested so much time and money making this happen only to apparently never do another Yahoo promotion!

And, to go back to NWA, I found a lot of broken pages when doing research for my blog entry from the other night. Apparently, I missed NWA's "BIG 2-0" promotion. But the fine folks at FlyerTalk (great info for ways to score upgrades and mileage for NWA and other Frequent Flyer programs) definitely had some problems. For more info click here.

Project Gold Medal

It's funny to think that there's an intiative at ePrize to 'reduce the suckiness'. I was just thinking back to the times when upper management would occasionally ask for suggestions via email. During one of those times I was lucky enough to snag a copy of everyone's emails. I went through with a fistful of highlighters, picking out common threads and putting them in the same color.

There was one overwhelming suggestion -- Project Teams. That is, grab one PM, one SE, one IE, and maybe even one QA (a common designer would be used) and utilize these cross-discipline folks for a pre-determined set of clients. There were variations on this theme -- breaking the PM group into smaller, bite sized pieces and assigning a team of Production workers to them so they'd always know who was assigned to their projects and bruilding a rapor not only between PMs and Production but also between PMs and their clients. There had been a precident set with the Engagement Managers and clients so why not carry that mindset throughout the production cycle.

Page after page I saw this. My yellow highlighter was just about dry by the time I made it through the sixty-odd pages of ePrizer constructive criticism and outright bitching.

The funny part? While discussing the employee feedback with my boss I remarked, "Wow, I sure saw a lot of people wanting Project Teams!"

His response: "Really? I hadn't noticed that." Unfortunately, he wasn't joking around.

When something like Project Gold Medal comes about, then, it makes me wonder what's making it through the haze. When 80% of the company says basically the same thing and the message neither gets through nor gets adopted, will something like Project Gold Medal -- a "project" with the goal of company improvement -- be effective at all?

Project Gold Medal

Oct 2, 2006

Happy Yom Kippur!

I know that smart ePrizers will not be looking at this blog from work today as I'm sure that it's being monitored (like Monster, Career Builder, your jabber conversations, your email, et cetera) and I know that all folks working Production jobs are in today. Regardless, sometimes it's nice to work on Yom Kippur as there are a lot fewer requests and people to be in the way as 90% of the management team out of the office (OOTO) today. Try to enjoy it!

Oct 1, 2006

One step forward, two steps back, run in place.

I helped to implement quite a bit of change at ePrize, including pushing us from HTML 1.0 “table based” layouts to fully standards-compliant extensible HTML (XHTML) and Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) driven websites. This was done via consensus building (rather than mandate setting as done by the former “leader” of the team). We proved out that our web audience was finally to a point that would support this technology and showed that adopting it would save us a considerable amount of build time while making invariable client changes far easier and faster to do. In a business where every minute counts, any kind of time-saving is appreciated.

Before I was left ePrize, it looked as if my team were on their way out. In a bold move, one of my coworkers seized power of his group by promoting the idea that the entire company would move from HTML-based promotions to Flash-based promotions. This plan included an entirely new technology to build architecture for these promotions utilizing some “bleeding edge” uses for Flash, PERL, and XML. Luckily, he and his team had just the right guy to do this; one of those almost scary computer geniuses.

The irony here is that after my departure it was deemed necessary to utilize several outsourcers in an attempt to replace me. I’m not sure how many people it finally shook out to equal one of me but I do know that these folks were unable (or unwilling) to use the XHTML+CSS. Thus, they were allowed to take two steps back and go old school with HTML tables (or they’d overcode their XHTML+CSS leaving a mess of <div> tags peppering their work).

Exampls: * No "Enter for a chance to", just "Win".

Meanwhile, there were a handful of Flash-based promotions and the idea of this quickly went the way of the dinosaur. There just weren’t enough developers who could handle the new technology (and they eventually migrated to other companies). Eventually, this technology was hacked apart and put to nefarious ends by making a “one stop shop” application for sweepstakes. Some of the new folks working there don’t know that this is simply a resurrection of an older, contentious idea that lived a short life and died a painful, lingering death like a cancer victim.

They’re running in place while I’m the one fearing change.

Hand on a Hot Stove

If I could have snuck a peek at my personnel record from ePrize, I’m sure that everything could have been encapsulated with two simple words, “Fears Change.”

I had been at the company for years, seeing it grow from a typical “Internet Startup” to a booming ad agency. I had survived scads of firings and waves of hirings. Moreover, I had initiated countless programs, created processes, and actively participated in making the company a success. If I feared change, then I was at the wrong place. I would have been petrified by the daily growth and rapid transformation. So, where did I get the bad rep?

As far as I can glean, it all came from an exchange that occurred after I’d been at the company for about a year. There was an emerging discussion about redoing the company’s website. The site that online when I was interviewed was nearly enough to tell this company to shove off. It was a garish collection of concentric circles that looked decidedly broken in Netscape 4.x, my browser of choice in those days.

When it came time for the site’s refresh, one of the software engineers started rallying that the site should be redone in Dynamic HTML (DHTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Meanwhile, another coworker was running Flash up the flagpole to see if anyone would salute. It became my obligation to put things in perspective for everyone.
Problems with coding DHTML technologies WILL occur as long as each browser creates its own proprietary features and technology that is not supported by other browsers. A Web page may look great in one browser and horrible in another.
For our company website – the site that our potential customers were going to peruse – we should utilize the technology that we were using for all of our current sites and not rely on technology that either needed Third Party plug-ins or that were incompatible with half of the world’s web browsers. Yes, DHTML, CSS and Flash were cool, but they were impractical for our purposes at the time.

For the next few years my semi-annual reviews all said, “Unwilling to learn new technologies.” It didn’t matter that my boss didn’t even know what DHTML was or why I didn’t want to adopt it, he only saw me not jumping feet first into a new (albeit impractical) area. From then on, I was a marked man. Whenever I would bring up a point of caution I was viewed as being some stick in the mud who was throwing up roadblocks to progress (“You may not want to put your hand on the stove burner, it’s hot.”)

The Beginning of The End

When I got back from lunch there was a smoke machine by my desk. I practically tripped over the bulky wires from the makeshift sound system and had to dodge the seven stands that were draped in green butcher paper.

The office had been decorated the night before in our garish company colors; red, green, and purple. It was time for our annual roll-out of the new catch phrase. In late 2004 our space was transformed into something resembling a Chinese whorehouse with paper lanterns, dragons, streamers, and so many fortune cookies that we were snacking on them into June of the following year. That was “The Year of the Client,” the bastard child of Jack Mitchell’s Hug Your Customer and Kenneth Blanchard’s Raving Fans. In a nutshell, YOTC (or “yutz” as it was often called) gave a phrase to the “you’ll do it and you’ll like it” mentality of bending over for our clients. Late nights, weekends, whatever it took.

I didn’t have a clue as to the new theme. It probably related to our book club again. It seemed that whenever upper management read anything, they immediately bought into it. It was the “any kind of change is a good change” mentality that threw us into some pretty precarious spots, only saved by the figurative blood and literal sweat and tears of the peons that pulled us through those poor leadership choices. The rumour had been that our fall read, Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat was the clarion call of outsourcing, and judging from the rampant use of freelancers (esp. Romanians), there seemed to be a grain of truth to that proposition. But where would a smoke machine fit into all of that? Unless I was to take it that this would provide the smoke and that mirrors would be brought in later when the management team showed up.

The smoke machine belched out a putrid cloud while music bellowed from the sound system. Running into our midst, like a pack of wild idiots, came our entire management team. They were all dressed in black t-shirts, black pants, sunglasses, and purple capes. Like something out of an episode of “Batman” or my darkest nightmare, they all began posing and mock fighting for what seemed like forever.

The theme to 2006 was revealed. "No Limits." It was some kind of superhero theme with valuable corporate buzzwords associated with various caricatures of employees associated with ideals such as "Creativity" and "Kaizen". WTF is "Kaizen"? Good question.

Kaizen, it turns out, comes from Six Sigma (considered by some to be a "codification of mediocrity") that is defined as: Japanese term that means continuous improvement, taken from words 'Kai' means continuous and 'zen' means improvement. Some translate 'Kai' to mean change and 'zen' to mean good, or for the better.

After revealing the various "super heroes," our fearless leader went over the company's (rather, the leadership team's) eleven top ten goals for 2006. When one of them was moving from #3 on the "Promo 100" list to #1, the COO began chanting, "We're number one, we're number one! WE'RE NUMBER ONE!" People joined in... the room became filled with droning, almost desperate, cries of this mantra. I could only think of Homer Simpson when he chants, "U.S.A!" Eyes askew, Homer personifies mindless patriotism. "In your face!"

While they put on this display, I pulled up Monster.com and began to search for new employment.

Everybody's Working On The Weekend

Some Project Managers at ePrize would fight long and hard to avoid having people come in and work on weekends but, eventually, the fight would be taken out of them. Defanged, they knew that this was an inevitability -- something as certain as the sun rising tomorrow.

Yesterday was my first Saturday that I worked in all of 2006. In 2005 as an ePrize employee, I worked 35 weekends; many of these holidays including Labor Day and Christmas. I also worked countless evenings. I'm not talking an hour here or there. I'm referring to full shifts plus some. A typical workday at ePrize for me started at 8AM, paused at 6PM, started again at 7PM and continued on until 12AM. There were occasional bathroom breaks along the way.

While some workers recieved "bonuses" (I use that term with trepidation) for working a weekend, they were pittances. The most ever paid out for a full weekend of work was $1,000 US but that was the exception (an employee was told that his raise was greater than Human Resources was told due to a math error and this was the "make up" for that) and not the $200 US rule (that's roughly $12.50/hr when ePrize charges clients quite a bit more for man hours). Each week, leaders of various groups would have to come to their people and truckle to their team, "Hey guys, we've got some weekend work coming up... any volunteers?"

The secret shame of ePrize came from the fact that if those employees didn't step up to the plate the work was invariably done by the team leader who, due to their "lavish" position (some of them made far less than their employees by $20K a year in some cases) wouldn't receive a red cent. That's right... since they were "leadership," they were denied the bonuses (albeit tiny) that their teammates earned. Same work. Same hours.

All right, I'll be fair. Sometimes it wasn't the same work. After a while ePrize moved skilled laborers out of leadership positions in various Production teams and replaced them with "bumbling boobies." This meant that any weekend work they did was invariably re-done -- or at least patched into a limping semblance of better work -- by their "underlings." It's always a challenge to keep your mouth shut when you know more than your boss; having to fix your bosses mistakes at all times makes that silence even more difficult to maintain.

Seth Godin Say Relax

I was reading Seth Godin's Small Is The New Big this week.

The author of several books that were highly influential to ePrize (Unleashing The IdeaVirus, Permission Marketing, Purple Cow, et cetera), Godin was a keynote speaker at the second ePrize "Summit" in Las Vegas, 2006. The whole permission maketing idea -- offering people a chance to win in order to gather handraisers (or opt-ins) is the crux of the ePrize business model.

The irony to this tale is that in Small Is The New Big, Godin write a condemnation of companies with the sweatshop mentality that ePrize exemplifies. In his "rift" titled "Relax," Godin decries companies that value long hours over time for one's family. He extolls the values of working "smarter, not harder" and how shallow those "war time" memories of all-nighters and emergency deadlines are in retrospect.

A buzz term that comes to mind is "managing expectations." There is little of that at ePrize. It's much more of a "promise the moon" mentality that keeps workers practically chained to their desk. The mantra there is, "This is not a nine to five job." At least there's truth in advertising here. When Godin describes those companies where employees jeopardize their health and marriages for the sake of work, he's talking about ePrize.

Let's hope that, like other books read and treated like the gospel by ePrize's upper management, that Seth Godin saying "Relax" might manage to sink in.