A work colleague from long, long ago recently got in touch to wish me a happy birthday. I don't want to blow smoke up his arse but if I drew up a list of people I'd met in my life blessed with both high mental agility and being a good hang, he would be top percentile. In our email exchange, we both waxed sentimental over the team of extraordinary people we used to work with all those years ago.
This got me thinking. I've had quite a varied and somewhat chequered career in public and private companies of various sizes in various countries, or indeed online, with no particular country at all. The thing that struck me is that one doesn't remember the money. It's always the people, their interactions and incidents that stick in one's mind, which in some ways a better indicator of what makes a particular period of one's career good or not.
I hardly remember my first job at all. It was really just the first thing that came along and I was all but bullied into it by the sour-faced woman in the job centre. It was in a factory that manufactured 'architectural metal' which is unbelievably dull. I was appointed as the 'works clerk'. I soon found out I was really just a go-between, relaying the dictates of management in the office to the workers on the shop floor, then batting back their discontent to the boss. It was an extraordinarily dry, uninspiring job and I lasted about five weeks. The only memory of any richness that stays with me was a prank played on the first of April. There was a young labourer working there who clearly wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He used to cycle to work and always brought his bike inside the factory and parked it in a particular place. The prank was simply that his colleagues hid his bike. The poor guy went to jump on his steed to cycle home for lunch but it wasn't there. He started ranting, running around asking if anyone had seen his bike. Looking on as an outsider, it seemed mildly amusing but all his work-mates were creasing up in fits of hysteria. Eventually I had to ask someone what was so funny. A chap told me "We did exactly the same thing last year. Daft bastard still hasn't twigged it's April the first!"
Humour is a great thing to have in a team, as it binds people together. There was plenty of "esprit de corp" in my next position that arose as a variety of gallows humour. I snagged a three month summer job working in what used to be known as the local 'dole' office, where folk would come to sign the famous 'UB40' form to declare themselves out of work and therefore eligible to receive benefits. In actual fact, the UB40 was only one a several types of form used for people that depended on the type of their employment. For example, actors who were in and out of work all the time, had a yellow form and were known as casuals, but I digress. Anyway, there was never a dull moment in the dole office. With several hundred members of the public coming in every day we saw all walks of life from Royalty (we had a Baron signing on) to tramps. These were the days before security screens. It wasn't unusual to be verbally abused, spat it and occasionally, violence occurred. One guy who was refused benefit showed his displeasure by returning to the office with a bag full of refuse which he emptied out all over the floor. On one occasion my supervisor was in an interview with a claimant who slit his wrists and sprayed blood all over her. There was clearly then an 'us and them' dynamic between the public and the staff. It was curious to feel this social pressure from outside the team, strengthen the ties between the people within it. Very soon I was bonding with my work-mates, playing in their five-a-side team, going out boozing and swapping stories about the events of the day of which there were many. This must be a phenomenon that happens in other walks of life like the police, fire service etc. I was only there for the summer but when I left, I felt curiously closer to these people than most of the kids I'd been at school with over the past seven years.
I had several jobs in the Civil Service. Once you get in it's hard to leave! I was in the Ordnance Survey for a while. If I had to rate all my work experiences, excluding the contribution of people, this was probably the most enjoyable because of the travel. I was part of a small unit with a surveyor and two labourers and each day we would pitch up at eight in the morning to get the day's assignment. It was a bit like Mission Impossible! We never knew where we would be going until we jumped in the van and hit the road. We were limited only by the geographical bounds of our area, SE8H, which covered a big chunk West of London, kind of a square from Slough to Wembley, down to Dorking and Guildford. I found getting out and about everyday enormously enjoyable, as was the unpredictability. I never knew if I would be clambering up scaffolding on a new build block of flats or measuring the distance between street furniture that was the scene of a recent traffic accident. Variety is the spice of life! The public were always curious about what we were up to. During one routine survey a guy came up to me and asked if we were building a new bypass. I assured him it was just a remapping job but he wouldn't let it go.
"I know! You can't tell me. I completely understand, but it's a new road isn't it? All these buildings will be coming down. Come on now, don't deny it, no names no pack drill!", and so he went on, putting words in my mouth, convinced that his little town was soon to be flattened by bulldozers. Eventually I leaned into him, and glancing conspiratorially right and left, I winked and said,
"Loose lips sink ships".
He returned a gleeful smile and doubled-tapped the side of his nostril, which I considered was to indicate that our little secret was safe with him, at least until five minutes later when he would probably share it with the rest of the village. Such are the joys of working with the public.
My last and longest Civil Service job was in the Department For National Savings as it was then called (now re-branded as NS&I). I was there for about twelve years and met a lot of bright, interesting people, some of whom I am still in contact with today. This was a much larger outfit such that from our ranks we were able to put together a half-decent rock band. Despite a rewarding social life though, I felt frustrated by continuing pay and promotion freezes. In 1995 the Dot.com boom was clearly going to be the next big thing and I wanted to be a part of it. So I left the service and became a freelancer.
Working for one's self is a double-edged sword. While one has freedom, with that comes responsibility, the most problematic of which was to actually find work. I'd planned to be a web consultant, however I was a little ahead of the game. I thought it would be a piece of cake to get clients as there were so few people at the time who knew how to build websites. As I found when I started hustling for business, there were very few people who knew what a website was nor why it could be of value to them. I eventually fell back on more familiar IT support roles, grabbing bit of work here and there which kept me going for a year or two. It was really all down to sales and marketing and I quickly came to realise that I wasn't very good at either!
Then I had a stroke of luck which led to me joining the company I mentioned at the beginning that prompted me to write this piece. A relative phoned me one Friday afternoon. He said he had a friend that had a start-up business in Richmond and they were looking for people. He gave me their number and I phoned straight away. I exchanged a few words with the guy who answered the phone and within minutes I was on my way to work. They were so busy they wanted me to come right away. I was with them for two and a half years. It was a blast.
The way they hired me was not untypical. Most people seemed to be there through word of mouth, networking or even chance meetings. One of the owners had apparently met the General Manager at a trade show and pretty much hired him on the spot to run the thing. I later learned the company had been formed by some high-ranking ex-Dell employees. They had a business plan and didn't seem to find it hard to find funding. As the company grew, many bright and interesting people came on board. It was a broad mix of people from super-brainy graduates like my mate to plebs like me, but everyone seemed to fit in and bring something unique to the table and nobody was denied a voice. It was a joyous time.
I should mention at this point, that this company revealed another important factor that can make work enjoyable beyond money alone. There is a special energy and dynamic working in a start-up company which can be its own reward. When you go to work in a well established outfit, each day knowing that the challenges you face will be little different from the day before, well, there is something a little soul destroying about that. In a start-up, things are much more fluid and one meets new challenges all the time which can be quite thrilling. I met an accountant from America who was seconded to us for a while there and he told me he only ever worked for new companies for that reason. Once things are organised and setup to run, he told me that he was out of the door, off to work for the next one.
Regrettably the UK branch in which I worked later folded with much of the management moving to the larger, American twin of the company. I didn't want to move to Texas so I decided to move on and set up my own venture.
I'd met a graphic artist while I was there who seemed to know what he was doing and also claimed to be a sales & marketing whizz, so we decided to join forces to setup a web design company. We worked out of a small subsidised office in Kensington and this time I found myself in the right place at the right time. This was 1998 and everyone wanted a website. Pretty soon, we were the ones doing the hiring. I must say I found being at the top of the company generally far less rewarding than being down below. There were endless meetings and far less of the coal face work that I'd enjoyed as a programmer. However one thing did reward me more than anything work related, either before or since. It was a surprise that came like a bolt from the blue.
I arrived in the office early one morning to be greeted by a young lady we employed as a designer. She had lots of seemingly ancient slips of paper written in 'Copper Plate' spread all over her desk. She explained to me that it was her intention to buy a house with her boyfriend. The documents in front of us were share certificates given to her when she was born. She was trying to figure out how much she would be able to sell them for in order to raise the deposit. I suddenly had the epiphany that the company I had conceived of, co-founded and was a half-owner of, was actually going to be paying for someone's house! It gave me a strange sense of satisfaction and pride that I find difficult to put into words. I've never had children but this must be something like hearing your child's first words or seeing their first steps. Several more employees later obtained mortgages against the salaries we paid them and each time I was really blown away by the feeling.
My business partner and I disagreed over some fundamental issues over the direction of the company and I eventually sold out to him and moved to Spain. My career has slalomed most unpredictably since then, mostly downhill and never bringing forth anything like the job satisfaction that I experienced in the first half of my career. These days I far prefer to be playing my bass guitar than working in an office, though who knows? If an interesting opportunity came along with the chance to work with nice people, I'd probably jump at the chance!