Saturday, April 19, 2008

Stalking for Prey

They’re out there… looking for victims to satiate their unholy appetites. They usually find their victims among the outcast, the destitute, those poor souls whose dire straits open their minds to the seductive words and sly promises of the predator. When out in the wilds of the world of unemployment, one must beware this dreaded beast, this horror of horrors, this monster that drains its victims and tosses aside the now-useless, empty husk: the corporate vampire.

So what, precisely, do I mean by this pejorative term? Companies that bring people in for short period of time, likely with malice aforethought, to obtain specific knowledge and then, when that outsider has contributed and transferred enough knowledge to solve the problems at hand, they are summarily shown the door. Sometimes this process takes years, and sometimes mere hours.

Interviewing candidates can be a tricky thing; the candidate is usually on their best behavior (though the internet is rife with humorous anecdotes of candidates who blow interviews with enormously, egregiously bad behavior – my personal favorite, from off-hand recollection of one of these emails that circulates around from time to time, is the person who offers to get the company’s logo tattooed prominently if given the job). So there is definitely a legitimate need for the prospective employer to delve into the background and accomplishments of the candidate and try to extract enough information to conclude that, yes, this person’s resume stands up to scrutiny. Does a candidate’s discussion of specific items on their listed accomplishments show they don’t just have a nice bullet point, but can cogently sum up the Situation, Problem, Action, and Results (SPAR) related to said bullet point? Can they show an in-depth understanding, or were they only tangentially involved but are claiming ownership anyway?

(A huge tip to job seekers: Do your homework on the company – whether by internet searches, research librarians, networking contacts, or other sources – to get as much background on the company as possible, focusing on what their specific challenges are. If you can learn their specific challenges (e.g., their products are commodities and they need marketing help to develop a plan to identify new products line opportunities that can differentiate them in the marketplace) you can conclude your bullet point SPAR with a “T” – Transfer – changing SPAR into SPART, where you show how your experience has direct relevance to one of their challenges. Being able to show that what you have done applies to something they need done – again, through doing your background research – can move you from being a candidate to the candidate.)

But there is a fine line between delving into the non-confidential details of the interviewing candidates’ accomplishments to confirm that they have “walked the walk” and attempting to leverage job-seeking candidates as a series of walk-in consultants to pry solutions out of them. This latter is blatantly unethical, IMHO. Of course, if people are so foolish as to volunteer their knowledge…

Some years ago I was unemployed after a large layoff. One of my target areas was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I got my first Masters degree there, liked the city, the surrounding area – and, alas, keep kicking myself for not visiting the Carnegie Museum to see the spectacular dinosaur exhibits while living there. But I digress. I was on an interview with a company whose product was based on ingots grown from a witches’ brew of rare earth elements. They grow these large ingots and then slice & dice these ingots into pieces that are then electrically connected and assembled into the higher-level electronics as radiation detectors. And they did so pretty much all manually; my distinct impression was that their production methods were nothing more than throwing people at the graduate student lab method the originator of this material mixture first used.

I quickly observed that if they could simply reverse the order of two operations, they could eliminate half the labor content. I was told what the objection was, and immediately shot back “Well, what about abrasive water jet cutting?”

The Engineering Manager’s eyes lit up, and his whole face lifted in a huge smile. “YEAH! Water jet cutting!”

I didn’t get the job, but in a several-months-later follow-up note – you never know! – I asked whether or not they had tried it, and to what effect. I clearly stated that I wanted no money, no fame, no glory, not anything – merely to know, from an intellectual curiosity standpoint, whether or not my idea had proven out. I never heard, not even when I wrote to the company President directly. Would it have been that hard to have let me know especially given that I specifically absolved them of any obligation, financially or otherwise? (Or am I just daydreaming about a more chivalrous age gone by?)

Needless to say, however, I learned my lesson about giving solutions away during interviews. Downsized from another employer, a topic about which I will write later in this piece, I managed to land an interview with my just-former employer’s competition. One of my bullet point items was something to the effect that I had identified a substitute plastic material that my estimates showed would save the company about half my annual salary per year – something directly transferable to this potential employer. An engineer interviewing me asked what kind of plastic it was, and the exchange went on:

Me: “It was a different plastic.”

Engineer: “Sounds great, what was it?”

Me: “A different kind of plastic – all the relevant material properties were, actually, better.”

Engineer: “Amazing, what kind of plastic was it?”

Me: “A different plastic.”

Engineer: “OK, but what was that plastic?”

Me: “A different one than the one being used.”

It finally sunk in that I was not going to divulge a tidbit that could make him look good at my expense. But this attitude is common; in the job search group I run people complain of going on interviews where companies attempt to wheedle from them not only legitimately-needed evidence of their competency, but solutions to ongoing problems they have. And to some extent, this can be a way to sell yourself. “Do the work” is a recommendation by Nick Corcodilos of Ask The Headhunter, and his ideas about rolling up your sleeves and showing your competency by doing – and thereby completely restructuring the interview – has many merits to highlighting yourself as an exceptional candidate.

But candidates can (and should!) carefully tread that line between showing enough to prove competency and ability, and “giving away the farm” as an inadvertent walk-in consultant – and shame on companies that use interviews as a cheap source of solutions. More insidious, however, is the company that actually hires people with the intent that they will be short term employees; the given understanding among the “core” persons in the company is that the person’s term will expire once said core sufficiently understands that person’s knowledge sets.

Now, please note something important. This next is a screed. I am not objective in this. And I could be wrong about the motivations of one particular former employer. What I will write about are factual deeds I did, and my opinion as to the intent of the company, and all of it filtered through my own biased – and admittedly bitter – perspective. With that in mind, and legalistic disclaimers about these following thoughts as pertaining to this company’s motivations being my pure opinion and my biased perception of events (take that, libel lawyers!), here we go.

My Mechanical Engineering Masters degree was in Design for Manufacturing & Assembly (DFMA). This discipline is the world of designing products to be more efficiently assembled. My Master’s thesis focused on primarily on manual assembly, and this company did all its assembly manually. It was made clear from the interview that the prime reason for my initially being brought on board was my knowledge in this area, and my ability to contribute to their next generation of product, large electro-mechanical equipment, to push their cost point in the marketplace downward even as they improved performance and quality of the operational output. Better, faster, cheaper!

As I came up to speed on the equipment the company produced, I started to customize the generic DFMA materials into specific examples using the company’s own components and products. I refined these materials further by spending a week on the production floor building a few units, and learning first-hand some of the assembly tasks that were difficult and time-consuming. I developed a training session for their engineers and designers, highlighting all the areas that prove difficult for assemblers. Lastly, in these training materials I showed examples of poor-good-best practices, to highlight factors that add time to an assembly process: most important was raw part count reduction, but other categories were things like alignment of two pieces being connected, various types of handling difficulty, several significant human-factors issues, and so on.

I originated the concept – at least, I’d never seen it in any literature before – of refining their original Pareto breakdown of part counts in a way that helped to prioritize DFMA efforts. I also originated several key metrics as a numerical scoring system showing the efficiency, part-count wise, of the system. After all, if you can quantify it, you have a better tool to drive improvement. And I pushed to have the designers join me on the floor to build a unit – something they’d never done – a pushing which was also voiced by the department’s chief engineer (in all honesty I don’t recall who pushed it first)… and we used that chance to record key data regarding assembly difficulty… not to mention the enormous hands-on learning by the designers forced to build what they designed! (The floor workers were vastly entertained by this gaggle of designers and engineers building a unit, and the final piece went to testing with a huge sign “Danger: Built by Engineers!” We actually did OK test-wise, as I recall.)

I developed scoring sheets for rolling reviews of the subsystems going into the new product. I conducted repeated reviews of each subsystem with the relevant designers and engineers, showing how their system was scoring on an assembly-difficulty level, and highlighting directions for design attention to improve the score for each subsystem within the constraints of cost and function.

The results were nothing short of amazing. Compared to the model the new unit replaced, the total part count fell by over 50 percent (one subsystem fell from 88 pieces to 16!). And because I had highlighted other factors of assembly difficulty beyond raw part count, the total assembly time for the new system was over 75 percent lower than the previous system (translation: four units could be built with the labor time it used to take to build one). Articles they’ve published about “their” DFMA efforts cite a cost savings of over $5 million in Labor & OH, and that was a year or so ago. Of course, these results were a team effort, and the designers who did the actual CAD work were the real implementers of my knowledge. I gave them the map and showed them how to read it, but they were the ones who put it into use – and bravo to them! I, however, was gone in less than two years. My specific knowledge set drained and digested, I was of no more use.

Why do I believe this was a case of corporate vampirism? Never mind the facts, perceptions of other facts, and – of course – opinions, but they seemed to have done it to at least one other person I know. I cite his experience to back up my assertion that this practice did not seem to be unique to me. Based on a conversation he and I had after his utterly-unexpected dismissal I learned he had been brought on board largely because of his large-company knowledge of key tools in a formalized design process (as opposed to the much less rigorous process the company seemed to have before). Some of these tools were Design Verification, Design Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, etc.; tools to design quality and performance into a system up-front in the design phase rather than finding them in testing or – worse – from the field. My perception of his related events sounded suspiciously like mine: A person with key knowledge brought in, that knowledge transferred, and then the “tossing away of the desiccated husk.” And, of course, all the rewards – financial, reputational, and otherwise – denied the persons who actually had the knowledge, devolving instead towards those members of that core group who are still with the company.

Doubtless others have similar stories from their own pasts, or know of persons to whom this has happened. It will be interesting to read the comments and see (hint hint). But more importantly, if this is, indeed, a common action taken by companies, there are some terrible implications for American industry and its heavy need for innovation and new process development – especially if these practices become well-known. And yours truly is doing his humble best.

Remember my opinion: I was brought in by this company so that they could gain my specific knowledge set and then discard me. I believe this is actually becoming a not-uncommon phenomenon, as the very term “corporate vampire” is not mine, but was given to me by a colleague and friend. Additionally, in casual BWG (bitch-whine-gripe) sessions with other job seekers, more than a few persons commented to similar effect about my experience, which again implies this is not uncommon.

Had I known my future at this company when I signed on, where I would have happily spent the rest of my career, I would not have done such a good job in developing these materials. Would I have shirked my responsibility to the company and their having hiring me? Certainly not, and I expect that the results would have been very good; I don’t do shabby work (in truth, I had another company wanting to interview me, and with 20/20 hindsight should have gone with them). But even as I developed these metrics, evaluation sheets, and so on, I realized that these would be good demonstrations of my abilities and knowledge in the DFMA area. I looked forward to publishing both the process and tools I developed, as well as the results, because they were my work. Needless to say, because they own said work, I am unable to do so in a specific and tangible way.

I did not stint in my efforts, but I should have. I should have held back. I should have developed a viable, albeit inferior, set of tools and metrics against the day I was shown the door – and then used these better ones, once free of the employer’s ownership of my work, to establish myself as an expert in DFMA during my period of unemployment, when I could have published these ideas and owned them myself.

The above is a profound statement that should shake the corporate world to its core. The behavior of some few companies – for I don’t yet believe that corporate vampirism is the rule, but the exception – can poison the well for all companies seeking innovative and talented people.

So, too, will another feature of the modern workplace have a similar effect: the apparent willingness to downsize people at a moment’s notice. Combining overt corporate vampirism and the simple ability and apparent willingness to terminate at the proverbial drop-of-a-hat, employees whose work involves innovation are learning that there is a growing risk they will not last long enough at a company to receive the benefits thereof. Whether those rewards are recognition, financial, or other benefits coming from a person’s innovation in products, processes, and services, the emerging trend in rapid turnover – often by the employer’s hand – creates a world where ones best innovations may not provide any reward.

Consider: In the “good old days” a person who innovated, created new products and/or services, and otherwise gave their lives to their employer was party to an unwritten contract, i.e., “You work hard for us and give us good results, we will do our best to protect you and keep you on board.” Yes, there were and are exceptions, but I speak of the typical.

Now, however, there is a new unwritten contract dawning: “You create innovative products and/or services, give us your time and good results, and we may throw you out anyway at a moment’s notice for any reason whatsoever. Indeed, we may do so deliberately.”

This creates an atmosphere of extreme uncertainly, and a perverse incentive to NOT do one’s best – for if a person’s primary assets are their skills and knowledge, why would they pass on the full measure of those assets to an organization that might terminate them the next day? Why would they do their utterly-best work in creating an innovation when, in two months, they could be out on the street through no fault of their own and need those skills and knowledge as their primary differentiating asset to find new work?

Loyalty works both ways. Most persons I know are not entrepreneurs at heart; they want a good, stable job for their lives, trading their skills, knowledge, time, and creativity for stability and a solid, predictable income. But when corporate loyalty evaporates in an MBA-inspired frenzy for the quarter’s bottom line and pumping the stock price (never mind deliberate corporate vampirism), so too do employee loyalty and morale evaporate. Across industries, employees will start to guard and hedge their best work as a safeguard against the seemingly-inevitable tide that sweeps them out the door and those intellectual assets – their skills, knowledge, and abilities – will be needed to find a new job.

As “looking out for number one” truly becomes the modus operandi of every employed person, every company’s leadership should be terrified. They should be, but they won’t be, until it’s too late. Companies in today’s hypercompetitive global economy who still understand that expecting loyalty and ethical behavior from employees requires the same behavior towards employees will steal the lunches of companies that don’t – and their breakfasts and dinners too.