The Long Goodbye


Whenever a manager wants to speak with me, I expect to be fired. A good part of this is due to my nervous disposition, but coming of career age during the dotcom collapse honed my paranoia. I spent the better part of two years waiting to be fired, for the very good reason that it was happening to everyone around me.

My first tech company no longer existed by the time I joined it. Like an unfortunate teenager in “The Blob” it was being absorbed into a larger mass. I spent my first week packing the office in preparation of moving into the larger space of another victimized local company. I’ll leave the component companies unnamed, out of respect for the dead. The consuming entity I’ll name HoneyPot Inc., which is all the respect it deserves.

HoneyPot Inc. existed solely to attract a purchaser. Smaller companies were acquired but never united through any common vision or plan. Consulting firms, design shops, contractor houses: if a vulnerable service company fit a tasty category, it was snatched up by HoneyPot. The objective appeared to be to flesh out a list of selling points, presenting the illusion of a company with capabilities in all areas of internet technologies.

The reality was that each company continued to operate largely as they had before. Even the facet I joined survived as a unit within the larger office into which it had merged. I once had to use a custom font designed by a branch of HoneyPot in Detroit for another site owned by the same automotive client. It took weeks to convince the office that both vendor and client were the same. Even then they fought to have all the work involving the font done through them, on their own slow schedule of course.

HoneyPot Inc.

Artist's depiction based on eyewitness account of HoneyPot acquisitions.

B2B solution provider Business 1st Co. bought the HoneyPot collective, presumably intending to leverage some of the disparate capabilities of the disorganization. If that actually happened, it didn’t involve any of the offices I worked with. It seemed as though they woke up in bed with us and couldn’t remember the wedding, or even having met HoneyPot Inc. The pimps behind HoneyPot presumably swam merrily in their newly filled Scrooge McDuck vaults.

Business 1st would actually have done well to simply let everyone keep making money, but they had other plans. What these plans entailed remains a mystery to me, but a primary component appeared to be mass firings — charmingly termed Reductions In Force.

The first one took many of us by surprise. One day security guards showed up and some people’s email accounts and building access had been turned off. Every manager had to cut off a few team members, though our office’s losses were under the overall company percentage. One coworker of mine had gone home to India for his wedding, and the higher-ups wanted him to cut his trip short and come back to be fired.

I had only recently become an Associate Software Developer, barely on par with an intern in status and expectations, and I didn’t understand why I’d been kept. Of course it was because I was the lowest paid developer in the office. My survival through what was to come is almost certainly due to the presumed cost effectiveness of an inexperienced amateur over a knowledgable professional. This was only one of the absurdities that convinced me that I was living in a novel by Joseph Heller or John Sladek.

After the initial Reduction In Force, we were all called into a meeting where our managers calmed us with lies and half-truths. Several people felt better for it, but some of us were wary of the deliberate phrasing. “There are no plans to let more people go” is not the same as “This won’t happen again.” In fact, I learned years afterward that the managers went directly to the meeting wherein those plans were devised. At the time I took the language as standard corporate weasel-speak and hoped for the best.

Two weeks later it happened again. No guards that time, and IT hadn’t tipped the hand, but there were suspicious invitations to meetings in another building…

Nobody was calmed by the All Remaining Hands meeting that afternoon, and it surprised no one when it happened again two weeks later. Gallows humor masked our nervousness, and one employee began drawing a ghost with a raincoat and a hook (ala “I Know What You Did Last Summer”). The cartoon ghoul, named RIF, appeared on almost every whiteboard, and a full color print made the rounds with the ominous caption “I know what you did last quarter!” A few employees quite seriously volunteered for riffing, but they lasted a few more rounds.

This went on for about a year. During this time we were not allowed to take on new business, and everybody on short projects vanished quickly as soon as their work was done. We continued developer interviews — I conducted a few myself, despite my bottom feeder position — but all hiring was unofficially frozen. A core part of the branch’s historic business, on site staffing at an auto company, was sold to someone who liked making money. Nearly everyone from the small company I’d joined had fled or been pushed out.

Eventually a group of offices on the East Coast bought themselves back. For some reason our emaciated office was included in the deal. Our new overlords at WebSolder Inc. strode in triumphantly, uncomprehending of why we did not greet them as saviors or at the very least with optimism. The CEO spoke glowingly of what we could accomplish together, but we only wanted to know one thing: when would the next layoffs come?

The man stammered. Why would there be layoffs, he asked. We pressed him to say there wouldn’t be any. His weasel brain kicked in, and he said it would be impossible to make such an outlandish promise. Further pressing forced him to allow that it would take six months before management would be in a position to even consider such things. We instantly relaxed. Ah, we reflected, we’ll have a six month break from reductions.

To our complete surprise, it was actually seven months before the next mass firing.

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