Thursday, January 22, 2015

Personal Example: Turn Out The Lights

This was originally written for a column I did for UPI, just after they were sold by the Bin Laden family, and really had NO money.  It was called, Life With The Mayflies and recounted the madness of working in dotcoms.) 
This time, it's "Happy Trails to You." Last year, it was "Turn Out the Lights, the Party's Over." It's odd how layoffs seem to require a theme song.
Last April, at another company, we called it a refocusing. It was decided in the corporate offices up in New York that we would no longer do video production and graphics. We would concentrate all our efforts on Webcasting and become "the best damn Webcasting company in the country."
The fact that the company had survived as a video production house for 15 years or so was not seen as relevant.
So we laid off 30 people: producers, writers, cameramen, graphic artists. We were taught all the little tricks of firing people: order piles of cardboard boxes so they have something in which to pack up their desks, turn off the computers so that no one can sabotage the precious systems, gather the unlucky in one place and the lucky in another and never, ever let anyone know it's coming.
The fact is that the guys in gray suits who claim to know how to do this right are only good at breaking things  -  like spoiled children.
What do they think is going to happen? Do they really think that the people you hired and trusted will turn on you in rage?
The only thing that got ruined was a five-day computer rendering that was wiped out by the systems guys protecting the central servers. We had to hire the same artist at freelance rates to start the work all over again.
It was a long day, standing up in front of those who were being fired and trying to look people in the eyes. The CEO actually wiped away a tear. It could even have been real. They were working to convince the people who were staying that there was a real chance that we could break through and grab the golden ring that we still believed in back in the first months of the Internet meltdown.
After the meetings, it was a scene of mourning and survivor guilt. There were strange outbreaks of humor that didn't seem to fit the situation - like the macabre jokes that everyone makes at the funeral of a close relative but will deny afterwards.
Those who were departing held a spontaneous wake at a local bar. Some were bitter and refused to talk or shake hands with anyone who had been spared. Most were stunned  -  that rock sitting in their stomachs reminded them that the mortgage was still due next week.
Having missed all the excitement, our best Webcaster was in putting away his gear  -  all the lunchbox computers and system testers that you need to send 2-inch jerky videos over the Internet. We had just done a Webcast in Boston the day before and the official verdict was that it had gone well.
There it was, the future of our "refocused" company.
He said the Webcast had failed. That the next guy down the digital line hadn't known what to do and we couldn't retrain him over the phone fast enough. But it hadn't been our fault so in the strange reckoning of the computer world, "it had gone well."
There was no hope  -  we had failed before we started. All that was left was a walk through the building, turning out the lights in the two-story studio, the edit rooms, the graphics suites, the offices, and looking at what had seemed so full of promise only months before.
The song fragment that Don Meredith crooned when a team was doomed seemed appropriate.
"Turn out the lights. The party's over."