Category Archives: Editorials

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GamerGate: This Issue, Everybody Dies!

If you play video games and pay any attention at all to the industry itself or journalists who write about video games, you have almost surely heard about something called “GamerGate.” If you haven’t, then it will bear some explanation. (If you’re already up to speed on the controversy, skip to the next section.)

At the heart of this story are two women who don’t really have anything to do with each other apart from the fact that they are involved with video games. One is Zoe Quinn, creator of Depression Quest, and all-around outspoken independent game developer. The other is Anita Sarkeesian, creator of Feminist Frequency, a site that examines popular culture through a lens of feminist critique. Given those superficial descriptions, it might surprise some to learn that these women–among many others–have been targeted for public harassment, stalking, and abuse. As to why, that’s a somewhat longer tale.

Quinn rose to prominence in late 2013 when she submitted her game, Depression Quest, to Steam Greenlight. Because she was a woman creating a game about depression, she was harassed and insulted for her trouble. Coverage of the incident brought her no small amount of notoriety, a fact that continues to contribute to the abuse she receives. She has been accused of making up her allegations of harassment, using it to seek attention rather than trying to succeed on her own merits. No evidence of such malfeasance has ever been produced.

Sarkeesian, for her part, created a Kickstarter project in 2012 entitled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, with the intention of producing a video series to examine portrayals of women in video games. The Kickstarter, though plagued by abuse and harassment from people who objected to Sarkeesian’s intentions, had nearly 7000 backers and raised over $158,000, though Sarkeesian only asked for $6,000. Some expressed skepticism as to whether she would ever produce the videos in question, but the videos did finally start to appear in March of 2013, and episodes have been released once every few months since.

Quinn remained in gaming news in part due to her participation in an expensive, abortive game jam. (The game jam’s failure was in no way her fault, in case you’re wondering and don’t feel like reading the link.) She has also maintained a tumblr blog on which she shares updates about her work as well as anything else she finds interesting. She created a video games sexism bingo card. Predictably, rape threats were sent in her direction in a mere 17 minutes. In short, Quinn is no stranger to online harassment, and has thus far stuck it out despite its seeming endlessness.

In mid-August of this year Eron Gjoni, a recent but former romantic partner of Quinn’s, posted an extensive blog detailing his relationship with Quinn. It came complete with text messaging logs, Facebook chat sessions, and other information meant to corroborate his narrative, namely: that Quinn cheated on him with at least five other men and, most egregiously, used sex to influence at least one (but implicitly more) game journalist into giving her a positive review of Depression Quest. This was to mark the start of an online controversy that is still burning white hot, weeks later.

There is just one problem: the review in question never happened. (To be fair, there’s much more than one problem here, but the fundamental premise is fatally flawed.)

This did not stop users of various sites from attempting to destroy her life. Though the exact perpetrators are unknown, users from 4chan and/or Reddit (it is unclear which) hacked her blog and also obtained personal information about her and her family, which was posted online and used to harass people close to her. Her friends on twitter were also targeted for abuse, including transgender friends, whose gender status was used to insult and degrade them. Quinn, for her part, was adamant that she would not discuss details of her private life in public, as they have nothing to do with her work as a game designer/developer. Nevertheless, the abuse has continued.

As a bit of good news, some of the sites whose users perpetrated the worst abuses saw their threads and posts about Quinn deleted. Moderators on Reddit, 4chan, and numerous other sites where video games are discussed saw fit to squelch discussion of Quinn’s personal life as it was not an appropriate topic for their forums, and they did not want to be held accountable for any threats, harassment, or personal information leaks. This, however, gave rise to a crackpot conspiracy theory that Quinn had somehow managed to bring almost the entire world of video games journalism into her corner to protect her, presumably through the promise of sex or some other deep magic known only to the female members of the species. Such conspiracy theories continue to proliferate despite, again, an absolute lack of evidence.

The focus of most “serious” reporting on this issue has been the allegation of “nepotism” (more correctly, cronyism) in the video games industry. While this may indeed be a real problem, there is precisely zero evidence that Quinn has been involved in any sort of quid pro quo with gaming journalists. Claims that she has used her “power” to silence critics is a laughable smokescreen–in truth, the only purpose is to silence Quinn, and anyone who sees fit to defend her. She has been repeatedly accused of “staging” her own hacking, even though Adam Sessler, a well-known gaming journalist, personally witnessed the hacks being perpetrated against her site.

Where Sarkeesian enters this shit show is more a matter of coincidence than any direct involvement with Quinn. She released the most recent video in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series on August 25th, when the Quinn “scandal” was still fresh. Once again, men who felt their privilege threatened took to YouTube and twitter to unleash a torrent of hatred and harassment. The abuse was taken as far as Sarkeesian being driven from her home by credible threats against herself and her family. Sarkeesian has been a convenient target for online misogynists since her first venture into the world of gaming, and the furor caused by the Quinn incident only heightened their anger. Some notable game developers, including Tim Schafer, posted links to Sarkeesian’s video in the hopes of people taking her message to heart. Instead, it only “confirmed” the extent to which women like Quinn and Sarkeesian have “corrupted” the games industry from top to bottom. Every incident that’s even loosely connected to Quinn or Sarkeesian is seen as evidence of an ever-growing conspiracy to “destroy” gaming–at least gaming as the entitled, frightened, privileged, reactionary, misogynistic, rape-threat-slinging man-children know it.

<End Background Summary>

Within the last few days, the entire debacle has come to be called GamerGate, after a hashtag that probably originated on twitter. This, at least, gives us a hook on which to hang discussion of the ordeal. The fact that it’s only just now acquired a moniker should be a good indication of how wide-ranging and confused this whole mess has been. GamerGate itself is meant to refer to the invented “scandal” that game journalists and developers are involved in illicit quid pro quo arrangements, despite an obvious lack of evidence. Like any circus, this farce has had its bizarre sideshows. For instance, a group of female game developers known as the Fine Young Capitalists made public claims that Quinn had their efforts to start a game jam stymied through shady means, a revelation which rallied the support of 4chan’s /v/ forum. The logic of the /v/ members who participated was tortuous and bizarre: by supporting women Quinn had supposedly victimized, they could both express their disdain for Quinn and her “social justice warrior” followers while simultaneously appearing like good feminists due to their support for TFYC. To date, TFYC have raised over $50,000 of their $65,000 goal.

Another peculiar exhibit in this hall of grotesqueries is the #NotYourShield twitter hashtag, conceived on 4chan as a “culturejamming” strategy. The idea is twisted but hopefully not hard to follow: since defenders of Quinn and Sarkeesian are often people concerned with equality and social justice–maligned as “Social Justice Warriors” or “SJWs”–the best way to “expose” them as “hypocrites” is to have an army of traditionally-oppressed people–black people, Latin@s, gay people, transgender individuals, etc.–declare that they are against SJWs, support media attention for GamerGate, and most importantly, are #NotYourShield. The accusation is then that so-called SJWs use their professed support for oppressed minorities as a shield to protect themselves from retribution when they supposedly harass and intimidate those who dare to speak up about GamerGate. In other words, this makes the harassers of Quinn, Sarkeesian, et al into the “real” victims: people who are simply trying to reveal the truth and being attacked for it. It does not matter that most of the people using #NotYourShield are simply employing sockpuppet accounts created solely for this purpose. The point is to drown out support for Quinn and Sarkeesian and produce a groundswell showing that GamerGate is a serious issue that needs widespread attention. Unfortunately, the strategy has been working. Due to the competing narratives and the comparatively superior organization of GamerGate proponents, mainstream reporting on this clusterfuck has generally sided with GamerGate or at least attempted to portray it as an issue with two equally valid sides, even though it is essentially an ongoing, vicious campaign to silence women in the video games subculture.

Dr. Nerdlove has described these events as the extinction burst of gaming culture, and he may be right. Others have commented on the necessity of retiring “gamer” as an identifier. The portion of the culture that seems to rear its head every time a controversy erupts is unquestionably misogynistic, hateful, and juvenile. But, much like the Tea Party, not having an ideological leg to stand on doesn’t mean they can’t accomplish a lot through sheer volume, anger, and a commitment to keep up pressure. Jenn Frank, who has been a supporter of Quinn’s work, reported on the online harassment facing Quinn and Sarkeesian. She was accused of having a conflict of interest and harassed into exiting her field. She is hardly alone. Others have left, most of them silently, unwilling or unable to put up with an unending deluge of abuse and torment simply for being female in a field dominated and controlled by men.

With all of that said, I have been playing games for most of my life. My parents had an Atari 2600 from my earliest memories. I grew up with the Nintendo and Super NES, got into PC gaming in the DOS days, and have continued that pleasant hobby into the present. It’s always been a good part of my life, but in the past couple years I’ve started to notice much more readily the amount of sexist bile that seems to infest the gaming sphere. There was hope when gaming journalists began reporting on these issues, thanks in part to women like Sarkeesian shining a spotlight on sexism in video games. As reporting on such issues increased, game developers took note and, while it’s not been an entirely smooth road, there has definitely been progress. What has not evolved, unfortunately, is the mentality of the self-described “gamer.” Often conservative, homophobic, misogynistic, and reactionary, these are men who are either still teenagers or never matured beyond their teen years, who consider games and gaming culture to be “theirs,” and who can’t tolerate the possibility that gaming might include women, people of color, or people who are gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise not conforming to a straight, heterosexual, cisgender identity. They are apparently frightened by these supposed incursions into their hobby, even though gaming has been popular among all walks of life since its inception. Women like Roberta Williams are responsible for some of the best chapters in the history of gaming, and yet the lie persists that gaming is primarily and rightfully a male pursuit.

Almost half of all gamers are women. These numbers are only expected to grow, and in fact by some measures women are already more than half of the gaming public. This notion scares the shit out of men who are already afraid of women, who retreated into gaming in order to escape interacting with them. I am disgusted with their behavior. I am disgusted with this so-called culture. There is no excuse for the sort of abuse and harassment women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian–not to mention many, many others–have received. It doesn’t matter what they’ve been accused of. Sarkeesian herself, in fact, has never been accused of any credible wrongdoing, yet she is subject to constant harassment and threats. The enemies here are not reasonable people trying to bring others to their side. The enemies are hateful slimeballs who think they can shut women up by threatening to rape them, who think they can “reclaim” their hobby by making it eternally hostile to women.

What else is there to do but prove them wrong? I am giving up “gamer”–I refuse to identify myself any longer with a horde of petulant, self-debased man-children–but I will continue to play games, and I will continue to express my support for women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian whenever and wherever I can. Women who want to be in gaming, whether it’s to play games, write about them, or make them, deserve to be here. They deserve to be welcomed and appreciated for what they bring to this hobby and this industry. They deserve to enjoy it as much as anyone else does, not driven out of it for checking the “wrong” box in the “gender” field.

GamerGate will fade away, eventually. It must, as it is completely lacking in substance–the ruse can’t be maintained forever. When the smoke clears and the dust settles, I hope to see a gaming industry less willing to tolerate and cater to the excesses of a coddled, infantilized core demographic, and one more eager to appeal to everyone, to disavow itself of its unseemly elements, and a gaming culture in which the thunderf00ts of the world are regarded more like a crazy uncle than a tribal chieftain.

Forward is the only way to go. They can keep “gamer,” but gaming is ours.

Further Reading: (Note: links here are not necessarily endorsements of the contents.)

Update: post has been edited to remove typos, correct some awkward words and phrases, and a new “Further Reading” section has been added.

Women and Men: Self-Image and Rape Culture

I haven’t updated this blog in about a year, and all of a sudden I’m posting something potentially controversial. That’s just how I roll.

No one thing prompted this post. It’s been a combination of many things, mainly discussions of women, feminism, sexism, rape culture, and so forth that I’ve had recently, with different groups of people in separate venues. By that token, the time feels right to dig a little deeper into this and express my thoughts.

Not everyone will agree with what I have to say. I fully expect that. It might make some people angry. Some might feel attacked, although this is not in any way a personal attack on anybody. I’m also not trying to claim I’m perfect or that I never make mistakes–I make as many as everyone else, perhaps more. But there are some things I feel I need to say, and some things that I believe are worth discussing.

For clarity’s sake, when I say “you” in this post, I am referring to the men in the audience, who may or may not be guilty of the behavior I describe. If you haven’t done these things, then don’t feel attacked–you’re not the “target,” so to speak.

With the disclaimers out of the way, I’ll get right down to the meat.

In Western culture, men have privilege. Before you start arguing, just hold that thought and play along for now. It’s the truth. It’s not like we’re given a membership card when we’re born, it’s just something society is built around, because men (straight white Christian men, that is) designed and, until relatively recently, completely dominated this society. It’s not an intentional thing that you use whenever you come up against an obstacle–a “get out of jail free” card for any of life’s problems–but it’s something you are assigned by default, without asking, without (initially) questioning. That is not to lay the blame at your feet (or mine), but to acknowledge that it exists and work from the position that it is absent for others: women, black people, gay people, etc. Although I could speak at length about any of those groups, for this discussion I will focus on women, and issues specific to women. In particular, I will talk about American women, though what I say may be applicable to women (and men) elsewhere.

I’d like to go over a couple specific issues I’ve noticed, particularly online, but they can apply in “real life,” as well.

Women and Self-Image

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most women have self-image problems. The numbers vary, but around 80% is seen as a fairly credible statistic. That means 4 out of 5 women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Eating disorders are still common, affecting as many as 1 out of 4 women. One thing men do that exacerbates these problems is objectifying women. Now, there’s a phrase everybody’s heard but many may not know what it means. What does it mean, exactly, to objectify a woman? Put simply, it means to reduce a woman to nothing but her physical attributes–or, more crassly, just her sexual attributes. Saying, “I’d fuck her”? Yeah, that’s objectification right there. Rating a woman’s attractiveness on a numerical scale? You better believe that’s objectifying, too. You meet a woman and before you even get to know her or have a conversation you have already judged her looks and put her into the “would do” or “wouldn’t do” category? That’s objectification right there. Not considering a woman worth your time or attention unless there’s a chance of her having sex with you? A bit more subtle, but it’s essentially the same thing.

You may not think it’s a big deal if you make racy comments about celebrities, either. After all, you’re not likely to ever meet Katy Perry or Scarlett Johansson or Catherine Zeta-Jones, so it’s not like your comments personally hurt them, right? But what about the women around you? If you’re posting “I’d do her” online, how do you think that affects the women who read it? What they see is you passing judgment on a celebrity–supposedly the most beautiful women in the world, or so popular culture tells us–and whether your comment is something like “I’d hit it” or “too ugly for my tastes,” you’ve just announced to everyone (especially any women witnessing this) that women have no value to you apart from their appearance and/or their ability to satisfy your sexual fantasies. No need to care about women being intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive, creative, articulate, or anything else–if she ain’t got the looks, she ain’t got squat, right?

As a somewhat startling example, go and google “best female musicians of all time.” What’s either at the top or very close to it? An article about the “Top 20 Sexiest Female Musicians of All Time”. Wooo! I also found, in the course of playing with Google, that if you start typing “best female”, the top suggestion is “best female body”. Because what else would someone want to search for about women than their bodies? This is hardly something to blame on Google, either. These suggestions are a result of their popularity with users. Lots of people are searching for “best female body”, apparently.

If you view a woman, not as a person with independent thoughts, feelings, and goals, but as a means to an end, then you have objectified her. Maybe you just want her to be your emotional dumping ground, or maybe you just want her to fulfill your sexual desires. It doesn’t matter which. In both cases, you’ve reduced her to a tool you can use, rather than a person whom you respect.

You may also think it hurts no one when objectifying comments are made solely around other men, so-called “locker room talk.” Except it does reinforce those sexist tendencies that see women as little more than vessels for men’s sexual pleasure, and a woman who can’t offer herself up as that, or is found unworthy of being that, is seen as having no value at all. Indulging in this even when no women are around still reinforces in the men participating that this behavior is okay, and it will tend to bleed out into their interactions with women elsewhere in life.

I don’t believe most men think things through to this level. They’re just trying to have a good time, and sizing up women is a game, like arguing over which football team is the best or which car is the fastest. You might spend only a few seconds forming a sexist thought, but it’s going to stay with any women within earshot a lot longer, piled up with all the other sexist comments they are subjected to on a daily basis. Sure, you just made one little comment–and so did a dozen other guys that day. Have this happen day after day, year after year, and where does it lead? Body image problems, eating disorders, poor self-esteem. It’s not just sexist comments that do this, of course, but they are a major contributor to the problem.

No one can solve this problem all by themselves, of course. But you can do your part, by thinking twice before making a comment that dehumanizes a woman into nothing but a pair of breasts and a vagina for you to fill.

Rape Culture

“What rape culture?” Yeah, I didn’t used to think it existed, either. I mean, rape is illegal and society hates rapists, right? How could we have a “rape culture”? It’s not as if you, personally are a rapist, right?

Again, this goes back to male privilege. One of the things men virtually never have to worry about is being sexually assaulted. “But men get raped!” Yeah, yeah, I know: very rarely and at nowhere near the rates women do, so let’s not pretend the situations are at all similar. Men do get raped, and that is worth discussing and addressing, but not when we’re talking about women who are raped. Men do not live in constant fear of being sexually assaulted, while most of my female friends have expressed to me a persistent, sometimes crippling fear of being raped–and it’s not an unjustified fear, given that about a quarter of all women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, and many will be assaulted more than once. This is not a small problem, not something we can just sweep under the rug and say, “we’ve outlawed it, nothing more to worry about here.” You aren’t a rapist, but you may–without even meaning to or realizing it–help to excuse and minimize the actions of rapists.

Have you ever done anything to lessen the crimes of a rapist? Have you ever made a rape victim feel like she brought it on herself? Have you ever said a woman who appears “too serious” or “uptight” just “needs a good fucking”? Do you make rape jokes in mixed company? Congratulations, you help to promote rape culture.

No, that doesn’t necessarily make you an asshole. If you don’t think there’s anything wrong with this behavior, then you very well might be.

First, think about the language commonly used to talk about rape. “She was raped.” Who is missing from that sentence? The rapist, of course. Do people generally say, “someone raped her”? Not in my experience. I don’t think this is intentional, either, but a way of describing the situation that makes it about the victim. In fact, it makes it so much about the victim, that it becomes something that simply happened to her, not something that was perpetrated against her by another person. When viewed that way, it can appear that the rapist himself has been excused from his crime–his victim goes on suffering, but he’s out of the picture, existing only as a mythic boogeyman if consciously existing at all.

It helps to remember that, when a woman tells you someone raped or assaulted her, you don’t forget that another man did this. That doesn’t mean it’s your fault, but it does mean you should be more sensitive about how you discuss it with her. The last thing you want to do is seem like you are excusing the rapist, or worse: identifying with him more than her.

Questions never to ask someone who is telling you about how they were raped:

1. What were you wearing?
2. What time did you leave the party/theater/friend’s house/whatever?
3. How much did you have to drink?
4. Are you sure you didn’t lead him on?

Questions like this serve no purpose but to a) make it sound like the rapist wasn’t really at fault and b) anger/upset the woman who thought you were a decent enough guy to talk about this with, but now you’ve completely ruined that, so great job.

“But wait! I wasn’t trying to excuse the rapist at all!” I know. You really weren’t thinking of it that way. Instead, you saw her rape as a “problem” to “solve.” Something she could have prevented, and an experience she can learn from. If she just does the right things in the future, this won’t happen again. If she dresses more conservatively, drinks less, doesn’t go out after dark, and avoids making eye contact with strange men, why, she’ll never have to worry about being raped again! It’s so simple, isn’t it? It’s a good thing there’s a smart man around to figure this out, because it’s not as if a simple woman could.

When a woman is talking to you about her rape experience, she is not looking for you to solve a problem, she just wants you to listen. If you can’t offer understanding, at least offer support. But don’t condescend, and don’t patronize. Every woman will have her own reasons for expressing this to you, but never is it because she wants to hear how she could have kept it from happening, or otherwise be told how it was in some way her fault. Don’t turn it into a political discussion, don’t bring up how men are raped, or how women make false accusations of rape–don’t even do this in a more public/online discussion regarding rape culture or male-on-female rape in general. It is hard enough for many women to talk about their experiences without some men making them feel inferior for it, or even implying they somehow deserved it, or just plain hijacking the discussion into being about men’s issues.

This is rape culture. Women are first reduced to objects, and those objects are to either be used or protected, depending on a man’s whims–and in either case, it’s about men. Men get to define women’s roles, men get to determine whether a woman was responsible for being raped, men get to decide whether women’s issues are even worth talking about, men get to determine at what point a woman should simply “get over it,” men make women choose between either being assaulted or infantilized. If you behave this way, even if you don’t mean to, then you have helped promote rape culture. Two words: stop it.

As for what I said about patronizing: don’t go overboard and treat them like porcelain dolls. They may be coping with a traumatic experience, but they’re still women, not children that expect to be coddled and sheltered from the big, bad world. If a woman tells you someone raped her, that doesn’t mean she’s asking you to protect her from now until the end of time–she just wants you to understand that that experience is a part of who she is, and something you need to be aware of if you’re going to be part of her life. It is a privilege (just not the inborn white male kind) to be told about this. Don’t have a huge reaction to it–don’t make a big show, don’t probe for all the gory details, don’t insist on bringing it up constantly (but also don’t dissuade her if she does want to talk about it.) These things will probably make her regret telling you in the first place.

So, what can you do to help thwart the promotion of rape culture? Pay attention to what I said above: don’t objectify women, no matter the context. It is fine to appreciate a woman’s beauty, as long as you are able to appreciate her for more than that. Think about women as people first. When you talk to a woman, engage her on a personal level, don’t just practice your flirts and pick-up lines. When your male friends are engaged in raunchy talk about women–be they celebrities, coworkers, or that woman you passed on the street–speak up and tell them you aren’t comfortable with it. If you aren’t ready to challenge them at that level, just change the subject. Anything to get it away from the sexist portrayal of women. Remember that even if you just make one questionable comment a month, women hear them all the time. Enough men eliminating their once-a-month indiscretion can have a big impact. When a woman is talking to you about how someone sexually assaulted her, just listen and offer your emotional support. Recognize that many of the women you pass on the street may have been the victims of rape, and no one walks around wearing a sign that says, “someone raped me.” So keep the rape jokes to yourself, and don’t make discussions of rape about how tough it is for men.

There is no one thing guys can do to solve these problems, but make no mistake, as a cultural issue, the ways in which men treat women are our problems to solve, because men perpetrate the vast, vast majority of sex crimes and sexist behavior. It’s not something that will change overnight. Just stop and think about what you say before you say it. Think about how a woman might feel about the next words to come out of your mouth–how might she interpret them, as opposed to how you mean them? You aren’t a bad person, I assume, and you don’t want to be a bad person. Go the extra mile and put yourself in other people’s shoes, and consider how they might see your behavior, and if you are comfortable with how it makes you look. It’s about how you treat women, both directly in how you interact with them, and indirectly in how you talk about them. Do you want to look like someone who trivializes the concerns of women, or someone who excuses rapists, or someone who makes women feel worse about themselves… or do you want to be someone known for their understanding, empathy, and trustworthiness?

It’s your choice.

Note: The above post was informed by some other blog posts and articles I’ve read. Feel free to peruse them, as well. They are very insightful, too:

http://synecdochic.livejournal.com/214607.html
http://jimhines.livejournal.com/364144.html?style=mine
http://www.hopeforhealing.org/not.html
http://www.shakesville.com/2012/07/on-getting-over-it.html

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I am certainly going to leave this open for comments. I want to hear your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Think I’m insane? Let’s talk!

The Layoff: One Year Later

Exactly a year ago today, I lost my job.

In so many ways, it was a first for me. I started working at this place–a software company–part-time while I was in college. The only other jobs I had in that period involved babysitting computer labs for minimum wage, and doing some consulting work for a CPA. Eventually, I left both of those for the sake of the software company, so I could work more hours there, but I was still considered an intern. The pay was better, and the work was more challenging and interesting.

Eventually, they picked me up full-time and put me on salary. It was a nice pay increase, and I got benefits, too. But, perhaps more important than that, they decided they liked me well enough that they didn’t want me to go anywhere. I enjoyed working there. I made friends. I learned a lot. The company had a strong culture of trust. You could walk to anyone else’s office, no matter where they were in relation to you on the org chart, and talk to them. The company felt like a family. They were understanding when my (then-future) wife was dealing with difficult medical issues that had me taking care of her instead of going to work. In general, they weren’t even that concerned at what times you were in the office, as long as you got your work done. Like I said: trust. They trusted you to do your work and put in the time they required.

One of my favorite stories from working there involves the new employee orientation. Mind you, this was while I was still an intern, and I’d only been there a month or two. Nobody knew who I was at that time. Most of the orientation was your typical “welcome to our company, this is how we do things” sort of presentation. I don’t recall it being very memorable. But for lunch, we went out to a nice hotel restaurant, and I ended up sitting at the table with the man who was the President and CEO of the company, not to mention one of the founders. I’m the sort of person whose instinctive reaction to “suits” is one of suspicion–that they’re putting on an act and would just as happily stab you in the back if it was good for the bottom line. But Wil was different. He spent most of lunch listening rather than talking, learning details about his new employees. We even talked about programming techniques for a while. There was no subject he wouldn’t discuss, and there was a kindness and integrity about him that I’ve seen in very few people over the years, especially those so high up the corporate ladder. Needless to say, he made a strong impression.

After lunch, we headed back to the office. I rode with one of the other Vice Presidents. I realized sometime later that I’d lost my keys somewhere–most likely in that same VP’s back seat. Now, VPs being such busy people, he was booked up in meetings for a while. So, I checked his schedule and went to wait by his office around the time his last meeting was set to end. Meetings being meetings, it apparently went long–he didn’t come to his office, in any case. Along came Wil, who had probably just gotten out of a meeting himself. He remembered my name, asked me if I was looking for someone, and I explained the situation. “Well, let’s go find him!” he said.

And that’s what we did. We went to the meeting where the VP was, who gave us his keys so I could go get my keys. I retrieved them, handed the other keys back to Wil, and thanked him for taking the time out to help me. It certainly wasn’t something I would have asked him to do. But that incident always stuck out in my mind as exemplary of him, someone who would always take the time out to help someone, even if it’s with something trivial.

Time passed, the company grew to over 500 employees, and I got immersed more and more in their development processes and tools. Version control became my specialty, which turns out to be quite a complex and interesting task when you have over a hundred developers to worry about. They all want to code their own way, and they absolutely do not want to be hampered or slowed down. Yet, for an effective version control system, you must require certain steps at certain times, and people have to follow the procedure in order for the process to work. All in all, it was a highly educational experience and I’m confident those skills will serve me well for the rest of my career.

The company, for various reasons, ran into financial trouble. Though every quarterly meeting we were told the company “didn’t make budget,” the blow was softened by the numbers. It looked like cash flow was decent, that the company was turning a profit, even if it wasn’t as big as the owners (a private investment firm) wanted. But things got worse and worse. A fair number of the Vice Presidents and Directors were trimmed, and there were several small layoffs–no more than 20 or so at a time, so none of them seemed dire.

It was determined that what the company lacked was strong leadership. Not that Wil was a poor leader, but that in dividing his time between duties as President and CEO, he more often neglected the CEO part and delegated the day-to-day operations of the company to others. However you’d like to explain it, the point was simple: insufficient executive leadership let the company get pulled into too many directions, and led to declining profits and eventually, losses.

A new CEO was brought in, a man who had a reputation for coming into trouble companies and making them profitable again. I had kind of a weird impression of him, at first. He had a larger-than-life personality, a definite presence that was felt when he walked into a room. He wasn’t the same kind of guy as Wil, that much was certain, but I didn’t know if that was good or bad. You need a different skill set to run a company than you need to hobnob with customers and investors. So, I was willing to give him a chance.

He said he would “transform” the company, and in fact laid out a 90-day timeline for doing just that. Those 90 days would be spent identifying the company’s problems, working out a plan for solving them, and then beginning to enact that plan. Nothing that would take longer than a year would be on the table. The company needed results now, not in 5 years.

Teams were formed to carry out the information gathering. There was some shuffling done at the executive level again. I wasn’t really involved with the transformation, but I kept my ears open to hear what was going on, and it sounded like a lot of issues had been spotted and some new sources of revenue were proposed–many of which were lines of income we had at our disposal, but simply hadn’t exploited yet.

On December 4th, 2008, when the transformation was close to completion, there was a large reduction in force. I was unaware it was even happening, since I was too busy doing my work. Around 11AM, my boss came by and asked if I had a moment. He led me to one of the computer labs near the front of the building–secluded, I realized–and sitting in that room was the VP of the Quality department. I knew this was bad, considering I rarely saw her. I figured out what was happening before she got too far into her explanation. I went numb. I’d been at this company for seven years, and this was how it would end? A little talk, an envelope with a severance agreement in it, and then out the door?

I’d never been let go from a job. The decision to leave had always been mine, and I thought I was valuable enough to this company that they wouldn’t shuffle me out the door. But when it came time to cut costs, how valuable you were to the company didn’t factor into it that much. It was all about how much you cost the company, in terms of salary and benefits. No matter how good your work was, no matter how much time you put in, if they felt you were too heavy on the “expense” side of things, you were gone. They cut people they needed, but they had little other choice. One hundred and twenty-six people lost their jobs that day, out of a company that had around 450 employees at that time.

About a week later, my wife found out she was pregnant. That news didn’t go over so well with me, since I was unemployed and panicked about how we’d survive, much less take care of a new kid. But I buckled down and did what I had to. The company hired an outplacement service, which sounds like they help you find a new job, but it’s more indirect than that. What they actually did was help us build our resumes, polish our interviewing skills, and get lists of potential employers and recruiting agencies. They were a big help, but it was only the first step.

After getting a new resume put together, I signed up with several job sites, hooked up with recruiters, and started applying and interviewing. Several jobs fell through. Some of them, I thought I was perfect for, and even the interviewers seemed impressed, but it was not to be. This was late 2008, early 2009, and employers quite simply could afford to be as picky as they wanted. With so many workers coming back into the market, having lost their jobs, there was a multitude to choose from. There was no sense in picking someone who didn’t have the exact skill set you wanted, and then some!

Nevertheless, I tried to carry on with my job search, knowing that even when I did my absolute best in an interview, factors outside that could cost me the position. I did decide I would be willing to relocate, but that my family would remain in Indiana. I could live very cheaply on my own and still be able to support my family without uprooting them. Hardly an ideal situation, but then those are the choices you’re left with, sometimes.

In late January, I interviewed with a software company in New Jersey. They reminded me in many ways of the company I worked at before, as it might have been ten or fifteen years earlier. Small and agile, with a lot of bright people putting their expertise together. My wife and I flew out so I could interview, and it went very well. Once we got back, though, I didn’t get my hopes up–anything was possible and I didn’t want to get my heart set on any particular job, knowing it could fall through.

The week after we got back, however, I got a phone call from the recruiter that first got me involved with this company. They made an offer, I went over it, and then I accepted. I made arrangements for a place to live, and a couple weeks later I was living in New Jersey. I started work, sunk myself into the company’s atmosphere, and have since made the best of the situation.

I enjoy my new job, though I don’t like being away from my family. I make it back to visit when I can. Given how soft the market remains, I don’t have any plans to return to Indiana in the foreseeable future. This is a good job and I intend to keep it for a while. It does amaze me, though, how different my life is from a year ago. Looking back on it, I’m glad I was let go from my last employer. I’ve had so many new experiences since that happened, I wouldn’t trade them for anything. While my present circumstances are less than ideal, they are a fair sight better than being jobless, or working for a company where the entire culture and philosophy has changed, in my opinion, for the worse.

Having gone through a layoff, RIF, whatever you want to call it, though, I can honestly say I’d never want to experience one again. One per lifetime is enough for me.