My month in the high-tech industry
My month in the high-tech industry
In February of this year, I worked for an HP contractor located on the HP campus in east Vancouver/Camas, (hereafter known as "the company"). I was surprised to be offered this product testing job, since I didn't have any experience in the high-tech industry or with product testing. My experience with certain MS applications isn't that great either.
The company called me after I submitted an online application through an employment services website. Before I was called in for an interview, there was a brief phone screening, in which I was asked about my experience, and during which I claimed to be a team player. After that, I was chosen to come in for an interview.
After the interview, I felt that I would probably be offered a job, though I figured it could be at any time. I learned that the company operated much like a temp agency, and once hired, an employee might be called in at any time, and also might be laid off at any time. I didn't get hired right away, but I felt good about having a good interview, regardless of where it went from there. I thought to myself that I should go through the interview process more often, if for no other reason than to feel that I've accomplished something, made some social contact.
That night an acquaintance of mine asked me if I'd like to smoke some pot. So, being in the good mood that I was, I decided it would be a great idea. The prospect of a new job, and the probable chance of a drug test that would go along with that, was not the first thing on my mind. The thought may have flashed across my mind briefly, but I didn't want to let hypotheticals get in the way of my decision, or let worries dictate to me like a high-school coach.
This would be a good chance to get to know my acquaintance better, I thought. I smoked a little bit, and without going into detail, our party didn't last long. I ended up sitting in my room for a couple hours while the effects wore off.
Even more unexpectedly than that, the company called the next morning and offered me a job. The offer was conditional, as so many are, upon a clean urinalysis. This was on a Tuesday. I was instructed to call a manager later on and make an appointment for an orientation day, which included a drive over to Portland for a drug test. The appointment was made for the next day. I could have postponed the drug test for another two days, but I decided to just go through with it.
It's funny, but the tone of voice of the company manager who called me, seemed to say, "I know what you did last night."
I'd heard about this kind of thing before: a job opportunity lost due to a "dirty" urinalysis. For I indeed considered the situation that way. Pot takes at least a couple weeks to clear the system. But I was still going to go through with the orientation process. For one thing, I was getting unemployment compensation at the time, which would have been in jeopardy if I didn't go to a job interview, (and the employment department found out about it). Incidentally, I don't know what the employment department's policy is for people who've been denied work due to failing a drug test. As well, I felt it was somewhat of a social obligation to go through with the orientation. After all, I'd had the good interview, and I would at least learn something at the orientation, and get paid for my time.
The more I thought about it that day, the more I wished I hadn't smoked pot the previous night. I tried not to get upset about it, trying to convince myself that it didn't matter, and that drug tests are a pathetic joke anyway. I realized that the situation was a challenge to my views about privacy, and about requesting urinalysis as a prerequisite for employment. I generally think it's an intrusion into a person's private life, and so any job that has demanded a urinalysis I have in turn viewed as not so much a job, but just a place that wanted to do a urinalysis on me. Conversely with this, I found it both frustrating and ironic that my first pot-smoking experience in about a year coincided with this job offer.
Though I certainly couldn't blame my acquaintance for my own actions, I did partly blame her for this most unfortunate coincidence.
That night my sleep was disturbed due to these worries. So on top of everything else, I had to go to this orientation half-awake.
My orientation partner was a young Asian woman who I'll call Diane. She was both enthusiastic and jaded about the prospect of the job. We were summoned back into the bowels of HP, where we were sat down and shown a video, and given papers to sign. After this we were supposed to go over to Portland and get drug tested. At some point, it was agreed that Diane would give me a ride over, since I rode my bicycle there.
As we were signing papers, me and Diane talked about the drug test. She expressed some concern about being able to pass a drug test. I didn't ask her about this, but said in effect that I too was concerned about passing the drug test. We didn't get into specifics about our worries. On our way over to Portland, we talked some more about it, but neither of us was willing to say exactly why we were worried about the drug test. It was like, "So, you don't know if you'll pass this drug test?" "Yeah, I don't know. You?" I told Diane that I supposed I had a 50/50 chance of passing it. We both talked about how tired we were. It was about 10:00 in the morning.
We found the place, and were in and out of there. It wasn't as awkward as I had imagined, even though the urine place was a small, discreet office as compared with a more medical-type facility. The results of the test were immediate, and I was told that I had "passed" the test. I didn't understand it, and I still don't have any explanation for it. Maybe the traces of THC in my urine were so low that it was not an issue. (I'm being only half-serious about that).
Relieved, me and Diane drove back to HP to finish our orientation. (Diane had also passed her drug test).
The second part of orientation involved a tour of the work site, and of other parts of HP. I was introduced to a lady I'll call Susan, who was about to be promoted to a managerial position. (The week I was hired was the same week that two of the company managers, and at least one other employee, left the job. There was some restructuring under way).
Susan instructed me and Diane as to the basics of the job, and then led us on a tour of the places we needed to know about. We saw where the in-company Starbucks was, where the ATM was, and so on. We also saw the "chambers," which are the controlled environment testing labs, where HP printers are subjected to high heat, dry heat, humidity, etc...
After the orientation/training day, I came in the next day at 6:00, and was paired with another trainer, a young man I'll call Simon. For the most part, I was tasked with watching Simon as he went about his daily routine, and taking notes if I felt the need to. Simon had just been promoted to a training position, and thus that's how we came into contact. Due to the corporate restructuring, many if not all of the company employees were forced to take a pay cut. Some, like Simon, were asked to take on new responsibilities, in which case their wage would stay the same, or go up slightly. So I came into a working situation where morale was understandably low.
Simon had a good repertoire with his co-workers, in particular the other young man in his "cube." (There were generally two workstations within a cube, or cubicle.) So for the first (and only) week of training, as Simon and his friend showed me around and helped ease me into the job, I would go to breaks and lunch with them.
As I came to understand the job, I saw that it mostly involved repetitive note-taking, combined with the main task, which was monitoring the HP printers as they pumped out paper. Notes were made upon condition and appearance of print-outs, and if the printer had any mechanical problems while running a computer script. Everthing was to be double and triple noted in separate binders. This, I suppose, is the essence of product testing.
I was also introduced to the atmosphere of the testing lab, and to certain slang, certain work postures, etc...It was a matter of memorizing and mimicking what I saw. There didn't seem to be a lot of technical stuff to it.
My first full day at the company held a surprise for me, which was waiting until the end of the day. Every Thursday the company's managers have a meeting toward the end of the day. The first Thursday of the month, I believe, is when all employees have a group meeting, including people from the other two shifts—swing and weekend.
And this was the first Thursday of the month.
Work broke up a couple hours early, at about 2:00, and people began making their way to a meeting room down by the cafeteria. There was to be an initial informal meeting of people from different shifts, to discuss the particular printer tests they were assigned to. I didn't have much to contribute to this meeting, since it was my first full day. So I hemmed and hawed while others talked and gossiped amongst themselves.
Soon though, there were announcements for the whole room, about 40-50 people. It was announced that there had been some new hires! Not such amazing news, it seemed. Then the speaker, who was the top company manager, (and who called me a couple days before, to hire me) told the new hires to stand up, and say a few introductory words about themselves, their past, and possibly what they expected or hoped for from the company.
To me, this was a devastating turn of events, and one which I had not expected. (I later found out from Simon, my trainer, that this scenario, and the subsequent pizza feed, were highly unusual, if not unheard of).
I went into a breathless panic mode, awaiting my turn to address 40-50 strangers about what exactly I was doing there. About four people had to go through this that day. Apparently, due to the combination of restructuring, new hires, and the likelihood of low morale among the workers, this meeting, to be followed by a pizza feed, was necessary. It was billed as a good chance for the new hires, and for everybody, to get to know everyone else better.
My turn came after Diane, my drug test partner, gave her introduction. I started off by saying that my greatest fear in life is public speaking. This was well-received, and I then rambled on for a half-minute about how I do yoga and how I'm an independent scholar. I may also have mentioned something about the odd jobs I've done in the past. Then I sat down and let my heart rate and breathing get back to normal.
A couple more new hires introduced themselves, and then it was pizza time!
So my first full day in the hight-tech industry was a rout. I was thoroughly caught off-guard by the forced introduction, and my sulleness throughout the pizza feed did not serve me well. Managers strongly encouraged everyone to introduce him or herself to two or three other people, (that they didn't already know). I was too perplexed and flustered to be at ease and pleasant just then. I sat there staring at a slice or two of pizza in front of me, just wondering why? Why?
The next week was considered my training week. The training period reportedly varied from between two days to a week in most cases, though the prescribed period was two weeks. My trainer, Simon, guided me through the voluminous note-taking process, and the likewise considerable amount of data entry into different applications. Again, this was mostly a matter of memorization and of developing a routine. Once experienced, the ideal tester would be able to input all of his or her written and electronic data in 2 ½-3 hours. The remaining seven hours of the day was to be devoted to gathering paper and ink supplies, supplying the printers with those when necessary, and then just sitting back and taking notes of the irregularities, which, since they are expected and essential to the task, aren't really irregularities. The whole point of running the tests was to let the printers run until they broke down, and describe or diagnose the inevitable problems that occur before total failure.
A lot of it was diagnosis in fact, guesswork almost. Often an HP engineer would come by, and they and a test operator would discuss symptoms, bounce ideas off each other, propose hypotheses, etc... in a attempt to get the language right, but more importantly, to come to a correct analysis of the exact problems a printer might have. For me this was an awkward part of the job, being unfamiliar with the slang and not too tech savvy to begin with.
Ironically, the printer test I was assigned to on my second week was not designed to gauge the quality of prints, but to let the printer run its full life. On my first two days I had been instructed in the finer points of judging prints.
At breaks and lunchtime I hung out with Simon and his crowd, at least for a couple weeks. Our morning break was a chance to get breakfast in the HP cafeteria. These breaks were generally long. Lunches too were usually in the cafeteria—a chance, for me at least, to soak in the atmosphere of a real high-tech business. Having no car, I couldn't have lunch in my car or go anywhere. The HP cafeteria is usually packed at lunchtime, and somewhat lively.
The diversity of the HP workforce was one thing I could measure from the cafeteria, though the lunchtime crowd there is only a fraction of the total workforce. Diversity in this sense is a little different from the concept of diversity in U.S. society as a whole. For instance, there are many Indian and other Asian workers at HP, and I heard some British and French accents while I was there. I think I saw three black people among the couple hundred or so faces in the crowd.
On the final day of my training week, I was let alone to monitor the printer test for a day, with some checking up by Simon or another manager.
The job seemed pretty clear-cut at that point: show up each day, run about eight computer scripts for the printers, record the results, and done. Not the most exciting job in the world, but steady work. I understood that as soon as I was proficient with the printer test I was trained on, I would be asked to run other tests, or multiple tests at the same time. There was also the climatized labs, or chambers, to which I might be assigned.
For the next couple weeks, things went smoothly, more or less. I was not as sociable as I had hoped, and didn't build a repertoire with my fellow co-workers. This got to be kind of awkward, as nods and glances came to supplant first name greetings. In this scenario, I could envision myself hiding in the cubicle, trying to avoid even nods and glances. But at least my body language was positive, and that counts for something.
It's hard to think of things to say, and I'm not given to spontaneous outbursts. This aspect of the job may be the one true indicator that this was a high-tech oriented job. Unlike labor-oriented jobs, but similar to many kinds of office work, a worker at a place like this could stay confined within a cubicle and be engaged, or look engaged, with work all day.
I suppose I was given some leeway in my first couple of weeks, although it was hard to tell if it was leeway, or just that nobody was paying attention to me. By mimicking what I had seen in my training week, I was able to fulfill the basic necessities of the job, even without understanding why I was doing many of the tasks, and without actually learning anything about printers. On the other hand, part of my training was that it wasn't necessary to know that much. From Simon I had learned how to relax and not worry too much about the task, but I perhaps hadn't learned enough to hang onto the job longer than a month. My perception of what was expected of me, and my resulting relaxation toward the job, was a factor that hastened my departure.
For me, the job became not so much about printers, but about analyzing the larger context of the job and the personalities of co-workers. Since I'm not too tech-savvy, this was a way to try and fit myself into the scheme of things. I could then gauge the importance of different aspects of the job, specifically the printer test I was running.
Toward that end, I adopted some of my trainer's relaxed attitude toward the work, some of the quietness of esl (English second language) workers, and so on. A couple of the managers on the floor were new to the job; due to the restructuring, many of them were automatically promoted to managerial positions. They were getting adjusted to their new tasks, and were usually consumed with that. It was necessary to get their attention if they were needed, and since I was unfamiliar with the lingo of the job, it was hard for me to express exactly what I needed.
But starting around my third week, I started getting more attention from a newly promoted manager. It was Susan, who had instructed me and Diane and showed us around the campus on our first day. It turned out that she was my immediate manager. Our paths began crossing more and more often. Her attitude toward me bordered on bullying or intimidation, and her only saving grace, as it were, was that she was from out in the country, a fact which I learned when I first met her. So when I recognized irregularities in our interpersonal contact, I tried hard to attribute it to a rural mindset, and to the appearance that she was overwhelmed with her task.
Here's where my lack of repertoire-building came back to haunt me. It was taken for granted now that I was a quiet listener, and combined with my newness, I could be expected to quietly listen as I was told and retold that I was making mistakes, (which seemed a matter of interpretation), or told to do things in a different way.
The impossible happened. At a place where sleeping on the job was not unheard of, where showing up for work was one of the major prerequisites, I actually came to foster some anxiety. It was Susan, but more than that. The idea that at such a job I would let myself get rattled and become uneasy, disturbed me. Granted, there's always something to take issue with at any workplace. Here though, I felt that coming at 6:00 am, and staying for ten hours, would be the major challenges. I did not foresee the slight tweaking of my nerves which would contribute to the end of the job.
When Susan came to give me instructions, or advice, or whatever it was, I quietly listened. I wasn't exactly listened to, for some reason. This was frustrating, but I didn't know if it was significant. I didn't know, and I'll probably never know, if there was a personal element to the behavior. If there was, it was almost indetectable. If there was none, it makes the behavior that much more unexplainable.
There was a process at work called "escalation," commonly used as a verb, "to escalate." This was when one of the test printers began malfunctioning in one of a number of different ways. In theory, the test operator was supposed to "escalate," or bring it to the attention to, a manager. If it was a common error with a recurring code number (flashed on the LCD screen) or if it was a minor malfunction, then no escalation was necessary. An escalation was generally followed by a written report by the test operator, which was to be turned back into the manager.
In my training week, there was not much emphasis put on escalation. This came back to haunt me my third and fourth weeks, as contact with Susan became more frequent. I then had to adjust my work habits to conform to this new practice. Susan, perhaps sensing my lack of either motivation or interest, combined with my quietness, began swinging by my cubicle more frequently. Sometimes it was body language, other times it was apparent rudeness spoken in what may have been rural colloquialisms. But in what would become my last week at the company, I began to seriously dread the monitoring from Susan. It signified not a new phase of the job, but it was a suggestion that I wasn't trained right, was not doing the work correctly, and had to be told this frequently and monitored, rather than, say, trained as to the correct or better way to do something. I was still a new hire, and I wasn't competing with anyone, or professing to have found a better way to do things. I was just filling a slot—and that wasn't good enough.
As I adjusted to the new atmosphere with my new monitor, an odd thing began happening with one of the computer scripts for the printers. Each week, a new script was devised and run on all the printers (about a dozen). On my third week, the printers began rejecting new ink supplies regularly. Often two or three new ink cartridges would have to be tried before one was accepted by the printer. The ones that were rejected were put into a box, and after about three days that box had roughly 40 ink cartridges in it. These were presumably going to be trashed, so that's likely several hundred dollars of ink cartridges gone to waste.
This was not treated as a major issue by anyone I talked to about it, including Susan, or the HP engineers. However, it did slightly contribute to the feeling that something was amiss in my cubicle. Once, Susan and two engineers and I talked about the problem, and I tried to explain as best I could exactly what the issue was. Once it sunk in with everybody, it was attributed to a script error.
The final act of this play began on a Monday. On Mondays, a unique exercise was performed on the printers. A script was run on each computer, separately, that was designed to push and pull ink from cartridges repeatedly, and the cartridges were repeatedly weighed to measure the differences. As the day began, I took some directions from Susan literally, not realizing that the directions were wrong. I should have been able to immediately detect the error in the directions, but it was hours before I was fully aware of the mistake I had made, and the time wasted. To Susan's credit, the directions I was given may not have even been directions. It was more of a cross between giving directions and a private soliloquy—one of those instances when a manager says something which is partly meant to reassure him or herself. Whatever it was, I took it as directions.
The crux of the matter was that I had done the ink cartridge testing on several printers that didn't need it, thus wasting several hours. Once it sunk in that I had possibly wasted a few hours doing something that was unnecessary, I decided to take the next step and let Susan know about it. I gave her the basics of the dilemma, and was told that it wasn't an issue—that there was no substantial mistake, and that time hadn't been wasted. This was in keeping with her directions from earlier, but even after her assurance, I knew that I probably had made a mistake, and that time had likely been wasted. That's what made the situation more difficult, the not knowing if what one was doing was really the right thing. I continued to make-up for what I considered lost time, and in reality, it would have been hard to detect the evidence of three hours of lost labor.
When the swing shift worker showed up, I conferred with him about what I had done. There were two people from the swing shift listening to me—the operator assigned to that test, and the lead manager for the night. Susan also came by, so it was a foursome. The two swing shift people were trying to figure out why I had done things the wrong way, and I told them it was just an oversight. Susan stuck to the line that I hadn't really made a mistake, but after a few minutes of conferring with the swing shift people, came around to seeing the truth: that I had made a mistake and wasted several hours. Thus, both I and Susan admitted that we had made a mistake, in a roundabout way. The swing shift was relieved just to clarify that wrong was not right.
I went home that day feeling like I'd worked a lot harder than I really had. I felt as if I'd been moving furniture all day. But I tried to set aside my concerns about the job, and about my more frequently occurring run-ins with the manager. That Monday had been the second consecutive workday in which some kind of misdirection from the manager had led to anxiety and loss of productivity on my part.
Next morning, Tuesday, March 1st, I headed out for work at 5:30 am, as usual. In the back alley where I live, there was an ABM Janitorial van, which I hadn't seen parked back there before that morning. I worked for that company for years, and quit several years ago. In the summer of 2004 I had spotted ABM vehicles (and my old managers) many times around town, much more often than I had in the previous few years. On that morning, when I saw the van in the back alley, I took it as some kind of sign, such as that maybe I should consider getting back into the janitorial profession. It turned out to be a prophetic sign, because this was going to be the last day at my current job.
To start off the day, the lead manager pulled me aside to talk with me about the previous day. The talk was only a couple minutes, and I deemed its purpose was for him to gauge whether or not I wanted to work anymore, and possibly to detect anything amiss in my behavior. Having passed that test, so I thought, I got underway with my work.
It was a typical day. So uneventful in fact, that I can't remember much of it, though in my journal I noted that Susan was again contributing to a sense of unease. The most memorable part of my last day there came at lunchtime.
At lunch the day before this, I had envisioned intruding upon a lunch crowd of HP employees. An unwelcome guest, I would proceed to butt into conversations and tell nonsensical anecdotes, such as I often hear in public. What happened at lunch on this day was the opposite but very similar scenario. I sat down at an empty table, which was astride a table where two men were eating. A third man sat with the two, and he was right next to me, a younger guy. Then an older man familiar with the group of three sat down directly opposite me, and as he got comfortable, he said, "Is it Friday yet?" to the other guys, in a low key, amiable way. It seemed normal—after all, that's a common expression. It wasn't until later that I thought some more about it. It was Tuesday, it turned out to be my last day there (my "Friday") and this guy sits directly across from me to share that sentiment.
The "Friday" guy talked with the younger man to my right, speaking at an angle of about 30-35 degrees to me, in a slightly hunched over posture. I tried to avert my gaze in other areas, glancing around while eating a bland salad which would have taken quite a while to finish. It was awkward, but not that bad. Then a man sat next to the one directly opposite me, and that's when the real awkwardness began. I began looking mostly at my salad while the men talked fishing. The last man to sit down spoke with the younger man at about a 15 degree angle in relation to me. So at that point I was definitely an unwilling part of the conversation, which I refused to join, and which I may not have had any success in joining besides. It was not just awkward but bizarre at that point, blurring the line between public and private space.
The fishing dialogue dragged on awhile, seemingly too long in proportion to how important the topic really was. I listened, and the men were aware of me, glancing at me occasionally. They talked about doing it (fishing) for the first time, of being nervous or hesitant about doing it, or unsure as to the costs of doing it, or if equipment was sufficient, etc... Another guy popped in and pledged to one of the other men that he could use or borrow his equipment. There was also mention of getting one's (fishing) line waxed.
It dawned on me that the dialogue appeared largely to be a metaphor for sex, and virginity in particular. This, combined with the "Is it Friday yet?" announcement on what would be my last day, led me to believe that the dialogue, and the episode as a whole, was at least partly scripted. The guys seemed to be clued in to some private information about me, and were tasked with giving me a memorable farewell.
Without drawing too much attention to myself, I cut short my lunch and returned to work. It was the first time at lunch, or at almost any time on the HP campus, that I had come into close contact with HP employees. It was certainly my first lunch there in such close proximity to HP employees, as there is plentiful open space in the cafeteria, so that one can sit in relative solitude most of the time. When I didn't sit with workers from my company, I would find a mostly empty table at a certain part of the cafeteria. This strategy served me well up until the final day. I should have dined al fresco that day.
The rest of my day dragged slowly on. I tried to shake off the irritation from lunch, and worried about the possibility of the irritation being exacerbated. It was difficult to apply Susan's philosophy to the tasks at hand, especially in an agitated state. The philosophy basically consisted of injecting anxiety into a sleepy job, and it was a hard act to pull off.
The lead manager who had pulled me aside that morning told me toward the end of the day that he wanted to talk to me again before I left. I joked with a guy from swing shift that I was going to get a vacation. The job was given with the understanding that I may be laid off at any time, then called back at any time. Still, I didn't think it too likely that I would be laid off just because of my errors.
I was told by the lead manager that I was being laid off, (they have a unique term for it) because work was slowing down, and because of the mistakes I was involved with. So I might be called back at any time. I knew though that it might be my last day, and there was really no reason to believe otherwise. I didn't like the job, but I tried hard to hide that, and tried to learn the tasks and be a part of the work unit. I failed to learn and adjust to the peculiarities of my immediate manager, and that seems to have been my undoing at that job. After I was let go, it occurred to me that if she hadn't been there, it might have been someone else, or something, that would have led to my dismissal.
I was laid off, or put on standby, on the 1st of March. On the 11th I got around to re-opening my unemployment claim. The following day I got a letter from the corporate headquarters of the company, saying that I was fired for "incorrect skill set," and thanking me for "participating in this program." It's funny, at the time of my firing, my "skill set" was much more suited to the job than when I started. At that point I had a month of experience with the specific task the job called for. Again, it seems my major fault was that I couldn't decode the levels of importance that different employees assigned to different tasks, and in the end I couldn't do or say anything to appease my immediate supervisor.
The letter I got was from Portland, with letterhead giving the return address as in Boise. I got the letter on the 12th, and it stated that I was fired effective March 11th. At first I worried if this would conflict with my unemployment claim, which I had reopened the previous day (the 11th) and on which I stated that I was laid off from work, not fired. While odd, this irregularity didn't conflict with my unemployment claim.
Seeking some clarification, I called the top manager at the company and left a message, but there was no reply.
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