Story Time: Being Used

Wherein I helped the ouster of an arguably deserving leader, and the impact on my life/career

Story Time: Being Used

In the wayback time, I worked for company that did industrial measurement instrumentation. It was a strange org chart, we had two product managers, myself that did the industrial side, and a peer who handled the variants of our instruments that were employed in the making of computer disk drives.

We reported directly to the VP/GM. That was odd. When I joined the company, product management reported into into a director of marketing, who cut their teeth in product (one of the rare former engineers who found success in product and marketing.) Somewhere along the way, a new Executive VP of marketing came in and blew out the prior marketing team, so we were moved to sit right under our VP/GM.

It would be an understatement that the VP/GM and I didn’t see eye to eye on many things. He had his degree from MIT1, and his field of expertise was image processing. Metrology? Not so much. But he was chummy with the disk side of our business. It felt sorta like Semiconductors. There are published roadmaps, conferences, symposia, and lots of glamorous travel to South-East Asia where the disk manufacturers are, staying in upscale hotels.

Not saying anything with that clip, buuuuuuttttttttt.

We used to argue. Often. Often loudly. I usually won, because I knew my business, my customers/segments, and I did the work2.

This was a messy stasis, but workable.

Until it wasn’t.

Straw that broke the camel’s back

As I mentioned, we made instruments that measured things. What we were really good at is measuring surface topology. Think of a topographical map of a surface that is accurate to less than a nanometer3, and industries that might find value of that.

An example: Think of your ICE automobile. The engine has pistons that go up and down in the bore, and uses piston rings to seal the combustion chamber to maximize the efficiency. To achieve this seal, and to balance lubrication vs. wear and sealing, the cylinder walls are honed with a cross hatch pattern. This promotes lubrication and sealing.

An instrument that can measure this cross hatch pattern in situ, to be part of the quality control. This is why engines today often run for 250K miles or more, whereas 50 years ago it was common to need to completely rebuild the engine at about 75K miles.

We were building a large instrument that could make these measurements on these engine blocks in situ.

So, big, heavy, cumbersome, but a manageable design envelope.

That was all fine … until it wasn’t.

I was on a 2 week business trip, one of those circuits where I attend a conference, visit some customers, and do some field research. I did a lot of trips like this while I was there.

Practically as soon as I got on the plane, the VP/GM walked back to the engineering lab, and he made a comment. It was fairly spurious, but it went something like: “Wouldn’t this be more general usable if we make the measurement head able to pivot to different angles rather than just up and down?”

Alas, since he originally came from engineering, the engineers thought this was a command, and then busily went on to greatly modify the design, and when I return, the prototype was completely different. Note: we had a MRD4 and engineering responses.

I ask the one question that they should have asked up front (and what really made this a stupid design change).

This got worked out, but I was pissed at the VP/GM. He feigned that he didn’t tell them to change the design. Let’s just say the argument got heated. Really heated. Like paint peeling off the wall in his corner office.

I was seriously questioning whether I could stay. Balancing the needs of my markets, my customers, and the sales team that I was close to and working with on this program, I was building a product to meet the needs, and my boss in an off hand, hallway conversation completely redirected it (and made it wholly unsuited to the purpose). Frustrated is not enough of a word.

Enter: New Executive VP

The reorg of the year brought the “retirement” (to spend more time with the family5) of the EVP of the Metrology half of the business. The replacement was an outsider, who came from the world of lasers.

Not much direct experience with measuring instruments, but not a bad fit.

The notable was that he recognized that my boss was bonkers. Like completely divorced from reality, ignoring huge business-killing risks, and making capricious decisions that were decidedly not data driven.

Not long into his tenure, this new EVP approached me. He wanted to terminate my boss, and was looking for assistance.

Oh, had I realized then what I know now.

Of course, I was all in. My frustrations with this VP/GM were legion, and here was a chance to help engineer his departure. I was all in. Several furtive meetings6 later the plans were laid.

Turns out that he wanted to terminate both the VP/GM, and my peer who managed the disk side of our business (I have a lot to say about him, but the nicest is that he was a salesperson turned product manager, and that is about all you need to know).

And I was helping provide the ammunition. In the back of my mind, I had a niggling suspicion that this might not be such a great thing. At the least it would mean more work for me.

I should point out that I was not in the picture to take over as VP/GM. That was never a conversation had, and if it had been, I would have demurred. I do not desire the corner office. I didn’t 15 years ago, and I still don’t today. Instead, my motivation to help was to get a better leader in the business, someone I could really feel like part of the team.

The day arrives…

It started on a Thursday morning. The EVP arrived unannounced, and in short order both the VP/GM was fired, as well as the Disk systems product manager.

The EVP assumed the role of managing our business unit on a temporary basis.

And I will admit that it was a pretty good change. My work was appreciated, my strategy presentations were well received (and actually acted upon) and I was happy.

Shortly thereafter a permanent replacement of the VP/GM arrived, a close colleague of the EVP, and someone who was wicked smart. I got along with him well. We had long philosophical discussions about tech, the early days, and what we could become.

Life was good.

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The Aftermath (or the downside)

That good experience was short lived. To put it bluntly, I was shunted to the side. My opinions stopped being heard. I was passed over in planning meetings. My travel began to be questioned, and finally, in a terse conversation, I was told clearly that my willingness to help eject my former boss made me a risk due to my “lack of loyalty”.

Turns out that I was just a lever, used for a specific purpose, and then I was to be discarded, in case I might get an idea to turn on the EVP.

A few months later I was informed that I wouldn’t get a raise, but instead I was granted some RSU’s, but the kicker was that they were fewer than any of my prior grants, and the conversation around that grant was strained.

What became clear was that I was a loose end for the EVP, and that he would prefer it if I left. This was amplified by his VP of Marketing that he brought in who became my “fatherly figure” even though I had to educate him about the business.

I got the chance to take another role, and I jumped at it. I got a small-ish pay cut, but I was much happier there.

The last two years at the original company were a pressure cooker of stress. Every facet of my life, my job, and activities were drenched in stress. I left in late 2009, and on January 3, 2010 the stress caught up with me, as I suffered a heart attack.

Lesson(s) Learned

Executives are not your friends - This was a difficult lesson to learn. Once you advance beyond the senior manager role, your life is politics, and politics is the art of using people for your own goals. If one of them chums up to you, you better figure out what they want. Rest assured that it will most likely not benefit you.

You may disagree with your manager, but the replacement will likely be worse - Disagreement is good, it give opportunities to have open arguments and grows consensus. The phrase “the devil you know” is there for a reason. Starting from 0 is neither easy, nor assured to get you to a better place.

I know, sometimes you feel inconsequential, and you think that anyone would be better. But it can always be worse.

Never use your work computer for personal business - no, I am not talking about the occasional drafting of a personal blog post, or some online banking. Unless you work for the government or a highly regulated industry, your IT department likely doesn’t care that you do some light banking or social media from your work devices. But the VP/GM that was terminated? He had all his personal finances in a local copy of Microsoft Money, and all his tax records were on his work laptop. He had to beg to get supervised access to his laptop to get his financial records off it. Oof.

That is bad. Really bad. I know the temptation is there, but just don’t do it.

  1. If you’ve ever worked with an MIT graduate, you know why this is salient. ‘nuff said.

  2. I bitch about this job a lot, but reality, I had a lot of agency, and was able to achieve some pretty incredible things in my six and a half years there that I am still proud of.

  3. A nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 10,000 nm in diameter. (10 microns)

  4. Marketing Requirements Document, a detailed spec and the expectations of the product. In hardware world, this is pretty much the standard.

  5. This is corporate-speak for “We fired his ass, but since he had an employment contract we say nice things as we boot him out the door”

  6. Once we chatted at the canteen area of the Night Safari in Singapore during a sales meeting.