Precarious

I mentioned last week that there are some difficult conversations going on at work about my ongoing status as a contractor at the new job. No less than three people, two of whom are senior managers, have said to me in the last week that they’re very hopeful that I don’t leave. One explicitly said that if they — meaning the company at large — can’t figure out how to keep me and people like me, they’re not going to make it. At the same time, he also acknowledged that if he were in my position, he’d probably be looking for a new job, and he can’t really be mad at me for going back to the search.

The stressful part is that I don’t want to leave, but I don’t know if I can afford to stay. One friend suggested I use this as a chance for a pseudo-vacation, taking the time I’m in hot standby as a chance to hone other skills and work on things that aren’t work-specific. If I had an office, or even a cube to call my own, I’d be more comfortable with that, but we have a completely open floor plan, which means anybody who walks behind me can see what I’m doing. Even though the people who sit near me know about my situation, I still get a twinge of embarrassment every time somebody comes close.

I want to work. I want to use my skills in support of my job. I want to come home at the end of the day feeling like I’ve made valuable contributions. Even if I fail, I want to be able to come home with a pile of charred scrolls. I want to feel like my time isn’t being wasted, and I want to feel like I’m not actually wasting anyone else’s time, either. What I’m doing right now isn’t working; it’s biding my time between bursts of activity. It’s everything I didn’t like about being a sysadmin, combined with the stress of being a contractor. If I were a full-time employee, I would at least get unemployment if they suddenly decided that they’d rather not have me. Instead, I sit and twiddle my thumbs and worry that today’s the day they’re going to cut their losses.

This feels like the smallest possible version of what so many of my friends face on a daily basis. The modern economy, as it exists today, is rigged. It’s a game that most people are expected to play without a full understanding of the rules, full access to the resources, or any chance to say no. So many skills simply are not economically viable. I’m where I am because I was born into affluence, and because I made some fortunate decisions along the way that left me with skills that I could trade for enough money to support myself and my family and friends. If things had gone just a little differently, I might well have chosen to pursue a degree in creative writing, rather than computer science. Then I, too, might well be in exactly the same situation.

To every last one of you who struggles to keep your head above water, or who can feel yourself slipping beneath the waves, I can’t say it enough: the game is rigged. You’re not a failure. You’re not a bad person. You’re still here, and you’re still trying; that means you’re winning. If you can’t, it’s not your fault. the game gets harder to play every day, and the wheels of the system grind more people beneath it every day. Amazon does this explicitly, in the way it treats its new hires. The bar of any new hire is “better than half the current team,” which is great for the company but makes every new application that much more difficult. Then the employees are told that they’re in direct competition for a limited number of promotions, and every six months the safety net between “promote” and “terminate” stretched. Then the company sits back and wonders why it has a retention problem, all the while shoving more fistfuls of eager-eyed college kids into the gears.

This isn’t the world any of us would have built, if we could, but it’s the world in which we live, and we’re all doing the best we can with it. I’m proud of you. All of you.

As a side note, I think I’m going to have to implement a future policy of not talking about for whom I work, specifically because I want to be able to talk about my job without putting at risk my employment if things aren’t going well. I didn’t blog for any of the period I was at Amazon, and it’s probably a good thing because I don’t know if I would have been particularly positive about my time there. Companies have taken a much more active interest in their social media presences, and they’re a lot more vigilant about how they’re perceived. I understand why they’re doing it. I just don’t like it, but I don’t want to give up the freedom to talk about my job, and so I have to give up talking about for whom I work.