Things are going well at Federated & Amalgamated, Incorporated. We’re in the process of moving into a brand new campus, still under construction. When finished, there will be four glass-shrouded buildings, each nine stories tall. The buildings are curved, and arranged in a big “O.”
It’s quite impressive.
At an average of three hundred cubes per floor, the new campus will eventually house our entire headquarters workforce of nine thousand, with room for growth. F & A is always growing. “Eff-en-AY!” we say.
(Note that the Department of Branding and Promotion forbids the use of what they call the “pseudo-initialism” FNA, insisting instead on FAI as the official TLA.)
Growth! Even in the down economy. Maybe especially because of the down economy. We’re amalgamating more companies than ever. It’s a buyer’s market for those with cash, and FNA has cash. We’re always adding people to help run our far-flung empire. Even with all of the outsourcing. Maybe especially because of the outsourcing. Someone has to manage all those Indian and Malaysian workers, and write up all the procedures and specifications.
You probably haven’t heard of us, but FNA is big. Really big. Management says the only way for us to maintain “necessary growth” is through acquisitions. Like a shark in the ocean, if we stop swimming and eating other fish, we will die. Better yet: imagine Jack Handey‘s idea of the most dangerous animal in the world, which is “a shark riding on an elephant’s back, just trampling and eating everything they see.” That’s FNA.
My team recently moved into the new office. Somehow I scored a window cube on the fifth floor of Building C, overlooking the landscaped grounds at the center of campus. I like to look out on the work in progress on Building D. As I watched the boom on the large tower crane one day, I became aware of someone standing over my shoulder.
“Wow. Nice cube,” Veronica said, leaning over to look out the window. I was conflicted when people admired my cube, feeling pride mixed with suspicion that it was too good to last. A mistake had been made (in true passively voiced corporate style), and the “glitch” would be fixed.
“Highlight of my career,” I said. “It’s never going to get any better than this.”
She acknowledged that I was an undeserving bastard.
I was busy, so I asked if she had anything urgent to discuss, or could I please get back to my important work in my important cube? She ignored me and kept looking out the window. A pond occupied much of the interior grounds, encased in cement. She suggested that two well-placed curves on the near edge looked like “heaving bosoms.” That’s what she said. Heaving bosoms. I wanted to look at Veronica’s bosoms, to see how much they might be heaving, but didn’t dare.
“I don’t see it,” I said.
“No? Right there?” She looked at me as she pointed, and I studiously kept my eyes on the pond, afraid of where they might roam if I looked up.
“Well, maybe,” I said, “But there’s a right-angle corner pointing in there. What’s that supposed to be?”
“Maybe she’s holding a piece of paper up there.”
“Ah… okay. I can go with that. Now I’m getting aroused.”
“You’re a pig.”
“What? You pointed them out. It’s a clear case of sexual harassment, on your part.”
“You’re creating a hostile and intimidating work environment.”
She didn’t seem to understand the impact of her words and how upset and violated I felt. I suggested maybe she needed empathy training.
“Goodbye, pig,” she said as she walked away. Ah, Veronica…
You won’t have much luck finding us on the internet. We don’t have a single Federated & Amalgamated web site. Some of our component businesses and subsidiaries have a “web presence,” but I’d prefer not to create an association to this site by mentioning or linking to them. They’re mostly incomprehensible and unhelpful, anyway.
The reason you haven’t heard of FNA and a lot of our divisions is that we prefer to keep a low profile, and most of our business is with governments and other companies and therefore mostly invisible to the general population.
I wish I could tell you what we do. I really do. But I don’t know.
You’d think I’d have some idea after five years with the company, but it’s all so abstract where I’m at. I work in a corporate “integration” group where we hook up internal applications and connect to external partners. From my first day, it’s been a jumble of servers and data flowing around the system. Or not flowing, which is when the job gets stressful. There are tens of thousands of transactions moving through our servers every hour. Purchase orders coming in and going out, invoices, advance ship notices, etcetera, ad nauseum.
If anything breaks down, people instantly start flipping out. Phones ring, with hyperactive business people on the other end hollering that “trucks are lined up and waiting!” at some plant, or, “production will shut down in one hour if you don’t get that damn thing fixed RIGHT NOW!” And let’s not even talk about the trading activity that flows through here. You never want to have a “conversation” with some high-strung trader unable to complete a million dollar stock purchase.
A major part of the crazy is all the amalgamating we do. We have an overflowing queue of projects needed to tie new companies into our patchwork structure. If you imagine FNA as the borg, it turns out there is a hell of a lot of work for an integration team behind the simple phrase, “You will be assimilated.”
Somehow, with being on call and dealing with regular production crises, and with all the meetings and status updates about the latest server glitch or acquisition integration, I’ve never found time to learn what our company really does.
Veronica returned, this time mad for real. “Did you hear what Roberta was doing yesterday?”
I smiled. “This must be about the LEED compliance.”
“That is absolute bullshit. LEED compliance. You make it sound so official, when you know it’s a bunch of crap.”
We had all been happy to move into the new building. We unpacked on that first day, laughing and having fun, and without thinking much about it, putting out our cube stuff. Knick-knacks, toys, posters, pictures, and plants. The kinds of things that indicate human beings are present.
But now our old admin assistant had come around, saying anything sticking up above the cube walls had to come down. She claimed it was because of LEED requirements around letting the proper amount of light into the office. She aggressively removed everything from the tops of cabinets and cube walls, whether or not anyone was present in the cube at the time. It didn’t matter if it was a SpongeBob SquarePants or an adorable picture of little Sally and Johnny. It all came down.
“I admit to experiencing some hostility when I first heard about it,” I said.
“But then I gave up. What are we going to do about it, anyway?”
Veronica shook her head. “From hostility to docility in 5.6 seconds. That’s the FNA promise.”
I shrugged, and said, “Eff-en-ay.”
“Eff. En. Effing. Ay.”
“I think it’s the little things that have prepared me so well for this,” I said. “Like when they stopped allowing us the privilege of setting our own wallpaper on our computers, and instead gave us the little motivational ticker-tape thing to look at.” I put my hands together and brought my fingers to my chin in a praying/wise pose. “You have to learn to embrace the powerlessness,” I said, dropping my hands to mimic a hug.
“Now you’re just trying to provoke me. You know, I used to take pride in doing a good job around here, but they’ve taken the neutering and sterilization to a whole new level. All that’s left is to pray for death.”
“It may be helpful to review the ‘Three Stages of Corporate Policy Reaction,’” I said, and wrote on my whiteboard:
3. Low-grade Persistent Unhappiness
“And I suppose you’ve already moved on to stage two or three? Well, I’m still enjoying the bitter taste of stage one. I’m going to call it the rage stage.”
I thought about sharing a related theory of mine that I had been formulating, but she wasn’t done yet about the LEED thing.
“This isn’t the policy on every floor, you know. This is clearly the work of some manager with a stick up his ass and a hard-on for a ‘professional’ office appearance in the precious new building. It was kind of suspicious that Roberta also took down posters on the outsides of cubes. I mean, I think the cube wall is already effectively blocking out the light, don’t you?”
I said nothing, shrugged again, and deployed my best wry grin.
“Don’t be like that! I know you think this is a bunch of crap also. You’re just being difficult. Don’t be pretending that you’re all calm and fine with this!” And she stalked off in an endearing huff.
Have I mentioned that our company slogan is, “Imaginative people providing creative and innovative solutions.”?
Veronica would usually get me all wound up with a rant like this and we’d feed off each other’s outrage, but this morning I felt unusually zen about it. Had I been anesthetized by the opiate of docility? Or was my new theory providing me some grounding and perspective? Namely:
Maybe this was all an experiment. The entire amalgamated monstrosity that is FNA. Or, if not the whole company, at least involving my group and others at “headquarters.” It’s all so abstract, as I mentioned. Especially in the integration area. The transactional data could be simulated. There’s nothing tangible to hang on to. No internet-facing web site that I can show someone, to say, hey, I did that. For human interaction, we mostly deal with email and IM and voices on the phone. I have no way of knowing if there is anything real connected to what we do. Is there really a plant out in Lynchburg? I wouldn’t know. And that person on the phone screaming about waiting trucks might be an actor. A convincing and frightening actor, but still: an actor.
Maybe they’re testing our reaction to stress. Increase the pressure at will by breaking something and paging you at randomly inconvenient times, like when you’ve just been served at a restaurant. Or at cruelly determined times — say, at one-thirty in the morning after you were up past eleven on a conference call with Malaysia. It doesn’t take much to push you off the ledge. It’s a thin one, and it’s blustery and rainy out there.
Why would they be doing this? I don’t know. I’m just a test subject.
Strangely enough, it makes me feel better to imagine this. Like there’s less at stake. Maybe the experiment serves a purpose more noble than just moving purchase orders and invoices around. Maybe our jobs are less likely to be outsourced if we’re actually the subjects of a long running experiment. Not that they haven’t ratcheted up the fear, uncertainty, and doubt from “alternate sourcing” studies and discussions. But that might simply be a variable test condition.
Any day now, men and women in white lab coats will come in and say, “Never mind! None of this was real.” And then I will walk away and leave my cares behind. There will be no more two a.m. phone calls. No more nagging doubts about the soundness of the helter skelter system, and no longer the debilitating fear that it will all unravel one of these days.
Such a pleasant fantasy.
However, my paycheck was real, along with the threat of losing it if I didn’t play along, so I got back to “work.”
At lunch time, I stopped by Veronica’s cube.
“I’m still not happy with you,” she said.
“Oh, come on, Ronnie. Let’s turn that frown upside down. Why don’t you come down to the cafeteria with me?”
“Why? So you can go on about some corporate ‘initiative’ that you feel ‘engaged’ about, Mr. Stepford Employee? It’s like I hardly know you anymore.” But she was already locking her computer and standing up to go.
“Settle down. Let me share a theory with you.”
As we walked, I told her about my idea. She contributed surprisingly little in the way of feedback. I thought she’d be all over this.
“Is that it? That’s your whole theory?”
“So far. I’m still working on it.”
“That’s not it,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s not it at all.” She made an exasperated sound that fell halfway between a sigh and a groan. “But I guess it’s close enough. Come with me.”
She led me past the lunch room and all the way around the campus to a bank of elevators in Building A, refusing to explain further. That was fine; while I was curious about whatever silliness she had in mind, this also played nicely into my recurring fantasy about Veronica seducing me in some out-of-the-way place in the office. She pushed the button for the sixth floor.
“Hey, I said. “That’s one of the trading floors. Controlled access. Our key cards won’t let us in there.”
She just smiled knowingly.
“Okay, fine. So we’ll stop there and then you’ll push the button for another floor. Ha ha.” Although I began to imagine that she might stop the elevator between floors, and—
Ding. We had arrived. The doors opened and we stepped out into the elevator waiting area, which was closed off on each end with a set of double-doors. No glass. I felt conspicuous being here. Someone might challenge us and scold us.
Veronica waved her card at the scanner next to one set of doors. A green light came on, followed by a buzzing sound, and then the door latch snapped open. She smiled her knowing smile again, put a hand on my back, and propelled me through the door.
I had expected a big open floor arrangement with a bunch of traders, monitors, and ringing phones, but it was just a normal floor filled with cubes. There weren’t many people walking around, and no one gawked at us as if we were outsiders. I still felt uncomfortable, but at the same time, relieved. Traders scare me. I had felt an irrational fear that they might recognize me and throw stones at me for the many sins of the integration team.
She led me to a small office. “I’ve got him!” she said. “Finally.”
I was surprised to recognize the man sitting there. I’d seen him walking around our old building from time to time, and had counted him among the FNA “undead.” A class of people that had been with the company for thirty and more years and seemed to have had all the life force sucked out of them. I didn’t know how long this guy had actually been there — I didn’t know anything about him — but he fit my profile. It was hard to imagine people like him finding any joy in what they do. Even now, he appeared tired and defeated, in contrast to Veronica’s vitality and the triumph in her voice.
“That seems kind of sudden,” he said.
“Well, yeah. He’s not quite ripe. But here he is!”
“Are you sure–”
“Yes, yes. Nate, tell Steve your theory.”
I felt my cheeks getting hot. “I don’t think… It was just–”
“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said. “Tell him it’s okay, Steve.”
Feeling ridiculous, I gave a brief summary of my theory. “But I was just kidding. I didn’t really mean it.”
“See?” Veronica said to Steve.
“Well, I suppose–”
“Great!” Veronica said. “Now I can go, right? I’m done here, right?”
“Super. I’m taking my vacation now. I’ll be out for three weeks.”
Veronica hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, which would have been wonderful except for WHAT THE HELL WAS GOING ON? And I didn’t like the way she said, “I’m done here.” Where was she going? Things had been going so well between us…
“You’ll be fine, Nate. Steve will explain everything. You were a tough assignment, but I enjoyed working with you. And now, I’m going to France! Finally!” And she left before I could think of anything to say or ask.
Steve shook his head. “She’s good, but a little saucy for my tastes.”
I considered my utter lack of a framework for dealing with this situation, and realized I was moving from bewilderment to a panicky, trapped feeling. I thought about making a run for it.
“Please sit down, Nathan. You’ll be fine.”
It was unnerving to be told repeatedly that I’d be fine. I didn’t feel fine, and I didn’t expect to feel fine anytime soon. I felt like I had torn the fabric of the office space continuum, just by voicing an absurd theory.
But I sat down.
“FNA is a real business, of course,” he said. “That part was pretty out there.”
“Oh? What do we do?”
He laughed, which I would have guessed would freak me out, but he had a natural, robust laugh, and deep lines appeared around his eyes and mouth that suggested he was no stranger to the act. I immediately felt more comfortable around him.
“Lots of things. But you should know that. If you honestly don’t know any specifics, you haven’t been paying attention. We’ll work on that. Attention to detail and understanding the context of what you do will become much more important now.” He grinned and shook his head a couple of times, as if still enjoying the joke. “I’m sorry. That’s just… a new one. Your imagination will serve you well in this new job.”
I found his paternal attitude reassuring. And: work that required imagination sounded promising. But I couldn’t escape the reality (or unreality) of the situation. It was too weird. I opened my mouth to protest and fire off some questions, but he held up his hand, as if anticipating the torrent.
“I know. I know. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Please, just play along and hold your questions for now. It will make more sense in time.”
It occurred to me that I might as well stick around. As long as FNA kept paying me, what did I have to lose? It would simply be another job. It’s not like I had any strong career ambitions to worry about. Whatever this was about, the people running things were obviously secretive and patient. I had no choice but to play along, if I wanted to find out what was really going on. Yes, I decided. I was in. I had to know.
“Okay, what do you want me to do?”
“Good boy.” He turned to the computer at his desk. “I have a couple of projects to get you started. I’ll email you some background info. Let’s see… we’ll have you work on updating the internet acceptable use policy, and… I think, the new corporate email signature guidelines.”
The words “policy” and “guidelines” were like a one-two punch to my gut. The panicky feeling returned. This would be my new job? Writing the rules that I hated? I wanted to flee from the office. I had been willing to play along when I thought the job would be about cool, secret spy stuff, but I couldn’t be part of this kind of mundanity. When I opened my mouth to object, Steve again had anticipated my thrust.
“It’s not what you think,” he said. “It’s all bullshit, of course. The good news for you, is that on this floor, you don’t have to pretend otherwise. Part of your new job is to generate the bullshit.”
“I’m not following,” I said.
“You may think FNA corporate culture is painful by accident, or that it’s just the nature of the beast, but that’s not it. We have to work hard to make it that way. How else could it be so awful? No one cares about your email signature, for example. The important thing is to turn it into a source of irritation and anxiety.”
“Well, I can’t get into all the reasons right now, but for one, we need to prevent you — or, them, now — from getting too much work done. You’re familiar with GIAP, right?”
I nodded. Of course: The Global Information Asset Protection program. The source of many of my travails. GIAP directives had helped me learn the true meaning of the words “impotent rage.”
“That was my baby,” Steve beamed. “All those initiatives came from this team: Security walkthoughs, dismissals for information protection violations, and so on. Have you ever lost a a good contractor at a critical time because they got flagged for leaving a confidential document out on the desk? GIAP helps enable that kind of thing. We make the policies that create frustration and hinder your work!”
I was horrified. “How about the LEED compliance cubicle raids?” I asked.
He smiled. “That didn’t come from my team. That one was a little over the top, don’t you think?”
“Sure, now I can see that. But somehow it didn’t seem too far out there at the time.”
“Ah, but maybe it contributed to your theory, which was a reflection of your greater awareness of reality,” he said. “We can’t have people grasping reality out there. We have to be vigilant. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming people aren’t paying attention, or that they won’t figure things out. As the new guy, your outsider perspective will help us.”
“But if the goal is to slow things down, what is the point of making people take down cube decorations? Or making everyone feel anxious about following the rules? That just seems gratuitously cruel.”
“Well, preventing work from getting done is only one of our goals. Misery and low morale are important for that goal, and for other objectives. You’ll see. For now, let’s get you into your cube and you can start reading up on things.” He stood up and extended his hand, “Welcome, Nathan. Welcome to the Department of Neutering and Sterilization.”
I frowned. “Isn’t that kind of redundant?”
“Yes, but it’s funnier that way. And it’s not our official name, anyway.”
“What is our official name?”
“Uh, uh,” he said, waving a finger dramatically. “Not yet.”
He opened a drawer in his desk, took out a laptop, and walked me over to an empty cube.
I felt dizzy, confused by what had just happened, and uncomfortable with our apparent mission. But I reasoned that I should hang around for a while and see what I could learn.
“Here’s your new home. I think most of the team is out for lunch right now. I’ll take you around later and introduce you to everyone.”
Steve walked away.
I looked around, and thought about my old window cube. Now I was on a main aisle, near the buzzing elevator doors, the bathrooms, and the break area. A microwave in the break area started beeping loudly.
“Hi, New Guy.” I turned to see a woman standing at my cube wall. “I’m Lucy.”
Lucy gestured at the doors, bathrooms, and the guy getting a frozen dinner from the microwave. “Wow. Nice cube,” she said.