This is the last in a short series about the most difficult time of my life, ten years ago right now. I told this story in January of 2011, but rewrote it for today.
I knew I didn’t fit, but I took the job anyway — I had been laid off, and I wasn’t able to pay the mortgage. I stayed in my field, testing software. But it was an old-line, top-down insurance company, and we were on a government contract. I had always been freewheeling and entrepreneurial. I chafed at the plodding pace, the red tape.
I made manager after a year. Why did I apply? Why did I get the job? I still didn’t fit. But now I could see what drove our chilly relationship with the government: a culture of obfuscation and gamesmanship, fueled by my company’s vice president. I couldn’t play that way. Instead, I built friendly and honest relationships with the government’s project leaders. My peers couldn’t figure out why I was so effective. I earned the VP’s suspicion.
Months later word came down, no explanation, no exceptions: all managers would take a battery of intelligence and personality tests. I’m plenty bright and play well with others, so I didn’t worry. But a few weeks later my boss called me into his office. Normally very animated, he sat still. His jaw clenched, then unclenched. He said, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but your test results are in. You don’t fit the profile. HR is coming after lunch to terminate you.”
I sat, gobsmacked. Profile? What do you mean profile? Fire me because I suck at the job, fire me because you can’t afford me. But fire me because of a test? Was this even legal?
It turned out that 20 other managers in the organization got canned that day. The common thread: the managers who remained played well with the VP.
I had no energy to fight: a tattered marriage, unwelcome at home, a fresh lease on a tiny apartment. Strangely, I was asked to stay on for 30 more days “to manage the transition,” whatever that meant. I couldn’t tell my team, and I especially could not tell the government; the VP would handle it. If I kept this deal, there would be severance. Almost generous severance.
My government contacts kept scheduling me for conference calls happening after my last day. With a few days left, the government’s project leader called wanting me to fly out for a meeting. Backed into a corner, trying not to scotch my severance, I told her that as part of a restructuring I would no longer be the test manager, and that she would need to talk to my boss.
My office at one of my career stops. Bask in its beigeness.
I didn’t know she and her boss were at my company’s data center with the VP. She told her boss what was happening — and they made a beeline for that VP. She called me later: “We cornered him and read him the riot act, demanding to know why he was demoting his best manager!” At once, I felt a rush from the compliment — but also dread, because I knew that as soon as the VP came back to town I’d hear from him. And sure enough, I did, at top volume: “Why the fuck did you tell them? Why didn’t you follow protocol? What were you thinking?” I fired back: “Protocol? What protocol? You said you’d tell them; you didn’t. They were scheduling me for meetings after my last day. They needed to know.”
The VP forced his shoulders down, leaned back, pushed out a breath. He smiled, a sickly, clenched thing. “Well, Jim, you’re good people. We want to take care of people we like. Don’t worry, you have a job here. We’ll find you a new assignment.”
I was unfired.
Much later, the government’s project leader explained that they had modified the contract to write me in as a key player. Unbelievably, it meant that the company could not reassign me off the project or terminate me except for cause. Clearly, the VP was trying dance around that, waiting until I was gone to tell our government contacts that I’d resigned to take another job.
Any love or loyalty I had for the company had been trampled, torched, napalmed, and nuked, but I accepted the job they offered me, an advisory role at my manager’s salary. They made no assignments but continued to pay me. It was a blessing: my marriage would end in an awful, protracted fight, stress crushing my chest, sleep elusive for days on end. I thought I might lose my mind. I certainly could not have done the job I had lost.
Six months in, an assignment finally came: performance testing and test automation, which needed technical skills I lacked. I was sure they still wanted me gone and would plot my failure to accomplish it. But the fellow I joined in doing these things had once reported to me. He said, “You’re the only manager here who gave a damn about me and treated me well. I see what they’re doing to you. I will teach you everything. You will not fail.”
He apprenticed me over the next six months while my personal life calmed down. I took my new knowledge to a different company to build a test-automation practice. I was just beginning to build a performance-testing practice there when a colleague called to tell me about a great opening at a highly regarded local software company. I spent four years there running a large testing team and building automation and performance practices. Next, a startup software company invited me to build a testing practice from the ground up. I’ve been at it for almost two years.
I’m at the top of my career today, and I would never have been able to do it unless I’d been fired.
I once worked for a company whose CEO got his whole executive team to lie for him in court about a sexual harassment charge. Read the story.