The Thinker

People I’ll Remember at Work

I’ve noticed that there are lots of people in my agency who seem to be married to the agency. I have yet to feel that degree of loyalty or attachment to my employer. If the job isn’t working for me, or if there is a more interesting job elsewhere then I am gone to greener pastures.

Nonetheless as I leave ACF I realize there are people there that I will genuinely miss. Some of the people I will miss have already gone. That was true of Joe, who left 18 months or so ago. Joe is in his mid fifties and worked for us as a contractor for many years before he was arm-twisted into being a federal employee. He was an odd choice because he was quite the office gadfly. This is an accomplishment in itself because my division is full of gadflies. For years I worked tangentially with Joe. As a result of an office relocation we were forced to share an office for a couple months. As a consequence we were in each other’s faces constantly.

Joe had a flair for being outrageous and speaking his mind, even when foolish and dangerous. My boss at the time I think admired that trait, but he also admired the fact that Joe was used to doing the less glamorous assignments (like the Year 2000 Migration) and actually getting them done on time. That’s a great skill to have. Joe was irreverent, an atheist, and a divorcee from a very bad marriage. I learned he was shacked up with a girl friend that seemed to love him but whom he refused to marry. He won’t marry again, he said. “I won’t make that mistake again.” Joe survived by his wits. Life was never boring when I worked with Joe. We could go weeks without talking to each other then I’d stop by his desk and we’d get into these long philosophical discussions on the meaning of life and all work would stop. I miss Joe. I gave him my email address before he left for another agency. He never dropped me a line and I forgot to look him up. Too bad. I’d like to reconnect with Joe.

The man who hired me, Jim was a strange bird too. He was very intimidating but also unforgettable. He was at that stage of his career (early 60s) when he was trying very hard to prove himself. He was hankering for a senior executive service (SES) position for which he was never selected. He was amazingly aloof and remote, at least to me. He hired me and then didn’t talk to me for weeks on end, letting me fend for myself by reading manuals and walking around the office looking for work. He basically saw himself as too busy working on higher-level things than to give me much time-share. He seemed to like to build empires, which often existed more in his mind than in reality. He could be very intimidating. I often felt scared to even talk to him. Nonetheless he was a great schmoozer with his chain of command. As a result he somehow managed to become the office director. I believed he would get his SES some day but I was wrong. Instead we got a new SES who took an instant disliking to him. They were apparently oil and water. Jim’s dream of separating his office from the SES’s was quickly shot down. Jim retired abruptly under circumstances that looked more like he was being fired. It was weird: I spent most of a week visiting parents in Michigan, came back, and he was gone. No farewell luncheon. He wasn’t around long enough to even say goodbye to anyone. Jim may have been aloof, but I know he must have been crushed. He must be still licking his wounds somewhere. While I didn’t like Jim that much, I did respect him. When I heard the news of his sudden retirement I actually felt sorry for the guy. I loathed the SES who cut him loose and still do. One of the reasons I’ll be glad to leave ACF is to be away from that man.

And speaking of gadflies, there is Deb. She is our database administrator. We had offices next to each other for years. It was always easy to know when she was around. Her piercing voice could be heard at least 100 feet in all directions. Deb is one of these women who cannot not share her mind. She is extremely good at what she does, which is manage a very large enterprise Oracle database. After about a year of knowing her I discovered she was a fellow Unitarian Universalist. Suddenly her behavior made a lot of sense because I have found UU churches to be full of gadflies. Deb may be a gadfly, but she is also very funny, sharp as a tack, dedicated as hell, persistent and worth three times what they pay her. She is so good no one can succeed in tempering her tongue. She may be opinionated but Deb speaks the truth. I’ll carry that aspect of her into my next job. Since she’s a UU, maybe we won’t lose complete touch with each other. Perhaps I’ll see her at a UU conference or at General Assembly.

Of all the people at ACF, the one I admire the most is Diana. When I started she was the project manager for a large enterprise grants system under development. I was really in awe of how good a job she did managing the construction and deployment of that system. This is a system used across the country by nearly 2000 people. It replaced dozens of legacy and stove-piped systems. Overall it was an amazingly smoothly run project that she directed with unbelievable competence. Her firm direction and fearlessness triumphed over incessant requirements creep, network infrastructure problems and constant changes in the development team. She still works for us now but on an intermittent status. In fact I’m giving her some of my most critical work. I am doing this deliberately because I know if I give it to her it will get done, and with the highest degree of professionalism. If she wanted to she could soar to the top of the organization. But she is happy doing what she does best and happy with her intermittent status because it gives her lots of time to travel with her husband.

Then there is Dave, one of our team leaders. Dave was a contractor, who became a Fed (federal employee), who got fed up being a Fed, left, then came back as a contractor, then became a Fed again. Dave is ten years my senior and jumps into everything thrown at him. I can’t fault him for his desire to be superman, but he always takes on way more work than he can really handle. At a recent meeting with my bosses we discussed who would get my work. Dave happily and perhaps foolishly volunteered to take 80% of it. I know he’ll have to farm it out at some point, and much of it will get delayed. He can’t do it all. But Dave is always sincere about meaning to get it all done and on time. And that counts a lot in my book. Dave inspires me to step up to the plate too and volunteer to juggle perhaps a few more projects than I should. It eases the guilt feelings.

Dave has a technical equivalent: James. James is Chinese and runs all of our development servers and development infrastructure. James is the most brilliant technical person I have ever met. He probably clocks twice the hours he bills; he never seems to stop to do anything other than smoke. He has become our indispensable man. He does the impossible to keep the development people going. James is unassuming but clearly ambitious. He’s another one of these people I can go weeks or months without talking to, but with whom I can have amazing conversations. Our conversations are not deep philosophical ones like I had with Joe. They are technical conversations. Our last conversation was an involved discussion on web services architectural strategies. It was the sort of conversation only James and I could have. I am quite confident that in the whole Office of Information Serives he and I were the only one who would speak coherently on such a complex matter. We know and respect each other. He knows I am in awe of his technical skills, and he quietly acknowledges my mastery of understanding how information technology works.

If there is one person at ACF though I really feel attached to it is Lynnette. She’s a contractor working on our web team. I’ve given her a lot of work over the last couple years. Because she is a contractor I was wary of opening up to her at all. But the more we interacted the closer we became. And the more we interacted the more I realized that we were very much alike. It’s a pretty rare experience to really know someone I work with, but I learned a lot more about Lynnette than I ever expected. She drove me back to work from an offsite meeting once and we had a long “this is my life in summary discussion” that blew me away. It was one of these unbelievable stories of triumph over adversity that sounded too amazing to be real, but was clearly fact. In spite of her adversity though she hadn’t lost her humanity or this innate sense of optimism. I watched her roll down her window and give money to a homeless man. We often discussed politics and usually found agreement. She came to my church once to attend a Palestinian fundraiser I helped put together. Lynnette is exquisitely poised, professional and deep. I’ll likely miss her the most.

I will miss my daily interactions with these people but I also know this is the proper time for me to move on. But I will always remember Joe, Jim, Deb, Diana, Dave and Lynnette. I learned something from each of them. I won’t remember all with fondness, but I will remember them. And I’m grateful that I tarried six years at ACF just so I could encounter them at a close and persistent range.


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