When we are navigating through life, we often hear about the importance of boundaries. Boundaries come in different forms: ownership, intimacy, and work/life balance. Here is one of several cases where my work/life boundaries were crossed in the course of my employment.
I was on a team as a sort of floating engineer working on some architectural designs rather than specific features or operations. My manager requested my help on an urgent project for 2 weeks and assured me it would bump me up the list for promotion, something I’d been working toward for the past 6 months. The catch was having to put aside some of the architecture work but I thought it would be a nice addition to my highlight reel.
In another part of my life, a close friend was going to be married 3 weeks from the day I was asked to help on this project. I had accepted the invitation and booked my flights several months prior as well as sending out the usual out of office calendar notices.
They didn’t warn me that I’d be working with someone who didn’t know the system. Instead of 2 weeks, it was 2 weeks of me working and 1 week of me undoing the mistakes of my coworker. As the deadline neared, I had increasingly detailed documentation of the remaining work and release plan so someone else could pick it up. I lived under the assumption that work would bend to my vacation plans, not the other way around. Until this conversation:
Project Manager: Hey, so is this going to be done by tomorrow?
Me: That’s not up to me. I have all the changes lined up and the validation scripts ready but I can’t make anything else go faster.
Project Manager: And you’re going on vacation?
Project Manager: Too bad we can’t cancel that, huh?
Me: No, my friend is getting married so it’s immovable.
Project Manager: Ah… well, let’s see what happens tomorrow.
My manager had been coaching me on not being so angry at work (gee, I wonder why that kept happening) and I knew if I indicated any emotional response to this, I’d be getting a stern talking to (this manager was a jerk). So, on the outside I just vaguely smiled and went back to work but on the inside I was calling this shithead all kinds of names and preparing to quit if they tried to make me stay.
I did go on my vacation and I did meet my deadline.
You might want to know what happened to the project, the promotion, and the project manager. Here’re the answers:
- The project manager was fired for incompetence.
- When I returned from vacation, the project was delayed and didn’t need me to work like crazy, under threat of losing vacation beforehand.
- 4 months later my manager informed me that my work to this project “didn’t count” towards my promotion. He remains a jerk to this day, or so I’ve heard.
- The walking incident of a coworker had been ejected from the team. It turns out he wasn’t only ignorant of the system but of how to do anything.
- The only part of the project that worked without completely destroying all other integration points was the piece I implemented. It’s not because I’m a superstar developer. It’s because the team was all new randomly hired people except for me and one other guy. They had no chance.
- My documentation was passed along and worshiped as the only documentation for the entire project that described how to validate anything.
What Did I Learn
- Shit rolls downhill: Despite my intense irritation with the project manager, I saw he was under a lot of strain to get this project done. He was being asked to make a lot of personal sacrifices to make this thing happen. So when he implied that I would need to make sacrifices too, I wasn’t surprised but I didn’t think he’d cross that line.
- Never trust your manager when his ass is on the line: Until the sudden foray into the project, I didn’t know anything about it. After getting back from vacation, I gained more context on what was happening. Apparently, there was this political battle between two directors and one of them was mine, trying to make a point about the effectiveness of his team. I got pulled in, not because it would benefit my career, but because it would benefit his.
- The real deadline is when everyone else is ready: I had accepted the deadline given to me because I didn’t know anything about the project when I was enlisted. What I found out later showed me there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that any other team was going to be ready by the deadline. The fact that my work made my team ready was just an excuse for the asshat director to throw shit on other teams. It didn’t matter that I did the work, did it well, and did it on time.
- A pattern emerges: Now that I had a history of Hail Mary passes, guess who came knocking at my non-existent, open-space door at the next crisis? That’s right, asshat director. So I started saying ‘no’. And then I changed teams. And then I quit the company. Sometimes my old coworkers tell me he says he’ll hire me back anytime. I hope he’s not holding his breath.