Yesterday I received an email from a former colleague, who reminded me of how miserable I was at a particular job. I’ve done a lot of dirty and low-paying jobs in my lifetime. I pumped gas for 5 years as a teenager; I briefly worked as a janitor at a dialysis center mopping up blood and vomit, and I cleaned the “Cougareat” food court at BYU when I was first married. But the worst job I ever had was just a couple of years ago.
In the spring of 2003, I was working for a large software company in Houston, Texas, but it was rapidly shrinking. In the three years I had worked there, I had survived seven layoffs. The eighth time was the charm, and I found myself out of work for over a month. The economy was pretty bad in 2003, and the job market for technical writers was abysmal. For three weeks I tried hard to get a job interview without success. Finally, I found a company in College Station, about 70 miles northwest from my house, that was hiring. After a day-long interview and an editing test, they offered me a job with only a fairly small pay cut.
But the day I started the job, I knew I wasn’t going to be happy. After a morning of orientation and filling out forms, I sat at my desk after lunch with a large stack of printed web pages. I was given a red pencil and told that I wouldn’t be doing any “editing” online but rather would be expected to mark up the printouts and then give them back to the production person who would enter whatever changes I made into the computer. I remember heaving a big sigh and realizing that this was not going to be a picnic.
And it wasn’t. I was constantly overworked and underappreciated. They wouldn’t let me do any writing, and they expected me to do hours on end of proofreading. There was never any praise for good work, just odd bits of arbitrary criticism here and there.
But I worked hard over the next few years, perhaps too hard, as I was quite burned out by 2006. I had proofed and edited an 18-volume set of documentation and numerous books, had put in countless hours of overtime, and a couple of times had worked overnight. But the workload didn’t allow for being burned out and needing a break.
Then came a book by a fairly well-respected scholar at a large university, whom the company was courting as a proponent of their technology. So, when he authored a book, they gladly offered to publish it through their press. The book was dreadful, and I literally had to rewrite every sentence, every paragraph, and every page. It was, if I remember right, almost 400 pages long. I worked on it for about three months, but the bosses were getting anxious. They wanted it published, and they couldn’t understand why it was taking so long to get through it.
Things came to a head just before Memorial Day 2006. I was getting real pressure from both my boss and from one of the developers to hurry up and finish the book. My wife had been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and was hospitalized that Monday in Temple, about 80 miles from our house. Despite the stress of having a wife in the hospital, I soldiered on at work, fighting off depression myself.
The Friday before Memorial Day, the developer came to my office to tell me I had to work over the long weekend so we could get the book out. I told him that my wife was in the hospital and would be coming home Sunday, so I wasn’t going to be able to work then. He became angry and said that he was forced to work over the weekend because I hadn’t finished the book in time, so it wasn’t fair that I shouldn’t have to do so, as well. I said I was sorry, but I wasn’t in any position to work that weekend. A few minutes later I saw him in my boss’s office having a rather angry discussion with her.
On Sunday I drove to Temple and picked up my wife from the hospital. I spent most of Monday just trying to keep her comfortable, and then Tuesday I went back to work. Just after lunch, I was called into my boss’s office and told I was being fired for not performing up to the level expected of my position. I was of course devastated, but an hour later, I said out loud, “But I hated that job.”
Within a couple of weeks, I had landed a better-paying, more-challenging, and definitely more-interesting job in Houston. I had forgotten what it was like to enjoy going to work in the morning.
Now, two years later, I find that the person they hired to replace me has likewise been fired. Not only that, but they are alleging that my former colleague helped him cheat on their editing test in order to get the job. That means that, of the four people they have hired in the last five years to do writing and editing, three have been fired, and the other quit because he couldn’t take it anymore. Now he’s having to defend his integrity before the Texas Workforce Commission.
Not long after I got fired, I saw my boss and her husband (the CEO of the company) at the grocery store. I could see them trying to avoid being seen, so I walked directly to them, put out my hand, and in the most cheerful voice I could muster, told them that I had a great job and was quite happy in it. Sometimes I am tempted to write a thank-you note in appreciation of their firing me.
I’m glad I have a job I like and am challenged by. Things could be worse. I could still be in College Station at that miserable company.