A Little Pissed

            I’d like to take the opportunity to share with you, my fine and constant reader who checks this blog out now once in a blue moon, one of my more harrowing work related experiences. You have been regaled to some degree about my glamorous international travel experiences from my field engineer days, so I’m going to leave off on that for now and go in another direction. I understand this is likely to leave you sniffing around about your bottom like a dog after you hide the ball, but we all understand there was little chance of that not happening anyway. Now that we are done with our customary into tête-à-tête, I can launch into the story of the PMR.

                PMR stands for program management review which consists, theoretically, of a quarterly meeting of the minds between a contractor and customer to exchange viewpoints, engage in lively discussions and reach consensus on what is going to be best for everyone. I imagine something like this has probably occurred at some point in the distant past, but I certainly have not been part of it. I’m going to be somewhat vague when it comes to company and program names, the personalities involved and whatnot because I have come to realize that the less attention received from this jaunty group of people the better.

                I started working on this particular program back in January of 2007 and even then when the first article had just been delivered there were already some articles of controversy. Actually said articles existed for years before all through development as the approach taken was new and original, something government functionaries tend to despise. Powerful detractors were in the midst from the get go attempting to spread poison and discord; Machiavellian attempts to get the project shit canned well before it reached the point of no return. We were the rebels fighting the empire of bloated government spending. I had no idea when I stepped into it.

                For those who don’t know me better, I have had a lifelong deep seated fear of having to get up and speak in front of people. Big deal, most people have that, but mine was a tad worse than most. Through my entire academic career, kindergarten through college graduation, I never once volunteered and answer or option to anything. Not once. Never raised the hand. Don’t even know what it feels like. If a teacher was determined to reduce me to a sweat covered, red faced stammering fool, all they needed to do was to call on me. Some were more sadistic than most.

                In spite of all this, I signed up for the MBA program at UB in order to further my education. I came to realize early on that presentations to the class were to be expected. Group ones as well as individual. I didn’t care to hear that at all but fortunately my competitive nature would not let me drop the program. For group projects it was easy. I was the guy who would write the whole paper so long as other people got up and did the presentation. If it was required that everyone get up there, I campaigned for and won the shortest segment. It was horrible, even though the class at large was sleepy and clearly uninterested in the trials and tribulations of the American Connector company. Eyes were far more on iPod and Crackberry’s than on me, but still, you couldn’t get me out of there fast enough. Oh, how Iittle I knew how hard it could truly be.

                The first I became aware of such things as PMRs I was one fine morning in May after I came into work. It was 5 months after I took the job and was still getting my feet wet. The phone rang and it was Mike, the business unit executive my program fell under.

“Yeah, Mike we are having the PMR over here at the other building and these guys want to talk about the support portion. Can you come on over?”

“Uh…. what? I didn’t prepare anything or anything.”

“That’s fine, that’s fine. Just print out some copies of that spreadsheet you keep and c’mon over. They just want to talk. It’ll be good. It’ll be good. But just so you know, they are a little pissed.”

                I printed out about 5 copies of my failure summary spreadsheet and made my way over to the other building. I came into the conference room where the meet and greets were still taking place. Just fucking great. The one day I didn’t think I had any meetings and came in casual in jeans and an old sweater, and now pulled into a room of about 60 people all in suits. A big believer of “dress better than the other guy in business situations”, I felt at an immediate disadvantage. Perhaps I just received at call from the wife that the sump pump was acting up again and I had to rush out. Before I could formulate the thought, Mike spied me and a flurry of introductions was made. I failed to retain a single name or title.

                I sat through the morning presentation feeling conspicuously out of place; the red dot on the cashmere sweater. I was an unknown to this group and I could tell they regarded me with suspicion. I was hoping that no one was really going to want to ask me anything and hoped for the best.

“Well, that about wraps up the production notes. Got Mike here from product support to field any questions you might have, so we’ll have him meet with anyone interested over in the side meeting room.”

                I was immediately grateful not to have to get up in front of the assemblage. I made my way into the side room and sat down at the table, my scraps of paper in front of me, ready to receive any interested parties. To my dismay about 40 people filed into the room. Additional tables were pulled over to adjoin the small one I sat at. Everyone sat down from the highest program manager on the government side to Air Force system users. All eyes turned to me expectantly; suddenly chair of a sizable meeting.

“Uh… I think we need more copies.”

                I was unable to use this as an excuse to break free as an admin suddenly appeared as if from nowhere, took one of my 5 copies and trundled off to make more. I was forced to get started with about 10 people to a copy as I stammered through the first of the issues. I immediately ran into trouble. One of the site representatives, a mid level functionary, whose team my team had been working with on a particular issue suddenly made the declaration that they were dead in the water waiting for us to get back to them with answers. The 80 eyes already on me narrowed as if to say, “Contractor slime, we know your game.” My sweating increased exponentially.

                The truth of the matter was that my team had been hounding his people mercilessly attempting to get the issues cleared. I declared I had email proof of this – proof! – but my word was disavowed. I was simply a weasel trying to slip free the stern hand of government vigilance. After the meeting, by the way, I forwarded every single one of the aforementioned emails to everyone present, but the effect was lost. “Oh sorry, I guess you were right” was the only response from this finger pointing bastard. The remainder of the meeting was similar. I turned at times to Joe, the big production program manager, but my silent entreaties to be rescued were met with silence.  At the end I slunk away with onerous action items and the credibility of a ring tailed lemur caught in a bear trap; questionable that I should even be there and assuredly screwed.

                I managed to turn thing around in the following months and fall finally came. I had established a rapport with the site users but still communicated little with the program office who actually had the power to make me miserable. Executive Mike called me into his office on fine October day.

“Yeah, the next PMR is coming up in 2 weeks and they said they want you there.”

                This was unwelcome news to say the least. This PMR was being held at the home base of the program office on the government side. Their pond in the mountains. It so happened that a large project for school was due at the same time and I attempted to utilize this as an excuse. No dice. I was coming along, hell or high water, and this time I was expected to make a formal presentation. Don’t bother coming for the production day Mike told me, just fly in for your part the following day.

                I did as I was told and flew out; arriving in the early afternoon at the same time Mike and Joe were having their asses handed to them. I arrived, but naturally my luggage did not, and yes, it contained the only suit I owned. I badgered the airlines but they refused to commit. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe never, who really knows? Oh, how I hate them. Dinner time rolled around and I finally broke down to locate a mall where I could purchase what I needed. Mike called to invite me to dinner with the rest of the crew, but I had to beg off. Too bad, he told me, important information to share, but meet for breakfast. I just purchased a suit, a shirt, new belt, new shoes, socks, and a new tie when Delta rang me up with the excellent news that my bag was sitting at the airport. I went to bed, my nerves shot already.

“Don’t worry; they’re just a little pissed.”

                Mike’s calm demeanor at breakfast did little to quell my nerves. My stomach roiled and the watery scrambled eggs didn’t help much.

“Wait, what?”

“They are a little pissed. Joe is behind on production and they really don’t like the number of field failures they have experienced, so be ready for that. Let’s see your slides. … Hm… Oh, I wouldn’t tell them that; then they would be really pissed.”

                This was really not the sort of thing I wanted to hear. There was nothing I could do to change the slides as my presentation was already loaded in the computer on base.

“Just try and talk around it. Don’t worry, Joe and I will be there.”

                We got to the meeting location and my sense of panic began to grow. About 60 people milling about, most of who had names I had forgotten. All eyes facing front where a large dais with a microphone. No podium to hide behind. Big screen behind, positioned just so that no matter where you stood, someone in the audience would be doing that head craning thing to try and look around you even though they have a paper copy in front of them. We received the agenda and I was pleased that nothing had changed. I would be going after lunch giving me enough time to look over my slides again so I wouldn’t appear too much the fool.

                The morning presentation went much faster than scheduled. I keep peering at my watch, willing the hand to move faster or for some long winded questions pop up in order to stall things just until lunch. Please God just give me until lunch!

“We seem to be ahead of schedule so why don’t we get started with Mike’s portion before we break for lunch.”

                Crap! Visibly shaking, I got up and made my way to the front. I next spent a very awkward and uncomfortable five minutes in front of everyone trying to figure out how to work the damn microphone until someone finally came up, wrestled it out of my hands and flicked it on with an expert snap of the thumb leaving me to look like the inept boob I felt like. In movies this would have been the time when the microphone would have screeched as I attempted introduction, thus breaking the tension and letting me giggle nervously. No such luck. Instead I led off with what I thought was a fairly humorous little joke, or pun if you will, that failed to garner even a chuckle.

                I looked through the faces in the crowd. Everyone from my side of the house was busy buried in their Crackberry’s, blithely typing away with their thumbs as I faced the slow death. As for the customer, a panoply of looks. Bored. Disinterested. Incredulous. Skeptical. Hostile! Angry! … Furious! I had no idea how to feel about that. No one ever looked angry as I stumbled through a presentation about how NASA stores old data. Never once did anyone look furious when I explained in great detail how soy farmers in India were using computers to check the weather. This was not good. I hadn’t even begun and I managed to not only soak through the pits of my undershirt, but the shirt itself and my coat.

                As with any public performance it always is easier once you get going and can lose focus on where you are. Not this time! Every piece of data I presented was cross examined as if by those old timey lawyers you see legal classics like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Inherit the Wind’ or ‘My Cousin Vinnie’.

“Well sir, I suppose you can tell me HOW a system that YOU report is meeting the contractually mandated mean time between failures specifications can POSSIBLY have experienced the event by which you describe? Sir that is ONE magic event!”

“Uh. What is the specification again?”

“Unacceptable!”

                They let nothing go, tearing into every disputable factoid with the zeal of a seagull on your unattended fries at Old Man River. These were the best experts the government had on twisting logic, verbal entrapment, cross examination and contractor doublespeak. At one point I somehow got pulled down a path where instead of charging them for something they would normally pay for, my company ended up agreeing to foot the bill. Joe looked up from his Crackberry just long enough to shoot me a glance and an eye roll that said, “You stepped in it good there, stupid.”

                We broke for lunch midway though so that I would be able to eat my chicken sandwich in total abject terror for the interrogation to begin again after lunch.

“Mike, I’m dying up there!”

“Nah, you’re doing fine. They’re just a little pissed and you are an easy target.”

                I felt a tiny bit better, but not really.

“What about that bit about us taking responsibility for all those repair costs. Isn’t our president going to be upset about that?

“Yeah, he’ll be pissed.”

                After lunch was more of the same, but it finally came to an end. I returned to my seat exhausted and full of strong intentions to update my resume. I made it though; the world didn’t come to an end, though once again I was saddled with dozens of onerous action items to report on at the next PMR coming round the mountain in February.

                Flash forward to now. Making travel plans to go out there again for PMR #10. This customer and I have gotten to know each other very well over the past few years and have a well defined relationship where I help them and get blamed for everything, but things are much more congenial for the most part. And yes, they are still a little pissed.

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One Response

  1. Nice. Of course since it has been so long since anyone posted anything you could have spun the tale of how you acquired crotch rot and it would have been nice.

    I have started three different stories, but none are of sufficient quality to post.

    It would be nice if Dan, Louis, or someone else did some work by posting here.

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