Home > Life > Things I Learned from Work Part 3: Professionalism, Organization and Lack Thereof

Things I Learned from Work Part 3: Professionalism, Organization and Lack Thereof

When I was a kid, I thought most grownups knew what they were doing.  Sure, there were a few here and there that clearly didn’t, but for the most part, I thought that if someone did something for a living, then he or she must be good at it.  I thought companies were well-organized groups of skilled, well-trained people all working together toward a common goal in perfect harmony.

I also thought those spinning things outside Chinese barber shops were magic.

My mental image of the professional worker wore down as I got older, and by the time I was in university, it was pretty much gone.  Even then, it was somewhat surprising to watch the corporate environment grind that idea into dust and then set the dust on fire.

Professionals often aren’t.

Moving from school to a full-time job is seen as one’s first foray into “real” life – a time when one finally leaves the guidance of school life and begins to live truly independently.  This shift is meant to occur when a person has matured enough to enter the world as a productive member of society.

Sadly, this is not always what happens.  The fact that someone is old enough to work does not guarantee that he or she has grown out of any character flaws, bad habits or vices from their childhood.  People can be lazy, biased, disorganized, petty, spiteful, incompetent, ignorant, arrogant or obnoxious regardless of age or rank, so don’t assume that someone will not be these things at work because of their station in life.

This does not mean that everyone who works is a jerk.  It only means that the idea of “professionalism” does not have as much hold over the corporate environment as you might expect.  While most people act responsibly and try to be professional, unprofessional things can and do happen in the office on a regular basis.  This is partly because people are human, and partly because some people simply do not care.  This is why almost all workplaces have at least some degree of office drama.

To cope with this, you have to understand that everyone has their flaws, that those flaws may manifest themselves at work, and that you will probably have to work with such people for years at a time.  If people rub you the wrong way, you still have to find a way to work with them without building up any animosity.  You don’t have to be friends with them, but you do have to keep the relationship amicable enough to be able to work together.

Experience does not guarantee skill.

Just because does something for a living does not always mean that they are good at it.  It’s not even a guarantee that they know how to do it.  There are any number of reasons why someone unqualified may have been hired for a job, and once they’re in, they usually do not screw up badly enough to get fired.  As a result, you may find new hires who do not know basic skills that are integral to their job, and you may find people with “years of experience” but do their jobs in stunningly inefficient ways because they don’t know any better.

I could complain about the headaches that are caused from this, but that’s beside the point.  I think it’s more important to realize that no one is above making the most boneheaded mistakes, or of being ignorant of obvious facts.  People may have been doing their job for years, but if they suddenly have to do something new, they might not know how to do it.  I don’t think you should tell anyone how to do their job, but it does help to remember that people may not have much training regarding a given task, and may be flying by the seat of their pants more than you expect, even if it’s something they’ve done for a long time.  By extension, it’s okay to ask questions – as long as you take care not to cross the line between suggesting something that might have been overlooked and acting like you know someone’s job better than they do.

Speaking of asking questions, don’t worry about sounding stupid or incompetent when asking your own.  I think people would rather work with someone who asks for help rather than someone who stays quiet for fear of bothering people.  If you keep quiet when you clearly need help, you may end up creating problems that could have been easily prevented if you had only asked.  Of course, asking questions should be a last resort – you should try to find out as much as you can on your own first – but no one will blame you for asking them for information that you have no way of finding out on your own.

Personally, I got over my fear of saying anything stupid at work fairly early.   My first co-op work term was as a technical writer at a very large and famous software company.  At one point, I was in a developer meeting where one of the devs mentioned that he was editing HTML using Microsoft Word, and seemed confused when we all facepalmed.

I haven’t been worried about asking stupid questions since.

“Organization” and “planning” actually mean “barely controlled chaos.”

Some of the most common questions I get in job interviews are about how I handle unexpected situations and how I manage my time. These questions are asked because the interviewers know no office is ever perfectly organized and that even if it is, nothing ever goes perfectly according to plan.  So one vital skill for any employee is to be able to take any amount of crap that’s thrown at them and make it work.

Deadlines are often unrealistic.  Requirements are often vague or constantly changing.  Work may not be assigned or delegated properly.  Changes to the product will often be requested.  Information and expectations are usually constantly changing, and not everyone is kept in the loop.  All of these things are regular occurrences, and turns the office into a huge mess where no one is really sure of anything.  Questions about new information are often passed from Person A to Person B to Person C before Person C tells you to ask Person A.  It’s hectic, messy and hideously inefficient but in the end, everyone somehow manages to get the job delivery done, albeit rarely on time.  No one really knows how it all happened, but everyone is just happy it’s over.

Then the cycle repeats for the next delivery.

To figure out why this happens, you have to understand the interests and priorities of the people running the company (the bosses, for simplicity’s sake).  The bosses want to make money.  Period.  The workers care about the sustainability and efficiency of the process because improving the process helps them work more quickly, more easily and more painlessly.  In contrast, the bosses at the top only care about the end result, because it is the result that generates revenue.  Whatever happens during the process – no matter how hectic, wasteful or stupid – doesn’t really matter to your bosses, as long as the end result is produced.

While improving the process will lower production times and lead to more revenue in the long run (thus helping both workers and bosses), bosses typically only care about the immediate payoff.  From what I’ve seen, the bosses will take the quick fix over the permanent solution every single time.  They will always take the quick jury-rig that will be a nightmare to maintain over the slightly slower but much more effective solution.  But if one repeatedly orders the quick fix for fifty iterations of the same product, the result is a huge collection of band-aid solutions that, against all odds, somehow manages to work without bursting into flames.  And it is this product that you, the worker, have to maintain and build on in the foreseeable future, because the bosses will always be pushing you to make the next delivery.  The bosses are never be willing to stop, go back and take the time to fix everything, because that time can be spent making the next delivery and making more money.

Clearly, this style of management is not sustainable in the long run because your product cannot survive on quick fixes forever.  But it’s not likely to change, because the typical boss philosophy (and let me reiterate that this is only from what I’ve seen) is “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”  It is incredibly shortsighted, but I do not believe it is something a low-level worker can change.  I am only writing this to help those who are entering the workforce understand what they can expect.

Is it like this in other offices?

I realize that a lot of what I’ve described doesn’t paint a good picture of the office environment.  I would like some feedback to widen my perspective.  Is it like this everywhere?  Do people not care about the process and go for the quick fixes every single time, regardless of the size or maturity of the company?  Are ridiculous deadlines set on purpose?

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