How to succeed at failing

WARNING: Very lengthy, lots of drama!

Technically, this blog is supposed to be one of many resources available to those who wish to discover more about the lives of students in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing.  My interpretation of that encompasses a healthy combination of both fact (what’s been happening, events on campus, etc) and opinion (my thoughts on said facts).

This particular entry will probably be most controversial in that regard, since, while it does involve fact, it is a fact which is deplorable, a case-in-point example of something to be avoided.

To all employers or leaders of organizations, I am going to describe – from a student’s standpoint, yes, but as you will see that distinction becomes somewhat irrelevant – how to be an arrogant, presumptive, condescending leader and dig yourself a hole in the process.  Using two case studies from my own personal experience, I will show you exactly why it is a bad idea in business (and even in general!) to treat people as guilty until proven satanic.

(I will be as general as I can here, so as to protect those people with whom I have bones to pick, but let it be known I do this because it is right, not because I’d really like protect these folks)

Case Study 1: Organizations

Scenario: I’m in a fraternity.  As promised, I will not reveal which fraternity, but they will be having their biannual national convention this summer (in a week, actually), and the location for this year’s event is none other than the gorgeous city of Atlanta in all its concrete and steel glory.

I attended the convention two years ago in Boston and had a blast.  Yeah, it’s expensive: $300 just for the four-day convention, to say nothing of airfare or hotel reservations.  Nevertheless, the chance to meet and work with brothers from all over the country is quite a unique one, an opportunity that, circumstances permitting, should be taken advantage of.

GIven my rather rigorous senior schedule this summer – nevermind preparations for graduate school in the fall – I could not afford four whole days to attend the convention.  I would not even be able to attend for a few consecutive hours, as final exams and graduation overlap directly with the first two days of the convention, and my family and I depart for a Florida vacation on the fourth and final day.  Additionally, I am in the process of applying for loans to allay the astronomical cost of graduate school, so putting down a few hundred dollars for an event I wouldn’t even be able to attend a quarter of seemed ridiculous.

Still, I wanted to see as many people as I could while they were in town, particularly before departing for Pittsburgh in a few weeks.  So I contacted the executive board of the national office, asking if it was at all possible for me to simply stick my head in every now and then whenever I had a few minutes to say hi to folks.  Not asking for special dispensation, but only if it was possible.

This was the response I received to my question, from the executive director himself:

Shannon,

You put the Fraternity and the other participants in an awkward position with this request. What was your rationale in registering? It’s not fair to the other participants who have registered and paid the registration fee to have someone “just poking their head in”. The fraternity incurs enormous expense to put on this event for all sorts of things, not just meals, etc.

We’d kindly suggest you make a decision like all other registrants to either attend or not. Of course we’d like as many members to attend as possible and hope that you will. It’s an experience not to be missed.

Thank you.

[Napolean]

Here’s what he did wrong.

1) Assumed I had no knowledge of the planning process. I am willing to set this one aside, as the vast majority of brothers across the nation have no knowledge (or interest in gaining the knowledge) of how this event is planned and organized; it’s usually the same couple hundred folks at the convention every year.  Still, as a previous attendee and a former local chapter president, I’ve had quite a few dialogues with the executive board, so this assumption is disrespectful at best.

2) Used a rhetorical question. This is an immensely childish method of response.  It is disrespectful and insulting; it acts as a direct questioning of my intelligence, something my experience in this fraternity would have led me to believe would never happen between brothers as an inherent consequence of our respective membership in the fraternity.  Which, incidentally, makes this mistake even more degrading.

3) Quoted me to make an example. A rather immature and passive-aggressive way of using my own words against me (quite literally), this also acts as an insult to my intelligence by putting my exact words in a context which made them sound utterly ridiculous, but while still leaving me to piece that together on my own.

4) Added “kindly” to the ultimate solution. This is one of my favorites.  After being verbally bashed around by an executive director with a chip on his shoulder, the solution which should have been gently suggested at the very beginning (rather than spewing rhetoric and bile) is placed at the conclusion with a word to feign decent manners, but whose literal meaning is lost entirely to the context of the previous statements and acts only as salt in the wound.  I’ve had experience with a few TAs using this before, and I’m always incredulous that someone at this stage of life would be condescending enough to use it.

5) Suggested I should still follow through. I just have to laugh here.  Unless he’s being facetious – which, given that money seems to be more important than brotherhood here, I sort of doubt – he’s still suggesting I attend the convention after being ridiculed like a child.  There is no semblance of welcoming, no warm feelings of acceptance whatsoever.  Only a cold businesslike attitude which I would have expected from Microsoft, but certainly not my own fraternity.

To any other brothers attending the convention who might be reading this: I wish I could see you guys again while you’re in town.  You’re welcome to swing by Georgia Tech to say hello; in fact, I hope you do. 🙂  I’ll miss you all when I move up to Pittsburgh.

Case Study 2: Employers

Scenario: A high school acquaintence of mine recently contacted me after seeing my face on the Joomla! developer website by way of the Google Summer of Code.  He works in web design, and tracked me down as part of a recruiting process with his job to find someone who could complete a website they’re designing for a school to handle web-based course registration.  It uses the JoomlaLMS application in tandem with the Community Builder extension; however, they were having a lot of trouble with integrating the two.

So they tracked me down and invited me for an interview.  At first, I turned the offer down, citing a workload that was too much for me to split my attention any further.  Still, they continued to pursue me, so I decided to entertain the possibility, though at the interview I warned them in advance that my rates would be astronomical (for an undergraduate, anyway) because of how at-a-premium my time was.

For the sake of being open and honest, I made it clear I was charging $100/hour for my work because of how pressed I was for time.  The woman who was heading up the project – professing of her own accord that she was not technically savvy with computers – was still interested.  She gave me a broad overview of what she wanted (exactly what I said above – integration of those two applications), and then assured me I’d have the position with the specified pay after I wrote up a detailed project proposal that she could submit to her board of directors for approval.

After submitting the proposal, I heard nothing back from her for weeks.  I had requested documentation so I could begin refining my project plan (I estimated 90-150 hours of work, as the project was fairly far along but I had been given zero technical documents with which to make a more detailed project analysis), but I never received that either.  So I sent a follow-up email, restating my request for documentation.

Here was the response I received:

I have been extremely busy and I felt as though I did not have enough time to hash things out. Bottom line Shannon, your proposal was ridiculous and irrational. You went up nearly 20 more hours than what you originally presented. None of the links that you sent me worked properly. Your case studies–mentioning your website in particular–weren’t real case studies. Your resume was inexperienced. I chose not to submit your proposal to my board of directors because I am responsible for scouting out rational applicants. Your proposal was irrational and I believe that you need to work on your negotiation skills.

We are still interviewing for this position. The people that we are interviewing are much more experienced and do not demand nearly as much as you have demanded.

Unfortunately I will not be able to recommend you for work.

[Almira Gulch]

Yet again, a litany of items.

1) No greeting. Very clearly sets the tone of the message.  As Cathryn said, it’s as if I’m not even human enough to be recognized and acknowledged as any other being would be.

2) Cited “being busy”. Woefully overused and equally lame excuse for the lack of a prompt response.  Every college student uses this to justify slacking off in other areas, when the reality is that if it was important enough to them, it would get done.  Everyone in the world is busy; I certainly took a calculated risk by taking (or so I thought I took) this contract work.  This woman had no interest in telling me I’d had the rug pulled out from under me.

3) Implied knowledge after previously admitting none. As I’d stated before, during the interview she explicitly informed me that she had no technical knowledge of the project, but only that it was to integrate the two aforementioned applications into a functioning website.  And yet, after reviewing my proposal on her own, she deemed me underqualified and overcharging.  Hidden within this absurdity is a confirmation that she is feigning critical knowledge: it is a well-known fact in software engineering that such an endeavor always takes longer than we think it will.  This was the reason that, even though I’d said about 70 hours of work in the interview, I gave her a broad range of 90-150 hours, though I still made it clear in the proposal that I would give her a much more tightened timeline after I’d been given technical documentation to look over so I could familiarize myself with the work that had been done and that which needed finishing.  Furthermore, the four links I provided were all functional.  Every single one.  At some point or another, they’ve been posted on this blog.  I would have been alerted if they were ever broken.

4) Made unsubstantiated claims using superfluous language. This is the classic “I don’t think it means what you think it means” problem.  She made liberal use of “irrational” and “ridiculous” but her substantiation is flawed to its core, leading me to wonder exactly what she saw that was so offensive.  Perhaps she uses language like this regularly, but in my general experience, terms like “irrational” and “ridiculous” are reserved for situations which far exceed the literal definition.  “Went up nearly 20 hours”: I left room for the project to take longer than expected, plus I had no clue how long it would take given the total lack of documentation.  Nonfunctional links: I have no freaking clue, they’re all externally hosted and they’ve always worked for me.  Inexperienced resume: Well, I am an undergraduate, but I’ve worked for several companies – big and small – and have been doing web application design for four years, including two tooling around with Joomla!, not to mention this summer as an official coder for the organization.  If you’re comparing me to a professional web designer, then sure I’m less experienced, but you certainly won’t get one for cheaper.  So what was so offensive?

5) Comparison to their own version of “normal”. By stating that interviews were ongoing with folks “much more experienced [who] do not demand nearly as much as you have demanded”, there is an implicit accusation that I was being exceptionally greedy and overly abnormal in my proposal.  I’m sure you all can draw on more accurate personal experience than I can, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who has more experience than I do – e.g. a professional web developer – is going to be quite a bit more expensive than $100/hour, particularly if the work is done by contract.  Still, this insult is arrogant and condescending, implying that since I don’t fit her version of “normal”, then there must be something wrong with me.  Furthermore, during the interview, she didn’t bat an eye when I made my $100/hour offer, and seemed to understand my explanation for why I was charging so much.  She was perfectly ok with it.  Then only after receiving my project proposal did she lambast me for my outrageous rates?  Truly bizarre.

Of course, there’s also the issue that I was stood up for what was technically supposed to be our first interview.  The time we actually met was our second attempt.

Conclusion

In both cases, there were far more constructive ways to approach the situation.  Regardless of the fact that both individuals seemed to completely gloss over the main points of my messages and infer their own meanings, there is still the issue of common decency and respect.  There was none in either case, and for this reason I have no inclination to associate with either of them anymore.

Even though I am not one to tout my own talents (as Cathryn would say of me, “What ego?”), this is one of the very few instances where I can, without hesitation or reserve, flat-out state that these two individuals are simply and completely wrong.  They are wrong about me, and they are wrong about how to approach the situation, and I honestly question how they are able to effectively lead their respective organizations with such blatantly arrogant and condescending attitudes towards current or potential members.

To any potential or current students reading this (I commend you if you’ve made it this far, by the way): Don’t settle.  This applies to every area of your life, and these two case studies apply to both my personal and professional lives, but the bottom line remains the same.  Don’t settle for less than you’re worth, for less than you deserve, for less than you’re capable of.  There will always be people who want to step on you for whatever reason (usually to serve their own purpose and agenda); don’t let them.  Don’t drag yourself down to their level, but don’t let them off the hook either.  You and everyone else will be better off for it.

Now, to brighten the mood.  I swear I was this cat in a previous life:

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About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
This entry was posted in i ken make living plz, lolcat, Real Life, the dark side. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How to succeed at failing

  1. Dawn says:

    The irony of it all is that I am reading this post while waiting for my negotiation skills classes to start. Keep on truckin’ Shannon.

    -dawn

  2. magsol says:

    Haha. Yeah, I found irony in that *she* told *me* I needed to work on my negotiating skills…rather than the other way around.

    Good luck in your class! And indeed, keep on truckin’. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Re: How to succeed at failing « This page intentionally left ugly

  4. Pingback: Not to beat on a dead horse… « Theatre of Consciousness

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