Sporadic Musings - Chapter 1 - 05/07/2001
"The @ventures -- A live report from the revolutionary
and dynamic Internet economy"
The last time I chased my fingers across a keyboard to share my life with you out there, I was recovering from my African re-entry culture shock. Things were confusing, and big things ahead.
I was struggling with my old "new" environment and with the challenge to finally get completely off mom's wallet and onto my own financial legs. I was to enter the workforce, become a member of the proletariat, and end my days of happy life without department bosses, office intrigue and tax returns. About a year later, here I am, feeling like a battle hardened working-world veteran, and I am once more standing at what might turn out to be a significant fork in my road in life. But more on that later.
I had tested the waters in the semiconductor industry while in Belgium, and the monotony of the processing research work had not exactly raised my enthusiasm about working for a chipmaker as an engineer. Getting into the business side of that industry was difficult if you didn't come out of the engineering pool. So I was looking for alternatives.
--- Starting out in the New Economy ---
Perhaps predictably considering the hype at about this time last year, I ended up in the New Economy. Not exactly by design, though, but rather by accident. A new-found friend whom I met at the beaches of Mozambique while still drifting through Africa, enthusiastically recommended a Berlin Internet agency, whom he had just signed with. Cool atmosphere, young people, shaping the revolution that was to turn the world upside down -- I was sold. Especially after a brief but disturbing encounter with the recruiters of a giant "old school" consulting firm (which just recently picked a funny new name), I was sure that I was on the right path. I moved to Berlin, found a little flat in a trendy student area of town, and became a dot-commer -- complete with two dogs at the company, screaming blue and red neon lights in the comfortable lobby, and staff with an average age of 22.
During my interview, I had not been able to nail down what exactly I was to be doing in my job as a project manager; since pretty much everybody at my new employer was a "PM", there was a lot of flexibility. But things started out with great speed. On my second day, I joined three colleagues on a pitch for new business (a website for a last-minute travel company). Excitement pure, client contact from the start!
Unfortunately, the "vibes" were pretty bad during the meeting, we didn't really get to agree on much, and when we returned that day to Berlin, in was clear to me that we would not get this client and that I was to be working on some other project. I was wrong.
The next four weeks (!!) I spent as a office refugee without a project or any work at all, being told by the to-be key account of that travel agency project that I needed to "wait in the pipeline" for the moment when the project would start. I upped my email frequency, surfed the web extensively at T-1 speed, and subscribed to a million tech newsletters to keep myself busy. After four weeks I was starting to go nuts with boredom and was getting close to the point where I was ready to leave the company.
In a last-ditch effort, I headed out to look for ANY work myself. Talking my way around the company, I found that our biggest project at the time, a Swiss Internet Banking project, needed someone who knew about mobile Internet technologies. I had some clue about the field from hobby reading, so I screamed "here!" and was invited to the project.
I figured that I had finally understood how things work in the new economy, namely that you need to find your work yourself instead of being "assigned" the "old-economy-way". I expected that at the meeting with our unit head, which I had requested more than a week earlier and which obviously had not had enough priority to happen sooner, I would simply get confirmation and a go-ahead. I was wrong again. I got a drubbing for "going behind his back" and not waiting to be assigned by him, and a refusal to join the banking project. Not exactly that he had an idea WHERE I should go, either. After big lobbying efforts and back-and-forth I managed to claw my way into the project anyway, but by the time I was in a plane on my way to Zurich, my image of the glorious new economy had gotten a few gaping cracks.
--- The Swiss Experience ---
So I was on my way to the airport next Monday morning. Funny enough, even though I had hoped to find some stability and continuity after all the drifting in Africa, I ended up footloose again -- shuttling between Zurich and Berlin in a weekly rhythm. As a result of this, I never really arrived in Berlin. I also never really settled down in Zurich either. I spent 9 months torn between two locations, also a new experience for me, since I had been used to being uprooted and planted anew, yet not to sitting between two such chairs.
I also was to dive into the biggest, most complex and difficult project that my agency had ever been involved in by far. My agency, a Big-5 consulting firm, the Swiss bank, and a number of subcontracting companies, all trying to work together to create a new online bank that was to be truly revolutionary, combining banking, online communities, inter-community investment benchmarking, lifestyle offers, a complete mobile offering, and many other things.
Unfortunately, it all went down the drain. Nine months, a bust new economy bubble and a 250 million Swiss Francs investment later, none of the ambition has been turned into reality. The client pulled the plug, the new, revolutionary bank was buried 6 feet deep, and everyone involved went home having created nothing but non-reusable custom-code trash and lots of paper-which-could-have-remained-trees.
So was it a good experience? Indeed it was. What I learned in this 250 Mio training course was that, if you wanna finish a project as big as this, you have to:
1. PLAN properly, in some detail and BEFORE you start, what you want to be the outcome of the project.
2. Cut the egos, subdue inter-company rivalries, and get on with the job.
3. Putting more people on a job does NOT mean things will happen faster.
4. Have ONE boss, who holds people accountable, knows what he/she is doing, and drives the ship.
Needless to say, none of the above was happening in our case, which is why the ship sank. Nevertheless, I had been lucky to work with a small team of coders, pretty much left alone by anyone else, to create a pretty cool mobile banking application (WAP/SMS/secure, the lot). My "baby" never saw the light of the online-world but got buried in the digital graveyard alongside the other megabytes of derelict code left after the catastrophic project termination. However, the process of creating it, improving and revising it, defending it within the project against all those people who figured that "we didn't need mobile anyway", and working with everyone to make it happen, was a great experience. I made a few good friends in the process, picked up a few valuable skills, and raised that most important, fulfilling and meaningful factor of my personality -- my market value.
In addition, I got to swim in the beautiful and clean Zurich lake, ski the Swiss alps, hike the mountain passes, savoir excellent cheese and brilliant chocolate, and eat loads of (and varied) Swiss fondues and "Geschnetzeltes". I watched the rich Banker's wives in their (real - screw those greenies) fur coats parade across Bahnhofstrasse. I rubbed shoulders with private bankers who count money in "boxes" (wherein one "box" equals one million Swiss Francs) and send you to a proletarian retail bank if you arrive at their doorsteps with anything less than two of those boxes.
I used trams which are ALWAYS on time, went through train tunnels so long that you could finish "War and Peace" while passing through one, and which criss-cross the Swiss alps like holes in Emmentaler cheese which makes you wonder why they haven't collapsed yet. I got used to attaching a hearty "li" to any noun available in German, in order to blend in with the local dialect, finding that one of the few words never "cute-fied" by adding the "li" was the mighty "Franc", which ties in nicely with the fur coats and the "boxes". I got to experience Swiss feeling for ORDER, the extent of which reduces any German countryside town to an anarchic hippie commune. I saw a cleaning lady clean my apartment UNDER the fridge, ON TOP of the doors, and for a whole 14 hours, to declare it "clean by Swiss Standard". I was reprimanded in writing for "opening several windows of my apartment, notably on the western, northwestern, southern, and south eastern side repeatedly during the course of the day, resulting in considerable loss of energy, making it impossible to heat the apartments in the house, above and below (!!)".
I was charged a whopping 25 francs cover for hip "Kaufleuten" club in town, only to find that this did not include ascending to the balcony level of the club, which was reserved for "VIP's". I watched Basel people screw Halloween commercialism for good, old traditions "Fasenacht" carnival which includes getting up at 4am to publicly parade huge, handmade lanterns, adorned with handpainted political satire cartoons that have been created over the course of a whole year in people's clubs. I slept in a hotel room that had a hammock in it. I spent 6 weeks wrapped in the most resilient Zürich fog I have ever experienced. Oh, yes, and I ate Birchermuesli, which you MUST try whenever it crosses your sight on a menu anywhere!
There is way too much I saw to put down here, but "those days in Zürich", accompanied by a nostalgic sigh by all those who've been there, just about captures the "Swiss experience".
Unfortunately, with all the beauty of Zürich, while on the project, I also felt left alone and abandoned by my company. In the chaos of the project, when I had needed support, I got little, when I needed backup from our HQ, no-one was there. No-one was there to track, assess or appreciate my work, which, as it turned out, has been so everywhere across the company. I felt there was a need for change. I wanted some structure, some training, someone with a good many years of experience to learn from.
So I started listening to job offers floating around, propositions made, and when an offer appeared at last the seemed very good indeed, I struck a deal. I was to become a consultant.
At the announcement of this to my closer friends, I earned much ridicule, some horrified faces, and heads shook. After all, moving from a chaotic new economy company, complete with two dogs, offices full of life-size figures of Darth Vader and Lara Croft, and a work structure and hierarchy that was nonexistent at most times, straight into the oldest of Management Consultancies, with the suits, the ties, the polished shoes and chiseled chins, seemed quite lunatic and incompatible indeed.
On the other hand, international assignments were looming, much better pay, and that structured learning effect, along with proper feedback on how well I was doing, was looming large, and proved too tempting in the end. I knew I had to try, or I would be asking myself forever after "what if I had. . . ?" Ultimately, I had little choice, but to try.
As a nice side-effect, I got to take all my vacation, plus some overtime I had accumulated, and disappear into the AUSTRALIAN sunset for a whopping TWO months! The trip, from which I have only returned a week ago, has been truly excellent, full of beauty, insights and great experiences, and I hope to publish another report on it should I find the time. In any case, I have a new favorite city on this planet -- SYDNEY!! -- and a country too beautiful and fascinating to be away from it for too long. Wait for my move down under. . .
So here I am, having a slow start into the much-labeled and emotionally
charged field of management consulting. I am a little scared, and
I hope that if I find my chin become chiseled, or me becoming more
and my a "suit" in that unfavorable meaning, I will have the
wisdom to see it and the willpower to pull out. In the meantime, I'll
take the money, do the job, and if one thing is sure at the end of this:
I will finally have learned how to tie a tie.
Always yours, and happy about any responses,