The most random nights out are often the best nights out. Surprising. Entertaining. Educational.
Lately, my passport has been getting more exercise than my gym membership. As sure as Christmas decorations appear in stores by the beginning of October, so too does the annual corporate panic to deliver projects before the year ends and the money runs out.
Retention decisions depend upon it.
Payrised? Performance bonused? Promoted? Passed over? Purged? Pensioned off?
At this stage of the year, all remain potential outcomes. Though the decisions are being made in the now, long before any performance management theatre has finished playing out.
One of the joys of working in a global economy is having ready access to a vast pool of resources.
Interesting people doing interesting things from interesting places.
Meanwhile, megacorps pride themselves on their cultures of diversity and inclusion.
Combining the two produces a diverse pipeline of ever-changing lowest-cost locales, from which to include and exploit commodity workers. Equal work for equal pay? There is not much equality in doing the same job for one-third the money, or working six days a week when on-shore counterparts work five.
I have teams scattered across locations ranging from Barcelona to Bucharest. For the first time in a long time, I don’t currently have any Chinese or Indian resources. Economic snakes and ladders render both locations too expensive or too controversial to source interchangeable cogs for the corporate machine.
Brisbane? Birmingham? Boston? Forget about it! Same quality at supersized costs. Local lifestyle costs drive up prices demanded by local talent, until they are uncompetitive on the global stage.
Benefits further compound the challenge. 30 days paid annual vacation. 20% pension contribution, on top of base salary. Employer-provided health insurance. Training allowances. Volunteer days. All sound enticing to a local employee, until they find themselves competing on price against equally skilled people from a locale where none of these things are included in the asking price.
I would like to believe the equitable outcome is eventually all employees, everywhere, receive good salaries and rewarding packages. But the reality is the equilibrium point trends towards the lower end of the earnings spectrum. The duty of care to look out for the short-term and often short-sighted interests of shareholders ensures that this is so.
Most of us say we want equality in the workplace.
The true test is whether we back up our words with deeds, when equality injures our personal finances or individual prospects. An unpopular opinion. Harsh truths tend to be.
Recently, I found myself hunkered down in a bar named after a dubious 1980s hairstyle. Late at night. Located off an old town side street, in one of those lowest-cost locations.
The place was heaving. Local twenty-somethings fuelled by half-price cocktails and party drugs danced away their midweek blues to an eclectic set of tracks, being mixed by a DJ sporting a spectacular mullet without the slightest sense of irony.
Not my typical surroundings.
Nor my comfort zone.
Needs must. The venue was self-selecting, being both open and on the way back to the hotel.
I was surprised to recognise many of the tunes. Remixes of 80s songs, over electronic backing tracks with massive drum beats and strong baselines. Catchy enough to get even the most reluctant of suburban shufflers nodding heads and tapping feet.
Phil Collins, before the back injury.
Depeche Mode, before they sobered up.
The Smiths, though curiously with Rick Astley singing rather than the now cancelled Morrissey.
Michael Jackson. Prince. Whitney Houston. Before their pharmaceutically induced pop royalty regicide.
Interspersed with random Taylor Swift anthems, remastered to avoid supporting the evils of Big Machine.
The tune changed once more. A surprising, yet fitting choice, from my youth half a world away. Capturing the disconnected feeling of my recent existence as a road warrior.
“Estimated time of arrival 9.30 a.m.
Been up before the sun and now I’m tired before I even begin.
(Now you’re flying) I got so much work in front of me,
(Really flying) it stretches out far as the eye can see.
I can see.
Spend half my life in airports doing crosswords and attempting to sleep,
And when the bar is open then you’ll often find me warming aseat.
(Now you’re flying) I never find a place where I can stay
(Really flying) I’d rather be a thousand miles away.
Thousand miles away.
Working for yourself sometimes ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
It can be as lonely at the top as at the bottom of that corporate tree
(Now you’re flying) I’m told I’m going places – who can say?
(Really flying) I might arrive but I’ll be gone the very next day.
I must be on my way
A thousand miles away.
Promised to myself someday I’d take the time and try to make sense
Out of all those opportunities I’ve lost from trying to sit on the fence
(Now you’re flying) But right now I’ve got no time for yesterday
(Really flying) Yesterday’s a thousand miles away.
A thousand miles away.
What was that that you were trying to say?
I guess I was a thousand miles away.
Sing it again.”
I was seated in a surprisingly quiet booth. An acoustical quirk of a modern venue housed within an ancient building. One that had seen duty as a wine cellar, partisan hideout, and fallout shelter.
Alongside me sat two disgruntled Westerners. Overworked. Underpaid. Put upon. Far from home.
A common refrain amongst the local ex-pat community. This was not a location people sought out, but one they sought to escape. A place where folks end up, despite their best efforts rather than because of them. A country where stability is recognised as a luxury. Fleeting and fragile.
One colleague regaled us with his struggles of an empty nest. Once the last of his kids left home, he and his long-suffering wife worked out they didn’t like each other very much. Hadn’t done for years.
He hadn’t given any thought to retirement until recently. It only occurred to him when his future ex-wife’s divorce attorney came after his workplace pension, having already claimed the former family home.
He learned that he was considered too old to obtain a mortgage for a new one.
Gobsmacked by the realisation that the traditional life script said retirement was what came next.
Quickly followed by the dawning recognition that he was thoroughly and utterly fucked financially.
My second companion grumbled about the joys of parenthood. Father to a small tribe of toddlers, including a pair of Irish twins. Four years since he had last enjoyed a night of unbroken sleep. Vasectomy booked in for the following week, tacked onto the end of a fleeting business trip back to corporate headquarters. For once, having his balls cut off during a visit to HQ was of his own choice!
He hadn’t given any thought to retirement whatsoever. With a couple of decades’ worth of parenting remaining, every penny was consumed by an endless procession of bills. Nursery fees. School fees. Tuition fees. Clubs. Sports. Trips. Uniforms. It was relentless.
Never mind that he came to the parenting lark late, already in his mid-forties when his first child arrived.
Decades spent playing good corporate citizen had stunted his earnings and strangled his progress. Ceding control over the pace and progress of his climb up the career ladder to his mentors and managers had held him back. Trusting them to support and encourage his development.
Realising too late the inherent conflict of interest that what was good for them differed greatly from what was good for him. For every well-publicised rags-to-riches, mailroom boy to chief executive success story, there are thousands of untold tales of those like my companion in the bar that night.
In the old days, they called it loyalty. A quaint notion, nobility starts to look a lot like naïvety when it is not reciprocated. Hindsight might even describe it as folly.
I must confess that hearing their woes made me feel grateful for my own lot in life. Not in a boastful, gloating, smug, or condescending way. Just appreciating a reminder that things can always be worse. One of my current delivery teams is comprised of Ukrainian and Russian developers, having chosen to avoid conscription by working remotely from Poland. Uncertain if friends and relatives back home are ok? Or even still alive?
I was somewhat sympathetic to the plight of my colleagues. Any journey that had led them to this dodgy Eastern European bar at two in the morning, listening to ancient mournful Australian pop songs, must have taken a misstep somewhere along the way!
As is so often the case, our present circumstances are largely determined by a combination of luck, past choices made, and past choices avoided.
At times I wish I could travel back in time to thank my younger self.
Other times, to go back and punch him in the face.
Our lived experiences define us, building character and resilience. My younger self generally looked out for my interests, making some good choices to start investing early and keep investing often.
Investing in my education.
Investing in my earning capacity.
Investing in my family.
Investing in my finances.
Investing in my travels.
He didn’t get everything right, but generally recognised his mistakes early, owned them, and learned from them.
Younger me believed that would help avoid repeating past errors and making mistakes in the future.
He was half right. I rarely make same mistake twice, but that hasn’t stopped me from finding all new mistakes to make instead!
My companions hunkered down for another round of drinks, drowning their sorrows as they watched beautiful people half their age dance away their worries. Freddie Mercury belted out “Too much love will kill you” as I opted to call it a night. There was just enough time to rescue my bags from the hotel before heading to the airport for yet another early morning flight.
I held the door as two paramedics wearing hi-viz orange and black uniforms hustled into the bar. One of the party people had sought escape by enjoying too much of a good thing. Another cautionary tale.
Sometimes lessons are best learned vicariously.
Sometimes avoiding mistakes is better than experiencing them.