Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rant: Change is a Bitch

I'm a 2-time survivor where I work.

When I started in 2002, it was for Email support of their subscription website. During that summer they added a subsite for the UK, and in the fall I took on lead agent for their new Canadian subsite. I had by then contributed many pre-written responses for known technical and billing issues. I'd also proven I could switch between USA and British spelling as needed, and with Canadians using a little of both, I was an ideal candidate.

The email support team for the USA and Canada consisted of about 25-30 of us, with the night crew replacing us on our computers at the end of our day, and a handful working on Saturdays.

Three years later we merged with the parent company and moved downtown. It was decided at that time that the call center in the midwest, which supported the non-web product - would also run Email support for the USA and Canada. By then I was team lead for the Canadian subsite (and regarded by the Canadian editors as an Honourary Canadian), maintained the Help section on the site - actual content! - and displayed training skills, the latter which was utilized to prep my backup team for the busier months. I had also taken on lead support for a PDA companion product.

I was one of three spared the axe. Two of us took turns going over to the midwest to train our respective teams. The third left after a couple of months to another job.

Once in awhile we'd bring someone from "the old days" to help out an English speaking site during a busy month for a couple of weeks. There didn't appear to be any bitterness from the ones I was acquainted with; they may have been given a decent and sustainable severence. But it still felt weird to survive the chop.

A year later we added a new product to our website and things exploded. We turned to an outsource company in the Middle East for much of our QA (by then we had 5 subsites worldwide) and the bulk of the USA's Email technical support would be run from there too. It was cheaper, but they were far savvier with determining what people needed to be sent. If there was a mistake, it would never happen again. Two other countries followed suit with outsourcing their Tier 1 level Emails.

As you can imagine, my role has changed over time. I'm now more a liaison between international teams and our engineers for site errors, as well as administrate the messaging system we use, configuring email address setup and routing in addition to the knowledge base and adding or removing users. I train those who will train their staff, notify them on new procedures when sites or browsers upgrade, and all sorts of other things. I'm also damage control when they need tier 3 level support. The help pages for US and Canada are mine now, as well as working with the international support and content teams with localizing changes for theirs. Of the two remaining who were spared, one left in 2008 to work in engineering. So it's been just me and the boss.

Restructuring is what these have been. It meant resources could be applied to development and other areas essential to the survival of a company. Because while you want to continue to bring the best after a reputation of 45 years, you still need to change with the times. Our PDA companion was phased out. We now have mobile solution for most phones as well as an i-app. The companies merging have given us the ability to offer a product which combines our offline and web in a package deal.

They had started in 2000 with a handful, which grew to about 50 when I came on. Two years later we were renting halls for our all-staff meetings; while the parent company had their offices on Long Island, we took up two floors of a highrise. Now we have a floor the size of city block, with engineers and production personnel on two floors of a nearby building. And that was only the USA.

The inevitable happened in 2009, which occurred to so very many businesses worldwide: A portion of our staff was cut. That morning people got the word and left. That afternoon, walking around the office, it was like a ghost town. We weren't sure whether an office was empty from folks being on vacation, traveling on business, or ousted. The very next day - at a promptly rented auditorium - our CEO spoke with us about the hit we took from the financial crisis. The execs would take a pay cut. We would take a wage freeze. Perks which are common for a dotcom company were cut or severely reduced.

While people who helped people out were the first to go, I noticed people with a higher position than mine - many who had their own offices - were also cut. If the department or project was not essential, it was gone. Engineering leads would sometimes have to juggle more than one project. If it was something our Middle Eastern team could take on, that's where it went.

There were projects seen as essential to bring the company into the 21st century. Can't be more specific than that, but it was a revolutionary undertaking, and it meant a new dept and investment. It was important more than ever to head in that direction.

Was this evil? Was our CEO the devil for laying off engineers, agents, vp's, tally clerks, and other personnel? Would it have garnered sympathy and a backlash from our subscribers and members if the heads of these areas or representatives of various speculative projects had a regular presence on our message boards?


Who among you can step back and see this from an objective perspective?

I'll name a name. Blue. Blue is an awesome soul, and he is adored by residents in SL and TG. Among his dutires was New User Experience. The mentors were phased out (I never could find one when I needed one at infohubs or help areas, and they were nonexistent when I signed up; the one I saw on my first day at Help Island 2 - because CSI deposited me on Wengen to start- intimidated the hell out of me with her sensory overload avatar and aloof behavior; she was inapproachable), a survey could provide the company with new user feedback, just as they do for any company.

Brent worked with Michael for LDPW. Michael was seeing some slack from a growing staff; he may now be taking on more projects again, but the LDPW will continue.

Outsourcing email support... I'm no stranger to that, and it's a wise decision for any company working with high numbers. It means though losing your local tier 1 and possibly tier 2 staff.

Philip is like many I've seen: you make money, you start up a project, it takes on a life of its own, it becomes a company, the artist in them can't deal with having to make the tough decisions, they let someone else take over. This has happened to most virtual worlds for the past 15 years.

I was the casualty of such a project too when I think back. A friend's brother (always beware when it starts out with "a friend's brother") made tons of money selling shell necklaces on the beaches here in the summer. It grew where his mother and family friends - including myself and a neighbor - came to string clay, shell, and semiprecious beads (yes, they raised the bar). At some point it turned into a showroom in Manhattan's wholesale district and importing costume and semiprecious jewelry from Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico. It took on a life of its own, with a manager and staff, and his mother as co-owner. Eventually I came on for phone sales, Accounts Receivable, and trade shows. This was a character who would build things up, bust them down, then move onto something else. I think it really bugged him that there was now this entity. We had so much resistence and so much sabotage.  Eventually the company was sold off by his mom, until it died its inevitable death - too little too late - and we were laid off during the recession of the early 90s.

Philip stuck around awhile after he gave his position over to Mark Kingdon. I'm sure he found someone who could make the tough decisions necessary to keep SL going and allow it to evolve to thrive with the ever changing face of the Internet and communications platforms. In familiar fashion, Phillip's been setting up a makeshift workspace, breaking it down, then showing up somewhere else. It's his way.

Is Mark Kingdon evil? No. He's a businessman with a genuine passion for this place, just as my CEO has a passion for our company at work. They both hated to have to do what they did, but it was necessary. Were the people chosen for the axe the right choices for Second Life? We can't possibly know that from this side.  We don't know what anyone did outside of their job descriptions and Office Hours really.

Was it necessary for SL to let people go? Yes. The idealistic management structure perpetuated by some idealist who started a project with their earnings no longer serves its purpose sufficiently for the direction SL must take. It sucks to say that because people I consider to be friends inworld and out got caught in it. But stepping back to see it objectively, yes it was necessary. SL doesn't want to become a dinosaur like Cybertown or Active Worlds, or go the way of There or iCity. We all know most people are now accessing the web from the palms of their hands on a massive scale. A tablet on their laps will be the next major step. The era of gaming resources to communicate in a virtual environment may mean the demise of Second Life - and virtual worlds as a mainstream form of communication - if changes aren't made.

I draw the Tower Card, with its traumatic lightning hit.  It's a card of jolting oneself out of a rut, with the prospects of better opportunities when the dust clears.


  1. >A tablet on their laps will be the next major step.

    You had me until there.

  2. Enjoyed reading this post you have a positive outlook.. rare among sl blogs these days. Thank You