Most of the time, when I tell people I’m leaving the company, the first thing they ask is where (as in, what other company?) I’m going to next.
I smile sheepishly and say that I have no plans for now other than to read, write, and go for long walks.
“Oh!” The response comes with a hasty smile and a sideways glance. “Well – that sounds wonderful!”
How did I arrive at the decision to leave a company – a place which has alternatingly nurtured and swallowed me over the course of the past 8 years – without any clear destination in mind, not to mention a high likelihood for “success”? To outsiders it may seem like something snapped, perhaps there was some last straw – yet another Friday night meeting? – which broke my career’s back. Did I wake up one morning to suddenly realize that I couldn’t take it anymore?
Not quite. It was more like a slow crescendo of signs over the years that I was not in the right place, that something about my very nature does not fit in not only at VLC but into the corporate world at large, despite its promises and allure, despite the intellectual challenges and skills I have picked up along the way, and despite any outward impression I might have given that I was flourishing.
I entered the front doors at 85 Catawba Street with nervous excitement. Donna was standing near the security desk, smiling proudly, her arms extended wide.
“It’s sooooo good to see youuuuuu!” she sang, grinning broadly. “I’m going to give you a hug. Is it okay if I give you a hug?”
We embraced clumsily. I couldn’t decide whether to rest my powdered chin on her shoulder-padded blazer, so I held it up in the air, stiffly, inches from her cheek. There were hints of vanilla in Donna’s strong-but-not-unpleasant perfume.
We made small talk in the elevator about my taxi ride over from the corporate apartments. I was still waiting for movers to arrive at my newly rented duplex with the things from my sister’s place in Rhode Island.
“I’m so glad that you’re finally here,” Donna gushed.
She ushered me out of the elevator and towards a small conference room, where Mike D. and Mike K. sat next to each other facing a whiteboard with fading blue marker on it. They had already unpacked their laptops and were making their way through a stack of papers, scribbling their initials onto each one.
Mike D. stood up briskly and gave me a firm handshake. “Hey, very nice to meet you,” he said in a polite drawl that sounded neither midwest nor southern.
Mike K. was furrowing his brow. “Howyadoini’mMike,” he muttered in a single breath. “Did either of you guys expect that we were only getting paid monthly, instead of bi-weekly?” He pointed at one of the sheets he was reading, his pen hovering over the page. “What are we supposed to do, change the scheduling on all our bill payments at the turn of a dime? This is ridiculous.”
Mike K. quit the following month.
I met Jake two weeks after that. He popped his head over my cubicle at the Greenville, SC office, where we’d both found ourselves commuting from Charlotte each week soon after we’d joined, although we had been promised limited travel during our interviews.
“Hey there,” Jake said with his signature self-deprecating smile and a little wave. He looked polished, wearing a beige linen suit jacket over a powder blue polo.
He thanked me for my welcome e-mail earlier in the week and asked if I had lunch plans. Coincidentally, we were both averse to eating in the cafeteria, preferring to leave the campus whenever possible. We quickly agreed on Chipotle. That would become a recurring favorite for the many lovely, often immature, sometimes philosophical, occasionally heart-wrenching conversations we’d have over the next several years.
Jake easily became my best friend at VLC.
The first time I called in sick, I had woken up with nauseating anxiety over an upcoming meeting at VLC’s headquarters downtown. Donna was counting on me to explain to Pete Krasinsky, a Procurement Director, why almost every complaint which his team had logged about our recent SAP implementation – they had assembled a 5-page document – was unjustified; our system configuration had followed best practice and could not be changed.
Minutes after I sent Donna the e-mail telling her I was sick and would not join her for the meeting, she called me on my cell hoping to change my mind.
“I mean, are you – what are your symptoms?” she asked. “Is it maybe just nervousness?” Her perceptiveness infuriated me.
“That’s private!” I snapped. “I would prefer not to go into the gory details, but I can assure you that I’m physically sick,” I said, not sure if I was lying or not.
VLC was the first steady job I’d held after a string of events which rattled my mid-twenties: back-to-back involuntary psychiatric holds, a Bipolar diagnosis and the rotating list of mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics and benzodiazepines which came with it, bookended by the losses of my close friend in 2011 and my father in 2013. The first death was shocking and triggered my downward spiral; the second one, somewhat foreseeable, a slowly deflating balloon in comparison.
When people talk about mental health issues at work, they usually mean: stress, burnout, anxiety – the predictable side effects of working long hours in a high-pressure environment. HR hands out neatly packaged PowerPoints on mindfulness and 5-minute breathing exercises, encouraging you to take frequent (but short!) breaks throughout the day. They are not ready to delve into a conversation about hallucinations, psychosis, drug abuse and narcissism – unpleasant, animalistic behaviors which are perhaps triggered by stress but also very commonly embedded in the genes you are born with. The mental health issues you hear about at work happen to innocent, good-natured people, not wholly unlikeable ones like the one I was circa 2012.
I had been working as a contractor in the U.S. Department of Defense before VLC. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the erratic, underscored-by-paranoia world of the U.S. military was not the most nurturing environment for someone grappling with the sudden death of a dear friend. On one occasion I stood outside smoking a cigarette with an Army vet who had returned from Afghanistan and was now trying to get by in a suited-up desk job. He was very angry at President Obama, who had recently signed something which inadvertently cut his VA benefits. He felt personally attacked. He ranted and waved his hands in the air as he burned through cigarette after cigarette, only occasionally inhaling them, threads of ash collapsing onto the concrete around his feet. I inhaled his anger along with my cigarette.
The last project I was working on when I interviewed with VLC was actually quite cushy: I was billing $115 an hour to provide over-the-shoulder support to an office of close-to-retired civilians at Defense Logistics Agency who would shower me with praise for showing them how to increase the size of the mouse pointer on their screen. Detailed SAP knowledge and problem solving were not pre-requisites for the job. I felt like I was languishing on a career path of dependable money and minimal thinking.
During my interview, when asked why I wanted to join VLC, I’d said I wanted to learn something new in the manufacturing industry, where companies are run by boards and influenced by shareholders rather than bloated with taxpayer dollars; that my SAP knowledge was growing stale, that I wanted to learn how “real MRP” works beyond the basic re-order point planning which I had grown used to in the defense industry.
I didn’t mention that I wanted to prove I was capable of holding onto a job for more than 12 months.
I told myself I’d consider it a success if I managed to stay at VLC for 5 years. I never imagined I’d stick around for 8.
I received one of the best presents ever on Valentine’s Day of 2018. It didn’t come from Ulrich directly but rather from his manager, Jeroen: an e-mail with the news that my request to move to Germany had been approved.
The previous December, Ulrich and I had met with Jeroen and my manager Guilherme, and I had nervously requested to move to Germany. I told them that if the request was rejected, I would resign from VLC.
As soon as I saw the e-mail from Jeroen I took a photo of my screen and sent it to Ulrich with a bajillion heart emojis. He had received the e-mail too but hadn’t opened it yet out of nervousness.
I moved to Germany in September of that year, jump-starting a beautiful new chapter of my life.
My business trip to Kuala Lumpur in April 2019 was my first time back to Asia in thirteen years. My last trip had been to Taiwan during spring break of 2006, and I had never visited another Asian country besides Taiwan before.
I was there to work on the Vertex project: a massive undertaking to implement the newest SAP system for Australia and New Zealand, who were previously using Oracle.
I arrived at the Kuala Lumpur office trying my best to remember the crash course my parents had given me before my first trip to Taiwan: bow your head when introducing yourself; remember how to call your elders; don’t be picky and don’t insist on going your own way; when sharing a meal, always serve others at the table first.
Before my visit to Kuala Lumpur, I had no idea that I could speak Taiwanese Hokkien with people outside of Taiwan and be understood by them. Maybe I hadn’t paid attention when my mom told me stories about the language growing up, but I had somehow gotten the impression that only older generations in Taiwan could speak Taiwanese; that it was a dying dialect among the younger generations, which mainly spoke Mandarin.
What I didn’t know was that there’s an entire province (Fujian) in China in addition to millions of people in Singapore and Malaysia who speak Hokkien, and that, aside from a few words and accent differences, Hokkien is the same language as the one I had grown up with.
Speaking Hokkien at the Kuala Lumpur office felt like an awkward homecoming: I was communicating imperfectly in a way that previously only my mother had known, but these colleagues who I hardly knew embraced my mistakes and encouraged me to keep trying.
One morning Hui Min entered the office carrying a plastic bag filled with mangosteens and a pair of disposable plastic gloves. The previous day I had told her that I’d never heard of mangosteen before, and she’d brought them in for me to try. As Hui Min gently showed me how to peel open the shells and explained that the gloves were to prevent me from staining my fingers, my heart filled with a sense of familiarity and joy.
I became a manager for the first time in early 2020, just before the COVID pandemic hit full swing.
At one point it seemed as if each VLC site had its own policy and response to COVID, often changing from one week to the next as it scrambled to keep up with local regulations.
When you are a manager of people sitting in multiple countries of a large, multi-national company like VLC, it becomes nearly impossible to implement simple, global policies. Every attempt manages to somehow backfire.
In April of 2020, our IT leadership asked everyone to take 5 days off before the end of June. The rumor was that due to rapidly falling sales, company-wide severances were projected for later that year, and VLC executives wanted to minimize the amount of unused leave which would need to be paid out if and when severances were announced.
The announcement was made globally, but there was immediate backlash over the Malaysian employees, who were heavily involved in the Vertex project at the time. Some people claimed that Malaysia’s HR regulations prevented employees from being forced to take vacation. Others had a different point of view. But everyone seemed uniformly worried about the impact to the project if the Malaysian IT team all took time off at once.
The truth is, not only were the Malaysians expected to not take time off, but several of them had also been working extensive overtime – I often saw them still online at 2 or 3 am local time. Meanwhile, in Europe, overtime is rare and must be planned and agreed upon in advance.
Several members of my team did get sick, and I tried my best to stay level-headed through the emotional roller coaster of worrying about them while also trying to backfill them on ongoing assignments. We were already very lean.
I spent up to twenty minutes crafting each WhatsApp message asking Aleska how she felt, trying to be as considerate as possible while simultaneously asking, “do you know when you’ll be back?” Her sick leave kept getting extended by her doctor.
Henri was the program manager of the Vertex project. Young, organized and likeable, he was clearly an up-and-coming talent within IT. He had moved his family from France to lead the Vertex project from its headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
I tried to see the best in Henri, but his tactics grated on me. He seemed to believe that the resolution to everything – delays to the project, unexpected issues during testing, disagreement with the consultants over scope – was to ask the team to, alternatingly, either “increase our focus” or “speed things up”. But at the same time, he forwarded me every issue related to my workstream almost indiscriminately, as if to get it off his plate as quickly as possible.
Shortly before go-live, Henri sent me an e-mail asking me what I could do to help increase the team’s focus. “Oh, I don’t know!” I threw my hands up, angry tears welling up in my eyes, grateful to be behind a computer monitor. “Maybe you could stop dumping your shit on me all the time? We’d be more focused without all the distractions coming from you.”
As is the case with most large-scale SAP implementations, we did a post-mortem (or “Lessons Learned”) after the Vertex project went live.
They brought in a boutique consulting firm to help us with the assessment. I was skeptical at first. How many external companies do we have to pay to tell us what is obviously wrong with ourselves? We have too much complexity and not enough qualified decision-makers.
But Birgit O’Rourke, the facilitator for our sessions, was different. Soft-spoken and gentle, instead of dominating the discussion or directing her questions at the most senior people first, she nudged the shiest among us to share what we really thought, starting with the lowest-level contributors first. She didn’t rush through the icebreakers – which involved cutting and pasting images into a clunky web-based whiteboarding tool – as if it were just a checkbox to tick off her list. Whereas a typical icebreaker in any other corporate setting would have been the shortest activity on the agenda, Birgit spent upwards of thirty minutes in our first session, waiting patiently for the stragglers to participate.
After the session I felt like I had taken a drug. I tossed and turned that night and barely slept, but somehow felt entirely relaxed the next day, as if my ego had shattered and pure catharsis rushed through my entire body. During the icebreaker sessions Birgit and I had discovered a common love of The Cranberries and I spent the next several days with my noise-cancelling headphones on, re-playing my favorite album of all time: Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?
It was the first and perhaps only time I felt okay being myself at a company.
The Illusion of Control
I used to joke with Jake about the Peter Principle, or the idea that managers in large organizations get promoted until they’ve exceeded their limits and demonstrated that they are incompetent at their current job, at which point it’s too late; they cease to be promoted further but are left to flounder in mid-to-senior level positions until retirement.
While I think the Peter Principle is incomplete and fails to fully describe the intricacies of large organizations, I do think that most managers are generally incompetent, and VLC is no exception. But what I have observed at VLC is that it is less often due to the manager’s own lack of talent than the fact that, at their level in the organization, there is more outside of their control than that which is within their control. So every manager ends up choosing between 3 sub-optimal strategies:
1. Attempt to exert control over a situation they have no control over
2. Play the politics (understand that they have no control over the situation, but focus on positive messaging to their team)
3. Fully accept that they have no control over the situation
Over the course of my short stint as a manager, I attempted some combination of all three. And I often scoffed at other managers who I thought were incompetent at their jobs. But now I see that we were all dealing with a burgeoning workload, a messy organizational structure and an external environment which was evolving impossibly fast, trying our best to cope in our own imperfect ways.
“Do you think people in Poland are happy?” I asked Aleska and Stefan on a recent trip to Wroclaw, my first time in Poland and my last business trip for VLC.
Aleska giggled at the question. “I think it depends,” she said.
“Polish people like to complain,” Stefan added.
I explained to Aleska and Stefan that part of the reason why I left the U.S. was because I felt like Americans no longer saw each other as part of the same team, as citizens of one country with a shared understanding of how it felt to be American. I think my sense of American-ness has grown more and more fractured ever since September 11th.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about VLC’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion program and how its implementation feels short-sighted. The VLC sites I’ve visited outside the U.S. – in the Netherlands, Poland, Malaysia and Australia – are undoubtedly less racially diverse than the U.S., but at the same time, there is an openness to foreigners and other ways of life, a sense of humor, compassion and humility that seems to be missing from so many Americans I know.
I wonder if, by establishing metrics which put race, gender and sexuality at the center of how we measure equity, VLC is undermining the very goals we’ve set out to achieve by alienating American employees from the rest of the world? What if instead, “equity” meant standard HR policies globally, including standardized vacation days, overtime policy and salary bands which were pegged to the average cost of living calculation for Charlotte, NC (VLC’s headquarters)?
I think I know the answer to my own question: it sounds too expensive to be taken seriously. But I know of other companies who have implemented something similar. And is it more expensive than what’s bound to be invested into the DEI program over time?
I witnessed 2 different tenets of the VLC Way used in direct opposition to one another, roughly 6 months apart, in relation to the eProc project.
In the first meeting, Jim Jenkins talked about why there was no need to prevent two different systems – SAP and eProc – from being able to update the same data elements. From his point of view, all that was needed was to train the master data team to use eProc to update one set of fields, and SAP to update different fields.
“Because we trust our people every day, in every way,” he said, seeing no need to police them through the system. “It’s the VLC Way.”
I tried as politely as possible to tell Jim I disagreed, that people would make mistakes despite their best intentions, and that in the worst case, people would eventually lose trust in the accuracy of both systems. His interpretation of the VLC Way sounded a bit opportunistic, but I left that part out.
Months later, after a tumultuous go-live, the controllership team was seething at the lack of system controls implemented for eProc. I joined a call with Jim Jenkins and Jack Flay from controllership to talk about their laundry list of grievances, including (but not limited to) the ability to update common data elements from both SAP and eProc. Jack Flay was particularly finger point-y that day.
Feeling sorry for Jim and in the mood to play devil’s advocate, I asked Jack why this was now a problem with eProc and hadn’t been identified before when we were using Ariba (the predecessor system which eProc replaced).
“Well, you know, we do better today than yesterday, every day,” Jack said curtly. “It’s the VLC Way.”
Applying the distributive property of math to Jim’s and Jack’s statements, am I right to conclude that the VLC Way entails trusting our people a little less each day, in every way?
Future of Work
The prevailing post-COVID “future of work” conversation seems to be about whether employees should stay remote or go back to the office. But to me, the more interesting questions are about what work will actually consist of fifteen years from now, at a time when it might be too late for me to make further dramatic career shifts, but still another fifteen years before I would traditionally be expected to retire.
When I started my first job after college as an SAP Analyst at IBM, my older peers told me that I could build an entire career out of just one SAP ERP module. Forty-five years of one module! But it meant more than memorizing SAP transactions, writing specs or being able to read code: a true SAP expert was one who could “talk the talk andwalk the walk”, as one of my colleagues put it: someone who could not only explain to a business user what a standard purchasing process would look like in SAP, but also propose a slick-sounding custom solution when that businessperson throws you a wrench about import/export or local tax regulations, something which technically stretches into a different module of SAP but that nevertheless any consultant worth their salt would surely have been exposed to after decades of project experience.
But there’s been a shift over the years. SAP has ramped up its efforts to push customers onto a subscription-based Cloud model – one which consolidates common back-office processes like HR and purchasing in favor of “industry best practices” which are defined by SAP’s largest partners and often converge towards the least-common-denominator ways of working. If SAP succeeds, it seems plausible that 90% of processes will become vanilla and indistinguishable from one Fortune 500 company to the next within the next 5-10 years, and the only differences will be each company's intellectual property or the customer-facing tactics which make them profitable.
And if core business processes start to look more and more the same, then it seems like the new winning strategy for an SAP career is to be constantly training oneself on SAP’s latest cloud product features, rather than talking to the business.
Unfortunately, SAP moves fast and there is increasingly not enough time to keep up. And eventually the choice becomes: be an expert at VLC or be an expert at SAP, but not both.
After a series of mood swings during the Vertex project which reminded me of my early Bipolar days, I started looking for a therapist through a mobile app called Betterment. I didn’t want to try my luck at speaking to a German therapist. That’s how I met Asher.
Asher had just retired from his job teaching psychotherapy at a college and was becoming senile. But he told me about his humanistic approach to therapy which sounded at once so logical and obvious that I was shocked I had never encountered it before: the idea that humans, like plants, require the right external conditions in order to thrive. Rather than water, sunlight and nutrient-rich soil, humans need unconditional love and the encouragement to follow their passions rather than be forced into a mold which doesn’t fit. Yes, psychiatric diagnoses are useful to treat people in the throes of a severe illness, but once the storm has passed, they are no longer helpful.
“Maybe,” Asher told me with a smile, his image occasionally breaking up on my iPad screen, “maybe you have always been a creative person at heart, and through your upbringing and career thus far you’ve been forcing yourself to be more left-brained than your nature wants to be.”
I love this John le Carré quote: “There are moments which are made up of too much stuff for them to be lived at the time they occur.”
This is what I love about writing: it lets me re-create moments from different perspectives long after they have passed. At VLC, I never had the time to properly digest information. I often felt like I was urged to react before fully understanding the thing I was reacting to.
Even the process to quit VLC was not straightforward.
In October, I received a Voluntary Separation Package offer from the Wuppertal HR department. Until then I had only dabbled with the idea of quitting without seriously considering it, but when I received the offer and Ulrich did not, I struggled to understand why I would’ve been singled out. Later on I found out that it was because Ulrich and I are assigned to different offices, and although IT personnel were actually supposed to be excluded from the VSP offer in Wuppertal, there had been some type of miscommunication between IT and HR; it was a clerical error. But it nonetheless made me think hard about my future.
I realized after I’d made my decision that I didn’t know how to quit, so I looked up the process in a Knowledge Base Article in ServiceNow which instructed me to log into Workday, update my profile indicating my last day, and attach a written notification to my manager informing him of my decision. According to my German contract, the notice period is two months from the end of the month. I gave notice on March 7th; 2 months to the end of the month meant my last day would be on May 31st.
At the beginning of May I found it strange that I hadn’t heard anything from local HR about my last day or an exit interview. I created a new ServiceNow case to follow-up.
A few days later I received an e-mail from the Wuppertal HR Manager. He had not been informed about my departure and reminded me that, according to my contract, I was to give notice in writing. It seems he wasn’t aware of either the Knowledge Base Article or the Workday process.
It got sorted out in the end, but not before I flew into a brief rage at the thought of staying at VLC for another 2 months.
All of it is true
A few years ago I took an improv comedy class. I had been looking for a way to get more comfortable giving presentations and speaking in front of large audiences, and improv sounded more fun than Toastmasters or a public speaking class. Sadly, it ultimately did not make me less nervous in public – I found myself taking Klonopin to soothe my nerves before the final performance – but there is something that the teacher, a round-faced man with middle-aged angst, imparted on us which has stuck with me for years:
“All of it is true.”
He had been addressing every improv student’s fear of judgment, and the corresponding temptation to force something funny into each moment in a vain attempt to avoid embarrassment or ridicule.
“The fact is,” our teacher insisted, “that all of it is true: if someone thinks that you were brilliant and hilarious, that is true. But if someone thinks that you’re terrible, or that your joke has already been done before, or that you were nervous, or that you’re an amateur, you’ve got to accept that all of that is true too. And that’s okay.”
We were sitting around him in a crooked semi-circle. Our teacher looked each one of us in the eyes, imploring us to understand.
“No matter what anyone thinks of you or your performance, there will always be some grain of truth in their perspective. Everyone comes to these improv shows with some baggage which tints their view of things, and that’s okay – no, it’s even good. But it’s not your job to convince anyone that you’re right, or funny, or good at improv. All you must do is accept the prompt that your teammate gives you, add a little something of your own to it, and then pass it on to someone else. Do you understand?”
I think about this lesson a lot when I reflect on my time at VLC. I tried hard to be perfect, but in the end, perhaps all I had to do was add something of my own to this huge, fluid, amorphous place.
Maybe – hopefully – that was good enough.