Leaving Austin Essay: So Long and Thanks for All the Foobars

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2. Not Tiding Me Over

By Robert Nagle, October 2003
Summary: Part 2 of this essay is about life as a laid-off geek-wannabee in Austin, Texas.

A few months later, the stock market began to fall; at first, it was a joke; then I heard horror stories about how much people were losing on Etrade. Then, our company, a market leader whose business innovations was seen as a guarantee against decline, was also in danger of being pulled in. Soon our stock options went underwater and perks started disappearing, along with the smiles on the faces of senior managers at quarterly meetings.

As someone who spent several years in Eastern Europe extolling the virtues of free market capitalism, I was perfectly accepting of the rightness and necessity of "market corrections." What I hadn't expected were its socially disruptive effects. After the first round of layoffs (which caught everybody offguard), suddenly future layoffs became a fact of life. Project managers planned for it in schedules. Worker productivity and project success became a matter of life-and-death. Two or three weeks before the next round of layoffs, a certain gallows humor had developed at meetings. Planning had come to a standstill. Nobody wanted to commit time or resources to projects until they could be sure that the project and the people would be there to make it happen. And when the axe finally fell (and I was one of the people to go), I was struck by how much money the company had to write off (in training, severance pay and relocation expenses) just to prove to Wall Street that it was serious about cutting costs. Some were outraged when a month later it was revealed that executives had awarded themselves handsome bonuses. I was not mad, just puzzled. Did each executive really value their contribution to the company as equivalent to that of a dozen technical people? The problem with this company's management was not greed but egotism.

I worked on my technical skills and started sending out feelers. 9-11 came and went, and for that week (I still remember it), looking for work seemed so trivial. Uncertainty and stock market jitters shook the job market, and suddenly jobs in defense and military contracting were everywhere (and normal jobs were nowhere). Austinxl.com had daily blurbs about layoffs, and big companies no longer seemed to be advertising jobs. Personnel agencies and contractors took up the slack, seeking people with exotic skills. But jobs for technical writers were scarce, and meetings of the STC (the trade group for tech writers) began to look more like therapy sessions for the chronically unemployed.

As unemployment benefits started running out, I took a serious look at what Austin had to offer. I took a video production class, swam regularly at Barton Springs and attended Austin Film Society events and geek groups. In between temporary jobs, I managed to scrape up (or borrow) enough money to attend South by Southwest, a leading conference for content creators. At first, I had hoped the event would bring job leads, but it quickly became apparent that 1)I met more unemployed geeks at the event than employed ones and 2)people were hurting everywhere, not only in Austin.

I hung out at Technical SIG groups, partly for potential job prospects, but mainly to be around people interested in the same programming topics. At one event, where software guru/revolutionary Eric Raymond, spoke to a full house about open-source software, I counted 5 different Linux groups in the audience. Only in Austin, I thought. While waiting in line at a job fair for contract positions at my old employer (which offered lower pay and no benefits), I made idle conversation with other despondent applicants. As geeky as I considered myself, the other people waiting in line outside the building were geekier. They had technical degrees, industry certifications and buttloads of experience. This contract tech support job seemed beneath all of us, and yet it would "tide us over" while we continued searching for a decent full time job. What brought us together was a complete cluelessness about how to wrest another full time job from this stingy, crazy town.

That in fact was the problem. It wasn't merely a game of musical chairs; it was a game where one accepted inadequate hours and pay for the privilege of staying in the game. At interviews several managers asked me about long term goals. "Staying in Austin, " was my reply, and I didn't have to explain. Austin had a youth-oriented culture, fueled by nightlife and a steady stream of UT grads; it had the frantic energies of politicos and IT entrepreneurs with the confidence to change the world.

But how much would you sacrifice to stay in a place you love? There was already a socially acceptable way to avoid leaving the university nest; it was called "graduate school." Professionals, on the other hand, had starker, more limited options. Do you have sufficient capital to wait out the dry spell? Would you consider changing fields? Or do you make do on "tide-you-over" jobs while continuing the job search?

Unfortunately, the "tide-you over" jobs paid significantly less in Austin than cities with lower costs of living (blame that on a university's distorted labor pool). I did temporary work through three agencies offering low-paying assignments. In previous years temporary work was a viable strategy when looking for full-time work. But in Austin, I would need to do 60 hours at temp wages just to meet minimum (and I mean minimum) expenses. One day, upon picking up a paycheck from my temp agency, I was inadvertantly shown the rate sheet, discovering to my dismay that the agency was charging the client 80% more than it paid me. That profit margin stunned me, especially when considering how little work the agency did. They found clients, put applicants through computerized testing, cut paychecks and gave directions to assignments. Perhaps the agency felt entitled to this 80% cut (after all, someone had to pay for the promotional pens and mousepads), but for the job seeker that 80% was the difference between bare survival and sinking further in debt.

Some of the temp assignments were passable, but the majority had unpleasant conditions apart from low wages. (For the definitive word on temp workers, don't miss the marvelous film, Clockwatchers). One assignment at a financial services company provided a welcome break. The work was low stress, the people were sociable, and the boss showed genuine interest in my welfare. The person who trained me sang part-time at local clubs, and another coworker (once a temp himself), actually had a background in literature and computers (like me). Now he was filing papers 40 hours a week while jamming to his Walk Man. We passed the time by gabbing about Java programming, Internet applications, international politics, Eastern European literature and Russian rock bands. We talked about the strangeness of American customs and the perils of America's military adventurism. We talked about pedagogical methods and Shakespeare and biblical hermenuetics. Of course, this was only for short interludes; we didn't want to be caught or discovered.

Interestingly, at this company; things were booming; new temp workers were being added all the time, comprising about 20% of the department. The managers gave us pep talks about the increase in workload that was soon to come. One of my coworkers had a family emergency, and we all gathered to offer support. Occasionally a manager would bring donuts or breakfast tacos. Everyone was busy and full of jokes and laughter. The big issue at the time was dress code: the big boss had just posted a new set of rules, and one of the full-timers said to me, "Well, it's all fine and good to have a dress code, but who can afford that kind of wardrobe on what they pay us? " One afternoon, on a lark, a boss decided to close the office and take us all to a local bowling alley as a way of saying thanks for working hard. It was nothing like the extravagant events my old company dreamed up, but it was simple and fun. As it happened, I bowled the game of my life, and for a moment I forgot the ugly realities: that the agency's wages made staying at this job absolutely impossible. For my literary coworker, he had suffered at the temp agency's wages for 2 months before the company could hire him at full time (with higher salary and benefits). I, on the other hand, could not afford to stick around. The clock was ticking, and so were the bills and the date at which treading water was not even an option.

NEXT: 3. Before the Door Stands a Doorkeeper

Robert Nagle is a writer, creative geek and weblogger who lives in Houston, Texas. . Most recently he started a share the music weblog .

Additional Resources
  • One amazing myth about American unemployment is that it wasn't as bad as it was in the late 1970's and early 1980's. In fact, if you compare current unemployment rates with the 1980's, you will notice that the prison population has quadrupled and the disability population has increased by 2.2 million, skewing any basis for comparison. Some economists claim that all things being equal, the 2001-2 recession had in fact higher rates of unemployment than in the early 1980's.
  • Debunking the Myth of the IT Labor Shortage is an important work that explains why getting work in IT is so hard. Speaking of myths, I wrote an article about the "Must Have 5 years experience" fallacy.
  • More about Clockwatchers: Critic Mark Wintle summarized it best: This film touched on too may things to list them all. Here's a sample... What are you doing with your life if you're waiting for it to burn off? Isn't it exhausting and poisoning to pretend to look busy all day? If you are a cog in a machine, and accomplishing nothing at that too, did you really even exist? Are the "troublemakers" in life getting us in trouble, or offering us freedom (note there are two people here stirring up the pot)? What is theft (and theft of services)? Where is the dividing line between unethical play and immorality? At what point do you give up on the dream of personal growth? Are some people "better" than others? What does beauty (and grooming) have to do with it? Does the corporate hierarchy define our worth to others or our self-worth? What is loyalty and betrayal, to whom do you owe how much, and how do you give consent to those obligations/ownership? Work/friends/family are all portrayed as villains and allies wielding this loyalty Sword of Damocles.
  • Staffing agencies usually have countercylical business cycles, and their excessive profits may in fact be a sign that the macroeconomic pendulum is about to swing the other way.