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Why we no longer walk down the hall

While thinking about my corporate and post-corporate career, I have realized that my experiences today are much different than they were in the 1980s.

Before explaining what these differences are, I should note that there are three reasons for this.

  • One is due to my personal experiences. When I initially graduated from college, I worked for small companies. As time went on, I began working for, and eventually working with, many large multinational companies. This of course influenced my experiences.
  • The second reason is the recent blip due to COVID-19.
  • The third reason is a number of business and technological changes that have impacted everyone, not just me, since the 1980s.

With those caveats, I’ll discuss my observations on changes from the 1980s to the 2020s.

In the 1980s and 1990s, if I had a question for someone in my company, I could usually just walk down the hall and ask my question. Just about everyone in the company that I would deal with was located in a single building.

1937 image of the Division of Classification and Cataloging, National Archives, United States. By Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15775797

It got a little more complex in the early 1990s, when I worked for a poster company and the affiliated novelty goods company was in a separate building down the street. Later in that same decade, my new employer Printrak started “the Irvine experiment” and moved a bunch of us to an office closer to Orange County’s technical hub; this meant that I was dealing with people in two different cities, about ten miles apart.

Things really accelerated when I became a product manager. Printrak had previously gone on an acquisition spree, so the product managers in the Irvine office were dealing with a parallel set of product managers in an office in Boulder, Colorado. Yet the entities remained separate – so much so that when Safran acquired the California operations of the former Printrak several years later, the Colorado operations were excluded from the acquisition.

By the time Motorola acquired Printrak in late 2000, things got even more complicated. At one point, I was located in Irvine, managing a product that was being developed in Irvine and Anaheim, designed to work with products being designed in Boulder, and all managed from faraway Schaumburg, Illinois. These impacts lessened somewhat when the Irvine office was closed, the Irvine workers moved back to Anaheim, and we interacted less and less with the Boulder people. But there was still the need to communicate with Motorola headquarters in Schaumburg, and with other Motorola offices throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Then in 2009, the Anaheim operations were acquired by a company in Tacoma, Washington, which was itself a subsidiary of a French firm. For me, this was when interactions with people outside of my physical office became more frequent. Up until this point, everyone in my department (proposals, product management, proposals again) was for the most part in the same physical location. Once MorphoTrak was created, however, single departments would span multiple offices, and I would be in Anaheim working on a project with coworkers in Tacoma, or perhaps traveling to Tacoma to work on a particular project.

This practice of having single departments span multiple locations continued throughout my time at MorphoTrak and IDEMIA. After leaving Proposals for the second time, my new department had coworkers in three separate locations. I then moved to a two-person department in which I was in Anaheim, California, and my supervisor was in Billerica, Massachusetts. (In the nearly three years that I worked for him, I probably physically met him about a dozen times. Contrast this to my prior supervisor, who was right down the hall for me.) In my final months at IDEMIA, I worked in a department with four people in four different locations. (Partially due to COVID, I don’t think that the four of us were ever in the same room.)

As an independent contractor, I work with both large and small clients. Three of my clients are large multinational firms, and there are issues dealing with them and their many locations.

This came home for me a little while ago, when I was working with a large multinational client on a particular project. This project required physical signatures (sorry, no DocuSign here), and therefore the project planning required several days to send a physical document from one of the client’s locations to another and back again.

If this had been 1985, I could have walked down the hall to get that signature.

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