Sunday, August 26, 2007

Be Careful When You Mess With Other People's Cheese

Sorry... Can't resist one more bit of a little rant before I leave for a few days. I tried to be good, but this one was precipitated by a shock.

Almost exactly one year ago, the client my company contracts with had a technical/business problem I was trying to help them solve. The vendor for their middleware product had indicated that they were eventually going to be ending support for the mainframe integration server component of it. The client was faced with the decision of having to continue developing applications on unsupported software, or of having to contract with an unproven third-party who would be a reseller for the integration piece. They wanted to know if our company could help in providing any other alternatives.

I'd always had a good working relationship with our company's technical support staff. On my own initiative, I drove out to upstate New York so that they could tell me about what our company had to offer in this space. One particular guy, a certified Systems Management Integrator, took an entire day out of his busy schedule and gave me a full-day presentation about a product he had written a paper on. The product enables you to leverage existing legacy online systems by aggregating multiple transaction invocations, terminal interactions, and sub-flows, and to deploy them as runtimes. These deployments can in turn be exposed as web services by using a SOAP pipeline. It was a fascinating presentation, and the information I brought back to my managers and to the client was well received.

Just a few days ago, I was talking to another member of that support team on an unrelated matter, and I heard that the person who had given that presentation had taken his own life at the end of July. I was stunned. Recently, my company has gone through another round of layoffs and work consolidations, and due to the increasingly large burden of work being thrown on his shoulders, along with the possibility of being laid off on top of that, it was apparently too much for him. He jumped off of a cliff. Literally.

I couldn't understand it. This was a guy with a lot of smarts who had a lot going for him. In addition to being sharp technically, he had a teacher's natural aptitude. Granted, I didn't know him well, but it did seem to me in retrospect that this fellow might have had a bit of melancholy about him, but nothing I would call severe. I don't think that there are many people who commit suicide over a job alone. There is usually something else going on. From what I heard from my other friend, there may have been some old divorce issues at work here, but most of that was in the past, and the children were all grown and independent. Perhaps in those circumstances, though, the job really does become the raison d'être, and the means of self-definition. Upstate New York isn't exactly chock-a-block full of other things you can do if you lose your high-tech job.

Now, I know that a certain amount of globalization is inevitable and necessary, and I know that individual managers are making decisions that are based on inexorable factors, driven by the marketplace, that are largely outside of their control. They cannot safely resist and deviate. I do believe, however, that globalization as it is currently being practiced and implemented has too much of a "race to the bottom" aspect to it in its relentless quest to slash costs. The human cost, at an individual level like this, and in the cost to society in the depressed and devastated communities that it leaves behind, are being far too much overlooked.

I'm reminded of many of the corporate culture-changing seminars I've seen over the years. Humiliation often precedes the axe. Chances are, if you were asked as an employee to go on some kind of outward-bound trip, or take part in a role-playing game, or asked to hop about on one foot while chanting company slogans, or take part in a 3-legged race for a team-building exercise, you should have taken it as a pretty reliable sign that you were about to get whacked.

The incident about the employee who ended his life put me in mind of a certain chipper mid-level manager a few years back, who has since moved on elsewhere. She didn't like whining of any kind. A few years back, corporate America suffered mightily by being subjected to a certain "motivational" book called Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life, by Spencer Johnson. This woman though it should be required reading for everyone.

Apparently, the point of this little book (featuring mice called Sniff and Scurry, and mouse-sized "littlepeople" called Hem and Haw), is that we are all in a maze called life, and when the cheese you are after, be it for sustenance or for self-image, gets moved, you have to adapt to change and find a new way to look for your cheese. In other words - Change happens. Adapt to it or die.

Now, I don't know why it isn't obvious to more people what is wrong with the whole premise. Have corporate employees become such a herd of anesthetized, lobotimized sheep that the "littlepeople" will just let the "bigpeople" steal from them and continue to tell them what is wrong with them? Once again, we see the cost of the collapse of the labor movement, which has been completely defanged and castrated over the past few decades, but still gets blamed for holding back American business. See, we are all just like little rats in a cage, and if your intellectual and social betters decide to move your cheese on you, well, you'd just better get with the program or else.

I can't put it into words any better than San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carrol, who effectively ripped that book in a column called I Got Your Cheese Right Here.
THERE ARE TWO kinds of people in this nation: those who know about "Who Moved My Cheese?" and those who don't. The people who know can produce long and sometimes angry monologues about it; the people who don't know are totally bewildered. "This is real?" they ask...

"Who Moved My Cheese?" is much used in corporate settings. Employees are ordered to read the book, to write reports about the book, to break into groups and discuss the book. The principles of the book are referred to in meetings. It is a huge hit among managers, and a huge pain for employees...

The author seems to think that "cheese" is a metaphor for "success in business," but the employees forced to read the book know the truth: "Cheese" is a metaphor for "continued employment." Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that a flurry of cheese sessions often precedes layoffs.

So iconic has the book become, employees are judged on how well they handle the cheese seminars.

There is a perfectly good life lesson inside the cheese story: "All life is change." That's four words, and they did not cost you $19.95. The problem with the book lies elsewhere.

Employees are encouraged to emulate the mice and/or learn from the travails of the littlepeople. These are interesting choices of role models -- small and powerless things who forever run around a maze because they need cheese.

"Whining" and "complaining" are not encouraged. They are taken as signs of a lack of spiritual growth. The good mice sniff out the new location of the cheese and scurry toward it; the bad littlepeople ask pointless questions and fail to seek the cheese aggressively.

Neither mice nor littlepeople are encouraged to ask why they are in a maze at all, or to question the task, or to consider that maybe running after cheese is a lame substitute for having a life, in a world with garlic fries and roast duck and peach pies.

And the employees get the message. No matter how wrapped up in New Age jargon it is, the message is: Ask only small questions. Accept whatever you are told. If it's cheese day at the office, say "thank you" and give a nice cringing presentation about moving with the times.

And let go of that useless nostalgia for, say, times when everyone was on the medical plan, when the concept of "overtime" was meaningful, when memos made sense, when cowardly consultants were not creeping around figuring out whom to fire, when there was a leader in the company who welcomed challenges, had fun doing the job and did not need a dopey little book, because the job itself had meaning.

Reading "Who Moved My Cheese?" I was reminded of another book about "littlepeople" who were constantly required to survive in a mazelike environment characterized by cruel and arbitrary change, another place where the search for cheese was constant. That book is "The Gulag Archipelago."

Sometimes the only means of defense for those who are powerless in front of larger forces are humor and satire. Here are some satirical books and articles, sure to be more useful and full of wisdom than the silly book itself.

In the Long Run We’re All Dead Mice (Or, Trivial Trash for the Unenlightened and Unaware)


Garpu the Fork said...

you know, the more i learn about corporate America, the more I wish married women could join cloistered monastic orders.

Jeff said...


Hi Garpu... Haha. They'd probably make the best nuns out of them all!

But you know, there is something to be said for the way those women looked after one another.

Steve Bogner said...

I've been an IT-related independent consultant for 11 years now; I've made some friends in the companies I've consulted, and it's sad to see how things go sometimes. It makes me *really* glad I have some independence from all that.

But that cheese culture is hard to break! It's difficult to pull people & projects out of that mess so that we can accomplish the goals they've set out for themselves. They are their own worst enemies at times.

crystal said...

Reading "Who Moved My Cheese?" I was reminded of another book about "littlepeople" who were constantly required to survive in a mazelike environment characterized by cruel and arbitrary change, another place where the search for cheese was constant. That book is "The Gulag Archipelago."

This really describes what it's like where my sister works. People actually break down and cry almost every day ... it's incredibly stressful. I never thought I'd be relieved to be unemployed :-)

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

I know exactly what you mean... sometimes there's an ingrained sense of entitlement and ossified inflexibility.. I hear you. I just had to vent because this was a good guy and a very talented guy, and he won't even make the unemployment statistics. You have to wonder how many of these cases happen all the time, and we are never aware of them. I ask everyone to please join me in praying for him and his family.


Please tell your sister that I sympathize with her plight. There are too many people out there who are not treated with proper human dignity in the workplace.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

A well written and interesting take. I own both 'Who moved my cheese' and 'who moved my soap'.

It is time for some protectionism in the USA, at least against China and/or any other totalitarian or single party nations. I am all for integrating and competing with India, though.

There is a level where the cheese book is totally correct. There is no denying that we are each responsible for sniffing out opporunities. But it makes a sad, sorry rationalization for local job cutting, that people 'ought to just happily sniff out a new gig'.

What if our cheese lies in protectionism? What if our cheese is an immediate closure of the ports to all imports from non-democraciesm and or any off-shore located or managed businesses or ships?

So this cheese story can cut both ways. We live in a democracy, that requires that we not be complacent. Maybe our cheese lies partly in ripping the financial heads off those mice who have 'gone cat'.

All the Best, B

Paula said...

sorry for hear about that poor soul who committed suicide...:-(.

Jeff said...


Maybe our cheese lies partly in ripping the financial heads off those mice who have 'gone cat'.

Hahaha. Colorful metaphor, and it may offend some of our feline-loving friends here, but I'm in basic agreement with that sentiment.

Jeff said...


Thank you very much.

In spite of that circumstance, it's very nice to see you here.

Jeff said...


I am all for integrating and competing with India, though.

I agree! With a billion plus people, do you realize how many more MBAs, engineers, scientists, and masters of computer science they graduate every year compared to us? It's staggering.

The most pressing need for us is at the executive level. We have too many fat cats at the executive level who feel entitled to a BMW and a 3,500 square foot McMansion. It's high time that they start doubling up in apartments and carpooling the way Indians who work here do. Our guys have been living high off the hog for too long.

Take CEOs, for a start. Instead of 8 million a year plus extravagant severance parachutes and lavish perks like stock option awards, we should look for better motivated, better-educated Indian CEOs who'll be willing to do it for 350K or so. Oh, the beauty of it! Then, as time goes on, we can roll it out to the whole executive level. Why should CEOs make 450 times more in compensation than the lowest-paid workers in the organizations? These guys are killing us... killing us... Dragging us down....

The we can look at attorneys. Indians are already drawing up wills. Let's get some Indian trial lawyers who will take a case for 20 bucks an hour instead of demanding 33 1/3 of the settlement.

Hedge fund managers! Why rely on Americans, educated with the lowest math scores in the industrialized world for this vital service to millionaires? Can we get some of those Indian finance gurus graduating from their universities in droves, who'll do it for 10 bucks an hour instead of commissions?

The opportunities are endless and exciting!

Anonymous said...

CEO pay is sickening. Share holders are too scattered to do anything about it. Most of the time they are represented by large financial institutions that are themselves run by fat cat CEOs.

I like your idea of outsourcin the CEO gig to brilliant Indians at 1/10 the rate.

Only bad thing is that Indians are notoriously nepotistic. The Indian 'mafia' of professionals is pretty loyal when it comes to interviewing Indians first.

Do you think its because they know Americans often blog at work?

Paula said...


I am coping just fine. Better than I was expecting, actually. There is a significant amount of grace at work now...:-). Thank you for your comment on my blog.

Jeff said...


Do you think its because they know Americans often blog at work?

Hahaha. Oh, I'm not so sure we are the worst when it comes to bleeping the dog. :-D