Friday, July 1, 2011

A Fable

John Haddock had been with the company for almost 25 years and at 58 very close to retirement now. He was one of the most successful design engineers they had. Graduated from Columbia Engineering School with his Masters degree and went to work for a communications firm. When the opening in his current company for an assistant design position opened up, he jumped at it. Marshal Control Systems was just the place he wanted to be. Helping to design the necessary power and charge control systems needed for photovoltaic and wind turbine systems. This was the future.

His eldest son was about to enter college as a Physics major. He had a nice house, not grand or in some exclusive gated community, but nice. He was now a senior design engineer and thought for sure he would become department manager. After all it was his design that had brought the company to the for front of control technology. Being the most efficient ones on the market and one of only a few that could be scaled to the distribution systems needed for large scale green technology. But the new owners brought in some outside manager. An MBA who was an efficiency expert. They wanted to stream-line the company, they said. Increase profits and cut out the overhead.

John's department was told to find ways to cut the costs of their products so they would cost less to produce. He tried to explain that doing so would severely compromise the design but it fell on deaf ears. The whole environment felt different. Things changed after George Marshal, the company owner retired. George would come around to your office and sit and chat sometimes. He wanted to know what you were working on and was generally interested. If he liked it he told you so and made sure you got credit for it. And at Christmas, George Marshal would come around himself and hand each person their bonus. Even to the security guards and janitorial staff. But George was getting old and 6 years ago he decided to retire. He sold the company to a group of investors that wanted to get in on green technology.

The feeling around the company changed almost overnight when the new owners took over. Gone were the Christmas bonuses to all but upper management, which now consisted almost entirely of business majors and account executives. All the old engineers had been replaced. Ether retired or let go. Raises were getting more and more infrequent. And the health care plan that easily took care of his wife's illness no longer covered it. John had to make up the difference now. When Macy the receptionist had the auto accident and had to spend weeks in rehab, she was let go. George Marshal would not have done this. He even would have seen to it the she got the help she needed. Now with the current health plan, John was forced to take out a second mortgage on his house to pay for his wife's treatment. A variable rate mortgage and the monthly payments kept going up and up.

All the engineers were expected to put in overtime now to finish their projects. Since they were salaried, there was no additional compensation. Retirement which looked all but certain, was looking more and more distant. The company plan had been replaced with a 401K and other private plans. The company plan was to expensive, said top management. Had to cut costs to remain competitive.

John did not understand this. They were already competitive and had been so for as long as he had been there. But the feeling had changed. People rarely smiled any more. No one hung around the water cooler or break room for fear that management might come by and see them. Memos would come down nearly every day about some change to increase profits and performance. Had to be competitive and productive.

When the financial crisis came about, things got even more tense. There was talk of letting half the engineers go. John would arrive each day wondering if he would have still have a job or even money in his private retirement account. An engineer in his 50s would have a very difficult time finding work no matter how many achievements he had under his belt. John knew he could not leave and find another job but this one was getting more and more oppressive by the day. He felt trapped. He was trapped in an increasingly dysfunctional job along with his fellow employees.

John was on edge most days. He entered the building and said a non committal "Good morning." to the receptionist at the desk and made his way to elevator to his office on the 6th floor. He felt especially stressed this day as he had to give a presentation to the management on the latest round of cost cutting measures for their most prestigious product. He had been fighting this for a while. The design changes that management had insisted on would have severely impaired the devices reliability and increased the possibility of catastrophic failure. Possibly injuring anyone nearby. The meeting was at 10 and it was 8:30 now. He knew he would be there until at least 7pm today again.

He waved at Jose and Michael as he walked passed their offices. They barely raised their heads as he passed, remaining intense at their work stations. He went into his office and sat down. Logged on to his work station and began reading his emails. "More memos from above." John thought to him self. Making sure he would not be noticed, he went to the break room and got a cup of coffee and returned to his office. He opened his brief case to get the designs and charts and presentations he had been working on and stored on DVD rom. His gun lay on top, as usual. John was no gun nut and had never even gone hunting. But he knew how to use one, having been in the military. No this was purely for protection. He had nearly been carjacked twice on his way home and this was to make sure a third time would not be successful. It was perfectly legal in his state to carry one to work and he knew nobody would challenge this. Not in this state.

He went over the presentation in his head and on his work station. The time had come. John made his way to the elevator to the 7th floor to the conference room for the meeting. He was dreading this. He entered the room with his briefcase in one hand and the DVD in another. The new manager introduced him to the top management there and was asked to proceed with his presentation. He loaded the DVD into the rooms work station and began to explain the changes necessary and the impact and consequences of making these changes. John could see the scowls on the faces of the top managers as he continued with the presentation. Then one of them asked what the bottom line was. What was the cost savings. He quietly answered but protested. How could they think of these short term savings when the product would be inferior and maybe even dangerous.

Then a top manager yelled out, "If you won't implement these changes. We will find someone who will." It was then something just snapped. Like a balloon silently popping. Suddenly, with out notice the scene changed. The people at the table, the managers and executives were now the enemy. Vietcong, Iraqi insurgents and carjackers. John calmly picked up the gun from his brief case and began to fire. Before he was aware of anything else, four people lay dead in the room and one severely injured.

The whole floor then exploded. People running and screaming. Ralf, the head of security came with his gun drawn and cautiously entered the room. Then something very odd happened and did not happen. Ralf stood there with his gun at the ready and just looked at the scene for what seemed an eternity. He then said calmly and clearly "Put the gun down John." "Put the gun down John."

John began to turn around with the gun in his hand. Ralf fired. John lay dead.

There was an investigation and Ralf was cleared of any wrong doing. The media had it's usual group of experts on trying to explain how such a thing could happen and the gun lobby and anti-gun groups all pointing fingers at each other. It had become a media event for the next week. There was a small service and at the funeral a number of his coworkers were there to pay their respects. Among the flowers set at the grave was one large wreath with a small card inside. On the card was one word.


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