Monday, March 13, 2006

Work Is Lame, But It Pays The Bills: Part 2

Our actions under stress and pressure that reveal our true selves, not our actions when all things are cherry. Unfortunately, I have had my true self-revealed time and time again during my stay here in China and the outcome is not pretty. The PetroChina project has been moving along like a well-oiled machine for about three months now. There are smiles; laughs and beautiful women follow us around town as we walk. My experience has taught me my past karma has a wicked whiplash when things seem to be going this good and happy times are bound to be short lived.

To understand my problems, I must first explain my job again. I design databases and help clients learn how to use them. These databases build maps, it’s called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and it is probably a major at your local university (that you have not heard about). Before they can use them, they must put all their data into the databases. In a way it is like a car. If you want to buy a car, someone must first buy all the pieces of the car, then assemble them and put gas in the tank, only then can you put your Great White cassette in and rock out on Broadway. The car company is responsible for putting the pieces together to build the car, but it is up to the consumer to put actual gasoline in the tank instead of Natural Light. This means that I am a car company, the putting the pieces together represents the database, and the client is the consumer that doesn't know what Natural Light is.

The first six weeks consisted of us working together as a team to design the database. The following three months consisted of me building the database and getting it prepared for the clients. This meant a lot of hotel working time with headphones blasting. The kind of work I love. The past six weeks have been the final stage of our project, taking data and filling the tank with it. The client hired a vendor to get the data ready to put into the database and we helped oversee that process. This vendor happened to be the same vendor that screwed up our first project, but I was determined to force quality work down their throats like a greased pig.

It is probably important to note that the final product can usually not be any better than the pieces that make the product, which in this case were represented by a pile of sticks, some napkins with scribbling on them and an empty pack of Kools. Considering what they had to work with and when confronted with constant confrontation and criticism from Xinlei and I, the vendor did an admirable job and ate up our requests with enthusiasm and actually produced a decent final product – Kool-man: a stick man with a pack of smokes as a body, carrying a white flag (actually, a bunch of spreadsheets and other boring shit). The date of November 25th had been set as final data delivery date. This would give us plenty of time to push the Kool-man into the database and test the software for a couple weeks before getting out of Big Red. The data was delivered on time and I was still feeling good and beautiful women were still following us around.

Enter conflict stage right. First, the client decided they needed a bunch of data base changes, a process that was required to be finished over a month ago, a deadline that they apparently just ignored. Up until the final data date, I accommodated them as best as I could, but I had to set the this date as the drop dead database change date, the agreed upon schedule backed me up (which is a first for this project), but past dealings with these guys had set the stage nicely for last minute changes (see ‘Last Minute Dinners’ and ‘Last Minute Grape Picking Trips’ and ‘Last Minute Foot Massages’ and pretty much every other chapter I’ve written so far).

Employees of transmission companies are often quite lazy; they are the oil and gas industry’s version of government workers. As a consultant company, strict requirements, tight deadlines and late nights of work are pretty much par for the course, so it can be frustrating when you cant get one tenth of the level of dedication out of the people who are buying our stuff. China is no different, if the manager is not in the room, nothing gets done (actually, they do an admirable job of reducing the number of un-smoked cigarettes in China). As soon as the manager returns, everyone gets down to business, but because they haven’t been paying attention for six months, they are totally clueless.

To complicate the finishing process, they will not allow us to put their data on our computers, which means that we have to put our software on their computers. When asked about this, Mr. Feng’s response was this – “If you had our data, what is to keep your government from bombing our pipelines?” I can't make up a quote that good. I had to explain to him that I wasn't a personal friend of Mr. Bush, but I can understand his concerns. Last week, Mr. Feng sent an official email request for getting a copy of our software on a trial basis to facilitate database delivery and data loading. This means that we would install our software on their computers without them paying for it and load the data, then uninstall the data before leaving their offices at the end of the project. Let me rephrase this statement. We will turn over our software to them so that they can copy it and I will be able to buy it at the Silk Market for roughly the cost of a macadamia nut and a Chicklet.

Big Red, as mentioned previously about one thousand times, is not known for their business integrity. To fight this, the western world has adopted a process called ‘obfuscation’ to keep their mitts off our shit. Obfuscation is a software encrypting process that prevents prying eyes and hands from accessing the software code, thus duplicating the software. Because of the difficulty of spelling ‘obfuscation’, I will hereon refer to it as ‘encryption’ or possibly ‘mixin’ up them their letters’. Of course, our software has not been encrypted yet and it is my company’s business policy to not deliver any software outside of America unless it has been encrypted properly. Unfortunately, this is not a simple process and can take up to six months to accomplish. So, in order to install the software, we would have to make an exception to our company’s policy, which is not out of the ordinary, but we just have to get approval from all the proper channels.

Mr. Feng’s email sent a wave of internal company notes, meetings, conference calls, notes tied to the legs of pigeons, and more emails. In the end, it was approved and I was allowed to put the software on one computer in their office (despite my warnings, company politics prevailed). Part of the approval process included a special trial version contract that states things like – PetroChina agrees not to duplicate the software and we will uninstall it when we leave plus about fifteen pages of legal jargon that will be used as scratch paper in their office and is about as exciting to read as eating lead paint chips.

Before installing the software, we had to get Mr. Feng to sign this document. Of course, in true Chinese style, he didn't want to out and out sign it, he kept it on his desk for a week and when I confronted him about it, he said that he wanted Mr. Li to sign it. That’s kind of like having one of the White House housekeepers signing a NAFTA treaty. After minimal arm-twisting, he reluctantly signed the document. This is yet another example of how no one wants to be the ultimate person that is held responsible for any action around that deals directly with their job description, he’s the damn project manager for the department and was trying to slough this off on a run-around office grunt.

The next morning, Xinlei and I went to their offices to install our software so that we can finish our project and get the hell outta Chinatown. Without boring everyone with the details, our software requires about three other programs to work. As it turns out, all of these programs on the client’s computer were illegal pirated versions of the programs (I think ‘illegal pirated’ is a double whammy, if the pirates find out you’re stealin’ their shit, there’s going to be hell to pay). The only reason I found this out was because our software didn't work and the breadcrumb trail led to a stack of burned compact discs emblazoned with the familiar markings of a Sharpie.

Anyone who has delved into the depths and dark recesses of the online world of music, games, software and goat pornography like I have, knows that the Internet has single-handedly kept honey baked hams and wine on the tables and love in the hearts of the good men and women of Sharpie Inc.

Upon pressing them for the actual release disc of the software, they freely admitted to not having the installation disc because they had not paid for the software. This is not good. In fact, this is potentially very bad. Picture this if you will, the world software and computer manufacturers find out that my company (a worldwide conglomerate with more than 300,000 and less than 15 billion employees) was helping a client install pirated software and turning around and performing week long training sessions on said software at a clients site. I am a simple man, a bit of an alarmist at times, but simple as the breeze, and I didn't have a clue what I should do, so naturally I called Kansas City and ruined my boss’s Thanksgiving to ask his advice.

I had to tell the clients that I couldn't even touch that computer until the legitimate software is installed and my nerves soothed. They reluctantly agreed to get the real software and have it in place by the next morning. This likely means that they’ll just find a better-pirated version of the software. This is yet another example of how different it is over here. They just don't care. They had no malice in their words, they didn't flaunt the facts, but they sure as hell didn't hide them either. They answered my questions with a straight face and open eyes.

The next day, they successfully negotiated a legitimate version of the software from the other software company (as far as I could tell). I wonder if they told them that their illegal version just didn't work very well. Regardless, after about fifteen minutes, we had our software up and running.

About this time, I was asked to get client confirmation from our finance department that we had finished stages 1 and 2 (of 3 stages) of the project. These have been done for months now and the confirmation was just a formality. I sent Feng an email requesting his response and went to his office to discuss. Knowing his affinity for signing official documents, I was sure that this would go smoothly and painlessly as head transplant surgery.

As soon as we got to the office, Mr. Feng immediately changed the subject of our meeting. He asked me to sign a letter of recommendation for the son of PetroChina’s Vice President, who is trying to get into an American university for graduate school. I should say that I have never met this young man, but the letter read like this:

Mr. Yang has played a large part in the development of our GIS data model and performed above and beyond expectations with the GIS software and software programming applications and is more than an expert. In my time working with him, he has excelled beyond that of other employees and would be honored to have him admitted to your university.

Mr. Feng wanted to put my company’s logo and the PetroChina logo on the document and send it off. He said it would look beautiful. He already had my name on the document with a nice large Hancock-esque space for my signature. Of course, never meeting the guy, I really don't think that he has worked on my project. I was taken by surprise and had no idea how to react. I told Mr. Feng that I would have to ask my boss if it was ok for me to sign the letter, knowing full well he will say no. In fact, if I signed that letter, I could be ‘relieved’ of my position immediately. He then asked if I could sign it, not as GE, but just as me, Lucas.

This put me in an extremely uncomfortable position and there was no way in hell I was going to sign this. Even if it meant disaster for this project, I have to maintain my personal and professional integrity. I worked fairly hard to get through school and there is no way that this dumb prick was going to get a free ride to a better university than I could ever go to based on my recommendation. The only reason that he was trying to get into an American school was because he wasn't smart enough to get into a Chinese school. Most Americans don't realize that many of the foreign students are foreign just because they couldn't get into school in their own country, not that it matters all that much. Even stupid Asian students have better study and work ethics than most American students, which is why American’s are consistently outperformed by China’s bottom 15%.

By this point, we were about one week behind on loading. If they would just let Xinlei and I loose to finish things up, we would be free and clear. But alas, this day was not a day for luck.

After I told Mr. Feng that I couldn't sign the document, he suddenly informed me that his email wouldn't work to send me an email, so he would be unable to confirm that we have completed the first two stages of the project. Suddenly, beautiful women are not following me around as much.

We were still desperately trying to get started on the data loading, but they started out by ignoring our verbal requests for a couple days; it was only after I sent an email to everyone about the effects of further delay was I to get any reaction from these lazy people. We were over a week into the process and hadn’t made a single step towards even starting our work.

This is when Mr. Feng assigned Mr. Li to load the data and load the software. Trying to be nice, yet continue to tell some version of the truth, I will say this; Mr. Li is an idiot, his computer skills are comparable to his basketball skills and my love skills. The guy has barely paid any attention to the whole process, but has been given an unbelievable responsibility as the non-official database professional for the department, but all he’s really concerned with is where he can put the ashtray where it wont interfere with the internet surfing.

The next few days went extremely slow while we painfully tried to explain what we were doing and keeping these guys from ‘trying to find a better way’ to do stuff. When they paid attention at all, they were horribly confused. Some things just aren’t learned well with six people crowded around a computer. Once again, every time Mr. Feng was there, they were paying all kinds of attention, but when he was gone, work came to a complete halt.

Then, like a ray of sunshine on a dying plant, the department had four days of meetings, this gave Xinlei and I four days to get everything loaded and probably saving the project from certain disaster. He’s got a good technical head on his shoulders and could work with very little supervision, which allowed me to work on our project summary document.

By Thursday, we were finished and things were looking good. I sent Feng an email explaining everything that happened and discussed our plans for the remaining two weeks, which were mostly centered upon getting a good demonstration ready for our software running on their database.

Xinlei called me that evening and said that we were to report to the office in the morning to go over a bunch of database changes. This sent me into a white-hot rage of swearing and throwing stuff around the room. We ‘froze’ the data model several weeks ago (‘freezing the data model’ means that we don't make any changes to the system so that we can put the data into it). Now, I have two weeks before I leave and they want me to change a bunch of shit. To top it off, Xinlei spent a whole week getting everything in the database and working correctly. Changing the model is not a simple process; you basically create a brand new database and redo all of your importing. A real buzzkill.

I was so pissed that I couldn't even sleep that night. I knew what I had to do the next day and it wasn't going to be pretty. I was going to be forced to tell a client ‘no’. This is something that happens more often than most people think, but it’s never pretty. It’s a simple matter of this; we write a contract that has a specific list of tasks that both parties are responsible for. We include in this contract a schedule. The schedule says how long each task will take and when it will be finished. Every client in the entire world tries to get more out of the contract than they are paying for, it’s called ‘scope creep’ and it sucks ass like underwear creep. So in the morning, I was going to go to the office and pull the underwear out of the ass of this project, thus stopping scope creep. This is one of the things that my new position requires me to handle, before it was always my bosses that took care of it, now all the sudden, it’s me. I have a whole new respect for those rich guys (but not much).

In the morning, I went in with a helmet and flack jacket preparing for potential war, but it turned out to be just a bunch of questions, no actual model changes. Feng wasn't there, so we discussed our finalization plans with Li and Zhou. I was relieved, but I knew that we just avoided the subject, not actually addressed it. It would happen, it’s just a matter of time.

Like I’ve mentioned before, these guys insist on having their employees do all demonstrations, which I can understand, but Mr. Li got held down and raped by the management last time for his presentation, and that one had nothing to do with the software, he only had to read a PowerPoint that I wrote for him. If he is going to survive this, he is going to have to let Xinlei and I be his trainers, like Rocky. Even then, we better keep the Vasoline and pressure paddles nearby.

My plan was simple, in a true effort to prepare Mr. Li; I would have Xinlei work with him for two weeks on getting him familiar with the software. He has never seen the software and has very little knowledge of map-making in general, so I wrote a demonstration outline and him and Xinlei would work together in preparation. I would be there for technical and moral support, but this would be their game. This was an excellent opportunity for Xinlei to learn more about the software, which he immediately realized, so he was on board. We explained this to Li and Zhou and they said that they had meetings all the following week and wouldn't be able to be there. They wanted me to put together the complete demonstration script for them and just hand it over before I left next week. I’ll be damned if I’m going to write this thing out, these guys are so lazy.

Monday morning, we went in to discuss our plan with Mr. Feng and to see if we could secure a few hours a day for Li to work with Xinlei. Mr. Feng said that it would be no problem and that Li would be there every day for us. He pretty much outed Mr. Li for the lazy ass he is.

After that, things began to go downhill.

“Ok, Luke, Wednesday or Thursday, we have a new set of data coming in from the field that we need to load into the database.” Mr. Feng said.

“Ahhh,” I thought, “They delayed the attack from Friday to Monday to catch me off-guard. It worked like a champ.” This is the tricky conversation that I had hoped would just go away, but here it was. I was the victim of the ol’ boxing okeie-doke.

“Mr. Feng, if you remember, we set a date for all data to be delivered to us, that date was almost two weeks ago. That means that we have already frozen the database and just wont have time to load it all.” I said, hoping that he wouldn't shoot me.

Then Mr. Zhou chimed in and said, “Ok, well we have a different new set of data coming in Friday, we need to updated the database with that as well.”

Jesus man. Is that data? Yes it is. That means it will have to wait until next phase. Remember you guys, this is a pilot area. That means we’re just getting stuff into the computer to make sure everything works, next year is the year that we get all of your data in and complete and up to date. I’m sorry, but I just can't do this. This is putting the project deadline in severe jeopardy and I don't have the authority to do that.”

After a few minutes of deliberation between everyone, Xinlei translating back and forth, he turned to me and said, “Feng accepts, but he doesn't like it.”

“That’s good enough for me. Let’s roll bitches!”

The next week featured Xinlei and I desperately trying to get Mr. Li to pay attention. They worked on their own most of the time, calling me in when needed. By the end of the week, Xinlei had practically built the demonstration single handedly and Mr. Li had successfully negotiated all boogers from his nose. We actually had very few data problems and even fewer software problems, which is always an unexpected surprise in my company.

This week Mr. Feng had also started interviewing for a position in his department. This seems pretty normal. What is not normal about it is that he’s had me sit in and perform the English portions of the interviews. A new requirement for many business level jobs around China is English skills, which I have. They have a test called Chinese English Test (CTE), which has 6 levels. Level four is required for college graduation; six is required by most businesses. All of the applicants are CTE-6 approved (or whatever it means when you pass the test).

Can you imagine the shock to a poor college student, coming into an interview, to see me sitting there ready to grade their knowledge of the English language?

The Chinese job interview process pulls no punches. The job market is so competitive that an employer can put out one job opening and have over one hundred applicants in the first week. The thing is, probably 75% of the applicants are more than qualified for the job, so the employer runs through a series of filtering and interviewing procedures that probably wouldn't fly in America.

First, he requires all applicants to send in a picture. It is common to ask for a second picture if the first one is not good enough. By the time a person gets to a face-to-face interview, it is often a group interview. The first interview I went to had five applicants on the same couch. Because English is a big part of the job requirements, Mr. Feng had me run the interviews. Of course, not knowing what job they were applying for, I was extremely unprepared (I had been notified that I was to help with interviews at 9:00 am and the first interview was at 9:30 am).

“Mr. Feng, what am I supposed to be asking them?” I whispered.

“Just test their knowledge of English.”

“Ok, here goes.” I said, turning to the first poor soul. “How are you?”

“……I’m sorry?”

“I’m sorry, let’s start easier. What’s your name?”

“……I’m sorry?”

This is going about as smooth as the first class I ever taught in college.

“Just talk to me in English. Say whatever English words you know.” Mr. Feng translated for me.

“Hello, five, n’Synch, hippopotamus, thank you.” He replied confidently.

“Kudos on the big word man. Thank you.” On to the next guy.

Eventually, Mr. Feng mercifully started to take over and ask questions to them. He required them to talk in English and it actually got better. I think they just needed the Chinese accent. The English was pretty bad, but it was better than my Chinese.

Some of the questions that were asked were surprising to me. I haven’t interviewed for a job in quite some time, but I’m pretty sure that North American employers can't ask many of these questions.

“How old are you?”

“Do you have a girlfriend? Where does she live? Do you have sex with her?” Apparently establishing heterosexuality is a must.

“What does your father do for a living?”

“You don't have any Japanese in you do you?”

When it was all said and done, I sat in on three group interviews and have no idea why. He asked me my opinion of them and wanted me to rank them, but I just didn't know. This is another thing I just wasn't comfortable putting my stamp of approval on. The people that were getting interviewed were software programmers, technology engineers, web designers, all kinds of high-end technical people, but they had absolutely nothing to do with the job. Mr. Feng didn't care, he just wanted to hire someone with an impressive job title, just so he can have a programmer, even though he’ll be cleaning the bathroom and taking notes at meetings.

Next week is my final week in China. I have quite a load of stuff to get wrapped up before going back home; it is kind of the reverse of all the crap I did to get to China in the first place. Among the things on the list are crowd favorites like, packing clothes and books, trying to get the movers to the hotel to take my stuff, arrange my flight home, arrange for someone to pick me up (which is already proving to be the most stressful part of the trip), and of course – say goodbye to everyone and sort out my life. As ready as I am to be home and away from this place, I can also feel the sadness of leaving setting in.

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