Master of my own destiny?

It’s a miracle

In early 1993, I started to look for a job. My first application was for an IT traineeship at Cap Gemini. They had sixteen vacancies. Some 1,600 people applied, of which they selected 200 for a series of tests. I was one of them. Before these tests began, other applicants told stories about assessments and job interviews they had gone through. The economy fared poorly, so there weren’t a lot of jobs. Many graduates were already searching for a long time. It was discouraging, so I expected to remain unemployed for quite a while.

That was not meant to be. The tests went well, and they invited me for an interview and some more psychological tests. On my way to the appointment, a guy I knew from dormitory Witbreuksweg 389-2 came sitting on the opposite seat on the train. He asked me why I was wearing a suit. I told him about the interview. Then he started to laugh loudly. ‘Your tie is a mess,’ he said, ‘Let me fix it for you.’ He then arranged the tie correctly.

If this event, which appeared accidental at the time, hadn’t happened, they may not have hired me. The interview and the tests went well. My misfortune because of not fitting in during my student years made me investigate cultures and cultural differences. It wasn’t hard for me to translate the expectations of Cap Gemini concerning its employees into test answers. And so, the test results made it appear as if I fitted perfectly into the corporate culture of Cap Gemini. Cap Gemini stressed I was the master of my own destiny. It was one of their company slogans.

They hired me and sent me to a junior programming class to prepare for my first assignment. My self-confidence was low as I had manipulated the test. Perhaps, I didn’t fit in. And it was shortly after the encounter with Suzanne. I was afraid to turn up because I felt unfit for the job. These feelings receded once the class had started. We learned about programming. I was often joking about a programme I was planning to write. I nicknamed it DoEverything as it was supposed to do everything, which is noteworthy because we may be part of such a programme.

My classmates often discussed what car they would choose once they were on the job. I was the only one planning to use public transport. Not surprisingly, I was not a model employee. One classmate, a cheerful guy from the Eindhoven area named Ad, expressed his amazement about the fact that I passed all the tests. ‘There were 1,600 applicants. And they picked you? It’s a miracle! How could that happen?’ Ad and I had a good laugh about it. His last name referred to Burgundy. In the Netherlands, a Burgundian lifestyle denotes enjoyment of life and good food, most often found in the vicinity of Eindhoven. And Ad radiated this lifestyle. He seemed the personification of it. His first name and the region he came from make another peculiar coincidence in light of later developments.

With regard to the work that awaits us

My first assignment was on a project at the Groningen office of Cap Gemini. I became part of a team of six with a few colourful personalities. Our customer had hired us but didn’t come up with work. For months we had nothing to do, but we had a lot of fun. And I had more fun than I ever had during my student years. Our project manager was ambitious. He organised project meetings and demanded progress reports he could present to senior management even though we did nothing. One of us was a graduated linguist, so he used his skills to produce eloquently written progress reports. For instance, he wrote, ‘With regard to the work that awaits us, we can only assume a wait-and-see attitude.’

Another guy was a hippie and had been part of the squatters’ movement. He always wore the same orange sweater. Perhaps, he had two orange sweaters, but I am not sure. He was the type of guy who might wear the same sweater for months. He often made fun of the project leader and his ambitions. At the time, Windows was gradually becoming the standard operating system. It had new features like WAF files for sounds. Some team members played around with these features, so if I started my computer, it sometimes made an unexpected noise. I had so much time on my hands that I familiarised myself with database administration. After a few months, the work came in, so the project manager was busy managing our work. He constantly demanded progress updates.

We soon realised we would miss our deadline at the end of July. Before the project manager went on a holiday, he discussed the situation with our customer and arranged a new deadline date at the end of August. Once he was gone, things suddenly went smoothly, so we met the original deadline date in July, possibly because the project manager stopped managing us. When he returned, the programmes were already running at the customer’s site. His superiors praised him for delivering a month ahead of schedule. He was on his way to a great career. Perhaps he received a bonus too.

There is room for improvement

The next job was restructuring a database at a telecommunications company. I had some database knowledge. And my managers were impressed that I had familiarised myself with database administration. And so, I did get that job. The company doubted the capabilities of their database administrator, so they hired me to reorganise one of their databases. They took this delicate task out of the hands of their own database administrator and gave it to me, a novice with little experience. And so, their database administrator didn’t like me from the start. And I didn’t follow his advice because he was a bungler. After all, that was the reason they hired me. And he was showing off his expertise by using incomprehensible language, so I often had no clue what he was talking about.

It was a highly political environment. The telecommunications company had been a government operation for a long time, but the government had just privatised it and put its shares on the stock market. The board wanted to purge the old-fashioned government bureaucrats from management positions. And the department I worked for was led by a risk-averse bureaucrat fearing for his job. If something went wrong, his head might roll. And the database administrator might have felt that his position was on the line too. He often complained about me to his manager. And the manager passed on these complaints to Cap Gemini. I also had a team leader who knew the situation and gave a more accurate depiction of what I was doing to his manager and my account manager. That is why they didn’t take me off the job.

And I caused a major accident. To reorganise the database, I needed a list of the tables in the production database and their sizes. Production is the database that matters. The data in the production database is precious. For that reason, I had no access to the production database. There are also databases for development and testing. But I needed production data, so I prepared a file named tablelist.sql containing a query that delivered the necessary data. And for once, they allowed me to access the production database using a tool called SQL Plus. I could start the script by typing @tablelist and pressing enter. I started typing @t. The system didn’t respond, so I pressed enter to see if there was any response at all. And then, I saw the system respond with table dropped, table dropped, table dropped. I cancelled it, but it was already too late. Some precious data was already gone. The operators restored a backup of the previous night, so a day’s work was lost. The database administrator had left a file named t.sql in the SQL Plus directory, dropping all the tables. It was an accident waiting to happen. And even though everyone knew that, the incident reflected poorly on me. With the benefit of hindsight, it was odd. How much bad luck can you have?

Because of the fuss, Cap Gemini sent me to a course called Professional Skills. I was not politically sensitive, and that could be a handicap when you work at the site of a customer. I was aware of that as I had a way of formulating things clearly, so I considered it a good idea. And the course taught me something. For instance, positive framing can contribute to a better atmosphere. You can call it political correctness. So if it is a complete mess, you can say, ‘There is room for improvement.’ Even though it is the same mess, it sounds a lot better. After all, a consultant’s primary responsibility is not to solve problems but to make money for Cap Gemini by making the customer happy. I let it all pass by, concentrated on my task and successfully finished the database restructuring job.

My next assignment was at the real estate department of the telecommunications company. They hired me to make database queries in their financial system for management information. Usually, managers or salespeople wanted a report promptly. It was always very important and, of course, very urgent. I called them jokingly life-and-death queries. It took a few hours to write a query, check the validity of the output, and deliver the report. By then, it often wasn’t needed anymore. The availability of the data rather than necessity created a demand for these reports. In other words, the reporting usually wasn’t that important. Over time, I found patterns in their requests, so I made a set of standard queries with parameters and delivered 90% of the reports on the spot. No one had ever thought of that, so they saw me as a genius and hired me for a longer time to work on their systems.

Hit the moving target

Cap Gemini emphasised the concept of employability. You were responsible for your employment by ensuring your skills were in demand. ‘Hit the moving target,’ is what they called it, referring to the constantly changing market for skills. You must be there where the demand for skills is. During a company meeting, they once gave us toy guns to aim at moving targets on a large projection screen in the front of the room.

Times were changing, and I had been working on the obsolete systems of the real estate department for a few years. My manager and I agreed I had to catch up with the latest developments. In 1995 and 1996, two new development tools, Oracle Developer/2000 and Designer/2000, came to the market. And so, they sent me far away from home, to Zeist, where Cap Gemini had started an Oracle Developer/2000 software factory, a marketing term for a group of people working with Oracle Developer/2000. Zeist was far from home, so I stayed in a hotel nearby. The newest tool was Oracle Designer/2000, and Oracle introduced it when I worked at the software factory. It had a promising future. Designer/2000 could generate Developer/2000 programmes, so you didn’t need to write them yourself. I gained experience with Developer/2000 and also Designer/2000. After a year, I hoped for a Designer/2000 assignment near home.

My manager agreed, but there was trouble brewing once again. An account manager came up with a prospective assignment. I knew him. He was a rough guy who only cared about his bonus. People like him might have done well in the Wild West, playing poker, staring down opponents and engaging in brawls in saloons. I told him that I specifically aimed for a Designer/2000 assignment as I had invested much time and effort in Designer/2000. He said, ‘The customer is planning to switch to Designer/2000, and you can play a role in that process.’ He didn’t disclose any additional information. His vagueness put me on high alert, and I presumed he was planning to dupe me. And so, I warned him that I would decline the job if it wasn’t Designer/2000.

I contacted my manager and discussed the situation with him. I had invested much time in Developer/2000 and Designer/2000 and had been away from home for a year. I would rather stay away from home a few months more if needed to get a proper Designer/2000 assignment. Designer/2000 was just released, so work had yet to come in. If you intend to hit a moving target, you must aim just in front of it, considering the direction of the movement. It takes time for the bullet to arrive at the target. By then, the target had already moved a bit further. So, I was already there, where the target would soon be. And there was plenty of work at the software factory. And so, I asked him if I could decline the job if it wasn’t Designer/2000. He said that sales targets were important and we all must do our bit. But I was supposed to be the master of my own destiny. Knowing that my Designer/2000 skills would soon be in high demand, I said I would look for another employer if that would be his stance. He then gave in.

But the account manager pressed on, ready to make the kill. Before the interview with the customer, another department of the telecommunications company, we once more discussed the assignment. And again, he didn’t say much more than, ‘They are planning to switch to Designer/2000, and you can play a role in that process.’ Once more, I warned him in no uncertain terms. And despite his name being Warner, he didn’t appear to understand what a warning was. Still, his name was endowed with a whiff of coincidence. Then came the interview. The department manager told me they planned to use Designer/2000, but their people would do the Designer/2000 work. They needed me to maintain their obsolete systems. And my resume was perfect as I had been looking after the old programmes of their real estate department for a long time. That was the role I could play in the process. And the account manager knew that all along.

Assuming that the account manager was ready to close the deal and seal my fate, I declined and said I wasn’t informed about the nature of the assignment. And so, I humiliated the account manager in front of the customer and made Cap Gemini lose face. The account manager probably had believed he could get away with it. Indeed, I didn’t want to cause a fuss again, but I thought Designer/2000 to be crucial for my future employment. After all, life is a bitch. If you end up with obsolete skills, you end up unemployed. A few weeks later, I did get a Designer/2000 assignment in Groningen, so close to home that I could bike to work again. Later, my manager said that my actions were unprecedented and had raised several eyebrows. On closer inspection, I could have been a model employee, and more than Cap Gemini might have hoped for.

Walking out of Paradise, once again

After moving to Sneek, I looked for a job near home. There was a vacancy for a software designer at FBTO, an insurer in Leeuwarden. It later turned out that the job included being a project leader. The insurer had split the IT department into smaller teams working for a business unit. Every three weeks, we planned our tasks for the coming three weeks, and a business unit representative determined the priorities. It worked well as we had fewer political games, like business units competing for resources. The IT department was well organised compared to what I had seen elsewhere. This way of running IT departments has become commonplace two decades later.

The team knew what they were doing, so I felt redundant as a project leader. There is no point in managing people who know what to do. The atmosphere was friendly. I had grown accustomed to grim conditions, so I felt out of place. I could have gotten used to the friendliness but not the job itself. All those documents, meetings, and priorities were boring. Building information systems was much more fun. I was qualified for Oracle, but FBTO didn’t use Oracle. I decided to try my luck as a freelance Oracle Designer/2000 developer and database administrator. And so, I walked out of Paradise again, but this time out of my own will. After all, Cap Gemini had taught me that I was the master of my own destiny. But an ominous incident would soon suggest that I was not.

Latest revision: 7 January 2023

Featured image: Cap Gemini logo

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