In the late noughties, I worked for an American software company in Japan.
That period in Tokyo, just pre-Lehman Shock, felt like a mini tech boom: the company had managed to hit the jackpot by selling a colossal software and professional services deal to a huge Japanese company.
Money from sales expense accounts flowed freely, even into the beers of the engineers; all in an attempt to foster goodwill, encourage a successful project implementation, and keep the customer happy.
However, I do not recall anyone on the project ever being happy.
The customer was not happy, because the software and its ecosystem did not work as they expected, for reasons which were obvious to them, but perhaps not to anyone outside Japan1.
The project implementation team were not happy, because the responsibility to bridge the gap on these issues fell directly on them.
During the worst periods, we were working literal 18-22 hour days. There were periods where I had no time to actually go home, and had to get my partner to physically bring me changes of clothes to the office; I had to grab showers, and maybe a couple of hours sleep, at my teammate’s apartment closeby.
Many weeks were spent on a schedule of getting an earful of frustration from the customer about the software product during the day (as well as from our own sales staff, who did not want to have their commissions jeopardised), then getting on calls with the US support and development teams throughout the night, in hopes they could create patches for the product. If they could, we would apply them, re-adapt our implementation to account for them, then rinse and repeat this cycle of insanity: we were very figuratively repairing the aeroplane, and replacing its parts, mid-flight.
On one particular night, when I was actually able to make it home, my company-issued BlackBerry summoned me to a 2:00am conference call with one of the US regional offices to discuss the usual product issues found by the customer, which I joined lying flat on the floor.
A lot of the conversation content was out of my depth, since I lacked background context from previous projects. But, when Japan-related questions finally came up, I was able to chime in and attempt to provide something of value, at which point my project teammate said the words that I can still hear clearly to this day:
Confused, I asked what he was talking about, and his response impacted like a fireworks display of every red flag I had ignored about this project and the company.
I was duly informed that I had fallen asleep on the call, and our colleagues across the Pacific had decided to broadcast my snoring office-wide on their speakerphone for laughs.
As far as I was concerned, I was fully conscious, alert, and focused on the discussions. But, it would seem that even in my dreams I couldn’t escape this waking nightmare of a project.
Eventually, though, the project did end (“successfully”, so that everyone saved face), and I began formulating an exit strategy.
Not fast enough to beat the start of a new assignment, though, which was shaping up to be even worse than the previous one: the project owner was a horrid person who, among many terrible traits, could not seem to grasp the concept of using a staging environment to preview the current state of a website being actively developed on.
He insisted that every page of the website be printed out on paper periodically, and put in a 3-ring binder for his review, where he would manually mark out “corrections” he wanted with a pen!
I just…yeah, no thanks.
Even without a new employer to join, I knew I was severely burnt out, and just needed to leave immediately. Regardless of my youth, I could not ignore the toll the work took on me physically, and spent the following few months recovering before even thinking of looking for a new job.
The fire of the trenches may have forged some great friendships between myself and former colleagues that still last to this day, but I do regret giving so much to a company, while receiving so comparatively little in return, in order to achieve such an inconsequential objective, that was not appreciated, which then required me to use my own time to heal the damage it caused.
Unlike the software we implemented, which is long gone, the visceral mental rulebook for work that resulted from my experience at the company continues to serve me well (and has collected a few more entries over the years). With regards to overwork, my rules are quite simple:
- Do not overwork. It is just not worth it.
- Do not violate Rule 1. If you are foolish enough to do so, the incentives received had better take into consideration all the opportunity costs of that extra work time, the impact to physical and mental health, and the time needed to recover: all of which are higher than you likely think, so go check yourself and read Rule 1 again.
What cannot reasonably be done today, can be done tomorrow; work is never “done”. A contract for employment is not an agreement to indentured servitude. Charity is for charities and other good causes, not for-profit organisations.
I hope that you keep your own relationship with work healthy, and can leverage this cautionary tale to avoid ever being “welcomed back”.
Issues that I can specifically remember with the system included:
- Display, formatting, and encoding issues related to double-byte character sets and half-width kana (imagine a system that had problems displaying, say, English capital letters…)
- Inability to relate furigana readings to kanji, meant ordering of words would be based on their Unicode code points, rather than their gojūon ordering (imagine a system that couldn’t sort words alphabetically…)
- Garbled text (mojibake) display when attempting to send emails to early Japanese mobile phones (Galápagos phones) due to not being able to handle Japanese character encodings like ISO-2022-JP (imagine a system that only sent out emails in dingbat font…)
- Limited ability to customise the software product for their specific business processes (which smells to me like they were oversold on the software product’s extensibility)
- Poorly translated Japanese documentation, if there was any at all