When it comes to "The Real World", one of my biggest learning experiences was getting fired from a temp job at a Verizon Wireless store the summer before grad school.

It's 2005. I had just graduated from SUNY Albany, and had my grad school plans all figured out. I'd be going to UT Austin to continue my studies in linguistics. With a few months before my move to Austin, Texas, I picked up some temp work that landed me at a Verizon Wireless store at Crossgates Mall, just outside of Albany, New York. It was a mall job, but as far as mall jobs go, it wasn't terribly bad. Sure, I still felt over-qualified, but that was before I had much of an idea of the value of a bachelor's degree in liberal arts (or the lack thereof, as we've all come to learn since).

The official role was greeter; I would catch people as they came in and try to get them time with either a sales associate or a customer service rep. If necessary, I would sign them up for tech help from one of a revolving squad of anti-social metalheads in the back room. It was a lot of standing, and a lot of schmoozing.

Verizon not-so-subtly used their temporary labor service as a cheap HR department. Most of the non-temporary employees were at one time temps, and management regularly put individuals designated as greeters into training for customer service roles. I got a lot of experience with the variety of roles available at a cell phone store, and even had an opportunity to do a little off-the-cuff salesmanship when things got a little busy.

All of my exposure to the different roles and responsibilities got me thinking about what I could do to make the place run smoother. This was at the forefront for me, as I was primarily responsible for corralling people to different sections of the store. As a result, customers would often hold me responsible for not getting individuals with their salesperson or CSR in a timely manner.

The issue that I first targeted involved the potential logjam that occurred in the sales queue. Salespeople had to spend a lot of face time with potential new contracts or new phone purchases. For every individual they spent time with, they had to fill out a large form about their encounter, outlining what items were bought, and other sundry details about the interaction. Each form took about five minutes. It was something they could stop and go back to, and often would develop a significant backlog if they had a a full queue of customers.

The customer queue was tracked by a simple form on a clipboard, at the podium where I would stand. Names were written in pen, and then, once handed off to a salesperson, were crossed off. For a salesperson to begin serving a customer, they had to leave their desk and closely inspect the form. This meant that they would often have to stop filling out their back log of forms just to check if the scribbles on the clipboard were crossed out names or new customers awaiting service.

My "big idea" was idiotically simple, if you think about it. Grab two highlighters from the the back room -- one pink, and one blue. For a new customer, who had not yet been served, highlight their name pink. The color could be seen from the other side of the room easily, so a salesperson could just catch a glimpse of the clipboard, and, if there were any pink lines available, they would then know to stop what they were doing and start helping customers. Customers would be taken off the queue by highlighting the pink lines with the blue highlighter, which resulted in a dark purple, providing an excellent contrast to the light pink.

This idea was a big hit with the sales staff. It helped them stay on top of their paperwork, and kept them almost instantly available to customers at all time. However, one of the younger managers --  whose primary responsibility was sales -- took severe issue with it. He felt that their motivation should be the commission they stood to make. I wasn't sure how these two concepts clashed. In the end, it may have just been that he didn't like the idea. He told me to stop doing it.

And then a regional manager came by for a visit. The sales staff told him all about my great idea, and how much easier it made everything for them. This manager loved my idea so much he literally took two highlighters, put them in my hand, and told me to keep doing what I was doing -- after the assistant manager had already told me to stop. The pecking order seemed pretty clear, so I went back to doing what I had been doing, and witnessed a notable improvement in efficiency return to the sales queue.

The next week, I showed up at work only to immediately be summoned to the back office. The head manager was literally holding up the highlighters as if I had brought contraband to the workplace. I wasn't fired, because I was an employee of a temp agency, but my contract as a greeter with Verizon was terminated prematurely due to insubordination.

At the time, I was pretty dismayed. It was the first time a professional engagement ended in such an ignominious way for me. Now, I just joke about it whenever the topic of innovation or cell phones comes up. Of course I didn't want to be a lifer at Verizon Wireless. I was just hoping to spend a few more weeks making money before I moved across the country -- and maybe even transfer to a store there for some part time work during my studies. I suppose telling them I would be moving in a month didn't really give them a reason to keep me around anyway.

I could spend this paragraph using this my personal experience as an anecdotal example of our failing broadband and wireless infrastructure. I could vehemently rail against the big telecommunications companies in this country, how they wantonly absorb government subsidies without any returns in the form of improved end-user service, but I'll skip it. I'd rather not contribute to the pool of vitriol you'll see in most hackers' blog posts about wireless phone or broadband service and the companies that purvey it. But I will say that these are organizations that clearly have a cultural problem of discouraging innovation. There are bigger companies that do better, and there are smaller companies that do worse. It's not their industry; it's not their size.

I learned a great deal from this fiasco -- lessons about the interpersonal and bureaucratic sides of working in a company that stick with me to this day:

  1. Just because an idea is good doesn't automatically give it traction with management. This speaks for itself. If you implement something useful without getting approval in a workplace that values management over traction, no amount of justifying yourself will keep you from getting read the riot act.
  2. Multiple managers make for noisy signals. If you absolutely need more than one person managing someone else, you need to make absolutely sure that the employee knows who's in charge of them for what aspect of their job. Otherwise, you're just confusing people, and making it harder for them to do their job effectively. If you're a co-manager of an employee, make sure you're staying in your sphere of influence. Contradicting another manager could make more trouble for the employee than for you, and that's particularly problematic from an ethical standpoint.
  3. Efficiency is not the only motivation. The sales manager's interest was in motivating the sales staff to stay on top of their queue of customers, and to be proactive in servicing customers. He valued customer service over effective data entry. It was his prerogative to identify and rank the sales team's priorities, and I can understand how staying up on your forms could take a back seat to making sales. There are countless applications for this lesson in the software industry. Your approach may optimize for all the vectors you've identified, but that doesn't mean there isn't one you haven't taken inventory of. That "unknown unknown" may have an untenable cost introduced to it due to your approach. Collaboration usually helps catch these before they become a problem.

When all is said and done, I'm kind of glad I got "fired" from this job. As a student, I hadn't really encountered real failure before then, and it was my first exposure to real rejection therapy. It was also my first experience learning that things aren't always fair in the workplace, and sometimes a paycheck is better than being right.

I'll still never use Verizon though.