Wednesday 8 October 2003

Docking with the mothership

After eighteen months working on a selection of assignments; creating user interfaces in Ipswich, debugging Java code in Glasgow, running requirements workshops in Hereford, I'm back in the corporate head office in London. It's a bit of a culture shock.

Every client I've ever worked for has been a corporate idiot, unable to make the correct decision or build a new system without my colleagues and me shouting instructions in their ear and guiding their trembling hands. Working full-time on site with a client has always been frustrating and infuriating.

But the best bit about being a consultant is that all the times I've smiled at these fools and ignored their dreadful theories, I've known full well that they aren't my direct employer*. I can sneer (under my breath of course, the professional veneer on my face never cracks) at their lack of direction, technical incompetence or poor canteen facilities, smug in the knowledge that in six months time I won't be working for them. I get all the fun of switching jobs every year with few of the hassles.

Sitting at an ergonomically designed Scandinavian pine desk surrounded by Docker wearing colleagues at my employer's head office I don't have that luxury.

When I entered the corporate rat race seven years ago I believed I was about to be consumed by a gleaming machine. I imagined life as a brand new graduate joining a management consultancy, I would enter a fast-paced and slick world where effortlessly competent people rushed around in designer suits to important meetings.

I would become a small but useful cog in a super-efficient enterprise. An enterprise that wielded scientific rigour and unassailable logic to inform all its principles. A company dedicated to the use of clear thinking and precise writing to generate industy-defining insights. Petty idiocies would have no place in this enterprise, poor arguments and weak ideas would be mercilessly crushed beneath the mighty wheels of corporate intelligence.

It's taken me seven years to realise that it's not really like that. I'm surrounded by plenty of funny, clever, interesting people, and I enjoy my job. But we're just like every client I've ever met. My colleagues wear badly fitting designer suits to attend dull strategy meetings where people gossip and flirt over coffee. We like to think we wield logic and truth like unstoppable weapons, but actually we are easily swayed by entrenched beliefs and internal politics. We write long, dull documents no-one will ever read that labour to make more than one interesting or relevant point per page. We overuse words like enable, ensure and empower. We douse our language with qualifiers like 'better', 'significant' and 'rapid' without any justification or figures to back them up. I have to work alongside people that talk about 'enhancing the spiritual nature of web user interfaces' without recourse to irony.

I'd still like to believe Accenture or McKinsey's are the relentless and awe-inspiring powerhouses of my undergraduate imaginings, but chances are they're full of normal people too.

* Just to try and undo the damage to my reputation this arrogant statement might make, I do like a lot of the client staff I work for, it's just their companies and companies' policies I take umbrage at.

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