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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Putting up with team building offsites

One of the joys of working for a large enough organization is that you will eventually be sent to a "team building exercise". Sometimes this is an excuse for decompressing at a swank house owned by the president of the company. Other times, it's an excuse to do a bunch of silly things down by the beach and stay in a beautiful suite. Once in a while, you stay in some god-forsaken place in the middle of nowhere.

I've done all three. Here's what happened at the first two.

My first team outing was the "president's swank house" type, at a huge place which backed up to a river bend that was a swimming hole. It was supposed to start at 1 PM, but was pushed back to 11 AM for some reason. This was for a group of people who worked second shift. I don't know about you, but if my shift starts in the afternoon, I'm probably asleep at 11 AM. This place was also 90 minutes away. Think about that.

There's more to it, though. This particular meeting was scheduled on a Tuesday. Back then, I worked the "wraparound" schedule of Thursday to Monday to provide weekend support coverage. That meant Tuesday at 11 AM was super early on my (virtual) Saturday morning. For people who work a normal weekday schedule, just imagine if your boss wanted you to show up somewhere on Saturday at 6:30 AM when you normally start work Monday through Friday no earlier than 9 AM. I have the worst luck with these things.

I told my (new) boss that I'd be quite a bit late due to all of this, and did show up as promised. As a happy side-effect, I missed nearly all of the meeting they were having, and basically got to hang around and eat BBQ. Long story short, everything went better than expected.

The second time around, it was a much bigger company and we ended up in Aptos, which is down the coast a little from Santa Cruz. One of the exercises we were handed was called "true colors". This is like one of those Myers-Briggs personality tests, only there are four identities instead of sixteen. More information is available online, but it all boils down to this:

(I got this from what's left of my handout from that day, incidentally.)

My results were a mix of gold and blue. I like things to work, I want them to happen on time, and I don't want things happening in a totally crazy ad-hoc fashion when there are perfectly good specifications available. I obviously also like to write, and I try to connect with people. I want to help out when I see someone having a problem, and helping out makes my day.

I decided gold would be my "primary" color, since that seemed to best apply to what I did at work. The job of running a production infrastructure service (a gigantic replicated database) tended to involve "being orderly" far more than "connecting with people".

There were at least 30 people in the room: fellow pager monkeys, programmers, project managers, and team leads. From that entire group, there were two self-identified "golds", and I was one of them. According to the paperwork we were given, golds are 49% of the population, and yet, in that room, it was closer to 7%.

About four or five people picked blue as their primary. They were all project managers or team leads (people managers). That's closer to the 16% value given for the general population.

The rest of the room was split evenly between greens and oranges. I couldn't even tell the difference between them. The handout says that greens are 13% and oranges are 22% of the population, but in that room, it was closer to 40% each.

One of my friends later insisted that the infamous corporate hiring policies there aim for the "greens and oranges" of the world, and that explains the extreme skew I saw. Apparently she had seen the same thing during her own trip to one of these offsite exercises.

I had already been experiencing my own weariness from feeling like an outsider at that pager monkey job, and then this came along and shoved it back in my face. It had already been abundantly clear that I was very much alone in the way I did things on that team, but it really hit home when my table (the golds) was basically empty while they were struggling to fit everyone else around the green and orange tables.

I've since mellowed a bit about the validity of these glorified personality tests, but at the time, it was exactly the wrong thing for me to hear. I imagine the point of such outings is to make you feel more strongly about your investment in an organization. For me, it served to do anything but that.

There were some other unpleasant parts of that trip. We had an interesting bonfire going on the beach that night, but one of the guys had way too much to drink and hurled all over the sand. Think about that. How do people get to that point at a work event?

In another stunning show of cluelessness, all they had were "unisex" shirts (color coded to match our personality tests, naturally), but the worst insult was the jackets. They were all men's sizes, even though there were at least 3 women there - me, a PM, and a team lead! That's actually a pretty high number for that company. They had a horrible history of screwing us on wearables during mass giveaways, but they knew exactly who'd be coming to this one. It makes no sense.

The best part of this trip was the scenery. You have to love a view like this.

View from Seascape in Aptos

It almost makes the other parts worth the trouble.