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Monday, March 27, 2017

A History of Labour – Part VI

Posted by Tim Stobbs on March 23, 2015

Sales Representative/Technical Support SpecialistPushing Chemicals – Part 2 (Years 3 to 6 A.D. – After Degree)

Now that my wife and I had been voluntarily exiled to the Northern reaches of British Columbia, I settled into my new job and surroundings fairly well.  My boss conveniently enough was in another town down the highway by two hours.  So I was largely left to my co-workers to educate me on the nature of north.

I learned rather quickly that engineers in general were not well thought of out in the field.  After all most of the engineers these people dealt with came from the head office, did some work and then left (usually wish something still not working just right).  In general, they managed to leave a bad taste in most people’s mouth.  So for the first time in my life I had to adjust to people thinking an engineer was a bad thing and keep my mouth shut up about some of the comments people made.

Overall the I loved about half my job.  I was good at the technical support side of my job.  I would troubleshoot customers dehydration and amine gas processing system for clients that used our product.  The good news was I wasn’t expected to be an expert at once.  I had other tech support guys who’s brains I could pick to help me out.  Overall I got rather good at the job and even at one point convince a client to spend like $150,000 to test out a theory of why their amine unit wasn’t working properly.  I was right and then even took a few photos when they sent a thank you email on it.

Part of my duties around tech support was doing training seminars for operators at various facilities.  Given I was a strong introvert I didn’t like that part of the job that much.  Add to that the dislike of engineers in the area, I tended to have hostile audience.  So try to imagine trying to teach a group of adults who hate your guts before you have even opened up your mouth.  That was part of my job.  The upside of doing this like 100 times or more was I actually go fairly comfortable doing public speaking.  I still feel nervous doing it to this day, but I don’t let it control me.  Which is probably why to this day I do a fairly decent radio interview…I sound relaxed even if I’m not.

The other half of my job was sales which I determined very quickly…I don’t have natural sales bone in my body.  The entire thing is rather alien to me.  So while I understand the theories behind it, have practiced it endlessly for a few years…I still don’t like doing it.  Which is why you have likely noticed I don’t push much on this blog.  I tend to do the low key sales approach like: do good work and let others talk about it.  It seems to work just fine when I really don’t care for the most part if you read my book or not.

I also should point out that the myth about sales guys buying lots of drinks and meals is partly true.  I ate out so much as part of my job that I rarely remembered to take my wife out for supper once in a while.  It got to the point I had to tell me wife to just force me to go out once in a while.  Also it was the only job in my entire life where a co-worker said to me: “I really need to stop drinking so much at work”.  This made perfect sense as you tend to take clients out for drinks a lot so you really had to learn to pace yourself.  Otherwise it entirely possible to fall into a drinking habit without really realizing it.  Lucky that never occurred to me…the fear of actually getting drunk in front of our clients scared the crap out of me so I avoided it like the plague.

The other part of my sales job was during the summer months to golf.  Yes I got paid to play golf and drink beer…trust me it gets old rather fast when you do golf tournaments every other week it seems during the summer months.  The side effect was this was literally the best my golf game ever got…I was actually not bad for a few summers.

Financially this was literally the golden age of  my career.  Our pay structure was odd in the fact my base salary was tiny, but I got huge bonus cheques every quarter on top of that.  So while my base pay was about $45k, I was making closer to $90k/year with bonuses (actually if my memory is correct the biggest cheque I ever got was $12K in one quarter).  So this is how I learned to live on less as we never depended on my bonus cheques.  So I got used to living on a small amount of money and then began paying down student debt, and saving for a house down payment (and even buying our first house there).

Being a oil and gas town, I learned rather quickly to see certain things as normal.  Like most people had work trucks and this meant going to Walmart you would see way more trucks than cars in the parking lot (approximately a 3:1 ratio).  Also my wife and me noticed a LOT of small children around town.  Then when talking to someone about it them mentioned that on a per capita basis our town had one of the highest birth rates in the entire province.  During our first winter I finally got why…it’s REALLY cold up there.  I mean I had to look up the temperature when anti-freeze froze for one customer and many of the wives of the guys who worked in the oil and gas didn’t get jobs, so to pass the cold nights there was apparently a LOT of sex happening in town and resulting a LOT of babies being born.  Hell my wife and me even did the same thing and our first son was born up there.

Yet after my fist son was born it became painfully obvious that we were living far away from both of our extended families.  I even tried to get a job transfer to be closer to our family, but I didn’t get the job (I learned I was #2 on their list).  So in the end I began to look for another job closer to our families.  Money was one thing, but some other things matter more.  So in the end, I took a massive pay cut (~$20K) and we sold the house.  We were heading back to Saskatchewan to be closer to our families.

Summary

Lessons Learned

  • Public speaking is hugely useful skill to learn.  While learning it sucks, its application is huge.  I’ve done all sorts of presentations and interviews because I learned this skill.
  • When selling something, given all other factors are equal.  People will buy from someone they like better.  So be nice to people.
  • Eating out, drinking and golf can sound like perks to a job, but they lose their appeal after a while.

Financial

  • I don’t have good records from this time, but I can say after we sold the house we cleared the last of our student debt.  So that was $60,000 paid off mostly in three years.  We also build up some retirement savings and managed a $40,000 down payment on our next house.
  • Get in the habit early in life of living on less than you earn.  This job was an excellent training ground for this concept and I kept up the practice ever since.

A History of Labour – Part V

Posted by Tim Stobbs on March 9, 2015

Customer Service DeskPushing Chemicals – Part 1 (Year 3 AD – After Degree)

To say I was over qualified for this job when I started in December 2002 is an understatement.  A trained money could almost do my job. The work itself was fairly straight forward, take orders over the phone or pick them up from the fax and input them into the computer order system.  We also resolved minor problems with existing orders or followed up on their status.  The pay was also very welcome addition to my bank account even if it wasn’t that high.

The job also had another big downside it was on the opposite side of the city from me and I literally had about an hour commute each way to the job.  Yet despite all of this I really liked this job. Pardon?!?

You see my little hit of deja vu right before the interview was spot on: I had great co-workers.  I mean almost the entire building was nice people.  Now think about how odd that is in any given workplace.  You typically the slackers, the whiners, the hardcore corporate ladder climbers and many other sub-species of crappy co-workers.  We had almost none of those.

This wasn’t to say all our customers were as nice, but when you have great co-workers and management backing you up it does make a HUGE difference to my mental health.  I actually recovered from job hell and laugh again at work.

It also wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine either.  I am a strongly introverted person so talking on the phone for the majority of the day was not what I would call easy for me.  Yet it did get me much more comfortable talking to just about anyone.

We also hit a particularly stressful time when one of our manufactures of one particular chemical had a production problem, so this one high volume chemical was hard to come by resulting in a shortage.  The management team did the best they could to ensure everyone had some of that chemical, but it was hard on everyone.  I recall in one particular case one client literally yelled at me over the phone for 10 minutes.  Despite my first reaction to yell back, I let them rant and rave and I tried to be agreeable to their situation but eventually they hung up on me.  They called back five minutes later and the person in question actually apologized to me and we could move on from there.

Another memorable situation was training the new staff.  You see Edmonton was one of the major hubs for this company so new staff in other smaller locations would first go through a bit of training in the Edmonton office to get them ready for their new job elsewhere.  We had one particularly cocky young fellow who had already done some training with the three other service desk guys and the they dumped him on me after he managed to stress them all out.

So I asked the kid “So you know what you are doing?”

“Oh ya.  This stuff is easy.” He replied.

“Good, enter this order but don’t release it into the system.  I’ll check it when I get back.”

“Where are you going?”

“To get a coffee.”  I replied and then left him to thrash around in the system for ten minutes or so.  When I came back he hadn’t even got past the first input screen.  Now with some humility restored in the kid I could actually teach him.

I also learned that is company had a long history of promoting from within. Yes the Service Desk was a entry level job, but that did get your foot in the door.  So by next spring I was having conversations with the management about a Sales job opening in Northern BC (Fort St John – if you want to look it up on a map).  My concern with the job would be that I wasn’t sure I could do sales that well, I was more interested in taking on one of their Technical Support roles where you provided support to customers amine and glycol systems.  So we ended up doing a hybrid version.  I would be about 50% sales and reminder of my time I would provide technical support to clients in Norther BC and Northwestern Alberta.

The only problem was the location.  As my wife said “You want me to move WHERE?!?”

Eventually we had a look around the area on my company’s dime and she figured she could handle downsizing to a town of 20,000 people.  It also may have helped that I bought her a diamond necklace after she agreed to move.  I’m not above rewarding people who make tough choices.

Summary

Lessons Learned

  • Practice anything enough and you start to get better at it such as talking to people all the time for me.
  • You can’t train someone who doesn’t want to learn.
  • Co-workers can drastically improve or decay your workplace.

Financial

  • Replaced cash lost during unemployment.
  • Had a defined benefit pension with this job all contributions paid by the company.  At the time I had no idea how rare this was in a private company.  It was like being handed your first oyster in your life and finding a record sized pearl inside.

A History of Labour – Part IV

Posted by Tim Stobbs on February 27, 2015

UnemploymentWelcome to the Wasteland (Year 2 AD – After Degree)

Overall in my life I don’t actually regret much.  I’m fairly happy with where I am and what I’m doing but I have to look back at this particular period of my life as a bit of an exception.  After all, I was free from my soul eating employer wasn’t I?  No work to go to, lots of time to relax and kick back and guess what…I blew it.

What the F*&%$?!?!? You say.  Yes, I blew it.  I didn’t sleep in everyday, I didn’t read lots of books or catch up on watching movies…instead like a trained slave that was used to the beatings, when the master wasn’t there I flogged myself instead.  My two major mistakes were:

  • I worried the entire time I was unemployed about money.
  • I treated my job search as a job.

The first one was somewhat defensible.  I didn’t have a whole lot of savings at that point in my life and I owned a LOT of money between my wife and I.  After all we had just under $60,000 in debt from university and I signed a $18,000 car lease which was also draining us monthly.  So in fact, if I didn’t get a job when my Unemployment Insurance checks finally stopped coming in I would rapidly go from treading water to screwed in a matter of weeks.  Yes my wife had a job, but given our expenses and limited savings we didn’t have a big cushion (and I wanted to avoid tapping our limited RRSP savings).

Aside: Also when looking back at these months I realized something….this was the genesis moment of my dreams of early retirement even before I found out about the concept.  How? I realize now I never wanted to be in the situation of worry about money like that ever again.  So later on in life when I did come across the idea of early retirement, it was extremely appealing to me.

Yet I do think I worried about this way more than I needed to, which lead me to my second mistake.

I had previously read some well meaning advice on job hunting that you should treat your job search as a job, which being young I assumed meant work on it for like 6 to 8 hours a day.  So I got up each week day and pretend I had a job of finding a job.  So I gave myself a few coffee breaks and a lunch hour but overall spent most of my days looking at job ads and writing up job applications, cover letters and redoing my resume.

Yes, I can see you shaking your head at the stupidity of it because frankly looking back I agree.  I didn’t know that spending more time at something doesn’t always increase the productivity of the activity.  In fact, I could have likely done just as an effective job search in perhaps 2 to 3 hours a day, but I manged to drag out the misery out to six or eight hours a day.  See what I mean by flogging myself.

Then of course because of my worry about running out of money I would feel guilty when I did stop looking early any given day and it would just fall into a negative feedback loop.  I won’t do fun things because of fear of running out of money, feel worse, still not have a job, feel even more guilty and clamp down even harder on our spending.  Fairly sick eh?

Of course I as didn’t realize that engineer jobs looking for 2 to 3 years experience was particularly an endangered species, and I felt I was under qualified for the jobs that were looking for 5 to 7 years experience.  Also keep in mind that after my last job, I was being a hell of lot more picky about getting a new job.  I wanted to avoid oil and gas, which when you live in Alberta cuts out a LOT of jobs.   So this likely went on much longer than it had to.  In the end, what broke me out of this cycle was I decided to widen my job search to pick up just about any decent paying job (ie: higher pay than minimum wage) and I applied for a Customer Service Desk job at a chemical distribution company.

I still actually recall the exact moment I decided I wanted to work at that company.  It happened just before the interview before I knew what the job involved, what it paid or even what the hell was a chemical distribution company.  While I was waiting for the interview of the reception area I watched the staff come up the receptionist and chat with her.  They joked, told stories and smiled a lot more than my previous workplace.  It actually gave me a powerful sense of deja vu to how my immediate family treated each other.

So after two rounds of interviews I was thrilled to be offer a job and finally move out of my self imposed wasteland.

Summary

Lessons Learned

  • Working longer on something doesn’t make it better.
  • Worrying about things you can’t control is rather pointless.
  • Fear of running out of money can be a powerful fear.
  • Learn to have some fun once in a while regardless of your financial situation.  You don’t have to break the bank having a good time.

Financial

  • Progress was non-existent at this point in life.  If anything we went backwards for a few months.