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Your job go boom

By Annalee Newitz

RIDING HOME in a possibly-too-expensive cab from a night of karaoke, Susie (owner of susie.com) starts telling me about this weird impromptu party she'd been to, in which 50 employees who had just been laid off from a large Bay Area tech company decided to celebrate the absurdity of the universe. Apparently 150 people had been laid off from their company that day, some of whom had been hired the day before. What else could they do but get messed up together?

A few days earlier, I had chatted with someone who said: "I'm quitting Evite.com because they're about to go under;" a few hours later, I talked to another person who said: "I just took a great job at Evite.com for lots of money and stock because they're really going places." In an unrelated conversation, new economy management maven John Kao (owner of IdeaFactory.com) told me that today's uneasy techno-corporate economy is going through a "correction."

So, we're being corrected. Our jobs could evaporate in the next nanosecond. What's a tech worker to do? After consulting major industry experts and some people I met at a rave recently, I've come up with the IT Company Disintegration Warning System. Here are some bad signs to watch out for.

1. Strange emails from your manager combined with meetings that have no disclosed purpose. When Reel.com was in its death throes, employees reported a number of bizarre emails that referred vaguely and semi-apologetically to "the future." Whenever your boss starts talking about the future in emails, and she isn't trying to get you to meet a deadline, be worried. Of even more concern are meetings to which you're not invited and which seem to serve no recognizable purpose. Why are all the project managers meeting on Thursday morning at 9 am? No, it's not to discuss how great you are and when the IPO is coming.

2. Sudden, inexplicable stopping or re-direction of a major project. Beware of any company that (for example) hires you to do a database, then decides you're doing a search engine, then decides that you're actually creating the world's greatest meta­shopping cart. These are not related projects, and if they are, I'd really like to see the business plan that combines them all without exploding into multimedia nothingness. Are you halfway through a major feat of engineering with your team, but your manager is telling you he's just not sure what direction to take it? Be worried. This was what happened right before SGI decided to eliminate software production.

3. Weird, frenetic hiring in the marketing department. People always think that layoffs are a sign of corporate doom, but in the "IT space," we know that a true sign of impending corporate suicide is when there are two marketers for every one engineer or designer. Executives always hire a zillion marketers right before they eat themselves alive. Blame Steve Jobs, who always tries to solve engineering problems with good advertising. Just because Steve can do it doesn't mean your 25-year-old CEO can.

4. Key managers leave or key managers stay. This is one of those zen things: your job may be a goner if your manager is scurrying off the ship, or if she's not. Sometimes, important management types are asked to stay during a major shakeout to "ease the transition." And anyone who is enough of a corporate brownnoser to stick around for that ain't going to tell you that your job is about to go boom. Of course, the mysteriously disappearing manager probably won't tell you either.

5. There is no logical source of revenue. The revenueless business plan is so 1999. That was the year when tough, smartass companies like Snowball.com ramped up to go public with S-1s that said things like, "Our business model is unproven and may fail." If your fabulously beautiful website is chock-full of nifty stuff and "is about to implement an e-commerce phase," or "expects to break even by 2003 through advertising revenue," be very afraid. Especially frightening are companies who offer a lot of things for free in order to "get people to sign up" for whatever dorky service you're offering, but then never seem to know what won't be offered free in "the future" (see no. 1).

6. None of the T-shirts have been given away. Remember the salad days of your company--say, six months ago--when the promotions department ordered up 1,000 T-shirts with your corporate logo and they arrived in big cardboard boxes that everybody tore open and raided for all the XXLs? So why are those T-shirts still sitting in boxes in the break room? Wasn't there supposed to be some big promotional push for your widget/service/product? Why wouldn't the execs be pushing your company's logo down the entire world's throat? Can you say "Bye-Bye"?

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who reminds you cheerfully that fear is the mind killer.

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From the July 26-August 2, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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