JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

The One With the Chair Speech

Recently I met someone who does contract programming for the Department of Defense, and when he found out that I used to be employed by the DoD and had developed a program or two in my time, he asked me an odd question: What was my worst experience there?

That's not something I ever really thought about or tried to quantify, but the answer I came up with off the top of my head was the time I got the Chair Speech.

A little background. I was employed in the Office of Telecommunications and Information Systems or OTIS, which was responsible for all the computer systems at our South Philadelphia campus. OTIS had previously been dubbed ODS, for Office of Data Systems, and the name change was a typical move by the DoD, which seems to delight in changing the names of its various departments and agencies. In this case the new name was deemed to be a more accurate description of the office's growing responsibilities, but I always harbored the notion that it was at least in part because ODS sounded too much like “odious”.

(As another example of a name change, when I went to work at the center in 1980 it was the Defense Personnel Support Center (DPSC); by the time I left in 2006 it was Defense Supply Center Philadelphia (DSCP). See the difference?)

This was in the late 80s and I was the Chief of the Remote Systems Branch, meaning I had responsibility for all off site systems was well as anything on site that wasn't the mainframe. My immediate superior was Mr. Bill, our beloved Division Chief, and above him were the Deputy, Mr. N, and the Director, Colonel B.

Now there was long-standing animosity between Mr. Bill and Mr. N, something that Mr. Bill did absolutely nothing to hide, badmouthing Mr. N at any opportunity. Meanwhile, Col. B was doing something that was rare for military officers in our installation: he was actually trying to run the show.

Our installation was basically a civilian workplace with military officers swapped in and out every two or three years to nominally manage the place. But there was an unspoken understanding that even though the military personnel were the “Directors” and the civilians were the “Deputies”, it was the career civilian civil servants who actually ran the operations, with the military officers mostly acting as figureheads and deferring to their Deputies' decisions.

But Col. B had been expressly recruited by General Voorhees (our current Grand Poobah) to improve the quality of Otis's data processing services. (Why these needed improvement I’ll leave for a future post.) So where OTIS had been Mr. N's personal fiefdom for years, here was Col. B second guessing all Mr. N’s decisions and removing most of his responsibilities. To add insult to injury, Col. B knew absolutely nothing about data systems. His background was in meteorology.

Worse still, goaded at least in part by Mr. Bill, Col. B was actively working to have Mr. N disciplined and fired. Mr. N knew all this, so as you might expect he was not a happy camper.

Now I was working on a project (I no longer recall the details) which was being directly overseen by Mr. N; it was one of the few responsibilities that he had left, so he was anxious to keep on top of it. Somewhere along the line, Col. B sent me an email asking for an update, which I duly sent him. But I didn’t inform Mr. N. In retrospect what I should have done, of course, was cc Mr. N. Anyway, there was a meeting which both Col. B and Mr. N attended and Mr. N was publicly embarrassed when Col. B had more up-to-date information than he did. (Do you think that was Col. B’s intention all along? The idea just occurred to me.)

Knowing nothing of this latest development, I was summoned into Mr. N’s office.

Now you have to understand, Mr. N was a huge bear of a man, while I’m...well, let’s just say that I’m taller than Peter Dinklage though I don't outweigh him by too much.

So I walked into Mr. N’s office expecting to give him a project update, but what I found was a brooding, seething hulk of a man. He tried to stay calm as he upbraided me for not keeping him informed, but the more he spoke, the angrier he got. Then he rose and stormed around the room, shouting all the time. He wasn’t making any sense but I got the gist that he thought I was part of some conspiracy to embarrass him. Finally in his rage he pointed to his chair. He roared that even if I had zero respect for him at least I should respect the chair. And this seemed to be his main point, because he kept harping on it, pointing and shouting “Respect the chair!”

Not the chair that I was supposed to respect but similar...

At last his rage was vented and he dismissed me.

When I left his office I was stunned. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone that angry either before or since; I know that no one else has ever yelled at me like that. I went outside and walked around for awhile to try to clear my head.

As upset as I was at Mr. N, I realized that he really hadn’t been screaming at me; I was just a proxy for Col. B and Mr. Bill, the people he was really angry at.

The funny thing was, after that day Mr. N and I got along just fine. Someone else told me that he was impressed that I hadn’t tried to retaliate against him in any way.

As for Col. B, like all military officers, both the good and the bad ones, after a couple more years he was transferred to harass the employees at some other center. He never did succeed in getting any action taken against Mr. N.

For my part although I acknowledge that Mr. N had some limitations, I could probably come up with a list of a dozen or more names of people far more deserving to be fired. Or at least not promoted in the first place.

Update (Feb 3): I am reliably informed that the question I was asked was “What was the worst thing a boss ever did to you?”