A big comfy armchair

Line art drawing of an armchair

Line art drawing of an armchair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I once asked a candidate during an interview why he had chosen to leave a company like IBM after 18 years. He told me that the company was like a big comfy armchair and that he wanted to pull himself out of it into the wide world to see what’s out there. Having worked for BP, I understood the analogy perfectly. Like most schoolchildren, I underwent a week of work experience. The teacher who was organising who was going where asked me what I would like to do. I didn’t have a clue. My aspirations varied wildly according to my whims and I had no firm idea what I would like to try.

He came up with a few options which didn’t sound particularly exciting before offering “How about office work?” I gave in more out of boredom than conviction and before I knew it, as a tender 15 year old, I found myself in the reception of one of the world’s biggest oil companies. I quickly learned I was going to work in the mailing room. Because it was all new to me, I was fascinated. I enjoyed working with people and felt mightily important when the telex alarm went off and I had to run up to the third floor and deliver an urgent message.

When it came to the choice between staying on at school to study A levels or to go out into the big wide world, I was again stumped as to the right thing to do. So almost by default I found myself staying on. After a few weeks, it didn’t really feel like I had made the right choice and I found it harder and harder to find motivation. My mum could sense what I was thinking and suggested to me that I look for a job. I knew exactly where I wanted to work. I had enjoyed BP so much, I wrote an unsolicited letter to them, citing my recent work experience and expressing a strong desire to go back and work there.

When I was invited in for an interview, I was cock a hoop. When the letter came through offering me the job, I was at school. Someone passed on the message to ring my mum at home. When she told me about the job offer, I literally danced down the corridor. A passing teacher admonished me but it did nothing to dampen my fervour.

I have a lot to thank BP for. During the 8 years I was there, I progressed from the mail room through a brief stretch in a clerical role before moving into Information Technology. Not many employers would have sent someone to college for 6 years, let alone given them a day off each week to do so. I was well trained in every respect having attended residential courses on everything from creativity to interaction skills. The meals at BP were legendary. Every lunchtime, we were treated to a 3 course meal of restaurant quality food for the princely sum of 5p. There was even a bar on premises. A heavily subsidised sports and social club offered regular trips to the theatre as well as excursions overseas.

So if it was all so good – why did I leave? I can certainly relate to the big comfy sofa analogy. To a certain extent, when you work for a company like BP or IBM, you become a little bit institutionalised. But it was more than that. When I joined BP, there were about 300 people in the systems division. When I left, there were just over a tenth of that figure after all the outsourcing, not great if you wanted a career in information technology. But if I’m really honest – the main reason for my departure was boredom. If you are writing software, oil is not the most exciting subject you could choose.

Some aspects of it interested me, like the exploration side and the huge structures at refineries and oil terminals. If you are a sci-fi fan like me, it’s very hard to stop yourself imagining them covered in stormtroopers. But when it comes down to it, it’s all about pumping around petrochemicals, storing them and changing them into other petrochemicals. Accountants joke about actuaries being boring, but I would imagine that even actuaries are quite exciting compared to the project that finally finished me.

Statuary reports.

If those two words sound boring, I really haven’t managed to convey the sheer mind numbing, soul sucking mundanity of them. When my boos told me my next project was producing statuary reports, I asked him what they were. “No idea” he said, but the government says we have to have them. And there were a lot of them. I was going to spend the next year of my life writing them. After a couple of months, I decided I just couldn’t take any more. I began to look for another job.

Those were the heady days when you put your CV out one Friday morning and by the afternoon, you would have 5 interviews lined up. By the following Friday, you would have at least two job offers. When I handed in my letter of resignation, my boss told me not to be so hasty and that he would see what he could sort out. A few days later, he called me in and offered me a big pile of cash. But only if I finished the statuary reports.

My head hit the desk with a thump.

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