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.

Mr Finch, you swine sir, I salute you!

Telex machine Svenska: Telexmaskin

They say that you should love what you do, so my introduction to employment was a dream come true. I was a despatch assistant, which is code for an internal postman. I worked for BP Oil and my job involved listening to the radio with colleagues around a table, drinking tea and reading the paper. Oh yes – and occasionally, we had to get up and sort and deliver mail. But there was a lot of waiting around. The only thing to disturb the peace and harmony was the telex alarm. That meant that someone had to run up to the telex room, grab the telex and run to the addressee and hand deliver it. If you were really lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) the telex was a price change, which meant dashing to each one of the 14 floors to deliver the news.

The post room was full of temps and junior employees (like me). It was your introduction to the company, and you were expected to only be there for a short period before you were promoted to the upper floors in a “proper” job. So it was little surprise that 6 months later, I found myself on the 8th floor, newly promoted to Accounts Assistant. At first, it was a culture shock. They expected you to work all the time! No sitting there listening to the radio and no reading the paper, but I soon got used to it.

A very nice lady called Maggie showed me the ropes. She explained that the job was very important. Lots of high-up people relied on the role I was taking on. Of course, it was all new – so I listened intently. At the time, I thought I was the most important person in the world. The job consisted of heading to the print room early in the morning with a trolley and picking up a 2 foot tall stack of A4 paper. The pile of paper was always nice and warm and had a vaguely mechanical smell to it. I was to waste no time and get this stack of paper back to my desk.

On my desk, there was an A4 binder covered in sellotape. On the binder, there was a label with the word “BIBLE” written with a thick marker. Inside were a number of sheets which described in excruciating detail how to split the 2 foot pile of paper into various different reports for various different bigwigs. It seems faintly ridiculous now in these days of PCs on every desk and email, but this is what kept the wheels of industry turning in the 80s.

There was more to my job. There was the maintenance of customer records (which is shorthand for taking a load of printouts from one system and manually typing them into another). The only vaguely interesting part of the job was dealing with customer queries. This involved fathoming out how our interminably complicated system had priced some quantity of oil for a customer and why it was wrong. Where it was wrong, we had to do what we called a “Retro”, a retroactive adjustment.

These had to be handwritten on a special form, batched up and taken down to the typing pool. A trip to the typing pool could strike terror into the heart of a fragile 17 year old. Any woman who has ever walked past a building site to the sound of wolf whistles and cat calls would know exactly what I mean. I think they deliberately placed the in tray at the end of the room so that they could enjoy your embarrassment as you ran the gauntlet past all the lascivious ladies. Looking back on it, I should have lapped it up, but at the time I used to dread it.

I soon became bored with the sheer routine. Every day was the same cycle. There were little or no surprises and there were very few opportunities for development. Because I was bored and because I was the youngest in the office by far, I regularly found myself on the wrong side of Mr Finch. He was the department head and had an office in the corner. It seemed like every other week, I was in Mr Finch’s office for some transgression or another.

Things started to improve when out of sheer tedium, I read the HR manual – no mean feet seeing as it’s 6 inches thick! In there I found a section on study and was overjoyed to read that BP would sponsor employees in further and higher education. I grabbed this with both hands and happily undertook what was to become six years at college.

As if things could not get any better, I learnt of an initiative to automate the “Retro” system, and I was asked to work on it. This meant talking to the systems people from the 9th floor. It was fantastic – a complete break from the humdrum routine explaining to the analysts exactly how the retro system worked. Unfortunately, I enjoyed it so much that I neglected the humdrum routine and my work piled up. Cue another visit to Mr Finch’s office.

I enjoyed the project so much that I found myself spending a lot of time with the systems guys understanding what they did and how they constructed the system. It was fascinating, and again my work suffered and yet again I found myself in front of Mr Finch. Worse was yet to come, because what I didn’t realise was that the systems guys were all filling in their timesheets against Mr Finch’s project code so Mr Finch got a very large bill. He really gave me the hairdryer treatment over that!

You might think that I bear Mr Finch some ill will, but no. This story does have a happy ending. Whether he did it to save his budget or whether he did it to help me out we will never know, but he was the one who got me into the Information Systems Division.

Mr Finch, you are a gentleman sir, and I salute you (you bastard).