I recently reading a dense David McCullough book (an oldie but a goodie), The Path Between The Seas, which won a Pulitzer back in the 70s and is a compelling read for anyone with a sadomasochistic interest in the intersection of American imperialism and global capitalism, intermixed with minute details on things like maritime engineering, flood control and trends in 19th century mercantilism. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing (and yeah, I’m really boring, and a huge nerd, and I own it).
The feat of engineering that was the original Panama Canal overcame a tremendous number of obstacles, from pestilence and plague to worker mutinies, unrelenting terrain and widespread deaths and abuse among the imported laborers, thousands of lives lost in pursuit of a profit none but a few elite Frenchmen and some enterprising (and evil) American investors would ever see so much as a sou.
Workers of the world, unite! And then die of malaria, dysentery, malnutrition or exhaustion while creating the single most momentous feat of human ingenuity ever attempted. The actual workers are long forgotten, of course, with history crediting the money men and managers working comfortably thousands of miles from the Isthmus while accidental deaths and dismemberment became so routine they could be considered a part of company culture.
Well, at least for the poor West Indians and Mestizos shoveling buckets of swampy clay, paid piecemeal for a grueling, arduous and often fatal task. The Americans and Europeans in charge of the project lived in plantation like houses, spent their day in the shade surveying, and were unafraid to sacrifice human life in the way of modern science.
This, of course, follows more or less a path of concerted exploitation, anti-union activity and capitalist imperialism that has continued to this day – the workers eke out a meager existence while making their bosses fabulously wealthy, with legacies that will go down in history as being the driving impetus for the innovation that’s improved our everyday lives.
It’s kind of like how Facebook’s interns toil insane hours on complex projects for a few bucks and some branding on their resume, with no shot of matriculating into an actual full-time, paid position, but without them, Zuck would have a pretty hard time globetrotting and glad-handing as the face of the social revolution, one that’s being coded by some poor, overworked kid in Palo Alto.
No one gives a shit about those workers on the bottom, and no one probably will even know who they are and what they did. Company cultures focus on collaboration, teamwork, group decision making, family values and other constructs aimed at cohesion, but the truth is, there’s a definite hierarchy that’s entrenching both classism and hampering internal and societal mobility.
No Line on The Horizon.
We’re familiar with the manifold stories of self-made millionaires, but the fortunes of these “innovators” was largely crafted by the anonymous labor of an army of engineers, executives and employees working to transform their vision into a minimum viable product and a business capable of producing enough profits to justify the efforts required to make a startup startup.
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I know. Class inequality is the root of Marxism-Leninism, and that ostensibly noble system of ensuring the state give the workers their fair share, meticulously pegged to individual worker output – if you think about it, Stalin was kind of a big fan of big data.
His state, similar to Conde Nast or Goldman, ran largely to forced labor, slaving away in remote, isolated gulags, removing skilled workers to segregated camps where they were constantly under intense scrutiny by guards, tasked with often impossible quotas, and forced them to work without respite, without pay, and without hope for the future.
This, if you think about it, is quite similar to the office campuses dotting Silicon Valley, only the Soviets probably didn’t have enough ping pong tables, cafeteria slides or free food (or any food, for that matter) to really create the kind of culture that people wanted to be a part of.
Gulags are a lot like the Googleplex – everyone there is trying to prove fealty in exchange for special privileges, putting their own interests subservient to those of the omnipresent and omniscient information superpower for which they work.
There’s no fighting the machine, so the best you can really hope to do is put your head down, do some cool shit and hope you’re getting paid enough to afford something livable for under 3k a month that’s within an hour of the office.
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.
California dreaming is a nightmare, particularly when you’re paying for a mortgage outside of Fresno or Bakersfield and have to sit in the daily gridlock of such fine roadways as the goddamned 101, the f-ing 405 or the 5, that boring ass stretch of nothing connecting hella NoCal with the perpetual parking lot that is LA County and beyond that, the scarily clean and carefully sanitized Witches of Eastwick hangout that is San Diego (or North Tijuana, as it’s probably more accurately described).
The thing is, these stretches of road, the ones that transformed Silicon Valley from orange orchards into a global center predicting the proverbial future by inventing it, connected them to the money men in Sand Hill Row, the PE guys down in Orange County and downtown LA, and gave them access to world markets by terminating in some of the busiest ports on the Pacific (with easy access to the Atlantic thanks to the Panama Canal, you know).
Those crappy Cali roads also connect places like South of Market, Playa Del Rey or North County, all hotspots for innovation somewhat off of the beaten path, but well marked on the extensive grid of tollways connecting the state and, to some degree, the information infrastructure powering our increasingly interconnected world and informing our everyday lives by providing the technology necessary to precipitate one of the most sweeping changes in capitalism and the world of work since the Bessemer process or the mills of Manchester.
This is an information revolution, not an Industrial one, which means that those roads throughout California are no longer the artery by which the rest of the world is fed the Silicon chips and mass manufactured, pre-SaaS software (like MS Office or Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing) formerly flowing from the state.
This has been replaced by “the cloud,” that nebulous way in which we’re able to get real products, services and information in real time, all the time, at a scale, price point and contract terms that used to be impossible when you actually had to install software machine by machine, and updating an OS was an ordeal, not an automated download.
This has significantly changed distribution, shifting power away from the software producers to the conglomerates, like Microsoft or Google, upon whom these startups rely to deliver the kind of scale they need to make the margins and build the revenue base required for that ever elusive “exit event” that signals success far more than fixing what’s broken in hiring and recruiting.
Indeed, for example, is one of the biggest players out there, and yet, they’re an algorithm change away from Google forcing them to shut up shop, given their business model.
Similarly, LinkedIn will become as much a part of our mundane enterprise technologies as Excel or Sharepoint, enabling Microsoft to increase revenue and shareholder value (once they finish paying off the inordinate costs of that acquisition, that is).
This they do while more or less creating a reliance on their ecosystem at the enterprise level, consolidating competition and forcing out many of the more marginal point players who are unable to compete with the big fish, who predictably, pirate and commoditize pretty much every cool idea out there.
This is why Taleo has a social recruiting function, ADP has a LOB dedicated to sourcing training and IBM is building a “smarter workforce” even though they can’t seem to preempt their recurring RIFs and inevitable flurry of WARN notices that Big Blue occasionally uses to cover up for their plummeting stock price and mediocre leadership.
Hey, they have a robot that plays Watson – although it does shit when it comes to making Brassring a somewhat functional ATS, but that’s not really all that sexy. Beating Ken Jennings or the world Go! Champion or running saturation advertising about making the world a better place through machine learning, those are splashy. Fixing your archaic ATS, not so much. You should outsource that shit to Mumbai, anyways. That’s big data, baby.
History is written by the winners, quoth Benjamin Franklin. This explains why Larry Ellison has a yacht, Reid Hoffman has a gilded Olympic size swimming pool full of Ghirardelli chocolate, and Dave Duffield has an elite force of former foreign legion soldiers protecting him, his Gulfstream 5 and his private island in the South Pacific (that’s probably not true, but it’s fun to imagine). Basically, if you found a company and deliver value, no matter how shit that company is, you’re going to get paid.
For example, Oracle co-chair Mark Hurd, a man who admitted at his own user conference he made decisions for shareholders, not staff – which, honestly, is why they print money (off a dot matrix printer, mind you) and who presides over a bloated fiefdom of archaic products monetized primarily through channel sales and patent lawsuits, somehow walked away as the highest paid CEO in the ENTIRE STATE of CALIFORNIA.
That’s right. The CEO of Google paid himself a buck. The guy who’s responsible for Peoplesoft and JD Edwards still being things took home a whopping $78.5 million in 2015.
And he’s not the only CEO over there, mind you – his “job sharing” C-Suitemate took number two among all California CEOs with a bullet, edging out the likes of Marc Benioff at Salesforce or Tesla/SpaceX’s Elon Musk.
Hell, even the CEO of pharma giant McKesson or Bob Iger, the guy who oversees Disney, for crying out loud, didn’t come close to Hurd’s insane payday, which is more or less the GDP of a developing country or enough money to fund Slack, 8 times over, and still have enough to take a controlling interest in Ultimate Software and Dice Holdings, too.
The imbalance between the haves and the have nots extends to the world of HR Tech, too – and the bigger they are, the less incentive they have to do anything but sit back and, in the case of payroll providers like Ceridian or Paychex, literally print money (your labor costs represent a hell of a lot of float, being as they’re more or less structured as overnights).
Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.
This brings me back to the Panama Canal. After over a century of dominating the world’s waterways, providing countless billions in revenue to producers and consumers around the globe and making the world smaller and cheaper to move goods, the veritable waterway recently received a facelift.
Dubbed “The New Panama Canal,” this project dwarfed even the gargantuan feats of its predecessor, displacing more earth and redirecting more water than any man-made channel in history, a change necessitated by the introduction of supertankers, ships so massive that their wide berths prevented them from passing through the hundred year old canal whose construction started during Grant’s presidency, and continued through Teddy Roosevelt’s.
This building task was unprecedented, took more money and ingenuity than had ever before been invested in a single feat of engineering, and was built on the premise that the world could be made smaller for the benefit of that faceless “consumer” driving our worst capitalist tendencies.
A hundred years later, even the route that recharted the course of the Chagos river, created two of Central America’s largest lakes from nothing and built a series of locks which turned tepid jungle into the world’s first superhighway, so to speak, had found itself obsolete, both by Executive Order (Carter voluntarily returned control to Panama while losing it everywhere else in the world, it seems) and by the advance of technology, the idea that we can move even more goods even faster.
While these supertankers for whom billions upon billions was overlaid are relatively rare, if preparations weren’t made now, the Panama Canal risked becoming a thing of the past. Essentially, they did the same thing they’re always doing, at a monumental scale, with the only noticeable change being the size and scope of the project, not its end purpose.
That purpose, of course, is connecting the world and its people, shrinking the globe while expanding our access to different markets, people, ideas, technologies – Shanghai to New York is a whole lot harder when you have to round Cape Horn instead of float effortlessly through a few miles of lakes and locks. Essentially, a shortcut was built, and even that was improved upon in an unrelenting need for infrastructure to keep up with the end users it supports.
At a recent conference, Amy Albright, the Director of Global Recruiting Operations at CH2MHill, mentioned that while their brand isn’t all that well known (they’re a civil engineering firm, after all), their projects were – most notably among them, the new Panama Canal.
And yet, they still were having the same trouble attracting qualified talent to an isolated isthmus, or the London Olympics Master Planning project, or a rehaul of the Statue of Liberty (talk about an impressive ass book of business) as did Philippe Varilla Burnau or John Stevens, the men tasked with creating the original canal so many years ago.
In Burnau’s journal, he wrote:
“It seems that the local men are uninterested in self-advancement or anything exceeding idolatry; the European workers are more interested in drink than in progress, and the only workers one can depend on are the Africans, whose lives exist solely for the purpose of building the canal, and those lives are a price most are one day forced to pay.”
The answer, of course, was a combination of indentured labor, regimented classism and promises of vast fortunes throughout the slums of the Americas to any man willing to test his mettle in Panama, and of course, those promises were abandoned as soon as they’d landed and fallen entirely on the goodwill of their employers, who had none except to turn a profit. They did, of course.
As did their 21st century replacement, CH2M Hill; the firm made close to 6 billion in 2016, employed an estimated 25,000 employees and worked on some of the highest profile projects in the world. Yet, employees, while allowed to participate in the private company’s profit sharing program, paid between 25-50% less to its workers than its direct competitors for the same jobs and skill sets, according to Payscale data in the public domain. The company enjoys a tepid 3.2 (under average) score on Glassdoor, and a relatively low 53% NPS using the same site’s data.
This begs the question: how come the same company that can figure out some of the world’s biggest problems can’t figure out how to keep their workers happy and retain their top performers? Why does a company with so many resources simply have the inability to attract top talent without relying on things like “employer brand audits” and “social recruiting strategies,” which have had, it appears, limited efficacy in actually making CH2M an employer of choice more employees choose.
So, they’re stuck with an ancient version of Taleo as their global ATS, branded Twitter and Instagram account dedicated to “careers” and candidate engagement, and stuff like career fairs or premium accounts on Indeed and Glassdoor to keep the candidates coming.
Granted, they’re doing a pretty good job, considering how niche the positions are, their huge reliance on contracts and project based resources and their lack of a household brand name (or boucoup bucks) to lure in passive job seekers. I applaud Albright, her team and the work they’re doing, but seriously, I found the whole thing depressing.
I mean, for f’s sake. They built the Panama Canal and can’t figure this shit out, even with a TA budget big enough to dwarf the spend of most smaller employers (or less well established enterprises), including direct competitors and other major multinationals. Which begs the question: how in the hell are the rest of us supposed to have any chance in hell at winning the war for talent?
I’m not sure I have an answer, but all I know is that apparently, connecting the seas is way easier than connecting with candidates. But cheer up. At least you’ve got that kick ass SnapChat careers handle and that cool Pinterest page, right?