Heavy Metal Madness: Making the Best of a Dysfunctional Work Team
Last column I laid out how, through a fluke in timing and an addiction to eBay, I ended up with a driveway full of hot-metal printing and typesetting equipment -- the start of a new hobby. After a lifetime of working in high-production environments, I have learned that the physical tools are actually secondary, even though that's where most people start. What matters more to getting the job done is the strength of the workforce and how they interact with each other.
Most of us are thrown into work situations with an odd lot of co-workers and collaborators. If we're lucky, the environment is stimulating, creative, and rewarding. But more likely you work in the cube next to a self-proclaimed Photoshop guru named Nigel who never stops popping over the wall to say: "hey, check this out", or your art director is an anorexic Goth whose design claim-to-fame is that she has 38 different mixes for black in her color palette.
This is essentially why I prefer to work alone.
You Can't Be a Team Leader Without a Team to Lead
But working alone is not only a luxury in today's "workflow-is-everything" world, it's ultimately lonely and unsatisfactory. My best work moments have always been those where a group simply clicked and the final product was much better for it. Plus, I'm a control-freak, likes-to-be-in-charge, talk-the-most-of-anyone kind of guy and there's no outlet for that behavior in a room by yourself.
So even though the subject of this column is really just a hobby, I find myself once again with a small team not completely of my choosing. I think only people like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks get to pick their teammates without consideration of limits, and even then they have to deal with the temperaments of great artists and craftsmen. Most of us inherit a set of co-conspirators or are forced by budget to work with less-than-perfect choices along the way. I am relatively lucky this time, however, as my teammates are all cats. And I've worked with them before.
That isn't entirely fair to my wife Patty, of course, who is extremely supportive and my soul mate in eBay abuse. But we met and fell in love during the cold-type era, pre-Postscript, and shared the frustrations of jammed photo paper in the processor, fonts that flew off their rails only to get mangled in the machinery, idiotic customers who thought "final proof" meant "first draft," and inadvertently getting high off of Bestine. We melted wax together, pasted up side-by-side on a light table built for two, sneaked kisses in the darkroom, and made proofreader's marks on restaurant menus when we dined out. Those are the memories we prefer to share -- for this round of discovery I'm out in the cold, damp garage with the cats.
Always Work with a Compatible Species
Of all the animals in my life right now (three dogs, three cats, and three birds) I'm glad to be working so closely with the cats. We tossed them out of the house a while back when we got new carpet, and I feel that they've been sorely neglected, despite extra rations of tuna and Pounce treats. So I set them up with always-on, heated cat beds right alongside the printing equipment. Then I put their food bowls on my workbench, which engenders almost worship-like behavior, even from cats. We make a tight little team and seem to like the same music, which I have found can be the most critical component of success in a stressful work environment.
The one named Tiger (see figure 1) is like those people at work who are always busy and on the move, but you're not quite sure what it is they do or if they really get anything done at all. She's the one I find myself talking to the most because she talks the most back. I've never worked on a project where there hasn't been a Tiger kind of person. They keep track of the gossip, they give you more information than you really need, and while they don't exactly sabotage, they do try to stir things up. I'm lucky -- Tiger has a good sense of humor and her shenanigans are mostly harmless, though she has consistently deleted copy while marching on computer keyboards. And one time, she sent a mysterious email to a friend of my wife's. But I think the noise of these machines will keep her out of harm's way and less able to do any damage.
Sable, the black cat, is the weird one (see figure 2) -- most like the proofreaders I've known over the years. Proofreaders are typically extremely smart, have no middle ground (it's either correct or not, though sometimes they get greatly animated when they can explain to you why either way is technically correct -- but they always have a personal preference), and they don't really fit in somehow to the social aspects of a team. Sable lives in her own world and I'm never sure if she's quietly brilliant, or simply out of it from some early childhood trauma. I can depend on her, however, for consistency, omnipresence, and quiet behavior -- you need one of those types in every workgroup.
Noodle (see figure 3) is the workhorse cat. She's about as normal as they come, she works steady hours, can party as hardy as she works, has an upbeat attitude, and is extremely dependable. We all like working with people like Noodle, and they are the backbone of the otherwise dysfunctional workforce. If I was paying the cats, ironically, Noodle would probably get the least for doing the most -- things always seem to work out that way. But she wouldn't complain if I ever got around to doing her performance review (which I wouldn't).
Figure 3: Noodle would rather we turn the music off altogether and listen to NPR, though she has some inexplicable aversion to Terry Gross, and coughed up a big hair ball during her interview with Gene Simmons from Kiss.
Identify Shortcomings of Breeding Early On
I'll bring the three dogs (see figure 4) into the shop every so often, but I consider them the freelancers of this journey -- their input is secondary -- I just don't think they have the attention span for fine graphic work. And they are certainly not compulsive enough to suit my needs as I rummage through thousands of bits of type, art cuts, and assorted paraphernalia while devising my own content management system along the way. Cats can appreciate a compulsive neurotic like myself -- they are good at ignoring you.
Figure 4: The three dogs seem to lack any cognitive musical awareness, and simply don't have the attention span for setting metal type.
So my team is all set and I hope to play to their strengths and weaknesses as we work side by side for the next few months. I always laugh when technology vendors talk about "increased productivity" by making something faster. The largest drains on productivity are the people you work with (or maybe yourself). And of course your physical work environment, but that's the subject of a future report.
Read more by Gene Gable.