Thinking different, and stepping aside.

Recently, we’ve lost a very important part of our business with Apple.

Losing business is a very common thing in a professional life, isn’t it?

Well sure, but after a few months out of this business, I need to share some thoughts, and when I hear the news around Apple, and some of the recent developments in the chinese factories, I’m not surprised. I’ve kept this note inside for months now, but as I have decided to drastically change the course of my life, I feel now is the time to say one or two things about it.

I will not go through the whole story, but it’s started like this: About ten years ago, I sent a resume to Apple in the hope of getting a contact. A few months later, I was indeed contacted. They were looking for an independent contractor to do some localizing jobs, and more, without going through their regional representative at the time: Apple France. I started of this way and the job was really interesting, and I was so proud to be a tiny little part of it (and I’m still proud of what I did).

I soon started to realize that though I was kind of living a dream becoming true, the internecine quarrels in the company appeared to be a major threat to the objectives that we were given. Over the years, beyond my own errors and adaptations, I understood that the main reasons that sometime prevented me from delivering, or that prevented us all from doing a better job — we could actually do much better — couldn’t be solved because of interpersonal problems between some managers on a higher level, with their respective influence and networks, and that I should just “do what I’m told to do” and only just that. These tensions could be extremely high and violent…

Still, I’m a creative person, and I got so frustrated to have interesting and valuable solutions to offer, and not being able to use them, that I finally bought a ticket, went to Cupertino and asked to present what I thought could provide a major improvement in the workflow. To sum-up, the tool I built was an online relationship database that provided a centralized, multilingual working environment with consistent tools for localizers with Translation Memories, contextual help, accuracy checking of data etc.

The tool could actually save all teams a tremendous amount of time by streamlining and drastically reducing repeating unproductive manipulation processes, by providing a relevant contextual translation memory so we could improve translations consistency, and an adequate validation process… It was directly adapted from the existing tools used at the time so the data and the online deployment was just a matter of days (for dozens of thousands of records) and the training of personal reduced to almost nothing.

I just got a “very interesting” from my direct manager, who perfectly knew it was pointless to begin talking to higher level because of the war of chiefs higher. The ideas of improvements that came from us doers were fine, but that was it. I admit I felt quite demobilized and it took time for me to recover from this event.

Unexpectedly, six years after that, I was asked to come to a presentation of a tool that all localizers for Apple like us should start using, and most of it’s features were in the tools I presented back then. Now I don’t claim to be the owner of these ideas, I just mean that any manager who would have been careful and actually concerned about making the job better, instead of playing power games and career, protecting friends, would have called the actual workers to discuss, and these ideas would have come up, and maybe been implemented at the time. I have to say that one did try to do that, but he wasn’t the power guy.

Over the years, our activity evolved and the majority of our business slipped from a regular workflow for Apple US to timely jobs for Apple EU that were relating to new products sales training and support. As these jobs were mainly related to the release of new products, there were periods with little if no activity, and periods with a lot of work to do. At the beginning, it was still possible to maintain a little team by saving in peak times, taking on other customers, and scrapping the barrels in draught time, but the flow got more and more hieratic, going from long periods with nothing, no information, no words, no contacts, to dense moments of frantic and hectic workflows. And over the years, it kept getting worse, and worse.

We were asked to be able to do more when it was pouring, to have even more availability, but when we started to explain that for that we should at least get a little very minimal regular flow to keep a minimal team, it was like if we asked a favor, an unacceptable request, and it was clearly expressed then that there should never be any discussion again. So we did our best to deliver while the situation got worse and worse: jobs provided to us were more and more badly shaped, unfinished, with errors, and we had less and less time to deliver.

Furthermore, the payments from Apple were as hieratic as the jobs, and a multibillion Inc. could lose the few k€ purchase orders into the wild of it’s SAP system, and delay payments by months for unknown reasons. Of course, when you deal with such big guys, you ought to pretend being unaffected, even if sometime you had bailiffs at the door because during all these months you paid your workers and the taxes… You should only talk about the subject when offered to, or with the tone of a slave feeling sorry for asking his pittance.

We had to be there, any time, any day.

All these years I have been a dedicated worker, carefully scrutinizing his mailbox for very expected but unplanned jobs that could come any day, any time… I was there 365 days, with an eye constantly on my laptop, not even going to pick up my kids to school without my laptop. Sometime it was the dry season, a dry season that could last several weeks, twice it even lasted several months, and ironically, it was the extreme delays in the payments that saved us at the time. Other times it rained, and unexpectedly, it sometime even poured, flooding everything so badly. But that was part of the unwritten deal: take it or leave it.

So I took it. When you have a job that you like, for the Inc. that creates the products you like, well, it could be worse. At least I had some work, and though my conscience started to hitch, I was a real and faithful IRL representative of this distinctive brand, on a personal and professional level, I have always been advocating and demonstrating the quality of it’s products. And my feelings about the products hasn’t changed, but I now believe that there are less and less people within the company that actually still cary the spirit, in particular in the EU zone…

But let’s go back to the working conditions.

Of course, when you’re twenty and thirty you can manage to have a bunch of sleepless days in row, and some weeks where you only sleep three or four hours a day, even less. But with time this is becoming harder and harder. And the rest of your life, loads the bill a bit more every time. The good side of it is that I quit smoking, drastically reduced to a few drinks… By chance, I like a bit of exercise and swimming, and chopping 15 tons of wood for heating, plus a bit of construction work for the house, kept me in good shape so I still manage to deal with this.

Still, came a day when the pressure got so high that after weeks of intense work and being bashed and bashed again, I asked myself : “what should I do more, drawn my kids to have more time, to be more available?” and the hitch started becoming a bruise.

With it’s tremendous success — an internal private joke at the time said “no longer a non profit company” —, Apple faces more issues regarding quality, secrecy, organization issues etc. It’s only fair that with the raise of business, even with a better quality ratio, if any, there can be more problems in numbers. Still, for people like me, who faithfully and constantly worked and gave their best over the years, it’s no surprise and some errors we see when they get out are revealing issues that are far beyond the percentage. We know these issues because they hurt us. I bet there is still quite a number of people within Apple that still have the spirit and are disappointed by this situation.

Too much control on business, too many individuals pursuing a career, too much MBA management, less and less respect for people, less and less spirit. And it’s not the Open community that will challenge this statement. Where’s the creative company that in it’s unforgettable early eighty’s ad stood-up against big B? It’s rather ironical to see multinational companies, whose leaders regularly slash public structures and the inertia of their so called bureaucracy, suffering from similar structural problems (I personally believe that it’s a side effect of the power of the MBA era, just like for instance in France there was an ENA and Polytechnique side effect in the conduct of the state)…

I can illustrate this by this drama, after several months (!) without any job and communication:

Us: We are not receiving work anymore, any problem?
EU manager: Silence.

We wait several weeks, there’s a big product coming and it’s not the first long draught…

Us (to US manager: You said you were very satisfied with our business but we’re no longer receiving anything. What’s wrong?
US manager: They don’t want to work with you anymore.

The simple way of how we learned that we would no longer have business with Apple speaks for itself — we’re talking here about a business that is sustaining about a dozen of persons, so it’s not just a side job for the european team we are.

Breathing.

Strangely, the distress of loosing this business comes with a kind of relief: for 10 years I’ve lived with the constant tension of having a business, having to deal with being a very small business manager, with it’s constrains, responsibilities, furthermore when you have employees and you want to offer them a decent job, a decent salary, decent conditions. I like assuming this job, but not under such condition in subcontracting.

Living with the constant threat of loss of business is also part of business life, and as a business owner and manager, you try your best to develop, be better, be creative, learn from your mistakes, and it’s frustrating to see on the other side that it’s not going anywhere, simply because of the absence of spirit. Over the last 5 years, the pressure kept rising every month, with an irregular workflow, jobs sent to us being more and more inconsistent, full of approximations, unfinished, workflow unmanaged, badly organized, literally speaking « puttered about ».

While we grew in learning, being curious, being reactive, being proactive and our performance grew, we more and more had to deal with career minded individuals giving orders they understood less and less, maybe obsessed by their short term figures, we had to fix issues that were not our responsibility, and yes, rarely, some time we almost failed, but it was like asking us to run a marathon at the pace of the 100 meters while being more and more tripped up by our own side. It felt like starting a game with fixed rules, then seeing them constantly changed by them along the path with a scornful attitude, saying “take it or leave it”…

For years I’ve lived with this pressure, with this impossibility of having a simple dialogue on the content, where I could make translation propositions to the regional managers, not a single exchange on the way the business was going, on how to fix issues, come to mutual agreement. Over the years, we accumulated a very deep understanding of the workflows, the processes, the issues, and a fair experience on how these problems could be solved. Not a single time were we invited to share this experience with them, and when we did ask for a better dialogue, we have not only been opposed a straightforward “no discussion” but been somehow sacked…

A year ago, when the amount of job coming in was discussed with US Inc., we’ve been told that our business, dedication and quality was really much appreciated, and that other departments were willing to work with us, but risk managers said that they couldn’t give us more jobs as we would then rely too much on their business…

But it’s the very inner quality, or should say, inconsistency of the workflows and their lack of management that were actually creating the risk: the level of quality and the total absence of planning of these workflows (you had to be literally waiting behind your desk and start any incoming job right away for faster and faster delivery) that was the risk itself: it was impossible to have other customers… Whatever you planned, jobs, meetings, business travels, and I’m not even talking about personal needs like health, family or whatever… everything had to be dropped right away. It happened that when I had to rush to hospital, or I had to take my kid to medical care… I had to delay because a job came in…

This structural risk situation described by the risk managers was maintained by the so called managers on lower levels due to their inability to organize and improve their workflow, or maybe even worse, their total absence of care regarding a simple decent and fair business relationship.

Needless to say, keeping employees under such conditions becomes rapidly impossible so you end-up alone because the law, and a minimal sense of morality, doesn’t allow you to ask such things to your employees: the orders given to you to deliver, that is subcontracting or outsourcing, that’s passing problem to next level bellow until no one in the beautiful and shiny Inc. gets dirty hands. This way you’re the one who gets the responsibility to set up the workflow in such a way that it is simply impossible to comply with the decent working conditions if you want to deliver in time.

It’s not always like this of course, but beyond the nice and shiny great image, with it’s internal ruling documents such as “The way we do business”, the reality is more like this:

The manager gets the jobs on monday, it stays around in it’s mail box until thursday afternoon he/she realizes that it has to be localized and returned to regional PM for review next monday. The time for he/she to ask for a bid, then send out the job, it’s friday 4PM…
Beyond the volume and technicality of the work requiring a bit of time, say normally 4 days for example so it was originally fine in the first place, and a lot of care and concentration than just a few hours, the job has inconsistencies, and errors, some of them might even impact the possibility to execute the order. But when you are digging deep into it, he/she is gone for the WE and will not reply to our email and phones calls until monday morning delivery day.

So not only you had to wait behind your desk for weeks sometimes (without ANY information at all, supposedly because of the secrecy thing you know), not only sometime the type of work requires resources you don’t have because the product is not out yet, or is just coming out so no one except some happy fews within Apple has even the product, but you’re supposed to know what they don’t know themselves, and you are bound to fix the issues that the one who gives the order should have fixed before sending out the job to you… As you want to deliver, and have to prove you can, even after ten years of total dedication, you spend the whole WE discussing with partners, doing more work and research to come up with a good job, that he or she doesn’t even had a clue about.

Acceptance…
How long can you accept this?

Now, you can accept this because you believe that in the long run, managers would appreciate the quality of your work (and they do) your dedication (and they do), your ability to react and deliver (and they do) and perhaps they will finally start to discus with you and leverage on your experience to optimize workflow and fix issues, but that, they don’t. Because they don’t stay long enough, because they don’t actually know what the job is about, because they have a career to manage, and the very short term results they get by putting more pressure on you is enough in their report figures to get a little higher in the inner political system of Apple. Because however valuable is your experience, you’re not big enough to play the power game in the big managers’ courtyard.

And you should not try to come up with solutions you have, when you were not asked to, because you might be sacked, as by doing so, you’re pointing their workflow is not good enough and hence, you’re showing everybody that they are not at their best doing their job.
Simple, isn’t it?

Stress, what will be left of us when we die?

I wrote a few years ago a note on this site that concluded “à qui le tour ? — who’s next?

I’m going to be forty, and over the last years, I have seen my two wedding witness die of cancer in their early fifties, other members of my family, some of my neighbors, some relatives… And we’re all watching this plague gradually eating more and more young people, even kids. It’s spreading, along with fertility problems, miscarriage, malformation…

At this rate, the first children of those born before the 50s will pass away before their parents! So what’s going on?

The world was already wild and unfair enough to the new borns and the innocents, but our parents managed to create an insane system that rises inequities to a level never before achieved, a system that extends war — once a timely evil event that luckily could be unknown to some generations — up to the very simple and daily aspects of our lives trough economical war with it’s so called free market and the massive universal betrayal of it.
As if this wasn’t enough, for the same purpose, they’ve poisoned all our environment so badly that in some countries, it is recommended to women to throw away colostrum as it concentrates heavy metals sometime along with pesticides.

Who can think this is a responsible behavior?

But let’s go back to Apple and it’s human and social responsibility. I have to say that I think the misbehavior that I’m describing here is probably limited and not so frequent within the corporate structure of Apple. Perhaps top managers don’t even know it exists, or at least, set-up rules so that this remains limited. Maybe. Though I have counter examples of it, I’ve been surprised by the difference in the way outsourcing business is conducted with contractors, by the US. Inc and by it’s EU representative.

Apple invested a lot and built it’s distinctive identity on a “different” positioning, a “different” behavior, a “different” attitude on it’s market… I believe EU management is benefiting too much on an image it doesn’t contribute to build, if it doesn’t contribute in reducing it.
It seems to me that for part of the EU management, the rule regarding contractors like us is “keep them thirsty, so they’ll always take the water however poor it is”, hence the long period of drought etc. That’s the only consideration they have.

I may be a bit naive, but I think It’s about time for some ass kicking, or to put it differently, time for some managers to grow up and act like responsible adults.

As bad as doing it on purpose, if it wasn’t voluntarily, then not knowing or not taking into consideration the actual human and social consequences of keeping workers into such constrains is simply unacceptable, against any basic notion of ethics. It’s not only wrong, it’s not only bad for the image, it’s unacceptable from a company that publicly claims it’s responsible behavior. Of course, those in charge of polishing and communicating on the “social responsibility” of the company can always argue that this misbehaving is caused by a limited number of individuals, but in a company, whatever the size is, the chain of commandment goes with the chain of responsibility.

I’ve never been a big boss, at the best I only had three permanent employees with a handful of independent workers, but I’ve always participated in the production, and always spent time examining the workflows, discussing it, optimizing it. And I have always assumed my responsibilities and the orders I’ve given. As “important managers” as they are, whatever business school they’ve been through, the vast majority of these so called “managers” have never had to assume the legal and ethical responsibility of their orders, not to mention that they don’t even have a clue about the reality of creating and assuming a business, from scrap… They have a lot of expertise in some aspect of management, but surely have no clue of the greater vision, the global view, the stakes : what managing a business is.

When the orders are so bad, when the orders are more and more inadequately shaped with regards to the final objectives, putting human beings in dead ends and without the possibility to take their situation in hand, when these orders are accompanied by a scornful attitude, when these orders are burning individuals without the possibility to get any form of recognition, when those who give the orders don’t have a clue on how the orders are executed, no wonder terrible consequences arise.

A Chinese factory worker, a European localizer, an Apple manager, all share the same thing: they are human beings that deserve a decent treatment and respect for the work they do. A human being is a human being. No one on this planet is worth more than another one.

Now, who should assume the mess?

Going back to the sense of this note.

Perhaps I should go with the “suicidal trend” (declaration by the scornful CEO of Orange when some of his employees started to commit suicide) and express my distress this way.

Living under such pressure in a professional environment, moreover when you personally involve yourself, is only working as long as you accept it. I accepted it in the hope of getting some recognition — and I’m not talking here about money, wealth — years after years, facing burn out and other associated health problems till I got to the point were I thought this might cause a cancer, for cancer is mostly generated by constant stress exercised by the environment on cells and tissues (drugs, irritation, burns, high energy radiations etc.).

I’ve always told my family and kids that if any day something should happen to me, heart failure, deep depression, even suicide, they should go after those who are giving the orders.

Over the last years, the pressure was so high and it was so impossible to change it that I started telling myself: “this has to stop, cause you’re surely growing yourself a cancer with so much stress”. I was burnt out more than once and I should have let this go before. Because I wasn’t the only one in the boat — being part of an international team spread all over Europe, some are even now true friends — I always kept all this inside to prevent furious retaliation from a company that cannot stand any critics… If I started to raise the issues on a higher level in Apple, then slaps could come from any side, and we wouldn’t even know about it.

I didn’t want my voice to impact my friends’ business.

Now, today, I can say I don’t feel “successful”, I can even say “I’m a loser“.

But I can’t help feeling relieved, and somehow sometime even positive. And it’s easy to explain:

Things could be worse: I’m not a little chain worker in the country that some call “the factory of the world”. So I won’t complain.

I’m positive, and I’m proud, because over all these years, I’ve managed to deliver under harsh conditions, I have hired people and tried to give the best working conditions for my employees who knew I was doing all my best for them, I’ve been a loving and respectful father that did more than it’s share, being present and caring. Even though it seems it wasn’t enough, I have been a loving, supporting and faithful husband, I have worked hard to refurbish little by little our house, using environmental friendly products, I have been involved in my community for the schools, sharing with organic farmers, built projects, diversify my activities, made new friends, and boy I have learned: Mac, Windows, Linux, networks, graphics, organic, non profit, cooperative solutions, environment, sharing… Name it!

So yes, I’m now finding myself about to step out of the door of what used to be my house, with nothing else from my past life than a few boxes of souvenirs, but I have what I’ve learned and still so much more to learn, my loving kids are supporting me, I have some friends, and I’m free. I’m changing the path of my business. I’m ready to move on, start again, get involved again, ready to leverage, eager to learn new things… and so much to give, again.

And I don’t feel like saying “never again”: I could give a lot more and work under even worse conditions, but that would only be with people who reckon the investment they’re asking.

Because the worst in all this, is not that one day Apple decided to stop giving us work, that’s business life. Apple can have it’s reasons why it did stop, including not being satisfied with our work — there’s always a good lesson to learn in a failure. No, beyond all the conditions described above, what is really unacceptable is that to top such an irresponsible behavior, they didn’t even dare saying a word, like “we have decided to stop our business with you, for such and such reasons”. No, they just stopped. And didn’t even reply to our mails.

How serious and responsible is this ?

Another thing I’d like to write is that beyond the assurance I have inside, and the lessons I take here in this setback, what actually makes me sad, and sometime makes me lose my temper to say the truth, is to see that some companies and their leaders can use all the power and the might of legal action, fiscal paradise, lobbying on government, pressure on contractors etc. Yes they can use all this, because that’s the way the world goes round now, and once they’ve accumulated huge amounts of wealth, they lecture the world and give their opinion on how the world is going badly, on how they fought to get there etc. ignoring blatantly the consequences of what they did and how they got there, and give a lesson on ethics, work, morality.

À vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire*.

In this case, the peril would be to win by being actually different than the others: Winning on competitors by using the same means and methods, crushing, stepping on others, destroying lives isn’t glorious, except for fools.

So, today I have nothing left, but I love my kids, and even more, I care for their own kids by working hard building a better world. The kids of these leaders will never know about it, I know myself and that’s fine for me.

Maybe one day, when they’ll be at the end of their time, feeling naked and week as any human being, about to let go their last breath, they’ll realize that the only wealth they can take with them is the love and the care provided to them by other human beings, the same human beings to whom they refused any form of care when they built their empire.

* Used to say my grand dad who is on his bed living his last hours, at the time I write this, and to whom I dedicate this note.

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