Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stress Relief for the modern worker

I worked in a public sector company in Chennai for a couple of years after college. I was assigned to the R&D division but ended up working in the shop floor. I did some assembly and C programming at that time and spent a lot of time at home.
One of the useful things I figured out while at that company was this - mechanical work, as in repeating something over and over, is a GREAT stress reliever.
It all started like this - I was asked to slightly modify and add additional functionality to a STD (phone billing) machine. The programming was in assembly language and the first day work started, I got a foot thick printout at my desk - the whole source code was in that stack. The chip with this embedded code was sitting innocently in front of me.
I had to read the stack, understand what was going on, and modify the code in appropriate places.
To slightly complicate things, the chip can be "burnt" only at a different building. So I had to make modifications to the code, take the chip over to the other building, burn it, come back and test it. Repeat.
Needless to say, I was greatly stressed by this line of work. All my classmates were leaving for the USA (this was around 1997). They were talking about this brand new problem called "Y2K" and they were going to save the world from the Y2K monster. They had to be in the USA to do that. It all fit in, and I was terribly upset that I was sitting with pipes over my head in a shop floor. I wanted to fight Y2K.
(Little did I know that my classmates were having printed stacks of COBOL to pore over and change dates in)
Production companies have a very strict hierarchy - the workers are all treated with suspicion. Security used to pat them down to see if they were taking something home. The officers were treated with reverence - and at 23, with an engineering degree, I was an officer. The security would even salute me, sometimes (if I wore shoes). When I walk upto a worker, they would stand up. As an engineer I would stand up for senior engineers, and so on.
It all sounds ideal, except that the workers get to kick the crap out of you, literally, during a strike. The company was pretty unionized. Unlike other public sector companies, they actually got work done. I thought they were well run.

Anyway,one day I am sitting next to the senior engineer when the shop floor got a big consignment of telephone jacks. This company was the only manufacturer of the tiny telephone jacks that are installed in your home by the pre-BSNL DoT. So, we got a big shipment of them to deliver. They were almost ready except that you have to tighten some pin at a single place.
They distributed the work and all the workers started picking up the connectors and tightening the pins. I watched them with fascination - they had a big pile of telephone jacks in front of them. They would pick up each one, bend a pin and then move it to another pile. It was like watching Charlie Chaplin in "City Lights".
I had a tough assembly algorithm to crack that day. I postponed that. I got the unfinished jacks, a big pile in front of me and proceeded to tighten the pin.
I spent the whole day on it and it was my happiest day in that company. I could completely forget about life outside, its problems, even Y2K.
It was better than being idle. Or sleep. I felt I was actually accomplishing something - my STD machine work was meant for Ethiopia (We were selling those machines to Ethiopia). But this telephone-jack-tightening was meant for the people around me - patriotic Indians. I felt I was making a difference by tightening the pin.
I tried doing it the next day but the senior engineer chased me away.

Since then, whenever I get into stressful situations, I try to do mechanical work that still accomplishes something. Let me list such activities here. Try them at home and work:

1. Potato peeling - my wife heats up the potatoes. Once they are cooked, I have to peel the potato skin. You require a bowl with the hot potatoes and a plate to drop the peeled potatoes. Patiently waiting for the potatoes to cool is fun.

2. Phone Contacts - transferring contacts from one cellphone to another, when you get a new phone. I am sure there are easier ways of doing this, but do not try them. Do it manually, one by one. Type each contact's name in the new phone. It is more fun if the cellphone has a really small keyboard. You will make mistakes and then you can correct the mistakes and feel good.

3. Photo Album - transfer print photos into an album. Sort the photos, then insert each one into the album cover. If you want more fun, create small labels and stick them on the album about where the photos were taken and more.

4. Data Transfer - at work, you will have excel sheets with some data that needs to be transferred to some other form. Do NOT write a program to do it. Transfer manually. Have both excel files open and move data from one to another by copying and pasting. With around a hundred rows of data, this can be very fulfilling. Do not attempt for more than hundred rows.

The key idea here is that you should not have to think too much about the work other than placement. "Where do I place this?" is a good stress relieving question. "Should I place this?" is not. "How should I place this?" is a very stressful place to be. This is why cooking is not a stress reliever (for me). It requires a little bit more thinking and thus causes my head to explode and ruin the food.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Land of the Free

Woman to American Republican presidential candidate John McCain during a campaign rally:"I don't trust Barack Obama; he is an Arab"

McCain's answer:
"No, ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues"
Apparently Arabs cannot be American citizens or decent family men. To call someone an Arab or a Muslim has become an acceptable racial slur in the United States. I bet McCain would be surprised if it is pointed out that Arabs are actually human.
Must be great, being the leader of the free world. I am sure we will hear a lot of preaching to other countries about tolerance, once a president is elected.
Did I mention they have nuclear weapons and a much celebrated "button" that can wipe out the planet?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Quick Note on Economic Downturn

If you are in the IT Services industry in India and your clients are international, you may be familiar with the downturn and impending job cuts. Many of you may be facing a recession for the first time. I have a few suggestions from my experience. Think about them:
1. Your company maybe churning and you may be assigned to different projects. You may be asked to take paycuts. Your location preferences may not be respected. Companies usually crack the whip during a downturn. You may be outside your comfort zone - working with managers unknown to you, and you may have to re-establish your credentials.
All this causes much anxiety and sometimes prompts irrational decisions such as lashing out at the work place; taking a break from work; going on long leave; or even trying to switch jobs.
My advice is do not make emotional decisions based on fear or anger - particularly at this juncture. It is hard to think rationally and it is possible that you may feel ill-used or neglected. It is also possible that these feelings are purely psychological. You will not be able to judge this by yourself. Therefore do NOT make life-changing decisions, such as leaving your job; taking a break; plan a career switch; plan an academic sojourn; or anything like that. Think carefully about your decisions for a few days. Discuss with friends and family. As far as possible do not plan a change.
2. Save, save and save money. Do not take long vacations; defer decisions to buy costly items.
3. If you are laid off - remember, whatever society or your former employer tells you, you know your true value. These are bad times and people may lose their jobs for being in the wrong department at the wrong time. There are forces much beyond our control at work - do NOT blame yourself or fall into self-pity.
4. Have a strong support structure at work and at home. In tough times, friends need to support each other. Have atleast a few friends with whom you can share your fears and inner-most thoughts. That will be more helpful than sitting and brooding.
5. Do not antagonize anybody at work for perceived insults. This is not the time to be touchy about not responding to emails etc. Everybody has their own problems and you never know when a contact will be useful.