Jan. 27, 2010

I’m always a bit surprised when I approach an ATM and notice that the previous customer had left behind their receipt. It’s a fairly harmless oversight, since a printed receipt never reveals its owner’s full ATM card number, let alone the four-digit PIN. Yet, every so often, you can learn a lot from the limited amount of data on a discarded slip of paper.

Yesterday morning, I found an abandoned receipt for the ages:



Good gravy.

Why would someone invest well over $130,000 in a regular savings account, which earns less than 1% in interest?

And have the guys from Office Space found a new way to round off fractions of a cent and deposit the funds in a new account?

[ No. 562 ]

Jan. 23, 2010

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned some difficult lessons, and now I know that such painful truths can extend to late-night talk show hosts and college football coaches, too.

Lesson 1: All employees, regardless of their work ethic, talent, and loyalty, can be the victim of foolish, shortsighted reorganizations.

Six years ago, Conan O’Brien signed an agreement with NBC to take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno, and the transition took place last June. But after a brief, failed experiment with a nightly Leno show at 10 p.m., NBC proposed to create a new 30-minute show for Leno at 11:35 p.m., which would push The Tonight Show back to 12:05 a.m. — a surprising decision, given that O’Brien had been sitting behind the Tonight desk for a mere seven months. Understandably, O’Brien rejected NBC’s proposal (tantamount to a public demotion), reached a $45 million settlement to leave the network, and taped his final episode of The Tonight Show last night.

The executives at NBC share the same myopia that permeates so many corporate boardrooms today. In the face of a big problem (low prime-time ratings), the network took a huge gamble (The Jay Leno Show) and lost, then quickly returned to their old formula regardless of its disruptive, negative impact on other people (O’Brien).

Conan O’Brien worked hard at NBC for 17 years, but ultimately, NBC pushed him around like a low-level employee, and for that, the network should be ashamed of itself. I look forward to seeing O’Brien return with a successful show on another network soon, and when Jay Leno comes back to The Tonight Show on Mar. 1, I hope David Letterman finally destroys him in the ratings.

Lesson 2: Surprisingly often, management rewards poor results and behavior.

Starting in 2001, Lane Kiffin worked as the offensive coordinator at USC for six years. Then, with zero experience as head coach at any level, Kiffin was hired to coach a professional team, the Oakland Raiders. While there, he posted a miserable record of 5–15 before getting fired in the middle of his second season.

For some reason, his performance with the Raiders was enough for the University of Tennessee to hire him as their new head coach. With the Volunteers this past season, he went 7–6 while making false accusations against his coaching rivals. And if that’s not enough, after Pete Carroll abruptly left USC for the Seattle Seahawks, Kiffin’s mediocre results at Tennessee were rewarded with the head coaching job at his old employer, USC — one of the most elite college football programs in the country.

How could Kiffin possibly deserve such a prestigious job?

As head coach, the man has won 12 games and lost 21 — that’s a winning percentage of only .364. Compare Kiffin’s meager record with that of former Nebraska coach Frank Solich, who went 58–19 (.753) over six seasons but was still fired in 2003 — an equally ridiculous staffing decision, by the way.

To quote a scathing column by ESPN’s Pat Forde, “Paris Hilton has paid more dues than Lane Kiffin.” And personally, after watching far too many frauds get ahead in the corporate world, I can only conclude that many more undeserving dilettantes like Kiffin will somehow find a way to prosper, even if their résumés are woefully thin.

[ No. 561 ]

Jan. 11, 2010

I’ve read several articles about everyday objects that have become largely obsolete in the last decade. Along with fax machines, encyclopedias, and Rolodexes, telephone books were frequently mentioned as a significant casualty of this digital age. (I check the Yellow Pages once in a blue moon, but Internet searches are definitely second nature by now.)

And on a recent frigid night, I witnessed conclusive proof of the phone book’s demise. When I took out a few bags to my neighborhood’s trash and recycling bins, I noticed something unusual in the newsprint bin: brand-new copies of the December 2009 edition of Verizon’s Super Yellow Pages and its smaller “companion directory,” both still in their original white plastic bag. They never had a chance.

[ No. 560 ]

Jan. 3, 2010

Wow. It’s truly hard to believe that another decade is behind us.

Ten years ago this week, I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 with a small group of fellow Vanguard coworkers at my friend Jim’s house. Most of us were on call that night in the unlikely event that Y2K reared its ugly head at our employer. We placed our pagers (!) on the mantel above Jim’s fireplace and enjoyed a relatively quiet evening. But looking back, I wish I’d decided to go out and party until dawn (with my pager, of course); after all, I was only 25 back then. And even if some Y2K-related calamity did happen, I doubt I could have personally fixed the problem in the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, 2000, anyway.

Since then, it’s been a fascinating decade for me, with plenty of ups and downs, many of which have been documented on this very Web site since 2001.

I’m very fortunate to say that my family has remained healthy and close-knit over the last 10 years. I developed many meaningful friendships after I joined a local Penn State alumni chapter in 2000, became a first-time homeowner in 2004, embarked on four PSU football road trips and two weeklong Utah ski vacations, and spent seven consecutive summers full of fun weekends with friends in rented shore houses in Avalon, N.J.

My career in IT has taken several unexpected twists and turns, yet somehow, I’ve managed to land on my feet amid the relentless corporate turmoil. And on the dating scene (which I’ve seldom mentioned on this site), I’ve had the privilege of a few short-term relationships, but I’ve struggled with baffling setbacks and long periods of frustration, too. However, my patience finally paid off this past October, when I met my wonderful girlfriend, Joan, who gives me every reason to believe that 2010 will be a really special year.

Earlier this decade, I shared in widespread sorrow over 9/11 and profound anxiety over a pair of recessions (by now, most people seem to forget how frightening the 2000–02 downturn really was). And even when I turned to college football for a much-needed distraction from reality, the Nittany Lions only added to my misery, stumbling through four losing seasons in five years. Thankfully, the subsequent five years of PSU football have delivered three 11-win seasons, two Big Ten titles, and four bowl victories. And closer to home, the Phillies ended a miserable 25-year championship drought in Philadelphia by winning the 2008 World Series!

If you really think about it, the ’00s really weren’t all that bad. Just ask anyone who lived through the Great Depression, a not-so-distant era that makes our unemployment rate and bank failures look mild by comparison. Most of us have just about everything we need, and the world was a scary, dangerous place long before this decade began.

Let’s just keep doing the best we can and make the most of the 2010s.

[ No. 559 ]