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I have been hinting that things are not going well at work. Yeah, the end is near for old Joe. Projects on hold all of a sudden, my boss in shouting matches with the president, the guys on the Board of Directors coming and going a lot. Yep, something is going on.

Moving to this company was a risk from the start. But, you've got to play the game. The pay here is very good, the people are OK and the projects are cool. I can't really complain. I'll add the stock option paper to my recycling bin, as I have with most small companies where I have worked. Options are great, but don't count on them to pay the rent.

The average length of a job in The Valley is 18 months, so I am right on schedule to be gone.

Like my late mystic friend Nostrajava, I have developed a sense of the future for any company. All you need to do to determine the fate of a company is to make sure you interview the president before you accept the job. Doesn't matter if you are a VP or a humble engineer - try to meet with the president. In my case, I did, and was troubled afterwards.

The president of my company is young, got his MBA from the big university in Palo Alto. Smart guy, very glib, with the ability to drill down through the BS quickly. All in all, a star player. So what was the problem? Old Joe asked him the killer question.

"Sounds like you have a great background to lead this company. By the way, what was your biggest business failure?" I said towards the end of our brief interview.

He stared at me blankly for a second, but quickly recovered. "Well, I haven't had any failures, that's why I am here!" he confidently stated. It helped that his uncle was a very well known venture capitalist and his father was connected to New York bankers, but I wasn't going to burst his bubble. All I had to do was read Red Herring to find out all kinds of things about his background.

So what's wrong with his statement? Everyone has failures or setbacks. It isn't what happens to you, it's how you react to it. If you have glided through life and don't hit your first speed bump until you are a 36 year old president, then the fall will be ugly for you and those around you. The prez is under pressure, and doesn't understand how he will react to this kind of pressure. He may be out soon, but there will be the first quarterly loss, the stock will drop like a rock and everyone will forget about you. The loss came, the stock dropped and now we are slicing and dicing budgets. I will be one of the first to go; I'm over 40 and expensive. We don't need wisdom and experience here. We need results... by next quarter.

Despite his overconfidence, the president is a good guy. Laying people off is not something that he wants to do. Now is my chance to show a little leadership. I knock on his door. "John, the caca is flying, people know something is happening. We will need to cut headcount. By the way, have you ever laid anyone off before?" I ask.

"Uh, no," he replied, looking a bit shellshocked. "But I can handle it, don't worry," he fires back in his best sales voice.

"John, you're a smart guy, but listen to me on this. I have been on both ends of layoffs. Do them quickly!. Get your managers together tomorrow. Draw up a list of people you cannot afford to lose. Tell them you need them to stay, and double or triple their stock options. Next, figure out who else you want to keep and have their managers talk to them; tell them they have jobs. Next, draw up the layoff list. Do it by Friday. Have HR work over the weekend to get the packages together. Monday afternoon, have the managers lay off the people; you do the Vice Presidents and Directors. Do it right after lunch and send everyone home. Tuesday morning have an all-hands meeting to talk about what you are going to do to turn the company around. Don't dwell on the layoffs. Take responsibility for the problems, then quickly tell everyone what the company is going to do to turn itself around. Throw everyone a bone, like two extra vacation days or a hundred shares of stock. Everyone, including the facilities guys. The most important thing is to move quick and nail down your best engineers and top salesguys. If they split, you can't turn the place around. The headhunters are circling this place now. My best coder got three calls yesterday!"

He stares at me for a second. "Sage advice, Joe. You know, the biggest problem with being the president is that you have no friends. People aren't predisposed to be honest with you, even your board members. You are the first honest person I've talked to today!"

"Thanks John," I stop for a second. "You have the hardest job in the company. And remember, everyone here wants you to succeed."

I took a deep breath. "In the spirit of honesty, you are going to have to take out me and my entire team; we both know my project is doomed. I'll have my guys get their resumes together soon. Give them a decent layoff package, as they work hard. A reference letter from the VP of Engineering would be nice."

"You got it," John says in a far away voice. "Thanks, Joe. By the way, what will you do?" "Hey, I have my writing gig, and I need to get that '57 Chevy in my garage back together. Ever rebuild a small block Chevy engine? Great therapy. Anyway, I can always scrape up a couple of days a week of contract programming." I'm really not worried. The job market is hot and I'll find something within a month if I want to.

Such is life in The Valley.

Joe S. Valley is a scarred veteran of the Silicon Valley wars. It was either writing this column or heading back into therapy. His company can't afford mental health care coverage anymore, so writing is the only option. There are a million stories in the Valley and Joe knows lots of them. Got a good story? E-mail him at [email protected]


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