fortune cookie reading "I learn by going where I have to go"

So I lost that job I was sort of excited about. And when I say lost I mean I was summarily fired last Friday afternoon with a vague collection of reasons after working there eleven days. I’m not even mad so much as “Wow, I guess that was a terrible fit, huh?” I own my part in it. Here’s the story anyhow. This is not intended to be a call-out, so I’m leaving some things vague.

This company, or rather, one person at this company who I had worked with elsewhere, had been asking if I was interested in work since last January. I had a Skype interview that I thought went well, where they said “We’ll call you” and then didn’t. Contacted me again later in the year and we slowly started putting together a gig for me there. I have a lot of requirements, but I also work my ass off. I think I’m a good employee but it depends what you’re looking for. Eventually we settled on ten hours a week contracting (temporary but maybe an option to extend) at a rate of pay that made it worth it. I’d be doing spam fighting. Not glamorous, but necessary, and really interesting in a puzzle sort of way. This company uses an agency to do all the hiring for their part-timers, so I’d technically be an employee of the agency, but this was seen as a mere hurdle. I started the process in June.

Onboarding was a serious pain in the ass. You can read the set of tweets about it here. Being publicly grousey about this may have been part of the issue, but who knows? My future manager saw my tweets. Heck, he listened to the MetaFilter podcast where I talked about the job. I presumed he knew what he was getting into. I had to e-sign fifteen different documents, read dozens of curiously formatted URGENT emails, get logins to four different portals and a new Outlook email address, and drive to a service center to show someone my passport, all before I got any credentials at the job. There’s a longer discussion about how the tech industry treats contractors generally, I just figured this was a temporary hassle, a one-time gauntlet. My soon-to-be manager was with me sympathizing every step of the way. I had a STAFF badge on my profile page.

All the documents requiring signatures could be signed by checking a box, or you could draw something in a signature box. There was no room for discussing the terms of the contracts, one of which was a loyalty oath. I won’t lie, I had fun with this. Signing my NDA “ABOLISH ICE” was probably something I’d do again, but it was also something that got called out as “unprofessional” and I can’t argue with that. That said, the agency approved all my signatures and everything else and cleared me to work on the 5th of July. I thanked them and told them about the typos I’d found in their documents.

My job start was delayed due to the difficulty of getting my work laptop to me as I was traveling for the holidays, rural package delivery is always a challenge. I wasn’t expecting to be given a work laptop, so I got to add “learn Chrome OS” to my todo list which wasn’t that difficult but did take some time. The regular workers at the company mostly use Macs. On July 11th I got all my credentials, set up various two-factor authentications, and did a little training. I worked every day from then until the 20th, sometimes just a little, sometimes a few hours. The work was fun, the people were nice. I really liked being on a team. I really enjoyed having a boss who was good at being a manager and seemed to like the work I was doing.

Friday the 20th I got a phone call from my manager at 5 pm saying the agency could not extend an employment contract to me. He had received an email from one of his superiors and was asking me if I could think of why that might be. I could think of a few possibilities but was pretty confused. Then I got a call from the agency saying my “assignment was wrapping up” which I knew wasn’t true. I asked for some clarification and the woman from the agency–I rag on the process a little, but the people who worked there were pleasant and professional across the board–made a few phone calls and said there were two issues:

  • my NDA signature was unprofessional (truth)
  • I had used a computer other than my work laptop to do work (my manager had said this was ok and apparently it was not)

My manager had no idea, this had happened without his input. A spam fighting job is technically a security job, my title was Platform Health Security Analyst. Security jobs are more SRS BSNS than other jobs. I am not SRS BSNS, but I am pretty good at following rules. By the time I got back to my computer, all my credentials were revoked, my STAFF badge was gone. My manager said he’d check in with the big boss on Monday but he was pretty sure this was a done deal. I was told I could keep the laptop which had a list price of around two weeks of work. I talked it out with my sister. “Dude, I work for state government and we fire people all the time, this seems like a weird firing.” That said, it was a done deal and so I’ve sort of made my peace with it. I’m even a little hesitant to write about it because of my concern that someone will tell me that the real reason I was fired was because I am awful, or an idiot, or something. I can’t help feeling that there is more to the story, it’s tough to settle with the idea that I’ll probably never know.

My sister and I had Chinese food that Friday and I waited to open my fortune cookie until I’d gotten the final word on Monday that I wouldn’t be coming back. I got the final word. My fortune said “I learn by going where I have to go.” I don’t know if all Chinese food eaters are readers of Roethke, but I was, and I knew this poem. I’d written a report on it in high school. And I could make all sorts of hand-wavey interpretations of it within this context, but it felt good to see something familiar.

I’ve got no wrap-up here except that writing this down is my symbolic “OK now that’s over with.” I wasn’t even there long enough to put it on a resumé. I have some vague concerns that maybe I am secretly unemployable, but they’re pretty low key. My dad had a Bob Dylan song he liked to sing a lot, more than anything parts of it are running through my head, and not always the same part.

P.S. I’m giving the laptop to my Drop-In Time intern. His parents said it’s ok.

What do you think?



  1. Github missed out on an effective and competent employee, and traded it for a monolithic, reactive, irresponsible internal system that values checking boxes over assembling an effective team.

    They lost out. Anyone who knows you and your worth ethic knows you are a 1 in 100 catch, and that’s a liberal understatement.

  2. I’m with forrest: “They lost out. Anyone who knows you and your worth ethic knows you are a 1 in 100 catch, and that’s a liberal understatement.” You are one of the smartest people I know, and this whole process sounds like a ridiculous headache. Yuck. Sorry this happened.

  3. Now that I have read your story, my favorite cookie fortune seems faintly relevant. “Young men think old men are fools. Old men know young men are fools.”

  4. One of my favorite Dylan songs. Sorry that experience sucked.

  5. Agree 100% with Forrest and Sophie. It’s their loss 100%. You’re not just a hard worker — you have a way of seeing things that don’t work and how to make them better that is rare and so valuable in any org (except ones that don’t want to change). Working in a situation that opaque would likely have been a nightmare in myriad other ways if all this is any indication. I’m sorry it turned out this way.

  6. I was able to guess which Dylan song it was without checking the link.

    You know you’re awesome so no reason me mentioning it.

    Probably for the best. They don’t seem to ha e their shit together.

  7. I don’t know you well enough to say this was unfair, but I do really admire that you shared this publicly and hope it ends up helping others who find themselves in a similar situation. If something like this can happen to you, who seems very intelligent, competent, and strong, it can happen to anyone. And not that what happened is right, but your sharing will hopefully provide some reassurance, or at least camaraderie, to people who have just experienced something similarly profoundly jarring.

  8. In addition to the praise of your smarts and your character, and the ‘go with the flow’ lesson in The Waking, I have to add something you might not like. I have mixed feelings about the manager who recruited you. Part of me says that he has a wishbone instead of a backbone and let you get terminated without due process. The other part of me says he misrepresented this company. At any rate, the manager did you no favors and his days there are probably numbered.

  9. I agree, of course, with Forrest (as in most things), and also with RH except for his final opinion. I suspect that manager will get along just fine in that company.

    You are very much better off, but I’m sorry this lead you to doubt yourself in any way.


    P.S. Come home!!!! We miss you!!!

  10. I laughed so hard at “I thanked them and told them about the typos I’d found in their documents.” that my dog barked in alarm. I’m a retired newspaper reporter and I take fiendish glee in taking short-term part-time gigs to see what the kids are doing. And you know what? For the most part techies are faking it, prostrating themselves before the altar of process. Nobody wants to hear from anybody with solutions. We need librarians in libraries. Please find your next spot, hopefully in some sort of library. Good luck! P.S. Is anything more stupid than virtual signatures?

  11. Should I actually ever actually apply for a job, I value your offer to write a ref letter even more than before — or is that possible?

  12. This is giving me fond memories of my Mom signing my elementary school permission slips with the name Daisy Duck. She told me “No, I’m not signing away my right to sue the school if you get injured and it’s their fault!” As for the industry at large… consent has a long way to go as long as these unilateral forms and user agreements are around. Sorry you just kick too much ass. You’re overcoolified, for sure.

  13. I also laughed at the “I thanked them and told them about the typos” line! Love the Dylan song. And the fortune-poem. Goodbye to all that – glad it didn’t take away any more hours of your summer.

  14. Their loss, of course. Thank you for the transparency: that message of “been there, survived that, you will too” is tremendously healing.

  15. I love that you signed your NDA “ABOLISH ICE”! HR box checkers have no sense of humor.

  16. I wish you had titled this essay “Winning,” as you clearly got the better deal in the end. Never doubt your awesomeness, Jess.

  17. Insanely large sums of money enter legal coffers and litigants hands based on improperly executed NDAs or, more often, missing NDAs. Any company seeking funding or acquisition has to stipulate that all employees are under properly executed NDAs and if this turns out to be false tens or hundreds of millions of dollars could be at stake, even if it’s just the mail room guy who didn’t sign his. I’m not a lawyer, I’m not an HR guy, I am, actually, an irreverent Tech Pro who has caused more than his share of problems by saying what I thought was funny, or worse yet, accurate and true. I was let go from a Director of Applications job at a Tech Startup when the new CEO started cleaning house, with a very generous severance package. I brought it to their attention that I had never signed an NDA. They paid me $40K more to sign one.

  18. Just to put a button on it, if you work for any company where IP is a significant part of the company’s value…NDA is the front door and a “Release of Claims” is the back door. Lawyers get paid big bucks to fashion both even though it pretty much looks like, and is, boilerplate. I left a company where I thought I could probably do better with the severance package so I saw a lawyer. I met with him once for 30 minutes, was later billed $600, and it was the best bargain ever. The lawyer let me make my case to him. He only had one question for me, “What law firm?” represented my recent employer. He explained it like this. He said, “If I do anything for you they have to instantly call their lawyers and now it’s all about who can get who out of this with the least money paid to the lawyers. Here’s what you do. Call up the CEO and try to arrange a meeting with just you, the CEO, and the CFO. They’ll do that. State your case just like you just did with me, they’ll probably pay you.” I did that and I made another $10K on my severance package. It took me 30 minutes with the lawyer and 10 minutes with the CEO and CFO. That lawyer gave me one more pearl of advice. To get the additional $10K I not only had to sign a release of claims, but I had to re-sign a more stringent NDA. I made a phone call to the lawyer. He said, “Sign the less stringent NDA that they originally presented to you, they probably won’t notice.” That’s what I did and, sure enough, they didn’t notice. I was never so happy to pay a lawyer $600 for half an hour’s work.

  19. OK, one more thing. The reason giant companies have other companies like the “the agency” in between them and their new workers is insulation and plausible deniability. Let’s say you are a gigantic, publicly traded, construction company. After you win a contract you don’t ever apply for permits or sign union agreements. You hire a company to do that for you. That company pays all of the bribes, pulls all of the permits, does all of the union negotiations, and you just pay that company a massive consulting fee. Plausible deniability.