“It’s a recession is when your neighbor losses his job…”

But it’s a depression when you lose yours.

If you have any interest in economics, you’ll recognize that joke.  It’s a great joke, until it happens to you.  Yep, it’s a depression here at The Freehold.  This post is part venting, part lesson.  I hope you’ll find it worth reading.  

I don’t often talk about my work, but I was (that’s hard to type) at the top of the food chain in information technology at a small, rural private university.  As with most small, rural, private universities, we’ve been struggling for years with declining enrollments and a declining endowment and trying to find our way out of that hole.  Something over a year ago, we got a shiny new president and since then, there have been a lot of changes.  Almost all the C-level staff has been replaced.  Old programs that were once successful and could be again are being revitalized and new programs are on the boards.  Things are changing and changing fast.

Also for many years, IT has been drastically underfunded and understaffed.  Compared to nearby institutions, we have as little as 25% of their headcount and have been expected to handle 3 campuses in 3 cities compared to their single campuses with the same number of students.  We’re behind the curve in most areas of technology and frankly, it shows.  What funding we’ve had has went into presentation and video conferencing technology for our classrooms and the back-end systems that keep the lights on.  Only in the last 2 years have we been able to begin updating user devices, some of which were nearly a decade old.

Happily, we were told we that this year would be getting more resources in order to meet the new needs.  We could expect old unfilled positions to be filled and new positions to be created.  IT was going to be ramped up to meet the new needs.

I was looking forward to being a part of that, but that’s not going to happen.  Late Friday afternoon, the CFO trots into my office and tells me the university has hired a Chief Information Officer (something they’ve needed for years and a position I’m unsuited for).  In the next breath, he tells me they’ve also decided to outsource IT, and how this dovetails with everything I’ve been telling them about how this and that system needs upgrading, how we need more staff and so on.  Then I’m told there will be a position for me with the outsourcing group.

That’s a lot for me to process that quickly, but if you work in IT as long as I have, you either learn to think fast or find a different career.  My first though when he said there would be a CIO was “Please God, don’t let them be a dick.”  When I found out who it was, I inwardly groaned, because, yep, I know him and he’s a dick.  Then when I processed the outsourcing bits, I was able to fall back to something, and that’s why I’m telling you all this–I want to talk to you about the value of have pre-planned scenarios in place that you can fall back on when everything goes to shit in 60 seconds.

Yes, that’s how long it took him to blurt all that out–60 seconds.  I won’t go into my thoughts on how he handled it, but in 60 seconds, my life turned 180o.  However, I was able to process this on my feet, not freak out and not only have answers for his questions but was also able to needle him a bit because I had already gamed out something similar to this some time ago.

Scenario-based planning, which goes by other names, such as scenario planning is a method of training that when used at a personal level, when something happens, you in effect have seen it before and you already know how to react to it.  I first heard about it in the military, but I had my first serious exposure to it in college as a business major.  Large corporations tend to be big on scenario planning.  It’s long been used by athletes, who have used it in training to see themselves performing actions in their sport in the most perfect way possible.  It’s being widely adopted by self-defense trainers, and with good reason.  The human brain can deal with the familiar much faster than it can the unique.

I’ve been using scenario planning in my personal life since before I graduated college.  I find that having scenarios already gamed out frequently puts me ahead of the crowd in many if not most situations.  It frequently helps me out and on a few occasions has really saved my bacon.

It’s not a difficult process, although the scenarios can be complex.  A simple scenario would be going into a restaurant.  You’re seated and you go through the following exercise in your head–Where are the exits?  Where is cover?  Can I see all the exits?  Does anyone in here now look or act squirrelly?  If the threat comes through the front door, what is my move?  It probably sounds like a lot, but once you’re used to doing it, it doesn’t take much time.  It becomes almost automatic, like breathing.

Also bear in mind, I’m not an expert on this and I’m offering an overly simplistic explanation of how this works.  If you’ve seen something before, or if you’ve done something before, you have, in effect, some pathways in place in your head that help make things go faster and smoother.  The beauty of it is that you don’t have to physically have had the event take place in reality.  Having played it inside your head will work nearly as well as having done it in real life.  While you can practice, for example, making that perfect tee shot 280 yards down the middle of the fairway, you don’t want to practice losing you job on short notice in real life, since it’s pretty hard on your family.

I had worked up this particular scenario for the reasons I outlined earlier.  My employer was not having an easy time of things, and their long term survival was far from assured.  Certain recent funding issues had caused me to revisit this subject and renew this planning with a certain urgency.  So when we got to the “and there will be a place for you with the outsourcing group”, I already had my answer ready.

“No, I don’t think I’d like to do that.”

Talk about a damper on conversation.  Apparently the CFO had not planned for this particular scenario.  This was foolish of him, since he is well aware that I’m already pulling a retirement check from my years of government service.  Time for the needling.  Why not–at this point I’m out of work soon anyway.

“But, but, but what are you going to do?” was the response after several seconds of confused silence.

“I’ve got at least a couple of years worth of work backlogged around my house that I haven’t had time to get to because of my schedule here.  Now I’ll have time to get that caught up.”

At least now he’s back on a script of sorts.  “No, I mean for work.”

“I’ll have all the work I need to keep me busy,”  I said, keeping right on needling.

“No, paying work–what will you do for paying work?”

“I can do with out it.  Did you forget I’m drawing a retirement check already?”

The look on his face said it all.  He had forgotten that little fact, and apparently he and everyone else involved expected that I would stay on because I needed the money.  I know why they need me to stay on–I’m the last technical person on staff.  I know how it all works.  While a lot is documented now (compared to nothing was documented when I came in), there is still a lot that isn’t documented.


The conversation tottered about a bit more, with the CFO attempting to persuade me what a great thing this was and me rocked back in my chair with my arms crossed.  I considered putting my feet up on my desk, but I figured that was a bit much.  I did manage to persuade him to not tell the rest of the staff on the day before a 3 day weekend.  (What is is with organizations and this sort of thing?  You can do it on a Monday?)  Could I go talk to the new CIO?  He was here and wanted to talk with me.  I told him sure, but that I was in the middle of something and I wanted to wrap that up first.

I was an asshole and took 20 minutes to finish 5 minutes work.  But I did eventually go up and talk with the new CIO, who apparently had been briefed that I was not going to be hanging about to have my brain picked clean..  He was, to his credit, much more straightforward in asking me to stay through the transition period, and I straightforwardly told him that wouldn’t be happening.  After that, he didn’t seem to be all that interested in talking to me.  Surprise.

So I left, went back to my office and by the time I gathered up a few things it was 5.  Even though I usually don’t leave at 5, Friday I did.  I needed to talk to Mrs. Freeholder.

We did talk.  I went over what had transpired and we both explored our thoughts and opinions on the situation.  We talked over our financial situation, which is good.  We have long lived beneath our means, and we are nearly debt free.  We have been saving money at a significant rate.  There is enough money coming into the place to live on and probably still save some amount.  There are things that my salary paid for that we can cut out.  They were nice things, fun things, but things we don’t have to have or do.  We won’t be saving as much as we used to.  The budget will be stricter and more important. Predictability in expenses will again become important.

I will look for another gig, but there are unavoidable facts that must be faced.  I’m in my mid-50s in a business that values youth over experience.  We live in an area that isn’t exactly overrun with opportunities for work at the level I was at.  It will be difficult for me to step back a level or two, because hiring managers will automatically expect that either I’m taking the job until I can find something better or I’m going to constantly be questioning how they’re doing their job.  I can’t blame them, I would think exactly the same things in their position.

Mrs. Freeholder does not wish to relocate.  This places a strict limit on the universe of available employers I can consider.  I can’t go back to work for a large segment of our state government without giving up my pension checks, and I’m not willing to do that.

All that said, we were able to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion in time to go out for dinner.  I emailed the CFO and the head of HR my two weeks notice Saturday morning.

In my line of work things change, and they change fast.  If I can’t find employment within 6 months, 12 at the outside, I will probably be unemployable in IT.  My career, over 27 years of work, will be over.  All the scenarios in the world don’t make that bitter pill taste better, because I really would like to continue working.  Outside of the money, I actually like what I do.

There is the possibility of changing careers, but I think that unlikely given the economy.  I’ll explore it, but I doubt it pans out.  At best, I expect I may find something that pays some fraction of my former job, enough to take the pressure off of the household budget and that is at least a tolerable place to spend some hours.

I knew when the new president arrived and I was cut out of the cool kids club that this probably wasn’t a good thing, but after some months and no ax falling, I though perhaps I had misread the situation.  Obviously I was wrong.  However, the fact that I had made plans for this event, even though the plans were made assuming a different trigger, are what is going to make the difference between this situation being a big disappointment and it being a catastrophe.

I can live with disappointment.  Catastrophe, probably not so much.

Got plans?

One thought on ““It’s a recession is when your neighbor losses his job…”

  1. Freeholder–

    This was a rough hit. I'm thankful you were prepared for it.

    You don't say what your skills are–and I'm not asking–but have you considered working remotely full-time? It's difficult to do hardware jobs or management jobs remotely, but if your skills are mostly performed in front of the computer, well, that's easy enough to do from your basement or home office.

    And there are advantages to living in flyover country but having someone in a gleaming city control your salary. You wouldn't believe what people in San Francisco or Silicon Valley will pay without even batting an eye.

    It sounds like you're pretty senior, so taking some consulting on the road might work for you also. Combining remote work with traveling consulting can be a powerful 21st century combo for making decent pay while not spending your whole life on airplanes.

    Just some suggestions for you. All the best.

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