Sometimes the End Isn’t the End

At lunch yesterday, a colleague and I were joking about what we had done during pandemic lockdown. What we had binge-watched. Courses we had taken. I mentioned Futures Thinking and Behavioral Science. He laughed and said, “And JQL.”

I laughed, too, but for a different reason. JQL had been new to me a few years ago but it had been like learning French after you’ve learned Italian. You see, I confessed to him, I used to build databases and, once I thought about JIRA as a database, my whole approach to it shifted.

Then I told him half the story about how I became someone who built databases.

Half the Story

At one point in my career, my boss had hired a mystery-shopping firm to audit our locations nationwide. This was early enough in my career that mystery-shopping was still a low-tech business. The mystery-shopping firm emailed their employees an audit form and sent them to a location. The mystery shopper pretended to be a customer, took notes on the form about their experience, made a small purchase, stapled the receipt to the form, and mailed it back to the service. The service then shipped us a stack of forms each week. We had 1000+ stores and they were shopping each store 4x/year.

My role was to sort the forms by district and mail each district their forms. Except, being a curious person, I couldn’t just do the job – I wondered what I could learn by looking at the forms. And I discovered…. That the mystery shopping firm was auditing the wrong locations 1/5 times – 20% of the receipts attached to the audits were from our competition. I also learned that many of the audits were months old.

When you’re trying to change behavior, data that old is useless in moving the needle when it comes to customer service.

Also, each form stood alone – it was a single data point. Which didn’t allow us to aggregate the data points to identify patterns – times of day when service was better or worse, geographical patterns, patterns over time. So, I began photocopying the forms before I sent them off and data entering the forms into Excel. (I had an earlier job doing data entry so a stack of 50 forms took me maybe 15 minutes.)

But Excel wasn’t allowing me to do the kind of analysis I wanted to do. So, I taught myself a desktop database program and then switched to MS Access. (The real database managers, if any are reading this, are probably snickering to themselves – MS Access is like a horse and carriage compared to the rocket ships they build. But it got the job done.) That allowed me to turn the audits around much faster and slice and dice the data so that the managers – and my boss – could see patterns and stories in the data and take action.

Then I told the mystery-shopping firm that they should be doing the data entry and sending me a scans of the forms. When they balked, I did an RFP, selected a firm that could do all that and more, and we switched vendors.

Eventually they carved out a job for me building databases. Then they assigned me an employee to help. Then another. And another. (The employees I hired had much more skill building databases than I did and could do it faster and prettier.) We started connecting our database to the real databases at the organization, which gave us a lot more data, and we could tell more powerful stories with the data. Yes, it wasn’t a real database; we didn’t sit in the IT Department, and our coding was pretty light – but we made the data accessible in a way that the IT Department didn’t have time to, or couldn’t be bothered to do. We made it actionable.

Eventually database capabilities became strong enough that a single person could do all the database work and we repurposed the other people as business analysts and project managers.

The Rest of the Story

Here’s the part I didn’t tell my colleague at lunch: the reason I was sorting all those forms in the first place.

You see, at that point in my career, sorting forms was way below my pay grade. My boss’s secretary should have been sorting the forms. But she was out sick or on vacation or something. And I had time and offered to help.

Why did I have time?

My job had been eliminated.

Let me back up a little. Two years before this happened, I was given a really big assignment that I was over-the-moon excited about. We were replacing the stand-alone DOS desktop computers – that still communicated via modem – in 900 locations with new, windows, networked computers that communicated through high-speed phone lines.

This assignment included a) leading the cross-functional project management of getting the computers to the stores and installed on new furniture; b) training the store managers – many of whom couldn’t afford a home computer and had never used a mouse – to use the new proprietary software to manage their business; and c) getting their staffs ready to do the same. This would be like going from the old car-phone in Sixteen Candles straight to the latest iPhone.

So, for those two years, my life looked like this: for three weeks of each month, I led a 4-day workshop for store managers on using the new system and getting their staff ready to use the system.

On Fridays, I went back to the office and spent all day on conference calls with the Telecom, HelpDesk, Supply Chain, and Construction departments, managing that week’s installations, adjusting the schedule because the phone company didn’t show up, and reporting out to management on progress. Oh, and managing my team of 8 who were still doing the work I had been managing before I accepted this two-year assignment.

One week of the month, I traveled to two of the seven regional training centers I had had built (two different ones each month), to check in with the training managers that I had trained, observe them in action, and provide feedback.

I loved it.

My feet hurt, some weeks I forgot what city I was in, and I was close to burnout when it ended, but I loved it.

I could see the lightbulbs going on above people’s heads – not just with how to use the computers and the software, but in how to engage their employees differently with change. And we had a burning platform for this rollout – we had to get it done by a certain date and I was making that happen.

About two months before the project ended, the company was reorganized and my older, declining division was absorbed by the newer, growing division. When they told me, I had two questions: 1) Do I still have a job? 2) Can I finish doing this project? Yes and Yes. And I had a new boss.

I sat down the boss and looked at the “job description” they had drafted for me. It was a bit of a laundry list but it included things that I was good at and I could see the potential. I explained my schedule to the new boss and he said the new job description would wait until I had finished the project.

Two months later – after a much-needed vacation – I came back fresh and excited. I scheduled an appointment with him to dive in on my new responsibilities. We put the job description down on the desk between us and started going through it point by point.

First bullet, he said, then crossed it out. Oh, I needed to move forward on that while you were out so I gave it to someone else.


Second bullet: one of my colleagues had gone to him while I was out and made the case that the second bullet and the third bullet really belonged in her area. Cross those out.

Fourth bullet: he had given that to someone else.

When we had finished five minutes later, he had crossed out every point on the list. I didn’t have a job.

Am I fired? I asked.

No, they would figure it out eventually. Just hang tight.

I went back to my – now empty – office. I had a phone, a desk, and a computer. I didn’t have any responsibilities. My team had been reassigned. My colleagues – formerly my friends – glanced in my open door as they walked past with pitying looks but didn’t talk to me – it might be contagious. I felt like dead girl walking.

Okay. What could I do? I grabbed the other division’s policy manuals and read them. (Boring.) I called store and district managers who I worked for my division and transferred to the other division and interviewed them about the differences and made a list of things I needed to learn. I cleaned up a few loose ends on my project. I followed up with my boss about my job description – nothing for weeks on end. I locked myself in a bathroom stall and wept. I went for long walks and cried.

I had gone from managing a huge project to managing nothing. I had gone from being around people all day to being by myself. I had gone from having a purpose to having no purpose.

When I don’t have enough to do, I self-destruct. And I had run out of things to do.

I met with my boss again. Still hadn’t had time to think about how to put my skills to use. I noticed the stack of audits on the corner of his desk. What was up with those? Could I help with that?

And that’s how I started building databases. Which eventually led to managing projects and managing change and leading national operations for what was at the time – and is again now – one of the best retailers out there. It was a job I loved until I didn’t love it anymore and left.

And found myself with too much time on my hands again. And had to find a way to be helpful again. And again.

If you are feeling discouraged about where you, about what’s going on around you, about being let go or shoved into a job that is not a good fit: find something you can do to be useful and take it from there.

As much as it may feel like The End, the end is not always the end.

Sometimes it’s the beginning.

You won’t know until later in the story.

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