I don’t talk about work very often, and usually in vague terms. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned my current employer by name here, and I very rarely mention a former employer by name, mostly because they sometimes made decisions I disagree with. I figure if I’m going to trash them, it’s better if I do it without mentioning them by name.
But something happened Friday. I was going to just ignore it, but I’m not going to accomplish anything by doing that. I might as well confront it.

Our executives rarely spend any time in the building where my office resides. They were there all the time this week.

On Friday, my boss popped in unexpectedly, wearing shorts and a t-shirt. It was his day off. He never comes in on his day off. Then our director popped up unexpectedly and called a meeting. Someone made a joke about cutbacks.

I remember a year or two ago, when I had a different job, being called into an unexpected meeting by a director. And my boss was acting funny. He didn’t know what was going on, but he clearly knew more than I did and he clearly didn’t know what to expect. It was then that I found out about cutbacks and layoffs, most notably the layoff of my boss’ boss. I escaped that round. I wasn’t the most recent hire and my salary was relatively low.

And I remember almost eight years ago, when I was working at a major consumer electronics chain, getting a frantic phone call from one of the store managers on Jan. 2. He said he needed to talk to me and asked me to come in. So I came in, and a lot of my coworkers were there. Some were crying. The manager called me into a room, closed the door, and informed me I was being layed off. In that case, I was an easy target. I was a recent hire, I was part-time, and I was making $6 an hour. It was easy to find someone a little younger than me who was willing to work for $5.50 or $5.75 and hour. The manager didn’t know or care about the intangibles I brought to the table, even though those intangibles often saved our customers and our company a lot of heartache. You couldn’t place a value on that. But you can’t count on middle management to understand those kinds of things.

Yesterday’s meeting was a lot like that. Our company is making cutbacks, and IT was the first thing getting cut. Four people were going. Two of them were people I’d worked closely with. One of them I’d even mentored. I’d worked a little bit with a third person, and not so much with the fourth.

I didn’t say anything. There was a time, when I was upset, when I would be the first person to speak up, but now I’m on the opposite extreme, so much so that people who know me well tend to assume that when I’m quiet, I’m upset. That’s not always the case, but it was yesterday.

I’ve seen a lot of reckless spending the past few months, mostly reckless spending replacing computers that didn’t need to be replaced. Yes, in some cases the machines were old, but they were still functional and capable of doing the jobs they were asked to do. I’m sorry, but in spite of what the Intel lackeys on the web say, you don’t need a 2 GHz Pentium 4 to read e-mail and code web pages. A Pentium II isn’t sexy anymore, I know, but unless the machine’s crashing all the time, it’s fine for running Word and Outlook and whatever you use to code pretty HTML and for remote server administration. And more often than not, if it’s not adequate, all it takes is an $80 hard drive and $25 worth of memory and half an hour to install it to make it adequate. But a $105 upgrade doesn’t do much to serve inflated egos.

I know of about $20,000 worth of unnecessary purchases in the past couple of months. That wouldn’t have been enough to save any of those jobs. But those are only the purchases I know about. I also know of some unnecessary purchases in the queue. I don’t know the cost associated with those.

Some of those purchases occurred in last year’s fiscal budget, so they don’t affect this year. That’s wrong. Accountants need to get their heads out of the clouds and deal with the harsh realities of doing business in a down economy. If a department is able to slash its expenses and operate on half its regular budget, it should be rewarded, not punished. The standard practice is for a department to lose whatever surplus it has at the end of the year, and chances are if there is a surplus, its budget for the next year will be cut as well. That’s punishing achievement.

And what do we accomplish with that practice? A frenzy of spending at the end of the year on purchases that aren’t necessary and that often result in needless expense at the start of the next fiscal year as these questionable purchases are deployed. And, of course, the purchases more often than not benefit the people at or near the top.

It’s hard to make an argument that this past July’s stupidity cost anyone a job. But what if we could be rid of the accumulation of several years’ stupidity? If this company had been spending its money wisely over the past five years, would those four people still have their jobs? I think they might.

After the meeting, I was very critical of my employer’s stealth-marketing tactics. Yes, Apple has been very successful using secrecy as a marketing tool. But that only works because in the beginning, Apple was very open about everything. Secrecy only worked after they gained a following. And Apple has been very good at giving its customers what they think they want. If that meant withholding what they needed in order to save money, they’ve done it. It’s cost them market share, I’m sure. But they’re still in business and have a big cash surplus. It’s hard to argue with that success.

Two companies I admire, Digital Equipment Corp. and Commodore International, took a different approach, and one similar to my current employer. They did the right thing more often than not, giving customers what they needed, even if it wasn’t sexy. But while they had the best engineers, they had flunkies in their marketing departments. The companies were innovative and pioneering, but their inability to articulate their advantages and make them compelling destroyed them. Neither company is around today. They both have a place in history and a cult following, but history is quickly forgotten. Given a choice between a place in history with a cult following and a job, I’d rather have a job.

“Say that kind of stuff loud enough and you’ll find yourself in charge of marketing,” one of my coworkers warned me. You know what? If a shift into marketing meant I’d never touch a Linux server again in my life, but I’d save the jobs of the rest of my coworkers, I’d make that trade in a heartbeat. I’m not an advertising and marketing genius. My book sales when I was actively self-promoting my book compared to my sales after I stopped suggest I’m merely competent. But guess what? Competent is a huge improvement over the stealth marketing we have right now.

I don’t know how many of my now-former coworkers read this page. I suspect two of them do. And to them I offer my deepest condolences. They have my e-mail address and phone number. And I hope they use them–most importantly, in that spot on a resume marked “references.”

I’ll be happy to give them a glowing reference. And I won’t hesitate to use company time to do it either.

For all I know, in six months or a year I may need to ask them to return the favor.