By Namit Arora
(An excerpt from my currently unpublished first novel)
On Sunday afternoon, Ved flies from San Francisco to Palm Springs to attend Omnicon’s annual sales conference. A thousand coworkers from fifty countries, including many from Ved’s office and headquarters in Silicon Valley, will attend the three-day event. An event coordinator, a bright and chirpy woman, greets him at the airport. A minibus takes him to a sprawling resort hotel at the edge of the city in the California desert. It has its own golf course, horse ranch, hot air balloons, an artificial lake with boats, and several gigantic auditoriums.
Ved, 36, is one of sixty thousand employees of Omnicon in 130 countries. Over half of the world’s Internet traffic goes through Omnicon’s equipment. Ved is here to represent a line of network security products for which he is a marketing manager. He is paid to think about market dynamics, competition, and positioning for these products. He crafts easy-to-digest messages, and describes features and benefits for less technical audiences. In a nutshell, he helps Omnicon salespeople sell. In doing so, he must sell himself too: his ideas, personality, skills.
By customary yardsticks, Ved has honored the spirit of his employment contract during his three years at Omnicon. He is trustworthy and reliable, and his seniors find his work adequate and effective. Last year, a promotion raised him to employee grade nine on Omnicon’s corporate ladder (now he is only eight rungs below the CEO). Yet he reminds himself frequently: Resist complacency. To not rise in Silicon Valley is to fall. You are merely a cog in the wheel, easily dispensable. Indeed, you can be replaced without much of a ripple.
The conference opens at 7:30 AM the next morning with a video recording of a high-energy rock band on four large screens. The lead guitarist screams, ‘Omnicon is blazing ahead, blazing ahead with all the winning elements!’ The intent is to get the adrenalin pumping early in the morning. The band’s screechy cacophony annoys Ved, but he is amused by the sight of his Japanese colleagues in dark suits clapping earnestly.
On the walls of their auditorium are multicultural posters of pretty people in business attire: shaking hands, gazing at computer screens with animated smiles, or peering lovingly at Omnicon’s box-like equipment. So much joy their products bring into this world! A gleaming red Ferrari stands outside the auditorium, to be awarded soon to the 2002 Salesman of the Year.
Omnicon’s CEO, Greg Dyer, opens the proceedings by pointing out the importance of ‘the passion within’ that keeps his ‘intense focus on the customer.’ He claims to wake up to this thought every morning: ‘What can I do for my customers today?’ His body language and deep voice project authority and confidence. ‘We are not just a computer networking company. We are building human communities and touching people’s lives’. Following a loud drum roll and flashing strobe lights, he unveils Omnicon’s new corporate tagline: Your potential, our passion. It’ll replace the current tagline: Business is the game, play to win. Greg’s hour-long presentation is laced with frequent references to excitement, power, speed, and killing the competition.
To usher in a new growth phase, announces Greg, Omnicon is investing in proactive competence renewal, relentless focus on systemic process quality, end-to-end mission-critical service creation, leveraged opportunities in emerging value domains, tapping latent creativities, and last but not least, the shaping of end-user behavior in a converged world.
Greg emphasizes the need for greater teamwork using a quote by ‘that great American hero,’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.’ He wraps up by reiterating Omnicon’s four corporate values: Customer satisfaction, Achievement, Relentless learning, Empowering people (CARE)—all embossed on a bronze replica of a 12th century knight’s shield, and proudly displayed in Omnicon’s main lobby.
During a break in the morning sessions, Greg stands in the hallway surrounded by visiting regional managers. Ved sips tea and watches them from a distance. He notices their deference to rank and power as they compete with each other to ‘maximize facetime’ with the boss. It is good to be the king.
Ved sees Greg as a smarmy man, but he also recognizes that Greg has what one needs in a CEO today: dedication, hunger for success and growth, the cold and focused execution of a Navy SEAL? Greg rapidly grew the last company he led and sold it for thirty billion dollars. Wall Street analysts seem unanimous: They call him a visionary par excellence, among the best of the new breed of rock-star CEOs. Omnicon is lucky to have him at the helm. For this, Omnicon’s board of directors has granted him a private jet and millions of stock options.
Next comes a keynote speech by an ‘independent consultant’, an industry guru and motivational speaker, who unveils his big idea: The true killer app is killing time. He has written a bestselling book about this, which Greg has purchased in bulk and included in all conference attendee bags. The industry guru explains that the leisure created by technology, and other remaining ‘idle time’ in the life of the tech-savvy consumer, is just crying out to be filled with new technology. This is a trillion-dollar race and our ultimate challenge! Whoever is part of enabling this will win. He uses homey anecdotes—alongside random images of happy workers, housewives, and students on his slides—to foster intimacy and trust. He is upbeat about the potential ahead and praises Greg’s aggressive strategy of growth via strategic acquisitions. Ved glances into his attendee bag and notices the speaker’s book. No way he is lugging it back home. During a break, Ved discreetly ‘leaves’ it on his chair and never returns to it.
Greg introduces the next speaker, a skinny man in faded jeans and hoodie, and the lead engineer at Omnicon’s Internet Games Online Division (iGOD). ‘Every great company has a few individuals who boldly go where no one has gone before. These latter-day gladiators don’t seek easy journeys but new adventures and the rewards of leadership. At Omnicon, we celebrate such people. I introduce the next speaker with great pride and humility.’
The skinny man gives a sneak preview onstage of the games due for release—Pocket Empire and Ballistic Adventure. ‘One thing that keeps me motivated,’ he says excitedly, ‘is the opportunity to do something that nobody has done before. I want to be able to look back in ten years and say, “look what I’ve achieved!” That’s the cool thing about working for a company that gives you the chance to pursue your dreams.’ Next to Ved, an older British colleague softly intones, ‘Oh, puhleeze!’ just as the audience bursts into a cheery applause. Ved turns to him and smiles; there is hope yet.
Presentations continue all afternoon. Ved endures a veritable PowerPoint fest as new hardware, software, multimedia gadgets, and gaming consoles are launched. The air reverberates with jargon: synergy, paradigm, bleeding edge, leverage, disruption, value-proposition, mission-critical, solution ecosystem. And, above all, how all this is making the world a better place.
Ved has long settled into a daily rhythm at Omnicon. He manages his tasks well, well enough to rarely work evenings or weekends. Though he often finds himself absorbed in his work, he is the first to admit: He is not dedicated to his career. His heart is not in it. None of his role models ever did such work for a living.
His college education prepared him for this career. He was set on this track in his teens, with its unspoken promise of security and comfort—a good salary, a decent house, a ‘fair and lovely’ wife. But then, how many careers chosen at that age remain interesting for a lifetime?
He stays in this line of work because the money is good, and because he feels no strong calling for another line of work. His annual savings can sustain him for a year without work in San Francisco, though on a scaled-back lifestyle. Besides paying the bills, his job also accords him a kind of dignity and social merit, keeps him plugged into people, structures his days. He knows he has been very lucky in the great lottery of birth. Despite everything, he calls himself mostly happy with his life, or at least not unhappy, which is still something.
Because his job fails to engage his interest, his knowledge and skills have not kept pace with time. To stay abreast of change, one needs active retraining. And opportunities abound with evening classes, weekend workshops, online tutorials. But in recent years, he has invested just enough in career development to survive without losing his pride. A software engineer by training, he began as a coder in Silicon Valley, but unable or unwilling to compete with freshly minted graduates, he has transitioned to his current role in marketing, which better utilizes his ‘soft skills’. He does not delude himself: he neither excels at product innovation, nor is he a natural leader. This falling behind, he suspects, will come to haunt him one day.
On the second evening of the Omnicon conference, a bus conveys everyone on his hotel floor to a Brazilian Churrascaria. Cocktails start flowing, alongside self-congratulatory speeches from senior sales managers, effectively saying, ‘what a great, hard-working bunch we are’. Only seven of the eighty employees in the dining hall are women. None are seated near Ved.
He finds himself seated across from Joe, a sales director from the US western region, a ‘Top 5 percent’ salesman last year. Conversation soon reveals that Joe is fond of Harleys and once traversed the entire US west coast on one. Each year he also hunts elk and moose in the Great Northwest on a friend’s ranch. Last year, Joe and his two friends nearly broke their backs dragging the corpse of an adult moose back to their cabin, a task normally done by Mexican farmhands with pickup trucks. Thankfully, the perfect roast that night had made it all worth it. His speech is laced with common expletives (‘that fuckin' moose’, ‘friggin' awesome roast’).
Next to Ved is Darren, the marketing director for Asia-Pacific, a 30-something Singaporean educated in a US business school. They often collaborate on regional marketing programs. Ved sees Darren as an ideal corporate employee: clever, hardworking, analytical, ladder-driven, invested in knowing more and more about less and less, and devoid of any interests that might distract him from his profession.
Shortly, a dozen servers go around the hall with massive slabs of rare meat on skewers. They stop on request and use a china dish to gather the red-brown fluid that drips as they carve the flesh. Ved, being vegetarian, skips this main course and gets food from a pasta and salad bar.
‘How far are you on the Asia Telecom testimonial you promised me?’ Ved asks Darren.
‘I’m working on it. It’s real close.’
‘I’m not releasing the Shanghai Bank case study until you get me the testimonial.’ There is a friendly threat in Ved’s tone.
‘No worries, I have everything worked out.’ He leans towards Ved, lowers his voice and says, ‘Keep this to yourself. We’re sending the customer and his wife to a conference in Hawaii. For this favor, he has agreed to let us write our own testimonial in his name. In fact, I’ve already drafted it. I’ll show it to you tomorrow.’
‘Bravo. Is this the secret of your rapid climb on the Asia-Pacific management ladder?’
‘I always get the job done,’ Darren says with a straight face. ‘That is the secret.’
Two more drinks later, Joe-the-moose-hunter’s eyes have turned bloodshot. His expletives have multiplied, as have his lustful stares at a young and shapely waitress. Chomping on rare cuts, his chin is slick with grease. His plate is heaped with bones and streaked with red, a sight that nauseates Ved. After the meal, Joe inquires about post-dinner entertainment: how about a gentlemen’s club?
‘I doubt there is one,’ someone opines. ‘Palm Springs is mostly a retirement community, people come here to die.’
‘I bet there still are lots of horny assholes like me.’ There are subdued chuckles. Joe accosts a waiter who, minutes later, reappears with several names scribbled on a piece of paper. For this he receives a $10 tip. Word spreads and before too long a small contingent is settled on their post-dinner entertainment.
‘Are you going to join us Ved?’ Joe pronounces his name wed. He is used to it by now, this clobbering of his name in America.
‘No thanks, Joe. I am tired. I didn’t get enough sleep last night.’ No longer his idea of fun to wade through strip joints, especially with tipsy salesmen away from their wives. It is not even of anthropological interest. On the bus ride back to the hotel, Ved is seated next to Fardad, a field engineer from Los Angeles, who inquires where Ved is from before revealing his own place of origin: Persia. ‘Why not say Iran?’ asks Ved.
‘Yes,’ Fardad pauses, then resumes in a softer voice. ‘I think you’ll understand. I say Persia because Iran has such bad PR in America: Axis of Evil, fatwa-wielding mullahs. Persia sounds neutral, even exotic, with its cats, rugs, and ancient culture. As it turns out,’ he smiles, ‘most Americans don’t know that Persia is also Iran. They think it’s a different country.’
A team-building event is scheduled for the final evening in Palm Springs. Omnicon’s Human Resources team has worked for weeks to make it happen. Participation is mandatory. The corporate memo claimed that such events help break down barriers, foster trust, communication, and teamwork, hone leadership skills, and identify strengths and weaknesses. The end result is improved employee motivation and productivity.
Such events only remind Ved of his place in the corporate machine: a puny gear that needs to be lubed and conditioned periodically. He knows that in this system, their collective output and efficiency matters above all else, but who needs juvenile games to rub this in? He dreads the small talk, the pretense of interest.
He considers calling in sick (diarrhea? vomiting? diarrhea plus vomiting?). But the evening is pleasant outside and the option of room service is not too appealing. Besides, cocktails and dinner would be served right after the event in the nicest part of the resort—the velvety green garden by the man-made lake. How striking its contrast with the barren desert behind! He will surely meet a few like-minded Europeans who find this American team-building stuff ridiculous too, not to mention the human comedy of such events. So he goes.
Omnicon’s contingent is soon divided into tribes of American Indians: Hopi, Navajo, Sioux, and so on. Each is to compete in quintessential ‘Indian activities,’ such as making a campfire, a treasure hunt, pitching a nylon tent, and installing and climbing rope ladders for fun. His tribe is Navajo, and their job is to build three campfires. Meanwhile, alcohol starts flowing from four portable kiosks. It is just before sunset. The desert air is starting to cool.
His ‘Navajos’ get a major boost when they discover a neat pile of ready-to-light prime firewood a couple hundred feet away. Many ‘Navajos’, among them Mexicans, Chinese, and Japanese, display childlike enthusiasm in transferring the logs to brick-lined pits. Good thing no real Navajos are watching this, Ved thinks. Without sharing their elation or competitive zeal, he does his bit for the cause by tending a fire that burns evenly. His ‘Navajos’ finish ahead of other tribes and get applauded by all. As other tribes finish, their members too congregate around the fires with beers, martinis, and margaritas, and start bantering.
People mingle, the din of conversation rises, dinner is served, announcements are made, and awards are given. For post-dinner entertainment, they’ve hired an ex-Olympian archer. He arrives in a cowboy outfit and displays his skill by shooting apples off his wife’s head. Is there anything people won’t do for a living? wonders Ved. By now his colleagues have grown loud with alcohol and they gasp at and lustily applaud the performance. The evening ends with a dazzling display of fireworks befitting Omnicon’s size and financial muscle. The twenty-minute show lights up the night sky.
And indeed what a vast enterprise Omnicon is! Even core government portfolios in most countries—the health ministry of Greece, for instance—lack the budget of an executive vice president at Omnicon. Money is power, and with it, corporations are changing the world, by hook or by crook. In a way, he too is on this leading edge of change.
But what kind of change, he wonders? On one hand, he is part of a system that creates new vocations, conveniences, and leisure through advances in technology, a quest as old as humankind. At a macro level, Silicon Valley is indeed advancing technology, even though it does so mainly for its own sake—by chasing money-making opportunities wherever they lead, rather than trying to solve the pressing problems of humanity. Yet, even when, despite itself, Silicon Valley helps solve the pressing problems of humanity, at a micro level Ved sees it brimming with unheroic, pompous, and self-centered gold-diggers. Even the more articulate industry leaders, he finds, have remarkably naïve views of the human material, laced with a self-serving techno-utopianism. That social good can result from their collective exertions is indeed a paradox of sorts.
But the system that he is a part of also amplifies social inequalities by sanctifying a libertarian ethos anchored to a narrow idea of ‘merit’, competitive self-interest, and instant gratification. The citizen has been supplanted by the consumer, whose interests come first. Furthermore, by working for Omnicon, is he not helping a small class of techno-elites expand their power to shape the rest of humanity, propelling it towards a less diverse world tending to a monoculture? And all that with a pace of social change and dislocation faster than ever before, which causes its own wicked problems. What exactly are all these gadgets and gizmos and games doing to our psyches, both individual and collective? What ideas of self and other, ‘us’ and ‘them’, will they end up amplifying? Is there anything more than a tenuous relationship between material and moral progress? Oh, how he longs to know: is the net impact of his daily labors good or bad for the world?
More writing by Namit Arora?