Looking back at frog

In 2008, I joined a young, small studio. Good fortune quickly put me in a position to work with some of the best and brightest from around the world, and I spend substantial time over 5 years working in other cities. I have been a part of many frog subcultures, varied as they are across time, space, and rank. Some themes, though, have been reliable.

During my tenure the firm employed some of the brightest, most motivated individuals I’ve known. It is no wonder that good work often results, and to an extent it is self-sustaining as smart and talented people seek each other’s company. Their presence may be unevenly distributed, but it is substantial throughout the globe.

The pressure to perform for ownership, of course, has been consistently capitalist. I watched our primary (unstated) core objectives shift from revenue to growth to profit, but it is financially structured as a services consultancy like any other, selling the commodity of worker hours.

Naturally, the creative intellectual elite that differentiate the organization are primarily interested in doing good work, interacting with admirable peers, and their own personal growth. If profit results, that’s fine, as long as it is used to improve the organization. The frog origin story still matters to the workers, and they compare their workplace to those of advertising agencies (where creative hours are a value add, not the core product).

There is a disconnect, then, between the mythos of the designers and the goals of the owners. This causes a social stratification where management must speak a language of commodity hours upwards, and a language of creative idealism downward. It is no surprise that I spent most of my energy as a member of management advocating for more transparency and open decision making. I hoped a healthy dialogue could result, with a hybrid organization arising that generated the margins required financially with due respect to the unique needs and costs of a creative firm.

In the end, though, I fell prey to the forces I was trying to reform.

After a lengthy period of requesting overseas assignment, and a few near misses, I finally had the opportunity to join the Amsterdam studio, with frequent travel to Mumbai to work with a client there. There was a lot of false starts, but eventually the client signed and on two days notice in November of 2012 we left Seattle. I went straight to Mumbai for two weeks, and Shannon settled in Amsterdam. Our formal agreement was to stay through March of 2013, though we had been asked to commit to 18-24 months to be eligible for this opportunity.

As time went on, it was clear we were happy working in the Amsterdam studio, and so in January I warned our leaders I intended to stay. A plan was made (verbally, unfortunately) to put another “CRA” in place through June and to formalize a transfer by then. This was easy to agree to; under CRA we had additional benefits, and a few months gave plenty of time to negotiate a fair arrangement for Europe.

Less than two weeks before the end of March, though, everything melted down and Shannon and I were both terminated after asking for time off to postpone returning to the US. Every person of every rank has been very clear that we were both highly valued, even high-ranking executives have expressed anger over the situation, and it was made clear we will be highly welcome if there’s enough work to hire. But the math is clear: we cost too much and the next quarter would not keep me, at least, billable. It’s just easier to let go of US workers.1

Tired of trying to explain to everyone what happened, I described events in a post here at the time. I was trying to stay very matter-of-fact in that post, so I did not describe how much the entire process felt carefully crafted to dehumanize, or how utterly betrayed it has left me feeling. I also posted it only so I could link to is to describe what happened, and never publicly promoted it on Facebook, on Twitter, or otherwise.

It’s ironic, then, that I soon received a sort of cease-and-desist notice from HR, threatening to withhold my 6 weeks of pay unless I took down that post. A minor but recurring issue I had with my fellow managers had been their quixotic efforts to control the culture by managing communication. Finally, though, I saw that it can be effective.

Many people were laid off under a mandate to cut costs, but secrecy was paramount. Remaining employees became scared, and I found myself trying to comfort them and helping to keep secrets that I didn’t understand. But it worked: there could be discussions on Core77 or at least Glassdoor about the company’s health, but silence has been negotiated, and prospective clients and employees can be exposed only to the language of creative idealism even while blood is shed to trim the machine.

It’s a bit more than I can take, being proven wrong like this. So I’m writing this down and deferring publication until my 12 month gag is lifted.

  1. It’s not clear, though, why having us on PTO or unpaid sabbatical was not an option. Maybe there’s a reason, but neither of us was invited into any discussion.