Friday, December 31, 1999

what have I done?

[Originally posted on January 6, 2023, at 4:33 a.m.]

There were no more wishy-washy schedule changes from the CEO's secretary, and our own meeting with the CEO, which I'd expected to run about an hour for my part, went from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.—five hours, not the expected two hours for both me and my boss. My own presentation went pretty well, but we started about a half hour late because my boss and the CEO gabbed like old men for thirty minutes before allowing me to do my thing.

Both the CEO and my boss played the role of students for the purposes of my PowerPoint presentation, which was about teaching five vocabulary words via multiple approaches. I gave the boss and the CEO hard-copy printouts, and the CEO's secretary was gracious enough to provide us with a laptop and a digital projector. There was one embarrassing moment in which we all saw that I had made a typo on one frame of the presentation, and while that might have been forgiven by my "students," I mentally whipped myself bloody for not having caught the typo despite three proofreading sweeps. In the end, the CEO actually applauded my presentation and talked about having me tutor his kids in English, but I've heard such idle talk before, and it never comes to anything. 

My boss's presentation was less rigid and more desultory in nature; he presented paraphrases of the articles on ChatGPT that the CEO had wanted us to read (the vocab words for my lesson were pulled from those articles), and he also found two short videos on ChatGPT and DALL-E (the AI illustrator that uses deep-learning language processing to take your description of a work and generate art based on the description). A typo was found in my boss's presentation as well; the boss joked that we were even. We discussed the implications of AI chatbots in the classroom: they could be used to generate quizzes and tests very quickly; they could also be used by students to cheat: students could, for example, ask ChatGPT to write a five-paragraph essay about the dangers of smoking. More positively, DALL-E could save our publishing department a lot of money: if you pay hundreds of dollars for 30-day access to Shutterstock (a supplier of stock photos that you can use legally without danger of copyright infringement), subscribing to DALL-E instead would mean being able to generate whatever images you wanted, whenever you wanted them, for only a few dollars per month. The boss put forth a lot of nifty ideas, some of which he and I had talked about, some of which he came up with on the spot and in the excitement of the moment. I think the CEO came away from our presentations generally appreciating our efforts.

I came away happy that our presentations had been well received, but I'm still not a fan of our CEO. To put it in Myers-Briggs terms: my boss and I are both "J" types, but the CEO is definitely a "P" type. "J" people are judging; in the context of the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator—a personality test), such people are decisive. They know what they want, and they arrive at decisions and conclusions quickly. Js go to a familiar restaurant, barely look at the menu, and already know what they're ordering. "P" types, who are perceiving, are uncomfortable making decisions, but they love seeing an array of possibilities. Something fills their spirit when they're presented with a panoply of choices. Ps go to a restaurant like The Cheesecake Factory, which famously has a huge menu, and love seeing all the available options. But getting a P to decide on what to order is like pulling teeth: "Don't rush me!" and "Oh, there are so many choices! I don't know what to pick!" are likely responses to prodding from the Js. That, in a nutshell, is our CEO. He comes in with thirty different ideas, but he personally has no clue how he wants to tackle/implement these ideas.

At the same time, the CEO agrees with me on certain things. Fundamentally, he agrees that lecture is the worst way to teach, a gospel that I preach in my book. Alas, I've seen the CEO lecturing, both in English and Korean, and one thing I've learned over the course of working at this company is that the CEO preaches one thing but practices another. He says lecture is a bad way to teach, yet he lectures. Out of one side of his mouth, it's always innovation, innovation, innovation, but out of the other side of his mouth, it's always old school, old school, old school. It's as if the CEO were actually two competing people in a single body. 

I had made my presentation with the CEO in mind as my audience, but he thinks he wants to use my vocabulary lecture for himself (this was expected: he puts his name on all the books we generate), and since his audience will be young students, he wants me to liven the PowerPoint up with things he described as "meaningful" and "fun." I can do that, I think, and he's not asking for a complete overhaul of what I did, so it's not an unreasonable request. He does want this all done by Friday evening, though (i.e., in a few hours), which puts a lot of time pressure on us. My boss and I were also given other articles on trendy topics to read, so we've got reading assignments as well. As the boss and I presented, the CEO would occasionally drop out of his role as student to pepper us with questions and comments. As my boss presented his paraphrases, we went through a painfully slow, line-by-line reading-and-review of the content. My presentation clocked in at almost exactly an hour, as I'd intended, but my boss's presentation went almost two hours. The CEO told his secretary to order us dinner as the time crept toward 9 p.m., and we didn't end up finishing our meeting until a bit after 11 p.m.

We had a peek at what could be our new office—a place we might move into in a week or two. It's an office that's basically across from the CEO's office, which doesn't make me comfortable at all, directly under the baleful Eye of Sauron. When I'd worked in this building, the Cheongshil building, a few years back (I'm currently in the Mido building down the street), we were in a huge, open-plan office with low partitions and glass walls. The place felt like an aquarium in a surveillance state. I was in a far corner, thankfully out of sight of the cameras (and partially behind a column). While my boss and I will have this new office to ourselves (and it's got windows!), we'll be within close proximity to the CEO.

While the CEO said he was "99%" sure that we'd be kept on, he's still not quite ready to pull the trigger and hire us officially. So we're in the weird position of possibly moving to our new office next week (maybe) while still not knowing whether we've been spared the guillotine. And I'm in the awkward position of wondering whether the decision to stay with the company will be worth it. After our Thursday-night session, which lasted way too long, I don't know whether I have the stamina for interminable meetings in which we go line by line through a text, discussing along the way, as if we were studying the Talmud.

As commenter John McCrarey warned, there's a good chance that my boss and I will become slaves to the CEO's capricious whims. You really don't want a "P" person in charge of a large company, but too late—that's the reality we have to deal with. My boss thinks the CEO will eventually fall into a restrained rhythm once he realizes the sheer size of the task before him (i.e., improving his English while also learning how to teach English better, then passing that pedagogical knowledge along to new teachers in our company). He might want to do thirty things right now, but he'll eventually realize he can't, and once he realizes that, our workload will likely decrease. Those are my boss's thoughts. Right now, what I find scary is how forthright the CEO was, during our meeting, about how he lacks a specific vision for the company. The CEO is looking to my boss and me (and keep in mind that this is the first time in over seven years at this company that the CEO has said more than two sentences to me) to provide him with a vision, a way forward, a big picture. That's not an easy burden.

For me, the question is whether I can survive this. I got in the office around lunchtime on Thursday: it's normal for me to start late and to finish late. But I wasn't expecting to be at work until 11 p.m. The CEO saw how tired I was by the end, and he half-joked that people who work with him should be tired. That sounded like the Korean harshness I know and love (cough). I have a nagging feeling that, in working with the CEO, we're going to be at his beck and call, which is harsh when you're an introvert who needs his "me" time. I could, conceivably, manage this for eight months (i.e., until the end of my current contract*), but I wonder whether my sanity will still be intact. I'm a creature of habit and routine: I need consistent hours, and the CEO clearly told us that he'd try to maintain consistent hours, but that there were no guarantees given his obligations. I appreciate the honesty, but it's not comforting. So for the moment, I'm not telling HR that I've un-resigned and decided to stay because, well, I haven't yet decided to stay. As far as HR is concerned, they have my resignation letter, and I'm still on track to receive my severance later this month (on the 20th). Never walk into a deal without being able to walk out, right?  Donald Trump 101.

Another potentially sinister thing the CEO said was that he doesn't want to work with people who have no passion. Did he see passion in me as I taught my vocab lesson? If so, then I must've faked it pretty well. Frankly, I have no passion for this new, weird phase in my life, and there's a good chance that that's eventually going to become obvious to everyone around me because I'm terrible at hiding my true feelings. (Writing this blog post in my "secret space" is an attempt at hiding my opinions, but people who know where to look for my secret posts can find me easily enough, and so can random people.) All this has prompted me to formulate some specific goals related to how I want to live the rest of my life, and one major goal, which I've talked about before, is becoming my own boss. We'll see how that goes. To become my own boss, I have to acquire a wider range of skills and competencies. and, here I come.


*I haven't signed a contract since August 31, 2021 (my contract ends on my birthday). There's a quirk in Korean labor law that says a company that you work for, if it doesn't give you a contract, can consider you to be under the terms of your most recent contract. The practical sign of this is that, even without a contract, you'll be working the same hours, receiving the same pay, enjoying the same benefits, and still accruing severance pay. In a court of law, this is apparently binding, so this is different from "at will" contracts in the States, in which either party may terminate a given agreement whenever he/she/they might want to.


John Mac said...

Well, it wasn't a disaster at least. Still, there's a lot to digest about potential futures. From my far away point of view, there is at least the possibility that this unique new territory as the CEO's minions could prove to be a satisfying challenge and an opportunity for creative freedom, especially if you have earned his trust. On the other hand, there's that "eye of Sauron" thing.

Decisions, decisions. Take your time. Even a decision to stay is not irrevocable.

Charles said...

All I can do is wish you good luck as you navigate these uncertain waters.