Personal Philosophy; Revised November 26, 2019
Managers: How do You Manage a Cat?
That skill keeps you from losing some of your best people. You will surely be frustrated. Knowing that someone has a cat personality helps.
- My poor managers learned about cats. I built an app without their knowledge — I let them know after it was installed. I committed their department to a specific date. I was even fired for precisely following procedures.
- They had to put up with me because everybody else was ecstatic with my temperament and work. I intentionally avoided being a manager. I wouldn’t be able to behave like a cat and have fun at work. This article shows managers what to watch for and everybody else can laugh about it.
What is a cat like?
The conference speaker asked: “Which are you more like — a dog or a cat?”
It was obvious to me. Cats rarely do what you expect. Based on the famous saying, “Dogs have masters. Cats have staff” (anonymous), I am like a cat!
I was not a manager and never wanted to be. I was as independent as a cat and generally managed myself, mostly with permission from my managers.
The cat stereotype:
- Casual, Laidback, Aloof, Indifferent
- Independent, Obstinate, Opinionated, Self-sufficient
- Willful, Spunky, Deliberate
- Focused, Single-minded, Persistent, Tenacious, Meticulous
- Playful, Curious
- Cunning, Sneaky, Conniving, Manipulative, Startling, A hunter
- Imaginative, Inventive, Resourceful
- Clever, Confident, Self-assured
This summary was combined from many internet sites, suggestions from the writers group, and personal experience from living with a cat.
Managing a cat is not an easy task
I found my own projects, volunteered for things that the managers would have avoided, and wreaked havoc in some of their work days. However, life was easy for those that could adjust, difficult for those that could not.
My main job was writing computer software.
My really smart managers leveraged my skills to get other things.
Projects throughout my career had similar births. About half were assigned, and I “found” the rest of them.
I was innovative, building my first relational database in 1969 and my first app with search filters in 1974 (with COBOL computer language using cards — no keyboards or screens).
Relational databases and filters are industry standards now. Unfortunately, I never published anything then.
The cat shows itself
I managed my first IT project out of college, which took about six months to build. That one program increased the company’s sales so much that they picked up an additions twenty percent market share. The company used it for 18 years without a single change.
For that project, I was no different than anybody else. The cat appeared during the second project:
I committed my entire department to have something done by Wednesday.
Based on one comment, the sponsor department head asked my department head to commit resources to that goal!
When I got back to the office, my manager was in my department head’s office - for over an hour.
My colleagues kept telling me that I was going to be fired for sure. Afterward, the only thing my manager said was, “Don’t ever let it happen again.”
Thirty years later, I figured out what they had to be talking about. They were discussing, “How do we rein him in, at least just a little, and not destroy the creativity.”
The client department head presented the second project at a national conference as the best in the country for managing chicken farms and egg production.
Fired for being a cat
One company fired me after two weeks. They told me during the job interview that they had a standard eight-hour workday. The job sounded good and I received a substantial pay increase.
When testing a program on a mainframe computer using cards, the programmer gave operations the program deck with instructions and hoped that they would run it within 2 or 3 hours.
In that company, the programmers ran their own tests between 4:00 AM and 7:00 AM, went to breakfast, then worked the standard eight-hour day. Nobody mentioned this during the interview.
If I quit within the first year, I had to pay the job recruiter one month’s salary as a penalty. I did not have that kind of money! I could not quit. So, I left work after working an eight hour day, sometimes at 1:00 PM if I worked through lunch. The vice president said that I was not keeping up with the other programmers.
I took that job just to get a substantial salary increase. Big mistake! I never changed jobs again solely for a salary increase.
Why was I not fired more often? My projects worked and as one manager said: “You never make the same mistake twice.”
Productivity - a cat will try anything
The 1974 database for the life insurance company was on tape. The computer read the data in sequence, not like a random access disk.
I taught the accountants how to write a COBOL program “IF” statement (the filter, today called “Find” and shown with a magnifying glass). They carefully replaced 2 cards in the program deck with the new “IF” statement.
The filter made a smaller copy of the tape which was then it was used to print the standard reports.
First Benefit: The audit firm sent six auditors for the annual audit required by the state. They shuffled through two boxes of paper — 4,000 pages to find data.
The filter gave them precisely what they needed without a long, manual search. The audit firm cut the team to five people, thus saving the company money since the auditors charged by the hour.
Second Benefit: Merger talks with another company were underway. We built an annual statement in July to provide up-to-date numbers. Profits dropped dramatically from the first of the year! Everybody wanted computer time to find the problem.
I had to badger the VP to let me filter out past-due premiums and their impact. Nobody believed that was the problem. It was!
They had a two-month accounts receivable premium asset and a twelve-month reserve liability, thus making them upside down for the policy. Age dynamics caused the sudden surge.
They created a special task force to fix the problem.
Leveraging the cat — making deals
In one plant, my job title was Statistician in the Quality department, instead of Computer Programmer. They could not keep me busy! So, I found my own projects from other departments — Engineering, HR, Research, etc. They had to get permission from my manager for me to do work for them.
He was trading favors with other department managers! I did not know that. After I did three projects for HR, he received an additional engineer for his staff.
We did not have an IT department. The division across town supplied that.
The department head of IT called our division VP complaining that our people doing their work in HR. The VP told him, “Take your antiquated procedures and antiquated equipment and shove it…!”
We were the only division in the country in compliance with the corporate’s Suggestion Program, managed by HR. Theirs barely worked.
The managers in my first two companies were not able to make deals. The technology was not good enough for me to put them into that position.
Managers in other companies where I worked leveraged my talents in similar ways.
The cat’s project time estimate
I started in a regional office of EDS supporting many local accounts when they were part of GM. Management there tried to micromanage everybody.
EDS required estimates before starting a project. I turned in a standard estimate, for me, in work hours. My manager did not know how to react to that time unit. He could not grasp the total time for the project.
In his experience, estimates were in work months! I had to change my estimate to work days. My estimates in hours were pretty accurate. One five-month project came within eight hours of my estimate.
I wondered if anybody ever read the Gantt charts, which show project tasks and their times in a horizontal bar chart in date order. So I added a breakpoint task in the middle of one chart — “the miracle occurs here” — and turned it in. Nobody noticed.
I was cautious not to point it out to anybody.
The cat’s concept of time
On my first day at EDS, my manager introduced me to the people who I would be supporting. One woman hit the enter key and waited 2 minutes for her menu to appear.
I said, “This is ridiculous! I can speed that up.” That’s all I knew about the app. By Wednesday morning, the department head sent a formal request to cut the startup speed to five seconds. He was going to put me in my place.
That afternoon, a colleague asked if I had any assignments yet. I told her that I was changing the structure of the database and modifying all of the data entry programs. Shock! “How long will that take?” She thought months. I said, “I will have it ready by Monday.”
The person who originally built the app was a hero for getting the response time down to two minutes. During development, it took twenty minutes for the menu to first appear. My changes took it to three seconds, which pleased the people using the app immensely and me.
In another instance, my manager sent me to see what they needed. I built an entire app in less than eight hours. It coordinated production between two factories. I let management know about it after it was being used in production.
After congratulating me on completing the project, the department head asked what service request-number I charged it to. I replied, “The one-day-consultation service request-number.” They assumed that the one-day number was set up “to find out what they want” so a new project request-number could be assigned. No more than 8 hours could be charged to it.
They changed the procedures to require all new apps, no matter how small, to have their own project number. That way, I could never build another whole new app without letting them know in advance.
See my article Importance of Small Projects for full details.
Importance of Small Projects
Do you want to work on next big project to save the company? Small projects can do the same or wreak havoc. They also…
The cat’s outside supporters
Layoffs were usually by seniority. I was there for only 6 months. The department heads of two GM engineering departments told our regional manager that he could lay off anybody he wanted, as long as it was not me.
In my last job before retirement, I was out about 5 weeks for surgery. The London office provided backup support for Houston 5:00 PM and 7:00 PM publication deadlines. That works only in an emergency, partly because of the 7-hour time difference. The second deadline was 2:00 AM in London.
When I returned, I received this e-mail from a senior editor: “I did not know how spoiled I was until you were out.” Usually, it is the cat that is spoiled.
The cat brings his own toys
Even the micromanagers took advantage. They assigned their trainees to me since I had taught classes at a prior company.
I put the trainees into a position where they were responsible for everything, then forced them to ask questions. One said that she “learned more from me in 2 months than in the last year and a half.” That included a 6-week programming boot camp!
After a couple of years of getting on each other’s nerves, I transferred from the regional location to the local account office under new management.
Their goal was user support in that division. One new manager said that he was glad to finally get some help. I pointed out that I was bringing 12 apps with me. I worked more directly with the engineers and continued with the local trainees.
My new manager actually encouraged me to find new projects and teach more general classes.
The focused, meticulous cat
When the new CIO (Chief Information Officer) for our U.S. office started on Monday, each of us was granted 15 minutes to introduce ourselves and our main project.
I gave him a “brief executive project summary” of 23 pages covering everything from that point forward to the end of time. I also told him 50 other things that he needed to know.
For some reason, he laughed!
A few days later he said, “I actually remembered two or three of the things on your list.” He also used 5 of those 23 pages to kill that worthless project pushed by the prior management.
Later, the CIO added to my review, “Bill is easy to work with, once I figured out how.” Direct orders don’t work. The “reason why” does, especially if it means gleefully beating a competitor to market.
Thinking like a cat
Another manager learned how my brain works. I give it a problem to solve, read sci-fi or watch TV, go to bed and wake up the next morning with a solution.
So, he would present a horrible problem before I went home, not wait till morning when I was rested, like he would everybody else.
One Monday, he said, “Tomorrow, we want you to write an app for operators to call customers and schedule gas hookups in Puerto Rico. We will supply customer and technician files. Let us know if you can do it.”
The complete design was in my mind when I woke up on Tuesday. This is normal for me.
I wrote the app and demonstrated it on Wednesday. They planned to send me, a technician to set up the computers, and a translator to Puerto Rico via the corporate jet on Saturday.
On Thursday, the government stopped the project. I did not get to ride in the corporate jet to Puerto Rico.
Ignored by the cat
(review slights and reprimands)
Two managers never understood my style. Maybe they never owned a cat.
First manager - I did not show proper respect!
==> 1. I contradicted him in a meeting (he promised the customer access to computers containing defense department data). The manager across from me just covered his face with his hands. I offered a simple alternative.
==> 2. He said, “I preach and preach. Nobody is ever on time in the morning.” I said, “Well, H…, I consider myself on time if I get here before you do.”
My manager sat in the office across from me. On Monday, he gave me a long list of things to do. He wanted me to start on them by next week. When we met the following Monday, they were all done. He said: “When did you do them? You were never at your desk.” I didn’t bother to answer.
He didn’t use this, or anything else, to show my high level of productivity during my review.
Second manager - I did not spend enough time at my desk.
I pointed out that my production was more than double anybody else. She said that I “set a poor example by not being at my desk.”
I ignored both of them.
Once a cat, always a cat
Our receptionist asked me, “How did you get hired at age 65?” Well, the first 12 people failed the programming test. Also, I said during my job interview that the job sounded like fun.
The reporters entered data through Excel spreadsheets with buttons programmed to upload the data to a database. My first task was to learn all about those spreadsheets.
There was no test environment for users to test changes before they went live! When I suggested building one, my manager issued a direct order not to do it.
I built one anyway in the first two weeks. There were a lot of unexpected benefits. See my article Importance of Small Projects for full details.
My manager was a nice guy, but he drove everybody nuts. Even people in the Moscow, Russia, office knew about him.
One man finally quit. The Editor-in-Chief asked me if I had similar problems. I said, “Sure, but I don’t pay any attention to those things.” He asked if I was still having fun. I said, “Of course.”
Is the cat really lazy?
One manager said, “You are the laziest person I have ever seen when it comes to avoiding any extra typing.” Later, he said, “You are the most prolific one-fingered typist that I have ever seen.”
We typed all of our own programs and user instructions.
I was not lazy, just efficient. For example, our entire house is designed to be easy to clean. We can do the equivalent of spring cleaning in three hours, and do it every two weeks.
The kitten — early signs
My hapless professors had the same problem.
I volunteered for the national intercollegiate William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, a 6-hour, 12-question math test on a Saturday. Anybody could volunteer, then the school ranked everybody.
The top three on the list who showed up were the school’s team. Everybody else competed as individuals.
The top-ranked person graduated with high honors in Math/Physics. The bottom person was on academic probation — me. I was an awful student.
The scores came back. Most people were clustered near the bottom of the school’s list. The Math/Physics person was in 2nd place, more than double the third person’s score. The top person’s score, mine, was more than three times the 2nd place score. That was not near the top in the country, though.
A recruiter 15 years later asked for my GPA. Then he said, “You mean that you loafed all the way through school and did all of this after you got out!!!?” He was shocked.
Well, I did make the Dean’s List the quarter after being on academic probation. I told everybody in advance that I would, and they laughed!
While proofreading, I noticed how many events happened on Wednesday, meaning that they were triggered on Monday. My managers must have dreaded Mondays.
Lesson for the employee — find your niche. Make sure what you do applies to the company’s goals. If you behave like a cat, you had better be very good at your job.
Lesson for the manager — your first job with personnel is to find and nourish talent, without creating too much turmoil. Not to prove who is boss.
The company’s goals will fall into place if both happen. However, neither is easy, especially for the manager if the employee is like a cat.
I will leave it to someone else to write an article from a dog’s point of view.