Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Clay Files

Here's a little story I had to write (to document) at my last job. Enjoy!

I had heard rumors about Clay Carpenter before I started here at TPM (Taylor Properties Main), one of many satellite offices of the Ford Motor Company. Almost more than making cars, Ford is really good at owning real estate and they certainly have quite a lot of it around Metro Detroit.

While I knew of Clay by his reputation, I did my best to come at him with no preconceived notions. My presence at TPM was meant to signal a new day; a breath of fresh air. At 46, going on 47, with 20+ years in the web world, I was supposed to bring an air of experience and a calm demeanor.

However, it’s been difficult to remain the calm center of the universe. Clay’s reputation, it seems, is well-earned.

At 38 going on 39, Clay has the demeanor of a teenager. I find it difficult to not treat him like a very junior designer. I am constantly surprised that his demeanor has allowed him to progress to where he is in his career. Clay has a habit of starting every sentence with an exclamation: “Look!” he’ll say before launching into a pedantic explanation of why he has the best ideas and that everyone around him is wrong.

In particular, Clay feels that VMLY&R – the company for which I work – is a useless organization and has the incorrect impression that VMLY&R are interlopers who have insinuated themselves into the Ford Motor Company organization and add no value to the work being done. This first became evident toward the end of March 2019, when the team on which we both work was asked to participate in an exercise in “board building.”

If you’re not familiar with the advertising / marketing world, there’s an idea that the best way to garner feedback and insight is to deal not in the abstract but the concrete by physically presenting one’s work and ideas. This is done most often by taking a “gator board” – a large (roughly 7’ by 4’) black foam core board on which you tape actual pieces of paper that can include drawings, wireframes, designs, user flows, ideas, etc. These can and should be marked up or littered with sticky notes featuring comments, ideas, etc. It’s something like an open dialogue that can help shape the overall trajectory of a project. It’s like a living brainstorm.

As the gator boards began appearing in our area and pages were being hung, I received a rather large earful from Clay about how this is not how Ford does things. I told him that that was the idea. It’s the way VMLY&R – and just about every other creative agency – does things and it’s helpful for dialogue. Also, it was something that we (VMLY&R) wanted to do before a few upcoming meetings with some of the higher-ups at Ford.

As I hadn’t really been properly introduced to the project on which I was working I began the process of tracking down all of the background information so that I could speak intelligently to it and build the board as Clay was not willing to lift a finger to help.

I began soliciting the help of various members of the VMLY&R strategy team. On March 28 I was sent an incredibly helpful deck describing the overall idea to overhaul the vehicle service process and where the work I had been doing fit in to the big picture. I went over this deck with one member of the strategy team via the phone and physically met with two others (on April 3) for more insights.

I worked with another member of my team, Aravindh Baskaran, to help locate other insights about the research that had been done around the project. As we talked together about this, Clay couldn’t help but interject into our conversation that VMLY&R’s research was incomplete and that only Ford’s research has merit. He asserted that VMLY&R had not done anything. I tried to correct this by saying that VMLY&R had initially come together with Ford to craft the research and strategy. He didn’t think that was the case and seemed to get angry that I was trying to find out more information.

This incident was coupled with another one a few days prior where Aravindh had suggested that we speak to a strategist about another project that we had both been working on – Service History. We both wanted to know how this project would operate on both the FordPass (App) channel as well as the Ford website.

I am always frustrated to learn that multiple people or teams are working on the same project and not sharing information. To that end, I’m always searching for as many pieces of the puzzle as possible before diving in to form the larger picture.

Again, this idea incensed Clay. He also interjected into this discussion of the Service History conversation that he had already come up with everything that was needed for it and proceeded to bring up a drawing that he had shown me a few times before. I assured him that he had done a great job with this but that I wanted to see who else was working on the same thing. I tried to make him a partner in this, “I’m sure you’ve seen how different teams might all be working on the same thing. I want to make sure that your vision of this process is known. You’ve already done so much work on it, I don’t want it to be lost…”. This didn’t appease him. This was March 27. Clay didn’t speak to me on March 28 or 29.

To clarify, I was doing my due diligence to locate as much information as possible about the projects on which I was working. I was reaching out to people who knew more about things than I did, or that might have information that could further enhance these projects.

I got to work on my gator board March 29. As soon as work began, Clay got up from our desk (we share a very small workspace) and wasn’t seen again for the rest of the day. Aravindh was very helpful, getting everything printed for me as I don’t have access to the printers at TPM.

The following week (April 3) I had heard that “the designers” would be presenting the boards to the Ford client at 7:45 AM on April 5. “I’m not presenting anything,” Clay assured me. “Friday is my day to sleep in.” I told him that that would be fine and that I could speak to the work “we” had done. However, Clay was singing a different tune just a few hours later at our weekly team meeting where he presented concerns about me presenting to the Ford client.

“Mike doesn’t know anything about this project,” he asserted. “What if Jamie (the client) asks him something and he doesn’t know the answer?” He quickly rallied two other Ford employees to his side and eventually bullied his way into presenting the board – on which he had had no input – two days later.

The next morning, April 4, I was given the silent treatment again.

The meeting with the Ford client went pretty well. When Jamie asked about the future of the project, I showed him some of the examples of the next steps that came from the strategy deck on the gator board. Then I turned the proceedings over to Clay.

The strangest part of that morning was when Clay started talking to Jamie about the Service History project and requested five minutes of his time to go over the aforementioned picture that Clay likes to show about it.

Going back a bit, I had heard from the two aforementioned strategists that while I had been working on my main project that there was also a group of people who had “submerged” themselves in the same project. They were in what we call “a submarine” – away from the fray of Ford and solely dedicated to exploration of a single subject. This was the same kind of swirling that I had been afraid of. Rather than just plunge ahead with our assumptions, I reached out to one of the people who had been in the submarine, Jeff Huber, to see if I could get a debrief and include his learnings in the work I was doing.

I set up a meeting with Jeff to talk about the project. Clay heard about me doing this and told me that he needed to be at the meeting. I’m not used to having a designer following me to every meeting, especially when I’m on a fact-finding mission. This takes some getting used to in this environment. I forwarded the meeting invitation to Clay, but he didn’t get it. Rather than realize that VMLY&R employees can’t forward Ford invites to Ford employees, he thought I was trying to exclude him. I told him what room I was going to be in, but this wasn’t good enough. He wanted that invite.

He also wanted me to invite his boss, Sumanth Muthyala, to the meeting. I was hesitant to have too many people in the meeting. This wasn’t supposed to be a big production but a rather simple conversation. Clay has a way of wheedling and being aggressive at the same time. He was insistent on Sumanth’s inclusion. Again, I tried to forward the invite from Jeff Huber but it wouldn’t go through. Clay even watched as I forwarded the invitation. Finally, at the end of the day, I set up my own invitation and sent it to Sumanth and Clay.

The meeting with Jeff Huber on April 9 went well, though he has yet to share the information from his “submarine” (as of April 17). Though Clay took over the meeting about half-way through to again show his Service History drawing and turn the meeting into a Service History discussion rather than sticking to the intent of the meeting.

Through the project that I had been on as well as another Aravindh project I realized that there were two concurrent discussions of how users of FordPass would receive reminders for service due. One project had users getting calendar reminders while another gives users getting in-app “push” reminders. I decided that we should test the two ideas and see which users preferred. I began working on how these two things compared and contrasted while also telling the product owner of my current project that we should shelve the reminder process until the user testing results were in.

When I informed Clay of this, he got very close to my face and told me that I was wrong to want to formally test these ideas. “We should go down to the first floor and grab twenty people and find out what they like. I’ve done this tons of times before.” I asked if there was any proper documentation or survey process that he might have archived to help me set up such an ad-hoc process. He had none.

Clay was so insistent and so forward with his firm opinions that I felt shaken the rest of the day, as if I had been assaulted. I didn’t fear any physical violence, but I felt cowed by him. I wanted to get out of the building and get away from Clay.

I met later with Aravindh to discuss proper user testing and we have since pursued a path with several people to determine the various user testing platforms available to us from surveys to more formal tests. This is still in process as of this writing. I’m waiting for Clay to find out that we want to do things the right way rather than the quick way and getting up in my face again. Even as I’m writing these words, I’m getting a bit of a stomach ache at the thought.

On Tuesday April 6, Clay went on a fascinating tirade about those darned gator boards. When Juan Castro came over to my desk to ask Aravindh and me how long we would need to update boards for monthly meetings with the aforementioned Ford client, Jamie. This set Clay off. He began railing against the boards, saying that several people had come to him and told him that they looked like “grade school projects” and that his boss had charged him with improving the board process. Why not use PowerPoint?

Juan pointed out that PowerPoint is not a public thing and does not invite the collaboration of the boards. Clay countered that boards were a waste of time and that he spent sixteen hours working on them. I don’t know if I laughed out loud at this outright lie or managed to maintain my composure. As Juan and Clay went over to the boards I do remember saying, “If this wasn’t so pathetic it might be funny.” Clay railed against the placement of items on the boards, insisting it was undignified to have items so low on the board that one might have to squat to see things.

This “discussion” went on for at least 20 minutes. I really had hoped that Juan would say, “These make your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss happy so that should be good enough for you.”

But, no, Clay knows better than all of us.

When Clay hasn’t fucked off to places unknown in the office, he’s often working projects that are unfamiliar to me. I found out recently that Clay claims to be part of the Innovation Team. This runs counter to what I was told initially that he’s a dedicated resource to the projects on which I’m working. Though, to be honest, there’s not enough to keep either of us busy during the day. Eventually some projects will be transitioned to us but even those run at a snail’s pace.

For every ounce of work, there’s a pound of reviews and opinions.

Since I’ve been at TPM I’ve primarily worked on a single aspect of the FordPass application. This has branched into a few side conversations as noted above such as in-app reminders, scheduling, and even button shapes and sizes. All of these are things that should be vetted before implementation though Ford has troubles with testing insofar as there’s one guy who is allegedly in charge of testing, Mark Duer, but there’s a lack of trust in his ability to actually get the work done.

Jeff Huber describes Mark’s work as “a black hole” into which projects go but never come out. In the meantime, I’m also trying to work with my own team regarding testing while also being told that Sumanth Muthyala is also taking up test organization. This feels like more of the “Ford on Ford Crime” that I’ve heard about since joining VMLY&R. It’s something we desperately try to cut through but it’s often like running one’s head against a brick wall.

I know this is supposed to be a documentation about working with Clay, but I have to say that the whole TPM / FordPass experience is pretty screwed up.

In Mid-April there was a gathering to let everyone on FordPass know that there would be a switch-up of teams of who was working on what. This seemed a completely arbitrary decision and was not communicated well with the people doing the work. Likewise, the roll-out of these new teams has been haphazard at best.

I started receiving emails about something called “Hydra.” (Hail, Hydra). A few weeks later I was added to a group on Slack called “Orion.” These are apparently code names for two of the teams I was suddenly on. I was never introduced to the team leaders and have yet to get any invitation to a physical meeting with the Orion team. Meanwhile, I keep meeting with the Hydra team and what they’re working on seems to have nothing to do with what I’m working on or have been assigned to do. Color me confused.

Two of the projects to which I’ve allegedly been assigned deal with insurance and integrating it with the FordPass application. I’m having a really difficult time with at least one of those projects which is meant to help users when they’ve had an accident to document the accident, call for help, etc. The interface is complicated, and the core idea seems flawed. It feels like FordPass is trying to intrude on a user’s life, not help them. Likewise, it’s another case where FordPass is trying to be all things to all people.

The App as it stands wants to do things that other Apps do better. There are maps, guides, and the weather (for just that moment). I already have Google Maps, Yelp, and a weather app on my phone. I don’t need FordPass for that. Allegedly there are many more things that the App can do but even as a Ford owner, I can’t see these things. Meanwhile, the testing tool that I have been promised since day one at TPM still has yet to come through meaning that I’m flying blind most of the time, unable to see various user scenarios and the actual interaction of the interface. This kind of thing exemplifies the divide between VMLY&R and Ford.

Another example of the “bass ackwardsness” of the whole TPM/Ford set-up is the need to have two laptops. There’s the VMLY&R laptop which can do 99% of tasks and then there’s the Ford laptop which does 1%. On the Ford laptop I can print, and I can read my Ford email. In order to do anything, I have to keep switching from the Ford WiFi to their Public WiFi because proxies have not been set up. This means that I usually save all of my printing for Fridays when I go to the VMLY&R office – though over there I can only print 8 ½” x 11” as a lot of the other printer functions are locked out to VMLY&R employees. This just give the impression that everything is being held together by masking tape and bubblegum.

And, I suppose, the real kicker of it all goes back to our good friend Clay. He’s not someone conducive to a good team environment nor is he really that good of a worker on more “menial” projects.

After we had an employee who walked out after six days at TPM, there was a concerted effort to circle the wagons and figure out what’s wrong here and if the situation can be fixed. It took a few weeks, but we had a “team building event” happen on May 1. It took a little bit for some of my fellow VMLY&R folks to realize that this was related to the walk-out, though I’m not sure it’s important that they did. Some people thought a “team building event” would be something like whirlyball or a customer experience workshop. Instead, it was partially the customer experience workshop and partially a bitch session about sins of the past.

There were three people at the workshop that I had never met before. These folks were from the “Innovation Team.” Color me surprised when the next day Clay told me that he’s a member of the Innovation Team. That finally explained some of the work that he’d been doing, though his statement doesn’t pass the sniff test.

There’s a lot about Clay that doesn’t pass “the sniff test.” He always strikes me a sneaky guy. He’s like Eddie Haskell but so many people see through his act in seconds – at least that’s the case with VMLY&R people. After we had our “team building event” I was told that the VMLY&R moderator easily picked out my “little buddy” after just a few minutes into the proceedings.

If Clay being the sore thumb wasn’t obvious at the start of the meeting, it was clear by the end when we went around the room saying how we were feeling. “Hopeful,” “Energized,” those were some of the words being bandied about until we got to Clay who brought down the entire room with one phrase, “Déjà vu.” He felt like all of these issues had been brought up and discussed before, so he managed to deflate everything. Rather than discussing this, the group was already dispersing. This is something that should have been addressed right then and there either with the group or between Clay and the organizers. Instead, it was just another act of Clay being pithy and not facing any consequences.

There are the issues with the team structures, the pace of work, the core functionality of the App itself, the bureaucracy, and more. It’s not just a Clay thing but he doesn’t make anything easier. If Clay wasn’t part of the FordPass app team, I don’t know how much better things would be. There’s still the awful lack of personal space – I had some of my things disappear because they were apparently inconveniencing someone.

Not having a spot to call one’s own at work is an odd feeling. I’ve never “hotelled” before at work. When I return to the VMLY&R office I feel welcomed by both the people and my desk. It’s great to have a mug for coffee, a few toys, a couple of decorations, and just a place to call my own. At TPM I get about six inches of space on either side of my computer -- things constantly threaten to fall off my desk onto the person’s next to me or intrude into Clay’s spot. Likewise, his stuff is always infringing on my area but it’s easy to do when even having a sheet of paper in one’s area can violate boundaries.

Having my stuff disappear (thrown away) was more upsetting than it should have been. Why should I get bent out of shape about losing a few protein bars and the cup I use to make my daily shakes? Probably because it feels like a little violation and yet another sense of invalidating me as a person. Yes, there are lockers here at TPM and I have taken over one of them though these tiny lockers get pretty full between one’s coat and bag. It’s typical of the lack of space at TPM.

For a while it was discussed that the VMLY&R people (and their Ford counterparts) would get a space of their own at TPM - someplace to brainstorm and collaborate. And, when I first got to TPM I sat at a desk that had three other VMLY&R people. Unfortunately with the team rejiggering people were dispersed across the floor, most of them too to see from where I sit.

On May 14, Clay spent a good 20 minutes trying to tell me about a vast Masonic conspiracy that has infiltrated the music world. “Look at this triangle on this Steve Miller album! And over here on Dark Side of the Moon. Even Justin Bieber has a triangle tattoo…” This reminds me that Clay allegedly moved from Wisconsin to Michigan to meet his wife after he had a dream about her and was inexplicably drawn to work at a company where his “dream woman” just happened to be. That sounds like a stalker situation to me, “You’re the girl of my dreams…” Man, what a creep.

Speaking of creep… Just last week I was on a personal call and Clay messaged me via Slack to ask me where I was. I told him and let him know when I would be done. Instead of waiting, he just barged into the room, plopped his ass in a chair, and listened to my half of the conversation. Whenever I would speak he’d respond as if I was talking to him.

Every day I was set to go into TPM I would wake up the night before at 3AM and not fall back into a peaceful sleep. I dreaded heading back into that place. I dreaded seeing and interacting with Clay. There was such a relief when I would come in and his chair would be empty. That hour/hour and a half I would get in before he would arrive was the only time I felt I could really get any work done. Otherwise I had Clay in my shit almost all day. It got to the point where I couldn’t even wear headphones and listen to music while I worked. Every time I would put them on, Clay would start talking to me -- almost like he was just waiting for it. It was like a bad “Saturday Night Live” skit. Then again, are there good “Saturday Night Live” skits anymore?

I ended up putting in my notice and Clay ended up ostensibly being promoted.