by John Cowan
New York, USA
I work as a programmer for a news service, a small subsidiary of a larger news and financial information company. We write and publish medical news over the Internet; our customers include companies with medical websites, pharmaceutical companies, newspapers, and specialized and general-use web portals.
In 2002, advertising-supported media (which means most media) had fallen on hard times as a result of a slow economy. Our subsidiary, like many media companies, had to cut back on its staff. For us the need was particularly acute, as most of our customers were Internet-based, and about half of them went belly-up after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001.
We had staved off the problem for about a year, thanks to having annual contracts. But eventually we had to cut costs, and the only way we could do that and still maintain service to our remaining customers was to cut staff. As a result, in August 2002 the “powers that be” declared that one or two people would have to be sacrificed from each department: sales, financial, news-writing, and technical.
The financial department was abolished altogether and its functions transferred to a group in the parent company. Most of the other groups naturally suffered as a result of losing journalists, editors, and salespeople — but they survived, still able to perform their missions.
Our technical department, however, consisted of just two programmers and a system administrator. Without the programmers, we couldn’t maintain our existing systems and implement new ones. Without the system administrator, who doubled as a help-desk person, we would have been unable to support the rest of the subsidiary or keep our production systems backed up and running smoothly. Terminating any of us would have meant a massive workload for the remaining two, much of it work they were not trained to perform. It was an ugly choice to make.
“Sandra”, the director of the technical department, decided to meet the challenge in a creative way. She was going on maternity leave just after the announcement came out, and decided to terminate herself instead of one of her staff. She said that she considered herself the “most expendable” person in the technical department.
Management was shocked by the idea of losing a department manager instead of regular staff. They protested loudly and tried to make Sandra change her mind, but to no avail. Her clear-headed analysis prevailed, and it was decided that after Sandra’s departure we would report jointly to a technical manager within the parent company and the CEO of our subsidiary.
Sandra returned from maternity leave and worked until the end of 2002, then left to devote herself to motherhood and free-lance work. As a result of her selfless action, the three of us who remain are able to fulfill our customers’ and employer’s needs.