ZDNet Australia is proud to bring you a serialised version of Phil Dobbie's novel The Incumbent. A new chapter will be published here as part of his blog each week on Tuesday. You can also buy the entire book by clicking here.
Jimi Jones reclined slightly in his Executive Grade 3 chair. It hadn't taken him long to adjust to the idea of being in charge of a team or of having a chair with so many moving parts. In fact, for the first time in his life he had a feeling of power (and unprecedented manoeuvrability).
He quickly found he could get his team to do anything he wanted.
'Brilliant,' he thought as he stretched back, felt the arm rests move as he applied a slight downward pressure and the back of the chair arched slightly to meet him. It was so much better than a Grade 5 chair.
No one in VastTel was promoted to a senior role based on expertise; it was all to do with tenure.
'Have any of you ever sat in one of these chairs? They're excellent,' he said to the group, who sat emotionless, waiting for the day to end. Yet, Jones was already starting to get ideas of promotion. After all, he was in charge of so many people. If you added the staff working for each of his direct reports, and the direct reports of those direct reports, and their reports and so on, you'd find that he was in charge of one of the biggest teams in the whole organisation. He had been staggered at the enormity of his department, and was starting to feel that with such responsibility he should at least be on a Grade 2 pay scale. If he was going to do all this work, whatever it was, he expected at least the luxury of a chair that included a highly manoeuvrable neck rest, with a personal colour choice.
'Okay,' said Jones, hoping to garner a hint or two about what his department did.
'We all know what we do here.' It was an uncomfortable statement for everyone in the room. They all assumed everyone else was as in the dark as they were.
'This year we're all going to do it even better,' he continued.
The team looked at one another. Did he just say 'better'?
'We are going to achieve excellence in everything we do!'
Most people reeled back in horror. This wasn't the kind of talk they were used to. There again, Jones wasn't the kind of manager they were used to either. He was far too young. No one in VastTel was promoted to a senior role based on expertise; it was all to do with tenure. After 10 years in the company you were automatically promoted. If there wasn't a job available one was created, with a title picked from a long list of non-descriptive positions — Senior Vice President Strategy and Development was a common one; VastTel had 48 people in that job alone.
But Jones seemed to go against the policy of age over ability, something that was being discussed around the organisation. People were worried that this signalled a change in direction. Many knew of other companies where ambition and capability were highly regarded. Could that be happening at VastTel?
'So what do we do here?' Jones asked, deciding at last to cut to the chase. 'You know and I know,' he continued, not realising they knew as little as he did, 'but are we telling the rest of the organisation?'
He turned quickly to the girl with the voice of an 11-year-old who, on closer inspection, had the complexion of someone in her sixties.
'If someone at a party asked you what you did for a living, what would you tell them?' he asked.
'I wouldn't. I don't go to parties,' she said. There were a few smiles of approval from her colleagues. She was one of the experts at obfuscation, and, as one of the company values, it was a talent she was rewarded for with a pay bonus each year.
'But what if you did go to parties?' asked Jones.
'I wouldn't be able to hear him,' she replied. 'The music is too loud.'
'Okay. You're in a park,' said Jones, slightly agitated. 'A very quiet park, and he comes up to you.'
'I'd think he was a letch. I wouldn't talk to him.'
'What if your father asked you?'
'Your mother then.'
'I don't talk to her, she's a bitch.'
'Has anyone ever asked you what you do?'
'Well,' said Jones, trying to keep control, 'I'm asking you. What do you do?'
'What do you want to know for?' she said, slightly affronted.
'Because I'm your boss and I don't need to tell you why I need you to tell me!' He wasn't yelling but he had raised his voice slightly above the level that is acceptable under the VastTel workplace agreement. Two members of his staff made a mental note to start a formal complaint, but were put off by the amount of paperwork involved — there was a form to fill in.
'You're not my boss. I'm only here because my boss is away on holiday,' said the woman of no discernible age, confused by his line of questioning.
Showing emotion in any form — anger, frustration, happiness, being intellectually stimulated — was also not tolerated in VastTel.
'Oh for Christ's sake…' Jones stopped himself. There was no point in losing his temper. It was just as well. Showing emotion in any form — anger, frustration, happiness, being intellectually stimulated — was also not tolerated in VastTel. It stems from the time someone got so angry that he went into the HR department one morning, armed with a gun, and fired at the first person he saw. Everyone was shocked, particularly by the news that someone was in HR before lunchtime.
This had been a landmark case for VastTel. They'd never sacked anyone before and the leadership team were wary of setting a precedent for fear that they too could lose their jobs. They set up a disciplinary committee who concluded that nothing should change, the man could keep his job, but if he were to shoot another senior manager within six months he would be moved to a department where he had less contact with other people — in the customer care team, for example. They also gave the HR manager six months to recover from the bullet wound, although no one kept track of when those six months were up and he was never seen again.
Jones hadn't got to the stage of wanting to shoot someone, but he was certainly angry and frustrated. He was trying every which way he could to gather even a shred of evidence that anyone in his team actually did anything at all. He decided to try questioning someone else.
'You!' he said, turning to the man at least twice his age who was trying to hide his resentment for Jones' success.
'Your wife asks you what you do all day at work. What would you say?'
'I'm gay,' came the reply, even though he wasn't. He just wanted to be obstinate. Unfortunately, obstinate wasn't one of the corporate values so the attitude did nothing for his progress within the company.
'Okay, your boyfriend asks what you do,' said Jones, determined to get an answer from someone. 'What would you tell him?'
'Look, he doesn't care anymore,' said the man, shaking his head dismissively.
'Supposing he did!' said Jones, barely in control.
'He just doesn't. He never has.'
'Perhaps you need to have sex more?' suggested the woman with the girly voice.
The man was confused. It hadn't occurred to him that gay people could have sex. He thought they just kissed and did interior decorating.
'So tell me, do any of you know what we do in this department?' he asked, his agitation now turning to resignation.
'Well I'm operations,' said a mildly attractive middle aged woman.
'I'm reporting,' volunteered a slightly built man in spectacles with a pale, spotty complexion — a living cliché of anyone who works with data.
'I'm in charge of process management,' said another man who didn't even know what that meant.
Most in the room offered some sort of job title, each description doing little to help define what the department did.
He was surprised by the forcefulness of the vibration and quickly searched for the device, which had broken through the stitching in his trouser pockets and worked its way [to] between the cheeks of his buttocks.
As the mildly attractive woman spoke, Jones had felt something move in his trousers. His left pocket had also started to flash. He reached in and grabbed his PocketFriend 2050, the latest in ultra-thin smart phones. It was so thin most people forgot they had one on them. This was seen as a good thing by the manufacturer, who had only just ventured into mobile phones after many decades manufacturing women's sanitary products.
It was an amazing device if you took the time to learn how to use it. It had a list of features that ran into several pages and a fold-out keyboard and screen that could be opened in just 14 moves, although it wasn't intuitive and most people never managed to close it again unless they were particularly adept at origami.
Because it took so long to absorb the merits of each of the 478 functions, then figure out how to use them, most people lost patience with the whole thing and dumped their PocketFriend 2050s in the disposal bins located in women's toilet cubicles.
Jones had had his device for a little over a week and this was the first time he'd heard it ring. He was surprised by the forcefulness of the vibration and quickly searched for the device, which had broken through the stitching in his trouser pockets and worked its way round his body to finally lodge itself, not uncomfortably he thought, between the cheeks of his buttocks.
'Excuse me,' he said, interrupting one sullen-looking gentleman who was explaining his job was trend analysis. The man hadn't spoken in a meeting before and the others were curious to hear what he sounded like. In fact, the man hadn't heard himself speak since 1984, so it was unfortunate that Jones had cut him short. It rather shook his confidence and they were to become the last words the man ever said.
Jones retrieved his PocketFriend 2050 and, as everyone sat in silence, he read through an email that, unusually, was addressed just to him, and not one copied in to 50 or 60 other people.
'I have a presentation tomorrow,' he announced to the team, shocked by what he had just read. 'To the board.' There was a tremble in his voice.
'Yes. The quarterly update,' said the girly voiced woman with the ageing skin. 'That's normal,' she said, very matter-of-factly.
'But…,' said Jones, his demeanour having moved from agitation to resignation and now to panic, 'I don't know what the fuck we do here!'
The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.