In my last two posts, I covered my first co-op at DFAIT and my transition from simply being a student worker to actually being eligible for / capable of / considered for staff jobs. Sure, it was a contract. Sure, I wasn’t sure what it all meant. But I knew it meant something.
The most important thing was that I had to figure out HOW to stay. I found a basement apartment near Carlingwood, a neighbourhood I was familiar with at least and didn’t think was full of crack houses or loitering prostitutes (see the previous post about Vanier). I negotiated a new salary — basically worked out how much I was earning as a student per day, and added $10 or 15, which brought it to $135-$140 a day which is what they were prepared to offer anyway (CIDA used to pay their consultants way more, but DFAIT used casuals like full-time staff). And I had to figure out what to do about school.
The law school had this “stop out” option, for up to 2 years. Technically it wasn’t really a law school option, it was a calculation within the B.C. law society that you had to finish your degree within 7 years of starting, and with my planned articling and MPA classes and co-ops, it would take almost five years. So I could stay in Ottawa and not go back for up to 2 years. I thought I was only going to stay one semester, so I sent them a detailed letter explaining I was stopping out and then recalculating how all my semesters would be scheduled until I graduated, i.e. reassuring them it was still feasible.
k. Contractor, DFAIT — The work was different. They hired a co-op student, or rather, the co-op student arrived that they had hired in anticipation of my departure. And I was replacing the staffer, so I started coordinating the APEC Working Group file. This was ten sectoral working groups that various departments around Ottawa were involved in, and my job, at its base, was to stay in touch with them, keep up to speed on what they were doing, coordinate anything that needed coordinating with DFAIT on the policy side (almost nothing), and keep the various contacts up to date on what was going on at DFAIT. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
And you know what? It was fun. Everything I did was NEW to me. Every day was an adventure. Heck, I even enjoyed setting up a fax network across the various reps and their secondary reps so that I could fax them copies of declarations that came in, if relevant. I shared other people’s reports. We had regular WG meetings with my bosses so everyone could update everyone else. I got to know a LOT of people around town. I didn’t realize I was networking, partly because the word didn’t really resonate with me, but I was networking my ass off.
I also got to see something I hadn’t seen before…the management of a co-op student. Or, more precisely, what went into bad management of a co-op student. There was a full-time officer, and well, he was a bit of a dick most of the time. He was also very particular about how things should be managed, including a briefing book process. Let’s say there was a briefing book being created with 10 briefs in 10 separate tabs. He wanted a structure where the directory was called “1-Agenda” for the agenda, etc. It seems simple enough, but then he wanted a specific file naming convention for each file, with the tab number in it. Think of it like sub numbers “1.1”, “1.2”, etc. for example. Also, not a big deal, right?
Except that the table of contents changed several times a day. And each time it changed, he wanted the whole e-structure changed to match. Anal, sure, but was it problematic? Extremely so. They were using a really slow version of Novell Network that could take 30-60 seconds to make a directory change. Give her 100 changes, and she was suddenly doing nothing but renaming things for over an hour. For NO REAL benefit. She was young, inexperienced, and super stressed. And an error happened. A big one.
She was spending all of her time renaming and reorganizing files, she wasn’t getting the time to proofread all the briefs. Or even fix formatting. The first draft went to the Director and ADM three days before it was supposed to go to the Minister’s Office, and they both hit the roof. The software everyone was using was the “new” WordPerfect for Windows that had WYSIWYG viewing, with proportional fonts, and nobody was used to it. Which meant they weren’t used to looking for a new BUG in the viewing that hid when you had two spaces between words. Not between sentences, between words. So if you had “XXXX__XXXX”, it looked like “XXXX_XXXX”. Fine on the screen, ridiculous on paper. And some briefs had formatting issues like that all through it — 10 or 12 per PAGE. It looked beyond unprofessional, and the Director went to tear a strip off the staff officer, but failing to find him, he vented at the co-op student.
The Director was a yeller. And from time to time, he would yell. At anyone and everyone, but today it was the co-op student. I waited until he left, went down the hall, went into her office and closed the door, she was staring at the wall refusing to turn. I said, “So, yes, that was wrong, and tomorrow he’ll apologize for it, but that doesn’t feel any better right now.” She was trying to hide that she was crying, but she finally turned around and said: “He’s going to fire me!”. No, he wasn’t, and he didn’t, he apologized the next day, he was just stressed and had a venting point that would happen. Didn’t make it right or acceptable, but he only cared about the work, he wasn’t really trying to dump on someone. She adjusted, we worked on a solution.
She was leaving the next day for Seattle, at my suggestion to be included in the delegation while I held the fort in Ottawa. But this needed to be fixed. She had worked almost every day for over 4 weeks, including weekends, because her jerk of a boss didn’t know what he was doing, and even on the previous weekend, her boyfriend had visited and she had barely seen him because she was working.
I had been originally told, quite directly, that I was not to work on the briefing book, that wasn’t my job anymore. But it wasn’t working right, and she needed to get on a plane. I told the Director I would “make it right” and honestly, I had no idea how I was going to print, tweak, reformat, and reprint three separate books (one for the Prime Minister, one for the Trade Minister, and one for the Foreign Affairs Minister) all in 3 days. I could fix the worst of the errors but I didn’t have time to read EVERYTHING line by line. We were talking some 500 pages across the 3 books.
If I was to do it now, I know I would go for distributed reading and pull 20 people in to check and flag. But for me, this was something almost personal to fix. If I had been the student or pushed to be involved, it wouldn’t have happened. But I didn’t, and although it wasn’t my fault, I felt I could fix it. It was November 10th, and I started working on it first thing in the morning.
A young foreign service officer pitched in, but her parents were visiting, and she bailed for supper around 7:00 p.m., also noting that the jerk who caused the problem was totally absent.
I stayed. And stayed. And stayed some more. All night. At 7:00 a.m., November 11th, I went home and showered, had breakfast, and came back to the empty office (for the Remembrance Day holiday) in sweat pants and a t-shirt. I worked until 7:00 at night and called it quits. I had done the best I could do. I took the books down to the print shop and told them to start running copies. Forty of the PM copy, another 50 of each of the Minister’s books, copies for the whole delegation, subsets for certain parties, etc.
I came back in for 8:00 a.m., picked up the copies, and started fixing some other subsets for certain members of the delegation who shouldn’t get the whole thing. Plus we decided that the Minister’s copy would be as perfect as it could be. Any more errors that we found, we fixed and reprinted one by one, hole punched the pages and inserted the update. There was a large meeting at 2:00 p.m., and many of the people would be taking their copies with them to leave on a plane the next day.
With the assistance of three admin staff, we completed our update at 1:30 p.m.
The jerk guy showed up at 2:00 for the meeting, walked in, saw that it was all done, and said in front of the Director, “See? I told you it wasn’t that big a deal to fix.”
I literally almost decked him. Instead, my boss looked at him and said, “The only reason this is done is because Paul took responsibility to clean up your mess. I gave it to you and you screwed it up and didn’t even know it. You know what? You don’t even need to be here for this meeting. Go do something else.” And shut him out. The Director was as pissed as I had ever seen him, but he wasn’t yelling, he was cold as ice. Chilling almost.
And my boss knew I had pulled the all-nighter without my telling him. He had seen it in the log when he signed in early that morning, my name was right there as having signed out at 7:00 a.m., signed back in at 9:00 or so, and back out at 7:00 p.m. He wanted to give me a couple of days off, but the meeting was happening starting that weekend in Seattle and he needed me in the office here. He made sure to give me a lot of credit for the “save” with the big boss, and he made sure he paid me “extra” for the extra hours even though I wasn’t supposed to get double time as a contractor or anything.
Now, having read that, you probably think I’m an idiot. Why would I ever work overtime, even pull an all-nighter, for something that wasn’t even my fault?
It’s a popular refrain, and I’ve heard it from people over the years when they have heard the story.
I only have one answer, and it doesn’t satisfy them. I did it because I took responsibility to fix the problem, and I said I would do so. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my problem. But once accepted, it was my duty, although that word doesn’t mean much to many people. A friend of mine has a similar view to mine, and it is a dangerous one for work/life balance. It can lead to being a workaholic at times. Enough so that his girlfriend would complain that he didn’t know how to set limits, blah blah blah.
No, we understand how to set limits. We just also know that sometimes it isn’t about you. If you’re professional, if you care about your files, if you care about the outcome, you can set aside the stupidity and just “make it happen”. The same sense of duty and honour that people like about him, and me in a lesser sense, are the same things that cause us to work that way.
I had stepped up. In a way that I had literally never done in my life. Without a moment’s hesitation, even if I didn’t like it. I knew how to fix it, and I did.
Were lives at stake? Would the country fall? Of course not. But it doesn’t change my sense of obligation to do it right.
As we approached December, my boss said, “So, you’re doing great. Do you want to stay?”
That was a very pregnant question. With three complete sub-parts:
- Stay — forever, or just another semester? with him, with the division, with the department, with the government?
- Want — was it up to me? didn’t I have school to go back to? Wasn’t it about if I *could* stay? Was it still possible? I was, after all, still officially a student, even if one on stop-out; and,
- Did I — Did I? Should I? Could I? What did I want?
They were offering to have me stay for 8 months this time. On a contract with Consulting and Audit Canada (an arms-length way to avoid an employer and employee relationship from forming). That would put me to September, back to where I would have been if I didn’t stay for that semester.
More work like I had been doing. A bit more money, they were bumping me to $165 per day. One of the best rates in the branch.
And I loved my job. I really did. I had even managed to squeeze in a course at the university and wrote a paper on APEC just so I could keep a hand in the academic world and remain tied to my studies. A policy course in international relations. And I got a good mark.
Why was I being offered this extension? There were other people around, others more experienced. They could have got a regular foreign service officer. Why *me*?
Because I was good at what I did, and I was versatile. I would do lots of different things, not just my own job. I would pitch in and help out on lots of things.
But more importantly, because I stepped up when it counted, and my Director knew he could trust me to do the work he gave me and to get it done.
I stayed. Another 8 months. I was offered a trip to some Working Group meetings in Asia. Lovely trip, all laid out. China. Korea. Singapore. It would be awesome. Then the Korea trip blew up big, and my Director had to go. My first thought was, “Great, you can show me around.” Oh, wait, if he’s going, I don’t need to go. And I was only going to China because I was already going to Korea. Ditto Singapore. The trip was gone, they felt REALLY bad, and sent me to an “important conference” in Toronto. Uh-huh. Interesting though.
September approached, and the proverbial question arose. Do you want to stay?
Well, I could only stop-out once, might as well milk it for everything. And I was still dating the same girl, I liked visiting Peterborough and getting to know my Dad from the perspective of an adult. Life was good.
In September, I was working on some docs for a meeting in October, and I tripped over something in a Leaders’ Report from February. It said in the report that APEC Senior Officials (aka my ADM and his counterparts) would report to APEC Leaders (aka the PM and his counterparts) on the implementation of the APEC Leaders’ initiatives from the previous November. Okay. Except I was the one in charge of the process for all the upcoming briefing books (I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice!), and well, there was no such report.
I showed the line to my Director who said, “Oh sh**!”. There was no report, I wasn’t mistaken. Nobody had noticed and nobody was doing it. I said, “Well, honestly, it’s not that difficult. I can put some stuff together and maybe you can discuss it at your meetings in October, figure something out.”
They went off to the meeting, came back, covered all the debriefs, everything good. Except there was a new line in the meeting report that said the “Canadian report had been discussed and would be revised in time for the Leaders’ Meeting.” Canadian report? What Canadian report?
My document. They had shown it around, people liked it, they slapped a cover page on it with a logo, circulated it for comment, people were going to fax me all their changes, and it would go to the Leaders. My “report”.
I was a nervous wreck. I wasn’t the policy guy. I wasn’t a foreign service officer or trade commissioner. I was the WGs guy. Deep breath, no problem, people would send me stuff. Right. I could do this.
One country faxed some changes, a couple of extra activities that they had hosted that they wanted to be mentioned, everybody else said “Good job, print!”. So they did.
My report. Written for my boss to help prepare for a meeting. Now the APEC Senior Officials Report on Implementation of the APEC Leaders’ Initiatives, 1993-1994.
Remember how excited I was to have something go to Cabinet? This document eclipsed that. This one was going to 18 heads of state as the report of what all the governments had done on their initiatives from the previous year. Chretien. Clinton. Sixteen others. All of them would get my document as the simple, short briefing and every one of them would likely read it. All because I noticed a line in a report that nobody else noticed. My bosses were thrilled, the APEC officials decided they would do it every year the same way, blah blah blah. I was still stuck back on “MY REPORT IS GOING TO LEADERS??????”. I casually mentioned that to my Dad. I just dropped it into the conversation like I was asking him to pass the salt. 🙂 How COOL was that? I’m so shallow.
I extended to December, got another raise, I was now making $185 a day. Top of the pay scale, I thought. At least in the branch. But we were beyond bending the contracting rules.
The rules, at the time, was that you could do personal services contracts for 12 weeks, extendable to 20 weeks, but then you had to leave for 12 weeks. No contracts with the same department in that time. DFAIT decided as long as you changed “divisions”, it was okay. I hadn’t. I was coming up on 8 months of co-op (totally fine) plus 16 MONTHS of contracts. Slightly over the 20-week rule. Tee-hee. Cough.
So I had to leave. I was going to go back to school. January 1st, four months of a Public Law Term. Special session. I couldn’t miss it. Big problems if I didn’t go. The Head of the program was reminding me I had to be there by Jan 2nd at the latest.
Yet a couple of big-wigs over at Industry Canada wanted me to do their big conferences in March. In Vancouver. Two meetings back to back. I’d done a previous one in Vancouver, two in Victoria. They wanted the same, and I would keep working at DFAIT. In other words, they wanted my boss to extend me. And for me to stay.
I said, “Hey, I’d love to, but sorry, no contracting route to do that, no can do, thanks anyway.” The Industry Canada guy came over for a meeting, wanted to raise it with my boss over lunch. At the interdepartmental meeting afterwards, I said, “So, my Director explained how it couldn’t be done, sorry.”
Nope, my boss had said “No problem.”
Apparently, without telling me, he had asked HR if they could extend me. One last time. Special circumstances. It wasn’t for him, it was for Industry Canada. Highly unusual, a top priority. HR said, “Sure, send us a memo signed by the ADM saying you know it’s against the rules but stating it is one-time deal.” I could stay. And I was in demand.
I raised my rates to $200 expecting them to say no. They agreed.
When the acting ADM went to sign the memo, he hemmed and hawed for a second and told our deputy director, “Okay, I’m signing. But tell Paul if he is in the building on April 1st, I’m having him shot.”
The project was FANTASTIC. I had more authority, I ran the show for all the logistics for two meetings back to back in Vancouver. It was awesome. I hired student Ambassadors, I was working with stakeholders. I got to go skiing afterwards at Whistler.
I liked stepping up. I liked running logistics. I liked it all.
And then, it was over.
I was unemployed. My contract was up. I wasn’t sure what I was doing about school. My girlfriend and I broke up but remained friends. I was lost.
And soon, I had another challenge looming that threatened everything I had done up until then.