“Thank you for calling tech support, now please die”

By Lee Hutchinson

“Thank you for calling tech support, now please die”

I felt unmoored and directionless after my high school job at Babbage’s dissolved at the end of 1997. I’d met my wonderful wife there—we’d go on to get married in 2003—but Babbage’s had been the only job I’d known. When the doors finally shut, I wasn’t sure what to do. I skipped the typical teenager process of wandering around the mall filling out dozens of applications for various stores—I’d gotten the job at Babbage’s merely by asking for it. Now I had no idea how to get another with nearly the same level of awesome.

For a while I slummed it at Electronics Boutique, since my Babbage’s experience was enough to get me hired with only a quick interview. It just wasn’t the same. This was long before both EB and Babbage’s were swallowed by the Gamestop monster, and although the merchandise was similar, the atmosphere was totally different. EB wasn’t anywhere near as fun as Babbage’s (probably because I was more used to slacking with friends than working), so I kept up the search for the perfect replacement job.

Back then, tech support seemed like a viable career option. Just a few years before, Microsoft had very famously hired armies of phone warriors to assist Windows 95 buyers with installing and working with the new operating system. Now Windows 98 had just launched a few months prior, and I had some relevant experience on the phones. Sometimes folks would call into Babbage’s or EB asking for help installing a program they’d bought, and I genuinely enjoyed helping them. It followed, I thought, that actually doing phone support as a job would be a great way to spend my time. I envisioned sitting back in a cubicle with my feet up on the desk, headset on my ear as I snappily answered question after question, earning the immense personal satisfaction one must feel when finishing up a workday filled from start to finish with the smiles and thanks of people you’d helped.

Those of you who’ve worked phones can start laughing at me now.

Courtship

A flyer in the hallway of the University of Houston TECH2 building seemed like the answer to my problems: a major computer manufacturer was looking for technically minded people, part-time or full, to do phone support. When class ended that day I put on a suit, drove from U of H’s main campus to the Metro building in downtown Houston, rode the elevator up to the twenty-fifth floor, and introduced myself to a receptionist in a beige fluorescent-lit lobby.

"CONVERGYS CORPORATION," read the sign on the wall. That didn’t sound like any computer OEM I’d ever heard of. If this were today, I would have pulled out my smartphone and Googled this prospective employer to see that they were, among other things, a supplier of call centers and outsourced labor for various consumer technology companies. However, this was the fall of 1998 and smartphones were still a ways off. I took an application from the tray on the receptionist’s desk and busied myself with filling it out, rehearsing bits of tech trivia in my head so that I’d have them ready at hand if needed. COM1 and COM3 are on port 0x3F8 and use IRQ4, I whispered to myself. COM2 and COM4 are on 0x2F8 and use IRQ3.

A few minutes later, a gentleman dressed in the immortal and unchanging tech uniform of khakis and a branded polo shirt led me through a pair of security doors and past rows and rows of filled cubicles into a cramped conference room with a window that showed more cubicles. He shook my hand, took my application, and set it aside without looking at it. His gaze remained fixed on something out the window to my right. I looked where he was looking and saw a TV hanging near the ceiling in a corner, showing a bunch of numbers that didn’t mean much to me at the time but which would shortly become very, very important. These were the phone queue stats.

The call center floor looked and felt a lot like this famous matte painting-enhanced shot from <em>Tron</em>.
Enlarge / The call center floor looked and felt a lot like this famous matte painting-enhanced shot from Tron.

The interview was the shortest I’ve ever had, and aside from one or two quick flicks of the eye in my direction, the interviewer kept his gaze fixed on the monitor with the stats the entire time.

"OK," he said, speaking very quickly. "How do you start Windows 95 in safe mode?"

"Uh," I said, taken a bit by surprise by the lack of any kind of greeting or introductory small talk, "Uh." There was a moment of panic as I reached for the mental shelf where that answer was supposed to be sitting and couldn’t find it—COM1, 0x3F8, IRQ3, COM2, 0x2F8, IRQ4, no damn it, stupid brain!—and then the answer floated up and I got my vocal cords in gear. "You press, uh, F8 after POST but just before the splash screen," I stammered, hoping he didn’t notice.

"Great," he said, still staring at the stats on the screen. "How do you do it in Windows 98?"

"Hold down 'control' after POST but before splash screen," I replied without hesitating. After the first safe mode question, the second was easier—sitting on the same mental shelf, as it were.

"Great," he said, then rapid-fire: "I’m going to offer you a job now."

Honeymoon

The company mandated two full weeks of training, eight hours a day for ten days, during which we’d be getting paid $8.50 per hour. That was more than two dollars per hour higher than I’d been getting at EB. Since I was a full-time student, I attended the evening training sessions, schlepping from the U of H main campus to downtown Houston at 3pm every day for two weeks and staying until about midnight.

This was fine with me, because those two weeks were pure gravy. Convergys was hiring a large number of techs to staff the Houston call center, and so I was grouped in with a "class" of about a dozen other new hires who all started the same day and went through training together. The first thing we did on our first day was take an aptitude test to try to get an idea of what our skills were like. In chatting with the other folks in the class, it became obvious that they'd all been subject to about the same level of perfunctory interviewing as I'd been. This test was designed to weed folks out.

I aced the aptitude test—which I remember did in fact have a question on it about COM port IO assignments!—and also scored 100 percent on the attached acronym test, correctly identifying the words behind computer initialisms like ZIF (zero insertion force) and IRQ (interrupt request). My reward for this stellar performance was the "instructor" saying something like, "Looks like we got a regular Bill Gates over here!"

I was "Bill" to everyone at that company from then on, including the managers. There are worse nicknames, I suppose.


Page 2

My memories from those two training weeks are of long periods staring out the windows of the classroom at downtown Houston from 24 floors up, watching the sun set and the city light up. We listened to a lot of recorded tech support calls to learn the "dos" and "don’ts" of how to behave on the phone. There was lots of remedial training about Windows 95 and the still-new Windows 98—mostly procedural things like how to identify and troubleshoot problems in the windows Device Manager or how to reinstall Windows from OEM disks.

I was "Bill" to everyone at that company from then on.

Speaking of OEMs, we also quickly learned the name of the OEM we would be supporting: it was Gateway (still "Gateway 2000" at the time, though the company was in the process of ditching the "2000"), of the famous cow-spotted computer boxes. Every cube in the call center had a Gateway mid-tower in it, and we spent a bit of the two-week training learning how to use a series of Web-based Gateway support tools.

We didn’t spend nearly as much time on phone etiquette as you might think. Mostly, we listened to recorded calls with good outcomes and recorded calls with bad outcomes, soon adding a little role-playing to the mix. They told us to be polite, to not lie, and that if you ever had to answer a question by saying "I don’t know," that you should follow it up with "…but I’ll find out!"

The trainers emphasized "call control" over everything else, even politeness. Not to say that they advocated being rude—just that the idea was to fix the caller's problem the right way, which wasn't necessarily the way the customer might want. They might call in demanding a new computer, when the real problem is that the power cable is unplugged. Most calls, the instructors said, can be easily managed with some empathy—even calls that start out with angry-new-computer-guy, who also happens to have been on hold for an hour. I’ve made that same point before on the Ars front page, and it’s an excellent one, but it has to be genuine empathy—fake commiseration is worse than no commiseration.

In the event we got a "hot call," we could turn the call over to a floor supervisor (in which case the "hot call" became a "supe call," pronounced "soup"). Floor supervisors, as I would soon find out when I became one, were simply call center employees who had proven better able to manage angry callers. They had no special powers other than perhaps a better understanding of how to talk to people.

I do remember very explicitly that the support reps could terminate a call if the customer was being abusive—something which I was fortunate enough to never encounter. But I heard it happen a few times from other cubes in the row while I was working a call. The verbal patterns of the reps who’d caught an un-calmable call were pretty unmistakable.

"Sir," you’d hear them start. "Sir. Sir. Sir. Sir, I need you to calm down. Sir, if you continue speaking to me in that way I’m going to end this call. Sir, I am hanging up now." Usually after that happened, anyone nearby who wasn’t currently on a call would rush to the supervisor cube at the end of the row to listen to the recording.

Downtown Houston at night, seen from the Hilton. This is a slightly different angle on what I stared at for two solid weeks.
Enlarge / Downtown Houston at night, seen from the Hilton. This is a slightly different angle on what I stared at for two solid weeks.

The two weeks of training dragged and dragged. We were given frequent breaks and left basically unsupervised on the twenty-fourth floor of the Metro building (Convergys had two floors—25 was the call center, and 24 was mostly unoccupied except for the company’s telephone IVR room and small data center). I spent a lot of time in darkened unoccupied offices, looking out over downtown Houston at night and wondering what the job would be like once we actually got turned loose on the public.

Dawning realizations of the pain to come

The very final day of training saw us actually on the call center floor, "shadowing" more experienced support techs—essentially sitting in their cube with them, listening in on a second headset as they took calls. This was our first live exposure to the public—and it was at this point that things got, as they say, real.

I don’t remember the name of the fellow with whom I was paired, and I don’t think I ever saw him again after our shadowing session (not unusual, as there were easily a couple of hundred phone support agents working at any given moment on the 25th floor’s vast cube farm). I do remember him adopting a world-weary attitude as soon as I sat down in his cube. It was pretty clear that he wanted to paint me as Cameron to his Ferris—and I remember being annoyed as hell by this.

How my trainer thought he looked and acted.
Enlarge / How my trainer thought he looked and acted.

I’d be lying if I said I could recall the content of the calls that we took that day, but I do remember that he’d start with the eye-rolling and jerking-off-motion pantomimes the instant the customer began to describe their problem, then address them in a syrupy-sweet patronizing tone sort of like what you’d use with a dog or a particularly smart baby. He’d mute his line while the customer talked and mock their accents, or their problems, or the model of computer they chose to buy, or anything else that stuck out. I also remember that he prided himself about not having to use a mouse for anything—that sticks out in my memory because he talked about it incessantly.

"Yep," he’d say in between calls, "control-escape, C, enter, D, enter—that’ll get you into the display properties a lot faster than right clicking. Mice are for chumps."

"Yep," he’d say on mute, with a customer’s sad voice droning on in both our ears. "Once you get the new ticket open, it’s tab three times to get to the description field, and if you need to get into Internet Explorer it’s control-escape, I, enter, then alt-tab back. I’m the fastest tech on the floor here because I never take my hands off the keyboard. If you’re smart, you’ll be like me."

How my trainer actually looked and acted.
Enlarge / How my trainer actually looked and acted.

After a couple of hours of shadowing, my training cadre was pulled off the floor for our "preflight briefing," as the trainer called it. We talked about the shadowing experience—I wisely kept my mouth shut about Ferris and his hand motions—and then we were told we’d now be released to take our first calls. We’d be shadowed by another tech for the rest of the day. Tomorrow, we’d be on our own.

We were all given our official Gateway badge numbers and then placed in empty cubes scattered around the call center. Each of us was assigned a shadower—I don’t remember anything about the person assigned to me—and then we logged into our Windows 95 workstations, started up the various bits of software we might need, logged into the phone system, cinched down our headsets, and hit the "Available for call" button.

The phone rang. I answered. I was tech support now.


Page 3

Routine set in, as it does with all things. A typical shift would see me arriving in the afternoon after classes, parking in one of downtown Houston’s elevated garages and saving my receipt to be validated. I’d take the tunnels to the Metro building, ride the elevator up, badge through a couple of doors, and then clock in at one of the dedicated time clock computers.

I’d then find an unoccupied PC—some were newer than others and had more RAM, and you quickly found out which were the slow 8MB computers and which were the fast 16MB ones. Techs had their own headsets—Convergys loaned it to you but you kept it and took it home with you, because sharing headsets is gross. After logging in to the best PC I could find, I’d pull my headset out of my backpack, plug it into the phone, open up all the apps I’d need and settle into the chair, and then, sometimes after a brief prayer, hit the "AVAILABLE" button.

Generally, the phone would ring immediately, and the day would start. "Thanks for calling Gateway, my name is Lee, my badge number is five zero zero seven seven one, can I get your name and your system serial number, please?"

As the caller was looking up their serial number—every caller had to give a system serial number so that we knew the exact model of computer they were using—I was hitting the "new ticket" button in the help desk ticketing application, which I’m pretty sure was Remedy Action Request System. Filling in the serial number would populate most of the fields with their associated customer data—name, address, and so on. I’d verify who I was speaking with and what kind of system they had, and then ask that most important of questions:

"And what seems to be the trouble today?"

This is the exact model headset we all were issued. An over-the-ear Plantronics P211. If I close my eyes, I can still see the box it came in, still imagine all the times I took it out of its packaging, plugged it in, and prepared for pain.
This is the exact model headset we all were issued. An over-the-ear Plantronics P211. If I close my eyes, I can still see the box it came in, still imagine all the times I took it out of its packaging, plugged it in, and prepared for pain.

We had call scripts, but for the most part they were optional—and by that I mean that techs had some latitude in deciding how to handle calls based on their own skill. If you happened to know Windows 95 like the back of your hand, you didn’t have to pull down the Windows 95 binder and walk through the steps to make sure Device Manager was clear of errors—you could just do it, or not, if you didn’t think that was necessary. But the scripts were there for techs who weren’t necessarily technical.

Often, the trouble might be hardware-related. On our desktops were two Gateway internal Web-based applications, one called "Big Dog" and the other called "Red Dog." Between the two of them, they had detailed information on every current and every legacy piece of hardware Gateway ever sold. If I needed to walk a customer through the process of popping their computer’s bezel off, for example, a detailed procedure with pictures was available in Big Dog. If a customer wasn’t sure what kind of sound card they had installed, I could look up the entire list of possibilities and have them describe their card to me, then figure out the right one from pictures.

For operating system issues, we had access to Microsoft’s TechNet service, which I used constantly to help me with Windows 95's (and 98's) more esoteric parts. We were only supposed to do limited Windows troubleshooting, though—past a certain point, we were supposed to simply tell the customer to back up their important data and then reload the operating system from the OEM install CD. Some techs used this as an excuse to get the customer off the phone: "Yep," they might say, "better back all of your documents up to a CD-R, then call back, because it’s going to take a lot of time!"

The call-back calls like that were the worst—the ones where you had to clean up after another lazy tech. Instead of a system serial number, the caller would give you a ticket number, which you’d look up to see what had happened previously. The call notes would invariably look something like this:

cus has err told cus to back up for reload and call back

Unhelpful to say the least. You’d have to figure out what the actual problem was, and then if you were very unlucky, you'd walk the customer through reloading their computer. Of course, if you were bitter about being unlucky, you could simply tell the customer that you couldn’t stay on the phone with them for the reload and that they should call back when it was done for assistance restoring their documents. And the calls resulting from that kind of laziness were bad indeed, because usually the customer hadn't backed up all of their important stuff (if they'd backed anything up at all).

Deciphering other techs' call notes was part of the job.
Enlarge / Deciphering other techs' call notes was part of the job.

Sometimes, the problem would be easy. No sound? Check to see if the speakers are plugged in. Oh, they’re not? Well, ha ha, everyone does that from time to time, now you have a good day, sir! Screen blank? Check to see if the monitor is on. Oh, it’s not on? Well, there ya go, sir! Ha ha, yep, no, that happens to everybody, sir! Enjoy your day!

Sometimes, the caller would have a bad component—a fried sound card or a broken mouse or something similar. That was simple: you had to verify the customer’s warranty and then log on to another system—one based on Vantive—to order replacement parts. But if something wasn't obviously defective, that's where things got complicated and you could spend hours troubleshooting. Printer calls were bad, since back in 1998 it wasn’t a given that the customer would have Internet access, and you couldn't just download new drivers. Scanner issues were even worse—when someone called in with a broken scanner, you could often save yourself hours by just saying it was defective. Unless the customer told you that the last two techs had already replaced the scanner and it still didn't work. God help you then, because it meant you were going to be spending the rest of the evening on that call.

But far worse than scanner calls were calls about Gateway’s abortive attempt to launch an ISP, called "gateway.net." Customers would call in with modem connectivity issues, and they’d often have only a single phone line—which made it essentially impossible to troubleshoot their problems without having them repeatedly hang up and call back. I took a certain joy in these calls, since gateway.net was such a shaky product and was so difficult to troubleshoot even without the complexity of the modem side of things. The main problem I remember was that for some reason—probably to shave cost—the access numbers customers were supposed to dial were complex 10-10-XXX interexchange numbers instead of toll-free numbers, which sometimes didn’t work or had to be changed depending on where in the US the customer was.

The most unlucky you could get would be if you got a customer who had a gateway.net problem and a second phone line. Those were usually multi-hour calls. At least if they only had one line, you could dump the problem on the next tech. "Just hang up with me, try this new dial in number, and if it doesn’t work, call back!"

Did I do these things? Yes. But if I hadn’t, I’d probably still be on the phone, troubleshooting a gateway.net problem.

If the caller’s issue was too complex to solve and no one else in your row had any ideas, you could "escalate" them to the mythical "tier 2" support personnel, who, unlike us outsourced schmucks, were actually for-real Gateway employees in South Dakota. Escalation was frowned upon because it incurred a penalty for Convergys, and so you never did it unless you had a really, really big problem. Even then, an escalation would earn you a sit-down with one of the call center’s rarely seen managers where you had to explain your actions.

Metrics, and how to hide from them

Unlike a lot of other call centers, we weren’t graded purely on call completion time. That's fortunate, because basing an employee’s performance evaluation on how quickly they get people off the phone is a toxic way to measure work, both for the employee and the customer. Instead, we got our ratings by looking at the total time clocked in versus the total time on the phone taking calls. It would never be 1:1, since everyone has to go to the bathroom, but the goal was to have it as close to 1:1 as possible.

The call stats monitors hung on the walls every few dozen rows, and everyone could see at least one from where you were. The most dominating stat was a large floating number that showed the number of calls in the queue waiting to be answered. Management wanted that number to be above zero—because if it’s zero, you’re paying employees to sit there and not take calls—but not too far above zero, because then you’ve got customers waiting on the phone for long amounts of time. If this number ever went above 30 or 40, management began to seriously freak out, and floor supervisors got told to shake the bushes and get techs to recycle their calls faster.

The call center monitor screens were similar to this one from, oddly enough, an orthopedic office.
Enlarge / The call center monitor screens were similar to this one from, oddly enough, an orthopedic office.

The monitors also displayed the average hold time for customers—again, you wanted that to be above zero but not too far above zero—along with the average call time. The last stat displayed was the longest currently active call and the cube number for that call. You never, ever wanted that to be you. Occasionally someone would get stuck on a truly epic 2- or 3-hour call, either because the problem was particularly squirrelly or the caller was particularly bad—and, as with escalations, those calls earned visits from management. You’d best hope that you’d taken excellent call notes, because you’d be going over them in a conference room and explaining yourself.

But there were two ways to escape the prying eyes of management. The first was to become a floor supervisor. This was easy—in fact, if you were even halfway competent, you’d find this role forced on you in a very short amount of time. What being a supervisor meant was that for a couple of hours of your shift, you got to relocate to a "supe cube," or a supervisor cube, at the end of a row. The phone in the supe cube was able to monitor all of the phones in your row and sometimes in adjacent rows, and your job was to keep an eye and an ear on the technicians there, making sure that they weren’t saying or doing anything dumb and helping them with troubleshooting advice if they got stuck. Sometimes, one of your techs would catch a hot call and you’d listen in, getting ready to take over if the tech was unable—or unwilling—to de-escalate things.

Did I do these things? Yes.

I remember one particular hot call vividly. The tech was talking to a customer who had a bad keyboard; the keyboard was just out of warranty and the tech was refusing to replace it. We had some wiggle room for low-cost items like keyboards and mice and cables, and we could and often did replace them out of warranty. In this particular case, the tech was having a bad day and decided that there was no way on God’s green earth that he was giving in.

The call came to my attention not because the tech waved me over, but rather because he got started yelling so loudly that the whole building could hear him. "No," he started off at a normal volume. "No. No. No. No." It got louder and louder. "NO. NO, NO, NO! NO YOU CAN NOT HAVE A NEW KEYBOARD!" By the end, he was standing and shouting and gesturing at his screen, and he'd attracted the open-mouthed stares of everyone in the area. I walked over and asked what was wrong, and the tech put the customer on hold without another word and said something like, "This asshole wants a new keyboard, but I ain’t giving him shit."

I transferred the call to the supervisor station, apologized profusely to the caller, listened to them and let them vent, and ordered the keyboard. I don’t remember what happened to the tech—he probably quit. The call center had a relatively high turnover.


Page 4

I spent a lot of time scrunched between the wall and a box that looked something like this. Some days it felt like the box was my only friend.
Enlarge / I spent a lot of time scrunched between the wall and a box that looked something like this. Some days it felt like the box was my only friend.

But there was a second way to avoid having to work the phones and face the customers—and that way was a thing called "IVR duty." Management wanted detailed stats kept on the complex phone system that branched calls off from the main Gateway toll-free number to our call center, and for some reason, the stat collection process was a manual one. Someone had to constantly sit in the small data center, crammed onto a child-sized folding chair behind a pair of large Lucent-branded phone switch cabinets, staring at a blurry second-hand monitor connected to a KVM switch that cycled through a half-dozen text mode displays showing the call count and call times. At five-minute intervals, you had to write down the current stats in a binder.

"IVR duty" was boring, and a lot of people considered it punishment, but after a few weeks on the phones it became my absolute favorite thing in the world, and I volunteered for it whenever possible. It meant two hours—or four hours if they’d let me—of getting paid to sit in the corner of a loud, cramped, cold room, reading a book and not taking calls.

After a month of more or less constant IVR duty, though, management caught on because my numbers were in the toilet. My ratio of clocked in time versus time on the phones was terrible, but it didn’t stop me from continuing to dodge phone time with IVR duty as much as possible.

Tech support, I’d rapidly found out, isn’t fulfilling or exciting—it’s a never-ending grind that wears down even the most optimistic and helpful souls. Individual calls might bring you a sense of satisfaction, especially when the customer you’ve just helped is effusive in their praise—but when you’re done being thanked, you hang up, finish your call notes, and jump back into the queue for the next call. It’s a Sisyphean torment. You’ll never reach the top of the hill—the rock rolls back down to the bottom every time. There is no prize or goal. There is no end. It's not like building a house or writing a book—the labor has no tangible reward, and it's never-ending. There will always be more problems to solve. The phone will never stop ringing.

There will always be more problems to solve. The phone will never stop ringing.

In the late '90s I was still pretty active on USENET, and I spent a fair amount of time reading and posting to alt.tech-support.recovery (sort of a tamer, younger version of the scary devil monastery). It was an axiom on ATSR that phone monkeys such as myself reached a state of "burnout" in no more than eighteen months; I found myself abruptly plowing head-first into the burnout wall in just over two.

The exact moment I realized that I hated the job and needed to quit before I hurt myself was the evening of Thanksgiving 1998. I’d volunteered to work, hoping to take advantage of the double time holiday pay for a lazy shift with a catered Thanksgiving dinner courtesy of management. Instead, I found myself logged into the phones with a paper plate of dry turkey and stuffing gone cold on the desk next to me, frantically troubleshooting an overflowing call queue of customers who all apparently decided to get drunk, break their computers, and then call tech support all at the same time. It was a hell of a time to have an epiphany; if this were a movie, my character (played by a gaunt, dead-behind-the-eyes Josh Brolin) would have slipped off his headset and walk out the door, leaving the caller to scream, "HEY! DON'T HANG UP ON ME!" into the empty air while a voiceover said something deep about how I needed to get busy living or get busy dying.

Instead, I finished my shift and ate my dry, cold, institutional turkey and wet, cold, ersatz stuffing, went home, and came back the next day. Life isn't a movie.

Divorce

I wanted to quit, but didn’t want to be without a job—my car wasn’t going to pay for its own gas, after all. But as happens so often with complicated life decisions, I waited long enough to make a choice that the choice ended up being made for me.

There had been some rumors that the call center staffing was going to be cut and that a new contract was coming on board. A number of techs had been given preliminary training on the new contract, which was supposed to be secret, but no one particularly cared about the secrecy—it was going to be Mattel, and the call center was going to be split between Gateway tech support and Barbie software tech support. The inevitable jokes were made about mandatory pink cubicles and matching pink headsets, but the prevailing attitude was that customers were customers, and it all paid the same.

An all-hands meeting was scheduled for Friday, December 18, 1998—I know the exact date because I complained about the meeting’s aftermath in e-mails to my friends, and e-mail is forever. We all thought the meeting was going to be about who was staying with Gateway and who was being assigned off to Mattel, but it turned out that wasn’t quite right.

We two hundred or so call center employees gathered in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Houston, just down Louisiana Street from the Metro building, then were herded into a large conference room and seated. There was muted conversation as we waited for someone to appear at the podium at the front of the room and tell us what was happening. Someone near me made a joke about wondering who was manning the phones at that moment, and someone else loudly responded that no one was and that he hoped no one had left anything across the street because we probably weren’t getting back in there.

"You are fired!" It felt kind of like this, actually.
Enlarge / "You are fired!" It felt kind of like this, actually.

A manager walked up to the podium and the room settled into uncomfortable silence. With no preamble, the manager said that Gateway had canceled its contract and that the call center was being closed. There was no mention of Mattel or any other contract; the manager blazed quickly through his prepared remarks and then left the room faster than a professional magician vanishing off stage.

People I’d never seen before—likely contracted HR help—walked down the rows of chairs, passing out packets. The packets contained a letter explaining that we were being laid off, instructions on how to pick up our final paychecks, and how to sign up for COBRA if applicable (it wasn’t for me). During the manager’s brief speech, a small army of blazer-wearing security guards had appeared at the back of the conference room; they stared us down as we all got up and milled around, and finally began shouting at us that we had to leave the conference room and the hotel immediately. The transition from employee to "person who might do violence and needed to be guarded" had happened remarkably quickly.

I felt like a giddy post-deal Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire.

I felt mixed emotion at the layoff—my very first. The relief of not having to answer another phone call swirled around with the pain of being let go seven days before Christmas and of being treated like a criminal during the process (I was to find out in later layoffs at later companies that bringing in security guards to stave off violence and protect property is pretty common). I still lived at home with my parents, so I wasn’t going to be evicted or anything, but I felt for my coworkers—I was on friendly terms with the folks from my training class who’d stuck around (all of whom still called me "Bill"), and most of them were full timers who were relying on this job as their primary means of income.

In spite of the sting, relief prevailed—and pretty quickly. As I walked down and back through the tunnels to the garage where my car was parked, I felt like I was shedding more and more weight off my shoulders—with every step, more fell off, and I got lighter and lighter and lighter. By the time I hopped into my Z and cranked the engine, I felt like a giddy post-deal Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, ready to start howling Tom Petty lyrics along with the radio.

It was all for the best. I’d caught a ticket home from the front lines of the phone wars. While I’m grateful for the experience I got, it is my most fervent hope that I’ll never have to go back. Truthfully, I’d take a minimum wage job doing manual labor over slapping that headset down over my head again.

And when I get to Heaven, To Saint Peter I shall tell, "Another tech reporting in—

I’ve served my time in hell."