In the jungles of high stakes finance, employees of any big bank are used to dealing with a plethora of exotic alphabet soup creatures. For example there are such specimens as SEF, MIFID, CME, LME, QE, BBG, NYC, HKG, TKY, APAC, EMEA, LATAM, EOD, and SOD, to name just a few. But none are more dreaded than the terror inspiring RIF.
Last time I touched on the fact that expert knowledge of bank IT systems, desperately needed to keep the world's financial house of cards from toppling, is severely lacking and concentrated in just a handful of people scattered across countries & timezones. One of the reasons for this sad state of affairs is the constant danger of getting caught in a RIF, which stands for Reduction In Force. As cold-blooded and dehumanizing a term for "layoff" as any I've ever heard.
RIFs, or layoffs if you prefer, are depressingly common in any high tech industry. It doesn't take much Googling to assemble a host of headlines like these:
There are many reasons a RIF might happen. Often it's money related. Company profits are down, certain areas of the business are underperforming, and belt tightening is needed so the rich guys at the top can keep their million dollar bonuses (What's that? You thought all bank employees get big bonuses? Hell no; those fat cats you read about in the news are the 1% of the 1%). Or your position is deemed redundant because you live in a "high cost business center" and some yokel in the back of beyond is willing to do your job for a salary 3 times less. Ain't globalization grand?
Other times, it's performance related. At one firm I'm not going to name (and policies like these are fairly common), employees work themselves to death trying to avoid the 10% rule, which states that the people who score in the bottom 10% for annual performance reviews get personal congratulatory visits from a big slobbery RIF. Never mind the fact that this is a relative metric, and by the standards of a less demanding industry the bottom 10% might actually be the top 10%. Remember how you hated being graded on a curve in high school? This is little different, except the consequences are a bit more severe than a scolding from your parents.
The myth of job security
In the finance industry RIFs, when they happen, are sudden. You never see them coming, and you never expect they will happen to you. You go to work one day, all cheerful and excited about the fascinating project you're up to your elbows in. Sure, you know that team sizes are shrinking and a couple people in another office got axed recently. But you also know you're irreplaceable, that nobody has the right combination of skills & know-how to do the job as well as you.
Then halfway through your morning coffee, a senior manager calls you up and asks you to go into a conference room for a little one-on-one private chat. You walk in, and the bigwig assumes a sympathetic expression, trying to put you at ease and failing miserably. Now you know something's wrong.
"I'm sure you're aware business has been tough lately," he begins. You listen in stunned disbelief as he tells you your service to the company has been "valuable" and "this was a hard decision to make" but "we need to reduce head count". As a feeling of numbness creeps through your limbs, an HR drone shuffles in and thrusts out a pile of legal papers waiting for your signature to make the RIF official. You could refuse to sign, but people who do that get condemned to a black hole of lawyers, lost money, and lengthy court disputes. Better to swallow your pride and take comfort in the severance package.
Half an hour later the meeting concludes with a pair of hulking security guards confiscating your building pass and escorting you down to the lobby like the persona non grata you now are. You aren't allowed to return to your desk, gather your personal belongings, or say goodbye to your colleagues. HR offers assurances that all your personal stuff will be packed into a box and mailed to you in a few days. And don't even think of trying to check your company e-mail account from home; it's already been deactivated. Goodbye and have a nice life.
Think that sounds like an awful experience? It is. It happened to me a few years back.
To this day, whenever I'm called into a private meeting my palms get sweaty, my heart starts thumping, and I make sure to grab my briefcase & most important personal items. Because you just never can tell.
A scary bedtime story
Frontline support personnel such as myself are kept awake at night by thoughts of what might happen if something breaks someday and nobody knows how to fix it. A RIF can be hard even on those who manage to escape its grasping claws.
A while back there was a team based in London which I shall refer to as Pricing Dev (not its real name). These people were responsible for developing and maintaining software that calculates prices of swap & bond products, pushing the prices out to other teams which quote them to clients. I interacted with Pricing Dev routinely when I needed help answering obscure support questions about why certain products were priced in certain ways.
One day I sent an e-mail to Pricing Dev and the mail bounced. Feeling confused, I asked my manager if Pricing Dev's team DL (distribution list) had changed.
"Oh, you haven't heard," he responded somewhat glumly. "Pricing Dev is gone. The whole team was let go and pricing systems are now in lights on mode."
Management, in its infinite wisdom, had decided no further development was needed on the systems that Pricing Dev owned. Operating in lights on mode meant a minimal amount of money would be spent to keep the systems running, but that was it. No more new features, no more optimizing the code, no more help with support issues.
It was a devastating blow, losing all that expert knowledge at once. Some of the people in Pricing Dev had been very senior engineers, with years of experience to draw on. And now literally nobody left in London knew how the code worked, or even how to compile it into a running program. What if some new bug was discovered? What if an external dependency was updated, requiring corresponding changes on our side? What if, what if... none of us could answer those questions.
We all agreed it was sheer madness on the part of business leaders who had no idea how to run an IT department. All they knew was how to juggle around numbers on accounting spreadsheets, with no consideration for the impact of the brain drain. Sure enough, the following month saw a noticeable uptick in support incidents, as well as the length of time, and thus the cost, needed to resolve them.
Management eventually saw reason (Want executives to take swift action? Hit them where it hurts - their wallets). A couple months later, most of the laid off Pricing Dev members were re-hired. Personally, I would have been wary of accepting that deal; being RIFed once means it could happen again. But the same could be said of any other firm in the industry. As a former roommate once colorfully put it, "same shit different pile".
Escaping the RIF
RIFs are persistent demons. You can't fight them, and they follow wherever you go. All you can do is run from them, and hope that when they come to call, they'll pick some other victim instead of you.
I take pride in my work. My job is interesting and constantly challenges me. I get to work on innovative projects and learn a lot of new technical skills as I go. But there's a price: long hours, plenty of stress, and a feeling that everything you've worked so hard for could be taken away in an instant by an uncaring, ungrateful bureaucracy that sees people as "resources" and "head count" instead of living beings.
Every time I mess up, I wonder if there's a RIF skulking around in the shadows. How long can I last? Are my performance reviews favorable enough to pass muster? Will I still be here next year? Or next month? How will I feed my family if I lose my job again?
I don't want to put up with this untenable situation forever. Instead of slaving away my remaining years for a corporate master that could care less, I want to be my own master. Just imagine: the freedom to go anywhere, do anything, set my own schedule, sleep in when I want to. That is my dream. That is my future.
And that, my dear readers, is why I am here.
I'll give 5 SBD to the first person who can correctly state what all the acronyms in the first paragraph of this post stand for. Call it a "thank you" for reading all the way to the end of this! Put your answer in a comment below.
Links for more reading
In case you missed it, here is the first post in my House of Cards series about working in finance:
Before you ask, flowing text around the leftward & rightward leaning images was done using a technique shared by @krnel in his very useful tutorial:
For more posts about cryptocurrency, finance, travels in Japan, and my journey to escape corporate slavery, please follow me: @cryptomancer
Image credits: Donald Trump meme is from makeameme.org. I put together the collage of layoff headlines by taking screen shots from various news sites (credits given to sources in the image itself). All other images are taken from Pixabay and used under Creative Commons CC0
Achievement badges courtesy of @elyaque . Want your own? Check out his blog.