Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Let me tell you what I've done. (part 4)

In Part 1 I covered my work history from my High School days until I got a job offer at Specialty Records in the Spring of 1992.

In Part 2 I covered my time at Specialty Records from my hiring through my years as a Statistical Process Control Coordinator.

In Part 3 I covered the transitional period from the CD / DVD split in 1995 to my acceptance of the role of DVD Asset Manager in 1998.

In this part I will detail my years as the DVD Asset Manager, from 1999 to 2007.

I loved being the Asset Manager.

Let me back up a little bit. After confirming my interest in the job in late 1998, I formally accepted the offer in January 1999, after the WAMO Multi-Media Center - our compression, encoding, and authoring facility - had moved into a separate building. (This was the original location of Specialty Records, and had been used for various purposes throughout the company's history.) My interview consisted of going to the office of the head of the department, who said "So, do you want the job?", to which I responded, "Yeah." And I was in.

There was a transitional period, of course, during which I broke the news to my current manager, and then began turning over my duties and functions to various other people in the department - or not. In times like this, some things which seemed like they were worth doing when one person is doing them no longer seem worth doing when they need to get turned over to other people whose plates were already pretty full. Even after I came on board with WAMO, I was still working "bicoastally" as I called it, heading back to my old desk (a mile from my new one) for an hour or two at the end of the day to carry on with some of my old duties for a few weeks.

I got a crash course in DVDs. Fascinating, amazing stuff. I developed what I call an iconic concept of the structure of the DVD - little interlocking chunks of pure mathematics that slide over and alongside each other and try to fill a complete three-dimensional volume where the third dimension is time, and each chunk is constrained to a degree by its neighboring chunks. I realized that figuring out how the content of a DVD fit together was an exercise in systems thinking, much like thinking about how all the different elements of a closed environment - like, for example, the weather systems of a planet - influence, affect, and constrain each other. Suddenly my knowledge of non-linear dynamics started to muscle its way to the front of my mind, just waiting for a chance to express itself.

My predecessor had created several Excel programs to deal with the calculation of bit-budgets, the determination of how the various video files must be compressed in order to fit together with all of the other content on a DVD. My manager gave me seminars in DVD compression theory. I absorbed everything that was being thrown at me, and then I did my thing: analysis and synthesis. I took it all apart, studied it until I understood the internal mechanisms of each piece, and then put it back together in a way that was more streamlined, more efficient. I revised, and re-revised, and re-re-revised the existing bit-budget calculators until I had something I was comfortable with, something that would work in any variety of situations. I developed calculators for dealing with Drop-Frame and PAL timecode.

I threw myself at the problem of subtitles. Dozens of different subtitle languages might be on a project, and I had to make sure they were all right - you don't want to get Estonian when you hit the button for Latvian, or Mandarin when you select Cantonese.

I ate, drank, and breathed DVD assets. Video on Digital Betacams, audio on DLTs, subtitles in zipped files via e-mail or FTP, ROM content, menus, everything. Utilizing all available space on the disc, maximizing video quality while allowing sufficient flexibility for the unexpected.

I worked directly with the clients. At first this was a team effort; the Operations Manager was the primary contact and the Asset Manager was essentially the sidekick, or the good cop to the Operations Manager's bad cop, depending on the circumstances. In time that changed, and I became the direct contact for most of the project, once the initial agreement to do the project had been established by the Operations Manager.

It was great. I would partner with the clients, develop relationships with them, get to know their needs and desires and quirks. Make them feel loved, if I was doing my job right. Let them know that their project was in the hands of a team of people who really, really gave a damn about it.

And what projects we worked on! I will not mention any specifically, but we did work on some of the biggest DVD releases of the day. And small ones, too, lots of those. Big or small, we treated all of our clients and their projects like they were our top priority. Which they were.

And more than once, more often than it should have happened, we spotted something that we brought to the client's attention that they were able to correct sooner rather than later and avoid major expenses down the road. Saving our clients' bacon was just another aspect of the job.

Of course, the hours were long. Of course, the work was hard, and complex. Most of our clients were in other time zones. California. England. Japan. We had to arrange our schedules to cater to their needs. I was on salary - I had been on salary since I had become SPC Coordinator in 1993, or shortly thereafter - so I worked whenever and as long as was necessary to get the job done.

Things went on like this for over a year. Really, for the most part, everything I just said remained true throughout my entire tenure as Asset Manager. But after a year, things started to change.

More management stuff. Maneuvering. Power grabs. Tectonic plates shifting. Alpha Males going up against wannabe Alpha Males.

The guy who was in charge of WAMO suddenly left.

That was an icicle through the heart. I didn't know what this meant. I really hadn't seen this coming, or if I did, I tried my best to pretend it wasn't.

(Now we get to the tricky part of the story. Stuff that happened within the past decade. Fresh wounds. Things that are still active, even though neither of the companies involved technically exists anymore.)

A new company came onto the scene. A competitor, though it was officially betting many of its chips on a new and different format. People started to leave our company and go over to theirs.

Teamwork has a dark side, one which many companies don't understand. Sometimes team members develop loyalties to each other that are stronger than their loyalties anywhere else.

People went over, and others jumped ship. Not all at once. One at a time, slowly, gradually. People became fed up with the situation at their current company and saw the promise of a better tomorrow at another company, where they would be working alongside people with whom they had already developed working relationships.

The trickle turned into a deluge. I decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about. I talked to the people over there, was made an offer, made plans to leave. By then it must have been early 2001.

The two companies squared off. Legal threats were made. Something had happened, something that actually gave one company some legal leverage over the other.

On the day I was to give my two weeks notice, a legal agreement was reached. The new company agreed not to hire any more employees of the old company for a period of one year.

The last helicopter had left Saigon, and all I could do was was watch it fly away.

I knew the score, then and there. The new company couldn't afford to wait a year for me. They would have to fill my position somehow, with someone. At the end of the year I would be free to go over, but would no longer be needed.

We decided to make the best of it, abandoned orphans huddling against the storm. The bonds between those who remained behind grew tighter.

The year came and went. And at the end of it, the new company was all staffed up.

And we carried on. We muddled through. The business environment changed. Our new competitor was formidable, and they knew what we knew. We had lost much of our management and leadership. New people were assigned from outside the department.

That situation continued for years. Developing relationships, retaining customers, bringing in new customers, all were major challenges. Dealing with competition. Reducing costs, reducing turnaround times. Dealing with the changing business climate.

When I started in 1999, our turnaround time was - as stated to every client - eight weeks from receipt of last asset. We reduced that turnaround time, again and again. We improved our operation and increased efficiency and developed tricks that let us get things done that much faster. In the end turnarounds were expressed in days or even hours, not weeks.

We endured corporate changes. Paper billionaire AOL bought Time Warner and rapidly drove it into the ground. The combined company, reeling from this disaster, began shedding parts of itself, trying to cut its losses, trying to do anything that might put it back into the black. In the end we were cut loose and sold to another company, a company whose name we still bear.

Something similar happened to our new competitor.

The world changed on September 11, 2001.

We moved in 2002. We packed up all of our equipment, all of our assets, left the ancient, original home of Specialty Records and moved into a shiny new facility located within our main factory. We tried to settle in and make the place work.

We streamlined our processes. I developed interactive Excel spreadsheets that allowed any member of any subdepartment to access the project book for any project at any time. Prior to that, all of the information had been written by hand in a paper book, or several paper books, if there were multiple versions of the same project going through. At each stage the person checking the subtitles, or compressing the video, or encoding the audio, or designing the menus, or authoring the project would have to consult the paper book and enter their specific information in it, assuming they could locate it. When I developed the electronic book all of that changed. Everyone had access to all information instantly, including new and improved versions of all of the bitrate and timecode calculators I had developed, regardless of who else was accessing that same information at that time.

I travelled to Ireland in 2002, and again in 2003. I became a blogger in 2004. My father died in 2005. I went to Ireland for a third time in 2006. I bought my grandmother's house shortly after I got back.

We sustained several Reductions In Force. We were cut to the bone and beyond, while customers became ever more demanding. With bloody-minded determination we soldiered on. We did more with less, became cross-functional, became more agile. We continued standing, continued marching, when we should have fallen.

Up until February 27, 2007.

Next: The end of the world, and what comes after.

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