Dottie Downturn gets mean

Salon's arbiter of new-economy etiquette takes on egomaniacal programmers, loathsome dot-commers and tedious dog-lovers.

Published August 3, 2000 7:01PM (EDT)

Dear Dottie Downturn: Three years ago I got a programming job at a groovy little start-up doing self-optimizing targeted advertising software. But the company grew too damn fast, and now it's a middle-management nightmare of clueless men in suits who worry more about whether this sinking ship will ever turn a profit than about our original goal of shipping decent code. I've decided that my days here are numbered, but I also hear that layoffs may be imminent. Should I try to find a new job and quit? Or should I wait until the layoffs happen and then volunteer to get "fired" so that I can collect that severance pay? -- Bored in Burlingame

Dear Bored: Dottie Downturn doesn't know where to begin. Should she respond with pursed lips and furrowed brow to the very concept of "targeted advertising software?" Surely there is no greater distillation of online boorishness to be found than in the muddle-headed notion that advertising can ever be made acceptable to the Web public. As a general principle, Dottie Downturn considers ads to be rude, period. But targeted advertising is devil-spawn, pure and simple.

Dottie Downturn is further alarmed by the attitude so commonly found among programmers that assumes that turning a profit is somehow a less worthy goal than creating "decent code." Despite the frothings of the so-called "free software" crowd (whom Dottie Downturn has always found to be a collection of the most egotistical, unkempt and bratty individuals ever before gathered together under one banner), it seems self-evident to Dottie Downturn that unless a start-up makes money, it will not be able to continue to pay programmers to write code. Microsoft, Dottie Downturn notes, has always understood that shipping mediocre code at high prices is the key to long-term success.

Finally, Dottie Downturn is revolted by your desire to achieve severance pay by volunteering to be fired -- possibly at the expense of one of your colleagues who may not be able to find a job elsewhere as easily as you. Your strategy sounds far more appropriate to the "clueless middle-managers in suits" than to a programmer. Perhaps you should recompile your own moral source code.

Dear Dottie Downturn: As a lowly paid client/server programmer I was humiliated by all the stories of amazing wealth being showered upon the heads of Web programmers in the old "New Economy" of the dot-coms. Now that the bottom has dropped out on them and these newly poor Web monkeys are back to hustling tables, would it be terribly gauche of me to laugh in their faces? -- Chortling in Chattanooga

Dear Chortling: Although Dottie Downturn knows all too well how hard it is to resist the temptation to be mean-spirited, sadistic and unfair, she also feels compelled to note that face-to-face mistreatment of wait-staff is a dangerous game to play. Sure, that pasty-faced 25-year-old filling up your water glass might have been pulling down 100 grand six months ago as a Perl hacker for an online pet food retailer, but right now she has personal control over the food that you are eating ...

A more appropriate response might be to send the down-and-out programmer a witty greeting card expressing your condolences: "Welcome to the old economy," you might write, "where your experience and ability will no doubt receive the compensation they so richly deserve."

Dear Dottie Downturn: What is the proper etiquette when one has been asked to "check out" the Web site a friend works for, only to find it not ready for prime time, or simply ... uninteresting? Do I giggle and say it's great, or start sending them new job listings ASAP? -- Politely Concerned in L.A.

Dear Politely Concerned: There is usually only one proper response when a friend asks you what you think of her new haircut, new boyfriend or new Web site. Lie. Think of something positive to say without seeming unconvincingly overly enthusiastic. For a Web site, it's always best to say modestly favorable things about its "interactivity" and "stickiness." If you're really at a loss, mumble something about cool "pull down menus" and how fast the pages render when viewed with Internet Explorer.

But Dottie Downturn believes that desperate times call for desperate measures. It is time to put a stop to all this Web site evangelizing. Next time, try the following: Ask when her company plans to go public, how much cash reserves it has on hand, and what's the timeline for getting finances into the black. When she starts to stutter something about "changed market circumstances," or worse, whines that "six months ago, nobody was asking us to make a profit," strike for the kill. In a casual tone, as if discussing the performance of the local arena football team, note that her company's market niche is due for consolidation, and wonder idly which Web sites will come out on top.

Trust Dottie, she is unlikely to bother you again, and once word gets around, no one else will, either.

Dear Dottie Downturn: For two years I did my time at an e-commerce start-up and lived the happy dot-commer's life: I came in during off hours to miss traffic; I binged big time on free espresso and subsidized Odwalla; I even co-opted a spare cube and turned it into a dog pen, where my puppy was potty-trained between impromptu frisbee games with my boss. The layoffs took us all by surprise two months ago -- our whole content division was laid to waste in an afternoon. It didn't take long for most of my old co-workers to find new jobs, but I'm afraid I'll never be employed again. Suki, my Saluki, has never spent a day away from me and now her separation anxiety is so intense I can't leave her for a half-hour job interview without sending her into fits. I certainly can't think of working some place that won't welcome my pooch, but I'm finding that start-up culture ain't what it used to be and potential employers don't seem interested in bonding over pooper-scoopers. Am I wrong to be searching for a canine-friendly recruiter? -- Disheartened in Dogville

Dear Disheartened: Dottie Downturn has never smiled upon the habit of bringing dogs to the workplace. On the contrary, she is heartened to learn that the dot-com world is becoming less dog-friendly -- it is one clear indicator that the online business world is finally growing up.

Don't get Dottie wrong -- she is far from anti-dog. Never mind the cold reality that dog hair and black wool pants do not mix, or that co-workers may be allergic to your Lhasa apso. Allergies are for the weak of heart, and those who suffer them do not belong in a start-up. But then again, neither do dogs. Dogs are, by nature, generally happy, given some attention, some food and a squirrel to bark at every now and then. But it is the great fallacy of dot-com life to expect that the workplace be a similarly happy place. Workplaces are for exploitation and stress, not for gamboling about with your tongue halfway down to your knees. Having dogs around is bad for morale -- they either inspire an unrealistic sense that ecstatic joy is just around the corner or they remind one of just how miserable one's own lot is. If you have to have a pet in the office, try a banana slug -- no one feels that their life is worthless when comparing it to a banana slug.

If you are still intent on remaining in barking distance of your hound, Dottie Downturn suggests that you reconsider your career choice. The rush to white-collar dot-com jobs means that animal trainers, dog walkers and kennel operators are in short supply these days. Dog bites are a good deal less debilitating than repetitive stress injuries, and your long-term job security would probably be appreciably greater in the animal-care industry than it would be as a dot-com content producer. And potentially more lucrative too -- think of the sky-high prices you will be able to charge other dot-commers who have also discovered that they now need dog-sitters!

Dear Dottie Downturn: Recently I jumped ship from what may be the poster child of the failed dot-com "community." Is the doctor in? You know who I mean. I did this because (a) My stock options were worthless, (b) I have zero confidence in the (remaining) management staff to turn the company around, (c) my job duties have been reduced to meaningless busywork and (d) I sensed greater opportunity elsewhere, in particular a thriving infrastructure company that recently had their best quarter ever. You know who I mean. But I am now having pangs of guilt about leaving my friends and direct-hires behind to fend for themselves. Plus, maybe I was wrong about management -- what if they get lucky and really do turn it around? Did I do the right thing? -- Anxious in Austin

Dear Anxious: Relax. It's a dot-commer eat dot-commer world out there; your friends will be able to take care of themselves. Indeed, Dottie Downturn suggests you see opportunity where the more feebleminded might be paralyzed by remorse. Don't worry about leaving them behind; hire them away! Poach swiftly and mercilessly: they'll be thrilled at the chance to come work for an infrastructure company with an assured future, even if their option strike prices are well above $100.

Dear Dottie Downturn: What is the polite response when my company continues to send out daily e-mail reminders about the enrollment deadline for our company's employee stock purchase plan, when our stock is on the verge of getting delisted? -- Stumped in San Francisco

Dear Stumped: A surprising number of readers have written in with the same question! If Dottie Downturn was in a cynical mood, she might be inclined to believe that dot-com companies have discovered a new and cheap strategy for that old reverse-the-slumping-stock" standby -- the "stock buyback."

In a traditional stock buyback, a public company attempts to boost its stock price by purchasing large volumes of its own stock. This is typically explained with such wafer-thin excuses as the desire to have stock available to give to employees, but everyone knows it's simply a tactic aimed at counteracting downward pressure on a particular stock. Get those buy orders in!

Dottie Downturn can only applaud those executives who realized that an even better buyback strategy would be to get employees to purchase the stock themselves! Employees can be counted on to buy stock in their employer for such eminently unsound reasons as guilt (shouldn't I have faith in my boss?), overweening optimism (this quarter, we're really going to turn it around!) and stupidity (they wouldn't offer me an opportunity to buy if it wasn't a great deal, would they?).

But the sun is shining and the birds are singing outside today, and Dottie Downturn just isn't feeling very cynical, so she will content herself with saying, "if the stock price fits, don't buy it."

Dear Dottie Downturn: My dot-com company has begun the spasmodic crawl of its spiral swim down the toilet of new capitalism. Truth be told, I don't much care. Working on my fifth decade now, I find one job pretty much like another. Being old school, I became utterly confused trying to place a value on their (now valueless) stock options, so I ended up insisting that they pay me in real money before I hired on. My 401(k) is fine, and this has been, if nothing else, an interesting ride.

The thing is, when I first started, eyes around here were as bright as the new studs in navel piercings. Now you can imagine the dark and troubled glances in the hallway. The youth of the new economy, many of whom have cheerfully given 12 and 15 hour days for nothing more than crap wages and the paper on which their options agreement is printed, are now glum as the groupies of a band whose lead singer has OD'd and died at the ripe age of 22.

I wish something could be salvaged, something more than the company logo T-shirts and the memory of cool beer bashes. After all, there's an opportunity for real wisdom here, something along the lines of "There is no new thing under the sun" or "Don't take any wooden nickels." However, I'm not so ossified that I've forgotten how hateful it is to the young when lessons are actually pointed out. How can I encourage them to seek the valuable insights of this experiment in misadventure capitalism without sounding like a scolding old fogey? -- Daddy Wah Diddy

Dear Daddy: You can't. And the odds are good that those dark glances mean that they've already figured this lesson out for themselves, despite their tender ages. Any comments you make might just draw unneeded attention to yourself. Keep your head down -- during the next round of layoffs, management may wonder why they are keeping an expensive senior staffer on the payroll, when they could easily hire three fresh college grads for your salary ...

Dear Dottie Downturn: My start-up just moved into this hip converted warehouse development in the Mission district of San Francisco. Lo and behold, on the first day we moved in, there was graffito on our front door that said "Die Dot-com Scum." All over the building someone had slapped up posters telling Internet yuppies to move back to the Marina. It turns out that our spacious brick loft used to belong to a group of artists and dancers that got evicted because dot-commers like myself were willing to pay five bucks per square foot. Now, everyone in the neighborhood hates me. I think the burrito guy spit into my enchilada. And I feel kinda guilty. What should I do? -- Distressed Dot-com Scumbag

Dear Distressed: Dottie Downturn sympathizes. It's not easy being an agent of gentrification, especially when you yourself are probably fond of ethnic "color" and like to hang out in seedy bars knocking back shots of watered-down tequila. What did you do to deserve such open hostility from nostalgic, outmoded locals who haven't yet made peace with their shrinking lot in the new economy?

Ten years ago, people your age were condemned for being "slackers" who were "above work." But now that a whole generation of 25-year-olds is putting its nose to the grindstone, and has kick-started an economic tidal wave that is floating the boats of billions of people all over the globe, you are getting criticized for wanting to buy a home in a cool neighborhood and drive in a comfortable (if not fuel-efficient) car. The nerve of these people! No one forced these "artists" or "dancers" to pursue such a cash-poor endeavor, so why the outrage when they're supplanted by a more lucrative enterprise, populated by knowledge-workers like yourself? Send 'em all off packing to Santa Cruz. Dottie says good riddance!

Take heart. Over time, your situation will only improve. The neighborhood will inevitably fill with more and more people exactly like you. Then those silly stragglers still clinging to their rent-controlled apartments will begin to feel more and more like the strangers in their own neighborhood. In the meantime, avoid the burrito place, and simply order lunch online, while you bide your time.

And how about you, dear reader? Do you have qualms about proper behavior in the new dot-com economy? Please send all questions to Dottie Downturn.

By Dottie Downturn

A former full-time employee of now enjoying the freelance life, Dottie Downturn is convinced that layoffs aren't as bad as rude people say they are.

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