So check this out, I am at the third client this week, bored to crap, because I have been giving the same presentation over and over again. I talk about paradigm shifts, I suggest that we level-set our understanding, I urge them to go out and gain mind-share and finish by laying out for them a strategic vision with tactical and actionable steps.
The odd thing is that based on this, and few weeks of expert needling, they are going to pay an sickening amount of money for a solution that will in all likelihood do nothing to budge the paradigm. I mean there is a chance that it might help them, but really I cannot be sure. Honestly. What I am sure of is that if they buy, my firm makes the numbers, a whole lot of people remain employed, and I look good. Employed, meant employed-at-my-firm, not at the client, because what I haven’t mentioned yet is that the good folks in the room signing off on this project will be the ones let go to make room for the new system. It’s progress, but I don’t buy it. Over the last ten years, I have helped sell dozens of killer apps that just sat on shelves after people hit the streets. So what is the right thing to do?
My arms are tired from all the waving, pointing and chopping the air to punctuate my points, but I struggle on to my grand finale.
“That my friends is the Holy Grail!”, I say, hands raised high, cupping my point. My eyes hover slowly across the room, coming to rest at the spot just above my outstretched hands. Now picture a whole room of white corporate types, eyeballs fixated on my cup. Oh yeah, and there is token black dude in the back corner. I know how he feels. I know he knows how I feel. I know he knows I know how he feels, and as a result we have been unable to hold each others gaze throughout my presentation.
He just sits there judging me. He is wondering how I got the gig; in my funny accent pounding notions into concepts, thrusting gists into view, while making impressions on perceptions, in order to compose a proposal out of ideas, and model theories out of pure thought. Nah, he’s on to me.
I feel like such a fraud, standing here in my suit, holding my arms in the air, trying so hard to finish at a high point. Please let me digress for a quick second, and point out that my suit is nice. I have always dreaded myself in a suit - picturing my dad and all the other civil servants at the bus stop in Buru Buru waiting to be squeezed brusquely into a mathree on rainy mornings. You know the look; ill fitting, crumpled from so many packed mathree rides and with a faint whiff of last evenings swallow and nyaks. God, I swore to never wear a suit. I expected to go to Kenya Poly like my cousin and become an engineer. Full stop.
Now here I am peddling words for a living. No, not a journalist or even a decent novel writer, but a consultant working jargon till it is worn and jumping on the next business management bandwagon, as soon as it comes into view. Sure, my white-papers have been well received and published, but so what…it’s still all an empty game. All just false analogies, shell games, and trick questions; a sucker doping suckers.
Anyway, what killed my mood is that I made one of those dreaded cultural reference miscues, again. You know, I know to avoid talking sheng when I go home so as to avoid dating myself, or worse looking like a fool. But working in corporate America, I catch myself trying too hard sometimes.
Like this morning, my co-workers were complimenting my hard work on behalf of the company and the new revolutionary management technique we were pitching, and one of the said cheerily, “Looks like you drank the Kool-Aid!”
Instead of responding cheerily with, “Nice one Chet!”, I misunderstood and went ahead to explain that I never drank Kool-Aid, and grew up drinking Treetops. They burst out laughing. So much hilarity over a little cultural foible.
“Shit”, I thought, and silently questioned whether some of their delight may have been taken from some racist connotation implied in the name of my favorite childhood drink.
So, every day I have to be on the alert. Watch what I say. Avoid making mistakes like drinking coffee through the little stirrers. Why are do they stir their coffee with little straws? It all leaves me confused and paranoid. I know how I look. I am that little Kenyan guy with the watchful eyes.
I end up not trusting anyone, double-checking everything, and ending with a reputation for being anal and attentive. This is not always a good thing. Beware when they ask about your attention to detail, eh. Don’t go overboard! It’s kind of a trick question. Okay, I am a little paranoid, but I treat every question as if it were a trick question. I was ruined by doing all those multiple choice questions, and I never recovered from seeing my first ‘(d) None of the above’. Oh, I can’t tell you the horror! None of the above!! I mean, it used to make me crap my pants. I would going along so well, nailing every question like a fucking carpenter, and then ‘wham’, they would pull a fucking ‘none of the above’! I would be off my game for the rest of the test. I hated teachers who did that. I mean wasn’t it the height of laziness, or at least just damn wrong.
It wasn’t fair, I would cry. You have the answer and you won’t just share it with us! I drove myself mad. So, being a bit of a swot, I started writing in the answer. Yaani, I would add ‘(e) 14.374…and add an extra decimal point to prove my point, and then shade in my crooked little ellipse. It was my way of getting back! Unfortunately it worked and my standard 7 math teacher, Sa Peter, starting hating me. I preferred my previous math teachers, Sa James who taught standard six and Miss Alice who taught standard five.
He would walk back into class, his half-cowboy boots making a loud ‘toc, toc, toc’ on the floor.
‘Times up! Drop your pensos and hand forward your pepas!”.
He would then fish out my paper and look for any of my extra answers to mark up with a big red ‘X’. My paranoia now was easily matched by stubbornness then. So, I continued to enter my correct answers, and he got more pissed off.
During one test I was overjoyed to find a question that had no correct answer among the given multiple choices! This happened very rarely, and when it did the whole class got a free point for the question. I knew Govinda, the Sikh swot, and Aggrey, the perennial number three were scoring better and better in their math tests and I could not afford them getting a free point. In any case they had probably seen the same mistake as I did…but just in case, I was going to have Sa Peter fix it. Perhaps he could put a new set of multiple-choices on the blackboard.
Back in the conference room, a chair creaks as someone shifts in their chair to relieve cramping cheek. Damn, I held the chalice-in-the-air pose a little to long! I turn back to face the room, staring directly at my fellow interloper in the back and finish with,
“The net-net is that what you need to do is disambiguate your data in order to create a more intuitive knowledgebase. Thank you. Does anyone have any questions?...No? Thanks again.” There is a pattering of applause as I take my seat and the next presenter, my compadre from the back corner, nervously passes out a thick sheaf of handouts.
After reviewing my test silently twice, I walked to the front of the class. As soon as I got up I saw Govinda and Aggrey exchange glances. I knew they were lip reading but there was no way to block their view.
Sa James would not agree with me. He said the answer was there! I showed him my calculation, but he just shook his head and said it was wrong. How annoying! He smiled and said ‘Sit down, Muthee’.
‘No!’, I said, way too loudly and way too angrily to be talking to a teacher. I was done. I lost 5 points on the test for ‘disrespecting the teacher’, 5 points for ‘disrupting the class’, and gained 1 point for the bad question. I had been right. It was Pyrrhic victory I told myself, but what I didn’t know was that it wasn’t over.
I don’t fully understand how an adult could get all worked up like that and get into a pissing match with a kid, but it got to a point at the end of second term, before our CPE mocks that he presented us with a paper in which all fifty question had an ‘(d) none-of-the-above choice. All fifty! There was an audible gasp when the class turned over the questions to start the test. In fact, some kids started crying.
Of course, I was one of those crying kids, but I read each question and all their multiple choice answers, blurry through the tears, and shaded each one correct.