24 June 2011

The Storyteller

This is an autobiographical essay in response to the ever so frequent question: what do you do at work?

The warehouse, plain and bland, stands just off the road like a giant fortress. Like all good fortresses, it is not the outside that attracts visitors. Rather, it is the treasure that lies inside it. Outside, the warehouse looks drab with its towering light brown walls and black trimmings, the office door doesn’t help much: “Employees Only” the small placard warns those who would open the foreboding black door.

On the other side of the door things change little. The interior walls are a lighter shade of brown, almost taupe, and while there is no decorative trim, the walls are mostly empty. In the office, the workers are chatting; sometimes on the phone, sometimes to each other. Such is the humble work place of Daniel. Although he often works from any of the company’s other four locations, this is his chosen sanctuary to work his wonders.

Although the outside is bleak, the inside office is obviously better suited to his creative thinking. The chatter of the customer service representatives provide a gentle background noise and people to occasionally socialize with and bounce ideas off of. But it is the massive twenty foot white board that makes the office ideal. “This,” Daniel says referring to the white board, “this is the only white board we have that is big enough to unload my brain onto.” Currently the white board is covered with scribbles, notes and a mass of lines and boxes. He uses the white board to stage his “stories”.

Isabel, the Customer Service Manager, refers to him as an “Information God”, a title that makes Daniel laugh—he prefers the title of “Storyteller”. Isabel tells of when he first set up the company’s Customer Service surveys. The Customer Service Office had been hoping, at best, for a spreadsheet that tallied the results and were worried mostly about the ease of gathering the data. Instead of the basic spreadsheet they requested, Daniel delivered what he calls “a beautifully matriculated masterpiece of storytelling.” The survey system provides a friendly entry system for collecting the survey information and a full set of graphs and charts to explain the results, none of which require any technical expertise. “Like any good story, the mechanics are there, but they’re hidden,” Daniel explains.

This is how most of his “stories” work: they feature quick and easy access to the data through charts, graphs, buttons to automatically retrieve up-to-date data , and “smart, dumb” text—complex formulas that output different texts based on the data in the spreadsheet so the responses look smart, but really aren’t.

The ease with which people can use his spreadsheets has made them popular in the company, but he says that people should thank his boss for that, not him. “I like a good graph or chart, but the real data is where the best stories are found,” he says, “it was my boss who insisted that I make the stories in the data easier to see.”

He sits hunched over his meticulously clean desk. The wood surface has on it a grand total of five objects: his phone and keys, lying side by side on the left side on the desk, a laptop, a second monitor and a wireless mouse. While his physical desk is nearly empty, his two screens are not. The laptop is cluttered with his email and various informational pages and the second monitor, hooked up as an extension of the laptop, is filled with a massive spreadsheet. It is this very spreadsheet that he often thinks of when people ask him if he knows Microsoft Excel. “Know it,” he says, “I live in it.”

While he might joke about his knowledge of Excel, compared to most people, he does live in it. And like a monk left to himself to delve into the depths of sacred works, he knows Excel extremely well. “I often laugh when people ask if Excel can do certain things,” he laughs at this thought. “I usually tell them, ‘just tell me what you want and I’ll make Excel do it for you’.”

This particular day he is working on one of his most complex “stories”: the company payroll. The numerous windows displayed across his screens are all critical story elements. They are part of a massive revision that he recently released. He explains that each screen has a function and purpose, and while they all together may seem overwhelming, no one else ever sees them all together.

While some might think it an incredible feat, to him it is little more than a documentary. “No one does all the work,” he explains. Some poor soul digs to find random statistics that will be quoted in the voice overs. Another poor soul does the preliminary location and people research. The lucky host goes out and shoots footage with the camera crew. Then yet another host of people come in to cut the footage together and scale the production to the correct level.

Payroll, for him, is no different. The new version—called Blackfin after ocean tuna—has simple, little spreadsheets and databases that different departments enter in little bits of information. At payroll time a single, bright green button, labeled “Extract All”, is pressed and through Excel’s magic all the little spreadsheets and databases are rounded up and processed to the familiar, but ever changing, story of payroll.

Later, after he is done patching the payroll file, he walks to the back of the warehouse and rummages through a mess of old parts. The parts were recently purchased as a lump-sum from a business that was closing. He’s not looking for anything in particular, but more just wants to get away. His excursions into the warehouse are usually fruitless themselves, but they allow Daniel to refocus his mind. “I never know what I’ll find back here,” he says. Moments later he coos, “Ooh, these belong in the IT room,” he says with an elevated pitch as he wraps a bundle of network cables around his neck. Obviously, he’s done this before.

Satisfied with today’s find he heads back towards the office. He doesn’t get far before he stops again, this time to pick up a rolling office chair. “The guys keep stealing chairs from the office for their lunchroom,” he explains. Instead of pushing the chair to the office, he sits in it, grabs the arm rests, carefully aims the chair and then, with cables still dangling from his neck, gives a swift kick and sends himself hurtling down the aisle between dining chairs and bedroom mirrors. The noise of the rolling chair can be heard throughout the whole warehouse, just one example of his creative eccentric nature.

Back in the office, after dropping off the cables and the chair, Daniel examines his white board. He crosses some items off the board, and then taps his marker against the board. The next item on his list is to put up a reminder about upcoming network changes. He sits back down at his desk and brings up the company intranet site; he considers the site to be one of his greatest stories. “Everyone in the company uses it every day,” he says with pride in his voice. He starts to tell the story of making the site such a success, and then pauses as he looks around the office. “I’ve never told them the secret of my success.” After a few seconds of typing, he reviews the reminder and with a satisfactory nod posts it online.

Those secrets are some of his rarest stories. In fact, he boasts, no one person has heard them all, and he intends to keep it that way. “If anyone knew that all I do every day is tell stories,” Daniel says with a smile, “well, they might find a way to live without me.” With that, he goes back to work: reviewing data, looking for connections and recording the stories he finds.

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