The Berkeley Lineman

attlogoI struck up a conversation with a working man at a coffee shop last week. He’s one of the people who keep the phone network up, a veteran Bell-head phone guy. Works on poles and in people’s houses. What do you do? he asked and I said I was an author who writes about how people learn things at work.

This fellow hates his job. Management doesn’t appreciate what he does. He says they don’t even know what he does. He gets no respect.

When he joined the company, the Vice President who ran his region had come up from the ranks. He’d been a lineman and learned how the company really worked and who had to do what while on his way up the ladder. He understood the challenges. He trusted people to have good spirit and get the job done.




People were proud to work for the phone company back then. Their uniforms drew respect. Their company had built the frigging phone network that criss-crosses America. They built it from ground up with rocks and dirt and thousands of dedicated people. His company. Today it’s a different outfit. Today’s managers are these Yale and Harvard graduates who look at numbers all day. Spreadsheets. That’s all they care about. They don’t know what’s really going on at all.




The supervisors are worse. They are tyrants. They don’t understand the work. All they care about is numbers. They don’t trust anybody. How would you like a job where your boss didn’t trust you? One supervisor sneaks around checking up on the line people in his personal car. Sneaky guy. Imagine! The bosses think everybody is out to steal something. How can I work for somebody who doesn’t trust me?

“How did you learn to do your job?” I asked. He spent the first 2 1/2 weeks in training. They used to have a big training center in Fremont but when land became so valuable, they sold it. Now they have what’s called Training in a Suitcase. New people are supposed to do it when they have time. The training department’s gone. The Lineman has to train newbies. He figures out if they’re readers who’ll learn from his manuals or hands-on guys and gals who will learn it all on the job. He doesn’t have much time for this but knows it’s important.

“How you getting on?” He said he couldn’t wait to retire. Work was awful. Management is awful. All the top cares about is $66 billion in revenue. The direct managers want higher production. Forget the quality, just bring in higher numbers. He hates his job. He can’t wait to retire, be done with it.

I mentioned that I knew the guy who ran his company’s leadership program. He said “You tell him this for me. He’s not doing his job. This is awful.” I said I’d pass it on.

“You know what’s broken? America is broken. I’m a law-abiding, tax-paying, veteran American citizen, and these ‘managers’ don’t trust me.”

“What I get out of this job is You.” (He points from his eyes to mine.) Working with customers, solving their problems: that’s what’s worthwhile.

I’m thinking I’d like to tear this guy’s bosses a new one but I’m sure there are two sides to the story.

Thirty years ago, the company that build the telegraph and phone network, AT&T, was dismembered. I became a customer of the BabyBell, Pacific Bell, the company that paid more than 25 visits to my house to get my DSL and phone service working. The place were Dilbert and the Pointy-Haired Guy were born. Another “Baby Bell,” Southwest Bell, gobbled up PacBell, and in a strange twist of fate, took its former parent’s name, AT&T. Didn’t Oedipus come back to Ma for a little hoochy-kooch? Marrying mom. Ewww. No wonder this company is twisted.

I’ve been pouring over feedback and markers from my own career this week. I’m an original thinker, curious about everything, and in love with learning. I am highly conceptual, non-linear, abstract, and too high-level. In 2013, I want to be more down to earth.

The Berkeley Lineman’s story didn’t surprise me. I have been mulling it over for a dozen years. As usual, I was taking in the 60,000 foot view. (Down, boy!) I haven’t taken time to connect the dots for my readers. Let me point out that:

The Lineman’s in a bind because the industrial revolution is over but lots of people are still playing by its obsolete rules (like the Lineman’s number-crunching, misguided bosses). Networks are begetting networks, denser connections make for faster cycle times, the rate of progress speeds up, effectiveness trumps efficiency, and a surfeit of variables causes uncertainty and instability.

Everybody wants a simpler, less confusing, and more just world. The way to get there is to go back to treating people like people. Dump the vestiges of the by-gone era. Skip micromanagement. Follow your heart. Revere your values. Do what’s right. Change the world.

Some people probably think their company’s moving too fast. Actually, the company’s too slow. The Lineman’s ahead of his employer. He has his priorities right: satisfy the customer and have a good time doing it. The company must change its ways to enable its Linemen to flourish.