I Forgot How Smart I Used to Be

It was 2016.  I was working for at&t and it was pushing retraining of the current workforce. AT&T was  pushing it pretty hard.  They called it “Workforce 2020”. The message to the employees was to either train up in technology or get out.  The company’s CEO was quoted in the NYTimes, 02/13/2016.

“… employees must “retool” continuously.  He added that those not spending five to 10 hours a week of their personal time in online learning will “obsolete themselves” with the technology.” 

AT&T had quite a few employees who were what I think of as the backbone of America. The people who were most at risk of losing their jobs. And I was worried, not so much for myself but for them.  Middle aged women, dressed not quite so fashionably, carrying an extra 25 pounds or so.  That weight that you can’t shed after the last child is born and you don’t have time to shed once you’re working and have kids in school.  Clothes bought on sale at Macy’s or Ross or TJ Maxx, sometimes colorful but not always quite in style.  These are the women who bring their lunches to work, who make casseroles for their neighbors and bring snacks to the kids’ ball games.  These are the women who have NO time for themselves.  How they were expected to put in an additional ten hours a week of their own time.  An additional ten hours where they were focused and alert and not distracted by the needs of others, was beyond me.  These women were my age and somehow looked older.  With no children and with many years experience in technology I did not feel at risk.

Technology moves at a lightning pace and I was constantly reading, taking classes, workshops etc., just to stay relevant.  I had two professional certifications that required ongoing learning to stay active.  AT&T’s employee motto had been “from womb to tomb” for years.  It was a culture of once you’re in, you’re in for life and you get to retire with a  lovely pension and full benefits.  At one time at&t had been the biggest employer of software engineers in the world.  It had, during its history, moved from designing software to buying off the shelf software and acquiring software companies that had the products it wanted.  I had been an employee of one of those acquired startups.  Like fashion, the mission was changing again, back to being a software innovator and design company, at least this was the goal.  Many of the clerical functions were being consolidated, by software, or moved to lower rent areas.  AT&T was eager to jettison the expensive pension and health plans of the aging employee base.  It was airing commercials to attract young and technical employees.

I had started too late to get the full womb to tomb benefits but the company had been pretty good to me and had allowed me the flexibility to tutor young girls.  I now turned my focus to the employee base.  I decided to volunteer internally to help some of the employees retrain.   Since software is the foundation of technology,  I set up an internal workshop to introduce them to coding.  I used the curriculum from code.org .  I reviewed several introductory workshops with a woman who was in my  mentoring group to choose the class that would be the kindest “dipping the toe into coding” that we could find.  It was in game form using angry birds. 

“T” had a full training center in the basement of its San Ramon facility  with several classrooms and internet connectivity.  Sadly, it had not updated its technology to go with its new mission for its employees to tool up.  Undeterred, I had the women bring in their own laptops or electronic notebooks or even smartphones to do the exercises.  I listened to the conversations as the women filed in.  

“I did quite a few classes in information technology but the company moved me to a project management role.  I was never able to get a technical position.”

“Oh me too!  but I’m in accounting and I hear they’re moving the whole department to St. Louis.”

“I actually have a degree in programming but I haven’t done it in so long, I work in human resources now, that I don’t even know… hell I can hardly work my own tv system at home”

This last one was greeted with some knowing chuckles.

Quite a few of these women had technical backgrounds but since the company culture had historically been hostile to female technologists these women had been pushed aside into administrative positions: project management, accounting, human resources, and secretarial roles.

Once everyone was in and settled a woman asked “Martha, why are you doing this?  you’re not getting paid are you?”  

“We all need to train up or we’ll all be out of a job.”

“What department are you in Martha?”

“Chief Security Office.”  The Chief Security Office oversaw the network security needs of the company as well as providing guidance for newly developed products for customers.  One of my certifications was in internet security.

“Aren’t you technical?”

“Kind of, but I still need to constantly be training to stay relevant.  Ladies, let’s begin.”

It was a beautiful fall afternoon and although the room was looking rather worn and used, the afternoon sun was warming.  The ladies were in good spirits and my two helpers,  Manoj, a 30 some odd year old programmer,  father of two, and Michelle, an Environmental Specialist who stars in musicals in her free time (god knows where she finds the cycles for that!) were walking around the room.  A retired female executive was auditing the class and taking notes.

I heard:

“Oh! this is fun!”

“I can’t wait to play this with my grandkids!”

“What a great way to teach this stuff!”

“I forgot how smart I used to be.”

And on that, “I forgot how smart I used to be,” I turned my back on the class and tried not to cry.

2 thoughts on “I Forgot How Smart I Used to Be”

  1. Thank you, Martha, for sending me your essay. I forwarded it to Gil. Please keep them coming as your writing is always thought provoking. Love, Lynne

    Sent from my iPhone


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