The year was 1992. Fall. At this point in the tale of my “career”, I’ve graduated from entry-level jobs, part-time this, part-time that, volunteer this, etc., and I have three good work experiences under my belt — the library job at Trent University, the computer tech support jobs at the University of Victoria, and the law co-op job and subsequent contract job with the Ministry of Education in B.C.
My career path, as I said in the last post (What I learned from my previous jobs – Part 4), was relatively set. I would do six more semesters of school, five more semesters of co-op, graduate with two degrees, article for a year or so, and become a lawyer.
Except life wasn’t going that smoothly. I loved the law co-op job, I loved government, I had confirmed or validated my “career” choice. But I was still hating law school as I started into “2nd year”. In second year, most law students start to breathe a little easier in terms of knowing both how it all “works” (i.e. things like 100% finals) as well as having some say in the courses and electives to take. I was thinking potentially about tax law, thought it was a way to scratch both an accounting and a law itch, while still interacting with government. I was only taking one law class though as I had started into my public admin classes finally.
It was like a breath of fresh air. While I struggled in law school, or more accurately, I actually had to work for my grades and the grades tended to reflect how much work I put in (unlike all of my undergrad where I would coast and cram, coast and cram), the school of public administration had courses that simply made sense. Organizational behaviour/theory, statistics, finance, etc. It just FELT right. And the admin law class I was taking? I hated it.
I hated law school, I hated the students, I hated the class, I hated the prof. It’s not a big leap to read that and think, “Hmm…was it really the law school?”. Not really. The class was fine, not really what I was wanting to do with my life anymore, even if I couldn’t articulate that yet. But the personal side of my life spiralled that semester and I was feeling quite lonely, isolated, and to be honest, homesick. I liked the people in the MPA program and the more time I spent there, the less I felt inclined towards law.
The career part of all this kicked in immediately. For those who haven’t done the co-op cycle of 4 months on and 4 months off, I came back from my summer co-op, started classes, and jobs for the NEXT semester i.e. January were already posted by the first week of September. I had barely re-registered and it was interview time again. Craziness.
Since I was in law, I was eligible for law co-ops. Equally, I was eligible for public admin co-ops. Twice the opportunity. And I had a strategy for the interviews. When I did a law interview, I would emphasize that not only did I have the law courses, like everyone else applying, I *also* had the public administration side. In the public admin interviews, I would trot out the law side too. A way to distinguish myself from other candidates.
Except for a guy named Murray. He was in fourth year of the joint degree, going into his last co-op, and he was basically applying for all the same jobs as me. He’d rank first, and I often would rank 2nd. There were six job offers on the table for him, and on four of them, I was second behind him. I just needed him to make a decision.
But he wouldn’t. He was playing the field, and since it was likely his last co-op and thus a chance to be hired on afterwards in the same place, the stakes were higher for him. So nobody was pressing him to just pick something, or at least drop some, so that I could confirm. Nope, the rankings were sitting there. I *knew* I would get at least one job offer out of them when he eventually chose, but until then, I kept doing interviews.
Then something odd happened. I confess I was applying for lots of different jobs, sometimes having very little idea what the job would be like, and in doing so, I was open to some things other people weren’t. Like going to Ottawa. In January.
Remember, I’m from Ontario so no big deal for me, but for a lot of the Westerners who didn’t know there was life east of the Rockies, snowy Ottawa was NOT on the list of considerations.
We got the results of two of those interviews, and I had ranked first at Foreign Affairs to do some program work (they liked my computer background) and second at Treasury Board (they liked my law background, and me, even though I was only first year). The woman who ranked first at TBS was the one who ranked second at Foreign Affairs. She wanted DFAIT, and if I turned it down, she would turn down TBS. It was up to me. I was in the catbird seat.
My co-op director at the school of public admin called me in to chat. He told me my options, DFAIT or TBS, or wait for Murray the job hog (!) to make a decision. But he also told me that he was impressed that I, as a first year student, even if it was January and against more limited competition, had ranked first and second at what he considered his two best jobs in Ottawa. He asked me which I thought I was more interested in.
For me, there was no contest. Obviously TBS. I didn’t have interest in international affairs. Except for trips to New York State, I hadn’t even been out of the country. I didn’t have a passport. But TBS was working on reducing red tape at the time, cutting through the swath of regulations and procedures and embracing plain language. (Okay, sure, I didn’t really know if they were or not, that was just what they SAID they were doing at the time). Sounded great.
So he advised me to take the DFAIT job instead. Counter-intuitive, I know. But his reasoning was that if TBS liked me enough in first year to rank me second, then I would be able to rank high again in the future. And I should go there close to graduation when I could convince them to hire me on / bridge me in after graduation. It seemed like a solid plan. I waved goodbye to six possible jobs in B.C. that Murray couldn’t make his mind up about, some of them quite good I might add, locked in DFAIT, stopped interviewing, and went back to my classes and my spiralling personal life.
Come December, I put everything in storage since I would be back in four months, let go my apartment but asked my landlady if there was a chance I could come back in the summer, shipped some stuff like my computer to my parents’ house, said goodbye to a couple of friends, and moved to Ontario.
Just before Xmas, I got the University of Ottawa Housing Office to give me a list of apartments available for January to April, and borrowed my parents’ car and drove up from Peterborough to look around with my nephew riding shotgun. I looked at five or six places, and while I liked some of the options, most of them were renting with a bunch of people I didn’t know. I found a basement apartment in Vanier, not the greatest of neighbourhoods, but the price was right, and I was only going to be there for four months. Done deal.
j. MPA co-op student, Foreign Affairs — I started just after New Year’s, and I was right on the bus route to get to the office. I could have walked, but the city was still blanketed in a giant sheet of ice and walking was tricky. Got a bus pass, settled in, good to go. DFAIT was different from the B.C. government, not the least of which was access to the building. At the time, the building pass and your security clearance were tied together, and if you didn’t have secret clearance, you couldn’t get into the building without someone escorting you.
I would report to two people — a desk officer and a senior admin officer. My job was to work on the Going Global initiative, a collection of five programs designed to build better ties with the Asia-Pacific region. People would submit proposals for small projects, we would review and approve some of them, they’d get some money to do it. I hadn’t been involved with this stuff before, but it wasn’t complicated. And what they really wanted was someone who was good with computers who could help them figure out how to do some promotion work, get the word out, etc., including distribution of about 50,000 brochures sitting in a warehouse somewhere.
That’s what I was hired to do, and that lasted three days.
Then a new request came in. The new government had new Cabinet Ministers, many of whom were not well-briefed on the world. Someone came up with the idea of having each geographic ADM at DFAIT give Cabinet a briefing on the short and medium-term outlook for their region, addressing political and economic trends. Asia-Pacific Branch would go first, in four weeks. My division would lead. All officers were pulled off whatever else they were doing and told to devote whatever time was needed to do this.
My bosses reacted like they were on crack. I’m not joking. Their proposal sounded ludicrous to me, and if you know anything about how DFAIT works, you know it is even more ludicrous than it even seemed to me.
Their proposal was that since I was good with computers, and could do graphics (i.e. charts), I would lead the project. They told me, and it seems even more laughable now than it did then, that if I needed any statistics, I could tell my boss, or my deputy director or even the director, and they would go to the library and get them for me. Sure, that makes sense. The guy who couldn’t name more than a few countries on the map of Asia, who had never set foot outside the country hardly, who didn’t even have a passport, was going to pull together a view of the short- and medium-term outlook for all of Asia. And the Pacific, don’t forget that part too.
Now, you should know, DFAIT is one of the most hierarchical departments in all of government. Yet, sure, the co-op student would lead prep of a presentation to Cabinet and the Director would be my research assistant. Uh-huh. Right. I didn’t know much about how government worked, but even I knew that wasn’t going to happen. That insanity lasted about two days, and they hired a consultant to lead the project. Mostly because I was looking like a deer in the headlights.
The guy came in, got briefed, got hired, we were told to work together, and then he asked to meet with me. Jeremy started off very tentative, saying “Now, I know this was initially your project…” and I laughed. I told him that I had no concerns about that, and I was happy to follow his lead, as I had no idea what I was doing or even where to start. I was good with a computer, and could read basic economic data, but I had only been in the Department four or five days, and it wasn’t why I was hired. Happy to work on it, but I had no expertise or ownership.
We got along great after that. We took turns on some of the research, the officers worked on the political text, and I started generating slides. DFAIT had a printing office in the basement, and they could do colour. The unit had Harvard Graphics on the computer in my area, and I could make it get up and dance based on the school work I had done at Trent. We were golden.
The project was exhilarating. High-level attention from the ADM. Drafts to various senior people. Multiple iterations. Overtime. And I was producing something with the graphics that they had never really seen before. I am not exaggerating. This was January 1993, and most of them were still learning to work their WordPerfect software. The slides were blowing them away.
Plus it was about Asia. The little tigers were growling, everything was GROWTH GROWTH GROWTH. Trend lines were off the chart. Literally. Some of the numbers made us feel like we were used car salesmen…they were legit numbers, but were we really going to tell the Cabinet Ministers that the trend was near-exponential? Time, Newsweek, Forbes, Maclean’s — they all predicted amazing expansion economically in just about every sector.
I literally had never even thought about this stuff before. Telecomm sector? Balance of Payments statistics? World Bank and IMF predictions? Stats Can data. Every number was a “good news” story. We were so overloaded, we started to doubt our own slides.
So Jeremy and I invented our own fudge factor. We had to. We’d look at the trend lines, and five years out looked nuts. So we would straighten the line almost manually. When? In our predictions for 1997. Everyone liked the new lines better, more conservative, more “realistic” we thought. I like to joke about it now — Jeremy and I were the first to predict the Asian financial crisis — cuz our flattening of the predictions was exactly timed for when the crisis started tanking the numbers!
The big day came, and our Director, Deputy Director went with the ADM and DM to deliver the presentation. They had published the presentation as a small book. It was about 75 pages, split to cover multiple sectors and issues, with one slide of prose, followed by a few slides showing the graphs. I didn’t write it, my name wasn’t on it anywhere, but I had formatted every page and most of the slides were mine. It was MY document. I still have a copy, btw, as an aside.
Cabinet loved it. The other ADMs were panicking. We had set the bar REALLY high. They had been planning to go in with a page or two of prose background. They didn’t have slides. They didn’t even have anyone who could do slides. And certainly not in colour. Now the DM wanted them all to follow our example. We had a month, they were set to now follow us one per week for four more weeks in a row. Sucked to be them.
Sounds amazing, right? But if you’ve been reading my tale up until now, there’s something you should know. Something I was a little embarrassed to admit at the time. But I finally had to ask. Who saw the presentation?
Cabinet they said. Right. But, umm, who exactly?
All of Cabinet. Right. And, umm, who were they exactly?
All the Ministers of all the Departments. Oh, okay.
And the Prime Minister, of course. Right.
Wait. The Prime Minister saw my book? MY SLIDES WERE SEEN BY THE PRIME MINISTER?
Me? The co-op student who had been working in Ottawa for less than a month had produced multiple slides and graphs for a presentation where the Prime Minister had been in attendance, followed along, turned the PAGES that I had formatted?
I wasn’t a policy wonk. Sure, I knew what Cabinet was in general. But I didn’t know exactly how it all worked in the big huge federal government. I was hoping to work in municipal, or maybe provincial, and even then, it was more about DMs and Ministers, not the policy machinery that ran everything.
I was totally blown away. And I was sold on the Department. Plus, it didn’t hurt that I got to tell my Dad that my work had been seen by the Prime Minister. That felt pretty cool.
I liked it so much I suggested, perhaps, if they were interested, I could stay for a second co-op session. Absolutely they said. So I got my security clearance done. I did some projects on the Going Global program, met some people, started dating one of them. Things quieted down, I learned about APEC.
And I kept doing special projects. Graphics, logistics, whatever needed doing that the policy officers didn’t want to do. It was awesome. Plus, honestly, everyone was so impressive. Law degrees, grad degrees, bright, articulate, fully bilingual, well-travelled. I was, at the time, in awe.
Time passed quickly. And then it was August. I had given up my apartment in Vanier back in May and moved into university residence for the summer. I didn’t have a lot of stuff, easy to pack up. I started getting ready to go back to school for September. Wound up my work, had boxes packed, wasn’t sure yet where I was shipping them or when, but I had confirmed with my landlady that my old apartment in Victoria was available to me.
The very last day of work, the last Friday of August, it was 11:00 a.m. The big boss, the director, wanted to see me. I went in, and he started his spiel about how I had been great in the division, etc. He said that I had made myself indispensable in the team. Very nice words. Very standard.
Then he says, “In fact, so much so, I don’t think we can let you leave.”
Yep. He wanted me to stay. There had been a foreign service officer in the China division who had been travelling and his appendix had burst. He would be off work for potentially a couple of months. As a result, Phil in our division would be replacing him on the China Desk since Phil was fluent in Mandarin and he used to work in that area. Which left an opening in our team…was I willing to stay and become a full desk officer, albeit on contract, to handle Phil’s files on the APEC working groups?
I thought about it for about 20 seconds, and said yes. He said, “well great then”, and I went back to my office. And phoned my girlfriend to say that apparently I wasn’t moving away that weekend after all.
Then reality set in. I had nowhere to live — I couldn’t stay in residence in September. I had BOXED things. I had moved some stuff to Peterborough. I had a plane ticket that I had been going to pick up that afternoon, leaving on Sunday. No, wait, I did have an apartment – in VICTORIA! Not Ottawa.
At 11:45, I wandered back down to my boss’ office and said, “Wow. What a change. Perhaps next time you throw me a life change like that, you could give me more notice than it being my last day.”
Ken says, “You haven’t cancelled anything at school yet, have you?”
What? No, not yet I hadn’t. “Oh good, it’s not final yet.”
Yeah, he still needed the ADM to approve the plan. I looked at my watch and said, “Umm, you have about 2 hours to finalize stuff cuz I have to pick up plane tickets if I’m leaving today.”
He ran down the hall, popped into the ADM’s office, confirmed it was all okay, and we were good to go.
My eight months as a co-op student had ended. My new job as a “desk officer” was about to begin. Just as soon as I found some place to live.