Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Game of Stocks

Imagine a world where a king's head can be chopped off at the jealous whim of a former knight. Or a lord trading secrets in order to gain more favor and land from a queen. This world exists folks, welcome to the Game of Stocks.

I've spent the last almost decade working closely with those people that trade in the stock market.

Most of them seem stressed, privileged, and angrily satisfied. In the brief glimpses of what that money could earn you, a yacht, lake house, or vacation to Costa Rica, I got calls from guys desperately trying to sign in on their "day off" and would often hear the family complaining that their broker parent was signing in to work again.

It put a bad taste in my mouth for all of it. The guys that trade. The people who invest. Companies that go public.

I understand why companies go public. They see a chance to expand, to make their product better, to make their company stronger. But that opens them up to people that don't care. People that got into it to make money, the stock holders. And from what I can tell, the stock holders with the power, don't care if your company is bought, moves overseas, or stops innovating, at long as they can make a dollar and get out before the ship sinks.

I'm reading Dethroning the King which talks in depth about what lead to InBev buying Anheuser Busch. It's interesting to see some of the behind the scenes stuff that I always assumed happened, but wasn't privileged to know.

What I'm learning, is even the most powerful and rich people on the planet, are just as scared and petty as the rest of us.

There's a story about AB hiring a bunch of banks to pitch them strategies on how to stop a hostile takeover. AB picked their favorites and dismissed the other banks. Well, one of those banks went to InBev and was like, "Hey dudes, we don't like those AB guys anymore. They didn't pick us for kickball. We have all this financial information that you may like to see, maybe we buddy up?" Like literally, billions of dollars at play, and a butt hurt bank goes out of their way to stab an American company.

There's stories about InBev offering $65 a share when AB's stock was in the low $50s, and stock holders shutting down the acquisition of Mexican brewer Modelo by AB. An acquisition that would've saved AB and kept them American owned and would've brought the stock prices up naturally.

And just how bulletproof the Busch family felt sitting a top their St. Louis thrones. The gall they had to just say, "Nah man, we're good just owning America. We don't need protection against those foreigners. We're too big to fail." (Heard that one before haven't you)

A buddy of mine admitted he's part of the problem, although a small one. He knows he's giving money to a company with the promise of a return, and he demands that return get larger and larger.

Eventually there's no where left to grow, no other companies to buy, no major innovation in the near future. So how do you keeps the stock holders happy? How do you keep them from selling shares off in droves or demanding the head of the top dogs of the company?

You start making cuts. First things to go are research and development and Information Technology. Both divisions that generally cost money, and don't make money. (Both of which are incredibly necessary nowadays thought)

Micheal Dell famously bought back Dell computers and penned an article basically saying, "Stock holders want short term money, despite what our customers want, despite us staying innovative with new products, and it put Dell behind many other computer companies."

The stock holders are happy when you show them the graphs that say, "We trimmed up, we made slightly more profit for you."

Then the next quarter comes and the stock holders say, "Hey, what's up with this? You're not making any more than you were last quarter."

The company says, "We have a strong, diversified portfolio, but the market was weak this quarter. We promise next quarter to make more."

Then they start looking at departments they can outsource to other countries. Data entry, accounts payable, third shift workers, all gone.

Then the next quarter the company get a pat on the back.

Then quality starts suffering, no innovations have come in a while, and there's no more fat that can be trimmed. In fact, those offshore positions are now making a middle class wage, which means they are worth more money. Which means companies either find a new third world country to go to for cheap labor, or they onshore a fraction of the jobs that were once here and just have people do several jobs for one paycheck.

The morale of the people still with the company, working several people's jobs are at an all time low.

The company tries to calm stock holders, talking about a fickle market and the lack of spending (which the large amount of unemployed / recession scared workforce is probably contributing to), but the stock holders no longer have it. They demand the CEO step down. A new one steps up.

That CEO makes a promise to quality. They hire a bunch of American contract workers, start righting the ship, that is at least until robots can replace the people.

Rinse, repeat, the American dream.

Did we betray the idea of the free market? Or is the American dream only meant for a select few?

Monday, March 21, 2016

State of the Job Search

Now that I've tapped my networked resources and have a few things in the pipeline, I decided to check out the public world for work, just to see what I will be dealing with.

It's interesting, because some of my complaints from a 2008 post are exactly the same.

  1. Contracting Firms: I've applied to roughly 10 positions now. These are positions that sound perfect on paper and are written as if from the perspective of the company I'm looking at.

    Then I get a call. "Hi Dan, yes, this is Amanda with Gotcha Enterprises. We see you applied for a job at Blah Blah Co. Well, we don't actually work for Blah Blah Co, but are actually a contracting firm that they use. We'd love to set you up with an interview for the position. Also, can you sign this exclusivity agreement? It basically says you can't work with another firm and it gives us the right to schedule interviews with other companies we think we could get you hired.

    Beyond that, I've had two contractors ask me if I have a skill, I say, "not really." And they respond with, "Oh, I'm sure that's fine. It's something you can pick up on the job."

    And contract work has only been growing since World War 2. No PTO, no health insurance, and gives the company all the protection it wants. You can be laid off without notice or have your pay cut.

    This happened to me in my first contract job. "Dan, so sorry, your company wants to cut the amount it spends on you, so we are going to cut your pay by $3 an hour. You can either sign the new paperwork or lose your job.
  2. Terrible Web Forms: Please upload your resume.

    OK, we scanned your resume and found your name and phone number.

    Click Next.

    Please manually type out all of your job experience, education, skills, and awards that are also found on the resume you just gave us.

    To the Internet's credit, I did have a few applications that I could just click, "Apply Using LinkedIn" and it auto-filled everything which was awesome. So not as prevalent as it was in 2008.
  3. Insane Qualifications: We would like you to be a doctor, but also have three years experience in technology work, and you must be willing to work some weekends.

    Who is that person? If you're a doctor, unless you really hated it, wouldn't you rather do doctor stuff?
  4. LinkedIn: There is only one thing human resources like more than QR codes... and that's LinkedIn. It's unfortunately a necessary part of job hunting nowadays.

    If you just run with the default LinkedIn settings, be prepared to get 10 emails a day. "Hey see what this guy is up to. Ho Dan, someone endorsed your skills. Hey Dan, why not upgrade to premium so you can see who looked at your profile? Hey Dan, this contracting firm is contacting you about a pyramid scheme you just can't pass up on.

    Took me 10 minutes to unsubscribe from all email notifications.

    And they are a tricky bunch. When looking at potential connections, they hide people that aren't on LinkedIn with people that are. So if you just click connect on everything, you'll spam friends and family with invitations to join LinkedIn. 
I've only been really looking hard for a few days and I'm already tired. If this is the punishment for finding work, just let the robots replace us all and I'll join John Conner and eat bugs. I'd rather wield a laser rifle while I'm young and able than slowly die on our overpopulated, over-polluted, AI planet. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Cord Cutters

Sal and I have been without cable TV since 2009. 

Every now and then someone says, "Have you see this show on FX yet?" and after replying I don't have cable, I hear about how awesome the show is. And sometimes I do feel like I'm missing out on cultural touchstones like Walking Dead.

And there are times where I consider the $120 a month it would cost to have the three channels we actually want vs the bar tab of going out to watch Blues games three times a month and I think, "You know, somehow I would save money with cable."

But overall, I'm happy without it. 

I like having the freedom to watch what I want when I want. I like feeling like I could go out on a weeknight. I like not watching appointment TV. There are too many people in my life that won't go out on a Thursday night because they have must see TV. 

People will say things like, "But don't you worry about missing Big Bang Theory or Pawn Stars or whatever is on TV," and you know what... once you haven't had it for a few weeks, you really don't miss it. In fact, you start seeing patterns of how every sitcom is the same, how every late night interview with the same celebrity is the same stories, about how every sporting event is filled with prescription drug commercials that both cause and solve constipation. 

And anytime Sal and I do stay in a hotel or a house with cable and we watch it, I quickly realize how much I really don't miss it. My brain feels worse off after an hour of network television than it does watching Netflix, or playing video games, or reading, or socializing. 

I like that I don't lose hours of my life having the TV on in the background. Other friends will admit they will watch 7 hours of TV on a lazy Sunday afternoon where they can't remember a single thing they watched only hours later. I've seen people literally consuming movies that are edited for time and commercials via their cable subscription when they have the Blu-ray sitting on a shelf 12 feet away. 

And there are people that think they circumvent appointment TV with their DVRs, but in my limited experience, these people seem the most stressed. 

Say they had a busy week. Usually when I ask them what they are doing this weekend and they frantically say, "I'm really behind on my DVR, I need to catch up on like 6 hours of TV this weekend."

The fact that cable companies still use non-replaceable hard drives in their DVR devices, that will fill up eventually, hardware that often times will crash and lose weeks of saved shows, shows that they aren't looking to the future. They a desperately trying to keep the status quo going by signing sporting contracts in the hundreds of millions of dollars because ultimately they know that is what is keeping the cable box alive in the American home.