When I first moved to Seattle in 1991, I had a year's experience working as a Cobol & DB2 developer, an accounting degree, and a couple of men in dark suits and sunglasses following me around asking if I wanted to take an Ada job that entailed six months on-site and then a six-month vacation. [True story. I finally told one that "I don't want to work at Pine Gap." At the time, no one outside the government was supposed to know about Pine Gap, but the previous year's revolt, in which every Ada developer at the place just up and quit was all over Usenet. Why they'd quit was obviously a top secret; it was just that there were a lot of Ada developers suddenly looking for work, and where they'd come from sorta leaked out. Just saying "Pine Gap" was enough to get me off their hiring list and probably into a file somewhere.] Desperate for work, I took a data entry position at little cellular phone company that long ago merged with one of the bigger ones.

It wasn't actually much of a data entry position; mostly I was playing sneakernet for a sales team that spent its time cold-calling subscribers and asking them if they wanted to upgrade. It was an eight-person team, five men and three women, and they were all surprisingly diligent and good at their jobs, given how much we all hate cold-call sales these days. I guess it was new back then. They were all very different people: Dave was a big man, loud and brash; Lauren was a confident woman who spoke softly but persistently; Alex was a little blond man who drank too much coffee. You could write novels around characters like them.

Work came in as a list of phone numbers encoded on some kind of primitive industrial digital tape cassette. First thing in the morning, the tape would go into a machine and the first number would roll out to the first salesperson, and then the second. When a call ended, the machine would click forward and send another number. Efficient and relentless, and yet the team could keep it up for two hours at a time, take a break, and start all over again. My job was to sneakernet their hits and misses, which they recorded on their own DATs, into my machine and collate the final report for the day.

These tapes were assembled regionally: one day would be "all Wisconsin," another "all Colorado," and the next, "Greater Los Angeles." In-house marketing teams, driven by surveys and their own instincts, assembled the tapes by hand. Remember: this is 1992, before the Internet was a commercial venture. There was no "big data." There were, at best, a couple of expensive database products out there, and Excel.

Having studied accounting, I was pretty damned good at Excel 3.0, which had been released the year prior. I started to track our team's success at the individual contributor level.

After about three weeks, when the team manager and I were alone in my office, I said, "I have something interesting to show you." I pulled up my spreadsheets and showed him my effort. Dave was fantastic in Los Angeles, but sold absolutely nothing in Wisconsin. Lauren had a steady and reliable hit rate in Colorado, but didn't do well at all in LA. And so on. I showed how each salesperson's style meshed or didn't mesh with a given region, and how we could predict with some accuracy how well they'd do on a given day given a regional tape marking. I told him, "It would be a lot better if we could assign them to the markets they know and are good at. They'd be upselling much more every day."

He first said, "Huh. Let me think about this."

The next day he came back and said in an angry tone, "Delete it. Delete all of it. Throw those spreadsheets away and never mention them again. Especially don't mention this to the team. That's not what we hired you to do."

I was surprised. He softened a bit and said, "Sorry. When I told my manager I got my ass chewed. There's no mechanism for assigning someone to a specific region and marketing would cut off my balls if I asked them to build tapes that way. If you told anyone on the team that they were bad in a given region, they'd probably not try very hard that day."

I pointed out that Dave probably already knew he'd have a good day, maybe eighteen hits, with an LA tape, but he'd be lucky to get two upsells if he had a Wisconsin or Colorado tape. The manager nodded and said, "Probably. But we can't make it official."

Despite having worked at a brokerage firm for a year, this was my first real taste of corporate bullshit.