A rude awakening

I had intended to start this narrative with an account of how I came to apply for the Corporate Service Corps.  The application process was fascinating in and of itself, and the accounts of people who have been through the program already are inspiring; I shall certainly be sharing some of those stories with you as we go. But in thinking about how to start the tale of this adventure, I am discovering that it started long ago, well before I moved to the UK or joined IBM…

The right place to start, I think, is in early 2002. I was living in Singapore with my family when my employer laid off about 20% of their workforce, and I was amongst those let go.

It might surprise you to learn that once the initial shock wore off, I was not actually that worried. In fact I was fairly blasé about the whole thing. To those of us who started our career in Silicon Valley during the heady days of the dotcom bubble, a feeling of invincibility was hard to avoid.  The excesses of the time we took for granted, having known nothing else. I remember when I got the offer to join Siebel, somebody gave me a spreadsheet that illustrated how the stock options I received upon joining would be worth over $1.5M in just under five years.

It seemed to good to be true, which of course it was; those options eventually expired under water.  Yet my natural skepticism fought a losing battle with a  pervasive shared delusion of inevitable success — throughout the 1990’s in Silicon Valley, the only difficulty one encountered in job hunting was choosing between competing offers.  It was only several months after the layoff, when it became all too clear that spare jobs were not lying around like pebbles on the road waiting to be picked up, that it really started to sink in how much the world had changed.  Being a long time fan of history, I knew all along that the only thing truly inevitable about such booms is that they come to an end, and those endings are never pretty. But knowing it and experiencing it are entirely different.

Over the next few months, the denial wore off and the canonical stages of grief made their grand progress through the halls of my psyche.  Somewhere between bargaining and depression I started realizing that, job or no job, I needed to start doing something useful or things were only going to get worse. And ironically, it was only then, when my own personal fortunes were at their ebb, that the notion of doing something for others whose personal fortunes were far worse, first occurred to me.

With the proper impetus it didn’t take me long at all to find something useful to do. Within two weeks I had found a position; teaching computer skills at a center for the physically handicapped in northern Thailand.  Within four weeks, I was there.

It is perhaps trite to say that volunteer work is emotionally and spiritually enriching.  Certainly I expected that I would feel good about doing it.  But while I was fully prepared for it to be fulfilling, I was completely caught off guard by how transformational it was.  I’ll talk more about my experience there another time, but those four all-too-short weeks helped spark in me a sense of understanding and compassion that had somehow managed to elude me for the first 39 years of my life.

So it was that, when IBM first announced the Corporate Service Corps in 2007, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.  In my next post I will talk about how and why it was established.

One final note. While I cannot draw any connection more direct than general karma between the two events, it is nevertheless true that less than a month after my return from Thailand, I found a job :-)

Talk to you soon.  Take care.

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