Friday, 31 December 2010

The right note for the New Year

W C Fields told us that ‘anyone who hates dogs and kids can’t be all bad.’ He clearly knew nothing about how very useful they can be in making friendships.

It’s amazing the people you meet through your kids. You can get to know some pretty remarkable individuals at the school gates. And the kids themselves can make some charming friends.

When my sons were at school, they brought home a great many friends. With sometimes painful frequency. In fact, one of the great mysteries of those times was just why it was always the friends who came round to our place, never our sons who went to theirs. An image I shall never forget is that of a brat of a lad, today a charming young adult, waltzing into the kitchen where I was sitting, ignoring me completely and going through our fridge choosing what he felt would make him a suitable (and copious) meal. Later I asked my son ‘why can’t you go around to his place and eat their food from time to time?’, but I never got an answer.

Dogs too are an excellent means to make friends with people. You meet them in the parks walking their owners. The dog's breed is often an excellent starting point for a conversation. In fact, given the characteristics of some of those breeds, you occasionally have to start with a discussion about species.

One person we met through such park expeditions with our respective dogs was our good friend Natasha. She’s Russian though she lives in Strasbourg, as we did at the time.

I hasten to add that Strasbourg is in France: I’m fascinated by the number of people who think that it’s in Germany. One of the issues over which three wars were fought in the space of 75 years was who would own Strasbourg. Please bear in mind that the last of those conflicts, the Second World War, ended in a narrow victory of the Allies over Germany. This should help answer the question ‘is Strasbourg in Germany or France these days?’

One of the saddest aspects of France is its terrifying formality about qualifications and age in the job market. It’s the only country I know where you can study for a diploma in selling pharmaceuticals. Not selling, mind; specifically selling pharmaceuticals.

At the end of the course of study, you’re qualified to sell drugs and nothing else; fail to get a job in that field, and you’re in trouble. Of course, get a job selling the wrong kind of drugs and you may end up in trouble too, but that’s not because of the qualification.

Natasha had been suffering terrible problems finding a job in France. She had reached an age where prospective employers looked on her CV askance, if they looked at it at all. She kept putting a brave face on things, but she was obviously beginning to get depressed.

On one occasion when they met while walking their dogs in the park, my wife Danielle said to her ‘my husband needs bright staff. Why don’t you get a job with him?’

What I needed was a programmer skilled in working with the SQL-Server relational database technology, and Natasha had never heard of SQL-Server. On the other hand, she was intelligent and a qualified mathematician, from the country which had produced most of the best mathematicians around the world for some decades. Given her lack of specific experience, we couldn’t really offer a good salary, but we could at least give her a job on financially miserable terms. That’s an admission I make with nothing but shame, but I feel that at least the arrangement was a lot better than being unemployed, as she would I’m sure be the first to agree.

She didn’t let us down. She taught herself SQL-Server from first principles, rather as though she was setting out to solve an equation that at first looked intractable but in the event turned out to be far too simple for her. Within a couple of years, she was a star whose lustre attracted a company based in Switerland with whom we happened to be working.

One day she came to see me, obviously uncomfortable and embarrassed.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked her.

‘They’ve offered me a job,’ she told me, ‘and I feel terrible about it. Should I refuse?’

‘How much are they proposing to pay you?’

‘Well, I refused to name a figure so they came up with one.’

She told me their offer. It was twice as much as we were paying her.

I collapsed in laughter at her discomfiture.

‘A 100% increase? And you’re asking me whether you should refuse it?’ I seized her hand and pumped it up and down. ‘Congratulations. Grasp the chance.’

‘But we’re friends...’

‘And so we’ll continue to be. We don’t work for friendship, we work for money, and this is a hell of a sight more than we could offer you. You just have to take it.’

So she went off to the Swiss company, earning a proper salary at last.

At first things went well, though she had to travel to Switzerland rather a lot (many hours away by train). But she’s tough and professional and coped with the stress, and continued to shine. Then, however, the recession hit. Her employers started to make people redundant.

They couldn’t quite bring themselves to let Natasha go. She was too obviously competent, too liked by customers. Instead they just started making small changes that made things increasingly uncomfortable for her: they cut her down to four days work a week, they told her that she would no longer be able to work from Strasbourg but would have to be based at the Swiss office, they kept failing to finalise and send her the contract with the new terms.

In the end, Natasha decided she’d had enough. It was time to look for another job. Even then, in her characteristic way, she took her time and organised things methodically. She built her CV, prepared an application letter, started making lists of advertised jobs for which she might apply, and of companies to approach in case they had a position even though they hadn’t advertised one.

Finally, she was ready. She thought she’d give her approach a trial run. One Sunday morning a couple of months ago, she sent off her CV with a covering letter to one of the companies she’d identified.

‘I felt it was worth giving it a try,’ she told me later, ‘I thought it would be great to get an interview, just for the practice.’

An e-mail turned up from the Managing Director of the company during the afternoon of that same Sunday. She rang.

‘Can you come in to Paris tomorrow?’

If she was after interview practice, she got more than she’d bargained for. After a long and wide-ranging discussion, the MD asked her if she minded meeting the Development Director. Further detailed conversation took place. By the end of their time together, they were asking her to start work the following Monday. Of course, she couldn’t – even with the high-speed trains, Paris and Strasbourg are two and a quarter hours apart, and Natasha has a family (and a dog). But they found a compromise, and she’s been working in the new post for two or three weeks now. It’s early days and far too soon to reach a definitive conclusion, but so far it’s worked out pretty well.

A good story to end one year on, I felt, and start the next in a spirit of hope.

And it all started with a chance meeting between dog-owners walking their pets.

Time to review W C Fields' view. Anyone who thinks dogs and kids do no-one any good can’t be all that well informed.
Happy New Year to you all - what am I saying? - to us all

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