It’s a very fashionable thing right now to bash PG&E but despite the receptive atmosphere for kvetching, my latest chapter of PG&E antagonism has been more difficult for me to write. It is not often that I feel a true compulsion to write but now that it has struck, my problem is that the compulsion is married to personal humiliation. Or rather, I keep vacillating between self righteousness and feeling utterly defeated and I fear that when I write and hit “publish” in one state, I’ll watch a flood of incoming comments and then immediately revert back to the other. So I write in little bursts in my more aggrieved moments and hide again when the melancholy sets in between and the piece ratchets forward paragraph by paragraph. Sad-mad-click-sad-mad-click-sad-mad-click. It has almost been a month and today I’m leaning into the humiliation because owning it and displaying it is far better than it being discovered.
So here goes: I was fired from PG&E last month. I’m currently unemployed and I’m not doing as well as I thought I would be. I’m angry. I wasn’t wrong. I still deserved it.
October 23, 2019
Two men approached my desk right after I had returned from lunch.
“Are you Andrew Middleton?” One of them asked.
“I am,” I said. Fuck, I thought.
“Would you join us in the conference room please?” FUCK I thought. We all sat down sporting fake smiles. I tensed.
“PG&E is terminating its contract with you.” I nodded, trying my best to show no reaction.
“Okay. Did they give a reason? Was it performance related or something else?”
“I don’t have any information to give you.” The three of us stared at each other for a moment and, seeing that this wasn’t an opportunity for conversation or information gathering, I excused myself, cleaned out my desk and walked out of the downtown headquarters of the nation’s largest utility company with my two humorless escorts who unceremoniously buzzed me out. When I got to the street, I texted my boss.
Hey John, sorry to be leaving so soon. I haven’t gotten any answers and I don’t expect you to give them but it’s been fun and I learned a lot. Thanks.
He asked me what I was talking about. He had no idea. He was pissed. My coworkers were confused and offered to write me references.
I was unemployed on a Wednesday afternoon but I felt vindicated. Surprised perhaps that the whole thing had happened now that I thought I was safe and not earlier but, nonetheless, I was comfortable with this being the logical consequence of my actions. This was disappointing but not unforeseeable. I felt a bit like a whistle blower. I wasn’t wrong and lots of people knew it and they told me so.
Weeks later when I arrived fashionably late to an evening GIS networking night at a bar in the Mission, I was getting high fives and back slaps for a blog I had written. It had been retweeted by Mapbox, Stamen and BayGeo and dozens of other members of the Bay Area geo-community that I deeply respected. I got a LinkedIn message from a complete stranger who wanted to tell me how much he liked it. It made the rounds in a very specific community and I had watched the page views roll in with glee. But it’s a strange thing to be congratulated for actions you’re no longer proud of and a couple of weeks of unemployment had soured me to any accolades. Every time I told the story it stung.
The piece in question was called “Tasting Notes for PG&E Webmaps” in which I detailed all the problems with PG&E’s webmap that was used to advise customers about its Planned Safety Power Shutoff. PG&E was shutting electrical power off to huge swathes of its service area to reduce the risk of fire and, despite having about nine months of lead up time to fire season, created an ugly and useless webmap to tell customers whether or not they were in a zone that would be without power. When over a million concerned visitors to the website clicked on it, the webmap crashed almost instantly and left customers to wonder for days if their food would spoil, if their medical equipment would not have power or even where they could go for community support if they were going to need it. Speculations were spreading faster than the anticipated wildfires and it was a PR disaster on a national level. When I went into work that week, plastic barricades were erected to separate the building from an irate public. Meanwhile, The San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, The San Jose Mercury and other news outlets had their own webmaps that were quickly published to fill in the gaps so that readers could plan accordingly and I was curious about why some of these websites were better than others. I was a GIS Developer working in a completely different department at PG&E but my honor as a utilities mapper was in jeopardy and I was fascinated. Where were these organizations getting their data and what were customers still struggling to get information about? I conducted my own informal survey and I wrote a piece about it that I was constantly updating over the course of a week during that first PSPS. It was snarky and not particularly well edited or kind to PG&E but I showed it to my manager and he thought it was great. He had been in a meeting earlier that day about some of the technical issues surrounding PG&E’s catastrophic information roll-out and he was shocked that, when he asked who had done load testing on the website, the overwhelming response was “what’s load testing?” (The CEO of PG&E has since acknowledged all of these short comings.) My manager told me to post my article on Slack and I announced it during the morning stand-up meeting. My coworkers loved it. Even the senior designer on the floor was fascinated by the UX design implications of cartography and she brought it to the attention of some higher-ups in a design meeting that I was hoping would receive the message loud and clear: it’s 2019 and there are no excuses for shitty webmaps. The public needs this information, lives are at stake and tools exist to solve this inexcusable problem.
But my boss’ boss was less enthralled and I was unceremoniously asked to take the blog down. I complied and shut up. Two weeks later I finished my formal Developer Training Bootcamp. Just hours after that I was fired. The next day I was asked by a PG&E employee to submit my comments formally because there were still people who needed to hear what I had to say. There was no budget for additional work and she couldn’t pay me. I sent it anyway. I didn’t have anything better to do that day anyway.
A part of me thought it was a misunderstanding and that I would be rehired in a few days. A part of me wanted to put the original article back up as an act of defiant retaliation. A part of me wanted to curl up in a hole and disappear. When you go public, your shame goes public too and after having spent as much of 2019 as underemployed as I have, I’m not eager to raise the flag to signal yet again that I don’t have a job. I hate that feeling, I hate that I am not blameless in this matter and I hate how well I know it. I should not have published my article online and I should have been more careful to separate the online community from my comments which belonged internally. If I was going to get fired for a blog I should have at least written it more gently or edited it more aggressively. I should have raised my concerns about safety and reliability to specific people at the company. I have learned these hard lessons and I deeply regret how I acted. Thinking I wouldn’t get fired for them was a supreme act of arrogance and, frankly, privilege. It’s the kind of thing I should have gotten out of my system in my early twenties. But the first step is to own that.
And I own it every day. That GIS Developer job was the highest paying role I’ve ever had. In a way, part of the reason I so flippantly let myself throw it away was because I never thought it was mine to have in the first place. How long would it take them to realize I’m not good enough for the position? A few weeks? But then I made it through a two month training and it was clear that my shortcomings were easy workarounds and that I would be given the opportunity to grow and learn in a way that is disappointingly rare in my professional experience. I could have actually made it there. As a real live GIS Developer. I was commuting into San Francisco to use code to build apps for companies that weren’t making money, just like a real techie! Only I was building things that help keep people safe and improve efficiency and reliability of something basic and essential to people’s everyday lives. And when I fucked all that up it hurt.
But I am also proud of what I did. I was outraged that our customers were not being served and not being informed of risks. I was outraged that modern standards were not being used to create effective messaging systems when others were able to build them quickly and reliably with minimal budgets or even training. I brought these issues to my boss, to my team and to my colleagues and I used my writing to open dialogues and have constructive conversations about testing, safety and effective public communication. In many ways I feel let down by PG&E’s corporate culture which I feel is vindictive and painfully twentieth century despite ubiquitous platitudes to the contrary posted on every door and meeting room. ‘Speak up’ the signs say. ‘If you see something, say something. You are more than your job title, anyone can point out opportunity for safety and improvement.’ There is nothing more in keeping with the PG&E brand than firing someone who raises concerns about how to do business more safely all while posting the following graphic in their latest Corporate Responsibility report:
I’ve lived PG&E’s stated values for years. PG&E is a huge player in the Bay Area GIS community and I have spent several years at different levels maintaining the information services myself. As I’m fond of saying about utilities, the game is one of electronic warehouse asset management only the assets were buried underground a century ago across several thousand miles and the instructions for digging them back up were written by nutters. Utilities employ hundreds of mappers, developers and technicians like me to keep this impossible, antediluvian system running safely. It was a mission I always felt good about.
Now it’s likely that I’ve worked my last PG&E contract and I’m deeply disappointed in myself for having blasted such a large hole through my foot. For someone not exactly drowning in opportunity, I have deftly eliminated for myself a large potential employer, not to mention created a bitter conversation starter with recruiters. In the past few weeks I’ve been retelling the story to friends, job interviewers and colleagues and I still don’t know how to feel about it. “Stupid” comes to mind. How can I feel proud of having torpedoed my own career so thoroughly? Will anyone buy the story that I am a principled and safety-conscious professional who knows the geospatial industry or will they just think I’m a social media-addicted loud-mouthed boy scout?
I can’t control that. But what I can control is how I treat myself about this. I’m forgiving myself for some of the ways I carried out my decisions. They were done with good intention but weren’t always smart and I won’t be repeating those mistakes. I’m taking to heart serious lessons about being a better professional and employee. I’m also choosing to be proud of my values, my courage and my low tolerance for incompetence that risks public safety. There are some values that I have no intention of changing or compromising even for a good job and the employer that sees that as a liability is not the kind of employer who deserves my service. I’ve tested the strength of my voice and the next time I use it I will surely be more judicious. But perhaps even a little louder.