I was still putting out the occasional job application, spreading my net wider than architecture, but was receiving no replies. In August of 2012, I came across a job position for a Production Designer from an agency called Corestaff. The position required skills in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, proofreading, and photo-editing, as well as customer service. It paid $15 per hour and looked like a good opportunity, so I put in an application. I received a reply from a recruiter a few days after, requesting that I take their assessment tests. I was not actually expecting a reply, and very nearly missed the opportunity entirely. After a week had lapsed, I found the recruiters email and took the assessment test, concerned I had waited too long. Evidently, I performed well on the test, and they requested that I come interview with them on site at Tiny Prints
at their Tempe location, and to bring a portfolio of my work. I didn’t have one that was pertinent to the skill set they were looking for, so I had to cobble one together in a few days. My first interview, however, the interviewer did not even glance at my portfolio; it was more of an opportunity for me to meet the recruiter face-to-face and for them to screen me as a viable candidate. I also learned in this first meeting that the position was not for a single candidate, but for 75 candidates for the holiday season. The job was to be a temporary position, but could be converted to a full time position if a candidate’s performance was excellent.
I passed the first interview and was called back for the second. I passed the second, and was informed that I would be hired. I started a couple of weeks later.
Things started well enough. Tiny Prints has a youthful staff with a sense of fun. The dress code was ultra casual—you could wear just about anything decent and it was considered acceptable. The staff break room was stocked with free snack and coffee machines. The first week was a training program where they taught us about the online system and how to process orders and call customers whose orders have issues that need resolution. The training program was lively and fun, and it was easy to get the idea that I could really enjoy working there.
The second week they put us out on the floor under supervision. We processed orders at a pace of about four orders per hour, while our trainer would oversee the orders before they were sent to print. At this pace, I was performing fairly well, and my trainer had to tell me to slow down a couple of times.
Some background: Tiny Prints, if you didn’t follow the link, is an online stationery company specializing in invitations, birth and graduation announcements, and holiday cards. During quarters one through three, Tiny Prints’ order volume is something around 1000 to 1500 orders per day. During the fourth quarter this rises significantly, and in the period between the day after Thanksgiving and about a week and a half before Christmas, increases to about 10,000 orders per day.
By the third week we were on our own, but still expected to process only about four orders per hour. This was late October, before peak-season, and order volumes had not yet increased. Often we would be sent home after about half a day because there weren’t any more orders in the queue to be processed. I was performing fairly well, but was nervous about every order I processed because of the possibility of it having to be reprinted due to an error on my part.
This was everyone’s fear. Too many reprints on the part of a Production Designer would eliminate them from the possibility of permanent hire. It could also mean early termination. We watched as some people who came through the training were let go before peak season because they were incapable of performing the work as expected. They were replaced by others as each week brought in an additional team of 20 or so people fresh out of training.
By week five, our quotas were increased to seven orders per hour. By week six, they were increased to nine. By the week before Thanksgiving, our official quota was eleven orders per hour. Eleven orders per hour doesn’t really sound like a whole lot—it amounts to about five to six minutes per order, which seems generous. However, it’s not—that five to six minutes goes pretty fast when you have to look at the order on the screen, proofread all the text, verify that all the photos are of decent print quality, and probably, have to call a customer when one of these things is somehow awry. Some photos can be easily corrected in Photoshop, but this takes time, and then the photo has to be imported into Illustrator and the order sent to proofing instead of being processed through the web application. The customer may have more than one item in the order, using the same photos, with different crops, requiring that the same edits be performed multiple times. And on what seemed at least forty percent of orders, customers would have text issues involving misplaced or unnecessary apostrophes or other issues. All of these required a phone call to the customer. Some customers would be easy to work with, while others would insist on keeping you on the line for extended periods. I regularly had customers with photo issues that could not be corrected, who would keep me on the line for fifteen minutes, a half-hour, or longer. When this happens, that five to six minutes per order begins to look impossible. And to most people, this seemed to be the case. An informal survey of the people around me revealed that most people were struggling mightily to meet the eleven-order-per-hour quota, and most of them were failing. The stress was mounting.
Starting the day after Thanksgiving, we began to work six days per week. At first we worked ten-hour days, and then that was increased to 12. For about three weeks, I spent twelve hours a day in front of a computer, often near tears as I would struggle desperately to meet my quota and still be friendly and helpful to the customers on the phone. Customer service representatives would frequently interrupt with instant messaging, expecting instant feedback because of customers they had on the line. Supervisors would send us warnings by email about failing to meet our quotas. It was dark when I got to work, and dark when I left. I rarely bathed, struggled to sleep, and when I did sleep it was only to dream about work. I’d find myself processing orders and performing corrections on photos in dreams.
During this frantic period, my father called me one day to inform me that my grandmother was in hospice and very unlikely to live long. She died a couple of days later. I was unable to see her at the end, though I’m not sure I would have wanted to, as she had dementia and had forgotten most of the people around her, including her son and her husband of over seventy years. It would have been too sad.
The work load finally lessened. We had our first ten-hour day in three weeks. And then an eight-hour day. And shortly thereafter I received an email inviting me to a meeting, along with about thirteen or so other people. I knew what this email meant the second I received it. The first round of end-of-season cuts were beginning.
On Monday morning, I went to the meeting. It was as I expected—a meeting of dismissal. We were to continue working until Thursday, and then be terminated. Though I had known it was happening, I was still in shock. It was only a few days before Christmas, and I was looking at being unemployed all over again. The next morning, I was called just prior to work by the recruiting office. They were sorry but had to inform me that my last day would be today, Tuesday. I was surprised, and yet not entirely. I went to the office for the last time, expecting to do a few hours of work, pick up my personal effects from my desk and drop off my key card. After I had been there for a few hours, the queue cleared and the management informed us that we should go home. I collected my belongings, and wrote a few thank you cards to the staff members who had trained me, dropping them off at their desks, as most of them were not there. The last person I left a card for was there, and I struck up a conversation with her about the preceding weeks of work: the work load, the ways in which I could have improved my performance, etc. During this conversation, one of the recruiters hurried up to us, and asked me in a perplexed manner why I was there? I replied that I had been informed that today was my last day. She said that I was not supposed to be there, that when they informed me that today was my last day that meant I wasn’t supposed to come into the office. Confused and baffled by this logic, I went and clocked out for the last time, dropped off my key card with the recruiting staff and left the building.The Aftermath
I was tired, frustrated, and sad. I was again unemployed, with no real prospects. To work at Tiny Prints for those two and a half months, I had left Bundu Gear and Pioneer Africa, and had found it nearly impossible to put in any time at Chow Locally, though it had been my intention to continue my one day per week with them. This proved impractical through all the training, since they insisted on having us there Monday through Friday (Fridays were my Chow Locally days), and when the six day weeks began, I needed to have at least one day off to do laundry and grocery shop and catch up on other life duties. By the time I was able to return to Chow Locally, the position I had been working had been given to someone else. They began scheduling me to come in only once or twice a month instead of once a week and reduced my responsibilities. I suppose I should have considered myself lucky that they had been so flexible with my erratic schedule. By March they determined that I was no longer a good cultural fit for the company and they asked me not to return.
This devastated me far more than the dismissal from Tiny Prints. I had been with Chow Locally since before they were a formed company. I had excitedly watched them through the startup weekend event where they pitched their concept, and enthusiastically offered all the help I could give them when they started up. I put a year’s worth of totally voluntary service to their cause before they paid me a dime. But, it was time to move on, and I had already begun.to be continued