Congratulations! You just landed yourself your first job out of college as a pencil designer. Soon you will be working at the second largest pencil factory in the world. Your four years of college are over and you now have your B.S. in Pencil Technology. Of course the degree was merely a formality. You had made pencils since you could hold a knife. School didn’t teach you anything new. You are truly the best pencil maker there is; you know because your friends and family tell you so.
You arrive at the pencil factory for your first day of work. You are led around the office to meet your co-workers, and sit through the obligatory introduction slide show. Afterward, your manager hands you volumes of documentation from the wood and graphite vendors. He tells you to take a look through it while he prepares materials for your first assignment. Of course you don’t need such documentation, so you spend the next few hours whittling away at a block of pine.
After an enjoyable lunch with your new peers, your manager stops by to check up on you. “I’ve read through all the manuals,” you tell him. “I’m ready to start making pencils.” “That’s great,” responds your manager, “Because we’ve got a hell of problem that we need you to work on.” Your mind fills with grandeur, this is the moment you were born for. Your attention snaps back to the manager; “So the customer wants this eraser technology to go with their custom pencils.”
Erasers? You think to yourself. Why can’t they just cross out their mistakes like everyone else? Your manager continues, “I’m teaming you up with Jason since you’re the only people in the company with eraser experience. You’ve worked with erasers before, so you’ll take the lead on this project.” “Drat,” you think to yourself. You should have never put eraser experience on your resume. Of course, by “experience” you meant that you once saw a teacher use one before you promptly returned to your doodling. Oh well, how hard can it be to add an eraser to a pencil?
You meet with Jason and quickly get down to business. The material suppliers’ documentation doesn’t help much. Their best suggestion is to use a stand-alone eraser. That is an option, but not a very elegant one. Jason brings up another option, “I read about some new stuff the independent pencil makers are doing. I heard they were teaming up with the metal workers to create a layer around the pencil which holds the eraser.”
“Metal?” you respond. “First, it’s too expensive to customize metal for a pencil. Second, we don’t want to be dependent on a third party. Our pencils need to be made from scratch in-house. We need to be able to control everything.” “But it’s not too expensive. And the metal can be shaped any way we need.” Jason replies. You dismiss his arguments and he quiets down. After all, you’re the boss. You both get to work quickly, and try to make the best of things. “Stupid customers,” you think to yourself, “What the hell do they know about pencils?” Your mind slowly drifts from spite as you become absorbed in work.
Weeks later and already over budget your manager, clearly unhappy, approaches you. “I need a progress report for the customer meeting this afternoon.” You smile smugly as Jason holds up the product. With a full blown eraser affixed to the side of the pencil you’re confident that the customer will be blown away. Your manager doesn’t know an eraser from an eggplant so he’s satisfied. You walk him through the tutorial and coach him on some questions that might pop up.
5pm that same day you’re packing up and ready to go home. Your manager bursts into the office. “They hated it”, he said. You sit down and go through the list of complaints: “It’s too heavy”, “How am I supposed to hold it?”, “Will this work with my pen?”. Damn customers, they don’t know what they want. You give them a perfectly good solution and the morons can’t figure it out. As you look at your manager’s expression your thoughts now shift to another topic, unemployment. “I’m doing the best I can but Jason keeps holding us up.” Your manager looks confused; “Is Jason a problem?” “Sort of, he works hard but he’s constantly suggesting impractical solutions. We spend more time arguing theory then getting anything done.” You feel guilty but don’t know what else to say, after all it is the truth. “Don’t worry, I’ll have a talk with Jason in the morning. You need to fix this tonight or we’re going to loose the customer,” he tells you. “Don’t worry boss, I’ll have something for you in the morning.”
The next morning your design is ready. “This is genius!” your manager replies, “The eraser is out of the way on the end of the pencil. And you carved away all the bulk and now only have the little piece they need!” The pencil looks like crap, but you’ll clean it up later. There’s always time to clean up later. Your manager returns that afternoon and takes you out to lunch. Your work has won the customer back with an exclusive five year agreement. The victory is bitter sweet, because you also learn that Jason is leaving. Your manager explains, “He feels his career isn’t going forward here and I don’t blame him. He’s not much of a team player, always suggesting unconventional solutions.”
Three weeks pass and your manager is in a frenzy again. “The customer is really pissed this time. It turns out that they didn’t need erasers as much as they thought they did. Their pencils are worn down but the erasers are barely used. They don’t think that they should have to pay for new erasers when all they need are new pencils.” “But the eraser is buried in the core of the pencil,” you tell your manager, “there’s no way we can just take it out and put it in a new pencil.” Not knowing any better your manager agrees, “But the customer seems to think that someone else can do it. Worse than that, they’ve already canceled the five year contract and are now accusing us of over billing hours.”
It’s not long before you see the effects of the lost contract. Other customers see it as a bad sign and pull their contracts as well. You don’t have much to do lately so you pick up the latest copy of your trade publication, “Pencil”. You can’t believe what you see on the cover. It’s your former customer’s new eraser with the headline “Revolutionary”. There it is, a removable eraser affixed to the pencil with a tiny metal band. As you read the article you learn about how a rival pencil company started up just months ago. They gained ground quickly with the new eraser and were on their way to the top. As you inspect the design it becomes painfully obvious where Jason went. And, for the first time in your career, you realize that you still have much to learn.