Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Beating my sword into a plowshare

But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it. . .and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Micah 4:1-3

During law school, I took a temporary job as the receptionist at a software company. I was very quickly promoted into a role in the HR department, and I continued to develop professionally until I was second only to the vice president. Around this time, the company was acquired by a defense contractor.

I hadn't spent much time concerning myself with what the product the company produced actually did. I figured that was the job of the engineers making it and the sales people selling it. I was just concerned with making sure that everyone got their paychecks on time, administering leaves of absence, ensuring that there was no harassment or discrimination in the workplace, and generally being a good little Catbert.

I was a bit curious as to why a defense contractor would want to acquire a software company - I figured they were usually in the business of bombs and airplanes. Then some world events started happening that made it very clear to me why. I started to think that I was probably involved in something that I was pretty uncomfortable with.

At first, I tried to convince myself that I was misunderstanding the software. I mean, the party line was that it was network security software, and I'm not an engineer, so I figured that all of the nefarious uses for the software were in my imagination. Plus, I wasn't writing the code anyway, so it wasn't my fault.

Then two things happened. The first is that I heard a striking story. In the 1960s, a journalist was invited to tour the NASA facilities. He walked around, talked to people, and took notes. Just as he was about to leave, he saw a janitor mopping the floor. He walked over and asked him what he was doing. The janitor proudly replied, "I'm putting a man on the moon." The janitor himself wasn't making rockets or doing physics. He was mopping the floor. But his floor mopping efforts contributed to the overall mission, and he was just as much a part of it as everyone else.

The second thing that happened is that I saw a product demo at the company meeting. I had not misunderstood the software. And, just as the janitor was contributing to the moon landings, I was a part of what the software was doing.

I started looking for a new job, but I was having little success. A few months later, I took the leap of faith and quit my job without anything else lined up.

As I was redoing my resume, I felt very uncomfortable advertising that I had worked at that previous software company/defense contractor. It was a part of my life that I am not proud of. And I felt guilty for my part in it all.

Now I work in HR for a retirement community, and I'm constantly drawing on my experience at the previous company. I was uncomfortable with that because I am benefitting professionally from something I consider to be unsavory. Then I realized that in a way, that job was my sword, and I have turned it into a plowshare.

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