In Memory of Being Unkown

Most of my coworkers have been with our employer for over a decade (one has even been here longer than I’ve been alive), many of them starting on other teams and in other roles before making their way to the Research and Development team for which we all currently work. They’re widely known and respected in the company, to the degree that we’ve struggled to get work done over the past year as our smoothly-operating department has been (temporarily) picked apart to assist other teams who were struggling (mostly for external reasons–2022 was a wild year to work in technology and electronics). A frequent complaint at our watercooler (which looks more like a cozy sitting/dining room tucked away in a corner of our lab than a bland water dispenser) is the number of emails they’re included on and how frequently they’re asked to split their attention to help others within the company.

I always keep my comments to myself, an unusual habit in this group that no one has noticed somehow (I am well known for always having something to say), since I know they’re just venting a minor frustration. I also keep my mouth shut because I get more junk emails every day than I get work emails and I rarely break out of the single digits in an entire day unless something has gone very wrong. After all, you don’t get included on internal projects or asked for assistance if no one knows you exist.

I did not join this company with the goal of going unnoticed. I sort of fell into the habit accidentally, actually. When I joined the team I’ve been a proud member of for the past six years, we were located far away from all the other R&D teams. We were misfits, a name we’d claimed shortly after the creation of the team years before I was hired, and not just because we needed more physical space than anyone else due to the products we developed. We were also a thematic abberation. No one else worked on anything remotely similar to what we did. Our closest associates were the people who built our products in Manufacturing and the people who supported our products in Tech Support rather than other R&D teams. After all, we never had to work together with these other R&D teams on projects. Nothing we did would impact any of their work in the slightest. Not only were we physically removed due to the demands of our work, but we were organizationally removed as well.

I was not the only one who had never worked in a different part of the company. There have been a few others over the years, and a new one now, but I’ve outlasted them all thus far. It’s difficult, at times, to feel like a misfit in a company that prides itself on being interconnected and friendly. It’s not something everyone is cut out for. Most people want to advance or grow or change to do new things because doing the same old thing, year after year, is boring. Most people like to go to meetings and have their voices heard by their peers as they talk through the trials of their trades. I would like those things as well, of course, as I am no island, but the nature of testing means that my entire job is focused on the products we create and absolutely no other testers in this company know anything about them. Nothing I could ever bring up beyond the nitty-gritty of how testing is done at it’s most broad and conceptual level has any relevance to the other people with my job title in this company.

The same is true of most testers, as well. Some of us work together more than others and every other team works together more than mine does, but ultimately there isn’t a lot of overlap between our jobs. Which is why there weren’t department meetings for the role I held until after three years of me working for the company and those only happened due to the unification efforts that resulted from all of us being moved into a newly constructed wing of the building. Now that we all occupied the same space, upper management figured we’d all get along finally. Except, of course, my team’s space demands didn’t change and so we got stuck in an isolated corner and the most outside activity we see is when other employers pass through our lab on their way to somewhere else. We’re right next to the entrace and we’ve got some really big doors, so why wouldn’t they just walk through?

Eventually, though, upper management applied enough pressure to force more unification and the steady growth of technology meant that we began to have at least tangential connections with other departments. It took about three and a half years from my start date, but finally I was invited to a series of meetings with the other testers to talk about a big project and the tools we used. I only went to the one, though. It was frustrating to be treated like a new employee despite having more tenure than a third of the room just because no one knew who I was. I hadn’t had any opportunities to branch out at that point, since we were so isolated and because I ate lunch with my coworkers every day while they, occasionally, left our group to go eat with friends from previous teams. I had been removed from any chance to reach out, from even the knowledge of opportunities to do so, and now I was being looked down on simply because I was unknown. No one could bother to even hover over my name on the calendar invitation before subjecting me to the new hire treatment.

After that, when I had calmed down from how humiliating it felt to be dismissed and condescended to as I attempted to share my take on the solution they were asking for in the meeting, I decided I would pursue with intent what had been an accident up to that point. I decided that I would refuse meetings that didn’t have anything to do with my job, that I’d stay focused on my work, and that I wouldn’t be spiteful about avoiding the company at large if I was needed outside my team or department. I got about eight months of that before the pandemic arrived and made it even easier to be isolated from the company at large for another year and a half.

Since then, I’ve been a bit more active in the company at large as I’ve been sent out to help teams use the products we’ve developed (the company makes a big deal about using products developed internally for all of our R&D labs) and have lost track of how many times the same person has asked me what team I work for and how it feels to work for the company, always with the undertones of trying to welcome a new employee. A much easier number to track is how many people outside my department know who I am. I can count them off on my fingers.

Or at least I used to. After the internal tradeshow we did a few weeks back, where I played the role of greeter and ran a quick demo for everyone passing through my team’s lab, I am now a widely recognized figured. After all, if I’m engaging, charming, warm, and offer you the opportunity to move a piece of heavy machinery with the press of a button, I’m likely to be remembered. Few of them probably remember my name, since that wasn’t a part of the demonstration, but most of them recognize my face. Now, I get eye contact, smiles, polite greetings, and more as I walk through the building. My paths and habits have not changed, but now suddenly I am a person people know. We’ve had a (brief and incredibly formulaic) conversation thanks to the demo, but I was pleasant and didn’t bombard them with information. I am easy to remember, now, and easy to recognize. There are few people built as tall and broad as I am.

My days of anonymity are over, though I suspect it will still be a while before I start getting included on email chains since the work I do hasn’t changed. I miss it, a little bit. There is a level of power and comfort from knowing you are not being perceived so much as looked past. It is comforting to know that you will not be disrupted as you try to focus or pulled away to help someone with a small favor. It can be nice to know that no one is going to need you for anything. It can also be crushing to feel like one small pebble caught in the gears of a massive corporation. It can be devastating to look around a crowded room and know that no one is ever going to look at you in more than pasing because they’re all too busy with the people they know. It can be isolating to walk through a room of people relaxing as they eat their lunch and get not even the smallest look of recognition from anyone you see.

It was a mixed bag that I made the most of. After all, I wasn’t going to be able to change being an unknown quantity when I was physically removed or kept separate due to the pandemic. I had no work pretense for making myself known. All I could do was resent it or embrace it, so I made the most of it. Now that it is ended, I’m a little sad to see it go almost exactly six years after I joined the company, but I’m hopeful that this will lead to better, less isolated days ahead.

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