A reflection on my decade at Caterpillar

Posted on Mon 31 July 2017 in Jobs


Right out of college

Ten and a half years ago, I was the manager at the university help desk and less than six months from graduation. I hadn't heard back from the company I interned with. I was getting concerned. I went to the university's yearly career fair. I had companies I wanted to talk with, a few that looked interesting and a handful that I knew handed out decent freebies, so I'd stop by those too. After all, what college student is going to turn down a freebie?

I don't remember what company I was speaking with. I remember it wasn't going well. The interviewer was making unfunny jokes about the location of my home town and how far it was from their place of operations. I was slowly trying to extract myself from the conversation and really wanted to take my resume back too. Finally, I was free and turned to walk away and almost knocked over a recruiter from the next booth over. I apologized and she beamed at me. She also apologized but said it was because she'd been listening to the conversation I'd just had. I had sounded like someone she was looking to hire.

I stepped over to the booth and was introduced to the Logistics arm of Caterpillar. The interview on campus and follow up all day interviews about two weeks later went very well. I was offered a job at a salary I was happy with. It turned out that the company I'd had my internship with would eventually offer me a job and not even come close to the starting salary Caterpillar offered, which made me even more satisfied. I was to start in June following graduation.

The first day

My degree is not in Logistics or transportation management, yet that would be the team I was joining. I was given my boss's name. I showed up, bright eyed and ready to begin my career at a company known the world over, and was told by the receptionist that my boss no longer worked at this facility. She'd moved to a new area of the company less than two weeks ago.

Eventually, I was introduced to my new boss and the team. I was handed off to my team lead and we promptly started going over a gigantic system. I remember being overwhelmed and confused. My college degree didn't use terms like "bill of lading" or "route optimization". I tried to keep up. Eventually, lunch rolled around. I was handed a set of instructions on how to get myself added to the system and told to follow those after lunch. I was young and eager. I followed the directions. In doing so, I learned how to add myself to the system. The company also learned a lesson that day: their instructions were wrong. I followed exactly what I was given. In doing so, I locked out the system administrator account for the transportation management system. This was a 'mistake' that is still brought up a decade later. On day one, it's a horrifying experience. A bit later, it's a harmless first day mistake that took a few minutes for an experienced technician to resolve.

Fortunately, day two went much better.

A revolving door of bosses

The first four years at Caterpillar, I met many great transportation consultants. They were very smart, had worked with many other companies and had been all over the world. I was a bit jealous of their ability to travel. These consultants taught me about managing transportation, about setting up a system for a new company, and helped me design and build tools to improve Caterpillar's ability to do the same. They also taught me something else about Caterpillar: if you aren't a Caterpillar employee, your opinion matters less. They are paid a ton more than me and my more senior coworkers, but if an idea doesn't come from an employee, it's not given fair consideration by management.

The problem with this should be obvious. Those with the most experience setting up and managing systems to get parts and supplies on time to our facilities weren't able to provide suggestions for how to improve the system even more. System growth stagnated and my first boss was replaced. The second boss came from overseas and had experience we were trying to move to the US. Their assignment in the US lasted a year or so, and I was given a new boss again. A fourth boss was assigned about nine months before I eventually moved to another division. Four bosses in four years.

Through all of this, though, I built and managed some amazing applications. These included a brand new order processing system, a container management system, and a dashboard to unify all of the different systems into one quick at a glance system. During one of the boss transitions, I was moved to sit with my users and learn their pain points. This was one of the best decisions that came out of these first four years. By sitting with the users and talking with them daily, I learned exactly what they had problems with. I designed simple work-arounds, automated external tools and ways to improve their pain points. My yearly review reflected how much the customers appreciated my help and me sitting with them.

Eventually, I was moved back with the rest of the IT team. At that point, I felt a bit like an outsider. I'd been sitting with my users for over a year. None of my coworkers had been given the opportunity to do so. I was moving from the trenches back to the ivory tower. I lost the interaction with my users and I think my team suffered because of this. We were slower to respond to issues, because now the users had to go through the official channels of calling the helpdesk and waiting until a member of my team was assigned the problem to work with. Simple questions couldn't be answered with a two minute conversation.

During this move, a third party logistics service was brought in to 'improve' our processes. It turns out that a start up company without a large customer doesn't know how to manage transportation for a company that spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to move stuff around. The relationship didn't improve over time. Instead, each side attempted blame the other for the smallest of issues. After being assigned the task of ensuring our data was transferred every day by an early time, I started looking for another position in the company. I was tried of getting up early and missing time with the family.

The long drive

I found a new position fairly quickly. It was recommended to me by a friend I knew outside of work. It was a Python development position for a tool used by the entire division. I interviewed, was offered the job, and then told by my boss I couldn't move yet. Despite asking ahead of time, the answer had changed once I was actually offered the job. I spent months waiting to be allowed to move. Eventually, I was allowed to move.

The one down side of this new job was its distance from my house. My first job was about 15-20 minutes away. This new one was 45 minutes away, on a good traffic day. It was worth it though. I liked the job better. I worked much more closely with my users and over the next six years the job evolved from supporting a desktop application to building an entire analytic environment. We built a system to track failure reasons and determine who was responsible for paying a warranty (saved millions of dollars every year since implementation), a predictive failure dashboard allowing service engineers to reach out to customers before something happened, expand from desktop to web development and deploy a large expensive environment for hosting tons of sensor data from machines around the world.

The down turn

Unfortunately, the economic situation for Caterpillar, especially after the down turn, was always "it's going to get worse before it gets better". For years, I watched rounds of layoffs. I watched employees with decades of experience be escorted out while under-performing employees remained in place. Decades and decades of knowledge walked out the door, never to return and were replaced, most often, with nothing.

My team avoided the brunt of these layoffs, but they were never far from our doorstep. The looming threat of "maybe next time", was always there. With a large number of layoffs, it's not surprising that someone would walk out with confidential information. It happened. IT and HR cracked down on the rest of us. First came the removal of little things - USB access - then came the increased security on the laptops. Security software that took 4GB of memory on a fresh install. On day one of a new machine, half of your system resources went to "security". Restarting your computer was a 15 minute process due to this software.

Then HR stated that you must be in the building 8 hours a day. Working from home in the evenings didn't count. This was the straw that started my job search. With a 45-60 minute drive each way, I'd come to an agreement with my boss that I'd spend a majority of the day in the office but do releases in the evenings from home. This allowed me to be with my family at nights and finish the day after they'd gone to bed. HR's new rules eliminated this. So, I worked out the ability to work from home two days a week. This still wasn't ideal for those three nights that I was home later, but it improved home life a bit, for a while.

The kids were growing and starting to be involved in more after school activities. Activities that I had to pick and choose whether or not I could attend due to this decree to keep my chair warm in the office. I hated missing these things. The kids hated me missing them. Then HR "reminded" us that it was still required that we are in the office for 8 hours a day. This didn't feel like a professional work environment any more. It felt like we were being treated like little kids by HR.

The new job

Eventually I found a new job. My first day is, officially, tomorrow. Today is my last day at Caterpillar. It is unfortunate that I have to leave. I really enjoyed the work and the people. My managers have worked with me (and the rest of my team) to help us be as flexible as possible. But, I can't ignore that I'm missing out on family things more and more. Caterpillar says things like "work-life balance", but I'm not sure they actually believe that any more.

If they do, it's not a "work life balance" for families where both parents are employed - especially if they aren't both employed at Caterpillar. A week before I found the new job, a new flexible work schedule was announced where employees could work 80 hours over the course of 9 days instead of the usual 10, giving you every other Friday off. At first glance, that sounds appealing. But, after minute or so of figuring of how it works there is a fatal flaw: I'd be home even later over the course of 9 days and then be home on a Friday - when the rest of the family is at work or school. That doesn't solve anything for me.

The new job is a full time remote position. I'll be home every day. I can step out for an hour to go to a class room party or take a morning off to go on a field trip. The flexibility I've been told about is amazing. The official vacation policy is:

Employees have the authority to use their judgment and discretion and take temporary periods of time away from work as vacation, without loss of pay, as their work permits.


Goodbye Yellow!

Caterpillar has been my home for a decade. Despite my complaints about work life balance, above, I'm not leaving the company with malice or ill-intent. Caterpillar is a large company and will continue long after I've left. The people that are there, especially my coworkers, are intelligent people who build amazing things. Unfortunately, in my case, Caterpillar seems to have forgotten that those intelligent people like to spend time doing things other than keeping their chairs warm.

I am thankful for the decade of experiences, the professional relationships, and chances to work on interesting projects. Caterpillar, I wish you well in the future. If you are going to listen to one piece of advice from a former employee, I recommend you take a look at those employees in your work force where the household is a dual career house. Your work life balance initiatives do not appear to account for those employees and it is for that reason that you lost me.

Goodbye Yellow. I'll always remember my time with you.

- is a father, an engineer and a computer scientist. He is interested in online community building, tinkering with new code and building new applications. He writes about his experiences with each of these.