By Bill Boisvert
Should you choose to accept it. I love that little disclaimer. Hey, when you're dangling from a cable car or donating your kidneys to a South African mercenary, just remember it's your choice. Nobody forced you to be here. Of course, they don't spell out what happens if you choose not to accept it. Then it's Goodbye, Mr. Secret Agent - Hello, Mr. Independent Contractor.
This time the helicopter guys show up right in the middle of my scheduled vacation. They're using exploding sunglasses now, a spin-off of that wearable computing kick. That's typical of their whole approach to technology: lots of bells and whistles, no concern whatsoever for operator safety. Granted, the cassettes were bulky, but at least they didn't leave a smoking crater in your forehead. The boss didn't even say what it was about - just return immediately, world ending. And before I can even say, "Hey guys, can I get a ride in your helicopter or should I walk?" - whoosh, they're out of there. I actually did bring that up at headquarters, but they said messaging's been outsourced, and the new vendor contract doesn't include transport. Bond doesn't have to deal with this crap. MI6 has phenomenal administrative services - in-house. Passports, cover IDs, reservations, Moneypenny takes care of it. And the tech support - no comparison. Look at Bond's new glasses - X-ray lenses, state of the art; he walks into a casino and knows instantly who's packing firepower under their dinner jacket. That's technology that empowers the user. Of course, Bond just uses them to get a line on what underwear the ladies are wearing (or not wearing, as he never fails to add). On his last job, they gave him an Aston Martin convertible - titanium armor, twin multi-pod rocket launchers. (You know what they gave me on my last job? A stick of exploding chewing gum. "Just don't chew it!" they said, like I'm 6 years old.) Bond totalled it, as usual, but MI6 doesn't give a damn, they just tussle his hair, buy him a new one, their own little Prince William. He's a complete asshole, a one-man hostile environment, but it's like he has tenure. That's Europe, everything's cradle-to-grave over there.
I remember the old days on Jim Phelps' team. Team wasn't just a buzzword back then - it was the reality. You worked with the same people, year in, year out. A safe-house had a real community feeling to it back then; it felt, I don't know, safe. OK, if things were so great, why did Jim kill the whole team and sell out the agency? Look, I'm not condoning what he did. But I remember something he told me just before I killed him. The Cold War is over, he said. "You realize you're an obsolete piece of hardware not worth upgrading. You've got a lousy marriage. Sixty-two grand a year." Senior guy, 26 years. And how many assassinations foiled? Doesn't matter. It's still if you're caught or killed the Secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions. I guess Jim got tired of hearing that.
After the Phelps business, Human Resources was all over us. Trauma counseling, then an agency-wide "reconnecting" retreat. Everyone had to do a trust-fall. But it didn't mean a damn thing after they brought in the consultants from Ernst & Young. Think of the Impossible Mission Force as a "virtual organization," they said. IMF didn't have a product or even a service; it just carried out one-of-a-kind missions in a global environment where "change is the only constant." Virtual organization, virtual staff. Payroll would be pared down to a handful of on-call "super-agents," who would recruit teams from the international pool of freelance computer hackers, jewel thieves and demolition experts - ultracheap now, with the glut of ex-KGB and Stasi on the spot-market. To rein in workers' comp costs the whole industry was moving to a contingent labor profile, and we had to follow - or die.
Now for each new mission I have to do my own recruiting and payroll (no extra salary, natch). We're basically a temp agency. HR doesn't like that term. They say we're a "human assets portfolio" that's "actively traded." I ask them how we expect people to risk their lives when we give them no job security, no benefits. They tell me that risk is not a problem, it's an opportunity. Everyone should expect to have at least seven careers; job security is a thing of the past. We have to find other ways to get people to buy into our vision. We're a learning organization. The skill set our partners take away from an investment of time with us yields a high return in the marketplace. And if I don't like it, I am, after all, a free agent.
Sean Ambrose just ate it up. He started listening to these Tom Peters lectures on tape, Thriving on Chaos. "Grrreat stooff!" he'd bray in that moronic burr of his. I thought he was just sucking up to Hannibal (our new boss - another Brit). Hannibal is totally into that leadership garbage; he had these "Agent Change" T-shirts made up for us to wear at the quality circle. There are some aspects I agree with. Sean gave me this one Peters tape, Brand You - how we're not workers anymore, we're brands, and there are no employers, just companies who want to buy your brand. I liked that. I've always thought of myself that way, if not in exactly those terms; as something unique that you couldn't get from anyone else. The Point Man. The Go-To Guy. I even have a sort of brand motto, "Zero Body Count," because I'm a fanatic about collateral damage. (They should put that in the Customer Bill of Rights.)
But now we're experiencing some colossal blowback. Sean got hold of a doomsday virus. (He scammed it by impersonating me, with a standard-issue latex mask and voice simulator. What's the point of self-branding with all that interchangeable-identity gear lying around?) He's shopping around the antidote in exchange for biotech stock options. "Does that surprise you, Mr. Hunt?" Hannibal asked me at the briefing. He didn't seem all that shocked about it himself. And I guess it really doesn't surprise me that one of our top agents has set up shop as a super-terrorist holding millions of lives hostage for ransom. After all, we're the ones who drummed it into him that things like loyalty and stable employment are dead and buried, that your only chance in life is to make a killing in the market. He's just doing what we trained him to do.
HR is in damage-control overdrive. They're revamping the interview process, developing a new personality-type indicator. They think they'll finally be able to distinguish the violent, impulsive nihilists they want to screen out from the violent, impulsive altruists they want to hire. And they're trying to "tailor a compensation package that can really compete" (with a career in bio-terrorism). They even promised me more vacation days. I've heard that before.
So there's this woman in a bar last night. We get to talking. I should have spotted her. Before I know it she's slipping me an AFSCME card. Says her sources tell her there are issues at IMF. Pay issues. Overtime issues. Big time OSHA issues. I tell her to run, disappear - she doesn't realize who she's up against, what they're capable of. She laughs. "I've seen it all," she says. "Borders. Wal-Mart. The Yale TAs. You're public sector. A walk in the park." She leans in close, puts the pen in my hand. "C'mon sweetie," she murmurs. "Solidarity is forever."