Friday, November 14, 2014

operation the third café explained

Dear Lionel,

How are you doing?

It's been a year since I last wrote to you, yet I have heard nothing from you.  Not that I was expecting a reply, though one would have been nice.  Perhaps you were too bugged out by my explanation of Operation Handshake.  Then again, it was you who seemed the most curious about it among members of the team.  So this silence of yours is confusing, especially since we could talk about anything, or almost.  Just to avoid imagining what you may have thought about my letter, I am going to assume that all is good.  Don't they say that no news is good news?  Besides, I am an optimist, so I cannot afford to get too worried by the lack of an update.  I can only do my best to inspire you to write back and share your thoughts.  And to do that, I am presenting to you another operation named "The Third Café", which I designed and conducted several times while I was still in the team.  Sadly, you did not get to participate in this venture before I left.  You may not have even known about it.  But not to worry, because by the end of this letter, you will know much more.

As far its conception is concerned, Operation The Third Café actually preceded Operation Handshake.  Yet I got around to introducing it only after I had experienced consistent success with Handshake, having deemed the latter less risky.  I was already excited during the preparation of The Third Café, especially when I was writing the program that would read a file containing dozens of colleagues' names (actually about 80 names), select one of them at random, and print it to the screen.  After all those years of writing large bundles of software, who ever knew that crafting a standalone 225-line computer program could still produce so much joy?

The operation was inspired from the pause-cafés, or coffee breaks, that we would usually have in the room located between the two open spaces on the floor and that included a coffee dispenser.  These breaks seemed like the daily ritual that gave many of us the opportunity to catch up and joke around, among other things.  Even more than a daily ritual, they seemed like a vital part of the culture at work.  Sincerely speaking, I was unfamiliar with this kind of merrymaking when I joined the team.  I did not even warm up to it, preferring to remain among others at their desks who, in my opinion, were actually getting stuff done.  Today, I recognize that that attitude only reflected my insecurities at the time.  During my last few years at work, things were different, as my visits to the coffee room to mingle were rather frequent.  For sure, I was not the most often present person there, but I did have my fair share of appearances.

So the name of the operation refers directly to the third coffee break of the day at work.  Now that I think about it, this name is an odd mix of French and English, isn't it?  I have no idea why this name spoke to me.  It just did.  Anyway, people generally took coffee in front in the coffee room twice a day.  There was the morning coffee, anywhere between 9:30am and 10:30am, and then the afternoon coffee, sometime around 4:00pm.  As I had imagined it, the third coffee break would take place at 5:00pm.  Sure, it may have been too late for some people, especially those worried that their sleeping patterns would be disrupted if they had coffee that late in the day, but that was simply how my mind saw the opportunity for a new operation.

And therein was the general idea: inviting people to a coffee break at 5:00pm.  In practice, I would run the program that I had written to randomly select a name among those of everyone working in the two open spaces.  EVERYONE.  Once the program spit out the chosen name, I would have to go to the desk of the person bearing that name, either in our open space or in the other one, and suggest that he or she join me for a coffee break.  And I would do this twice a week.

As you can imagine, the "danger" in all this would be going up to someone who I barely knew, to whom I had never really spoken, or who I hardly ever saw, not to mention the uncertainty of their reaction to this rather peculiar request.  Yet that was what made the whole thing exciting.  Of course, it is a simple matter to ask someone ‒ anyone ‒ to have coffee with you.  However, we tend to ask people that we already know or with whom we feel more or less comfortable.  Even for me that is a natural instinct, so the embracing the idea of approaching colleagues that were not familiar or that I did not like much, as simple as it was from an objective point of view, took effort.  Having deemed such an effort valuable, I resisted the temptation to run the program until it gave me the name of a colleague that I judged easier to approach.

I thought that it was important that I did the deed at the desk of the chosen colleague, as there were almost always people in the vicinity to serve as an audience.  Like for Operation Handshake, doing unusual things in public appeared to be the quickest way to get over the fear of doing unusual things in public.  And, as you probably know by now, I have a certain fondness for doing unusual things in public.  Sometimes, I feel like it is my responsibility.  But I digress.

I was very afraid about bearing this responsibility, or rather, facing the opinion that others would have of me if I did something unusual.  And such, Operation The Third Café, however exciting it felt to conceive, did not see the light of day for several months.  As mentioned earlier, the regular success of Operation Handshake gave me confidence that I needed to get it off the ground.  To alleviate the fear of starting out, I decided to run the program until the colleague chosen at random was someone that I had no difficulty approaching.  So I did this until the program gave me Sylvie.  You remember her, right?

Well, the task of walking over to Sylvie's desk was a breeze.  We had always gotten along very well.  We had had coffee together at least once, and even lunch a few times.  So naturally, my third coffee break that day went smoothly.  Before having the discipline (and courage) to adhere to the two-times-a-week rule, I deemed myself ready to run the operation for the second time only several weeks after the moment with Sylvie.  I knew that, after the easy start, I could not cheat ‒ I could not rerun the program to get a more comfortable choice of colleague.  I would have to accept the choice that I was given before I could advance.  Those were just the rules of the game.  And with those rules in mind, I went to my computer, found the program, and ran it.  In the five seconds that it took to print a randomly chosen name (five seconds more than necessary but useful merely for introducing a little suspense), my heart beat madly, faster with each passing second.  Then I saw the output on the screen.  Kamel.

Operation Handshake aside, I had never talked to Kamel.  Ever.  I was not even completely sure of who he was.  I only had a good hunch.  Also, as opposed to Sylvie, he worked in the other open space, somewhere in the middle of the wide room occupied by at least 40 people, making matters even more interesting, if not scary.  So scary that I lived through a fierce mental struggle for two days at work.  How could something so simple be so terrifying at the same time?

Terrifying as it seemed, I managed to find the courage to pull through.  I simply had to, there was no other option.  It was a do or die situation, as I like to say.  So I went over to Kamel's desk, and did it.  Fortunately, because of Operation Handshake, I had gotten accustomed to showing up at the desks of unfamiliar people just to say hello.  I do not recall in detail what transpired that day, except that Kamel found the gesture a little strange yet somewhat amusing.  James, who was in the same team as Kamel and was sitting nearby, had noticed something unusual and made a remark.  Which he probably would not have done if we did not know each other.  His exuberant demeanor helped to put me at ease almost instantly, and what had seemed so terrifying a minute before had become something so simple.

Ultimately, Kamel accepted the invitation and we headed to the coffee room, along with James.  It was a nice rendez-vous, even though I really did not know what to talk about once the main event ‒ the moments of fear before and during the approach ‒ was over.  My worries had been useless; once in the coffee room, it became natural to get to know each other.  I got the impression though that for much of the break, Kamel was as still astonished as James that I had come over to suggest having coffee.  I must have given a safe excuse when he inquired why, like "Oh, I just thought of getting to know the people around me a little more."  At the end of the day, it was a landmark moment and I was nothing short of overjoyed.  It is often said that the first step is the hardest, and I had just taken it.

In the two and a half months that followed, after which I left the company, I ran the operation a total of 18 times.  That's 18 offers to have coffee, each one made to a colleague randomly selected from a pool of about 80.  I certainly got more disciplined with time, following without fail the two-colleagues-per-week rule during my final five weeks.  As my anxiety decreased, my confidence increased.  All in all, it was a wonderful experience, one that made the time spent at work more enjoyable than it already was and more meaningful from a personal point of view.  Plus I got to know some of my colleagues better.

Among the 18 offers, I received various responses.  Some people said yes, and we had coffee together, sometimes immediately, sometimes a little later in the day.  A couple of them said no, generally claiming that they were too busy.  I was not the least bothered by their refusals, as the mere act of going over to suggest coffee was satisfying enough for me.  A few other people declined because they had already had their afternoon coffee.  I suppose another serving at 5:00pm was pushing it.

The most memorable episode was when I had to invite Mathieu to coffee.  Keep in mind that I did not know him personally, even though he was used to seeing me show up at his desk whenever I was running Operation Handshake.  On top of that, he worked in the other open space.  Anyways, at 5:00pm that day, in spite of the intense nervousness that had fallen upon me, I got up from my seat to go wash my hands before the main event.  And guess who I ran into in the restroom.  Mathieu !  We must have said only bonjour to each other then.  I was not going to start talking about us having coffee, and besides doing so anywhere but at his desk was against the rules of the operation.  So I went back to attending to my own business and he left eventually.  When I was done, I got out and went in the direction of the other open space.  I found the door, opened it, and passed through.  I instantly spotted Mathieu seated in the middle of the room, farther than where Kamel's seat was, and went straight on until I arrived at his desk.  The tension that accompanied this walk quickly diminished once I had stated the reason for my visit, as it had always been the case during previous episodes.  Ultimately, Mathieu declined.  Another busy fellow.  At least he was flattered, or seemed like it.

There you have it.  Operation The Third Café in all its glory ‒ I mean, in all its details.  You are the first to know all about it ‒ and I mean ALL about it ‒, even though I had let out a few details on one occasion when I was in the coffee room with Jerome (the tall one), Alexis, and Elid, the chosen colleague of the day.  I don't know if you were there too, my memory of that moment is quite blurry.  In any case, not a single one person among those present was aware that I was playing some kind of game.  I don't even think that they really understood what I was saying.  Granted, giving oral explanations in a clear manner is not my strongest suit.  Thankfully I can write (pretty well).  Case in point.

So I hope that you have been inspired by reading this.  Heck, I hope that you've at least felt something.  Anything.  If so, I have achieved my goal, even if you (still) don't write back.  It would be great to hear from you though.  No pressure.

Monsieur (Pre?)?Conf.

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