Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Scoring Tech Gadgets At Work Is a Lot Easier Than Winning a Raise

Scoring Tech Gadgets At Work Is a Lot Easier Than Winning a Raise October 13, 2004 Jared Sandberg Wall Street Journal

When Andrew Zaeh was a photography agent a few years back, he begged his boss for a new Palm hand-held organizer. "Isn't it important that I have the contact numbers for every creative director, art director and art buyer with me at all times?" he asked her.

Mr. Zaeh recalls he was "foaming at the mouth" with desire for the device, daydreaming about its ability to synchronize and transmit photos wirelessly. At first, his boss told him no. But when he bought one himself and produced a receipt, she suggested he "just slip it in" to accounting.

Unfortunately, while that gambit worked, the Palm didn't. "It was a nightmare," says Mr. Zaeh. "Once I finally got it working, the battery died immediately." He's gotten along fine without the Palm at his current job, he concedes, but then he adds conspiratorially: "They're outfitting me with a BlackBerry."

Such is the endless quest that results from gadget envy, an affliction that appears to mainly affect men. Their insatiable need for the latest techno-doodad is compounded at the office, where other sufferers of male-pattern gearness have sparked an arms race. In an effort to win this contest -- and get the company to subsidize them -- gearniks employ wit, diplomacy and a sudden vocal dedication to "productivity" and "profits." Armed with a potential solution (wireless, color screen), they will spare no effort to find a problem.

After all, says banker Bob Lockwood, it's much easier to get work to authorize a gadget purchase than your wife. "You can do it via e-mail or request form, and there's no memory within the system," he points out. "Your wife will always remember."

In most cases, getting the company to pay for gadgets does require some skill and craft. Not true, though, if you worked for John Ellis, a former senior vice president of engineering at an Internet search company. "I was a pushover," he says. If there wasn't a productivity benefit, he reasoned, at least the recipients would be less grumpy.

When Mr. Ellis was a young researcher, his own pleas for new gear weren't dishonest but, he concedes, they did include "a little bit of puffery." Tactically, "you can criticize what you have or emphasize the advantages of the new machine, or do both," he confides.

Both was the tactic one top salesman employed with Chris O'Leary, chief financial officer at Phoseon Technology. In an e-mail in May, the salesman laid out the costs of a new BlackBerry, then proceeded to offset them: "I'm currently averaging $30 a month just for logons at Starbucks and airports to get e-mail. While this won't replace laptop e-mail completely (and some of that monthly cost), it will certainly make things easier on the road."

Then the salesman added that the CEO really should get a BlackBerry, too. And he closed with a nice hint of concern for the bottom line: "For an extra $100 you can get a color version, but they are still hard to come by and color doesn't add much to the functionality as far as I can tell."

Mr. O'Leary approved the purchase, but only on one condition: The salesman had to keep it quiet, lest there be an escalation of a costly arms race on the company's dime.

It's usually just a matter of time before the cycle begins again, leaving a device and its car chargers orphaned in some drawer. A signal that the honeymoon is ending is often an offer to lend out the device, usually with the hope that it won't be returned, providing a convenient excuse to upgrade.

For many, the gear quest is little more than "aesthetic technolust," theorizes Virginia Postrel, author of "Substance of Style," a treatise on the importance of aesthetics. "It's fun to have the latest technology," she says. "Rarely is it essential." Still, she says, doodads can be "a cheap investment in employee morale." What's a $500 device when a $500 yearly salary increase would cost the company more and force the employee to amortize instant gratification? "A one-time expense is easier to justify budgetarily," she says, adding that gadgets don't give the appearance of squandering shareholder resources the way renovating an office would.

Rank does have its gearhead privileges. When Air Force Lt. Col. Pete Whelan was stationed in England, he says, one of his technical sergeants persuaded some people in another squadron to allow their newly ordered Palm Pilots to be diverted to him and other top brass, arguing "that we were higher priority than some other guy on the base who really wanted one." Naturally, the technical sergeant, who didn't outrank the squadron members he raided, got a Palm for himself.

Nowadays, Lt. Col. Whelan, whose "gear" includes the F-15E jets he flies, is stationed at a U.S. facility where he has to unload his beloved gadgets before he enters the "vault," a secure area with classified materials. At first he felt naked, but now he enjoys the freedom. He might be considered a recovered gizmoholic except for the fact that at home, he has started collecting new power tools.

"I just bought a drywall screwdriver and a Roto-Zip spiral cutter," he says. "Want to borrow them sometime?"

Nitin Bajaj

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