Friday, August 7, 2009

The Professional Interviews (4): Scott, Assistant Manager of Retail Distribution (at a mass-market publishing house)

[Man, I love doing these things! I've known Scott for 6 years and borrowed his workspace to make airline reservations, and I still had no idea he did half this stuff at work. It's me in the bold-face ('cause I'm that self-important), Scott in Roman. Also, you should know that while he was telling me all this, S was also making a wicked tofu marinade.]

So, what is it exactly that you do?

I work in the retail operations department. There’s 3 components to operations: what’s shipped out; what’s returned; and what’s sold. I deal with what goes out.

And by "dealing" with, you mean?

What I deal with is gross units, order files that are transmitted from our customers, entered by our sales force. I insure that [books] arrive on time, since we have a timeline from when the order files are received to when they are processed at our warehouse. I’m basically chasing down the customer or chasing down the salesperson to chase down the customer, to get the orders. Then I have to also verify the orders that we receive for reasonability. I’m also doing preliminary analysis on how we’re doing overall against these order files.


Every month, stores order the same product lines. The theory is because the series’ are bought as a product line rather than as individual authors, it should be the same order numbers every months. That’s one of the major audits I do of the files, to make sure it’s the same. That’s only series. For single-title, I’m comparing it against projections, which are made by the sales force of what they think we’re gonna get.

So you’re checking that orders are reasonable, not that they’re lucrative?

Yep, just that they’re ordering what they said they were gonna order, or the same as last month. It gets more complicated, because there’s also distribution reviews done by sales force and sales analysis (the “what was sold” group) to see what’s selling, because if 30-40 percent of your book sells, that’s fantastic. Single-titles have a longer shelf-life, you’d probably want that over 50 percent.

Because of those distribution reviews, customers’ll come back and say “we’re gonna change our orders to reflect sales” (a chain will revise distribution for all their stores at once).

That’s a mere fraction of what I do. Do you want to do the rest as bullets?


--I load the [order] files and make sure that they have all the information required for the warehouse to process the orders
--I do gross unit analysis for early trends and missing orders (that’s the bulk of my job)
--I do some summary delivery analysis reports (what does that mean? We need to know, 'Did 30% of the stores get delivery early? 20%?' I provide the numbers. Most shipments have a 3-day delivery window, [so we wonder] 'what stores received stock on the first day of the window?')
--I also take part in the weekly teleconference call with the warehouse to discuss any issues like stickering issues, inventory issues, basic return information.
--Also, I do a monthly video-conference (cool!) call with the warehouse that deals with bigger issues than the weekly call, like changing barcodes, or marketing has come up with a new product line that they want to ship.
--I am involved with monitoring inventory levels of backlist titles to see if reprints are required.
--I am helping to develop MS Sharepoint site, a document file-sharing website.
--I test and implement reporting in our data warehouse.
--print and binds—which is the process of determining how many books to print to cover initial orders and re-orders for the first 90 days.

What makes you qualified to do all that?

I’ve learned a lot of it on the job. When I started in 2001, I had basic Excel skills and MS Access skills. I would argue that logistics is just institutional knowledge—understanding how the system flows, what file format goes where, what needs to be massaged data-wise, and things work. ... There is technical stuff: I had to learn specialty software, but again, I learned them on the job. And then there's just basic logic—things happen in steps.

So what is it about you, personally, that makes you good at this?

I like to understand things, that’s helpful. People have commented that I’m friendly (True!) which helps, but that is true of any job in an office—the friendly guy is well-liked. There is a certain level of intelligence required and they feel like I possess that level of intelligence, so… Asking questions is important too, so that when someone asks for correct information you can make sure you have it.

How did you get the job?

I actually was approached. I put my resume on Workopolis and a headhunter called me. Then, they made me do 2 interviews and a computer test (they sent me down to this independent third party testing thing) to see if I could actually use MS Excel. Apparently, a lot of people say they can use it, but... Since then I’ve actually done courses on Excel and there’s still a lot more I need to learn about it.

What sort of person would you recommend go after a job in operations?

(laughs) Someone who likes numbers! Um…someone who can think logically, doesn’t mind a stressful environment. Course I say that, but it depends on where you are—other companies might be difference. I think if you make toothpaste, it doesn’t change from month to month. But bread people, they have to get it there every day.

And who should stay away from this sort of job?

People who aren’t good with numbers, people who have trouble with logic, people who want to be able to sit and meander through their stuff. We’re one of those in-between departments that don’t get to control the timelines.

What is a typical day like for you?

There are no typical days.

There are greater cycles: if you come to me on a Friday, there are certain things I do on Fridays. Every cycle is different, every problem is different, unfortunately. If I had to split my day, parts of it are short-term problems and parts are long-term problems, and the short-term always eats up the long-term problems' time. Lemme give it a crack:

First thing in the morning you are going through your email to find out what happened while you weren’t there. The warehouse starts at 4-5 in the morning; they were already packing books then. And then people stayed after you left, too. After that, I usually have either ad-hoc reports or reports that are due for the cycle that I’m in. Or I’m chasing orders. Long-term stuff, I usually have some reports that I have audit to make sure they work correctly, I have instructions to type out on using reports, my boss will come with some specialty analysis that he wants done… Usually there’s calls to be made for clarification. Also we have a partnership for distribution with another publisher, and they send me morning reports on orders and inventory and I have to deal with problems there.

In the afternoon, if you’re lucky you get to do your stuff; if you’re unlucky, you’re doing other people’s stuff. At a moment’s notice, my superior or their superior, could come and ask for something. Because I’m assistant manager, I’m lucky, because they go to the manager first.

The afternoon is a blur, really. You might have meetings: tomorrow I have meeting from 8:30 to 1. It’s our big monthly meeting, which no one ever wants to go to.

Is it catered?

It used to be, but due to budget cuts, it is no longer. Which has sped it up now that we don’t have lunch in the meeting.

So, you get to 4:30, and leave?

Usually, sometimes I have to stay an extra half hour to get some key things out, but more or less I leave on time. My boss is there until 6 or 7 often, but I joke that’s because he is a bachelor. I have a lot to get home to. I have a new baby, so I have to get home and get supper and spend time with the kid…who probably isn’t old enough to appreciate it.

Is there a people management part ot your job?

I don’t have anyone report directly to me, but in operations, if you’re brought into a meeting, you’re contributing to helping solve a problem. If book signatures have been mismatched, we have a meeting and I’m part of defining the solution, I don’t say, 'you do this,' but I say, 'I’ll do this,' other people say 'I’ll do that.' Sometimes I’ll take charge of a meeting, but that’s a dynamic, sometimes people just don’t want to make a decision and I want to get it done. You can get meeting-itis, and you’re just beating something to death. Some people just like the sound of their own voice, and those people don’t work in Operations. We can’t do that because we have to get out of the meetings and deal with the emails ticking away in our in-boxes. That’s why agendas are so important.

That being said, back to my point about institutional memory, I do tell people what to do sometimes just because I know do the answer, and I say, “If you go do this, it’ll solve your problem.” They don’t report directly to me, it’s just because I have the answer they listen to me.

What do you do at lunchtime?

I usually go to the kitchen, get my lunch, and come back and eat in my office. Unless I didn’t bring a lunch, in which case I go buy it. Then I read a book, websurf (Salon, Slate, Macleans, NYT, bookninja, bookslut, and whatever meets my fancy.)

No working thru lunch?

That happens, depends on the day. Some days I have to work through.

Degree of resentment?

No one likes working through their lunch. But sometimes you get in a groove, stuff is getting done, the emails make sense when you type them up, and you don’t mind. Other days, you’re like, “Why won’t this end?” But there’s always a sense of urgency, I don’t think I’ve ever had slow days. An example: Today, I’m dealing with books that just went on sale for August so we’re having ad-hoc meetings to see if we can deal with the orders. I’ve already got all the billing files for September, now the warehouse is actually starting to process them. I’m already looking at October on-sale because I’m trying to figure out where the orders are. We’re setting up some special projects for November. And I was just dealing with my boss on Christmas books, backlist Christmas books, I had to do a report on that, to see if we need to order them, which we do.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Memorizing some stuff. There’s certain things that my boss is just gifted with--like numbers. I’m good at math, but I don’t remember specific numbers .Some ppl can work faster because they memorize certain things, but my mind just doesn’t want to do that.

When you tell people what you do at parties, what is the typical response?

No, I don't do that. Frankly people can’t wrap their heads around it. I tell them the name of the publisher, and then I say, “I help get the books out.” I would say operations has an influence on your life, when product shows up and where it is. But it’s just too hard to explain.

Anything general about the job?

It’s been one of my pet peeves that there’s always this discussion about art vs. business. There’s this dullard Dilbert suck-your-soul element that everyone talks about in business, but I would argue every job has a soul-sucking element, even artistic pursuits. I have seen math artists-- there’s a guy in our department--people who can read that patterns. And there’s an art to writing an email, there’s art in everything. There’s a human element to everything. Math is not as simple as A + B = C; it’s hard and there are some people who are gifted. Some people just have a knack for it.


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