Personal

My theme for 2019

I’ve never had a theme for a year be so useless as last year’s was: stability. 2018 turned out to be incredibly hard, maybe the hardest of my life. My dad died. Our daughter-in-law died. We helped elderly parents transition to the home where they will live out their days. Several of our children had serious struggles. There were family squabbles. Work was brutal, needlessly so, culminating in me losing my job.

Meanwhile, my wife had her own life challenges, including a serious back injury, all while she and I are still fairly new in our marriage and are still trying to figure out how to blend our families and love each other. We frequently got it wrong.

It’s been too much.

We’re still grieving our losses and trying to make sense out of all that’s happened. But — dare I risk saying it? I’ve said it before and have been wrong — the worst is over.

Early spring crocus

It’s time for Margaret and I to get back to our core principles and values. To take good care of ourselves. To build our marriage as if it were brand new. To love our families.

It is time for me to renew myself. My faith, which is lagging. My career, which took it on the chin. My physical health, as I’m overweight, my digestion is bad, I sleep poorly, and my blood pressure has soared. My mental health, as the twin monsters of anxiety and depression are holding me back. My marriage, as the events of the last couple years have really been hard on us.

That’s why my 2019 theme is renewal.

I’m going renew my faith, first by spending time in my Bible every day this year. I have a great Bible that lays out the entire Scripture chronologically in 365 chunks. I’ve read through the Bible this way a few times before and I always find it incredibly rewarding and enriching. It’s been years; it’s time for me to do it again.

I’m also going to rededicate myself to my service in the church. I’m an elder in my congregation, a sort of lay leader. But I’ve not been able to fulfill most of my responsibilities there as our family’s challenges have been so consuming. I don’t think I’ll be able to give the church all of the time and effort I want to in 2019, but I expect to be able to give significantly more than I did in 2018.

I’m going to renew my health, in three key ways. First, I’m going to shed the 15 pounds I’ve put on, by limiting my calorie intake and taking long walks every day. I love to walk.

Second, I’m going to keep working toward best possible function through a chronic condition I live with. I changed to a functional medicine practitioner last year and she has already seriously moved the needle on my health. But there’s far more that needle needs to be moved and she and I need to seriously team up to make that happen.

Third, I’m going to stop relying on my nightly shot of bourbon to help me sleep. Through all this stress, sleep has been elusive. All the sleep aids my doctor prescribed had unacceptable side effects. My nightly shot of bourbon, which I’ve come to very much enjoy, works great. The trouble is that it sometimes becomes two, and once in a while three shots. It reduces the quality of my sleep, is a source of empty calories — and is potentially a slippery slope.

I’m going to renew my career, by getting busy learning the ropes in my new job, which starts Monday. It still stings that my last job ended the way it did. It hurts that my dream of startup glory had to die. But I know I’m fortunate as hell to have landed another role at comparable pay so quickly, and that I’ll learn a lot at this company.

I’m going to go away with Margaret once a quarter for a long weekend. We find it possible to talk about things on these breaks that we just don’t get to at home. We remind ourselves just how much we love each other’s company. 

We’ve already agreed that in 2019 we want to focus on our relationship and our home, making both happy and comfortable.

I’m tired, and I’m sad. I’ve earned these feelings; something would be wrong if I didn’t have them. But now I believe I have the time and emotional space to let them work their way through my system. I’m looking forward to renewed energy and happiness in 2019.

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Personal

The Christmas experience

Before we got married, Margaret and her kids had their Christmas traditions and I and my kids had ours.

At Christkindlmarkt

Because our children are older — our youngest is almost 18, and our oldest is 33 — I hoped our families would blend their traditions and we’d have one giant Christmas celebration that satisfied everybody. That’s not how it has turned out.

I am surprised to find how strong my family’s traditions became. I always thought that we made them up as we went, as we flexed around frustrating parenting-time rules and my ex-wife’s holiday plans.

At Christkindlmarkt

But in the couple years Margaret and I have tried to blend our family’s traditions and get-togethers, I can see that the main flexibility my family had was in timing of our gathering. Sometimes it was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, sometimes it was the weekend that worked out best before or after Christmas, and once it was New Year’s Eve (which was very cool). But we celebrated together in exactly the same way every year. Unfortunately, that celebration just doesn’t blend neatly with Margaret’s family’s celebration.

At Christkindlmarkt

So this year we decided to just honor each family’s ways separately, and have two celebrations. The Greys celebrated on Saturday. I’ll celebrate with Margaret’s family tonight and tomorrow morning. And I think everybody will have had a satisfying Christmas experience.

However you celebrate, happy Christmas to you and yours!

Ornaments photographed with my Canon PowerShot S95 at this year’s Christkindlmarkt Chicago.

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Personal, Stories Told

The best customer-service experience I’ve ever had

I applied for a job that asked me to write a few short essays on topics germane to the role. One of them, as this post’s title says, was to tell about an amazing customer-service experience I’ve had. You might enjoy the story.

I had an amazing customer service experience with the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Yes, you read that right — the BMV. It showed me that persistence and savvy can solve a thorny customer problem.

It was 1994. My license was due to expire so I went to the nearest license branch to renew it. The clerk said, “Mr. Grey, the computer says you renewed your license at the Lawrence branch last month.” That was 90 miles from where I was standing. I’d never been to that town.

Dog in the wayback

This happened long before the phrase “identity theft” had been coined, long before data security was any kind of concern. We were all incredibly careless with our personal information then. It was common to have your Social Security number printed on your checks! Mine was. Heck, until just a few years before this story happened, your SSN was your driver’s license number in Indiana. Clerks at Kroger used to validate the checks I used to pay for my groceries by making sure the SSN on my check matched my driver’s license number. It was madness.

This problem was beyond the clerk’s authority, so she gave me a number to call. The representative who answered lacked the authority to help me as well. “I’m not even sure who can help you with this,” she said. “But I’ll find out. Give me a number where I can reach you. Here’s my number in case you don’t hear from me in the next day or so.”

That day-or-so stretched into a couple weeks, with that rep and I calling each other every few days to check in. She tried office after office at the BMV until she found someone both with the authority and the willingness to take on my case.

The woman who now had my case was some sort of upper-level manager. After I mailed her documentation that proved my identity to her satisfaction, she told me what she knew. “We think someone walked into the Lawrence branch claiming they were you and that they had lost their license card, sweet talked a clerk, and walked out with a license in your name but with their photo on it.”

License plate

“This is not going to be easy, but I am going to do everything I can to resolve this for you,” she said. “I will take this all the way to the BMV Commissioner if I have to, and I may have to.” She advised me to check my credit reports and criminal records in several Indiana counties to see if my impostor was doing dirty deeds in my name. She gave me her phone number so I could stay in touch.

It took her weeks to sort it out, working with various BMV offices to coordinate the solution. She authorized an entirely new driver’s license number for me and put an alert on my old record that the license was fraudulent. “You need to know that we’ve never done anything like this, not in all the years I’ve been here. But we allowed this problem to happen and it is on us to fix it for you. By the way, if the police pull the impostor over for speeding,” she said, “he’ll find himself in handcuffs!”

I was lucky; my credit did not get torched and the sheriff did not appear at my door because of something my impostor did. There was an upside for me, though. The BMV’s ancient computer couldn’t transfer my driving record to my new license, which made two speeding tickets disappear. Poof!

What made this a great customer service experience was:

  • Persistence. Everybody I encountered worked hard on this problem, jumping hurdles and removing obstacles, until it was resolved.
  • Savvy. The BMV was a giant state bureaucracy, with miles of red tape. The customer-service rep and the upper-level manager both knew how to navigate it expertly.
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Personal

Job search update

I accepted a job. I’m going back to work January 7 as an Engineering Manager for a national software company with a large office in Indianapolis. If you live in the US and have children in school, you probably have used, or at least have heard of, the product I’m going to help build.

I had hoped to find another small company ready to scale. The company I’ll be working for is well established, with a mature product and thousands of employees. Smaller companies have been my “sweet spot” where I’ve found great satisfaction and delivered solid results. But I didn’t find such a company ready for a person like me on this job search. 

Yet I am relieved. And this company should provide a solid platform for growth.

When I found myself unemployed in 2015, I was in high demand. Several companies expressed strong interest in me, I picked up some side consulting, and I got to weigh two competing job offers.

But in 2015 I was selling myself as a Quality Assurance leader. (QA people test software to make sure it works as intended.) I have a great story to tell there, backed up with deep experience.

Since then I made the transition to Engineering leadership. It came not a moment too soon, for as I discussed in this post on my software blog QA leadership roles are drying up, and for good reason. 

But in Engineering I find myself in a much larger pool of competition. Frankly, it hurt me as a candidate that I haven’t coded in ten years and am only lightly familiar with modern development and infrastructure tools and frameworks.

I claim that this doesn’t matter. What I might lack in technical chops I more than make up in skilled leadership. I made a deliberate choice some years ago to double down on being an outstanding leader, and it had the natural consequence of letting my technical skills wither and age. But I get outstanding results anyway, because I know how to harness my teams for best engagement and best results.

This turned out not to be as compelling a pitch as I imagined. In two opportunities I was passed over for candidates with more recent technology experience. Maybe this is ego talking, but I would be surprised if they had anywhere near the leadership skill and experience I do.

But I have to take this as an important signal. In my new role, I need to learn the technologies we use. I must go deep enough that one day when I’m on the market again, I have a technology story to tell that removes any doubt about me.

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I always thought the reward for doing a good job was that you got to keep the job

Another thing happened while I was on my blog hiatus last month. I was fired.

I was Director of Engineering at a startup software company. I had led the building of “version 1.0” of our product. I doubled the engineering staff to an even dozen, put in the practices and processes they used to do their work, and collaborated with the product-idea people to make sure the engineers had solid backlogs of work to build from. In short order we turned a chicken-wire-and-chewing-gum prototype into a real software product that sold well and provided real value to customers. I’m proud of what my team and I accomplished.

Those accomplishments apparently didn’t matter in the end.

To tell you the whole story would probably violate the confidentiality agreement I signed. I’m left to guess at much of it anyway, as they wouldn’t tell me why they were letting me go. Financial considerations could have played a role. My boss and I had lately been at serious loggerheads over some matters and I feel sure that hurt me considerably.

I saw some classic signs that it was coming: of my boss canceling meetings with me, of some of the successes for which I had once been praised being reframed as not so successful after all, and of me being left out of tactical and strategic discussions. My boss even suggested strongly that she was losing confidence in me. I was dead man walking.

I’m astonished by how fast things turned. I had been praised as a key player through about the end of the summer. My performance had netted me an off-cycle pay raise, and there was talk of promoting me to Senior Director.

When my boss messaged me late one afternoon to ask me to meet with her at 8 am the next day, I knew the axe was falling. (The office would have been deserted at 8 — in the software startup world most people reach the office well after 9.) There was no way I was going to toss and turn all night in stress and worry and then make the 45-minute commute just to get fired. So I made her do it that night at a nearby Starbucks.

My exit left me feeling played, brutalized, and ultimately humiliated. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy since then processing what happened and my feelings about it so I can be at peace. I’m not quite there yet but I am close.

Those of us who work in software must simply accept its volatility, especially in young companies trying to find their way. Fortunes turn for the worse and layoffs follow. Strategies change and people who were once key players suddenly find that they are no longer the right person for their role, or that their role is no longer needed. This involuntary exit isn’t my first — in 30 years I’ve been laid off twice (I wrote extensively about the last time, here) and fired one other time (and then un-fired; read that oh-so-hilarious story here).

Of course, I have only so much financial runway. If I don’t take off in another job before about the end of the year, my family will be in challenging circumstances.

I remain well known in the central-Indiana software community, so I immediately started reaching out to colleagues to reconnect with them. I always asked them for introductions to people I don’t know in the local industry. It’s remarkable to me how willing people who don’t know me are to meet me for coffee on the recommendation of a shared colleague. It has been interesting and fun to make those connections. Some of them revealed opportunities that haven’t been made public yet.

I also applied for a couple jobs that were available. One of those applications led to a solid interview. The title is Engineering Manager, so I’d be stepping back a level from my last job. But they’ve given me an idea of the salary and it’s not much less than I was making before. It’s a well-established company, and those generally pay better, job to job, than startups. They like me and tell me they want to offer me the job, but as of today my candidacy is held up in some corporate red tape and I feel like it’s a coin toss whether it will come out in my favor.

I remain charmed by the startup world and would love to hold out for a leadership role at another young company. But landing one of those jobs — any job, really — takes patience and serendipity and I need to support my family right now. Wish me luck. If you’re a person of faith, my family will be grateful for your prayers.

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Connecting with your children as people

I’m not a gamer. I grow frustrated trying to keep up in any game more complicated than Monopoly. And while I was a teen at the dawn of the video-game era, I played pinball instead.

DamionMy life feels full and complete without games. But my son Damion is a serious gamer who finds deep and legitimate meaning and satisfaction in gaming both online and in person with others.

A feature of my relationship with Damion since he was old enough to speak has been him telling me of his gaming exploits at length, and me having no idea what he is talking about.

I was happy to listen, though, because I loved hearing the joy in his voice.

When he was four, he spent hours trying to teach me Yu-Gi-Oh, an adventure card game. It was too complicated for me and I couldn’t get it. I eventually gave up.

My lack of ability to connect with him through gaming sharply limits our ability to connect as whole people. I wonder how much disappointment he feels. I’m still disappointed I couldn’t manage it with my dad. But I can see that there are just limits. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but we are still different people. There will always be parts of each of us the other will never truly know.

I tried a few times to connect with my dad through his interests. Dad wanted for years to teach me to sharpen knives, something he took pride in. I let him try a few times, but he was so unpleasant when I didn’t pick it up perfectly from the start that we never got past the opening lesson. I thought for a while we might connect over hitting balls together at the driving range, something he enjoyed. But even there he felt the need to teach me to be perfect at it, which robbed it of all its fun and pushed me away.

Damion and Pentax KM

Then last fall Damion tried the same thing, asking me if I’d lend him an old camera and show him how to use it. Aw hell yes! I showed him how to spool film into my Pentax KM, taught him how to match the needle to set exposure, and gave him a couple composition tips.

Then I backed off and let him explore on his own. That was hard. Just like my dad, I wanted to hover, and guide, and teach. I resisted with all my might because I didn’t want to suck all the fun out of it for Damion and squander this golden opportunity.

Damion enjoyed the experience and asked to keep a camera. So I gave him two, a Pentax K1000 like his mom used to own and a Pentax ME because I love mine and shoot it most often. When we see each other now we often go for photo walks together.

I feel like I’m atoning for my father’s sins by doing this better with my sons. It’s helping me let go of my bitter disappointment that my dad and I could never manage it.

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