Personal

Day one

I start my new job today, as a manager of engineers in a large software company.

I’m happy to be going back to work. It was nice in a way to have the last month off, unpaid as it was. I needed some serious downtime and I got it. But I felt unmoored. I like to work.

The job search was challenging for a number of reasons. First, in the last couple months of the year many companies just push off hiring to January. I heard it over and over: we could use someone like you during the first quarter of next year. Awesome, but I’ll be homeless by then.

Second, I began looking while I was still reeling from getting the sack. I was fired after a crazy difficult ten months under new executive leadership. I think I did an exceptional job leading the engineers through a chaotic time, and I had been praised for my work. To find myself no longer wanted was deeply confusing and upsetting.

Everyone asked why I was let go, and I struggled to tell the story. As the days stretched into weeks, I kept unpacking what happened and it changed how I told it. No two people heard the same story, though everything I said to everyone was true. Also, I was still angry and really wanted to say some things that, while true, put some people at my past company in an unflattering light. That never goes over well, so I avoided it. But that left gaps in my story, which led to questions I couldn’t answer well.

One way to Lucas Oil

Third, despite my successes I had a weak story to tell about being a leader of engineers. I just hadn’t been doing it long enough — only 16 months. I had been in QA (software testing) leadership for the previous 18 years.

I was fortunate to shift into engineering, as changes in my industry are leading to fewer QA leadership roles. And I was ready for new mountains to climb — I’d done everything I ever wanted to do in QA.

I have a great story to tell about delivering a very good quality “version 1.0” software product in a short time. It impressed everyone who heard it. But as people asked questions that would reveal my depth, I had to lean on my QA experience, which didn’t connect with them.

Fourth, my technical skills kept being a concern to interviewers. I’m far more technical than the average person, but I lack a deep understanding of the technologies my last few employers used. I am convinced that it’s a rare unicorn who can be deeply good both in technology and in leadership. Becoming the leader I am has required my full attention over the last 10 years and it meant letting my technical skills go stale. But I feel certain that the leader who had focused on technology would not have had the same success I did building leadership alignment on direction, and bringing my engineers through that startup’s “version 1.0” delivery as well as through the chaotic, difficult months that followed. 

Yet nearly everyone I spoke to had some level of concern — dare I call it bias? — that I’d need to be a committed technologist to be able to lead engineers. It’s bunk. Here’s a great article that explains how your VP (or Director) of Engineering is different from your Chief Architect or Chief Technology Officer. Search Google for “VP Engineering vs CTO” — you’ll find many similar articles. I’m a classic Director of Engineering, with strong people and process skills, and enough technical skills to get by.

Still, there’s no way to escape that I did not spend enough time in the technology at my last company. I took a JavaScript course online and read a book on functional programming so I could understand the approach and language the engineers were using. But I can’t draw you an architectural diagram of that application, can’t tell you much about how the application is configured on the server, and know little about the state of the codebase and what challenges lie ahead in it. I needed to know those things as Director of Engineering. There were just so many challenges I needed to solve at that company with straight-up leadership that I kept deferring getting into the tech. I will not make that mistake again.

This reminds me of 18 years ago when I pivoted from technical writing into QA. I’d been a technical writer for a long time, and I’d done all I cared to do in the field. I liked to joke that if I had to write open the File menu and choose Print one more time I was gonna go postal. The company I worked for offered me a QA role, leading a test-automation team and building a lab of testing hardware. I did that job for barely two years, during which time the dot-com bubble burst and September 11 happened. Software companies everywhere went into tailspins. The one where I worked went through waves of layoffs. I got caught in one of them.

After three months of unemployment I got picked up by a large health-insurance company. I was to be a QA engineer, testing software applications for them. My QA story was weak; I had not done it long enough. I think they liked that they could pick me up for cheap. I’m glad they did as it kept the wolves from the door. 

It was both a difficult place to work because of its top-down control culture, and an easy place to work because the expectations weren’t high. On that job I built solid experience as a tester, and then as a manager of testers. And then in the craziest thing that ever happened to me in my career, I was fired and un-fired from that company. Read that story here. I eventually left on my own, my QA cred well established. I had zero trouble getting jobs, and had great success building QA practices from scratch at several other software companies.

I hope I’m in a similar place in this job that begins today: about to build deeper experience and credibility as an engineering leader. I’m going to rest on my leadership skills as they are and switch back to learning technology. I will know how the product is architected, will understand what headwinds we face in the codebase, will know how it is deployed to and configured on the servers that run it, and will learn how to do at least basic things in the programming language they use (Java). I was able to do all of these things early in my career, and I know I can learn it all again in these modern technologies. That will set me up well for the rest of my career, wherever it leads.

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Personal

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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Light sculpture

I start a new job today.

I make my living in software development (and blog about it occasionally over here). This is all I’ve wanted to do since I taught myself to code in the early 1980s. I’ve written a little code, written a lot of user instructions, and tested a lot of broken software. But mostly I’ve led teams and projects. I’ve done that for the last 20 years and I love it.

If you’ve read this blog for a while you might remember that my employer couldn’t afford to pay me anymore in 2015 and I spent the summer looking for work. I had been Director of Quality Assurance, and pretty quickly I found a position with the same title and was back to work. I was enormously fortunate.

The new company was a good place to work, and I liked the people there. I’ll miss being there every day! But to my surprise, I wasn’t finding great satisfaction in the role. Slowly it dawned on me that after 16 years in QA I’d done everything I could do in the field. It was time for a new adventure.

I’m not leaving the software world. I’m just shifting to a new role: Director of Engineering, leading the coders. Long story short, I decided that to do what I still want to do in my career, I would need to shift to engineering leadership.

My new company isn’t entirely new to me — they hired me as a consultant the summer I looked for permanent work. Since then, they hired my brother to be their Director of QA. When they needed a new Director of Engineering, they easily recruited me to the role. The company is a startup, with all the risk that implies: iterating on a product idea and trying to find market fit, all the while trying not to run out of investment capital.

But in my career I’ve been driven by adventure, and this is just the kind of adventure I like. So off I go!

I shot this photograph inside the company’s building while there for one of my interviews. I used my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 on Kodak Tri-X 400 film. I’ll get to see this light sculpture every weekday now!

Personal, Photography

Beginning a new adventure

Thoughts on starting a new job, as Director of Engineering at a software startup.

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Personal, Stories Told

The butterfly effect: how we can’t always know the importance of our choices as we make them

My job search continues. I’m a week into a four-week part-time consulting job, and a couple opportunities for which I’ve interviewed look very promising. I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, but best case, I could be back to work in a few weeks. Meanwhile, here’s a rewrite of this post from 2009 that tells of an important choice I made that seems unrelated to my career, but was actually critical to it.

I almost didn’t sign up for that Speech class in high school. Just seeing the box for it on the enrollment form made my heart splash anxiously. If I had to choose between dancing with an angry bear and speaking in public, I would have put my dancing shoes on. But in the last two seconds before the forms were collected I impulsively marked the box for Speech, and then it was too late to turn back.

Argus A-Four

The Argus A-Four

I gave probably 20 speeches that year, although I remember only a “why I took this class” speech and a sales pitch. For that one, I dug out one of my old cameras, the Argus A-Four, and extolled its virtues. I even demonstrated it, opening the lens up wide and snapping a couple of shots. I’m lucky any of them turned out. I’m glad for them not because the school building is gone now, or because the kids have all grown up, or because they make me remember how the teacher (in the very back) sounded like a post-puberty Kermit the Frog. I’m glad for them because they remind me of how violently I shook and how much my voice trembled the first time I stood there — but how effortlessly I spoke from there at the end of the year.

I operate very comfortably in my introverted skin today, but I didn’t when I was 15. I wished to banter easily with everyone, but I always stumbled and bumbled. I felt embarrassed, and it hurt. It was easier to keep to myself. I avoided contact so much that I stared at my shoes when walking between classes so I wouldn’t catch anyone’s gaze.

SpeechClass1

Actual photo from the speech

All of us in Speech were there to overcome our fear of public speaking. It built great camaraderie among us. I became especially close with the girl in the sailor hat in this photo’s lower right corner. We passed sarcastic notes to each other all year as we listened to our classmates speak. The girl in the red with the ball cap got into the act sometimes, too. They both used to crack me up.

It’s a darn good thing I overcame my fear of public speaking. That year I taught myself to write computer programs. When my favorite math teacher heard that I had written a program that used a formula to draw any polygon on the screen, he asked to see it. It was a big deal in the computing technology of the time. When he saw my program draw any polygon lickety split, he said, “Oh my gosh, that’s really something” — and asked me to demonstrate my program to our Geometry class.

I did it. But without having first overcome my fear of public speaking in Speech class, I would have turned him down flat.

Another actual photo from that speech

Another actual photo from that speech

The math teacher then asked me to write programs that illustrated other geometrical concepts, and I demonstrated them all to the class. At first it just felt great that one of my silly hobbies earned me some good attention. But then the teacher suggested that I could study this in college and do it for a living.

This was a pivotal moment in my life. It may seem astonishing now that the idea hadn’t occurred to me, but in the early 1980s software development was still an unusual career choice. I had no idea people got paid to write programs!

I applied to engineering school, where I studied mathematics and computer science. Shortly after graduating, I got my first job working for a software company. More than a quarter century and seven software companies later, there’s no other path I’d rather have taken. I can’t believe I get to do this thing I dreamed of at 15.

Who knew that a Speech class would be such a pivot point in my life? It’s the butterfly effect, which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Congo today can cause a tornado next week in Kansas City.

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The hot girl at the dance

“Oh my gosh, Jim, you’re the hot girl at the dance!”

A former boss called to ask about my week on the job hunt, and that’s what she said after I told her.

Potawatomi dancers

This is an American Indian dancing at a Potawatomi pow-wow. This isn’t the kind of dancing I’m talking about, but I’ve taken few photos that relate to dancing! I feel like I can get away with this because I’m part Potawatomi.

What a week it was! I landed a short-term consulting job with a startup software company. It starts today. An interview with a different company went very well, wrapping with the interviewer saying, “I think you need to meet the partners. I’ll schedule that for next week.” Thanks to introductions from a couple key colleagues, I had lunch or coffee with a handful of software-company presidents and vice presidents, and the chief financial officer at a venture-capital firm that funds startup tech companies. And that former boss even admitted that she was trying to make funds appear to hire me.

I am astonished.

Some context: for about the last 10 years here in Indianapolis, tech has been hot. Qualified people are hard to find. The last time I hired someone, I searched four months to find him.

And then in the past few weeks, I learned that the city’s tech scene is even hotter than I knew. A colleague who owns a consulting firm that serves this industry told me that he knows of about 200 local companies that make software. Most are very small, he said, with fewer than 20 people; many will wash out. But new startup companies are forming all the time. The venture-capital CFO told me that in five years, he expects as many as 300 more tech companies to form.

I had no idea that I’m swimming in so much opportunity. I’ve learned of it only as I’ve reconnected with colleagues I’ve worked with long ago. Many of them are now in executive roles and are well connected in the industry, and are bending over backwards to help me. It helps a lot that I’ve done good work in my career and people have (for the most part!) enjoyed working with me.

It makes me wish I’d stayed well connected with the good people from earlier in my career. I wrote about this on my software blog; read it here. Like I said there, I’m an introvert of working-class roots — a fellow who prefers to keep to himself and let his work speak for itself.

I brought this up to another colleague last week over coffee. He was the president of a software company I used to work for, and has since started his own company. “Jim, you now have two jobs,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing to earn a paycheck, and maintaining and expanding your network.” He admitted his own introversion, but said that he’s worked hard to stay well connected. It’s how he’s built his new business. “You can build these habits too. You should.”

I will.

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I feel like George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life

GeorgeBailey

As soon as I got the news that I was being laid off at work, I texted my closest friends and colleagues with the news. And after I packed my office into my car and drove home, I emailed a bunch more friends and colleagues.

Spidey2I’ve worked for a lot of software companies in my career. Changing companies is how I’ve gained new challenges, moved up the ladder, and made more money. But as a result I know a lot of people in my industry all over town. And they swung into action like my own personal army of Spider-Men.

Spidey3I was deluged with replies. I had a call from a recruiter by lunchtime, and by mid-afternoon a coffee was scheduled with a woman I once worked for who is now a VP at a major local employer of software developers. She gave me a bunch of practical, useful advice on my search, and sent me a bunch of information about companies she talked to around town earlier in the year as she searched for the job she now holds. She told me she’d introduce me to anybody she met at any of those companies.

Spidey1The next day, one of my oldest friends, who is well known and well connected in the open-source community, started asking around about freelance jobs I can do to make some money while I search. And I started reaching out to colleagues I enjoyed working with in the past but who I haven’t talked to in a while, to schedule lunches and coffees to catch up and see if they could connect me to people who might need someone who can do what I do. I’m booked for lunch for the next two weeks and have coffees sprinkled across my calendar.

Spidey4And then the CFO of the company that let me go emailed me to schedule coffee, at which he opened his considerable contact list to me and offered to connect me with anybody he knew. That led to a few more coffees being scheduled with software-company CEOs and VPs around town — and directly to one job interview, with a company that needs to build a software testing practice. That’s exactly what I do best!

The strongest advice my VP colleague gave me was don’t settle. She urged me to wait for just the job I want — one with the right cultural fit (collaborative and collegial), at the right level in the organization (Director), with the right salary, doing the things I like to do the most (building and leading teams of technical people, driving projects, delivering software).

The closer I get to the money running out, the more I will have no choice but to settle so I can pay the mortgage. I hope that right next job is in this tidal wave of responses. This surge will peter out sooner or later, and then I will have to start working on alternate plans: aggressively seeking freelance and consulting jobs, and looking at permanent positions that aren’t exactly what I want but which will pay the bills.

But today, I feel like George Bailey at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, when everybody he knew in Bedford Falls collected money to make up for the Building and Loan’s $8,000 shortfall. I feel affirmed and valued, at a depth I didn’t know existed. They say that in hard times you learn who your friends are. I’ve learned that I have far more friends than I ever knew.


All the little Spider-Men above courtesy Disneyclips.com.

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