Personal

Last day

Today is my last day at my job. Yes, the one I started in January. I start a new job on Monday.

My soon-to-be-former employer has been a decent place to work and I haven’t been unhappy. I lucked into a good boss who was helping me see some of my blind spots and was challenging me to grow as a leader.

There were things I didn’t enjoy about this company, things typical of a company in its business climate at its phase of life. And I didn’t see a growth path beyond perhaps a promotion to Senior Manager. But given that it didn’t hurt to work there, I thought I’d soak up as much experience as I could. I’m still early in my engineering-leadership career and I need to build credibility.

About eight weeks ago a recruiter from another prominent local employer of software engineers contacted me about joining them as an engineering manager. I know that this company has completed a business and technology transformation that was starting to pay off in their marketplace. They were also using more modern processes and delivery methods. That’s exciting stuff. But the job was a lateral move at the same pay and I told them that I couldn’t consider a change unless it was for a higher position and more money.

I figured that would be the last I heard from them. I was stunned when they contacted me again a couple weeks later, saying they’d recast the position one level higher with a compensation package to match.

Having worked for many software companies in this market over nearly 30 years, I know people pretty much everywhere software engineers work in central Indiana. So I contacted a couple people I know at this company and asked what they think. They were enthusiastic about the work environment and about the company’s prospects, and said I should join them.

So I went in for an interview. It went well, and they offered me the job. It was easy to say yes. This choice is right for my family now and for my career in the future.

But it feels all kinds of wrong to quit a job after just five months. Having managed people for 20 years I know full well how disruptive it is. I did not enjoy telling my boss, who has treated me well; or my team, which I enjoyed very much, that I was resigning. Fortunately, they took it well.

I’ll come home tonight with my things in box, which I’ll carry with me to my new job on Monday.

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Personal

I suppose having my midlife crisis in startup software companies was better than buying a sports car or dating younger women

I’d been a first-level manager in the software industry for 15 years, leading testers and technical writers, when I was passed over for a promotion to Director. It pissed me off. I was a good manager who had accomplished a lot for that company, and I was ready to stretch into the next level. I thought I deserved the chance. I don’t think it’s just my ego talking when I say I would have done a better job than the man they brought in and for whom I had to work.

Then I got a call from a startup software company: was I interested in being a Director for them?

Why yes. Yes I was!

I don’t know where my ambition came from, as I’d had little of it before then. Since I was a teen I had wanted only to work in the software industry. For a long time I was perfectly happy writing technical documentation and testing software to make sure it worked as intended. I didn’t seek to move up the ladder; my first management job fell into my lap.

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I’ve had a lot of desks in my career, but only twice a private office.

Yet through my early 40s I felt pangs of discontent. I could see ways to do things better, but as a manager I lacked the authority to do much about it. I itched to have more clout and make a bigger impact. Also, as my kids were headed toward their college years, the extra money of the Director level appealed to me.

I got the job and dived belly first into boiling water. What a mess things were there. Not only did I build their test team from scratch, but I also turned around their broken software delivery system. I wasn’t able to fix the company’s fatal flaw, however: the product was a hard sell, and we kept widely missing our sales goals. We rolled and pitched as upper leadership had us build this and then that into the software hoping something would catch on in the marketplace. Nothing ever did, not enough to make a dent in the market, not enough to satisfy investors. Sales became frightfully poor for six months and it became clear they’d have to cut staff. They showed me the door.

I moved on surprisingly quickly to another young company, beyond its startup stage but not yet mature. I built a couple functions from the ground up as a Director there — another testing team, and a program management team. It was great fun and I liked it there a lot.

Yet I’d started dreaming of being a Director of Engineering. Testing had become old hat for me, and because of changes in the industry opportunities were drying up. But also, I knew that quality starts at the top — you have to build it in. To deliver software as well as I knew it could be done, I’d have to do it by leading the software developers.

My chance came two years ago. An executive I knew and admired wanted me to lead engineering at his startup. I jumped at the chance.

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The view from the Director of Engineering’s desk.

I proved there what I wanted to prove all along: that building a product well from the start is better and faster all around. Our product had few bugs, it held up under load, and it scaled with the business.

But after we built the core product, there were internal disagreements about what to build next. It undermined everything. The executive who hired me had ideas, but he didn’t win over the rest of the execs and in the end he resigned. The person they brought in to replace him treated me badly, and as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for the last six months she fired me with neither explanation nor warning.

I had proved to myself that I could do all the things I wanted to do — but so what? It didn’t save these companies, it didn’t give me the feelings of accomplishment I wanted, and it sure as hell didn’t bring me the respect and admiration I was secretly looking for. Instead, I wound up on the street.

The job I was able to get before my family’s finances got rough is as a first-level manager. It stings a lot to have been essentially demoted.

At least I’m still in engineering. Also, I’m a deeply experienced first-level manager; this is a job I can do well. Even better, I’m in an organization that, while not perfect, functions reasonably well. As in all companies there are business challenges, but there are agreed-upon plans to work through them. If you’ve ever worked for me, you’ve heard me say it: even a mediocre plan will work if everybody follows it. Also, because the company is mature it pays market rate, something startups don’t do. I make the same money I did before as Director of Engineering.

I’m dancing on a fine line. To accept where I am feels like giving up on my dream. Even though I found out my dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, a part of me wants to double down on it to prove it was good all along. Maybe I should get a new dream. Or maybe I should stop dreaming and be content with what I have, because it is objectively good.

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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!

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Beginning a new adventure

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

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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.

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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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