Personal

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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Personal

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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Photography

Flickr has smartly repositioned itself to remain vital in photo sharing

FlickrCameraRollWhen I started this blog, I found a great use for my languishing Flickr account: hosting most of the photos I share here. Flickr has been a great tool for sharing my photography everywhere on the Internet.

The other day, I uploaded my 10,000th photo to Flickr. That’s a lot of photos! It’s so many that finding one particular photo on my computer is nigh onto impossible. From the beginning, I should have used the photo organizer that came with my copy of Photoshop Elements. But I’ve let too much water pass under the bridge: years and years of photos remain unindexed in folders on my hard drive. It would be a big, unpleasant job to organize them now.

It turns out that the easiest way for me to find one of my photographs is to search for it on Flickr. I’ve left enough bread crumbs in the titles, descriptions, and tags that with a few words in Flickr’s search box I can find anything I’ve uploaded.

It also turns out that I was inadvertently leading the way. Flickr recently made some changes to the site that makes it easier than ever to store all of your photos and find any of them in an instant. I think these smart improvements reposition Flickr well in the new world of photo storage and sharing, and give it a solid chance at remaining relevant and vital.

And it’s not a moment too soon. Flickr had been geared toward people interested in photography who wanted to share and talk about their work. Many users appeared to carefully curate their photostreams, sharing only their best photos. It remained wonderful for this purpose. But in the meantime not only have digital cameras almost entirely supplanted film cameras, but camera phones have also largely supplanted dedicated digital cameras. People were taking pictures on their phones just so they could share them on Facebook and Instagram — and Flickr was getting none of that action. It was falling behind.

Flickr finally awoke from its slumber in 2013 with a new, more modern user interface, plus one terabyte of free storage — upwards of a half million photos — for anyone, for free. Flickr’s mission had shifted: please do dump all of your photos here. And then last month Flickr rolled out yet another new user interface, and has added several powerful new features meant to make the site the only photo storage and sharing site you’ll ever need:

Automatic photo uploading. Flickr can now automatically upload every photo from your computer and your phone — every past photo and every new photo you take. Flickr marks them all as private, so only you can see them, until you choose to make them public. To enable this, you have to download the new Flickr app to your phone and download a new “Uploadr” application for your computer. But after you do, you may never again lose a photograph to a crashed hard drive or to a lost or stolen phone. And if you do have such a mishap, Flickr now lets you download any or all of your photos en masse.

TagsImage recognition and automatic tagging. Flickr now uses image-recognition technology to guess what’s in each of your photos, and adds descriptive tags to them. You’ve always been able to tag your photos manually; those tags appear with a gray background. Flickr’s automatic tags have a white background. These tags make photos easier to find in search. It’s not perfect — a photo I took of a construction site was mistakenly tagged with “seaside” and “shore.” But it works remarkably well overall, and Flickr promises that they will keep improving the technology.

Camera roll and Magic View. Flickr has introduced an iOS-style camera roll as the main way you interact with your own photos now. Flickr is criticized for stealing this concept from Apple. But they’ve gone Apple one better by adding Magic View, which organizes photos by their tags — including the automatically generated ones. It gives you astonishing views into your photos, grouping them smartly. Finally, all of my bridge photos are in one place, and I didn’t have to lift a finger!

FlickrMagicView

Flickr found 105 photos of bridges in my photostream.

Improved searchability. All these new tags makes Flickr even more searchable. You can find any of your photos in seconds on Flickr.

All of this makes Flickr a compelling place to store all of your photographs, and be able to easily find them. They’re stored on Yahoo! servers and are always backed up. With a couple clicks or taps, you can share them from there to most of the popular social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram (but only on your phone), and Twitter.

The best thing: You can still use Flickr for everything you could before. You can share your best photographs and have conversations about them. You can explore the beautiful photographs others have taken. You can geotag your photos and save them to albums and groups. And if you want nothing to do with Flickr’s new features, you can just ignore them.

I’m astonished by how well Flickr has shifted to its new mission without leaving legacy users behind. As someone who has made software for more than a quarter century, I can tell you: it is enormously difficult to do this.

Still, many of Flickr’s longtime users feel alienated. They’re expressing far less paint-peeling rage than they did after the 2013 changes, thank goodness, but they’re still quite upset. The leading complaint: there’s no way to opt out of automatic tagging, and no way to delete at once all the tags already generated. Longtime users who have carefully chosen their tags find Flickr’s automatic tags to be an unwelcome intrusion.

Flickr should probably address that. But first, they should congratulate themselves. They’ve done journeyman work.


A slightly revised version of this is cross-posted to my software blog, Stories from the Software Salt Mines.

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Essay, Personal

Technical problems can almost always be solved, but people problems are hard

I’ll never forget the revelation it was when I figured out how to write computer programs. You mean, I thought, I can make this machine do what I want it to?

It was a watershed moment in my life.

A portrait of the geek as a young man

I was shy, introverted. People often frightened me, at least a little. I struggled to interact with people I didn’t know well, and I had no idea how to influence others. And then here was this machine that I could order around. It had limits – it couldn’t make my breakfast for me. But within those limits, it was all about what my mind could imagine and then code. I wrote games that my dad and my brother played. I wrote programs that illustrated concepts of geometry, which I demonstrated to math classes in school. I wrote a payroll application for my aunt’s small business. I even wrote a very rudimentary operating system once – it was terrible, but I learned a lot.

So I went off to college to learn how to make software. When I got out, the job market was terrible, so I took the only software job I could find, writing user guides for a software company. Later in my career I moved into testing, and into management. I’ve delivered a lot of software since I started almost 24 years ago.

Here’s the crazy thing I’ve learned: The hardest thing about making software is not the technical stuff. The hardest thing is getting people aligned and pointing the same way!

I’ve often said that it’s a modern miracle when a software project succeeds. Any software development project that involves more than about two people will have coordination challenges, differences of opinion, and all the other normal issues of working together. My experience has been that the programmers and the testers can do whatever you need them to (short of, say, telepathic user interfaces). They will work hard at it, they may struggle to get it right, and there may be frustration and late nights getting it done. But those struggles can pale in comparison to how hard it is to get everyone to agree on what to build, how to build it, and what it means to be done. Here’s how code is better than people:

Code People
Once coded, code stays coded and reliably does the same thing over and over. You think you have people all organized and then they go off and do whatever they want anyway.
You will sometimes struggle and work hard to make your code do what it needs to, but you can almost always get the job done. Sometimes you simply can’t influence people. Drat their free will.
Change your code, it doesn’t mind. It knows no fear. People hate change! When change is thrust upon them, they often resist it or even run away, screaming.

By the way, the WordPress editor doesn’t offer a way to create tables, so I wrote some HTML code to generate one. Fear my mad, l33t sk1llz.

Unfortunately, even if you have the best coders in the world, if you can’t get them to work together their projects will fail. Fortunately, I understand geeks, for I am one. I know what makes us tick. I’ve learned how to influence us and get us all reasonably pointing the same way. And I’ve built on these skills to learn how to influence non-geeks such as upper management, salespeople, and customer service folks to get them all working together. It’s not easy, and it’s impossible to ever get it perfect, but I’ve had pretty good success over the years and it’s contributed strongly to any number of successful software releases. And it’s helped me come out of my nerdly introverted shell.

I can’t remember the time I last wrote any serious code. I don’t miss it. To my astonishment, I’m having much more fun and success on the people side now.

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Life got lots easier for me
when I embraced my inner geek.

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Stories Told

The pinnacle of my career

Not long ago I wrote about a time I was fired under some pretty stinky circumstances. And then there was the time I worked under the CEO who lied in court about having sexually harassed his assistant. And I still haven’t told the story about the company owner who went to prison. Fortunately, my long career in software development (going on 22 years) hasn’t always been such a bust.

I left the philandering CEO’s employ for a situation where the boss and I just didn’t mesh. Also, after having been a technical writer and editor for seven years I was starting to itch to make software again, like I did in college. So when a well-known local software company was hiring software testers, I applied. I knocked the interview out of the park and got the job.

My corporate mug shot from those days

The company made a large and sprawling product for an industry I knew nothing about, so I had lots to learn. Given my background, the first thing I did was reach for the manuals. Unfortunately, they were incomplete, inaccurate, and poorly organized – unusable. There was online help, but it was unnavigable. Nobody was ever going to use any of it to successfully use the product. My boss managed the technical writers too, so I marched into his office to complain. I wasn’t delicate about it. “This stuff is terrible! I can’t believe you ship this to customers! It’s an embarrassment.”

He leaned back in his chair and calmly said, “What would you do to fix it?”

“I would throw it out and start over,” I began. And then over the next ten minutes, off the top of my head I outlined a project that would create new manuals and online help that would actually help users not just use the product, but get the best value from it.

Three days later, he called me back into his office. “Remember that thing you said you’d do with the documentation? I am promoting you to the manager of that department. I want you to do exactly that.”

It was a bold move for him to take a gamble on me. I’d never managed people, and my project management experience was limited. What I didn’t know was that every year the company surveyed its users about product quality – and every year the documentation got the most complaints. My boss had been told to fix this problem, but he had no grand ideas. Then I walked in with a solution that sounded like it just might work.

Most of this story is just the nuts and bolts of the project – hiring and coaching staff, creating plans and schedules, doing visual and information design for the new manuals and online help, managing the project, reporting to management, and even doing some of the writing myself. The details would be interesting only to another technical writer. Much of this was new to me, but I had excellent support from a boss who needed to see his gamble pay off. He also helped me navigate the inevitable office politics, including another manager who kept trying to torpedo my efforts. Also, the program manager helped me master the project management tools we used, none of which I had ever even seen before. My team and I worked on the project for a year and a half. It’s not often a technical writing team gets an opportunity to do a clean-sheet rewrite like this, and they were all enthusiastic about it. I worked hard to clear their roadblocks, respond quickly to their concerns, and generally be a good guy to work for, and it paid off in the excellent work they delivered. When we were done, we had written over 3,000 pages and had created a seven-megabyte context-sensitive online help system.

I was invited to demonstrate the new online help at the annual user conference. 600 people flew in from all over the United States, and there I was before them on the opening session’s main stage. My presentation was the last of a series about new features in the product. When I finished, to my astonishment the online help received enthusiastic applause – and then one person stood, and a few more, and several more, and soon the whole room was standing and applauding. That moment remains the pinnacle of my career; I can’t imagine anything else ever overtaking it. The icing on the cake was when I overheard the VP of Sales say to my boss, “All the blankety-blank new features we pushed you to put into the product, and everybody liked the blankety-blank online help the best! The online help! You’ve got to be blankety-blank kidding me!”

I used to think I was just a grunt paid to trade the words I wrote for a paycheck. Through this project I learned just how interdependent everyone is at a company, and how everybody is important. Specifically, I learned:

  • If you want to see your great ideas implemented, they need to solve a big problem the company thinks it has. What problems does your company think it has? They may very well be different from the problems your company actually has. What great ideas do you have that you can frame in terms of helping solve those problems?
  • When you’re doing something you’ve never done before, find people who can coach you through it. I don’t care how far down the ladder you are at your company, your success helps determine other peoples’. Look for someone who both knows how to do the thing you need to learn and whose success depends in part on yours – that last bit motivates them to help you. In my case, it was my boss and the program manager.
  • Work for the kind of boss who clears roadblocks out of your way so you can be most effective. I now leave situations where the boss doesn’t help me in this way. It’s that critical.
  • Your success always depends on other people, so treat them well. In giving my team an exciting assignment and creating an environment in which they could focus, they happily turned out huge quantities of good work. Also, after we shipped the new documentation, I promoted every writer. They deserved it.

A footnote: That company went through tough times a few years later and so we all moved on, some for better positions and others (like me) because they couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. One of the writers who worked for me called me up one day about two and a half years ago, by which time I really had moved into software testing. She said, “We have an opening here for a test manager. I’d love to work with you again, and this is a good place to work. You really should apply.” I did, and I got the job. I found out later that just before my interview, she went to the VP and said, “He’s a great boss. You don’t want to let him get away.”

Sometimes the good things you do come back to you!

Doing quality work can pay off, too. Here’s a story of a time it really did.

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