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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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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Stories Told

Twenty-five years in the software salt mines

Tomorrow it will have been 25 years since I started my career in the software industry.

It might seem odd that I remember the day only until you know that I started work on Monday, July 3, 1989, making my second day a paid holiday. The office was nearly deserted on my first day. My boss regretted not having me start on July 5 so he could have had an extra-long weekend too.

I was 21 years old when I joined that little software company in Terre Haute. I’m 46 now. I have worked more than half my life in and around the software industry.

I taught myself how to write computer programs when I was 15. When I was 16, my math teacher saw some of my programs and praised my work. He encouraged me to pursue software development as a career. He began to tell me about this tough engineering school in Terre Haute.

I graduated from that tough engineering school hoping to find work as a programmer. Jobs were hard to come by that year, so when a software company wanted to hire me as a technical writer I was thrilled just to work. And then it turned out I had a real knack for explaining software to people. I did it for twelve years, including a brief stint in technology publishing and five years managing writers.

I then returned to my technical roots, testing software and managing software testers. I learned to write automated functional and performance tests – code that tests code – and it has taken me places in my career that I could never have imagined.

Office

My office at one of my career stops

I’ve worked for eight companies in 25 years. The longest I’ve stayed anywhere is five years. I left one company in which I was a poor fit after just 14 months. I’ve moved on voluntarily seven times, was laid off once, and was fired and un-fired once (which is quite a story; read it here). Changing jobs this often isn’t unusual in this industry and has given me rich experience I couldn’t have gained by staying with one company all this time.

I’ve worked on software that managed telephone networks, helped media buyers place advertising, helped manufacturers manage their business, run Medicare call centers, helped small banks make more money, enabled very large companies to more effectively market their products, and gave various medical verticals insight so they can improve their operations and their business.

Some of these companies were private and others were public; so far, I’ve liked private companies better. Some of them made lots of money, some of them had good and bad years, and one of them folded. Some of them were well run and others had cheats and liars at the helm. Some were very difficult places to work, but those were crucibles in which I learned the most. Others have brought successes beyond anything I could have hoped for a quarter century ago.

I did, however, hope for a good, long run in this industry, and I got it. But I’m also having a hard time envisioning another 25 years. It’s not just because I’d be 71 then. I really like to work, and – right now at least – I plan to do so for as long as I am able. But I’m starting to have trouble imagining what mountains I might yet climb in this career. Maybe that’s part of reaching middle age – indeed, many of my similarly aged colleagues, some with careers far beyond mine, have gone into other lines of work. I’m still having a lot of fun making software, though. I currently manage six software testers, one test-automation and performance-test developer, and one technical writer. I get to bring all of my experience to bear, and encourage my teams to reach and grow. I don’t want to stop just yet.


If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an update of a post from four years ago. Cross-posted to my other blog, Stories from the Software Salt Mines.

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Personal

12 years hence

My family was spending most of the week living in an extended-stay hotel while a crew of plumbers were replacing all the pipes under the money pit we called home. My wife was leaving the hotel late in the evening to sleep in the house to keep our dogs and cats company.

I chose a hotel across the street from work. As I started the family minivan for the short drive that morning, the radio came on. As I pulled into the parking lot at work, the disk jockey gave a preliminary report of an accident, of what was thought to be a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

I wasn’t sure whether to believe the disk jockey. This was a funky free-form radio station not known for its news coverage. But I sat there in the parking lot listening anyway, and soon the disk jockey turned the mic over to a reporter from a news service the station used. As he read wire reports and related what he was seeing on television, I started to believe this was real.

I got out of the car and ran into the building to my desk, where I brought up the Web sites of the local TV stations, hoping to find a live stream. That was pretty new technology in 2001. Two stations’ sites wouldn’t load, which I learned later was because they were overwhelmed by people trying to find out what was going on. I can see now that it was amazing luck that I was able to bring up the local ABC station’s site and watch coverage there for several hours. Co-workers crowded around behind me.

My ex was frantically calling my cell phone, which I forgot to turn on, trying to find out from me if I had heard the news and whether it was true. She had recently left military service, and was highly emotional because just a short time before she would have been part of a greater mission of protection for our nation. But stripped of her status, she felt helpless and useless. Worse, one of the fellows working on our home had served in Vietnam and was clearly still twitchy from the experience; upon seeing the news he had a full-on meltdown in our living room. My wife finally remembered my desk phone number and reached me there, crying. That’s when the emotion of the morning finally hit me, too. By then, both towers had been hit and it was clear that this was no accident.

My company’s entire executive team was offsite that day in strategic planning. I learned later that they instead spent the day watching the news. It was a turning point in the company’s history. We had become a public company only a couple months before, a risky venture at any time but, it turned out, especially so given these national events. It seemed like the executives lost their will to lead for a while, and then our company’s fortunes began to flag. By the following January my company could no longer afford to pay me, and let me go. The entire software and technology industry experienced difficult times in the months following September 11. The dot-com bubble had burst, and it was harming the entire industry. The attack didn’t cause the burst, but it seemed to accelerate its impact, and so I still trace my unemployment to that morning in September.

Please tell your September 11 story.

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Photography

Much ado about Flickr

I was shocked when I logged into Flickr last week and found an entirely new interface.

I'm staying right here at Flickr

My shock turned to disappointment and sadness that some of my contacts were super angry about the change, left strongly worded comments on their photostreams, and immediately moved their photos to other services.

I make software products for a living; I’ve seen firsthand how interface changes can alienate users. They become comfortable with a product’s features and usage, even when they’re flawed. They don’t want to learn anything new (which often masks a fear that they can’t learn something new).

At the same time, Flickr (and Facebook and any other thing you do on the Web) is a product, built by a company that is trying to make money in an ever-changing landscape.

I’ve seen it often, and it’s happened at companies where I’ve worked: A company builds a good product that takes off. Success causes the company to grow or to be sold to a larger company. And then some scrappy startup company builds a product in an overlapping market that becomes a new darling. By then, the big company is so invested in what it’s always done that it struggles to adapt to the shifting market.

From where I sit, it looks like all of this happened to Flickr. Founded in 2004, Flickr quickly became arguably the king of the hill among photo-sharing sites. Web giant Yahoo! quickly noticed and, in 2006, bought the fledgling company. Success!

But consider all that’s happened in photography and on the Web since 2006. Most people had just discarded their film cameras for digital cameras. Soon cameras in phones became good enough for casual, everyday use; many of them are now very good. Users found it easy to share their photos across any number of the social networks that had emerged – primarily Facebook, which was founded in 2004, too, but also on upstart Instagram. Today, the three cameras that take the most photos uploaded to Flickr are all iPhones.

The market has shifted. It was a matter of time before Flickr either responded or became a niche product of ever decreasing importance. This new interface is its bid to stay relevant. I’m impressed with Yahoo! for moving Flickr so boldly.

I think that if people give the new interface a chance, it will work for most of them. I’ve heard complaints about slowness; I advise patience as Yahoo! would be foolish not to address legitimate performance problems. I’ve heard complaints about how crowded the interface feels; I’m also sure Yahoo! will tweak the new interface over time for better usability.

Another source of uproar is that advertising now adorns Flickr pages. I hate Web ads too, but really, they are the major way many Web products make money.

I sympathize a little with one complaint: all of us who bought Flickr Pro accounts for unlimited photo uploads now feel kind of let down, given that everybody gets a terabyte of storage now. That much storage might as well be unlimited; you could upload one photo a day for the rest of your life and never run out of space. But Flickr is letting us cancel our Pro accounts with a pro-rated refund, or keep Pro at its rate of $25 per year and never see an ad. Anybody who doesn’t have Pro already will have to pay $50 per year for that same privilege. I think this is a reasonable trade.

Flickr’s real mistake might be in underestimating how attached its users were to the old interface. But if my experience is any indication, perhaps that mistake won’t be fatal. Of my contacts, about five percent of them have moved to other services. I’ll miss seeing their photos. I wonder if they’ll soon miss the rest of the Flickr community.

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Cross-posted to my new 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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