Stories Told

Time for new business cards

I start a new job today! I have joined a small software company as their Director of Quality Assurance. I won’t name the company – it’s not top secret or anything, but a lot of what I do is confidential research and development. I will say that this is a very small company getting off the ground, and they want me to build their testing organization. (Programmers write the code, and testers make sure the code works.) It’s a great opportunity for me!

I’ve gotten ahead in my career by moving from company to company, which is typical in the software industry. So over the years I’ve had a lot of different business cards. I still have some from most of the places I’ve worked. Since I don’t write about my work very much here, I thought you might enjoy hearing about my work history as told through my business cards.

My first job after college was for a software company in Terre Haute called Applied Computing Devices. My business cards from ACD are long gone, but they were the only ones to use my full name: James W. Grey, III. Our customers were mostly telephone companies, and we made software (and some hardware) that managed their networks. I wrote user manuals for them. I have never worked with a more brilliant group of people. Too bad brilliance alone isn’t enough to keep a company afloat.

So I moved to Indianapolis to edit …For Dummies books for IDG Books Worldwide.


I soon learned that publishing-company politics weren’t for me, and so I escaped back to software. Marketing Resources Plus has been around for at least 20 years now, which is a mighty long time in this business. They are now owned by Arbitron, the radio ratings company, and they still make software that media buyers use to place ads on TV, on radio, and in print. My radio background really helped me in this job. I wrote online user documentation.


I’m bummed out that I can’t find a card from my time at Made2Manage Systems, Inc., because it was a great time in my career. M2M software helped midsize manufacturers run their busineses. This was my first management job; I led their technical writers. After a few years they gave me the chance to return to my technical roots and lead a team of software testers, which is how I broke into that line of work.

Unfortunately, the tech bubble burst while I worked at M2M, and soon the company couldn’t afford to pay me. I spent three months unemployed before AdminaStar Federal, which was owned by WellPoint, the nation’s largest health insurance company, hired me to test a call-center application they were building for the government.


After a year, I was promoted to manager over the testers.


I built on skills I learned at AdminaStar Federal when I took a position with Baker Hill Corporation, leading their test automation team. In test automation, believe it or not you make software that tests other software! Community banks use Baker Hill software to manage their portfolios.


Someone who worked for me at Made2Manage had moved on to a company called Aprimo, and she helped me land a quality assurance management job there. Aprimo software helps marketers manage their campaigns and measure return on investment. At Aprimo I’ve led all kinds of testing – manual, automated, performance (how fast will it run?), and security. I even briefly managed technical writers again.


And now I’ll have another business card to add to my collection.

I sometimes say jokingly that I’ve worked
23 years in the software salt mines.

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.

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.

Stories Told

Twenty-one years in the software salt mines

A personal anniversary passed quietly last Saturday. It was the 21st year since I started my career.

It may seem odd that I remember the day only until you know that I started work on July 3, 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.

And given that we seem to love divisible-by-ten and divisible-by-25 anniversaries, it may seem odd that I’m honoring this 21st anniversary. But I was 21 years old when I joined that little software company in Terre Haute.

I have now worked 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 with a desire to find work as a programmer. Jobs were hard to come by that year, so when the only software company in town 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.

I’ve worked for seven companies in 21 years. The longest I’ve stayed anywhere is five years; I left one company after just 14 months. I’ve moved on voluntarily six times, was laid off once, and was fired and rehired once (which is quite a story; I’ll tell it one day). 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, and enabled very large companies to more effectively market their products.

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 21 years 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 21 years. 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 four software testers, two test automation developers, and five technical writers. 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.