Stories Told

Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me

This is the last in a short series about the most difficult time of my life, ten years ago right now. I told this story in January of 2011, but rewrote it for today.

I knew I didn’t fit, but I took the job anyway — I had been laid off, and I wasn’t able to pay the mortgage. I stayed in my field, testing software. But it was an old-line, top-down insurance company, and we were on a government contract. I had always been freewheeling and entrepreneurial. I chafed at the plodding pace, the red tape.

I made manager after a year. Why did I apply? Why did I get the job? I still didn’t fit. But now I could see what drove our chilly relationship with the government: a culture of obfuscation and gamesmanship, fueled by my company’s vice president. I couldn’t play that way. Instead, I built friendly and honest relationships with the government’s project leaders. My peers couldn’t figure out why I was so effective. I earned the VP’s suspicion.

Months later word came down, no explanation, no exceptions: all managers would take a battery of intelligence and personality tests. I’m plenty bright and play well with others, so I didn’t worry. But a few weeks later my boss called me into his office. Normally very animated, he sat still. His jaw clenched, then unclenched. He said, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but your test results are in. You don’t fit the profile. HR is coming after lunch to terminate you.”

I sat, gobsmacked. Profile? What do you mean profile? Fire me because I suck at the job, fire me because you can’t afford me. But fire me because of a test? Was this even legal?

It turned out that 20 other managers in the organization got canned that day. The common thread: the managers who remained played well with the VP.

I had no energy to fight: a tattered marriage, unwelcome at home, a fresh lease on a tiny apartment. Strangely, I was asked to stay on for 30 more days “to manage the transition,” whatever that meant. I couldn’t tell my team, and I especially could not tell the government; the VP would handle it. If I kept this deal, there would be severance. Almost generous severance.

My government contacts kept scheduling me for conference calls happening after my last day. With a few days left, the government’s project leader called wanting me to fly out for a meeting. Backed into a corner, trying not to scotch my severance, I told her that as part of a restructuring I would no longer be the test manager, and that she would need to talk to my boss.

My office
My office at one of my career stops. Bask in its beigeness.

I didn’t know she and her boss were at my company’s data center with the VP. She told her boss what was happening — and they made a beeline for that VP. She called me later: “We cornered him and read him the riot act, demanding to know why he was demoting his best manager!” At once, I felt a rush from the compliment — but also dread, because I knew that as soon as the VP came back to town I’d hear from him. And sure enough, I did, at top volume: “Why the fuck did you tell them? Why didn’t you follow protocol? What were you thinking?” I fired back: “Protocol? What protocol? You said you’d tell them; you didn’t. They were scheduling me for meetings after my last day. They needed to know.”

The VP forced his shoulders down, leaned back, pushed out a breath. He smiled, a sickly, clenched thing. “Well, Jim, you’re good people. We want to take care of people we like. Don’t worry, you have a job here. We’ll find you a new assignment.”

I was unfired.

Much later, the government’s project leader explained that they had modified the contract to write me in as a key player. Unbelievably, it meant that the company could not reassign me off the project or terminate me except for cause. Clearly, the VP was trying dance around that, waiting until I was gone to tell our government contacts that I’d resigned to take another job.

Any love or loyalty I had for the company had been trampled, torched, napalmed, and nuked, but I accepted the job they offered me, an advisory role at my manager’s salary. They made no assignments but continued to pay me. It was a blessing: my marriage would end in an awful, protracted fight, stress crushing my chest, sleep elusive for days on end. I thought I might lose my mind. I certainly could not have done the job I had lost.

Six months in, an assignment finally came: performance testing and test automation, which needed technical skills I lacked. I was sure they still wanted me gone and would plot my failure to accomplish it. But the fellow I joined in doing these things had once reported to me. He said, “You’re the only manager here who gave a damn about me and treated me well. I see what they’re doing to you. I will teach you everything. You will not fail.”

He apprenticed me over the next six months while my personal life calmed down. I took my new knowledge to a different company to build a test-automation practice. I was just beginning to build a performance-testing practice there when a colleague called to tell me about a great opening at a highly regarded local software company. I spent four years there running a large testing team and building automation and performance practices. Next, a startup software company invited me to build a testing practice from the ground up. I’ve been at it for almost two years.

I’m at the top of my career today, and I would never have been able to do it unless I’d been fired.

I once worked for a company whose CEO got his whole executive team to lie for him in court about a sexual harassment charge. Read the story.

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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.

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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

LinkedIn, are you trying to drive me away?

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I’ve changed jobs frequently during my career – eight companies in 25 years. That’s not unusual in software development, which is my line of work.

Because of my nomadic ways I’ve worked with many fine colleagues, and LinkedIn has been a great tool for keeping track of them. (If I were only better at keeping in touch with them!) LinkedIn has also helped me connect with people in my industry who I’ve wanted to know. And LinkedIn has been useful for recruiting people to work for me. Heck, the company that employs me now found me via LinkedIn. I wasn’t even looking for a job when they sent me an InMail and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

And so you might imagine that I’m very glad to have LinkedIn. And I am. Except that day in, day out, the service’s behavior is at least annoying and occasionally atrocious and I think frequently about quitting it altogether.

Before I launch into my complaints, let me say that I did finally figure out how to work around or turn off most of LinkedIn’s bad behavior. But those settings were hard to find and not obvious. I couldn’t figure it out on my own. As a guy who makes software for a living, that’s saying something.

Here’s the rub: The occasions where LinkedIn was really useful made me willing to tolerate its ongoing irritating behavior. I was not unlike the alcoholic’s spouse who puts up with the benders and their consequences because of the occasional good times. But I finally had enough and Googled to find out how to tame this beast.

To the complaints:

1. The recruiters, oh, the recruiters

Four out of five times someone contacts me via LinkedIn, it’s a recruiter trying to sell me on recruiting services. They all claim to have a teeming mass of unbelievably qualified people they would love to place on my team.

I’m in management, so I do hire people. But these recruiters remind me of the people who knock on my front door trying to sell me tree trimming or new windows or driveway sealcoating. I don’t know them, I don’t know why I should do business with them instead of with the trusted providers I have used for years, and I don’t like their hard sell and repeated pestering.

This is the only thing I haven’t figured out how to turn off – without also turning off the kinds of contact I do want, such as companies contacting me about new and better opportunities. On average, I get one recruiter contact every week. I ignore them all.

2. The infuriating activity feed

In trying to be a social network, some time ago LinkedIn implemented an activity feed. It’s a wall kind of like Facebook’s, and it’s the first thing you see when you log into LinkedIn.

It’s not all bad. It summarizes what my contacts are up to – status updates, new jobs, and so on. And my other blog about software development automatically sends my new posts there so my contacts can see them. And sometimes my contacts post other interesting and useful articles there.

But by default, LinkedIn automatically posts to the activity feed every time you tweak your profile. So last year when the company where I work changed its name, and I changed its name on my LinkedIn profile, all of my contacts saw this on their activity feed: Jim Grey is now Grand High Muckety-Muck at XYZ Corp! And I got a barrage of clueless congratulations from my contacts, some of whom wondered why I changed jobs a mere three months after starting my last one. And if you have entered your birthday on your profile, LinkedIn notifies all of your contacts on your big day, and many of them will send congratulations for this, too.

All of these congratulations cause LinkedIn to send you an e-mail. And every time one of your contacts tweaks his or her profile or has a birthday, you get an e-mail, too. It’s a deluge! I lived with the annoyance of all of this for some time, getting an e-mail every time one of my contacts so much as scratched their nose. It was death by a million paper cuts!

3. The useless endorsements

People in your LinkedIn network can endorse you for skills you have. As I look at the endorsements I’ve gathered – a couple hundred of them now – most of them are for things I know how to do: software testing, test automation, technical writing, and project management.

But some of my endorsements are for things I don’t do, such as data warehousing and Microsoft SQL Server. I am acquainted with these things, but good heavens, don’t give me a job doing them; I’d fail in a minute.

Worse, all kinds of people who have never seen me use a particular skill have endorsed me for it. Heck, some LinkedIn contacts who’ve never worked with me have endorsed me for skills. Based on what?

LinkedIn makes it too easy to endorse people. When you log in, it often shows you people in your network with buttons labeled with skills, inviting you to click them for easy endorsements. And then with every endorsement, LinkedIn sends me an e-mail: Hey! Someone just endorsed you! Isn’t that great?

Not really. If you want to really do something useful for me, write me a recommendation. As a hiring manager, I actually look at those when considering a candidate. Even if the recommendation is fluffy, I think it has some value because it took somebody time to write it. They had to put a little effort and thought into it.

What about you? Are you on LinkedIn? What about it do you like and what drives you nuts?

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Personal

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record
On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

Paul McCartney saved my life while I was in college. Read that story.

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Stories Told

Frozen glue

A rerun, from 2010.

For ten minutes one afternoon in 1986, I thought I had killed a little girl.

I worked my 19th summer for my aunt Betty’s delivery service. Her small company shuttled papers, packages, and supplies  for industrial clients all over northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan. She did a good business with maybe a half-dozen drivers and an assortment of cars, vans, and straight trucks. She issued me an old Ford Pinto for most of my runs, but I got some experience driving the vans, too. Most of her vans were new heavy-duty Fords tricked out for delivery, with rub rails in the cargo area and a wall behind the front seats. She had an older van, too, a used-up, rusty regular-duty Chevy that lacked the wall and rub rails. It sat idle most of the time.

Betty’s biggest customer was AM General, which designed and built the Hummer for the US military. They used a particular glue somewhere in assembly, and it was kept frozen until needed. Betty’s company delivered the glue from the supplier, a company called Artificial Ice. All the pro drivers were on other runs one day when AM General called so Betty sent me, the driver of last resort. And all the Fords were on runs so I had to drive the unloved Chevy, the van of last resort.

I drove to Artificial Ice in downtown South Bend and loaded 25 80-pound buckets of frozen glue into my van. It was a hot day, so frost on the buckets immediately began melting into puddles on the van’s metal floor.

I headed out with my thawing 2,000-pound payload. Seven miles lay between Artificial Ice and the Hummer plant in Mishawaka, all on one long road with many stoplights. It took a long time for that loaded van to get any speed. Stopping that much weight was a real problem, too, as I learned when a light changed to red and the van plowed through the intersection as if my braking were a suggestion.

I was treading slowly and carefully across South Bend’s east side when a little girl stepped off the curb right in front of me. This was the first time I experienced how time slows down in a crisis. I was able to think, “I’m about to kill a little girl, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” sink my foot into the brake pedal, and gasp as I watched her take that first step away from safety.

Unfortunately, the bucketed glue was traveling at 25 miles an hour on a nearly frictionless surface. Wham! Buckets slammed into the back of my seat. As I felt the wind leave me, I watched the passenger’s seat pop off the floor, smack the windshield, and bounce around along the tops of some of the buckets.

I managed to get the van stopped. Still trying to get a breath, I hopped out to look for the little girl, but she wasn’t there. I even checked under the van, because with all the excitement in the cabin I wasn’t sure I would have felt it if I had hit her. She had simply vanished.

I sat for several minutes, shaking, until I was sure the urge to vomit had passed. Then I crept at ten miles per hour the rest of the way. To hell with the cars honking behind me.

I was still very shaken when I pulled up at AM General’s loading dock. The guys there steered clear of me and unloaded the glue without a word. They laid the passenger seat on its side in the cargo area, but didn’t ask me about it. Betty didn’t send me on any more runs that day. She never had the passenger seat reattached.

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Stories Told

Multitasking hurts productivity

I’ve started a new blog about making software. It’s called Stories from the Software Salt Mines, and you’ll find it at softwaresaltmines.com. I started it because even though this blog is mighty eclectic, my occasional posts about what I do for a living have never felt quite at home here. Now they have a home all their own. I’ll post over there whenever I have something to say, but I’ll keep up the thrice weekly pace here at Down the Road. This post is on both of my blogs today, as a way of introducing you to my new blog if software delivery interests you.

“You multitask like a madman,” my boss said to me.

She meant it as a compliment, but it brought me down. I was exhausted, teetering on the edge of burnout precisely because I had been multitasking an enormous workload.

Not a skill to be praised

I managed 15 people across four teams: testers that delivered monthly bug-fix releases, test automation developers, performance testers, and technical writers. My teams were solid and I had great leads in place, which freed me to work with a security-testing vendor to start doing regular penetration tests of our product, and with a translation company to translate our product user interface into five languages each release. I had a lot going on, but I was handling it.

But then the company decided to lean hard into more international markets. The executive team asked me to gather quotes to translate our product UI into even more languages, and also to translate our giant online help system, which we had only ever offered in English. The costs were an order of magnitude more than the executive team imagined, and so I was called into endless meetings and hallway discussions to provide more data as the executives squabbled with each other over strategy. This all sucked down more than a third of my time – but I could never focus on this work for more than ten or twenty minutes because I was still managing four teams with leads who had questions and needed me to remove roadblocks.

My performance began to suffer. While I had my eye on one ball, another would drop. I started making silly mistakes. It all wore me down to a nub. To keep sane, I ended up not asking, but telling my boss to take things off my plate so I could survive. I really wanted the translation stuff to go, as I didn’t enjoy it very much. But instead she gave the technical writing and bug fix teams to other managers.

I really mean task switching, not multitasking

Everybody calls what I was doing multitasking, but it really wasn’t. Real multitasking is when we do more than one thing at a time, such as driving and talking, or walking and chewing gum. But when two things come along that require focused attention, most of us can’t do them simultaneously. We work on one task, and then we work on the next. That’s really called task switching, and it happens every time we stop testing a feature release to test an emergency hotfix, or even get interrupted to answer a question. I’ve just called it multitasking here so far so that Google’s sweet, sweet searches can find this post.

Task switching makes tasks take longer overall. It also hinders learning – all that switching from one task to another keeps things from sticking in our brains. It really is better to work on, and finish, one thing at a time. We are so much more productive that way.

The hidden costs of task switching

Say you’re working on task A when task B arrives. If you want to avoid task switching, you finish task A and then work on task B.

mt1

But say task B is hot, and your boss needs you to work on it right now. Task B goes out sooner, at the cost of delaying task A.

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But there’s a hidden cost: unless a task is automatic or menial, it takes time to get oriented to it, even when you’re returning to it after only a brief interruption. You must at least try to remember where you left off. That orientation time delays overall completion.

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This cost mounts the more you switch tasks. If you switch repeatedly among tasks A, B, and C, not only do all tasks finish later, but tasks A and B finish much later.

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Task switching hinders learning

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Dairy Queen photo

One of my first jobs was working the counter at a Dairy Queen. It took me a couple weeks to learn the technique for creating their soft serve’s signature shape, but then I could do it without even thinking about it. It had become a habit.

Making software isn’t the same as making ice-cream cones. Being effective and productive is much more about deepening skills and knowledge than about building habits.

Single-tasking helps deepen skills and knowledge because it stimulates the hippocampus, which is part of the brain that puts information in long-term memory. Task switching hurts this because it stimulates the basal ganglia, which is the part of the brain that is good at building habits.

In software development, you simply get better at what you do faster when you single task.

What to do then?

It’s impossible to entirely eliminate task switching – emergencies will arise, questions will need to be answered. And I do believe in the power of collaboration to deliver better software. But it’s a good investment to minimize task switching as much as you can.

If you’re in management, make singletasking a value. Demonstrate it by removing obstacles so people can focus on one thing for long periods:

  • Can you have “do not disturb” periods or let people work from home when they need to complete a critical task?
  • Can you give people private offices?
  • Can you schedule meetings that involve your team members so they don’t interrupt work as much, such as first thing in the morning, just before lunch, or at the end of the day?
  • Can you organize your teams so that you have people dedicated to handling customer emergencies (in a prioritized way, so they can focus on one at a time) and people dedicated to building new product?

If you’re not in management, you can still do a lot to clear your decks so you can concentrate:

  • Adjust your work schedule so that you arrive earlier or stay later than most others. (My normal work hours have been 7:30 to 4:30 for more than 20 years. The first 60-90 minutes of the day are my most productive because few others are in the office.)
  • Stop responding to e-mail as it arrives; instead, set aside specific times when you read and respond to it.
  • Work out a do-not-disturb convention with your team. In one group I worked with, we placed a little blue flag on our desk when we needed to go heads down.
  • Ask if you can work from home when you really need to concentrate.
  • At least put on your headphones, which many people interpret as a sign that you don’t want to be disturbed.

And of course, when your boss pulls you in too many directions, be sure to ask him or her to help you prioritize your work so you can focus on one thing at a time, or to assign work across your team in ways that balances the load. Multitasking alone doesn’t usually lead to burnout, but it absolutely brings you there faster when you have too much on your plate.

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