Saturday, July 9, 2011

Time to say goodbye?


It all began at a Hollywood website I joined in the wee hours of the 2007 new year. I was hired on by a full-Ph.D. computer scientist named Jamal. We’re not talking about an honorary or mail-order Ph.D. either. We’re talking about the real thing from UCSD. Jamal was of Syrian extraction, and he was good. This guy was not an ivory tower scientist. He really knew something about computer science and software engineering.

Jamal had been hired by the owner of this website to be the company CIO. All future development of the website was to be directed by Jamal. The owner wanted to focus on strategic partnerships with studios and production companies. He did not want to deal with the grind of software development anymore.

A funny thing happened on the way to that division of labor. It turned out that the owner could not stand being out of the website development business. It turned out that he could not accept the true meaning of delegation of authority. He just couldn’t allow anyone else full creative control over his website. It turns out that he had to have his hands on the baby.

A power struggle ensued between Jamal and the owner. Step 1 in winning the battle was to fire the three developers Jamal had hired. You take away his chess pieces first, then you go in for the kill. Unexpectedly, I found myself on the street looking for a new job in Mid-June of 2007 after just about 5 months of employment. I had been fired.

Looking for a new home

No one expects a job to end in 5 months. You really don’t expect that in a situation when you know you are good. I hadn’t planned financially for this problem. Further, my brother and I were splitting rent in a relatively expensive house in Van Nuys California, and he was planning to move out. I was unemployed, and my rent was about to increase.

In this sort of financial jam, you don’t have a lot of time to select the perfect job at the perfect company. You cannot afford to be selective. You need to accept the first decent offer you are given. This is one of those moments when a perfectionist needs to make concessions to real-world expediency. So it was with me. This is how I landed in my current job.

The interview process was simple. I made two visits. I had several conversation with a pair of developers I will call T and R. T & R had been in the organization for years before I ever showed up. I asked them a short list of questions about the company to help size up what brand of outfit this was. The both answered the question in essentially the same way. Based on their answers, I reached the following conclusions about my current company:

  1. This was a very family oriented company. Execs were more concerned about taking their kids to baseball games than growing a trillion dollar organization.
  2. This was a mellow, low-pressure company, where quality of life was basically paramount.
  3. This was a low-pay company. Most of the people working here had been hired straight out of college or from low-end jobs at very low prices. There were theoretical bonuses and raises. Most people didn’t get any such thing.
  4. This was a low-tech company. Elementary CRUD applications and websites were the warp and woof of daily life. VB.NET and FoxPro were the two dominant paradigms. There would be no real technological challenges or adventures in this business.
  5. In terms of software development, execs were more concerned with cosmetic appearance of things than actual logic or data integrity.
  6. Programmers were not managers, and managers would never come from programmer stock. If you wanted to be a manger in this organization, it would be best if you held an MBA from USC or Pepperdine. Otherwise, it was good to be a pretty girl.
  7. They didn’t like change in the roster and they didn’t like firing people. If you joined the firm, you had job security.

Based on these seven smaller conclusions, it was possible to derive a much larger conclusion. That conclusion was as follows: If I accepted this offer, I will be entering a dead-end job. It would be a very nice and comfortable dead-end job, but it would turn out to be a dead-end job. There would be no opportunities for technical progress, growth in wages, responsibility or advancement in rank. There would also be no significant bonus for massive effort.

How do you play this one?

So the chess master has a problem before him. How do you play this arrangement of pieces on the chess board?

  • You are out of work suddenly.
  • You are in a financial jam
  • You have an offer on the table for a comfortable dead-end job

What do you do? I will give you my solution:

  • Turn down the offer of permanent employment
  • Tell them that you are really looking for an hourly consulting position. Tell them that you would accept an consulting gig, but not permanent placement
  • Go short with this one. Stay in the gig for 6 months to 1 year, deliver as much value as possible, then sell-short and move on.

This was my plan, and I followed it… at first. I declined the hiring offer. I tendered a counter offer for a consulting position. They refused the consulting gig, and offered the perm job again. I declined, and said I would continue looking for a position. They folded. I won. I was brought on for a 150 day contract.

The figure of 150 days was extremely weird. I had never had a 150 day contract in my life, and I had had 16 professional contracts before that moment in time. If I had been as calendar savvy as I am now, I would have understood that this was a setup. I was scheduled to come onboard during the first week of July. 150 days puts you schmack in the Holiday season. Nobody hires new consultants during the Holidays. They knew they could trap me with a perm-offer in late-November or early-December.

This was their plan, and they executed it by the numbers. Come December, I was trapped. I could be unemployed for the Holidays, which would create a true financial jam, or I could accept the perm offer.

At first I was of a strong mind to decline the perm offer and take my chances. No dice. As hard as I looked, I could find no suitable consulting or perm positions open at that time. I really looked hard too. There was truly nothing. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first early warnings of the financial crisis on the horizon.

With no other options available I took the only option available. I took the perm job.

The financial crisis

Once 2008 began in Ernst, I resumed looking for other employment. I never felt comfortable in this job. I always believed I was a programmatic and organizational non-fit for this company. I always expected it to end, and end soon. I never, ever expected this job to run four years. I never thought for one second I had a foot-hold in this company. In brutal honesty, I never really wanted a foot-hold. This was not my cup of tea. This was not in my agenda.

The problem with looking for employment in 2008 was pretty simple: We were on the verge of the worst banking collapse in the history of the world. It could have easily been the worst depression every. It may yet turn into the worst depression ever.

2008 was a rotten financial year, and it was rotten all year long. Some fools believe it only turned rotten in September of 2008. Not so. The financial news was terrible all year long. We were just in psychological denial about everything until Lehman brothers dropped dead, and the system executed the domino theory of collapse.

In this macroeconomic environment, it is difficult for anyone to find a job. It is more difficult if you are a computer programmer in the financial industry who is looking for that perfect job. Believe me, you won’t find it. I sure didn’t.

Once the crisis hit on Sept 15, 2008, I was expecting a pink-slip. I thought it would come any day. I was not expecting them to keep me, and I was expecting to be the second or third man in MIS/IT to be let go. Who was #1, and #2? I thought this was an arbitrary question, as I was expected the first three guys to go in a cluster. All three would be flushed at once, or so I thought.

A strange thing happened on the way to the flush. The high command decided to keep all of us in the programming section. The roster was cut to a very small extent; however, the cuts were mostly problem people who were on the disciplinary chopping block anyhow. I found this move baffling. It was very nice, but it was baffling. I still have a hard time believing they carried all of us programmers through this recession when there was no work to do. We sat around twiddling our thumbs doing nothing… and getting paid for it.

I guess we had good karma. I guess the bosses wanted good karma.

Where we are today

Three surgeries and a little economic non-recovery later, Dave is seriously thinking about moving on. I remain a programmatic and organizational non-fit for this company. If I am going to move, it better be soon. It better happen while I am in the full-bloom of rosy health, and it better happen before September strikes. This September could be a very bad financial month indeed. It might be the worst since 2008.