Bad Job Experiences, Number 3 in a Series

After I left the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and Communications, I moved to Ottawa to work for GeoVision, which was a small company that had recently been spun off of SHL (SystemHouse). I was hired as part of a big expansion as they went from 25 people to 50. GeoVision made a Geographic Information System (GIS), and it was probably the most capable one out there, although it was a bit slow.

I stayed at GeoVision for 6 years, and for the most part my experiences there were extremely positive. I gladly took a huge pay cut to be working with the latest technology – Unix workstations, X11 (compiled from source in some cases because the Unix vendors didn’t support it yet), C and C++. And it paid off – 3 months later my boss noticed that I was doing good work and underpaid, and gave me a raise that brought me up to where I’d been at the Ministry of Transportation, with the added advantage that I was living in a beautiful part of the country, in a predominately English speaking part of Quebec.

I already blogged the really negative work experience, when GeoVision got involved in a couple of projects with Andersen Consulting. And that wasn’t *very* negative because after my first project I didn’t go into those situations without an agreement that I controlled my own hours.

Of course it wasn’t all wine and roses.

I had one manager who made me work long hours for an extended period of time promising me TOIL (Time Off In Lieu – I love that acronym) at the end of the project, but as soon as the project ended she transferred me to another manager who of course didn’t have any such agreement and wanted me to get to work on my new project immediately. I had another manager who was so incompetent that he once ordered the sysadmins to convert a Sun 3 into a Vax because QA had finished testing on Sun OS but were falling behind on Ultrix testing. And there was the “famous” incident where I said the wrong thing in the wrong place. And my last manager had been a fairly new hire, and he was incredibly bad. He’d make meeting arrangments, then spend the entire time on the phone, usually doing what appeared to be personal calls. Because I could never get any “face time” with him, I took his vague instructions and did what I could to guess the parts he wouldn’t explain. And when I delivered it, it was obviously “all wrong”, so I had to reimplement it quickly. But the bastard refused to take any blame for not being available, and gave me a really terrible performance review.

But the worst part about the time there was the last year or so. Our company lost its major benefactor (Rod Bryden mortgaged all he had to buy Bell Canada Enterprises, and then failed to make his loan payments). The Powers That Be decided that if we were going to become a profitable company, we had to get professional management. The President and CEO, Doug Seaborn was a really great guy, and a fellow Courier du Bois (although he was nuts enough to do the CdB Gold). But he was also a fellow programmer and geek. So he hired this guy, “Skip”, who had evidently taken a major database company from a ten million dollar company to a billion dollar company. Yes, he really called himself “Skip”, and would never tell anybody his real name. “Skip” seemed to not understand a few basic differences between this job and his previous one.

  • He didn’t seem to understand that our business was not selling to end users, and spent lavishly to “get our name out there”, like putting a huge sign on the office building we were located in.
  • He didn’t know dick about motivating people. Once after a huge push, people were asking if there was going to be some bonus. He told us that programmers should expect to work at least 60 hours a week in non-push times, and that our “bonus” would be in the value of our stock options. Only one problem with that – GeoVision stock wasn’t publicly traded, and the only people who had stock options were the founders and high executives like himself.
  • He hired a bunch of his old cronies to be sales people. They were paid huge salaries, and because one of them wanted an office in New York City and another one wanted to work near his home in New Jersey, we had TWO offices in the New York City area. None of the high price sales help ever sold a single system. The year or so we had these “Senior Salesmen”, we also had a guy classified as “Intermediate Salesman” who had been with the company since the beginning, and he’d made all the sales that the company achieved in the “Year of Skip”. So of course “Skip” awarded “Salesman of the Year” to one of the other guys who didn’t sell a thing.
  • “Skip” was an American, and he hated Ottawa. So he gradually moved more and more of the functions of the company to our branch office in Denver, making it the official head office. He justified it saying that US companies only wanted to deal with other US companies, so we had to look like a US company. He kept promising that no programming jobs were going to move to Denver, but of course that was a lie. But because more stuff was moving to Denver, he decided we needed bigger and more visible offices, so he moved the company to this huge new development. But nobody could figure out how this was going to be more visible, since it was a lot further out of town.

Just about the time we hired “Skip”, we also got a contract to develop IBM’s next generation GIS system. It was a huge contract, and we just about doubled in the number of programmers on board. The project was top secret, and had the code name “Albany”. The people working on it became known as “Albanians”, and they actually got a national flag from Albania to hang in the cipher-locked off part of the office. The project was actually a major clusterfuck – IBM wanted this thing to do anything and everything, and be 100% upwards compatible with their old system (which sucked rocks). It was also being built using the latest Computer Aided Software Engineering tools. I don’t know much about what they were doing, except they were always tying up the laser printer with these simple looking documents that took forever for the printer to process. I used to joke that the CASE tool was implemented as PostScript running in the printer. I do know that they did nothing but produce these documents for months and months, and then when they finally had the CASE tool produce some code, rumour has it that the finished product was one thousand times slower than our already slow product. Supposedly it took over 5 minutes to highlight a feature after you selected it with the mouse. IBM freaked, and cancelled the contract. With that huge money source dried up, “Skip”‘s ridiculous spending was starting to kill the company.

It was around about this time that “Skip” suddenly resigned. Rumours were rife as to why. The official press release said something non-committal but not the usual positive “pursuing other interests”. The most consistent rumour was that “Skip”‘s wife had hired a private detective to research him, and found that he had several Social Security Numbers, and was under investigation for insider trading because of something to do with his last company. Oh, and the wife also found a couple of mistresses – this was no surprise, as several of us in the company had seen him taking women up to his hotel room at conferences. The rumour that made it all come together was that he seemed to have a free penthouse apartment in the same complex as our new Denver offices. Hmmm.

We started to call him “Skip Town” after that.