With the writing on the wall at Kodak, and Vicki and I were married so I now I had a green card, so I started looking for a full time gig. Not that I have any great preference for full time over contract, but I thought I might get a better gig this way.
And I was mostly right.
Vicki saw an article about a tiny little start-up called “Blue Lobster Software”. They made software that extracted information from IBM Mainframes, one product that “screen scraped” IBM 3270 terminal sessions, and another that wasn’t as finished yet, but which directly interfaced with CICS databases. The work wasn’t all that exciting to me, but it did give me two things I really did want – it was doing programming in Java, and the company was small and growing.
I have been playing around with Java at home, and I liked the language a lot. It was similar to C++, which I had done a bit of at GeoVision and a lot at Kodak. But it had fixed some of the problems with C++, and the standard class library was incredibly sophisticated – although one or two, like Calendar, were very badly designed, and gui programming didn’t really become powerful or easy until the Swing (Java Foundation Classes) came along a bit later.
The tech boom was just starting to gain momentum, and I thought it would be great to get in on the ground floor of a young and rising company. To be honest, I was hoping it would be something like the early days of GeoVision. So I really wanted this job. Unfortunately I think it lead me to lose my famous blasé interview style and showed up in an uncomfortable suit on a hot day. Afterwards, Tim, the guy who hired me, confessed that at first the rest of the programmers thought I was too stiff and cold and they didn’t want to hire me. I think they relaxed a bit when they saw me relaxed after I was hired.
But I wanted this job, so even though they offered me a lot less than I tought I could make in this market, I took it along with a bunch of stock options. The office was in a horrible part of town – in an old warehouse that was on the process of being gentrified. During my time there, there was always some construction going on in our street, which gets on your nerves after a while. But worse than the construction was that to walk out to lunch, you had to walk past the Josh Lofton school, which is the last chance school for kids who had been expelled from other schools for disipline problems. During the school day there was always a police car parked at the school or near by, but that didn’t stop the kids from spitting out the windows at you as you walked by. It was a dangerous part of town, and if I worked late, I always kept a phone connection to Vicki open during the walk to my car until I got the doors locked and the engine started – I didn’t think it would prevent anything, but at least she’d be able to call the police as soon as anything happened.
The president of the company was evidently fully committed to making this company a success – he even had our exceptionally cool logo tatooed on his leg. He was a pretty good guy.
Below him was a Chief Technical Officer, Mike, who evidently was a good friend of the president, but he was a bit of a dick. He also believed everything Microsoft said, so our main servers were two extremely powerful machines running Windows NT. He thought he was God’s gift to systems administration, he probably didn’t set up these NT servers very well because they were dog slow – not helped by the fact that he kept running CPU gobbling OpenGL screen savers on them. Besides having to deal with God-awful IIS, the worst aspect of his love for all things Microsoft is that we had to use Visual Source Safe for our source code management. VSS is so bad that even most of Microsoft uses something else. It’s horrible.
Below the CTO was the lead developer, Tim. Tim was a great guy. I liked him a lot, even if Vicki always thought I should address him like he was the “Some call me Tim” character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He was very good at both managing us and making sure we were motivated. In the office there was a large screen projection TV, a basketball hoop, and most importantly, a collection of hackey sacks. Whenever somebody needed to just get away from a problem and think about it a bit, we’d play hackey sack. When our mascot, Blobby the Australian Blue Lobster climbed out of the fish tank and died, Tim arranged an impressive funeral for him. His first idea was to launch Blobby on a helium balloon, but fortunately we talked him out of that. But we had a ceremony and said good bye.
As well as Tim, another person who reported to the CTO was Pam, our web mistress and documentation person. Pam was going out with the CTO, which just goes to show that even a dick can get a cute and intelligent girl friend. We also had a receptionist, although I can’t remember now if she was full time or part time – I do know she was one of the first to get laid off when things got tight. I don’t know if it was sexism or just an accident of where she happened to sit, but once the receptionist was gone Pam ended up doing a lot of receptionist stuff.
There were two groups of programmers for the two products, with two team leaders who were younger than me but not too much younger. Most of the other programmers were very young – either still in school and finishing up part-time, co-op students, or guys just barely out of school. There was also an IBM mainframe expert who only worked 2 or 3 days a week – considering this was 1998-99, I’m surprised he wasn’t working somewhere making tons of money as a Y2K consultant, but maybe that’s what he was doing the rest of week. He was much older than anybody else.
One of the stranger hiring decisions was our tech support person. He was extremely hard of hearing, and had a bit of that “deaf guy” accent. But that wasn’t the strange part – the strange part was that at least one day a week he’d have some problem with his hearing aids and have to just let the tech support phone line ring without answering it for hours at a time while the hearing aids “dried out”.
At first things were going well. The stock in the company wasn’t publically traded, but the vesting price on my options was $1.50. Soon after I got there, they made some deal with another company who bought a bunch of shares in the company for $6.00 each. Hey, we’re going places! At this rate, my stock options will be worth a fortune. Tim celebrated the news by buying Voodoo 3D cards for all the developer’s PCs. That made our after work games of Quake 2 a lot more fun. Voodoo cards were state of the art back then – you actually connected the Voodoo to your existing video card so the other card would handle 2D graphics. And you could chain more than one Voodoo card, and they would divide up the work by scan line – one of my coworkers stole the Voodoo card out of somebody else’s machine and gave himself twice the frame rate.
But after this good time, we went through a long dry spell with no real sales. The first thing that happened was Tim got fired. I’m not sure exactly why, they probably thought because he was too soft on us. To replace him, they contacted a head hunter who found us… the head hunter’s wife. She was a mixed blessing. We had a “developer of the month” award that got you some stock options. One time she announced that none us were doing good work, so she wasn’t going to award it. The developer who had spent a week at a customer site trouble shooting was surprised. So was the guy who’d spent that same week working until midnight every week supporting the developer at the customer site. And when those developers complained, she called us into a meeting where she burst into tears and told us that she was just trying to make us work harder. And then she awarded the developer of the month to the mainframe guy, who hadn’t done a god damned thing that month.
This job was the start of my long dry period. I was there for over a year, but I never really felt like I was doing much work. I was not on the two major teams, and I had this sort-of side task that was kind-of redundant – it was a port forwarding program, and I don’t think anybody really knew what they wanted it for. And because it felt useless, I couldn’t really get get excited about it and I didn’t work as hard as I am capable of, and spent too much time reading news and email and surfing the net. I felt guilty about that.
One thing I did manage to do while I was there was convince our manager to try out some open source stuff. Since we were developing for Java, whose catch phrase was “Write once, run anywhere” (or as we always said “Write once, run away screaming”), the developers had some flexibility as to what they used. Matt and I converted our NT machines to be dual boot NT and Linux. (Sometimes booting into NT just to check stuff in and out of Visual Source Safe.) After we’d been developing and testing our software on Linux for a while (and then testing again on our supported platforms Windows and Solaris), our “wonderful” manager asked us if our software worked on Linux, since we’d had some customers ask for it.
At the same time, our customers had been complaining about the horrendous slowness of downloading software and patches from our web server. Mike, the idiot CTO thought we needed a bigger Internet pipe. Matt and I proved him wrong – we found an old 486 sitting in a closet and installed Linux on it, and put an Apache web server on it. Even though it was running way slower than the clock speed of the dual Pentium Pro NT box that was our normal web server, we showed download speeds over our supposedly too small pipe over 10 times better. I know from other reading that a properly set up IIS server shouldn’t be that incredibly slow, so I have to assume it was something Mike did wrong.
After these two open source successes, we were in the process of converting our mail server to a Linux box running Sendmail (helped along by the fact that our existing Netscape Collabra mail server turned out to be an open relay that was being exploited by spammers) and converting our source code control system to CVS when the company was acquired. The first disappointment was that the acquisition price meant that my shares had a total net value of around $1500. The second disappointment was that the acquiring company immediately made us sign contracts at the same pay rate we had been getting before. Oh great, so I’d been working for $20,000 a year less that I thought I deserved hoping my stock options would pay off, but now I was working for that same low rate with no stock options to hope for. The third disappointment was they flow us all down to Virginia to talk to the new head office, and they announced that all of would have to use Windows NT, VSS, IIS and Outlook and Exchange. That’s when I decided it was time to leave.
I discovered a while later that my leaving forced the new owners to immediately offer everybody a new contract with more money. Supposedly they’d been planning to do that all along, but they hadn’t bothered to tell anybody.