Story Time: the re-write

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

This is a story about being a developer living through management directed changes in your organization. So make some popcorn and get ready. Back when I was a freshly-out-of-college twenty-four year old I was working at the old FMT building in upstate NY. It was technically a start-up, and I truly didn’t know any of the financials, but I believe the company was profitable. But cash wasn’t raining from the heavens. After nearly a year of working there the CEO had hired (I presume it was a equity hire—again, I really have no clue) two managers from California.

The Setup

As a recent college grad after the dot-com boom and bust the notion of “being from California” evoked mystery, as if what was about to happen would be a story I would tell constantly. I certainly haven’t told it more than half a dozen times. But one of those managers would end up being the best boss I have ever had, still to this day. We will call him Bob (obviously not his name).

The strategy was a re-write of the product, in an effort to get someone to buy the company. Our CTO, one of the founders, had long been pushed aside by the other two, one of which was CEO. Bob brought the CTO back in to lay the foundation for the new product. Slowly Bob started grabbing the most senior of the developers into the project. They would, quite literally disappear into offices. Bob instructed the rest of the company to not interrupt them.

Those of us who were not involved in the project would start getting offices—even sticking two of us in one. It was still better than the cube farm. I have fond memories of staying late with my friend, trying to finish way too much work for two of us, blasting RATM. We sent a message to Bob saying “Yea, we’re toast. Done. Kaput.”

Pardon my french, but Bob did not fuck around. We had 1:1s, and had gotten to know each other a little bit. And he definitely had a bit of the famous Steve Job’s Distortion Field ability. The next day after sending that message, he pulled me into an office, tossed some papers on the desk and said those were resignation papers, and I could be done, now. I quickly retracted my statement, that no, quitting was not my intention. His move prompted an attitude adjustment on my part. From his perspective, we were here to get something done.

An Invitation

Soon after both my friend and I were invited to join Bob’s re-write team. With that, I got a hefty raise that made me very happy. There were enough of us at this point that we commandeered a conference room and put all of us in there. Once we were all in, we’d lock the door. No one could bother us. With all the headphones I bet we couldn’t even hear anyone knock on the door.

Bob meant business. When he brought people onto the team we each had our responsibilities. He told us that no one should be interrupting us, and if someone was being a problem to let him know. He told us that if we needed a meeting with others in the company to better understand why some of the business processes are what they are, to just schedule a meeting. But he said: you get to make all the decisions. This was absolutely a DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) approach. I loved it. Bob went out and re-hired folks who had previously left to re-build things that they worked on when they were here. Because they still knew where the bodies were buried and why things were done the way they were done.

What About Everyone Else?

I remember at one point Bob standing up at a company all hands to explain our project. He put himself on the line for us. I don’t remember what was said, but I remember being impressed and defended. He was our line of defense, both in terms of shielding us from interference and giving us the credibility and buy-in to do what we were there to do.

The new world order was not the most popular thing. I have a distinct memory where I asked for a meeting with one of the founders to help understand a process that he had built way-back-when and hadn’t been substantially changed over the years. In an off-hand comment I asked why this process would open so many modal windows on top of one another. I intended to not do that in the re-write—it was a terrible user experience. He was adamant this was the only way it could work. I told him that is not how I would be doing it. He was less than pleased. This will come up later.

Bob was rarely seen by us. The re-write project was probably a dozen people now, and reached nearly 6 months. I had only been on it for maybe 2 months. It was winter. And in upstate NY winter is dull, it barely gets above freezing, the snow doesn’t melt until April, you leave for work in the dark and drive back home in the dark. With very little left to do we worked a lot. Most nights we stayed until 8pm. We’d order dinner. On Fridays some one would run out and bring back drinks to the office. One Friday night the CEO heard us still in a conference room and came in, said hello, and promptly left. It too was a surprise to see him.

Surprise

The following Monday we were informed that Bob had been fired. The CEO did not inform us, a member of our own team did. And now that person was technically in charge. Now is where a lawyer would object and call this hearsay. But all I can do is recount what was told to us. Apparently the CEO had confronted him about us and the project. Apparently we were enjoying ourselves too much. Apparently things weren’t going fast enough. Metaphors like “the pirates are running the ship” and “inmates running the asylum” were used (that last one had been used once before, but not by the CEO). In his very California way Bob tried to re-assure the CEO that everything was great and there was nothing to worry about. The CEO became more adamant. Bob quit on the spot, gave him his key to the office, and walked out.

The next day, the person now in charge of the project went out to one of those party stores and bought paper pirate hats. We took a group photo and he texted it to Bob’s private number. At some point the CEO had heard about, and seen the photo. He was livid. But what could he do now? I still have that pirate hat.

The Other Shoe

We continued working on the project. We had gotten out of the conference room as we had been planning on expanding into new office space downstairs right when Bob quit/was fired. It was a lot more comfortable. It was now August. One morning a few of us were asked into an office. We were getting fired. Three of us. The least tenured developers. All from the re-write project. I was told I was “combative,” and I am pretty sure they were referencing the fact that I wasn’t going to use a half a dozen modal windows. We said our goodbyes and were asked to leave immediately. We told the rest of the team we’d go into town to a restaurant and they would come meet us for lunch. We had become a team, and it was sad to leave. My friend was still there, and stayed there for at least another year. They shut down the project after they fired the three of us. It worked out for the best, there is no doubt about that.

Is There a Conclusion?

There are tons of holes to this story. That is, I think, the biggest take-away. The utter lack of making proper use of a good, productive, team. The hard part is, usually, creating that team. In my opinion, we had it. And then it was all gone.

The CEO failed entirely. He never communicated goals or expectations to the team. And, if he thinks he did, he never confirmed that he did. Its not that difficult.

Bob did his best to shield us from the nonsense. I couldn’t tell you if there was any other information we needed that he didn’t give to us. But knowing the CEO, I very much doubt it. At some point informing everyone of more and more pressure from the top is not effective. I do know that Bob cared about us, both personally and on the job. He made that abundantly clear with everything he did. How much was he able to push back on the CEO? Obviously not very much. Did he do a good job managing the CEO? Probably not. But, again, knowing the CEO I don’t know what would have placated him.

I know we felt jerked around by the CEO. And it felt that the rest of the company wasn’t too excited about this idea. I don’t actually know why they pulled the plug on the project, and I don’t think anyone else really did either. There was a lot hidden from us. I am pretty sure that this experience influenced me more than I realized at the time.

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Solving Problems & Saving Time through Software and Crushing Entropy. Twitter: @EngineerJohnO

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John Obelenus

John Obelenus

Solving Problems & Saving Time through Software and Crushing Entropy. Twitter: @EngineerJohnO

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