.com headhunter – 1999

Ah, yes, those heady days of the .com boom.

I got an email:

Subject: Your Headhunter has arrived…

Currently, we are staffing many of Silicon Valley’s start-up companies including Jim Clark’s latest venture, as well as established public companies such as Nokia and Network Appliance.

I wanted to get in touch, introduce myself and learn a little more about your sphere, focus and goals.

If you aren’t in ‘search mode’ at this time, that is fine.  My purpose is more to open a dialog and keep you on top of what is going on outside of your present situation.

Please contact me at your convenience, so I can share the details of these opportunities, if not for yourself possibly for someone you know.

Thank you for your time,

and gave me her name, email, recruiting company name, and phone number.

I wrote back asking who Jim Clark was:

Jim Clark’s start-up is going to be providing financial services over the
Internet. Everything from Director of MIS to UI / Web / DB developers is needed at
this point. More specific, there is a need for a SR Languages/compiler/tools developer.

In addition to this company, quite a few of my other clients (other start-ups as well as public companies) would be interested in speaking with you. Please give me a call or shoot me an email with a good time and place for me to contact you.   Then we can discuss the details of these opportunities in more detail.

I wrote her back asking about management jobs, and she indicated that there might be manager jobs out there.

Here is a list of companies she was working with:

www.healtheon.com – redirects to webmd
www.justliketv.com – website still up with copyright date of 2009
www.liberate.com – redirects to liberatehealth.com, which hawks an app. There is a video on the bad home page with 2014 in the date.
www.netapps.com – I think this is a typo for netapp.com, which she mentioned above. NetApp is still a going concern.
www.iprg.nokia.com – This site is gone. nokia.com works. However, since Microsoft bought them and gutted them…
www.pacoffee.com – “Undergoing maintenance; be back soon”
www.pluris.com – some kind of financial firm. Possibly Jim Clark’s.
www.tivo.com – well, they are still here, but they are not what they used to be.
www.veritas.com – still going strong
www.yodlee.com – apparently owned by edvestnet, whomever they are. Appear to still be breathing.
www.tumbleweed.com – acquired by a company called Axway in 2008. Not really sure what the products are.
www.asctivesw.com – D-E-D dead
www.whowhere.com – They actually formed in 1996, and are still active. The copyright notice says “© Lycos”, so they got acquired at some point.
www.arasys.com – “who has changed there(sic) name to @motion.” – The domain is for sale.

I’m actually reasonably impressed at how many of these companies survived what was coming in the next year or two. She had a good instinct.

We never reached a point where any of these companies interviewed me, but it is an interesting window to the frenzy that was happening during that time.

She did send me one job description, which I will talk about in a future post.

 

Advertisements

eGreetings – 1999

1999 was going to be a strange year.

Two good friends of mine worked at a startup called eGreetings.com. Both of them asked me if I might be interested in interviewing there.

My job at Cygnus was going fine, actually, although I was worried that the product that I was leading a team for was not selling particularly well. It was also still true that there was a big divide between our team and the rest of the company, because our product was not Open Source. I was making more friends within the company, but it was tough.

Early in 1999, Cygnus closed one of our engineering offices, and a few people that I knew in that office were laid off. They were hired back as remote engineers in a couple of months, but the whole thing was strange. So I was keeping my options open.

eGreetings was doing electronic greeting cards. You bought a card, you gave an email address for the recipient, the recipient would get the email, click on the link, and you would see an electronic card, sometimes with music. Not sure if there were little videos yet, as I don’t think Flash Player was around yet.

Anyway, one of my friends invited me to go to a party with her eGreetings friends over Presidents’ Day weekend, on that Sunday. Oh, yeah, and that was Valentine’s Day. And they all worked at an electronic greeting card company…

As the evening wore on, more and more of them disappeared into a back room, where the hostess was furiously typing away. eGreetings.com was melting down under the incredible crush of traffic because it was Valentine’s Day. Eventually, most of the people at the party were in that room trying to help, or had left to go to the office. After playing Settlers of Catan with the two or three people that did not work at eGreetings, I took my leave.

About a week later, the friend who took me to the party, and another good friend of mine, independently asked whether or not I would be interested in working there. I told them both I would interview.

I was contacted by an internal recruiter, and we set up a time on a Monday for me to talk. I would be talking to 3 engineers and the VP of Engineering starting at 10:00.

I made my way up to San Francisco and figured out where to park near 2nd and Bryant (I did not know that part of the City at all). Got the office precisely at 10:00, where the receptionist stared at me blankly, and said, “Nobody told me you were interviewing here today. Who is first on your schedule?”

“I don’t know. All I have is this email from _____ _______ telling me to be here.”

“Well, we let him go on Friday.”

“Oh. Well, I guess I had better talk to my friends and we can see if we can get this rescheduled.”

“Hang on a minute, please. Who are your friends?”

I told her. She called the one in the office.

“Hey, what are you doing here?”

“I thought I was interviewing.”

“What‽ Who are you supposed to talk to?”

“I don’t know. The apparently-now-fired recruiter said I was talking to three engineers and the VP.”

He took me to the kitchen area of the office. “Help yourself to any of the food or drink here. I need to make some phone calls…”

I availed myself to a Dr. Pepper. And waited. No smart phone, so I just had to watch people come and go. My other friend saw me. “Hey! What are you doing here?”

I explained.

“But he is taking care of it?”, referring to my other friend.

“Apparently.”

“OK, but I’ll check back with you in 30-45 minutes. At the very least, maybe we can go get an early lunch.”

After another 15 minutes, my other friend came back and sat down. “The VP was at a big conference down the street at Moscone, but the keynote is over, and he is on his way back. He definitely wants to talk to you. Can you wait?”

“I had the entire morning blocked out, so I’m good.”

We gossiped about our friends, and about how the number of companies was exploding. A lot of our friends were going to startups. “But we have been around for more than a year, so we have a head start.”

“Mind if I ask you a question? What are you doing to prevent another Valentine’s Day meltdown?”

He talked about how they were having to scale both their webservers and the database and the email servers, and about how they were having to throw out some of their technology, and…

“Hi! I’m the VP of Engineering!”

A large man interrupted our conversation, and thrust his hand, out and we tried to break each other’s hands, shaking them. “Come to my office, and let’s talk.”

My friend waved bye.


The VP had a table for a desk, a fancy Aeron chair (not yet de rigueur in Silicon Valley), and a futon. I sat on the futon. He was open to the idea of having a manager, as he was realizing that he had too many direct reports.

“I can either manage the work, or manage their careers, but not both!”

We also talked about the scaling problems I had witnessed a few weeks earlier, and he stated that he needed QA, but he needed QA that could work with systems and fix them (A few years later, Google formalized this kind of role, called a Site Reliability Engineer)

We talked about schedule of going public (no promises, of course, but it should be BIG!)

At the end of our conversation, he said,

“Look. I think I am interested in hiring a manager. I don’t think you have enough managerial experience for what I have in mind. If you want to interview as a software engineer, both of your friends recommend you strongly, and I think that might be a better fit.”

I was still burned out as a programmer. And learning C++ and perl and the technology that was going to “replace” this as part of overhauling the site did not sound fun.

“I think that a shrewd assessment of my management skills. I appreciate your time, but I don’t think I’ll go back to programming.”

(Not the first time I said I was given the choice to go back to programming, but probably the only time I regret not jumping at the opportunity to going back to it!)

“Well, thanks for coming in. I am really, really sorry about the mixup. That recruiter had been doing all kinds of stuff, so the fact that he never actually told us you were coming in is not a surprise.”


A couple of postscripts:

  • My friends were both quite disappointed. One of them got me a job later, and the other has been recruiting me every company she went to work for after that.
  • eGreetings eventually sold out to American Greetings. They did go public, but sold out later. (Note: I originally said in this post that they did not go public. I remembered wrong.)

Coda Music – 1998

I got a phone call.

“Hi. I am the Software Engineering Manager from Coda Music. Do you have a few minutes?”

I did.

“You mailed us your resume some time ago, and by the time it got here, we had filled that position. But we liked your resume, and kept it on file. We have another position open, and I would like to talk to you about it.”

It was the principal engineer for Finale, which I talked about in a previous post. This is the software I most wanted to work on in all of the software I had seen to date. It was both Mac and Windows, which suited my experience as a programmer. I also used it to do my arranging projects (and what little composing I did).

We had a great conversation. She loved the fact that I made a custom resume that listed my music preparation/arranging/theory experience, as well as my programming experience. She did not really probe me technically.

Near the end of the call, she asked, “Do you have any questions for me?”

“Yes. What do you play?”

“Excuse me?”

“I assume everybody at Coda Music is involved with music in some way outside of work. So I am curious as to what you do.”

“Oh. Well, I play violin and some viola. I am in one community orchestra, one chamber orchestra, and I play with an old-time band and do ‘fiddlin”. What do you do with music?”

“I play jazz saxophone and all of the non-double-reed woodwinds. I’m in a jazz band, and a professional-level wind ensemble, and I play a lot of musicals.”

She sounded excited. “We have a shortage of woodwind players in the Twin Cities area! There are a lot of string players, and a lot of music to do, but we are always trying to find people to play flute or clarinet. Plus, there are plenty of musicals.”

That was all the questions I had.

“So, based on this conversation, I would like to fly you out to interview with the rest of the team.”

“Well, I have to tell you. I have been a technical lead for less than a year, and there is a good chance I will be made manager soon. I bought a house here in February, and while the Bay Area real estate market is always hot, it might take some time to sell.”

“Let’s discuss all of that if we decide to make you an offer. All of that is just a negotiation if we get that far.”

“OK”

“I’m going to forward your information to our travel agency…” and she got days 2-3 weeks out that worked for me.

And then Northwest Airlines went on strike. Why is that relevant? Well, their main hubs were in Memphis and Minneapolis. And all of the flights not on Northwest sold out almost instantaneously.

After 3 weeks, she called me back and let me know that they were having trouble finding flights for me.

After 6 weeks, she called again:

“Well, I am afraid we are not considering you for this position anymore.”

“Oh?”

“We found somebody local. Their Mac experience is not as strong as yours, but he is a fine engineer, and will be a good addition to our team.”

“Congratulations! I am looking forward to Finale’s continued success as a long-time customer.”

“Are you disappointed?”

“Well, yes, a little. But it would be a major disruption in my life. And I know that Coda will never have the equity or bonus potential of a Silicon Valley company, and that there are very few other tech jobs in the Twin Cities area.”

“Both of those are true statements.”

“And last time I lived in a place with snow, I was 10 years old in Lubbock, TX. It only has a few storms a year, and snow on the ground for maybe 3-4 weeks/year. It would be really hard for me to deal with snow for months on end.”

“Well, it sounds like it wasn’t meant to be!”

“No, I don’t think it was.”

We said our good byes.

A few years later, when I was working with Xcode and Developer Tools at Apple, I met the guy they hired at the Apple World Wide Developer’s Conference. Nice guy. Sharp. And Finale keeps getting better.

Would have been fun to work on, though.

Reality Check – 1998

I was in the throes of the new job at Cygnus, where I had been for two months, when I found out about two events:

1. My team at Sun was broken up. The manager took a few of them with him as he founded Scriptics, which was later changed to Ajuba and acquired by Interwoven. The rest of the Tcl team had 3 months to find another job within Sun, or they would be laid off.

2. Claris was renamed to FileMaker, Inc. All of the non-FileMaker personnel were let go. Some of the products, like ClarisWorks, were brought into Apple (ClarisWorks was renamed to AppleWorks, not causing any confusion whatsoever). A lot of my friends no longer had jobs; most of my FileMaker friends did have jobs, but they were shell-shocked. Steve Jobs had a closed door meeting with them, and evidently, forced people to not take notes about it. At least some of the hurdles of being a subsidiary of Apple were worked out; FileMaker badges would open Apple buildings from that point forward, for example. But still. Lots of people without work; lots of survivor’s guilt.

This all happened in a 10-day period. It hit me hard emotionally initially, but not as hard as my friends affected at Sun and Claris. But at the end of the day, Cygnus was pretty great, and I was grateful to have that job!

 

 

Cygnus Solutions – 1997

Cygnus Source-Navigator 4.0

 

I had a message on my answering machine at home:

Hello. My name is _____ _______, and represent ______ Staffing. I got your name from my network of contacts. My client has a position for a senior software engineering position, with background in C and Tcl. I am hoping that I can talk to you about it. Please give me a call as soon as you can.

So, the next morning I left a message for her, giving her my work number (why did I wait so long to get a cell phone again?). She called me back right around lunch time. Since I had an office with a door at Sun, I could talk without worrying.

“The client is hiring a team to take over a product that they acquired from another company. They need somebody technically strong to take a technical lead role, and potentially run the team as a manager.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“Could we meet for a cup of coffee this weekend, and we can discuss the issue?”

We agreed to meet at Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park (Clint Baker’s New Orleans Jazz Band still plays there on Friday nights!) on a brisk fall Saturday afternoon. I told her to look out for my Rice sweatshirt.

After we went through the line, and she bought us light refreshments, she got down the business.

The woman knew her stuff.

She grilled me on differing aspects of C and the different C standards. She asked me what the major differences between K&R C (the original book) and ANSI C. She asked me about sizes of differing data types. She asked me about ABI layout of integers on Power PC vs. Intel x86.

And then she asked reasonable high-level questions about Tcl/Tk. She also dug into my FileMaker experience, asking me what features I worked on, and high-level questions about how they were implemented.

At the end of this grilling (from a recruiter!), she told me she would advocate for me to the company. She needed references. And either she or somebody from Cygnus would be in touch soon.

She called me Tuesday. Told me that one of my references was not helpful; did I have another? And that Cygnus was definitely going to call.


 

I got a call on Thursday. The manager of the project I was on was hiring a bunch of people for this new team. The existing engineers were in Dortmund, Germany, so there might need to be travel. Was that OK? He asked about the QA cycle on FileMaker, and how we did release planning on FileMaker. Said he needed that kind of experience on this product. And he said that somebody would be scheduling technical interviews by email.

The next week, I showed up at Cygnus for technical interviews. I think that there were five sessions. The first one was with the hiring manager, and we talked more about the release process. He was not a programmer, and if I were hired, would leave the day-to-day engineering tasks to me and the team to work out.

I only remember two other sessions from that day, although I know I had more. One of them, an older gentleman asked me to reverse a linked-list in place on the whiteboard with a marker. My first whiteboard interview ever.

I got up there and drew boxes with arrows until I figured out how it worked, and then I wrote out the code. Tested it with the relevant cases, and handed the marker back to him. He sat there, staring at the board for about 3 minutes, went up to the board, and worked through my code himself, all without saying a word.

He turned to look at me. “This is very good.”

“Oh, thank you”

“You are the first person I have seen get it right.”

What I did not say but really wanted to was “Well, who are you hiring, then?!?” What I did say was,

“Well, I’m glad.”

We had about 15 minutes left for our session, and he had nothing else to say, so he took me to the snack bar area, let me use the restroom and get a Dr. Pepper, and then took me to the next room.

This room had two engineers. They introduced themselves. Turns out, I had corresponded with one of them when he had worked on the compiler team at Metrowerks when I was porting FileMaker to Metrowerks Pascal.

After some nice banter, the other said:

“So, I am going to ask you the most important question of this interview: emacs or vi?”

They thought that they were being clever. They were used to interviewing compiler and debugger engineers, since, before they acquired Source-Navigator, the product I was going to be working on, that’s all Cygnus ever did. Not only that, they were working with GCC and GDB, which were both open source, and most of the development for them was done on UNIX operating systems. Most programmers who worked on UNIX did not really embrace graphical user interfaces, such as Mac, or Windows, and indeed, thought that if you cared about open source, you would never buy Mac or Windows because they were closed source products, and by definition, the enemy. (After a few months, I was talking to one Cygnus engineer, and asked him whether he thought graphical user interfaces were useful. He thought a minute, sneered, and said, “Well, maybe for secretaries!” He was not alone in that attitude in the UNIX world.)

And if you did not use GUIs for development, your choices for actually editing your source code came down to vi, which was lightweight, and somewhat extensible (at the time; vim (modern vi) is much better), and emacs, which was anything but lightweight, but had it’s own builtin programming language, so it was infinitely customizable.

I said, “Neither”. That was not the answer they were expecting; they both looked surprised. I explained it to them.

When I first started programming in college, the Rice CS department put emacs on the VAX machines we were working on. They also “helped” us by customizing the default emacs environment to put most of the heavily used commands on the function keys and keypad keys on the Visual 210 terminals that were connected to the VAXen. That’s the emacs I learned.

I then went to work on the Apple II, Mac, and Windows for 10 years. I had to learn at least 5 different editors during that span to get my work done. There was no emacs or vi. I preferred GUI editors that had menus where I could at least see most of what was available if I looked hard enough.

We did have a Sun 360 at Claris that was used as our Usenet news server, and our email relay to the outside world. The engineer in charge of that machine refused to put emacs on it, because he would rather use the disk space and memory for Usenet news. There was, however, vi. So I learned basic vi commands.

I then said, “So, if you force me to choose an editor, I would choose Visual Studio”.

They were very confused.


 

The manager called me the morning after the interview, and said that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. However, he said:

“Listen, I am putting together a team from scratch here, hiring 3 of you at once. Would you do me a favor, and participate in interviewing each other before we extend offers to any of you?”

“Sure”

This was interesting.

So, that Friday, I went back to the Cygnus office, and interviewed (and was interviewed by) an engineer, and a documentation writer. The engineer and I got along, but I thought long and hard about what to ask the writer. When the time came, I asked her:

“What is your favorite style guide, and why?”

She looked at me, quite surprised at the question.

“You know about style guides?”

“Well, my mother is an editor. I have taken writing courses before. And my teachers all insisted that we followed whatever their favorite guide was.”

So, she told me the she used the Chicago Manual of Style, and gave me several reasons why. I also asked to see a writing sample, and she pulled a manual she had written for a software company out of her bag. I was a little concerned that it was for a consumer product, not a product for software developers, like what we would be working on, so I probed her knowledge of what a compiler was, and what code looked like. She could not code, but she understood basic concepts.

We all got the job. We joined the two engineers in Germany (one was Hungarian, and one was Palestinian; we had a strange team). Found out a few weeks later that we also had an Australian in Canberra (my boss had neglected to tell me about him).

We managed to integrate ourselves into Cygnus eventually, despite being the first closed-source product in the company. The culture was pretty hostile at first, but eventually, it turned into a great job.

Sun Microsystems Laboratories – 1997

I worked on the Tcl/Tk team at Sun. I spent most of my time working on Mac and Windows, but also worked a little on the SPARC on Solaris. One of the senior guys was working on the new execution engine. Instead of parsing the commands as strings all of the time, the new engine create what is called “byte codes”, cached them with the command, and the executed the byte codes.

I helped several times find difficult crashing bugs in the execution engine. There were memory bugs, alignment bugs, and the normal kind of awfulness that goes with a big pile of C code.

That friend talked to one of his friends in the Boston office of Sun Labs who worked on the Java Virtual Machine, which is the actual program that runs that itself runs Java code.

That person called me one day.

“Hello?”

“Hello. You don’t know me, but your teammate (Bob) gave me your number. He said you were really good at debugging low-level code.”

“That was nice of him to say!”

“I work in the Labs here in Boston, doing research on the Java Virtual Machine. I wanted to reach out and see if there were any interest on your part in maybe working on this team?”

“You are in Boston? Could I stay in Mountain View?”

“Well, that’s not our first choice. But we can cross that bridge if it comes to it.”

“OK. What is the next step?”

“Could you shoot me a resume, and I will talk to people here.”

“OK”

So, I did.

He sent me an email about 4 weeks later, saying that they were still interested, but hiring had been frozen, so he could not do anything right now.

That happens a lot. It’s either a fib, helping me feel better about being turned down. Or getting approval for hires is really hard. Or both.

It was OK, though. During that four week wait, something else came up….