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