Scripps Networks Interactive – 2013

I talked to a variety of companies after Spawn sputtered out. Most of them were unforgettable phone screens, after which about half of them ghosted me. That’s the way it goes.

I did get called by a recruiter. She had a Release Engineer position in Knoxville, TN. My mother-in-law lives in Kentucky, and having my family closer to her would have been great. So I requested more information.

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They did not mention Discovery network in 2013. Did they acquire them later?

Here is what the blurb said about the company:

Scripps Networks Interactive is one of the leading developers of lifestyle-oriented content for television and the Internet, where on-air programming is complemented with online video, social media areas and e-commerce components on companion Web sites and broadband vertical channels. The company’s media portfolio includes Lifestyle Media, which is comprised of popular lifestyle television and Internet brands HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, DIY Network, country music network Great American Country, and the Fine Living Network, soon to be rebranded as the Cooking Channel; and Interactive Services, with leading online search and comparison shopping services BizRate, Shopzilla and beso.

So, if they relocated our family, would we have to do House Hunters?

Anyway, the job was a typical release engineering position for the time. Lots of building automated infrastructure for builds, moving to continuous integration. Not exactly what I was looking for (I wanted to code), but it would be better than nothing.

However, after I discussed this with my family, we decided the only way I would take this job would be if they paid really well.

I did not take the job.

 

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21st Century Technologies – 2013

Whiteboard Diagram
This was a good conceptual overview. Aren’t you enlightened?

Spawn was much more ambitious than I originally thought. In building a streaming game service, we were building:

  • A board with 4 CPUs on it. This was divided into two groups of two, consisting of:
    • An embedded Windows computer (Application Program Unit) – This computer actually ran the game itself
    • An embedded Linux Computer (MPU – don’t remember what ‘M’ stood for) – This computer controlled all input and output of the Windows machine, as well as its network stack. It handled messaging from the Internet, simulated a game controller, etc.
  • A cabinet with 20 of these boards
    • Handled the network routing of the 40 computers inside
    • A server farm in the data center to provide disk space to hold the games themselves and the users’ home directories for saving games.
  • A Windows application which would connect to our service. The user would plug a game controller into the computer, and the application would translated that into network commands that would talk to an MPU. It would also have an interface to selecting games.
  • A Mac application (never got started) to connect.
  • An Android Java application that could connect directly to our service.
  • A game stick (like a Roku, Firestick, or Chromecast). This device would plug directly into the TV’s HDMI port, and use USB for power (and for diagnostics or software updates). It had buildin WiFi and Bluetooth stacks for controllers to connect to.
  • A remote control for the initial setup of the game stick.
  • A custom game controller designed for connecting to our game stick via WiFi or Bluetooth.

We wanted to build out 5 data centers in North America, with more around the world as we grew.

When I got there, the first prototypes of everything were being developed. I was QA and Release Manager, but had no staff, so the first thing I worked on was building all of this software. I had to learn how we built:

  • A Windows application (easy)
  • Software for the MPU (embedded Linux)
  • Software for the game stick (Building an Android OS)
  • An Android application
  • Software for the remote control

Building for the Game Stick was the hardest to build, and I actually had to learn how to debug the Linux Android kernel on the device itself to figure out what our build problems were (1).

It was bold. It was ambitious. It was expensive.

I started in September, and by January things appeared to be coming together. And then… our chief embedded engineer left. And other people were starting to leave. My boss cancelled my weekly one-on-one, and never bothered to reschedule it.

A few weeks later, he quit, announcing that he was moving his family to Hollywood so he could help his daughter’s acting/modeling career.

It was obvious we were in disarray. About that time, the General Manager called me in to his office, and told me, “I can’t promise you that you will have a job going forward. If I were you, I would polish your resume, and start looking. I would be happy to be a reference, and I am fighting to keep us going. But I have to be realistic.”

Huh. Well, that sucked.

About a week later, he announced that Game Stop, our parent company, had given us a deadline. We had to show whatever we had in June.

And that team pulled together. Everybody worked hard on building a tiny data center with one board (two nodes) that could play from a catalog of two games. We hand-built two game sticks, and got two controllers to work with them. I was left with not much to do because we were in demo/hacking mode, but the last week leading up to the demo, I tested the hell out of the system. It worked great, and I got to play Borderlands 2 for a while. While we were putting this together, though, we were informed that our lease was running out, and the last day in the office that we had been at was going to be Demo Day.

On that day, our execs went up to Game Stop headquarters in Dallas, while the rest of us waited to tackle any fires that came up.

The demo went flawlessly. None of the Game Stop execs could believe it. They took the game sticks from office to office, plugged them in, and played games. They could not make the system fail. The saved game worked flawlessly. The video was good. The audio was good. There was no perceptible lag. It could not have gone better.

This was not expected. They honestly thought we were going to fail, and from what I understood, had been ready to lay us off the next week. But evidently, there was some sort of contractual thing with this demo, and they had to keep at least the management of Spawn around because we delivered on our promises.

When asked if we could start the next phase, which was to actually build a real data center in Dallas for a “regional beta”, they told us that we were going to be delayed; Game Stop had to deal with the rollout of both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and that they did not have the capital to build out a hundred-million-dollar data center.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, as soon as the demo was over, everybody packed everything up. The IT people were up for almost three days; they got everything done in time for the trucks to move all of it to the new office on Sunday.

When we got to the new office on Monday, nothing was up at all. We all started helping the IT people start to build out the network and the internal infrastructure, but there was only so much the rest of us could do. Once there was WiFi, I was there to help with lifting and sorting cables, but the rest of the time, I had nothing to do at all.

And that did not change. Game Stop started trying to shop us around to other companies, but I don’t think the world was quite ready for us. Google Stadia was years away, and Game Stop was worried that Steam was going to start streaming games. Nobody bit.

I still continued to go to the office, but there was no work to do at all. So I spent my time learning more about programming for IOS. Was very productive! But I had to start looking for jobs.

I don’t know how the initial contact happened for 21CT, but I got a job listing for a Technical Lead in my email. It looked much more like a Project Manager position than anything else. I did a phone screen (nothing remarkable there). After the phone screen, they called to setup a day of interviewing. Looking good…

… and the day before the interview, they got in touch via email and told me that they had had a restructuring, and that the position was no longer open.

I’ve heard that before. Sigh.


(1)Basically, the 3rd party developer left instructions on how to patch the software, build it, and deploy it. But I wanted to put the finished source code after patching into source control. We did not have access to the source code of the video driver we were using, which is annoying. When I built the system via patching, it booted fine. But when I put in source control, it crashed on launch. Turns out, the video driver was built with a source code control set of source that was modified. When I build the Linux kernel with patches, it was also built with source that was modified. When I pushed into source control, it was not, and the kernel refused to load drivers that were built from modified source if it itself was built with unmodified source.

Zilker Hillside Theater – 2012

I don’t normally talk about my work as a part-time musician, and it normally can be treated just as a hobby.

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If you live in Austin, you should go to these. Of course, it is hot, and there are bugs, and parking sucks. But the show is fantastic every year.

In March, I got contacted to play clarinet and bassoon in Zilker Hillside Theater‘s production of Sound of Music. The productions run six weeks, the last half of summer before the school year starts again. There are shows Thursday-Sunday evenings starting at sunset. The seats are the hillside looking at the stage, which is across the parking lot from Barton Springs Pool. It’s usually hot, but being staged mostly in the dark helps a lot.

Best thing is, it pays. Oh, not a huge amount, but fairly well for music.

After I accepted the show, I got laid off from Coverity, and had done a consulting gig, but that wrapped up just as the show was starting. That meant I actually had time to practice, which, considering I am not world’s best bassoon player, was great!

The show wrapped up as I was finishing interviews with Texas Windstorm Insurance and Spawn Labs. Since unemployment was almost useless, and my new job at Spawn wasn’t going to pay for a while, I found myself with the beginning of the month approaching, and not enough funds to pay the mortgage.

And then I got my $1600 check from Zilker. Hallelujah! It was the only time as an adult that my music habit supported me and my family. Without that gig, our mortgage payment would have been late for the only time in my life.

I played the 2013 show, also, and spot subbed a couple of other times, but there are different directors now so I don’t get called anymore. But Zilker sure saved us in 2012!

Texas Workforce Commission – 2012

So you want unemployment in Texas.

First of all, does your previous employer owe you unemployment? Coverity did since they laid me off, which was technically a reorganization. They did not fire me for cause. Rock Systems was a contract that had ended, and did not affect my eligibility at all.

So then, you apply. By 2012, it was all online; I did not have to go to downtown Austin and sit in line and talk to bureaucrats.

You have to document that you are searching for jobs. You have to write down activity related to searching for jobs, document when you apply, and every step of the interview process. You have to have a certain number of activities/week. I did that.

After one week, I got paid the small amount on Tuesday. Believe me, it helped.

The second week, I got two offers and accepted one. I turned in all of my activity.

And Tuesday came and went and there was no payment.

I called them. Turns out, if you turn in Week 3, you get paid for both Weeks 2 and 3 in Week 4. But I was not eligible anymore in Week 3. So I lose. No second payment for me.

Stupid Texas.

Spawn Labs – 2012

In my article about Noesis, I mentioned that they had turned me down, but they forwarded an email to me from another recruiter. Turns out, she had already contacted me!

Hi,

I recently viewed your profile on linked in and I thought you might find this position interesting.

The position is a QA and Release Manager in NW Austin. The company is developing a complex set of platforms that deliver ultra high speed applications to allow consumers to connect with gaming applications from multiple devices. This includes, Cloud, Web and appliance based environments. The company is established and well funded with a small technology team of about 20 people here in Austin. As the QA Manager you’ll be a hands-on leader setting the stage for the quality of all software and services that support multiple technology platforms. We’re looking for someone who has deep technical skills and the experience to be an individual contributor while building the organization and infrastructure.

If you are interested, please e-mail me or call me. You can also send me an updated resume and your salary requirements if you would like. If you are not interested, if you know anyone who might be qualified, I would appreciate the referral.

This looked great for a non-developer position. It wasn’t just QA; it looked like I would be building a QA/Release team. Cloud stuff. Lots of software. Games. I wrote back, expressing interest.

She called me. I was actually on vacation at my mother-in-law’s in Kentucky, and that day I had driven her car to Louisville from the small town to get it serviced, and had the courtesy driver take me to the mall. I was hanging out working on personal projects when she called.

We talked about what they were offering. They were trying to setup a streaming video game service. You would plug a stick into the HDMI port of your TV, and your game controller talked to it. The service would provide disk space for saved games and the like. The plan was to build a multi-city set of data centers to have thousands of gamers playing at the same time. Or you could connect using an application of Mac or Windows.

This was cool.

So they setup a phone screen. Which, honestly, I don’t remember much about. I talked with my hiring manager. He probed my resume. We talked about Spawn. At the end, he decided I needed to come out when I got back from my vacation.

I talked with four people at my onsite interview besides the hiring manager. I talked to a developer who started in QA, one of the chief architects, a customer service person, and another engineering manager. The first person was really having trouble containing his excitement as he asked me questions, and I would either answer them, or I would present further questions. Our time ran out, and I don’t think he was nearly done.

The other interview I remember was the support person. He asked me how I would design this system. I drew some stuff on the white board. At some point, he asked about why I did something or other, and I answered that it would be too slow. He asked why. I told him because computer network performance was limited by distance. And he asked why.

“Because they are limited by the speed of light.”

He smiled, and said, “Yep.”

He then asked me if I had any questions. I did not.


After a few days, the hiring manager called me with an offer. The only hesitation: Spawn Labs was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Game Stop. And Game Stop at the time did not provide healthcare for anybody, including exempt employees, until they had been at the company three full months (from the 1st day of the month until the last day of the month). So I would still have COBRA for four more months.

I said, Yes.

About an hour later, Texas Windstorm Insurance made their offer. It did not have that 3 month window at the beginning, but was a lower salary with no bonus or employee stock plan. I turned them down.

Now I just had to survive until my next paycheck… several weeks away…