Growing up in software, there has always been an older person to tell me about how they spent half of their careers working in languages like assembler, or COBOL, or FORTRAN. At the time, there were no computer science or computer engineering degrees, so they came into tech through curiosity and usually a traditional engineering degree or physics.
It wasn’t just people I met, there was a whole generation of people working on just a handful of languages. This lead to a whole lot of legacy software and people that could happily make a career by learning one of those languages and working maintenance.
Maybe with the exception of Java, that idea of eventually coasting on a legacy language and product are a thing of the past.
I’m in “interview mode” at the moment. We are looking at a number of candidates, and we are playing “Resume Buzzword Bingo”. I am trying to see if the list of accomplishments and achievements match with “can this person do the job?” For years, I used to go through a set list of questions, areas that I’m familiar with or know very well. Is the candidate technical enough, or experienced enough to “know their stuff”? Some time back, I came to what was, for me, a startling conclusion. These “checklists” for candidates really amount to one thing… “does this person think the way that I do?” Today, I’ll admit my unconscious search for people that thought like I did – how I became aware of it, and what I am doing about it.
Late last year I picked up a copy of The Nature of Software Development and did a review here. It was a nice reminder of what agile is, or at least was at one point in time, really about. Getting bits of software to customers faster than we currently are. Some books make me feel re energized and help to generate lots of ideas, this was one of them. So, like the good employee I was, I brought some of those idea back to work. Some is an understatement, it was more of a shotgun blast.
Nothing really stuck. Most suggestions were flatly ignored, and a few were given a mostly fake attempt.
For a while I thought that my delivery was the problem, and that was probably part of it.
The big mistake was not taking politics into account.
I’ve noticed a few trends over time for companies that consider themselves to be on the leading edge. A while back it was open floor plans, there were a few companies that added novelties like table tennis or beer refrigerator, and now we have policies that claim unlimited paid time off for employees.
On the surface, unlimited PTO seems great. Who wouldn’t want to take off all the time they want? But, there is also something smelly about it that I want to explore for a minute.
Mostly we talk about extrinsic freedom – the freedom to speak, assemble, pray, or write. I do believe that free elections, and the ability to criticize the government and not be put in jail, is a wonderful thing. We don’t enough about intrinsic freedom, the freedom from habits and addictions, nearly enough. One of those habits is the giant monthly cash suck that comes from a mortgage, the heat, water, phone, garbage and electric bills, food clothes and insurance. These things typically force us to get a job. Between the commute, meals, family time, and maintenance of our stuff, Freedom is something limited to the weekends … if we don’t already have a prior commitment.
This is the part of the article where you expect me to talk about lifestyle design, early retirement, or how to run your own business from home selling my super-awesome product. I’m not going to do that to you. Instead, I’d like to talk about what you can do, right now.
But first, let’s talk about what might happen if you win that lottery tomorrow, and have just enough money to never need to work again, starting with the story of someone who did: Philip Greenspun.
The Greenspun Story
Back in the 1990’s Phil Greenspun co-founded Ars Digita, which developed software we would probably call blogging, or a CMS, before it had a name. Ars Digita gave the software away, open source, but, as we’ve seen recently, open source software can take a lot of work. So they gave the software away and charged a premium for services.
By March of 2000, the company had eighty people on staff. At the height of the dotCom bubble, they took on thirty-eight million in venture capital and got a few “grown ups” to run the organization. Timing was bad (the bubble was about to burst) and the grown-ups ran the organizations into the ground. By 2002, Greenspun had been fired by his own investors, the company was a memory, sold to Red Hat, and Greenspun had settled out of court for an undisclosed sum that Wikipedia speculates to be around $7 million.
After the settlement, while Greenspun was not quite rich enough to indulge himself buying super-cruise ships and throwing lavish parties, at least he was rich enough to not need a job anymore. That turned out to be a bit of a problem for him.
Greenspun claims that if you suddenly get enough money to not need to work, you’re be unlikely to develop six-pack abs and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. In fact, in six months, you’d be more likely to have nothing to show for it but an extra ten pounds of weight from too much Doritos and too much binge-watching of Netflix. He should know; after all, he’s been there.
So stop thinking of the day as holding you back. Take your vacation, add in Saturdays, and one hour for each week-night, and three hours for every Saturday and Sunday, for a year – that’s about 500 hours.
You can do a lot with 500 hours of focused effort.
Two More Ways Out
The other way out is to take that time you have to ‘lose’ – the job, the drive, the family and meal time – and stop thinking of it as lost. There are plenty of ways to do this; from 2008-2011 I worked from home, while there were some things I missed, the drive was not one of them. Today I have an occasional drive for business, but find that podcasts, mp3s, and audio CD’s can make time in the car useful. As for family time, I’m trying to get off my phone more and stay more engaged with my family, to be present. If you see me on twitter from about 6PM-8PM Eastern USA on a work day, please, tell me to stop. I’d appreciate it.
So use discretionary time to accomplish real goals, reclaim ‘lost’ time – or stop thinking of it as lost. That’s three options.
We can use the freedom we have – both intrinsic and extrinsic – to make our lives better.
What changes have you made in the last six months year to make your life better? What changes are you going to make in the next one?
9 to 5er is a nasty phrase slung around offices to describe people that aren’t as dedicated to the company or the cause as the person using the term. Usually, it describes a person that comes in and leaves at the times mentioned in the handbook, people that don’t do extra work in the evenings and on the weekend. Basically, people that, if at all possible, leave the office at the office.
I am a proud 9 to 5er, or at least I was before going independent.
Let me tell you why.
There is a special nickname for the founders of Paypal in Silicon Valley; they are called the “Paypal Mafia.” The group came up together, supported each other, and continue to be very successful. Three of the founders, Reid Hoffman, Elon Musk (of SpaceX fame) and Peter Thiel, went on to become billionaires.
Long-time readers know that I am a fan of Thiel’s book, “Zero to One“, on the forces that surround a successful startup, and how creating a new thing, moving from Zero to One, is so different than making a small improvement to an existing business, moving from N to N+1.
This week I was going over the book and noticed something new, or, at least, something I had not taken proper stock of the first time. Theil was writing about a common perception of disruption through technology, the kind of thing we saw when the Microcomputer killed the mainframe, Amazon.com killed Walden Books, and iTunes disrupted music.
The topic is huge, and everywhere, and big business.
And Thiel points out that we are getting it wrong — or, at least, thinking it out it in a way that is less than helpful.
I found myself suddenly skipping back to re-listen to the audio, wanting to ditch the next meeting, pull my car over to the side and let the audio run in park.
This guy had my attention.
As this blog is called “Uncharted Waters”, I feel a little entitled to keep the theme of my Pirate Adventures as part of this post. As some will remember with my last post, I talked about stepping back in time to participate in a weekend Pirate Encampment for the Northern California Pirate Festival. This was an event I’ve been looking forward to for several months, and it was my inaugural “voyage” with the Pirates of the Silver Realm, a re-enactment group centered in Reno, Nevada.
I arrived early Friday morning prepared to do whatever was needed, and participate in whatever capacity they wanted to use me. As the group makes decisions democratically, I told the “Captain” to just point me to whatever needed to be done. One way or another I’d figure it out. During that early morning setup, I met another early-bird attendee, named Jeff, and as we got to talking we both realized we had musical backgrounds. He showed me a guitar he had made that was based on an old Martin Backpacker, but a bit more rustic looking. He also had a hand drum he packed, and as we were talking, I picked up the hand drum and started striking out some rhythms. In the process, I used my fingers to tap and drag along the underside of the drum head. Jeff looked at me a little quizzically, and then smiled. “You are one of the first people I’ve seen pick up that drum and know how to do that!” he said. “Do you know how to play that style of drum? I told him I did, and over the next few minutes, we hatched a plan to add a little something to the encampment.
Over the weekend, I came across this article from someone that recently left Imgur on 21 lessons they learned while in that position. A few things stood out to me.
First was that the author had held the position for less than a year and was a very recent college grad. That was a good reminder of how many lessons fly at you in that first few months at a company, and especially when the environment is all together new to you.
The second thing is only obvious to me after spending so much time looking at new management strategies. The lessons there come form an organization that is using very traditional management techniques.
Lets take a look at how this list might be different with some other management ideas mixed in.
Today will be a day like most others; work commitments, meetings, deployments, testing, commute, family obligations, etc. Tomorrow will be a very different reality. That’s because tomorrow, I will willingly step back in time some three hundred years. Wait, what?
For the past several years, I have been participating in “pirate reenactment”. Yes, you read that right. I love the living history aspect of that time period. With my Welsh and Danish heritage (among several other countries), it’s easy to imagine pirates being part of that. This weekend, I will suit up at the Northern California Pirate Festival, being held in Vallejo, California June 20-21 (one of the largest on the U.S. West Coast). I will be participating with “Pirates of the Silver Realm“, based out of Reno, Nevada.