I’m Old, Part XXXIII: Oh Belgium!

I’m old. Like it says on the box. As such, I’ve shipped products written in Assembly language, C, C++, Java, C#, and F#. I know far more languages than this, but these are the ones for which product has made it into customer’s hands. As a software pro, it helps to be language agnostic, or at least to hate every language equally. I’ve also given presentations on things that I’ve done in most of those languages.

I enjoy giving presentations, which you might think is odd given that I’m fundamentally introverted, but I do like the performance aspect of it. I’ve also performed as an amateur and paid musician, so clearly the two qualities can co-exist.

A few years ago, when I was at Atalasoft, we had just been snapped up by Kofax and our corporate overlords decided that we needed to increase sales and the way to do that was to increase the breadth of our market share and sell to Java developers in addition to .NET developers. I spent the better part of 8 months porting a large subset of our code from C# to Java and a big chunk of that was the PDF toolkit I had created.

As part of the push, Eric Deutchman (our marketing guy) got a booth and a speaking slot at a Devoxx conference in Belgium. I put together a talk for that, grabbed my passport and met our Euro salesperson Marco Voegle in Frankfurt and he drove us to Belgium.  The talk has finally been let out of the paywall and is on YouTube:

Excuse the naked guy who looks like he just slammed his junk in his laptop. The slogan for the conference was “BORN TO BE” which I still don’t understand, but the naked guy was everywhere.

At any rate, I hadn’t seen the video in 3 years and in terms of quality of talk, it’s not bad. I went too fast – certainly faster than I did in practicing, but I don’t think it was too obvious.

It was tricky shilling a product that was still 4 months out from release and not letting on that it was a port from C#, but so be it.

What I remember from the conference was that the event was co-located in a multiplex cinema and that the WiFi they had set up was constantly overwhelmed with geeks trying to get a signal. There was also the unfortunate day when everything in lunch was served with corn, which I can’t eat without getting bad cramps, so I had to beg the caterer for something without corn. He got me some waffles and I was on a sugar rush the rest of the day.

I also met Steve Chaloner, a Java programmer, when one evening at the conference he walked by with two beers instead of the requisite one. As he walked within range, I thanked him for bringing Marco and I beer. He looked confused, but gave us the beer and turned around and got two more. I think we ended up talking for 45 minutes about geeky stuff.

Generally speaking, I think that communication skills are a very important aspect of being a well-rounded software engineer. There aren’t many areas where you can work entirely solo. Eventually, you have to collaborate and therein lies the opportunity for communication. At Atalasoft, we frequently did lunchtime tech talks as well as meeting presentations, which were opportunities to teach, to learn new material, to learn public speaking, and to see each other in greater depth. All of that makes for a stronger team and stronger individuals.

I’m Old, Part XXXII: How to Affect Corporate Culture

At one point, when I was working at Atalasoft, the CEO, Bill Bither, had brought in a corporate consultant to help figure out how to grow the company and take us to the next level. It was the right thing to do under the circumstances. The consultant met with the executive team and spent time talking to us to find out who we were and what we did to contribute to the company.

When he was scheduled to talk to me, I was in the middle of a sticky problem around something PDF related. This is no surprise as this was a pretty much any given day of my time there. When I spoke with the consultant, I remember being somewhat agitated because I really wanted to go back and solve that dang problem. The consultant lit up and exclaimed, “you’re the squirrel!” WTF? He explained that the squirrel is the employee who wants nothing more than to gather nuts for the winter and if he’s prevented from gathering nuts, he gets really annoyed.

So yes, I agree, I’m the squirrel. But also, when I’m working at a company that I really like, I want to ensure that the bullshit level is as low as possible and that as much friction as possible is removed from the work environment so it’s easier to collect nu…err get things done.

When I was at Newfire, I was working on a high performance 3D engine with a relatively small number of very sharp engineers. Frequently, we adopted the standard standard 3D gesture in order to help visualize problems:

In this pose, your thumb, fore and middle fingers represent the x, y , and z axes. It works, but it has its limitations. In my first week, I was a a lot of conversations involving this pose and a lot of vague hand-waving. I took a brief excursion out to a toy store and came back with a large pack of Tinker Toys and went from office to office giving out pieces. Engineers put them together into axes and into vectors and so on.

Similarly, when I started there, I was given pieces of a computer. My manager had the belief that engineers should set up their workstations and work areas by themselves to their own taste. Newfire had a toolbox, but it had been scattered across the office and tracking down the one Phillips screwdriver that was needed for a PC was maddening. I brought in my own tools in the short term and refused to lend them out unless they came back within an hour.

I spoke to our office manager and had her order a case of small tool kits and I handed them out to every employee, saying “and don’t you ever ask me for a screwdriver again.” I also personally gave them to every new hire.

One of our hires, Tony Haag, was tickled because the toolkit included a tool for picking up screws especially in tight clearance areas. He loved that it looked like the tool for removing the neural implants in Total Recall.

This was equally unexpected and entertaining.

Still, the point is that when there are issues in your office, you can sit back and suffer or complain or you can step up and find a way to make things better. And this is where the squirrel in me takes over because if things if I can fix a problem, damn skippy I will. If I can’t fix a problem or there are things afoot to actively preventing me from solving that problem, well that’s a litmus test to consider updating your resume.

And that was one of the things that I liked from most of my 10 years at Atalasoft: nearly every day when I came in, I knew I could make it a better place, even if it was in a small way.