My First Job

Last week for the first time in my career I was laid off. My role as CTO was eliminated when our parent company made the decision to consolidate key operations and R&D functions. It was very unexpected; I had been in Costa Rica researching nearshore development partners the week before.

So now I am taking a step back and reflecting on my career to figure out where I should go next. What are my most memorable, positive memories from all the jobs I’ve had over the last 19 years? If there’s a pattern it could help guide me towards a role I may not have considered before.

Part One - Russwood

Before graduating from college I worked on the factory floor of Russwood making library furniture. I watched how the supervisors would tweak the location of machines and tools, always trying to optimize the process. Raw materials come in one side of the factory, finished goods go out the other. Getting the flow just right was an art form. After graduating I found myself desperate for work, so my old boss agreed to let me come on to “do some computer stuff.” It would change my life.

I honestly knew very little about computers, but I was hungry and I knew how to use Google. I ran network cable, built computers and file shares, connected the designers using AutoCad directly to the computer controlled CNC router out in the factory, setup security controls and windows domains, and even built a secure wifi network (this was 2001…). I learned all of these things as I went.

During this time I noticed the supervisors coming into the office regularly asking for information about the projects we were building. They would wait patiently while the office manager found the job details in the filing cabinet and then handed them the paperwork, extolling them not to take it out of the office or lose it. Sometimes they did both of those things.

The power of being solution oriented

It struck me that the real opportunity at Russwood wasn’t in re-arranging machines, it was in information management. They didn’t have the money to buy a system like SAP, so I set about learning everything I needed to in order to build one. How hard could it be?

I knew I’d be making lots of rapid changes and I didn’t want to deal with installers, so I decided to make a web application. I learned Macromedia Flash because my users were not computer savvy and would need a GUI they could learn quickly; back then JavaScript was nowhere near able to do that, so Flash was the best choice. I learned PHP and MySQL because they were free and there was lots of online help for both. I knew nothing about databases and very little about programming, but I was determined and a good self-driven learner.

Over the course of a few months I built an order management system that allowed our president to spec out bids for jobs and track those all the way through winning the bid and construction. Everyone in the office used it. It allowed us to capture customizations and even calculated cost increases based on the amount of material needed for those. It linked up with Autocad drawings to make re-using past designs faster and easier.

The springboard of experience

Out of everything I’d learned and done, building that system was the most rewarding and exhilarating. I felt like Harry Potter or Gandalf wielding arcane powers of the universe. Nobody understood what I was doing or how (sometimes not even me) but they all saw the results and the way it made their lives and business so much better. This was the moment that changed my life as I decided that I was going to become a software developer and do that work forever.

Eventually the company president pulled me into his office and let me know it was time to move on. He saw my potential better than I did. By then the company IT was running itself: the order system was complete, and all I was doing most days was changing the backup tapes. I interviewed from the office and found a job with a small software company in Durham. I had my first real job as a developer. Last I talked with him, they were still using the same order management tool I built, fifteen years later.