Rumors of my demise...

by Thomas Brady in


How are you doing?

No, I'm not changing the subject… YOU'RE evading the question!!

Okay, yes, it's been quite some time since I posted here, and, heh, my last post wasn't my finest work (NEWS FLASH: Macbook and iPad Pro are two… make that three different products!). So, why the long-time-no-post? Well, several reasons, really.

Courage

Just kidding.

But I did make this yesterday:

Love ya, Schiller, but...

Love ya, Schiller, but...

Humility

Okay, not joking around this time. As I think you'll see in the rest of this post, I've had some time to do some serious thinking. Some deep-diving self-evaluation. Some honest consideration of what I'm doing with my life, the people with whom I'm surrounding myself, and the ways I'm investing my most precious resource: my time.

Part of what shook out of all of that thinking was the realization that, more times than not, my "hot-take," (a phrase that had time to be coined, elevated to prime-time sit-com use, and subsequently slip into dads-only usage during my sabbatical) isn't really worth a whole hell of a lot.

This is not self-deprecation. I do think I have a perspective, and, at times, I might even aspire to insight, but the admission I'm getting to is that my blog was rarely the only place someone could get the content I was providing. I won't promise that I'm going to be posting more often, but that's in part because I'm going to try to only post when I really have something interesting to say—something I think isn't being said elsewhere.

Which brings me to

Soul-crushing startup life

In large part, as attest by the date-stamps and title of my antepenultimate post, I quit writing because I simply didn't have enough time.

In my time as "technology director" at Reaction Housing, I spent many, many nights up until one or two in the morning, attempting to communicate with vendors in Asia to decipher spec sheets on parts I was hoping to use, to negotiate prices, to place orders, and even to discuss modifications to custom parts. Then I was up at 6 AM with my son, e-v-e-r-y d-a-y. Seriously, the kid seems to be physically incapable of sleeping past 6 AM, and he was too young to be up on his own, and funny things happen to my wife when she's sleep deprived (well, maybe not funny, per se).

It was at the height of this life-force-draining regimen that I was suddenly pulled into a conference room for an impromptu performance review.

If you know anything about managing humans, you've already seen a few red flags, here, not least of which was the phrase impromptu performance review.

This was not the first red flag for me, either, but it was the scariest, yet.

Just a few weeks prior, I had been seeking advice on how to deal with the leadership at this startup from a former co-worker, and peer of the two men running Reaction at the time. After I rattled off my laundry list of concerns and questions, he sat back in his chair and said, "Yup. They're not managers. They've never managed people, and it doesn't sound like they're even trying to learn how."

So, I enter the conference room, along with the then-CEO and then-COO of Reaction (that's not an awkward power dynamic for an already awkward meeting), and in no time flat I'm told that I'm "phoning it in." I'm told there are complaints about me not working hard enough. About me not being available enough.

I work in a department of two. I know the other member of my team very well. I'm confident that if he was frustrated with me, this would not be the first I'd be hearing of it. In fact, as I reflect, I can't think of a single person, other than the two sitting across from me, who would have not taken up this matter with me personally, before now, if such a matter existed.

"Bullshit," I said.

And I meant it.

The meeting didn't really go anywhere good. I'm not sure how it could have. I did my best to listen, and to try to suss out any kernel of truth within this ambush, but I couldn't find anything.

Months later, discussing it with people who stayed on much longer than I did, and worked even closer with those two C-suite-ees than I did, I was told that I was just the first in a long line of scapegoats. The business was failing, due to poor leadership, and the leadership was unable to cope with blame.

Some incredibly untoward things happened at that place. I'm amazed that so many of my incredible co-workers at Reaction stuck it out as long as they did. Several of them have described the period after they finally left as "PTSD-like." Apt.

Now what?

I interviewed for a few months after that fateful meeting. I don't think my inflated startup title (I was a "Technology Director," despite not having any staff, though that's kind of a funny story in, and of, itself) was doing me any favors. "Why is a director applying for this individual contributor role?" I imagined HR departments saying.

Months went by, with no promise of a new job, and things at work were getting worse and worse. And then it happened.

In one day I got four job offers. Three from leads I'd been working for weeks or months, and 1 out-of-the-wild-blue.

Two of the offers were positions with agencies. Consultancies. One you have heard of, and one you have not (yet, anyway). The other two were positions at product companies.

What have we learned, here?

I looked back on my time at the startup. I took that job, leaving frog, which I loved, because I wanted to work on product. Long-term. I wanted to come in every day, and have to face the same pile of clay on the table, pushing it around a little more each day until we really had something. I wanted to learn to ship. I wanted to learn to support products that had shipped. I wanted to learn how to run a business, like a grown-up.

I looked back at my time in agencies, such as, but not limited to, frog, and reflected on what I felt was missing from those experiences. Responsibility. Accountability. Humility.

I want to quickly say that an agency is not a fixed entity, but an ever-changing zeitgeist, determined by the culture of the day. People come and go, and with them come and go egos, attitudes, behaviors, styles, habits, good and bad.

At its worst, agency life is a never-ending speed-date meetup. You pop in, do your best to make a good impression, and, if you're lucky, you're gone before you've embarrassed yourself. If you're less lucky, you're counting the seconds until you get to stand up and move to the next seat.

At many agencies, you end up spending the vast majority of your time managing your client, no matter what position you're playing. You may be the account manager, the project manager, the designer, the engineer, or the QA specialist; it doesn't really matter. In many cases, a great deal of your time will be spent producing "deliverables" designed to make the client feel one of two very important feelings:

  • You, the agency, are the smartest people in the room, and
  • They, the client, have spent their money—so, so much of their money—wisely

So, between the fact that you're so expensive at your fancy agency, which means they could only afford so precious little of your time, and the fact that you spend so much of that time telling them how lucky they are that you answered their RFP, that before you know it, the project deadline is nearing, and, while you do have a pile of "deliverables," you don't know that you have really understood the problem they came to you with, yet, and you certainly don't feel you've solved it, and, whoops there goes the deadline.

Rinse (if you're lucky). Repeat.

If you've worked with, or near, agency people before, you've heard the familiar refrain of "oh man, yeah, what the client finally went to market with looked NOTHING like what I [designed/built/tested/etc.]." This is because, as we all know, "Clients are so dumb, lolz." Right?

Well, as I stood there, outside Reaction, waiting for a phone call from one of my four leads, I thought to myself, "Wait… we hired an agency."

Heh.

Even better, we were a bunch of people from an agency playing house together, pretending to be the kind of company that hires agencies.

This is when it clicked for me.

For one thing, what the "dumb ol' client" ships frequently doesn't look like what the agency designer/developer/etc. came up with because the agency people never really deeply understood the constraints. It's quite easy to look at a problem and come up with a clever solution. Even a clever solution that appears to be simple and elegant. This is meaningless, though, unless you can actually act on this solution. The real-world constraints of a given client make a lot of clever solutions irrelevant. Maybe your clever solution doesn't scale. Maybe it's too expensive because you're not operating "at scale" in the first place. Perhaps it ignores some easy-to-miss requirements, like being universally accessible or easily localized or working in Internet Explorer. Maybe the constraint is the prowess of your client's engineering discipline, or the nature of the infrastructure that powers their products, or the cadence of their release cycle.

What I saw at Reaction, I felt, was these agency people being forced to stand there long enough to be faced with the constraints of the real-world, and not knowing how to cope when their clever design turned out to be, not so.

Right, so, now what?

So, I went back to Polycom. Polycom is a corporation, with thousands of employees, where I would work in a cubicle with fluorescent lighting and expense reports and everything that makes my beard invert.

But they ship. Oh man do they ship.

Polycom ships custom embedded hardware, in many flavors. We ship on several different SoCs. We ship on several different software stacks, from RTOSs to Assembly to Java to Node and beyond. We ship a customized operating system of our own, based on Android. We ship end-user applications for Windows, macOS (and Mac OS X), Android, and iOS. We ship cloud software. And Polycom has been doing this for 25 years. We have more than one office (a handful, worldwide, actually), but I can walk around the Austin office and go from someone with a 3D printer to someone with a soldering iron to a sales person to a phone support person to a huge QA lab to a bullpen of developers to another bullpen of designers to a bullpen of technical writers, and back.

It's not easy. Some days I dream of beating the printer with a baseball bat, while I struggle to print my TPS report. I strive, mightily, to wag the dog that is corporate politics, in order to make the product better. It feels like I'm fighting a system that wants to turn out mediocrity, a lot of the time. My better self tells me that I'm actually observing an organism that's attempting self-preservation—attempting to turn out something safe, and easily maintained, not something necessarily mediocre.

And I'm working as a designer. I came onboard as a "Senior User Experience Prototyper," the very same title I left Polycom with a few years back, headed to my "Design Technologist" role at frog. The original idea was that I would be a rapid prototyper, working alongside designers, realizing their visions in interactive simulations that would make it possible to vet out ideas early and often, before productizing those ideas (an expensive, not easily reversible process).

Turns out they really just needed another designer, and that was something I've actually been able to help out with. I've built a few prototypes, but I have mostly been churning out wireframes, comps, UI strings, and design direction.

What were we talking about?

It's been a long, winding, pretty effed-up road, to be honest, but, if I'm honest, that's usually the best way for me to learn. My time at Reaction was punishing, but it was a life-lesson hard-won. I worked harder than I've ever worked. I pushed myself beyond my limits. I met some incredible people. I did some work I'm very proud of. And, most importantly, I drew a big chalk outline around what good leadership looks like. It's not as good as a picture, but let's just say I know exactly where not too look now.