Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Job Update

I promised many people that at some point I would write a post to help clarify what my job situation has been, where it is now, and where it looks to be going. However, due to the fluid nature of situation -- depending many things that hadn't been entirely concluded, I was reluctant to set thought to words until now.

At my previous company I was working with rather industrious Chinese immigrant, now with Japanese citizenship, whom we will call J.

J. was introduced to a system called "Second Life" at some point in his travels, which is a particular implementation of what could generally be called Virtual Worlds. VWs are essentially about using the Internet and immersive technologies (specifically modern 3D graphics), to help advance our online experience to something that helps fulfill our needs better than current, essentially 2D ones. So, for example, instead of using a 2D website for social networking, or a 2D chat agent to chat with your buddies, you would create a 3D avatar, go into a realistic 3D space, and chat and socialize there. Moreover, instead of creating your own text-and-image-based 2D website content on your own site or blog, you could own virtual land, and create fully-scripted (and therefore active and orchestrated) 3D objects on your land.

When considered in the context of the current Internet, it becomes obvious that VWs are simply a single convergence point for newer technologies that exist on everyone's modern desktop PC, and the same needs that drove the creation of the 2D Internet before it.

So J., having become infatuated with Second Life and wanting to take advantage of what appeared to be an emerging market -- but not really knowing how to, my co-worker decided to set about networking with whomever would listen, and see what would drop into his lap. J. approached me and appeared to be interested in cultivating a friendship with me; and then later with recruiting me to his yet very embryonic enterprise.

Having just met him, I has assumed that all his attention towards me was genuine, and that is interest must stem from possibility that when he learned more about my personality, he saw the potential in me that I know has always existed, and being such a sharp judge of character he was trying to leap on a "diamond in the rough" in recruiting me.

Later I was to learn that that was simply an operating mode of his: where he meets new people, calls them "friend", and bids them to join whatever his current cause is; then promptly moves on until needed again -- a user's mentality. That sad reality was born out in several instances where true friend would have stood by me and supported me, but instead he let me down and did whatever he wanted to at that moment.

It was also another operating mode of his was to take people out for dinners to "talk business", where in reality the talk was always of a superficial and vague nature; where items previously concluded, or questions asked, always came up again as if no discussion had happened previously.

This I believe comes from a desire to "look the part" of a big free-wheeling executive-type -- enjoying the superficialities, without having to get down to the dirty work of deciding things and taking responsibility for your decisions. Sadly this cultivation of "executive aire" over these path months has worked: people treat him seriously even if they see his words don't make sense. Its interesting to watch a person simply assume authority that exists only in the assumptions of others.

So eventually, over a period of months, in addition to the above mentioned problems which I discerned, what also came to light was that he had seen nothing special in me; rather he had just been asking every person he knew to join him, and I happened to be a person who knew him. In fact, he would demonstrate that he really knew nothing at all about what motivates me -- and it would be the cause of many conflicts between us.

When he asked me to quit my job at the time in order to join him, there was a decent amount of risk involved. And the more I questioned him about the basic operating principles of what he planned to do, the less satisfactorily he was able to explain himself.

At first I just assumed it was a language barrier issue, but eventually I had to conclude it was because he really didn't know what he was doing. At that point I made my participation in the adventure contingent on his ability to sell me on his business. I said "consider me your first customer", and set it aside as a bit of a foolish enterprise, bound for no good due to lack of competent foresight.

Later he was to also hand me a couple of bald lies, which at that time I lead me to decide there was no purpose in maintaining a friendship with a liar, and I stopped associating with him.

However, the conditions at the job I was employed at were increasingly getting worse. The field was interesting: R&D/Custom development in 3D rendering and haptic control. But the people running it were nice but utterly incompetent, a pattern I have come to believe is endemic in Japanese IT. The sheer ridiculousness of the organization at every level, and the way in which the incompetence was starting to drag on me professionally and personally, started to affect my job performance. And my personal relationship with my superiors deteriorated to the point where I was actively looking for a new job.

I knew they couldn't get rid of me because I was the only one who knew the system that I had written from scratch for them, which they hoped of one day selling, so I felt I could bide my time. However they caught me by surprise, by preemptively announcing to my contracting boss that they would not renew my contract in September, which I felt was a bit of a dick-move that left me further unimpressed. I resigned after two weeks notice. At the end of July.

J., having finally quit that company to start his own, but still having contacts there, found out about my situation, and smartly contacted me to let me know what had become of him, and ask if I would finally join him. It turns out a major venture capital/incubation firm in Tokyo had bought his company out and made him CTO of the new company. He still could not explain to me what he would be doing with this company, however what was different now from when he asked before, was that he was offering me a guaranteed salary at a healthy 40% raise. I was also told the company would be a global, English-speaking workplace, modeled after Google (free drinks, scheduling freedom, including 20% spare project time, etc), and so on. So after many interviews with financial companies, and one cell-phone software maker, I decided that it was a risk I could now accept given the potential for reward.

From the very beginning J. was fully of complements for me, when I first met him and when I first joined the company. He wanted me to be a leader within the new company -- starting with me taking the position of Head of the section of the company dedicated to the VW 3D client viewer. There was also some not-entirely-joking talk of me becoming CTO in his place (and I assume he would move up somewhere higher). Foolishly I bought into it because I thought again that it was my natural potential shining through. (Notice a pattern?)

To start with there just weren't nearly enough people to do everything that needed to be done. We didn't even have a secretary, so simple bookings were getting forgotten because the CTO or CEO were the only people who could do it, and they would just forget. Whats worse, is that J., having not the faintest idea how to start a company, was going about creating his dream company in what would seem like an arbitrary fashion.

In my way of thinking, you need to hire religiously for your first core group of people, because later on these are the people you have to trust implicitly to help you run your business. However it turns out that under J.'s recruiting method, the few people we had were essentially the just first people who said "yes" to him. Their skill-set was either flat-out sub-par or ill-fitting to what was required.

That assessment includes me: I have potential, but there is _no_ way I was or even am a seasoned project manager + leader + business man + C++ guru + any of the other hats I was asked, or felt required to wear. In effect I was thrown into the deep-end; which, if done with a capable mentor would have been survivable, or even healthy -- but considering I was thrown not for the purpose of teaching me the ropes, but rather so that J., who having no more ability than I -- and I would dare say less, didn't have to do that job himself!

At first I thrashed about, doing my best; but when it became clear I was sinking, I looked to J. He looked away or just criticized my work -- which was pretty galling considering that it was really his work in the first place. I blamed myself to start with, but increasingly I put the blame at the source, and we got into conflict. And by "conflict" I mean he would embarrass or insult me, and I would verbally berate him while he silently ignored what I was saying. A very functional relationship.

Given my rising stress levels and falling stock within the "leadership" of the company, the only choice was clear: explicitly decline all the implied responsibility that I had been given, and return to my core professional competency: programming.

I dove deeper into developing the 3D client viewer, however I couldn't really call myself a leader of anything since J. had neglected to realize before creating a group with a titular Head, that in fact, very little work was available on the viewer. The viewer is a dumb-client. And a professional dead-end within the company. Thanks.

Whats even worse is that J. neglected to notice that the code-base they had chosen for their server part was legally incompatible with the client viewer, and therefore anyone who worked on the viewer, as I had, was incapable of ever working on the server -- where 99% of the work needed to be done! Oops.

Unlike our in-house leadership, the leadership of the server part company was sensitive to my situation, and took steps to discuss a legal means of allowing me to work again: after a period of time it would be considered that the legal "taint" had washed off, and I could resume work. Thanks unrelated outside CEO!!

All the while, development was proceeding at a glacial pace, since the people in charge of it were literally just the first who agreed to join the company, and had no idea what they were doing. Mistakes that should be obvious to a first-year Computer Scientist or Software Engineer were a daily occurrence. And since all the decision making was done in Japanese only, arguing those mistakes was an exercise in masochism. The other English language employee and I spent all our time just guessing what was going on.

We desperately needed more people, but J. refused to do any recruiting outside his networking+"Hey you. Come join my company!" shtick. I decided it was necessary for the company's survival to go out myself, find a recruiter, and start doing interviews. Those interviews resulted in our current chief architect and two other lead programmers. No thanks ever came by voice nor mail.

So I reached a point where my dissatisfaction had grown to the point where if J. didn't go, there would be no future in the company, and therefore I had to go. I wrote a scathing email to the CEO of the parent company. This email was so unflattering that in a western company I could _guarantee_ you it would cost *someone* their job. To his credit, the parent CEO reacted somewhat swiftly, calling me to his office and assuring me he would make changes. I thought he meant deposing J. and setting me up in leadership (since there just wasn't anyone else to choose from), and I was giddly like a school-girl.

Well it turns out even in western-ish Japanese companies, things still proceed along the same essential lines as they do in regular Japanese companies: J. was mildly rebuked, a new project manager was brought in to a role that was hitherto desperately needed but totally unfilled -- but almost everything else remained as it was. How he dodged that bullet is still beyond me. Teflon briefs?

G., the new PM, was surprisingly like me. The way we thought and acted was strikingly similar. Even though he is Japanese, he went to school in Edmonton and even plays hockey, which makes him more Canadian than me.

I really feel sorry for him, because he essentially stepped into the same nightmare that I had hitherto been existing in. He came in with a clear mandate to clean things up, as I asked by the parent CEO -- but as he did so, he got push-back from J., and eventually J. won out. Now he is in the position of knowing what needs to be done, but being powerless to resist J.'s incessant interfering. How on earth do people so consistently prove themselves to be useless, yet retain so much political power?

G. came in an set about reorganizing the programmers into something that would resemble a minimally functional software development house, and spent a lot of time interviewing programmers, considering business needs, and creating a new organization. In that organization, I was to be the leader for essentially all the major software development, which was the core VW stuff, and some add-in tools. This plan was entirely and almost summarily rejected by J.

Well all the politicking has come to an end, and the dust is settling, and what it looks like is that J. remains CTO -- even though he is only a salesman and constantly interferes with technical matters he is not competent in, G. is our PM -- who's unenviable job is to endure the interference so us programmers don't have to, and me -- working as a lead programmer along with our architect doing core development (when my taint wears off). Its hardly the executive position that could have been in the cards, but I purposely chose to decline that direction because I knew the price I would have to pay to get it.

The position is where my competency is, so I no longer have to be a fish out of water with no help; and the work is still interesting with plenty to learn, so I haven't a real reason to quit yet. I expect the programming should continue be fun, rewarding and good for the resume, so I can say I enjoy my job again.

What I can't say is that I think my company will be successful in the mid to long term, as it is burdened with incompetent management that just won't go away. I am keeping an eye out for better opportunities, but I am currently thinking that none will be available that will provide a significant enough improvement on the current situation without leaving Japan; something M. is reluctant to do.

Still I can say that it was worth the risk to join the company, since even if the price has been rather steep, I have learned a lot about how run a company, and even more about how not to. That kind of education is worth the time spent. Its the wise man however, that knows when he has learned enough and is ready to move on.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow .. That's just insanity. Sometimes stepping back, weighing your options and picking what's best for you, even though that *executive* option was there, is how I feel about things in my world right now as well. Take care of yourself and hope you're having a wonderful holiday season. Happy New Year. --Ray