Friday, April 23, 2010

The Canary Fainted: Growing Pains in a Young Software Company

After I left the university some years ago I went on to co-author Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution, did some freelance business journalism, played in a rhythm and blues band, and eventually took a job as a technical writer at a local software company. I'd never written software documentation, but I was comfortable with computer tech and could write a fly off a horse's tail at fifty paces. I figured this was a good career move. And it was. But, like all new moves, it was a bit rocky. Here's a story from those early days. While there's nothing particularly secret about any of this, I've disguised the identities of the company and the people in it.
* * * * *

High-Tech Inc. started as a student project in a university course on entrepreneurship.  Working as a team, two or three students prepared such a convincing business plan that  the instructor told them they might actually be able to make a business of it  They availed themselves of the university’s mechanisms for turning student projects into businesses, recruited another friend or two,  and set out to turn research into development.

An administrator with an interest in business staked our guys for a year while they developed the software described in their proposal.  When, a year later, they had the software ready to roll, Iron Mike (as we'll call him) quit the university and joined High-Tech Inc. as CEO and one of the Founders (along with the four former students). The business became successful and a few years later they decided they needed a full-time technical writer.

I applied for the job and was granted an interview.  I arrived at noon on a Saturday in full business dress, knowing full-well that it would be extraneous.  I was met by one of the student founders, James Gilroy, in jogging shorts and T-shirt.  We clicked, and I got the job.  I was employee number 66 (or 67, somewhere in the upper 60s).  This puts the company at the upper margin of the size of the typical  day-to-day living unit among hunter-gatherer peoples, like the first humans.

At that time the company was way behind schedule on a major software release, having already missed a year's worth of ship dates. I had to learn their software product and produce a user's manual in less than two months in order to meet their absolute drop-dead ship date.  I did my job and the product shipped on time. 

But it was buggy, the manual was a bit quixotic, and customers were not at all happy.  A company that had been under stress for a year took bad hits from its customers. The developers began the difficult job of cleaning up software that never should have shipped in the first place. It was grim work. They'd been under the gun for over a year and the pressure was still on. Meanwhile the salesmen and company executives set out to appease disappointed customers.

This stress continued for several months as another major release came due.  At this time I, as tech writer, made a major mistake (in contracting out a print order) that ordinarily would have gotten me fired.  However, other things had been going wrong in the company and Iron Mike saw that my error, however costly (low five-figures if you must know), was not an isolated problem. It was but one of many. He took immediate steps to bring the company around.  One of his watchwords was "no more surprises."

I had no trouble with any of the actions management took. I'd been chewed  out, others too,  there was an all-hands meeting, and so forth. But, a week later, I felt that we were still in trouble.

I was so distressed that I could not even talk to my boss, Frank Lindsey, another one of the ex-student founders.  On a Friday morning I typed up a memo that said something like:  "Something is very wrong.  I don't know what, I can't talk and I can't think. I'm going home and I'll be back next Tuesday.  Assume that I am working off-site." I printed this out and presented it to Frank.  He read it, nodded, and I walked. The canary had fainted.

What I did over the weekend is not important, nor do I remember it well.  What Frank Lindsey and Iron Mike and the other Founders did was very important.  But I wasn't there when they did it and I didn't talk with them about it after I had returned.

But when I returned, it was a different company.  The place was humming and buzzing. People seemed more relaxed, a grin on the chin, a little pep in the step, some glide in the stride.  More noise, but it was happy noise.

And . . . you could see the difference in email traffic.  I don't remember much about the email traffic before and after except that there was more of it after, and it had a different tone. The difference was quite striking. I particularly remember that emails from the secretary/receptionist had more zing to them.

So, we have a social system locked in stasis and full of anxiety. I mess up, am called on the carpet, and changes begin.  Iron Mike put the company into a different mode of activity.  Instead of operations as normal, it was time to reorganize.  Then a week or so later I, in effect, said the reorganizing wasn't going deep enough.  At which point, somehow, someone – no doubt several-to-many someones acting as a team – drove it home.  By the time I returned the company had settled into a new, and more satisfactory, operating mode.

* * * * *

What had happened? I'd played the role of the canary in the min. You know, the canary faints, thus signaling that there's too much methane accumulating. It's time to get out of Dodge. 

That, of course, is not what I thought. I just wanted out. I'm sure others did as well, but I was the one who walked off the job. Everyone was on edge; when I walked out, everyone knew about it – it was a small company and we all worked in the same building — and everyone knew that everyone knew. It was management, Iron Mike and the other founders, that was astute enough to take my action, not as an act of individual insubordination, but as an indicator of company health. They acted accordingly.

After all, it was their company. They’d founded it; it was in their bones. As the company grew, they felt it. When the company was strained, they felt it. The company was a living, growing body.

But, it’s one thing to “feel” the corporate body when there’s only five of you. Things change when there are twenty people, or seventy. The signals are harder to read, the corrective actions less obvious.

What happens when 700, or 7000 people must act as one? How did we EVER figure out how to do that?

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