by Mark Bowytz
Michael L. felt the buzz of his phone go off. He ignored it.
Seconds later, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Michael," came a stern voice, "I've been looking for you everywhere." It was Shane, Michael's direct supervisor and owner of Peripheral Maven, the company where they both worked. "Listen, it's coming up on four minutes since your IM status went to 'away' and the warehouse network printer is completely down! We can't print shipping labels and well..."
Michael turned his head towards Shane in disgust, and shot him the are-you-kidding-me look.
"C'mon pal," Shane continued, "be a team player and get out here and pitch in!"
"Uh, sure," Michael countered, "but I'm a little bit busy here. Do you mind?"
"It's cool," smiled Shane, "I'll wait here and walk you out."
Sighing at Shane's blatant disregard of the Mens' Room Buffer Zone Rules, Michael quickly finished his business, zipped, flushed, and washed his hands. As he walked out of the bathroom with his boss, he couldn't help but think how he got himself caught up in that job.
In the Beginning...
Some time ago, when Michael had first moved out to California, he did so with big hopes of striking "Tech Gold". Making six-figures, working at some dot-com, and retiring by 30. Then reality hit and, facing the choices of either living out of his grandma's old '93 Tercel or selling marketable bodily fluids to make rent, Michael was thrilled when he received a phone call from Shane, the CEO of Peripheral Maven.
Over the phone, Shane gave the aura of being an easy going, engaging tech-head which also extended during the interview. Shane also had a problem. Despite being a heckuvaguy, there was a LOT of turnover with his IT staff. He needed a network administrator who was willing to stick with the company though thick and thin - get tough - hunker down and really contribute to keeping things running.
Michael figured that the previous employees just didn't have the drive, determination (and desperation) that he did. When offered, Michael took the job knowing that he would be different and would stay around.
Look Around You
All things seemed pretty normal when Michael started the job. Since the offices of Peripheral Maven also stored some inventory, it seemed pretty reasonable to Michael to find cameras near the reception area, the hallways, break room, and over the rows of desks. After all, employee theft can be rampant and businesses simply had to protect their assets.
Not thinking much of it, Michael went about socializing and networking around the water cooler as any new guy would, but he noticed that everybody else was strangely on guard. He didn't understand why until one fateful day when, after one conversation, Michael received a company-wide email from Shane. It was a reminder that personal, non-business related conversations should be kept to a minimum as they may be considered disruptive to some members of the staff.
Knowing that Shane had sequestered himself in his office behind a closed door for a "big conference call", could it be that he had been spotted by the office's all seeing eyes? Figuring that Shane was simply concerned about his bottom line, Michael wrote off the incident as coincidence. But not wanting to make waves with his manager, Michael was simply more mindful of his conversations going forward.
Not Enough Connections
A large portion of Michael's day-to-day involved support. The company's CMS application was a highly-customizable, name-brand solution that was essentially left configured exactly as it came out of the "box". During the middle of the business day however, when customer info was needed most, certain users would be locked out until Michael kicked out an inactive user. Other times, when a user was updating a customer, the customer record would be caught in some quasi-valid state that often required someone (read: Michael) to go in and update a record manually to fix the situation.
Wanting to make a good impression, and save himself the guaranteed two hours of support every day, Michael investigated and quickly found the problem: the server was running Windows XP Professional which, for web users connecting to it, only supports a maximum of 10 connections. Michael prepared his case to switch to something more... enterprisy... but his attempt was entirely in vain.
"We've been an XP shop for years now. We made the investment in software when we upgraded from Windows 2000 years ago," Shane explained. "We know XP here and are comfortable with it. Everything, from the printers to the mice, all run great with XP. I can't risk trying something else that might fix one thing but open the door for some new kind of garbage."
Michael's first impulse was to correct the CEO about the fine nuances between server machines versus workstations, when he felt an uncomfortable lump in his stomach: the company didn't have a server room.
It's Only C++!
As Michael quickly learned, one of Shane's core beliefs was that one didn't need to spend a bundle on software to run a business. Software like Open Office, AVG, and other free Windows apps were used daily by Peripheral Maven, and it worked out really great. However, Shane also tried to carry over the 'budget' philosophy to custom software development. His plan seemed perfect: post an ad on Craigslist to develop a C++ based internal searching app in exchange for a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. In theory, the talent from the local college student pool should jump at the opportunity.
To the lucky student's credit, the app almost compiled. Not that it mattered, as it was Michael's job to make sure that it not only it compiled, but had some degree of usability. Before that day, he had only coded a few lines of BASIC and batch script, but Shane knew that C++ was relatively easy. When Michael took a peek under the hood, he saw what looked more like a refrigerator come "Pitch-Out Day".
Munged together from numerous "How-To Program C++ like a Pro" examples, the source looked like a copy-n-paste anti-pattern gone mad. Besides the usual maligned lack of comments, it imported the same resources over and over again, and as if to put the icing on the cake, it required a version of the .NET standard that was so obsolete that it was no longer available.
After learning C++, applying some refactoring, removing a few swaths of dead code, and downing a bottle of Pepto, Michael was thrilled when the application successfully (and miraculously) compiled. Shane, on the other hand, was disappointed that it had taken so long.
Enough is ENOUGH!!!
The security cameras, unreasonable expectations, and painful frugality was one thing, but being escorted out of the Men's room to fix a network problem was another. In fact, it was the last straw. Michael wanted out, and he wanted out that exact moment. No two-week notice, no nothing: that was that, and he told his boss the same.
After a four-hour exit interview with Shane, they hatched an agreement: Michael would leave, but first would have to make a quick help file containing enough IT know-how to allow any of the staff to diagnose any problem that might pop up. "Just write down everything that would be helpful," Shane requested.
Michael sat down and made an index to everything existing document he could think of: the passwords, policies, procedures, licenses, and so on. "Um," Shane said, "this isn't evertyhing. I need step-by-step instructions on how to fix any problem that that could come in the future."
Exhausted, Michael simply got up from his desk and, under the watchful eye of the company's surveilance cameras, simply exited the offices of Peripheral Maven with his personal items in tow.
In the end, Michael was blamed as not being a team player and told that a reference and his last pay check would not be available, so he shouldn't even bother asking for either. This effectively left Michael exactly where he started before finding a job, but to Michael, there was no way anyone could put a price tag on finally being free.