Friday, August 15, 2008

Leisure is Work

I gave my 2 weeks notice today. It was time. I'd been looking casually for over a year. It got a little more serious this summer. Due to a few organizational changes, the low-key start-up I joined was getting more and more assimilated into the bank, with the dysfunction that came with it. It was by no means intolerable, but things were getting worse, with no sign of improvement ahead.

That's not to say I was looking for an exit. I like my co-workers. We have a useful product. The benefits are pretty decent, with good insurance, 401(k) matching, flexible hours, and 4 weeks of vacation per year. The situation was more than tolerable, but unpleasant and often asinine bank actions were intruding. I noticed a real degradation in the environment from before my paternity leave until after. I didn't have to think very hard, and the problems that I had to solve had far more to do with banking procedures and bizarre external mainframe systems than any kind of computing. Plus, I was really starting to dislike our application. It may be wonderful for accountants at Fortune 500 companies, but I've gotten pretty sick of it.

You can probably skip to the end if you don't want to read a lot of boring stuff. I need to give a little bit of background to explain what happened next. I've never had much luck with finding jobs. I had 2 offers coming out of college. You can guess what my success rate was in 2001 and 2002 after getting laid off from Motive. For my job search in 2004, I contacted something like 8 companies. That resulted in 2 in-person interviews and 1 offer. My search in 2005 was much the same, which yielded the job I have for the next 2 weeks.

Last summer, I talked to about 4 companies. 2 progressed to the in-person interview stage, and I received no offers. One of them, a well-known Internet company, jerked me around for 3 months before I heard a no. I felt almost aggressively rejected in those cases. It seemed like companies liked me until they actually met me. It was not a happy experience. That was also the case with a company that I talked to towards the end of 2007.

That was what set my expectations of what kind of response to expect this time around, and how quickly. I had been accumulating a list of Austin software companies for the last year using My list was up to about 90. I made a first pass and came up with about 10 companies. I narrowed that down to 3 companies that seemed really interesting.

One, let's call it Iota (names changed to protect the guilty, plus for a little suspense), was involved in a search vertical. Samba produced a tool assisting in what I consider an important but neglected software development practice. Finally, Rhubarb was a large but still rapidly-growing Internet company that had a small subsidiary that looked like it was working on interesting cloud computing things.

To those three I added three more. Kilroy I added because I happened to see their ad on Craig's List that day. Blazer I took a stab at because I happened to see on Linkedin that someone I knew had just gotten a job there. Finally, I'd been talking with an independent recruiting firm off and on for the last 3 years, and they wanted me to talk to Harmonica.

So I had a list of 6 companies to whom I sent out feelers. I figured I'd hear back from 2 of them and maybe get an offer from one. That was my experience. That's what I expected.

As the heavy-handed foreshadowing has already made clear, that is not what happened. I heard back from all 6. I passed all 6 phone screens. Kilroy I met in person first over lunch, and then never heard from again. I met Rhubarb next. They were disappointing. Their interview was disorganized, and one of the interviewers (and potential co-workers) was rude and antagonistic. I didn't need that. When the recruiter called me back, I said thanks, but no thanks. I can get abuse for free.

Things went a little better with Samba. They told me up front that the opening I had seen had already been filled, but they'd still like to talk to me in person just in case I was awesome. Yeah right. I didn't embarrass myself, though.

I had an interview with Blazer the next week. I thought it went pretty well. I certainly was impressed by the people I met. I heard back in a couple of days that they wanted me to meet a few of their executives. I had set up an interview with Iota for the next Thursday, so I set up the Blazer meeting Friday afternoon. That same week, I talked to the hiring manager from Harmonica. I figured it wouldn't hurt, since my other opportunities would collapse once they actually, you know, met me. They sounded pretty interesting, so I planned on talking to them further.

The Iota interview felt like it went well. They also seemed smart, and they had a lot of interesting things to work on. A friend of mine vouched for the head of development. I hadn't been perfect, though, so I made sure to do the homework with alacrity. The next day, I met the head of products and marketing at Blazer as well as the CFO. It wasn't much of an interview, more of a conversation to get to know each other. I was feeling pretty good about hearing from them.

When I got home, I got word from Iota: they were prepared to make an offer. I felt pretty good about that. I felt slightly less good when I saw the money. It was an improvement, but I wasn't sure it was enough improvement to justify the risks and costs of switching. They had an aggressive bonus program, but I don't think of bonuses as being real money. I told them I needed a little time, figuring I'd see what Blazer came up with.

I also noticed that an email from Samba had gotten stuck in my spam folder. They said they liked me, but since the position was filled, they wanted to know if I'd be willing to wait till the end of the year. Things were looking up, and Blazer didn't disappoint. Come Monday, they made their own offer. It was nearly identical to Iota's. That's what comes of disclosing your salary. They must use the same formulas. I had some thinking to do. They were both good companies with smart people. They each provided a service that was useful and profitable, which is a surprisingly rare combination. Plus, they were both just 3 miles away from my house.

I told both companies about the choice I was facing. I also had set up an in-person interview with Harmonica before I received either offer. The day before that interview, I talked with Iota and tried to get a little more money. I did it very badly, and consequently achieved nothing. However, the morning of my Harmonica interview, the VP of Engineering at Blazer came out of nowhere and bumped their offer by 8% to near the middle of the bonus range offered by Iota. That got my attention. Later that same morning, I had a talk with Iota. I mentioned the bump in the other offer, but mainly I just wanted to discuss how their development team worked. It was a fruitful conversation, further convincing me that they were an excellent organization.

Faced with two pretty decent offers, I was considering canceling the Harmonica interview. It just didn't seem fair to them since I was highly likely to take either Iota or Blazer. I called the independent recruiter who'd set me up with them to work through the right thing to do. She wasn't there. I figured I might as well go.

Harmonica came with two strikes against them. They were down south, a 15 mile drive compared to the 3 miles for the other guys. Plus they were already up to several hundred people. Still, they had sounded intriguing on the phone, and I foolishly thought that wasting their time was better than bailing out. So I went. And wow... Those guys were smart. They had it together. It was astonishing, considering that what they did seemed pretty unsophisticated on the surface. I felt pretty good. On my way out, I told the hiring manager my situation. I hated the idea of putting anyone under pressure, but I had a deadline.

The next day, I heard from the Harmonica recruiter. Things sounded good. At her invitation, I met the Harmonica team again at a coffee shop where they were having an off-site work day. It sounded like they were moving towards an offer, but it was Friday, and my deadline for both Blazer and Iota was Monday. My coffee shop appointment reaffirmed my reaction from the day before. They were good eggs.

Something in my conversation with Iota the previous day must have jogged something loose, because I got a call. This time, it was the CEO and co-founder. I'd met the other co-founder already, but the CEO was based in another part of the country. To my amazement, he asked me what it would take for me to commit. What? I was so surprised that all I could do was say what Blazer's raised offer was, which he immediately said he'd match, and resist his attempts to persuade me to commit right them.

That made for an anxious weekend. I had two very good offers. Iota had a clear edge over Blazer. Blazer's product was good, while Iota's was great, a real market changer. Plus, Iota had matched Blazer's base salary, plus they had an aggressive bonus program. On the other hand, Blazer had 4 weeks of vacation plus additional sick time, while Iota just had 15 days personal time off encompassing both. Then there was the big unknown with Harmonica. I didn't know what was going to happen.

I put together an elaborate spreadsheet. It had all the obvious things on it, like salary, insurance costs, etc. I also added other things, like vacation time and commute distance, trying to quantify as much as I could. I didn't know if Harmonica was going to offer, but they knew what I already had been offered, so I figured they'd match that if they offered anything. Iota had a clear edge over Blazer, but Harmonica was the big unknown. I put together an extensive list of attributes. Harmonica won almost half of the categories, while Iota won the rest. Clearly, this approach wasn't working.

Jessica realized it before I did. I was trying to find a way to make Harmonica the objective right choice. I really liked them. The people were smart and likable, the technology was interesting, and the company was exciting. But I had no idea if they were going to offer, or what. And my excessive analysis indicated that Iota would probably be better for my career in the long run. Harmonica's technology was solid, but Iota's was more on the cutting edge, and they were certainly likable enough. It was a tough decision.

See, I couldn't just go with the people I liked best. There were too many questions. I'm the sole income for a family of four, which meant the money mattered a lot more than it would have otherwise. I needed to be around as a father, which meant that an extra 45 minutes of commuting each day was actually significant. And, while I was leaning towards Harmonica, Iota was still a terrific company. Blazer was pretty good, too, but they were out of the running by now. In any other circumstances, I would have been happy to take any one of them. The problem was I could only take one. I wasn't anxious about making a mistake, because none of my choices was a bad one. What was keeping me up at night was the possibility of walking away from a fantastic opportunity.

Monday came (4 days ago) and with it, an offer from Harmonica. They made it hard for me; their offer was nearly identical to Iota's, when normalized for various factors. I went over it and over it all day. Finally, I decided to go with my gut. Iota was good. I liked them. But I liked Harmonica better. I called them up and accepted.

That wasn't the end of it. Apparently, Blazer and Iota wanted to be absolutely sure that I was absolutely sure. I heard from the VP at Blazer and the co-founder of Iota one more time. It was unreal. I was happy to explain my decision to them, but, even though it had been close, I was not going to change it. I just liked those guys too much, and I had made my commitment.

I don't tell all of this to brag (OK, maybe a little). I was massively surprised. I expected maybe one offer from the six. This was unreal. Also, I had previously thought that this was a good position to be in. That's what the few people clued in to my situation said, and no doubt you are thinking it too. No way. It was agonizing. I had trouble sleeping the whole weekend. No matter what, I was going to have to disappoint some people I'd gotten to know and like. That was not a happy prospect. If I could have cloned myself and taken all three, I would have. If I could have only talked to one of them, I would have, but my previous experience told me that would have yielded nothing.

I'm not going to reveal here who is behind the code names except for one. I don't think a gentleman tells, at least not to the whole world. I will reveal Harmonica. Go ahead, read that. Process it. I know what you're thinking. Here's the thing: the market may seem unsophisticated. It's not search. It's not heavy computing. It's not developer tools. It's even targeted at non-techies. Didn't I say that my current job wasn't a challenge? Listen: that's just your superficial impression. It's ok. It was mine as well.

Here's the thing: the technical team behind HomeAway is one of the sharpest I've ever met. Heck, we talked about tries in the interview, based on something that one of the developers had written just a short time before. These guys do software the way it should be done. Unit tests, code reviews, short iterations... It's a long list of things they do right. They do things I've read about, but I've never done before. If you're curious, look at my new job description. They operate globally, which means some serious scale. And they're seriously ambitious.

The market also is exciting for its own sake. It's a potentially huge market in the exotic field of travel. The business is strong in spite of an economic slowdown, simply because the market is so huge, and they have such potential for making it bigger. My work will be other people's leisure. It's a great opportunity, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Update: I realized I might have made it sound like I did not like the people at Iota, Blazer, and Samba. That's not at all accurate. Both Blazer and Samba had good people and appealing cultures. It was a little harder for me to get a bead on Iota's culture, but there were particular individuals there that I very much liked. In an ideal world, I would have gotten to know Iota a little bit better, but I had a limited time to make my decision, and my positive reaction to HomeAway was an immediate one.

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Blogger Jeanie said...

Congratulations, Ketan! It sounds like you made the right choice. Hooray!

August 15, 2008 at 11:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Congrats! I hope the new job lives up to your expectations. It sounds like an exciting opportunity.

August 16, 2008 at 1:23 PM  
Blogger Seema said...

Hooray for new job!

August 17, 2008 at 7:31 PM  

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