You Can’t Hire a New Bill

(Warning: personal reflection lies ahead.)

My career trajectory in Silicon Valley has been less developer than billiard ball: short-term contract/consulting jobs, and two full time employee positions that both came to a premature end due to economic blues. I’ve been thinking about a contract-to-hire gig that not only never reached the “-to-hire” stage, it lasted such a short time I don’t put it on my résumé.

This was at a company many people haven’t heard of, but they’ve been around a long time and were one of the big names that started what became Silicon Valley: before the dotcom boom there was the microprocessor boom, and before that was the aerospace boom. (Before that? Stone fruits.) These guys were aerospace and they needed somebody to be an assistant in mission control. How cool is that, right?

I don’t remember what the title was—Operations Something—it didn’t seem to have much to do with the job. (Forewarning one.) What they wanted was described as kind of a technical writer and kind of a webmaster and kind of a reports analyst, all sorts of things that I’ve done before.

Bill was the Operations Something already in this position; he was retiring at 50 to go back to school (another “how cool is that” in my book). I got to work with Bill for a few weeks ostensibly learning the ropes. Except there really, well, weren’t many ropes. Or maybe it was all rope. Bill did maintain the internal web site, a huge static morass that mostly served as a document repository, done in HTML 3.2 full of <font> tags and tables and mixed case URLs with spaces in them. He wrote reports occasionally, of very proscribed form. Mostly what Bill did, from what I could tell, was herd cats, the cats in question being the mission directors. (Forewarning two.)

By the end of three weeks I was familiar with a lot of the operations, but the mission directors didn’t have time to explain much, the IT director didn’t have time to explain much, and there was this whole “you’ll pick it up as you go along” air. Bill, for his part, was glad to be getting out. As much as he liked the company (he’d been there twenty years) the job he was in—the one I was taking—was one he felt had no upward mobility potential. (Forewarning three.)

It was, after a month, clear to me that what the company wanted was not what they had defined as an operation something something; that was a job description and title that came from what Bill had done for them, with ten years of experience at the company already under his belt before he got to that department. I’m sure they worked with Bill to describe what it is he did, but that’s tough. My strongest points—web development and technical writing—turned out to be the least important: Bill’s intranet site was, by even pretty lax standards, crap, but that didn’t matter. The most important part of the job turned out to be trying to continually get data out of career aerospace engineers. I can be a people person, but I’m not so good at being a pushy person. Bill was an excellent pushy person, in that he could be pushy and still be likable. At this particular company, part of that almost certainly came from the fact that, simply, he was one of them: he wasn’t an engineer, but he was a career aerospace guy.

I think it was only about a month after that when my boss suggested things weren’t working out. He felt I “wasn’t being proactive,” which pissed me off—but he was right: I knew it wasn’t working out weeks before that, and I should have been the one going to him to say, “You know, as cool as this place is, what I think you need isn’t what I can give you.”

This has been back on my mind because I’ve decided I don’t want to end up doing something I’m going to be frustrated with (or make my employer frustrated with me). I’m still not 100% comfortable with the consulting lifestyle, in part because until you can pick and choose your clients you choose projects based on “will this pay the bills” rather than “does this excite me.” Yet I’m starting to ask: does this role feel right for me? It’s flattering to be solicited to apply to be a developer evangelist for a product I’m not using—not a hypothetical example—but unless I not only start using it but get really excited about it, am I going to be the guy they want to evangelize that product? If your company’s pitch is “finding ways to deliver mobile phone ads to billions of second- and third-world consumers”—also not a hypothetical—is that actually something I’d even want to help with? It’d be nice to find a place I could be Bill for—but it’s tough. It may require building a company myself, which I can’t say I haven’t thought about. (Maybe I should be a writer!)

I don’t know whether the aerospace company ever found a new Operations Something who had less web nerd and more pushy people person, a combo that might have been able to pull it off. I heard that the position got defunded in their next fiscal year—which doesn’t surprise me. Ultimately, I think they were paying Bill to be Bill.

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