Thursday, March 16, 2006

APA, a short, but interesting step. . .

So, here I was, once again packing my life into banker’s boxes, putting those boxes in the back of my truck and heading for a “new home”, professionally anyway. I was now the Director of Application Development, in a real development house…

I recall starting off at APA (which stood for “Application Programming Associates”) with great hopes. Chuck took me around the shop that first day and introduced me to the team.

It was an eclectic bunch, comprised of graduate students from Syracuse University, some regular programmer type folks, varied experience levels, along with varied business and academic exposure as well.

Clark and Chuck (Gronsbell), really had gathered a very good mix of talent, a group that had all the makings of a powerhouse development team.

The first few days, I spent most of my time getting settled in my office, becoming familiar with the projects APA was working on and getting a list of the ‘punch lists’ from Chuck for all the projects.

I personally took over a rework of an inventory management project they’d done for Agway (a large farmer’s cooperative). Most of the work involved performance testing and addressing coding issues that were negatively affecting the applications performance.

Most of the rest of the team was in the middle of a project for “West Coast Life”. They were developing a system that was intended to be distributed to the company’s agents to assist them in providing information to the agents in the sales process.

It was to be called “PEP”… the Producer’s Electronic Partner. It had very progressive features, and the company wanted the application to be as ‘state of the art’ as possible, within their budget.

One of the first meetings I held with the developers centered around some design, what today we’d call UI (or User Interface), issues. In that meeting I sketched out an idea I had for how the agent would interact with their prospect list.

In short, the idea involved a ‘file folder’ appearance on the screen, which would allow the agents to ‘flip’ through the folders much like they would through the folders in a file cabinet. There was a lot of discussion about the amount of effort, the problems, the hurdles that building an interface like this would present. The meeting ended however, with one of the guys saying he’d take a shot at it.

As I remember, that meeting ended around 10:30 in the morning.
As I was preparing to go to a lunch meeting, that same guy called me to his desk. As I walked up behind him he keyed in a command or two, looked at me and asked: “Was this what you had in mind?”.

There, on the screen, as though I’d coded it myself was the idea I’d sketched out in the meeting. A little less than an hour and a half later… it’s a reality! Obviously, everything wasn’t done, but the ‘graphic’ portion (the part that had been complained about) was, and it looked, and felt, exactly as I’d envisioned it.

The guy, well that was Ken Sheldon. I’ve mentioned Ken here before; we’re about a year short of knowing each other 20 years now. Ken remains one of the single best programmers I’ve ever known. In all the time I’ve known him, there hasn’t been a single project thrown at us we haven’t been able to do. No feature we couldn’t build, every innovation requirement we’ve been handed, we’ve met. If for no other reason, meeting Ken made my stay at APA worth it!

You see, I realized that day, that for whatever reason, Ken and I have some sort of ‘sync’ mentally. He and I found we had an almost innate ability to understand each other at not only a conceptual level, but that we formed similar ‘mental pictures’ from words. Let me tell you folks, in my world it’s a fairly rare occurrence!

So, things progressed at APA, over the next several weeks, I put the Agway piece to bed and began to focus on pulling the team together and setting goals, delivery schedules and so on.

In doing so I had several discussions with Chuck where he agreed with my direction, and assured me he wanted me to run the development show.

One Monday morning, after one of those discussions the previous Friday, I got to work and had about half of the developers show up for work. I tried calling them to no avail, and when I asked the receptionist if she had additional ‘contact’ information for the guys who were MIA, she informed me that Chuck had taken them all to see the client (West Coast Life) in California, and they’d left on Sunday.

I was pretty upset, here I’d been charged with getting the development effort on track, and half the team was gone, and Chuck hadn’t even felt like it was important to let me know what was going on, but, he had let the receptionist know.

I waited until they all got back, and had yet another discussion with Chuck, where I explained that I understood the need to make the trip, bring the ‘dog & pony show’ to the client, make a show of force and all that, but, that if he wanted me to take responsibility for hitting the deadlines, he simply couldn’t do that, especially without letting me know.

In the end, Chuck agreed, and promised to keep me in the loop with respect to this sort of thing and I reaffirmed my commitment to him, and the company.

Imagine my surprise, when, a couple of Mondays later I get to work, and once again, about half of the team is missing.

The process pretty much was repeated, except this time, when the receptionist told me where everyone was, I said: “When Chuck calls in, you can tell him he’s going to have to find someone else to run this show.”

With that, I packed my stuff up, loaded my truck once again, and headed home, no job but a list of clients. I was fairly sure I could “make eats”.

The APA saga is one of those, “what could have been” things in my life. Ken and I have talked about it often.

Chuck had the ‘sales gift’, and he was technical enough to understand the complexities, time and value involved in developing large scale applications. He had the ability to not only find, but to close, very big development deals. He would have made a perfect counterpart to my ability to bring project to product.

In a different time, had I not been fresh off a ‘burn’ at Omnifax, I might have stayed and worked things out with Chuck. I mentioned before, in an earlier post, that he and I were a lot alike, and we were. We were both very much ‘take charge’ guys, and neither of us had much flex when we made up our minds. If we had, or maybe if “I” had, things might have turned out differently for both of us.

Next… Micro Applications is ‘reborn’. . .

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7 comments:

Greg said...

Yea!! for Dr. S.

Firehawk said...

Bill,

It's pretty hard to work for anyone who listens and nods their head, then keeps on doing exactly what they want, regardless of what the agreement might be.

Probably a smart idea to leave. It may have been a "this town ain't big enough for the both of us," situation. It's funny how a trait that can be so vital for one phase of doing business can actually be a big liability in other sitautions.

Comfort Addict said...

I love those stories of early software development days. The kids coming up today, even if they're in start-ups, would not have the same experiences. In big corporations, it's a different world with Sarbanes-Oxley, PMBOK and audit holding sway. Don't get me wrong - accountability is important. However, it definitely changes the climate from the days of freewheeling pure innovation.

Bill said...

Greg - Yeah... he's definitely one of the good guys, a man I'm proud to call my friend!

Firehawk - The interesting thing is... I know I've been just like that, at times, myself.

I can be my own worst enemy!

Chuck went on to a pretty illustrious career, that I intend to mention in the next post.

CA - There's a reason most of us see tham as the 'glory days'.

Everything is by 'project plan' and RDD's, FSD's, DSD's etc... It's almost become a 'sterile' process, and, in many cases, devoid of the innovation that originally fueled everything.

I sense there may be a shift on the horizon though... smaller teams, innovation ruling again, coupled with rapid development techniques and reasonable timelines...

Or wait... was that just a dream I had?

Greg said...

You are the lucky one...I always suspected I would have liked to know Ken better...it musta been the music.

Bill said...

Greg - Our section is coming up quick bro... and it was, and remains, the most intense portion of my career.

I can remember feeling that 'brass ring' it's cool, hard, slippery texture, as it slipped once again from my (our) grasp.

The story isn't over, it's just been on pause. It's possible the best has been saved for last!!

Bill said...

Oh... and Greg? You're right; I was the lucky one... I got to meet you, under very strange circumstances and believe it or not, that meeting is one of those events in my life I consider a ‘pivotal’ moment.!!