Monday, April 03, 2006

The Life I Love Is Making Software with My Friends. . .(Part#5)

The next year, 1994, was one of the best (in my opinion) of my professional career.

That was the year I envisioned, and created, the “Policy Server”.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my original vision for it was in DDE, well, DDE it turned out, was not yet ready for prime time heavy duty use. It worked, to a point. In Word for example, you could ‘poke’ a few items on to a page, but, often the formatting, font and point size would simply ‘change’ mid-document.

It was incredibly frustrating, so close, yet, in reality, not even close. With insurance policies, close, just doesn’t get it. They’re legal documents and subject to all sorts of scrutiny, especially in the case of a claim.

So we pressed on, along the way a colleague, Joe Frazier, from Greensboro, had a Dr. Vahrma working with him and they seemed to think they could build a simple engine, in Word Basic to do what we had in mind. The boss have them the go ahead to give it a shot, and we pressed forward, with the other side of the process, despite not knowing if, or when, they’d have a solution.

The company had also hired an intern, Igor Pavlov, who’d been assigned to the team. Igor was no programmer, but, he was very bright, and learned as fast as anyone I’ve ever known. Once Joe and the Doc delivered their model, Igor and I knew it wasn’t exactly what we’d had in mind, but, it was a shell we could work with.

We were on a roll. Igor was creating Word documents like a mad scientist, over 500 in all eventually, and that was for one primary insurance carrier.

In the background we wrote the FoxPro side, which gathered the data from the policy, and built it into a carefully formatted text table (document) to exchange with Word at a later point.

While all of this was going on, we also completed several other components that would eventually tie everything together.

I can still remember, like it was yesterday, the day Igor and I produced our first, completed document. It worked like magic; unfortunately we still had a ton of programming to do. My estimate was close to 90 days to complete everything, one of the other guys felt it would take 30 days, as I remember, Igor was somewhere in the middle, but then again he was creating Word documents, and knew his needs.

The owner, well, ever the optimist, he went with the 30 day estimate.

Once again, it was long days, longer nights, and weekends… but then again, I was ‘on the clock’… and 800 miles from home… so the hours didn’t really matter (in the end it was the best earning year I’d ever had up to that point.)

I remember a couple of things… the backlog of policies waiting for the print process to be completed, they were everywhere, like the “tribbles” in one of those Star Trek episodes, just piling up, and a constant reminder, of how far behind we really were.

I also remember the yelling, the demands for faster work, and the general ‘pressure cooker’ feeling that went with every day. At one point I even started working a ‘shifted’ day, where I’d go in to the office at around 3:00am, so I could work uninterrupted until 8:00am when the rest of the staff arrived.

Most of all though, I remember when the process was finally working, and how those stacks of policies went down, hour by hour, day by day. With each passing day we learned a little more about how to adjust the parameters of the ‘engine’ until it just cranked out, job after job after job.

It wasn’t perfect, it was 1994, there were still significant ‘memory leakage’ issues with Word (especially Word Basic) and with FoxPro as well, most of it due to the really bad memory model in those early versions of Windows.

By the close of 1994 though, we were the talk of the industry sector we were in. Big insurance company folks were coming in to our offices just to see the “Policy Server” run, and kick out their policies.

We took things that had previously been ‘forms’, placed in a typewriter, into polished documents.

When the Christmas party rolled around that year, they thanked me, and the rest of the staff for all of the hard work, and promised them that “Bill will not be around next year”.

I remember feeling very proud of what we pulled off that year, and as we were parting shortly before Christmas, I once again had those mixed feelings that often accompany the end of a challenging project. I’m glad the pressure, impossible deadlines and endless demands are over… but, I know I’ll miss the adrenaline rush of rising to the challenge.

For all the things that went wrong here, for all the arguments, disagreements, planning disasters and ‘flaws’… great work got done here… really… really great work. How great? Over a decade later, that same engine, was still running, still kicking out policies… it had flat worn out at least six printers, four of them were of the $50,000+ variety… millions, and millions of pages.

I learned something too… it’s not about the job, the working conditions or the effort. For me anyway, it’s all about the ‘work’… the process. Creating solutions, solving problems… making computers do things I’ve been told can’t be done… that to me, is the real reward.

I headed home though, a few days before Christmas, but not before calling Metro and saying I was ready for another gig, “just tell me where I’m headed”… I just couldn’t wait to get on the road again.

As usual though… what I thought would happen next… didn’t… in fact, what I least expected happened.

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4 comments:

Firehawk said...

Bill,

Regardless of what happens, days when you know you've been going BTTW and done all you could possibly do are good for the soul.

It seems that you were able to extract all the good things about that job and work around the bad ones. I suppose the realization that you'd kicked butt, even against long odds and a lot of people's mistakes, makes the victory all that much sweeter.

There's a great deal to be learned from these stories. Thanks for letting us in on them.

Bill said...

Firehawk - I'm learning a lot writing all up... Some of this, especially the last couple posts have been difficult.

I don't want to ignore that there were some difficult times, people, work and so on... but I certainly don't want to focus on it.

There really was some incredible work going on during this time, and in all honesty, to me, it's the work that matters!

Thanks for taking the time to read, and comment!!

Comfort Addict said...

Great series, Bill. I can relate to so much of it (though your accomplishments dwarf mine). It really helps to remind myself, in the midst of out-sourced project from Hell, what can happen and what's really important. Thanks.

Bill said...

CA - I think, if we talked, I'd be more impressed with yours... it's a matter of perspective I think!

From the worst of situations, can come some of our best work... or at least some of mine..

Look for an email from me.