Sunday, August 27, 2006

Management? Not me, not any more. . .

Now that I’ve had my little (Ok, verbose) management rant, I need to say that I have no interest in ever managing, anything or anyone, ever again.

A recruiter called me this week, and while we were talking he wanted me to explain to him how it was possible for me to be ‘just a contractor’ after having been a CFO and a CIO.

There were a couple of seconds of silence from my end as I pondered the question, yet again, and before I answered.

In those few seconds, a couple of things became very clear to me, in fact you could say I had a genuine “moment of clarity”, one is that I'm not "just a contractor", the other had to do more with what it is that gets me out of bed each day.

I’ve never sought out a management position, not once, in any of my various careers.

In each and every case, management was 'forced' on me. You might be thinking that forced is a strong word, but in retrospect, there really was no other choice if I wanted to stay employed.

By the way, to set the record straight, I’ve never considered myself a great, or even a good manager. Hell, I’d fail my own tests!

Regardless though, in every job I’ve ever had, eventually there was the conversation where I’d be told I was being moved, or asked to move, into management. Early on, I was flattered (impressed with myself even) and leapt at the opportunity. Initially I’d “set the house on fire” making changes. I would work hard to make things more efficient, better organized and to foster a better sense of ‘team’ within the department.

Once I got through that process however, I’d find myself bored. Anything that remained to do seemed only incremental; inversely proportionate the effort required to bring the change about… in short, it just wasn’t worth the effort, to me, or to the company.

For quite some time, when that happened, instead of simply finding a new job, I’d find a whole new career.

Then, in the early 80’s I discovered computers, and in particular, programming. There’s been no turning back for me since.

Most would say, or think, that I hit the pinnacle of my career when I became CIO. It’s the top gig in the IS/IT field, when you’re CIO, you’re definitely the top dog in the yard.

What I found though is that despite being the top dog in ‘my world’ I was still not the top dog. Also, once I would make the jump from actually doing, to managing, for me all the fun was gone.

Well not all the fun, but a big chunk of it anyway. I’ve tried, in every management role I’ve had, to take pride in leading my team, and I’ve had some great teams. Most were not comprised of stars, but of folks who had a passion for software development, or infrastructure building and simply needed a place to exercise that passion.

While I’d like to think I provided that, within either my abilities, or the available funding. I do know for certain that I’ve seen some folks, who couldn’t catch a break job-wise, shine once they were given an opportunity.

It wasn’t what I wanted though. I’d find myself envious of their being able to be ‘doing’, to be building the things I’d (or we’d) designed. To be pushing the envelope, finding new and innovative ways to utilize not only new technology, but even the tools we already had.

So, to me, the pinnacle of my career was when I had my little company, in Upstate NY, and Ken and I developed software, together. I never ‘managed’ Ken, he didn’t need managing. Like me, all he ever really needed was to know what was needed; he’d take care of the rest. I definitely wasn’t making much money, in fact most years I paid him more than I had left for myself. It never mattered though, because the truth is, I loved, and I mean loved, going to work!!

If I’d been born with any athletic ability, I would have been a player, not a coach. I know, given my track record I might have coached, but I would have always wanted to play the game.

There’s been some talk recently, of having me manage a project or two at work. While once again I’m flattered that I’m being considered, I’m pretty sure I’d decline the offer. Even if it meant I’d have to find a new gig. I don’t want to manage anything, any more. I want to be doing, building, troubleshooting, debugging, data mining, data manipulation, inventing… I don’t want to manage anything, people or processes, I want to design, and then build them.

I could be happy just building teams, but once they were built, I’d want to be able to turn them over to someone else to manage, and move on to building another.

I’m a builder, not a manager. It’s taken me a while to discover this about myself… I’m almost embarrassed at how long it’s taken… when I look back, I can see, and very clearly, that the points in my life where I was happiest, involved building things. Cars, trucks, buildings, software... it really hasn’t mattered, it’s been the building, the creating, that’s always ‘lit my fire’.

Along with that, has been the team, Ken and I were a team, at times it was difficult for folks to know which sections of an application Ken, or I, wrote. We’d often arrive at the same solution to a problem, at times with nearly identical processes. We had a synergy that I’ve rarely had since. The times I did have it again, we were always following someone elses agenda, so it wasn't quite the same.

So, as I look forward to the closing years of my career, I’m seeking to back up, not move up. I’m trying to get back to doing those things that bring me joy and happiness. I find myself wondering if it’s a good plan, as ‘common sense’ says I should be looking to maximize my earnings now, not seeking ‘fulfillment’…

But, in the end, what good is status, or money, if the price you paid for it was not doing what you love, or enjoying the process of obtaining it?

So.. what is it that gets you out of bed each day and headed for work? Is it just the money, the paycheck? Or is it the "what", of what it is you do?

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Management, Managers, Part#2

Before I get started, Tamar left a link in her comment and I followed it. Joel definitely has some interesting things to say on management. I definitely like his take on things. His company and their basic business plan sound solid as well. I hope he finds all the success he hopes for. You can read his Identity Management piece here.

Here’s the short version of his business model. You can read more about how he puts it into practice here.

Best Working Conditions Best Programmers Best Software Profit!

So… back to qualities of a good manager… or at least those I think are found in great managers.

The last three items on my list are:

  • Knowledge not only of those being managed, but their jobs as well
  • An understanding of the company, it’s revenue sources, and how their department aids in revenue development
  • Remembering that everyone, including their ‘stars’ makes mistakes, often at the worst possible times.

Knowledge of those being managed, and their jobs

This is something that never ceases to annoy me. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve poured over requirements, tweaked functional design to arrive at what I truly believe is a realistic time line, only to have some non-technical manager toss it back to me with a “It can’t possibly take that long” dismissal of the project timeline.

I don’t care what the ‘job’ is, there are always hidden, often costly (especially in terms of time) needs in getting the job done.

In software development, one of the biggest is integrating new features into an existing application. In order to accurately estimate that, the person (or better yet, persons) responsible for the estimate, must have an excellent understanding of the existing application, the proposed new features, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the development team.

It takes all of that knowledge to properly estimate the project.

Now I’m not talking about shifting a deadline a day, or even a week… I’m talking about a project that has say a 6 month timeline, and management cutting into 3 months to fit some budget number they invented prior to actually scoping the project.

In my experience, this is a classic means to development disaster. Initially, the development group will take on the challenge, as most love a challenge. However, as things progress, and about 30 days into the project the realization will hit them, that, regardless of what they do, they’ll never hit the target.

Inevitably, there’ll be some adjustment, attempts to better allocate the right individual to the right tasks, possibly add two weeks, maybe even a month to the deadline… but eventually, if the original estimate was properly done, everyone will see the ‘light’.

What happens next can often demoralize a previously productive team, and their manager. In order to focus ‘blame’ the other managers will often cite the developers, or their manager as being inept, unable to code to the requirements, or worse as totally incompetent.

Eventually, after things shake out, depending on how mission critical the project was, it will be scrapped, or the developer team will be scrapped and the project restarted. I’ve actually been called in to projects that were on their 3rd iteration of this cycle.

How their department aids in revenue development

Believe it or not, I’ve met managers, especially IS/IT managers who had no idea what the company’s primary revenue source was, or, the belief they did have was about as far from reality as it could have been.

Let’s face it, every company (yes, even a ‘not-for-profit’ company), is in business to make money. It’s not an altruistic endeavor, it’s a money making process.

It’s a huge mistake for anyone, especially a manager, to not fully understand what drives the company’s cash flow, how’s it’s gathered, how it’s spent and how much is left over as profit each year.

It’s an even bigger mistake to not fully comprehend where you, and your team, fit into that equation.

  • Are you helping drive revenue generation?
  • Are you providing tools to the sales folks to facilitate revenue production?
  • Is your group seen as an expense, or a capital investment?
If you’re in a situation where your efforts are viewed simply as a business expense, you’ll be subject to the same cost cutting strategies used to cut the cost of coffee in the break room. On the other hand, if you’re group is seen as an investment in the future of the company, and you produce as though the life of the company depends on it, you’ll be treated as the valuable asset you are.

It’s that simple really… Act like an asset, get treated like one. Behave like an expense, and you’ll be treated as a cost to be minimized where ever possible.

To be treated as an asset, you have to understand the fundamental difference between assets and expenses, to not do so, is corporate suicide.

Remember that everyone makes mistakes, usually at the worst possible time

This item, while it’s last, is certainly not least. I’ve seen some stellar performers just beaten into the ground over a single mistake. I’m talking about someone who’s produced quality work, day in, and day out, for say six months. Then, usually trying to meet one of those imposed deadlines, they miss a crucial test step, and a bad piece of code makes it out of development and into production.

Certainly they didn’t do it ‘on purpose’, if that’s suspected it’s an entirely different matter. No, in this situation it was a mistake, pure and simple, an oversight, a lapse in judgment, or even possibly the incorrect assumption that there was someone else doing sufficient testing ‘down stream’.

I’ve heard the same manager who last week was recommending this same person for a bonus, or some other company perk… screaming the next that “I don’t know why I let you stay on the team!”, “Why is it you never get anything right?”, “You’re damn lucky I’m not firing you over this!”, and on an on…

Look folks (especially if you’re a manager) let’s just set the record straight.

People, make mistakes.

It’s that simple, no one, not even the greatest of the great are ‘perfect’ every single day, at every single thing they do. Jerry Rice is arguably one of the best receivers to ever play professional football. Even he dropped the occasional pass, misread a signal and ran the wrong route… it happens.

A great manager knows this, and works with it, adjusts. Even the best of plans can’t include every single possibility, cover every aspect of potential failure, or test every possible key stroke a user might enter within an application.

The best managers I’ve worked for used every failure as a learning opportunity. They adjusted their overall plan, from start to finish to take this new knowledge into account and to minimize the chance it could happen again.

Notice I said ‘minimize’, not prevent, it from happening. There is no plan that’s 100% perfect in eliminating possible points of failure. The best plans though, are constructed to be flexible, and to look for, and catch as many as possible before they can leave the ‘shop’ and get to a customer.

I’ve got some more to say on management in general, but let’s just say for now, that I believe that having the right working environment, the right staff, and clear well defined (and communicated) goals are the core to making people productive.

Once again, I invite you to share your experiences, and thoughts, good or bad. If you’d rather not post them publicly, go to my profile and drop me an email.. If you email me, put “CCW Management” in the subject line so it doesn’t get caught in my spam filter!!

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Management Style….

Is that sort of like “Jumbo Shrimp”? A classic oxymoron?

At times I think so.

Most managers have about as much ‘style’ as a laundry bag.

I talk (or write) a lot about bad management, so I thought it was about time I put some words together about what I think makes a good manager. What separates the good from the bad, those with style from the ugly?

It’s a combination of elements actually, not simply one thing.

  • staying cool in the midst of disaster
  • fostering teams, as opposed to superstars
  • ability to see both the big picture, and the details as well
  • an understanding that while deadlines are important, so are resources to meet them
  • knowledge not only of those being managed, but their jobs as well
  • an understanding of the company, it’s revenue sources, and how their department aids in revenue development
  • Remembering that everyone, including their ‘stars’ makes mistakes, often at the worst possible times.
Stay cool

One of the best Unix guys I’ve ever known used to compare working at a client site to being a concert pianist. That regardless of the obstacles or set backs, you could never let the client wee you sweat.

The idea behind it was if the client saw that you, the ‘expert’, were concerned, or flustered, it would affect their confidence levels. That if they lost confidence, it didn’t much matter what happened next, you were doomed with respect to any ongoing client relationship.

I felt it was a pretty apt analogy, one that also applies to managers. Workers look to the manager in times of trouble to gain a perspective, to understand the extent of the emergency and to be reassured that everything will get resolved. Not only that it will get resolved, but what they need to do to aid in that resolution.

A good manager will rally the troops around a problem, hand out assignments (to everyone not just one or two key players), as well as assist where they can, and monitor the progress. In short, involve the entire team in achieving a resolution, giving each team member a stake in solving the problem.

There won’t be any yelling, screaming or finger pointing. There will be an ability to focus on the problem, and how to fix it, rather than finding an individual to ‘blame’ for it.

There’s plenty of time, after the problem is resolved to take those involved in creating it aside and determining what went wrong, and if there’s a ‘responsibility’, to determine where the breakdown was that created it. Once that’s done, to act swiftly to do what’s required to ensure it will not be repeated.

Foster teams, as opposed to superstars

This one is tough for many managers. It seems that anyone can manage superstars, but it takes a real manager to turn a group of average or above average folks into a superstar team. I suppose if it was easy, there be a league wide tie every year in the NFL.

Any manager can shine with ‘superstars’… the fact is though, that for every one true superstar, there are 100 maybe a 1,000 of the rest of us. If you want to manage people, to do it effectively you need to learn how to play to the strengths of each of the individual players. Learn to maximize their efforts, and therefore their contributions, to their strengths, not their weaknesses.

That might seem like a no brainer, but I’m willing to bet everyone of you has seen a manager assign a task to someone not at all well suited to it, simply because there was ‘room on their plate’. The harder call is to reallocate some of the existing tasks, to get the right person on the right tasks, so that everyone is playing to their strengths where ever possible.

Fostering teams, also means doing more than just saying you want everyone to work as a team. It means encouraging team meetings, both formal, and informal. Encouraging, no, expecting, that the team members talk to each other, toss around ideas, argue, and find the best solutions, together, not as individual components.

I’ve seen too many managers focused on the ‘head down’ mentality, and in virtually every case, the team suffered. The results of their efforts where diminished, and deadlines loomed, had there been a little more communication, a lot more could have been accomplished, with a lot less stress.

See both the big picture and the details as well

Most managers can see the big picture; the best managers see each of the details as well. They understand the whole model, front to back, end to end and everything in between.

Some managers focus solely on one, or the other, the best give appropriate focus to both the overall plan, and the details involved in achieving that plan as well.

I’ll admit it’s a delicate balance, and often a tenuous one at best. Regardless though, to be a truly great manager, that person has to strike the balance, often rebalancing several times a week, or even a day, as events dictate. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the plan itself and lose sight of the obstacles facing your team. Those little details that seem fairly unimportant today, if left to resolve themselves, can end up tripping up the entire team’s progress. The good managers know this and attend to not only the big issues, but the details as well.

This does not involve ‘micro-management’ however. It’s more a role of facilitator, spotting those obstacles as they arise, listening to the team when they talk about the issues their facing. In fact, it’s a culture of encouraging these issues to be raised. Not simply accepting the “no problems” response, but actively looking for and eliminating roadblocks to the team’s success.

While deadlines are important, so are resources to meet them

I wish I still had a dollar for every ‘deadline’ centric manager I’ve worked for. I could retire now.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of deadlines, and meeting them. Rather to point out that a team can’t meet their deadlines if they don’t have all the resources they need to do so.

One of my favorite sayings is:

“I’ve done so much, with so little, for so long, that now, I can do anything with nothing.”

That, unfortunately, is the plight of the average worker these days. Increasingly tight deadlines, diminishing resources, more pressure for flawless performance and increasing expectations for the finished product.

The great managers see all of these changes, weigh them and determine the best way to meet them. Either head on, or in a flanking maneuver, one way or another they must be met, and overcome. They understand how to most effectively deploy the team, maximizing their strengths, and minimizing their weaknesses as they address every obstacle to success.

It’s another delicate balance this mix of deadline commitments and resources, but one a manager has to master to be good, or even great. Without mastering it, they’ll just be another manager, who’s managing, to get by. They’ll never be one of those managers who always seem able to rise to the challenge, and where everyone is striving to get on their team.

That’s it for today… next up, the rest of the list!
As always, leave me a comment, tell me what you think. What made your best managers, the best, or the worst, the worst?

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Living, on the edge, of security. . .

Firehawk mentioned in a recent comment that he’s been feeling like employers enjoy keeping their employee’s, on edge, perpetually uncertain about what tomorrow will bring.

I find myself holding typically, for me, diametrically opposing views on this.

I’ve had the experience of working for employers who seemed almost fixated on getting employees to feel very safe and secure, others, who definitely liked everyone to be concerned about their job security, and yet others who seemed not to care either way.

Admittedly, the bulk of my career has been spent either as an independent contractor, or working for smaller, family owned operations, so my take on things is probably a little skewed as a result.

With that said, I think there are definitely three distinct employer types.

Those who:

- Use ‘fear’ to manage the person, and the job
- Attempt to only manage the work, not the person
- Build in a ‘secure’ feeling to manage the person, and the job

I would like to think that the second out numbers the 1st and 3rd combined, but I’m not so sure that’s true. I do know that those companies I’ve been involved with who limited their efforts to managing the work, were better run over all, than those who fell into category 1 or 3.

The folks I’m currently contracted to fall into that 2nd category. They waste little time attempting do much more than what I’d consider standard things with respect to managing the ‘fear’ factor. When they went through a fairly large directional change, they notified all employees by email of the change. They’ve continued to hold informational meetings every other week as the new directions for the company are mapped and decided upon.

I’ve had the misfortune to also be employed by companies in categories 1 and 3 as well though.

I think the worst of those was the company in category 3. One of the favorite sayings of the owner involved the phrase “job for life”. He would tell people as they were hired that there had never been, and most likely would never be, a ‘lay-off’, that once they were ‘on board’ the company would work to ensure they’d always have a job.

Today, that company is a part of history. Although I don’t doubt the sincerity of the words; they still served to build a false sense of security in everyone who worked there. I know from talking with those folks who’d been let go as various divisions closed, that they’d never expected to be told they were no longer needed, or that their jobs were being eliminated. I say worst, because there was no anticipation, no expectation that ‘they’ would ever be effected, it was only happening to other people.

Category 1, the ‘fear’ folks however, in my mind, are the real management disaster.

The fear they attempt to keep alive, tends to be tied to several other management idiosyncrasies as well. But, the real problem is that in perpetuating the fear, they also hamper the very productivity they really are trying to improve.

It’s my contention that people, in general want to be secure, and feeling like they’re doing a good job, and are a valuable resource to the organization, are key to that security. That a culture of uncertainty takes workers focus off the job at hand, and places it on staying out of ‘harms way’. Avoiding any behavior that might ‘rock the boat’ or bring them into the spotlight.

The ‘fear’ managers, actively work to disrupt that secure feeling, preferring instead to keep the employee feeling like they’re ‘not quite there’ yet. There’s always one more thing the person needs to do, one more effort to be made, one more something. I’ve actually had this done to me, at different levels, by the same company.

When I first went to work at the company, I was constantly being told how ‘important’ my contribution was… interestingly enough, I was also renting a home at the time. The fact that I was able to simply pick up, and move, with no tangible ‘roots’, unsettled the employer.

Once I’d purchased a home however, things changed, and rapidly. Within a week, I started what I called “my turn in the box”, the same work that had been great a month ago, was now not enough. Phone calls on weekends, demanding requests that always had to be done before Monday… impossible end of day demands… requiring me to stay (like a lot of others) after the end of the regular work day to achieve them.

I doubt that I would have ever put it together, had my 1st wife and I not separated.

When I was temporarily renting again… amazingly enough… all of that stopped. Suddenly I was the ‘Golden Boy’ again and the accolades returned. Initially, I thought I’d somehow just earned my way back into the ‘good graces’… However, over the course of the next year or so, I began to see a pattern in the bosses behavior, and began to think that as long as he thought I could just pick up and leave, I’d be ‘safe’.

Now I would have thought it was all in my head, if, it hadn’t happened, all over again when I once again purchased a home. I left shortly after that, as I realized that success there, was fleeting (at best) and my temperament did not lend itself to those conditions.

I respond much better to thanks than to threats, in fact a threat is very likely to be met with me calling out the person making the threat. In fact, one of my favorite memories is the expression on a boss’ face as he yelled “Tell me! Who should I fire over this!?”

I replied simply, “If you think that firing someone, will solve anything, just go ahead and fire *me*.” In the end, he didn’t fire anyone; he was just looking to create fear that he would.

I liken what’s happening out there in the workplace today; to times most folks think are long past… what I like to call the “Ebenezer Scrooge” style of management. There was so much progress in ‘management theory’ in the 70’s and 80’s it looked like there would be only stories to remind us of how things once were.

Unfortunately, once folks stopped looking closely at management styles again, all the old ways began to creep back in. The difference is, this time; they’re being applied by folks with a lot of psychological behavior exposure.

My advice? Pay attention, know what you will, and will not accept. Always be prepared to walk away, have a cushion, a set aside, for those times you do walk away. The one thing I’ve discovered is that, for me, there’s no amount of money that will compensate me for bad working conditions.

Tell me what you see… what kind of boss do you have? What kind of boss are you? What’s the corporate culture where you are?

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Friday, August 18, 2006

One more old friend deserves a mention. . .

I’ve mentioned my good friend, collaborator, business associate, antagonist, instigator, and fellow revolutionary Greg Gusse here before.

The adventures he, and I, have had could fill a small book… then again if either of us wrote it, it would be a large book.

Why Greg today you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. I was on line last night IM’ing with some of the developers from the job when Greg messaged me… About the first thing he typed was “take a look at this .

So, of course I did.. and so should you! There’s a link on the page to a report on Alaska, and while there’s a ton of information on the state in the report. There are a number of beautiful pictures that capture the natural beauty of the place as well. Many of them were taken by Greg in his travels around the state.

If you find you like the pictures, visit his photography pages, listed under the ‘Some Friends Sites’ section in the right sidebar. There’s a ton of great pictures there.

He was as excited as I was last year when my first article got published… it was great to see him that excited.

We did a lot of great work together back in the day… we had a synergy… a synergy that fueled my creative side… and caused me to write some exceptional pieces of code. Well, actually he called them exceptional, and as we chatted I found myself agreeing with him.

He mentioned one piece specifically that I’d nearly forgotten, a tool that allowed the storage of formatted SQL (sequel) statements in a database for later retrieval and execution. It wasn’t exceptional, in and of, itself, but for what it made possible.

At the time I wrote it, it was more of a work around, than a crafted masterpiece. I hated trying to read long strings of SQL that had no format, or ‘structure’. So I wanted to build and test the SQL, assign it a name, and store it in a table for later retrieval.

The problem was, that with the line feeds, carriage returns and ‘tab’ characters, it would choke the runtime. So, I wrote a small, fast little ‘c_ClnStr’ routine that would remove all the unacceptable characters and then hand it off for execution.

Greg used that piece, in a project for a large bank in New York, and that app has been running, everyday now for six and a half years.

Today, with the fast rise in affordable databases, complete with triggers and stored procedures, it’s probably not nearly as useful as it once was. At the time though, it was a solution, to a problem, most folks hadn’t yet contemplated, at least in FoxPro.

There was also a report generation process I had, that allowed multiple ‘bands’ within a report, much in the same way you can drop multiple ‘frames’ in a CSS template today. Back then though, you had a Header, a detail and a footer band. That little app allowed multiple sections within the detail band and really let you treat data very differently and dynamically.

Almost all of that code is stored away somewhere, untouched in many years, mostly because the features available in the languages, became much better, and there were now simpler ways to do those things.

Many of the smaller functions that were part of those tools are still in my code “tool box”, and I still use many of them nearly every day. I guess I’m still a mechanic at heart, because there’s not a mechanic I know who would part with one of his favorite tools, unless it flat out did not work any longer.

I use some of them, so often; I sometimes forget they’re not part of the Visual FoxPro language. Most of those I’ve also ported to VB and C# .Net, or placed in my VFP library for .Net.

Talking to Greg, is almost always good for my soul… it was a rough week at work… long days, lots of pressure. It was made a bit easier because of the great team… but running into Greg, just as we were putting the finishing touches on a new deployment really was a nice finish to a long day!

So, if you haven’t yet… click the link to either his photography site or go check out the Report on Alaska, and make his day!

As always…. Thanks for stopping by!!

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

One more tree, from the forest…

First, on a totally unrelated topic… it seems the “droneMatrix” (originally coined by Richard over at FoxProCatalyst) has drawn some interest. For those of you who’ve stopped in for that, scroll down! Like Richard, I’ve got more to say on that subject, but on another day.

I’ve failed to mention, in the last few posts about firefighting, my friend Greg Campbell. He’s the guy who called me to let me know what had happened at the fire in Cleveland.

Back in the day Greg was the Chief of the McConnelsville FD. He was a young buck back then, and as dedicated as anyone to the ‘art’ of firefighting. Like the Cleveland and North Bay Departments, he’d managed to put together a tight knit core group of hard core folks and pushed hard for better, well, better everything.

Greg was nothing if not resourceful though. I remember when his department really needed another tanker to haul water to our rural fire scenes (and the vast majority were rural, no fire hydrants, all the water is trucked in). He managed to get his (or the department’s) hands on an old tank truck, a retired fuel oil truck I think it was. I have fond memories of Greg, Larry Flint and I (along with some other MCFD folks) cutting out the internal baffles, opening up the ‘dump valves’ and turning that old truck into a nice, useful, piece of equipment.

I remember wiring up red lights, behind the grille in his Dodge (a retired Police Cruiser) in the driveway at my house, in the snow. Lest you think it was all ‘work’ I also remember drinking strawberry daiquiris on the deck at his house on a summer afternoon after either training all morning in the heat, or returning from a fire.

Greg made a big difference, one that I’m sure is still being felt today for the MCFD, and then went on to help engineer a real turn around in the Vienna FD as well.

He’s ‘out of the game’ now, like I am. He got married, has a family, home and all the responsibilities… but when we talk, I can still hear the love for it in his voice. He’s still got the FD in his blood though… just like I do.

I was thinking, just yesterday, that I don’t know where I ever found all the time for the department, and managed to earn a living as well. I know that early on I was teaching, and only had classes on either Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday depending on the semester. That certainly made ‘being around’ a bit easier, but on the off days I also had free lance work for my customers as well.

I have distinct memories of 2:00am fires, getting off scene in just barely enough time to shower, change and get to the school before my first class, teaching all day, getting home and getting another alarm within an hour….

I wasn’t alone. We all had ‘real jobs’, and then we had the department.

I really do wish I could remember all the calls, all the drills and re-tell the stories to you all. I might just have to take a tape recorder if we ever have that ‘reunion’ we’ve been talking about. I’d have something to write about for at least a year!!

So Greg, just in case you somehow didn’t know, and you read this, please count yourself among those I feel blessed, to have had the opportunity to know, and work with. That you thought of me, and knew, even after all these years that I’d want to know… means more than I have words to express.

I’m looking forward to us all getting together, and, as soon as I can, I’ll be headed your way!

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Forest For The Trees. . .

A week or so ago I posted about an accident that occurred while some old Fire Department friends of mine were fighting a house fire.

Since then I’ve spoken several times with folks still there and trying to keep up with how everyone is doing. Fortunately, they’re all recovering, slowly, but recovering.

Among the things that have struck me is how Jack Cottet has really been struggling with this. I fully understand why, it’s in his nature. He’s so concerned, about the crew, all the time, that an incident like this just rocks his core.

You see, the thing is, I don’t think Jack really understands how instrumental a role he played in saving the lives of each of the firefighters injured that day. Now I, and I’m sure he as well, know he didn’t do it all by himself. The fact remains however, Jack was the catalyst, the activator, the spokesperson for the revolution.

What revolution?

A revolution in how Volunteer Fire Departments are run, the equipment used, the funding obtained and how it’s obtained, the training, in short, everything.

This guy was the ‘go to guy’ for the leaders in most, if not all of the neighboring departments. He always had time, made time to share what he knew. You see firefighting was not only a volunteer activity for Jack, it was also his career. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I don’t know exactly what Jack did for a living, as it never really came up.

I know he worked for a large insurance company and that he also set up internal fire departments for companies like Miller Brewing. Other than that, I really don’t know.

I do know he brought innovative techniques for supplying water at rural fire scenes. Ran seminars that dispelled long held myths about how equipment could, and would work. He also helped many departments understand what was required to get their department, and it’s funding, into the town budgeting process.

One of the more important things he did, in my mind, was to push relentlessly for and getting, gear for his crews that rivaled that of any paid department.

He was so convincing that when I initially signed on with North Bay, I went out and purchased my own gear as there wasn’t money in North Bay’s budget for it. Today I’d expect that there’s an actual budget item for gear, and gear replacement in that budget.

The point here is that has he not been there, those firefighters that were injured, most certainly would have been more seriously injured, or worse, killed.

I got an update on John Hinds a day or so ago, and in that conversation a couple of things were said, that reminded me of why I still hold all of these folks in such high regard.

John is burning up his vacation time as he recovers, and knows he’ll use it all, and most of his ‘sick time’ from work as well before he’s able to return to work. You need to remember, these guys are all volunteers, they have regular jobs to pay the bills, they fight fires for their neighbors, for free.

John was quoted as saying two things that really stood out to me.

“It could be worse; my wife could be looking at an empty chair”


“We’ve never been beat, set back a little, but it’s never beat us.”

The “it” he’s talking about, is fire. Even now, as he endures daily bandage changing on the burns, he’s still not beat.

There’s a lesson in here folks. One man can make a difference, a real difference, in the lives of other people. If he manages to gather a couple of other ‘revolutionaries’ he can change entire communities.

I remain honored, to know, and have worked with, these men.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Why the model is collapsing….

In the last post I mentioned that being in a comfort zone is what drives our country’s (and to a big extent the world’s) economy.

Collapsing might be a bit strong for what I think is happening, but the model is certainly shifting.


The way I see it, the very folks who rely on the model (employers) are making it increasingly difficult for the average person to find, and remain in, the comfort zone (or the droneMatrix if you prefer).

Unlike previous generations, there’s no longer the real security, or even the perception, or expectation, of security, in a job that once provided it. More and more as I talk with folks I’m hearing phrases like “It’s all about the money now…”

In many cases these same people, as little as 5 years ago, were intent on working for, and retiring from, their current job, with their current employer. Today, despite being in the same job (in some cases) they no longer expect that will happen.

Employers, in a never ending quest for increased profits, have started treating employees like ‘inventory’. As if their employees are simply an asset to be managed, adjusted, and obtained at the lowest possible cost. In decades past, if there was a shift in the volume of business, employers would ‘hang on’ to employees so that they would have trained people available when things picked up again. I don’t see that as being the case any longer.

Today, with the availability of contractors, outsourcing, remote call centers, and temporary clerical help, the trend seems to be towards companies trying to build a “Just In Time” work force to coincide with their JIT inventory and equipment contracts.

Personally, I think it’s a disturbing trend.

On one hand I should be elated, right? It should mean there’ll be more work for me to choose from, more opportunities.

Not exactly….

Today, technology workers (in America) are among the most threatened. Low cost offshore programmers are regularly brought on, as needed, to fill slots that used to be solely an American worker’s role.

The work that’s left here is often good work, but in order to compete with offshore pricing the average hourly wage has been driven down for home grown developers.

Before you think this is going to descend into a rant about “offshoring”, let me set the record straight. Offshoring is here to stay, and for good reason. Despite the many barriers, language, distance, time zones, etc. offshoring allows a company to get certain things accomplished, quickly and at a lower cost than most other means.

So, with that as the reality, we (those of us affected by it) need to accept it, and adapt.

After all, we, and especially technology workers, made all of this possible. We built the internet, expanded the bandwidth, drove the demand for more and better connections worldwide. We got them. However, in expanding and improving connectivity for ourselves, we also constructed the infrastructure for others as well.

In the long run… a very good thing. In the short run, it’s certainly led to a considerable amount of instability in the US technological employment situation, while opening doors for tens of thousands of capable folks around the globe.

In the end, everyone will benefit from that. Those new folks will bring additional solutions, ideas and talent to the markets that they’re now able to reach. It’s the next 10 years or so that will be rocky, especially in America, and why many career IS/IT folks are now answering “No” to the question “Would you advise your child to look toward the IS/IT field for a career?”

The bigger picture, in my mind, is how it affects the economy. How folks are less comfortable. In being less comfortable they’re also less willing to sign for the mortgage, the car, the new washer/dryer and so on. They’ll be less willing to take on long term debt, choosing to wait, instead of getting it ‘now’.

If that happens, the economy, as we know it, will change. It will not be sustainable in its present form.

Some of you may recall that a month or so ago I was considering buying a new tractor. I decided not to. There were several ‘reasons’, but, as I really examined my decision over the past few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was uncertainty, not anything else, that led me to that decision.

You see, when I was thinking about that gig in CT, one of the thoughts that would creep into my mind was… “with the extra money I could….” One of the “I could’s” was “get that tractor”….

I still have use for it, and would use it every week; it’s not that I don’t have the need. It’s that I don’t want that ‘payment’ to deal with if I find myself between gigs. So, instead of that dealer selling me a $20,000 set up, and the everyone, the dealer, the manufacturer, the finance company all making some money… no one made any money.

When I had my last “job”, and I was fully immersed in the droneMatrix, I know I would have bought the tractor. It would have been a bad move (in retrospect), but I would have felt safe, and secure, in my decision then.

I’m betting that uncertainty about your employment has caused you to either delay, or abandon, a ‘big ticket’ purchase as well.

Leave me a note, let me know if I’m on the mark here, or off base somehow.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

The ‘droneMatrix”…. Hmmmmmmm

Richard over at FoxProCatalyst mentioned the term in reference to my last few posts.

I had not heard the term before, and I kind of like it. Although he sort of blended the “Matrix” alien aspect into his definition I was thinking of it in an entirely different context.

There’s a difference between being an employee, and being a contractor, often it’s subtle, on some rare occasions it’s glaringly obvious. Regardless it’s always there.

Having spent the past 25 or so years almost evenly divided between being an employee, self employed and a contractor I’ve got some thoughts of the differences. For those of you who stop in fairly regularly, that I have more than a ‘few’ won’t really be all that much of a surprise.

Most folks are most familiar with being an employee.

When you think about me, or when you comment, there’s often an under current of ‘how do you live with the uncertainty?’ Working everyday, knowing that the gig is temporary, and that you could well be looking for another in a few weeks, or months, is just very foreign to most folks.

My experience is though, that while a “job” tends to make us feel safe, secure and able to relax, that the reality is far from the feelings. My Dad worked for one company for his entire career. He started there in high school, went back after college and worked there until he died. He held various position, but with the same company, for his entire adult working life. I suspect that many of his peers had pretty much the same experience.

How many of you can say the same thing? If you’ve changed companies, was it your choice? Was it something you planned to do, or was the change forced upon you by some change within the company?

If it wasn’t your choice, did you see it coming, or was it pretty much a surprise?

For a lot of folks, let’s take those at Enron, or Worldcom for example… had no clue there was a problem, until the bottom fell out.

Like thousands of other employees they went to work every morning, did their job all day, and returned home each night, feeling safe, and secure. Why? Because they did their job, and felt that as long as they did their job, they’d get to keep their job.

It didn’t quite work out that way though, did it?

They al fell victim to the ‘droneMatrix’, allowing themselves to be blind to any, and everything except doing their job, and letting their good work contribute to their feelings of security.

Now, don’t get me wrong here… I’m not saying I’m immune, quite the opposite, I fall into the same trap. The droneMatrix is a very comfy place. It has to be, the entire country’s economic model is based on it! As a byproduct of feeling so comfortable we buy houses with 30 year mortgages, cars on 60 month payment plans and on and on. If we all were wondering if we had a job tomorrow, I doubt we’d do that, well, at least to the extent we do as a society.

So what about those of us who aren’t ‘employed’… who are self-employed or are contractors?

Most find a balance. We find a zone, within which we have that comfort and the droneMatrix is with us again. I think feeling comfortable is a basic human need. We don’t want to live with uncertainty, we seek ways to allow ourselves to feel like everything is “Ok”, and will continue to be. It’s how we get through the day, day after day.

I’ve fought against the droneMatrix most of my life, seeking change, finding it in new gigs, new careers, starting businesses and so on. Eventually though, I find myself living in the matrix again, and wondering how I got there, yet again.

That’s right, even with what most would consider the uncertainty of contracting, I still manage to find a comfort zone, my own droneMatrix. I strive to get a ‘cushion’ of cash for the down times, attempt to keep our debt levels manageable and convince myself there will always be ‘another gig’.

Even though I don’t have my cash reserve set, and our debt levels are far higher than I’d like, I still manage to convince myself things will be “Ok”.

How do I know that? That I’ve convinced myself of that?

Well, if for no other reason than the fact I didn’t take the gig I’ve been writing about. If I was out of that zone, I would have taken the extra money and just jumped to up my ‘earning power’.

So where are you? Do you live in the droneMatrix? Your own personally contrived comfort zone, convinced things will continue as they have, that next year will be just a little better than the last?

Next… Why the model is collapsing….

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Negotiating 101. . .

One of the first rules of negotiation, is that you have to be willing to walk away.

That’s right, fold your tent, pack up your briefcase, and say “No deal”. If you’re not willing to do that, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the other party, you’ll end up taking whatever is offered, simply because, you’re not willing to walk away.

Why am I mentioning this?

Well today, the recruiter called me and asked if more money would change my mind. I thanked him for calling, but that no, money was not the issue. I reiterated that what had interested me in the project was the ability to work it remotely and to play a large role in the redesign.

That they were unwilling to commit to that, and as long as that was true, I was not willing to ‘get on board’.

So, since last Friday, when my rate was going to “leave him awfully thin” once he paid me, he’s offered a plane ticket home every two weeks, and now to pay me even more.

I’ve got to admit, I have re-thought my decision several times. Each time though, the potential downsides, have out weighed everything else.

At the end of our conversation he asked, what will you do if the current contract isn’t extended? What if that happens?

What if indeed… What if:
  1. I get on site and they decide they’re paying me too much?
  2. it ends up to be a “no end in site” maintenance gig?
  3. the working conditions really suck
  4. I hate living there
  5. Their idea of ‘casual’ is a two piece suit
  6. My wife becomes unhappy with me being gone 24 out of 28 days?

I’m much better at the ‘what if’ game I told him, I do ‘what if’ for a living!

I did counter his offer though. I offered to take on a piece of work, on spec, to be done remotely. That if I couldn’t deliver, they’d owe me nothing. If I do, they cover any and all travel expenses for any time they want/need me in CT. If I were a betting man, I’d bet he won’t even mention it to them.

I do want to say one thing here, this recruiter, has worked his butt off trying to make this deal come together, it’s not his fault the client can’t commit to a plan, and a process. I’d love it if he were able to place me as I can’t remember a recruiter who’s ever worked harder.

Also, I’d be a bit remiss if I didn’t mention Andrew McNeill he not only commented on my last couple of posts here, he also gave me a mention at his place and on Microsoft blogs Canada yesterday, and left a couple of links at JobSyntax as well. Thank you Andrew for all the kudos!!

One of the things I love about blogging, is I find that despite feeling like the ‘only one’ this stuff happens to, I’m not. That there are many, many folks out there dealing with these same kinds of decisions every single day. They may not all be contractors, but they have to make career decisions regardless.

I hope that something in all of this helps you the next time you’re struggling with a decision about a job change.

As always, thanks for stopping by… If anything strikes a cord, leave me a comment so I’ll know!

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Plan?… We don’t need no stinkin plan!…

That’s about the size of it, the answer I got when asking the folks at the potential new gig what the plan was. The plan was, there was no plan.

Now I’m certainly not the highest paid contractor out there, but I’m also not the least expensive option either. When a project falls back on my desk after the company originally went with a lower cost option, two things happen at my end.

First, a red flag goes up. Why? Well, in my experience, often times the original contractor didn’t ‘cut it’ because the company is in a very, very, bad spot, and the person was in way over their head. Back in the day, I lived for those gigs, I loved being able to shine where others hadn’t.

Those days however, are long over.

The other thing that happens is that the project also catches my interest. I know that’s a bit twisted, but it’s true. My interest gets peaked because it’s also possible the company has a very challenging project, one that will not only use all of my skills, but have me learning new ones as well.

So, when this company decided I was the guy they wanted, I started asking questions.

Not extremely difficult questions, or so I thought.

I asked:
  • How long will I be required to be on site?
  • How many days, weeks, months did they expect me to need to be there, before switching to working remotely (as in from my office in NC)?
  • What did they plan to have me doing? What portion of the project?
  • Was there a copy of the project plan available?
All reasonable questions, or so I thought.

As it turned out, they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, actually fully answer them.

I spoke at length many times with the recruiter, attempting to explain to him that I was not about to travel 600 miles to jump into a project with no scope, no plan, with no idea what I’d be doing, or how long I’d be expected to be there.

One of the answers I did get, sort of, had to do with the length of the contract, as in 3 months, 6 months, a year, longer? The answer was, “This is forever” – That concerned me as well… red flag… what kind of project brings people on board, contractually, with no idea for what length of time they expect to need them?

The more I talked with the recruiter, the more it became clear that he just didn’t seem to understand that I’ve been exactly here, many, many times before. In each and every case, everyone involved all assured me it would all get ‘worked out’ once I was there, and in every case, it never did get worked out.

There were impossible deadlines, long hours and no appreciation for the effort, just demands for more, and more, production.

There were attempts today to explain that the new project had only been granted budget approval in the past couple of weeks, that there hadn’t been ‘time’ to develop a scope, or requirements, document.

That simply raised another question… how does a public company, grant budgetary approval, or properly allocate funds, to a project with no formal specification? Once again, a red flag… a huge, waving, red flag.

In the end, at about 4:30 this afternoon, I simply took my name out of the game.

Too many questions, and not enough answers for me to seriously consider taking the project on.

I write quite a bit about why I like contracting, it’s probably time for me to talk some about the down sides.

Often, a company will start looking for contract help, when their project is in trouble. Hoping that if they just throw some bodies at the problem it will go away, and, if it doesn’t they can always blame the contractor(s) in the short run.

Many times, they’re looking to bring in a ‘rain maker’, a contractor with a track record of success in hopes he, or she, will just put their head down and make it happen. There was a time when I would have done that. Jumped in with both feet and done whatever it took to get the project done, on time, and on budget. Not any more.

I’ve seen far too many poorly planned projects, too many managers who felt the existing application was well enough known that no formal requirements needed to be drawn up, and too many failed projects (and failed companies) to want to go down that road again.

For those of you who’ve never been involved with building a new version of an existing product it’s a bit like building a new house. Except you need to live in the existing house, and the new one is being built around, and over it!

The old application is generally full of problems, things that were discovered after the application had been started, and were never fully addressed. Usually this is addressed using what I call the ‘code around’ method. It involves wrapping enough code, around the problem(s) to mask, and or get them out of the way.

In addition, there are also many ‘had to have’ features, that are no longer needed, and several new features that many of the users know are sorely needed, but that IS/IT has never been informed of, at least in any formal way.

In short, if you’re building this new house, and there’s a problem with the existing plumbing, from and to the street, you need to get that into the project plan early, not allow the builders to think they’ll be using the existing lines!!

I am strangely disappointed though… this gig sounded so good during the initial interviews and technical discussions; I was genuinely excited about the possibilities. The company is a major player in the financial marketplace, doing a booming business, and has little or no real competition in the areas it serves.

Fortunately, I wasn’t banking on this gig to pay the bills!! I know in my heart, that had I needed the gig to put food on the table, I’d be packing, regardless of the red flags. I’m feeling fortunate today to have the gig I have, and also very rededicated to my efforts on the current gig. In fact, with all of this going on today I made real progress on the testing of the VFP 9.0 conversion.

I have all the menus modifications done, and several of the front line form changes tested out and regression tested as well.

I hope your day was a little less ‘involved’ than mine!

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Oh yeah… this is a blog about contracting. . .

I got a call late on Friday, that a Visual FoxPro gig I interviewed for over a month ago and had all but written off, is suddenly a reality.

That’s right, after hiring a couple of folks who turned out not to be up to the task, the company has decided they’d like to bring me in.

Well, now the money discussion starts, and for the first time, the rate I’ve told them I want, is a bit of an issue.

There are several issues actually.

There are several ways to be paid as a contactor, the two most popular are W-2 and 1099. You may recall I’ve been on a W-2 plan since last October, with partially paid health coverage, 20+ paid days off a year and full withholding. I can certainly “do” 1099, which is what the recruiter would prefer, but as a 1099 (independent) contractor, I’d lose the health plan, the PTO, as well as company paid FICA.

FICA for those of you who don’t know is a two part tax. As an employee, you pay half and your employer pays the other half. Once you’re self-employed (1099 is normally considered self-employed), you become responsible for the entire amount. The last ime I checked that was between 13 and 14% of the gross wage.

Those lost benefits translate into dollars, about a multiplier of 1.17, so when I ran the numbers and told him what I’d need, things got pretty tense. We’ve been playing phone tag ever since, ostensibly to ‘work out’ the numbers, but in my mind there’s nothing to work out.

Initially, during the interview process, it was inferred to me that I’d be able to work this project remotely. That there’d be a short period at the onset where I’d be on site (the company is about 800 miles from here) and that once I was up to speed, I’d be able to work for them from home.

Now, the ‘initial period’ is of indeterminate length, and, the recruiter wants me to ‘work that out’ once I’m on the job.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been through way to many, “we’ll work it out” projects where, after I was working the gig, none of my needs were ever “worked out”. I’ve come to the conclusion, that if it’s important to you, it has to be in the initial contract.

So while there are a couple of real ‘got me’ points with this gig, namely the opportunity to re-architect a major financial application, as well as the chance to be able to work from home (where, in all honesty, I’m about 40% more productive than I am in an ‘office’). There’s this downside as well.

I have no real interest in a long term ‘relo’ to a site 800 miles away for the duration of the gig, or, maybe more importantly, to move there permanently. I got the sense, during that last conversation that the company is really looking to bring in a ‘rain maker’ to clean up existing issues quickly and then “ride herd” on the continuing development effort while completing the design of the “re-platform” of the application. They want this person to be in their house, and available daily.

The recruiter called again yesterday in an attempt to ‘wrap things up’, but I think I raised more questions than he was prepared for. All of which I’d raised before, and he’d dismissed with a we’ll work that out once they express interest. It looks like the money will work out, but the sticking point remains where I’ll be required to work, on-site or remotely.

I’d expect that with a project of this size and scope, a certain amount of on site, face-to-face time will be required. It would be much faster for example to get up to speed if I have access to the existing developers to get any questions I have answered. Once that’s done though I see no real reason I’d need to be physically there.

So, he’s trying to set up a phone call on Monday between myself and the development manager to see what her take on things is. When I interviewed with her a month or so ago, she seemed to be fine with me working remotely when we talked then, but subsequent conversations with others have not given me the same feeling.

So, I need to confirm that after an initial onsite period, of say 30, to maybe 90 days, I’ll be able to work from North Carolina.

This project could be 2, maybe 3, years or longer in duration… a great contract by nearly anyone’s standards, but, I find myself strangely filled with reservations about it.

I guess I’ll know, by Monday, if I can work out an acceptable contract. Acceptable to me anyway, what the company is willing to accept remains to be seen.

It’s more than a little amusing to me though, as little as 10 years ago, I would have gone anywhere, at anytime, as long as the money was right. Sometime I the past decade I’ve gotten a bit more selective. I still have the “Have Fox… Will Travel” slogan on my business cards, and I am willing to travel, long term relocation however, is a bit different in my mind.

You see, if I was to relocate, I’m pretty sure I’d want to go back to Central NY, and the North Bay area. With a remote work contract, I could definitely do that, should Maryan and I decide that was right for us. Setting up shop 800 miles away, just doesn’t seem all that attractive, right now.

So, there ya have it folks, one more of the decisions you’d face as a contract programmer. Yes the money is better than the average full time employee would earn, but there’s the constant negotiations over gigs, and those negotiations are usually with three parties, each with their own, needs, and agenda.

The company wants the best talent, for the least money. The recruiter wants to close the deal and get me earning for them. Me, I want to earn as much as possible, doing what I love, at the smallest possible cost to me, on the longest contract term possible.

When I think of it, it’s amazing that anyone ever closes one of these deals!!

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Friday, August 04, 2006

Firefighting is a dangerous game. . .

I know I’ve waxed poetic about firefighting in the past here, but I got a call today that reminded me, that despite the love, support and camaraderie I so fondly remember, there was real danger underneath it all.

I was checking my cell phone this morning (for an entirely different reason) and noticed I had a voicemail. I clicked to check, and, to my surprise, it was Greg Campbell. Long time readers may remember Greg as I wrote about he and I sitting around, and reminiscing over beers, while I was back in the area last summer.

This was not a “what’s up” call though.

It seems that last Wednesday the Cleveland Fire department was on the scene of a house fire, had ventilated the house and was looking for the source of the remaining smoke. From everything I've learned this was not a serious fire, mostly smoke and they'd just issued the 'drop mask' order as there was so little smoke remaining. They continued to look though and eventually, they found it. In a crawl space under the house, as the crew moved in to extinguish this ‘dinner plate’ sized fire, and began to address it with the nozzle, suddenly, the entire first floor exploded.

Thirteen firefighters were injured, one was treated at the scene, the other twelve ended up going to local area hospitals for treatment.

Fortunately, no one was killed, and as of today everyone has been released from the hospital and is home again.

After Greg and I hung up, I called Jack Cottet to see how he was doing. You may remember Jack, if you don’t, click the link and refresh your memory. As I suspected he was taking it pretty hard. He was the Chief on scene, and as such felt the safety of these folks was his responsibility.

That sense of responsibility, is one of the many reasons I always was glad to see Jack on the scene. The only thing he took more seriously, than the fire itself, was our safety. He was always pushing for better gear, more training and better leaders. He was, and is relentless, both about fire fighting, and about keeping the crews safe.

We talked some, mostly I listened, and as we were wrapping up our conversation the one thought I left him with was this.

An incident like this just shows that despite all the best preparation, firefighting is still, at the core, a very dangerous job. That despite having more experience than many leaders, not even he can control everything. I suggested that rather than focusing on the injuries, he might want to think how much worse things might have been had he not led the charge decades back for more, and better protective gear, more training and inter company cooperation.

I know he wasn’t really listening; things are still to close in. Hopefully, in the days, and weeks ahead, as the injuries heal (and as I understand it no one is permanently injured either) and the event gets discussed and the stories told, he’ll be able to see that in the end, this too is a triumph, not a defeat.

One other thing Jack and I talked about was the extended ‘family’ that is volunteer firefighting. I know I’ve talked about it before, but what Jack told me today, drove the point home.

Since Wednesday, there’s been a truck, and a crew, in his firehouse, standing by to answer any and all calls. Not just one truck, from one neighbor, but a different truck, different crew, 24/7, Sandy Creek, Redfield… from 30 miles and more away. They heard about the situation, and just showed up to help.

That’s the fire service folks, one big family, and like any family, they may bicker at times, but when there’s a problem all of that gets set aside, and everyone pitches in to help.

Once again I’m reminded of how much I miss those days, those men, and that family.

If you’d like to read a little about the event, you can go here.

Firefighters injured in house explosion

Camaraderie contagious at explosion site

Lightning strike leads to house explosion

I also realized, that regardless of the time, or the distance, the bond from those days, is still very much with me, and I still feel like they’re my family!!

I don’t think, the average person has any idea what a bargain they get in volunteer firefighters, or paid departments for that matter. It takes a special person to run into a burning building, not everyone can, or should do it.

The ones that do, paid or not, don’t do it for the money. I’m sure it’s something else. I recall running for the entry into more than one building thinking “There must be something wrong with me; most people would be going the other way!” But it never stopped me, or any of the other initial attack crew, we just went in and did our jobs.

Most of those fires are memories now, some I’ve related here, some I haven’t taken the time to write up. This event, like all of those in my mind will become a memory for those folks as well, the story told, and retold over coffee, or maybe an adult beverage or two, getting better with each telling.

What won’t get lost though, is the message. That you can never relax, fire is always dangerous, it’s a war, and it will kill you if it can. The other thing that will be remembered is the camaraderie… the other departments pitching in, the other members of the department helping out the families of those injured, everyone working to ‘fill in the gaps’… it’s something I never experienced, before, or after my time in the fire service.

The next time you get a chance, thank a firefighter, for all that they do!

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Visual FoxPro is in 14th this month. . .

It's time for the monthly update.

The Tiobe index came out today…and VFP dropped one from last month to 14th.

Some folks who know me might think I find that a bit disappointing after it’s rapid climb to a peak of 12th this year. The truth is though, I remain very optimistic.

First, VFP is still up 7 places from last July and as long as we’re improving on the previous year I’m happy!

Yes I still do some things in .Net, and remain very excited about that product as well. Visual FoxPro though is a “data guy’s” dream language. I thought that 20 years ago,and I still think so today.

I know VFP doesn’t have the ‘cool’ factor of some of the other, newer, languages. Java seems to hold the ‘cool’ slot these days, and is enjoying a nice ride in 1st as well. However, for those of us who’ve continued to stay current with FoxPro may be discovering, as I am, that demand for our skills is returning.

The best part is, because so many of the other FoxPro developers have abandoned it, there are fewer of us competing for those new openings. As a result, the rates are going up as well.

Let’s talk a little bit about my 20 year love affair with VFP, or probably more correctly, what we used to call “xBase”.

I can still remember that first dBase gig. I’d been primarily a mainframe guy up until then, had decent COBOL, RPG and 360 Assembler chops, but this was a whole new world.

I’d learned BASIC, first on Apples, then a Commodore and actually wrote an entire academic registration system for a local school in BASIC. Like the mainframe languages, BASIC was a capable tool, but it didn’t really shine when it came to handling data. Especially large amounts of data.

dBase on the other hand, was, for the time, extremely capable at data handling. It made everything else available an ‘also ran’.

In addition, it had all the string manipulation tools most BASIC guys had come to love.

I can clearly remember thinking as I was developing that first dBase application, that if dBase was a compiled language, I’d never want to write in anything else.

Like a number of the original ‘killer apps’ from the early days, the dBase folks (Ashton-Tate) started taking their number one position for granted. Along came Fox software, and their new ‘clone’ FoxBASE+… and the guys from Nantucket with their ‘Clipper’ product. Fox had an interpreted product, Nantucket, well they’d upped the ante a bit and their product was compiled. Now, suddenly, the xbase (we called it all xBase as they all copied the original dBase, and added new features as well) folks were starting to be taken seriously.

Now we skip forward a decade or so, and while there are still several competitors, Microsoft Visual FoxPro is the standard. It’s also the only one included in the category in the Tiobe index.

It would be interesting to see where the combination of all the various ‘flavors’ of xBase would sit if they were all combined, like say Java, COBOL or “C” are.

Me, I’m just glad to see my favorite tool with an “A” rating. That it’s still in front of VB.Net, which also lags in the ‘cool’ factor by the way, although no one I’ve talked to can give me any defensible arguments as to why they’d use C#.Net instead of VB.Net.

I got a call today, on that contract I mentioned in June… seems the two guys they initially brought in just couldn’t get the job done… and now they want to talk to me again. I’ll admit I’m having mixed feelings about even considering the gig at this point, but, the recruiter has worked so hard on this that I need to at least take the call.

I’ll keep you posted as to the outcome.

Also, and old friend has taken over the reigns at and has asked me to possibly write an article or two for the site. I’m pretty excited about that! He and I have talked, on a number of occasions, about doing something together; this might be a chance for us to do just that! If you get a chance, surf on over and check the site out.

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