If I were to have a meeting with a potential employer today and was asked the most clichéd job interview question of all time — “What is your biggest flaw?” — I’d have a ready answer. Over a period of twenty years or so, my technical skills have gotten steadily better. I’m not a terribly fast programmer, but I can write the most well-organized, bullet-proof programs in the world. When it comes to code readability and reuse, nobody can touch me. My social skills, if anything, have gotten worse.
If I was content to hold a series of boring, soulless, inconsequential, relatively high-paying jobs, it wouldn’t matter much. I hear from a steady stream of dullards in recruiting firms who are eager to put me into companies that will leverage my core competencies towards revenue enhancement and product excellence. But I just can’t do it. Time and time again, I’ve proven to myself that I’d rather be unemployed than go through that.
There comes a time in every tech dude’s life where, to advance beyond the mundane, you have to sell yourself a little. I hit that hurdle about ten years ago, and I still haven’t managed to climb over it.
There are a few loopholes. Boy, do I love exploiting loopholes. There are a number of people in my field that manage to have a long series of interesting jobs without having any social skills at all. I met a bunch of people like that in my year in the Bay Area, who were a lot more mentally deficient than I am. They can get away with it because their skills are in such high demand that the cool employers are falling all over themselves to hire those people. Sadly, I don’t qualify for that loophole. I’m a B+ player, but all the people that this works for are A+ developers. I am not such hot shit that the cool employers are going to be seeking me out.
One thing that amazes me about the most successful people I see around me in the tech field is how many projects they have going on. A few years ago there was this dude employed in a small startup. He was working on their website, and experimented with a bunch of different web frameworks, not really crazy about any of them. So he wrote his own framework, in Python. His description of why he wrote it, to me, sounds ridiculous: “Apparently, everybody else who has ever attempted this feat completely sucks. Here I am to save the day and show everybody how it’s done.” I would have predicted immediate and utter failure. A few years later, his framework is in use by 20 or 30 web sites, many of them high-profile and profitable. The tech field is lousy with stories like this. Some guy writes some project on some flimsy and egotistical premise, yet somehow manages to get a whole bunch of other people to use it, then he’s in the center of a self-created bubble of success. He is buried in contracting work and job offers. Repeat, repeat, repeat. How do they do this? It’s like defying gravity.
Failing that, being the right guy in the right place at the right time can sometimes work out. Yesterday I started another of my short-term obsessions, this time fixating on video games of the seventies and eighties. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a look back at that era, so there was a lot of new stuff for me to discover.
I read about this guy who, way back in 1992, wrote a series of emulators for obsolete computers. Running old CoCo3 software sounds like the most boring thing in the world to me, but this particular problem was catnip for this particular guy. There was this company who was about to release a whole bunch of old arcade games repackaged for modern PCs. They planned to perfectly recreate every tiny quirk of those old games through the miracle of emulation: you write a program that pretends to be exactly like the hardware that existed in those old arcade cabinets, and run the original game programs on top of it. This dude with all his ancient computer emulators was perfectly positioned to do this job, because he had been emulating the exact same CPUs that existed in those old arcade cabinets. The company called him up, offered him the job, and he wrote their arcade game emulators for them. He’s been doing more or less the same thing ever since. That’s the career ideal, isn’t it? You’re doing something you think is cool, and some company calls you up and offers to pay you to keep doing it.
As it happens, I read about that product in Wired magazine, lo those many years ago. It was released for Macs only at first, and this was back when I was still a PC user. I desperately wanted to buy it. Using a newfangled technology called “the Inter-Net,” I managed to send him an “electronic mail message.” And he wrote back! His arcade game emulators were eventually released for PCs, and I bought them.
One of the two people in this story wound up with a cool job. The other one just wasted a bunch of time playing old arcade games on his PC. Sigh.
I actually managed the right-guy-at-the-right-time trick once. I spent nine months or so writing a pretty good program for an oddball operating system that nobody ever heard of, and convinced the company that made that operating system to hire me. Sadly, I bet on the wrong horse, and that company soon went out of business. I tried to recreate that magic again, when I switched to Macs. It did not work the second time. Mac users expect their programs to be beautiful, but I am no good at that.
Lately, I’ve decided that the way out of my dilemma is to partner with one or more people who are strong where I am weak. I think this idea shows promise, but it’s taking a long time to pan out. Right after I quit my last full-time job here in Nashville, I started working with these two guys who were doing a music-related startup. I worked with them for about six months, and completed some pretty good stuff. I wrote my first-ever Flash applet, because the project required such a thing, and among the three of us, I was the most qualified to write it. Unfortunately, those guys turned out to be incapable of holding up their end of the bargain, so I quit. Their music-related project never launched. I would love to get into another situation like that, this time with people who are competent.
It always feels weak to me, but my few pathetic attempts at “networking” have had minor positive effects. Whenever some new site pops up called They Make Apps or Build It With Me or Get Apps Done or Find Your Cofounder or whatever, I sign up for it. I’ve gotten a few nibbles from people who emailed me as a result. Nothing that has worked out over the long haul so far, but hope springs eternal.
One of the people who contacted me via one of those sites was a guy here in Nashville. We started working on an iPad app for kids. Real-time interactive flash cards. I wrote the code, he came up with the questions and the artwork. There is a startup incubator here in Nashville that we hoped to eventually approach, if we had something that looked enough like a nascent business. But he is not serious about it. He has a full-time job, a wife, and a kid. I haven’t heard from him in several weeks now, and I’m going to leave it at that. Next.
I need to work with someone who is either good at business-related things, like selling and fund-raising and networking and product research and business plans, or designing. I could see myself building something with a designer that would be pretty enough and bullet-proof enough to sell itself, in the beginning. Or I could see myself building a project guided by a business person into being valuable. Either path could lead to something that snowballed into a big success.
I have to find a way to use the strengths I have available to me to connect with more people. Now that I’ve defined the problem, I have a couple of ideas. No use talking about them yet, because most of them will fail. But I have to start somewhere.