W-2 vs Contractor

I’ve been both and it is hard at times to say which is better.

Now my experiences as a contractor, have primarily been as part of a team, where I was basically working full-time with my client, but it was through my consulting company, Red F Tech, vs just being a part-time contractor or having to piecemeal multiple contracts together to make a full-time ‘paycheck’. I’ve been fortunate with my consulting work that I always had an ‘anchor’ client that effectively covered all my major expenses and then I’d have one or two additional smaller contracts.

I’ve worked at W-2 full-time gigs that I hated and some that I’ve loved, including my current W-2.  With W-2 work, you’re expecting to be part of a team, working and collaborating with co-workers on achieving the companies goals.

First and foremost, I’d say the biggest differences are in the pay-scale. My W-2 work has never paid quite as well as my contract work. Inversely, the benefits of contract work, don’t exist and by benefits, I mean time-off, sick-pay, healthcare, equipment, etc.

As a contractor I was responsible for my own laptop, software (unless it was something specific for the customer’s workflow and then I’d have them buy it or just buy it and expense it back to them). But as a W-2, I’ve been handed a laptop, and monitors and so on.

The cost of healthcare is always a hot-topic in the United States these days, but needless to say it is a very nice benefit that most “professional” W-2 gigs provide. As a contractor, you’re going to be shopping the marketplace or if you’re fully incorporated, you can probably take advantage of getting insurance as a company, though you’ll need two employees, everyone needs a bookkeeper right?

In discussing the fact that I’ve been working a new W-2 job since the Q1 of this year, one thing that came to mind as an immediate difference is ‘Meetings’.

As a W-2, I find myself working during the meeting (when I’m not a presenter) and keeping an ear open for my name or relevant project data. This isn’t a fantastic thing to do, but as a W-2 employee I’m getting paid to finish my work, so a ‘Meeting’ generally detracts from me finishing whatever project I am working on. I know a lot of folks that do this and yeah, once in a while there is that ‘Oh shit, I was asked a question, and I don’t know what we were talking about.’ moment, so I try not to split my focus too much during a meeting.

But as a contractor, a meeting is glorious, I’m getting paid by the hour, we can talk all day long if you want. But I am also not a greedy contractor, I try not to keep a meeting going just to drum up billable hours, and if we spend a huge chunk of the meeting gabbing about not-work, I don’t charge for that part of the meeting.

Regardless, of the pay differences, I do think you look at time differently, some W-2 employees LOVE meetings, but those often the same employees that are coasting, they might have had some passion and drive at one time (might, maybe not, benefit of the doubt). Contractors though, some contractors are terrible. They are just waiting to get that last invoice in, before you fire them. Which is why a contract is something you need to make sure gives you an out on not paying for crap work or frequent check-ins before invoicing etc.

I know I’m rambling a little, it’s been a while since I blogged, so stream of consciousness is just at the wheel here. Forgive me.

With Contracting/Consulting you’re getting paid big bucks up-front, with the hopes there will always be big bucks. I had a boss tell me once (in a consulting setting) that you charge three-times your cost, this way you can make sure to have money when there aren’t any contracts. I’ve never been that lucky, but I tried to make sure I had some safety nets in my contracts, like deposits and such.

With W-2, you’re trading some of those up-front big bucks for the idea that you’ll have stability in a paycheck and paid benefits, also if things go south severance or at least unemployment.

But overall, the two are about the same paycheck wise, at least that has been my experience thus far. But the attitudes on time are wildly different when it comes to W-2 vs a Contractor and funny enough, even bosses will WASTE W-2 worker time (because presumably we are talking about a salaried worker), so that time is like free right?

It’s the fallacy of a sunk-cost, if you make a salaried W-2 worker say address, stuff, and seal envelopes, vs having a service do it, you’re only out their time. And if they’re just marketing staff, who cares. But if you look at the actual cost, you’re wasting money.

Same goes for conference calls, oh my god conference calls, at one company I worked at we had something like 30 people on the call and would listen to folks drone on about this and that. And if the meeting started late, but say 30 people were one (waiting for the CEO), then that’s 300 minutes, five HOURS of company time wasted. Some of those calls would go on for like an hour.

No one cared about the cost of that, but god forbid we try to buy some redbull for the developers.

I’ve gotten way off-topic.

But I think you can maybe see where I was going with this. Or maybe not, at least I’m writing, on my lunch-hour.

The only other thing I think I can say about it is, if you’re doing well as a contractor and taking advantage of all the tax incentives that being properly incorporated can give you, then stick with it. But if a good W-2 gig comes along,  with great benefits and more importantly a great team, then you should go for it. You won’t regret it.

I know that I haven’t, but also don’t lose sight of the cost of an hour to the company.


Not even looking

I like to consider myself in touch with technology, but with the world ever changing and new apps, companies, and to forth coming out everyday it is impossible to stay up-to-date with everything.

But two companies recently came to my attention when I wasn’t even looking for the, they just sort of appeared to me, due to working relationships with others.

The first is a cloud hosting company, called ProfitBricks. I have used “Bare Metal” hosting from companies like ServerBeach and I’ve used cloud hosting from Rackspace and of course Amazon’s EC2. There are advantages and disadvantages to each company and their offerings, but ProfitBricks so far seems to be amazing. They are cheaper than all the rest and when you’re talking about hosting, let’s face it, price matters. But so does quality, but given that hosting is very commoditized, one expects a certain level of quality, so then it becomes about the additional things like tools and interfaces that the vendor offers, once you’ve got prices that are relatively close.

For me, Amazon’s EC2 was a little daunting, but I didn’t get immediately discourages by all the choices/bells-and-whistles, whereas I had friends that did not care for Amazon because their interface was too daunting and otherwise too cumbersome for them. And Rackspace has had overall better quality for me (in terms of server instances going rogue and so forth), but they are more expensive and do not have a ‘pause’ option, so your machine is either ON or it is DELETED (you best have made a backup), whereas Amazon has an option to ‘pause’ the server instance and therefore stop the billable charges.

ProfitBricks is shaping up to have the quality of Rackspace, an interface that is easier to use than Amazon and the ability to pause a server, also I almost forgot to mention, server sizing. You can size the server instance more to what you need vs having to pick a ‘cookie cutter’ number of CPU/Cores and Memory (RAM) sizes.

I had a call with their sales staff and discussed my immediate project needs and was offered the option to do a reseller or referral agreement, as I have clients that need hosting. I will likely take them up on both of them.

The second is a payroll related company, ZenPayroll.  For my own consulting company I have been using ADP’s RUN application to run my payrolls. I stand to save about 20% annually by switching to ZenPayroll from ADP and I will get all the same features. Rather than paying PER payroll, I will be paying a monthly fee, so this price savings may end up being more or slightly less for others (I do quarterly payroll runs currently, but given that ZenPayroll doesn’t charge me for payroll runs, I will probably go back to a monthly model).

My client is using ZenPayroll and I believe they will receive a referral credit of some kind for my joining up.

I look forward to finding out what other kinds of tech are out there that I just haven’t been looking for that I ‘organically’ will come across in my digital travels or that I discover as part of a specific search for a missing piece of the puzzle.

Second-System Syndrome

I recently had the opportunity to help out a friend and did a quick spec for a dynamic web application, I’ve been doing some front-end mockups using Kickstart and Chart.js and Font Awesome. It has been fun, but the funny thing for me about it all is, the general “technology” that the web app represents, is one that I have fairly extensive experience with, Mutli-Tiered Product Distribution Portals (best “technology” name I could quickly coin).

I have a general philosophy on how dynamic web applications should be architected, not to say that it is a rigid position, one should always strive to use the best technology and architecture/patten for the goal at hand, but for me a general web application should ALWAYS have a Data API Layer.

It is an investment to go with a Data API Layer, but one that tends to pay off with big dividends and I feel that the web industry as a whole has latched onto this concept, but definitely smaller shops, they just want to write their code to access the database directly, to get it done. Which I can appreciate, but it hurts my professional soul.

The Data API Layers I’ve written in the past exposed business logic that was critical to the success of the product to partners that would have otherwise had no ability to really integrate the selling of my client’s products. Without that Data API Layer, that client would have been forced to have their partners integrate directly with their vendor. And then the client would have had to try and cobble together a billing system from the vendor’s reports and spreadsheets and accounting minions, or try to frankenstein’s monster a more automated system that would passive poll the vendor system for data.

None of it IMHO works well for a real-time product sales/distribution system. It also creates vendor lock-in that every business generally wants to avoid. So with the Data API Layer I created for them, they were able to have a self-contained billing system that allowed for easy export to quickbooks, locked the partners (to a degree) into the my client and allowed my client to switch vendors (without the partners needing to retool anything with their integration).

With all that said, there was more I wanted to do, things I wanted to build in. The Data API Layer I built was/is very robust, but very spartan in terms of metrics on usage and things one might expect from a more productized API, which it wasn’t. Furthermore, the Multi-Tiered Product Distribution Portal system had features we added over years of experience working with sales people in the field, but still there were features and such that I would put in, particularly knowing what I know now, vs dealing with tables that have thousands and even millions upon millions of rows of data.

Enter what some call ‘Second-System Syndrome’ or the ‘Second-System Effect’ .

The quick summary of this concept is that, a designer/developer attempts to build in everything they wanted to do with the first version of the system, but couldn’t due to time constraints and such.

Yeah, my quick spec for my buddy, I don’t feel was that at all, I feel it more along the lines of a refinement of a system I have deep working knowledge of, but with the benefit of not having to worry about data migration, furthermore, the first system was all about Virtual Product delivery, this one is dealing with physical products.

So right there, a number of issues come up that are not there in the Virtual Product world, you know like inventory, shipments, replenishment, etc.

Due to my strong belief in Data API Layers, many of my personal side-projects have been in sort of a holding pattern, having a newborn child also tends to put personal side-projects on hold as well, but I lacked an API engine to allow me to really get started. Because to me, just writing the code to directly access the database, is being lazy.

Before my friend contacted me about needing the spec, I had already been working with Phalcon (which I plan to write a few articles on my experience in an effort to help others, I love Phalcon for API work, but their documentation makes using their stuff very difficult), and building an API layer for my own projects. I had just gotten the first version of it working and was starting to build in the more useful features that I always wished my other API engines had or taking inspiration from an API engine that I worked with years and years ago, that was so dynamic and database driven that well it was amazing, but it was also daunting to configure and had that nasty habit of taxing the database engine (memcache would have likely fixed that easy).

Point being, using my fairly vast professional experience of consuming, designing and developing web services, to build an API engine that I feel could be core of multiple dynamic web apps and yet not so universal that it is trying to do everything for everyone, because “To please everyone, is to please no one.”

It will be interesting to see what becomes of the spec and mockups I put together for my friend.  I don’t know if I would go with Kickstart for a production project, it definitely made quick mockups easier, but I feel that I would want to go with a more ‘complete’ solution like Bootstrap for CSS, Chart.js feels pretty good (especially for free/open-source) and Font Awesome is perfect for all the needs I can foresee.

In case one is curious, I am favoring Laravel for the MVC server-side scripting (PHP) framework for my side-projects with the API Layer being written in Phalcon (also PHP server-side scripting framework). Which brings up another topic that I will need to defer to another post, but the title would be something like “Why use a framework?” There are plenty of reasons not to use them, but for me there are so many more on why one should use them. I’ll probably write that one next.

The Tyrant

“I will rule with an iron fist.”

I jokingly said that once, when being sort of interviewed by someone I felt was a peer, but in the discussion they were higher up on the food chain than I was. As I said it with bravado and such, it was taken as a joke and I followed up to say that I was kidding and we laughed and began to describe how I would actually manage/lead a team.

At that point I had done some reading on the subject of managing development teams, as the years went by, I read more and more on the subject of development team management and just overall business management.


There are as many different styles of management as there are managers. I’ve identified three major styles: two easy, dysfunctional styles and one hard, functional style, but the truth is that many development shops manage in more of an ad-hoc, “whatever works” way that may change from day to day or person to person.  –Joel Spolskey — On Management


Lister establish seven anti-patterns they dubbed Teamicide:

  1. Defensive Management

  2. Bureaucracy

  3. Physical Separation

  4. Fragmentation of People’s Time

  5. Quality Reduction of the Product

  6. Phony Deadlines

  7. Clique Control      — Coding Horror


Your management sucks if your business is like a golf-cart. Reason being is that when you take your foot off the gas/go pedal of a golf-cart it stops going. So if your business is such that when you get sick or take a vacation, everything stops, your management style sucks. Your way of managing should be such that when you’re not there, the business continues, because most likely your customers are still buying whatever it is that you sell, so they will get it from someone else and thus everyone that works for you will soon be out of a job (including yourself).                — Your Management Sucks, By Mark Stevens

But over my career I have had the unfortunately pleasure of working for several types that I would dub “The Tyrant”, I feel that is more accurate a description than “The Dictator”, because you can have a benevolent dictator, but it seems you never hear the word “tyrant” following the word “benevolent”.

Tyrant: any person in a position of authority who exercises power oppressively or despotically.

It got so bad with one boss, where nothing I did seemed to be good enough, and all of the ‘good’ assignments went to him and his buddy that was, in title, doing the same job as myself. I mean, there are advantages to power, you can scoop the good and fun work for yourself and you are at liberty to assign the ‘shit’ work to whomever.

But the thing is, no one is an indentured servant, at least not here in the USA, we are all doing the job for the money (some folks do it for the love of Puppies and Kittens, eg My Wife, but she was getting paid as well), so a leader regardless of if they are middle-management, departmental or C-level execs, needs to understand that without their team they are nothing more than an asshole with a whole bunch of work and no one to do that work.

I have sat in meetings where I had to defend my team from a Tyrant’s reign, stating that “No one my team signed up for that kind of work load.” I began to describe how we could possible convince my team to do more work (the workload that was being discussed wasn’t just a seemingly benign dev crunch cycle, it was “Man this job sucks, I’m outtie” level).

The Tyrant stated that they are getting a paycheck so what more should they want. The uber-exec in the room, said to figure out the necessary incentive and get it done, he just wanted the deadline met and seemingly understood that folks need to be compensated to go above and beyond when the ridiculous is required.

The Tyrant was genuine in his statement about the paycheck, and with that said, I know that many, many people fled his reign and found gainful employment elsewhere, which was a loss to the company.

I imagine that the Tyrant views any manager that has empathy with their subordinates as some sign of weakness. But for me, the empathy makes me a better manager, knowing how to work people to get the most out of them (through positive reinforcement whenever possible) is by and large the best thing I learned as a manager.

Negative reinforcement is necessary, even with the most kind-hearted folks, sometimes being nice about it just doesn’t get through, but generally you don’t have to be a dick about it. There are a million ways to say something, and the vast majority don’t require you to be a raging asshole.

I’ve worked for middle-managment Tyrants and for Owner/C-Level Tyrants. In both cases they have the notion that you need that job more than they need  you to do that job, the only real difference between the two, is the Owner/C-Level likely has the absolute power to remove you on a whim. (Here in Texas, it is “At-will” work, so technically they can let you go for any reason at all, or quite frankly no reason at all.)

But the middle-management Tyrants, those ones always seemed to just kill me with their logic, because to me, I really needed my team to do the best they could and sometimes there would be a “No I said, do it my way.” moment, but I always had a good reason and I would explain the reasoning and on a few occasions, it came up that my reasoning was flawed and we eventually changed, but for the time being, we had to do it my way. But the Tyrants tend to take a “You will do it my way, because I said so.” and give no explanation, entertain no real discussions about whatever it is and if a discussion is had, it is really just to go through the motions.

At another company, I realized I had started working for a Tyrant and decided I needed to exit stage-left and thankfully I was able to change jobs fairly quickly, but in other cases I had to work along-side the Tyrant for YEARS. It can be tough, and I like to think that I kept it civil and did my job to the best of my ability, but I also kept my interactions with such folks limited, because quite honestly if you don’t like to be around someone at work, why would you want to spend any more time with them than you really were required.

So there is a small part of me that feels that maybe the companies that we worked for would have benefitted more by me and the Tyrant being friends, having beers, discussing hypothetical business and product stuff, but I feel that I never harmed a company, I never went out of my way to avoid a Tyrant or attempt to sabotage the Tyrant (eg Depose the Tyrant).

The first Tyrant I can recall, I was prepared to scrape together every cent I had and get my ass back to Michigan (and live in my mom’s basement), but I talked with the CEO/Founder of the company and he transferred me to a different department, in a few months the Tyrant was gone and the “VP of Everything” contacted me and offered me my old job back, as a senior level, with more money, which as I found out later, I was getting put in line with all the other folks that had been hired in that department, but I had to train them and do the job search for our boss. So in that case, I had that Fight or Flight instinct kick in and I went for the flight, and it worked out.

So I guess I lean towards extricating myself from a Tyrant, because generally speaking, the Tyrant has come to power and wants to keep it, and I don’t like the dirty politics typically necessary to take down a Tyrant, nor do I think it is worth spending years being miserable waiting for them to leave.

This quote (to me it came from one of the rebooted Batman movies, but I am sure it has origins elsewhere)…

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the Villain.”


The Wayward Sherpa

Note: I looked up Sherpa, which I always thought was more of a term for the guide/helper one hires to climb mountains, but it appears to be a nomadic race/ethnicity of people. But the word does seem to have strong meaning towards how I am using it. I hope I do not offend anyone.


This is the first in a series of posts I have been wanting to do on the various leadership styles I have encountered during my career.

This is the tale of the “Wayward Sherpa.”

At one company I worked at, we had been through a number of leaders over the years and we to some degree felt rudderless given our latest set of marching orders. Our current leader was still there, but in his defense, his strengths (as I see them) are more for governing and tweaking an existing company, with existing customers, the aspects of building a new business in a new market, I feel he gave it his best shot.

However, in the end, we needed outside assistance. Enter the “Wayward Sherpa”, the hows and the whys of his arrival are neither here nor there, he was going to lead us to the promised land. He was supposed to have a plan ready for us to follow, a map as it were, and contacts that would help our progress in this new an foreign market sector that none-of-use were really that familiar with.

If I can digress a little, the idea that an organization can bring in some kind of “rainmaker” for business is not necessarily a pie-in-the-sky concept, I have seen it where someone with knowledge and contacts in a particular industry have immensely moved forward the endeavors of a company, but generally through partnerships, not sales. I have worked with what feels like half-a-dozen Sales People (sometimes called VP of Business Development), but in the end Sales People all the same, that have the elusive “Rolodex”.

They claim to know fscking everyone, and that knowledge will help us close the deals that we need to really get things going. I am going on fscking record, here and now. It is honestly better to take all your money, fly to Vegas, and choose either Red or Black and bet the farm, than it is to bet on the “Rolodex Play” paying off.

And I make a distinction between the Rolodex and the Rainmaker, because to me the Rainmaker is going to help you forge alliances/partnerships that will lead to deals, while the Rolodex is a sales guy who just fscking finished selling shit to companies that you also want to sell shit to, and if it is in the same vein as what they were just selling, you’re boned until their budgets renew and the contracts expire, eg, you hired them for fscking nothing.

I have more about the Rolodex, but will save that for a post later on.

Point of the digression, is hiring someone with knowledge of the industry you’re going to go after, is a good thing, the sooner you do that the better and I mean more than just someone who happens to have their kid in the same little league as someone in the industry your after (no shit, that is an REAL example, from one of the half-dozen Rolodex plays), they can help guide the company on how to build a product, how to pitch it, how to sell it into that Industry.

But hiring someone with industry knowledge as some sort of last ditch effort, just buy the ticket to Vegas, at least you will get some free drinks, hell might even win enough money to make payroll.

Back to the Sherpa.

So the Sherpa had a plan, it was simple, too simple. Like the kind of comical saying “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” Everyone reviewed his plan and we set forth filling in the particulars, e.g. making it more than just the plan from South Park.

As we got a couple of weeks into the Sherpa’s plan. We hit a snag, an EXTREMELY critical part of the plan, the one where we hook up with a particular group/classification of partners that for all intensive purposes the Sherpa swore on a stack of bibles that they existed and were just waiting for a product like ours, that they can make revenue with.

He came out on a call and said “I don’t know if they exist.”

Stop the fscking presses.

Don’t know if they fscking exist. But the plan, the plan that was devised by the Sherpa and agreed to by our board and executive management, the plan that we have been following for weeks, with our burn rate cutting into our dwindling funds (seriously, wish I could have just gone to Vegas), “I don’t know if they exist.”

I am sure I have been called harsher words than “negative” during this era of my career, comically I was dubbed “Ben Crusher of Dreams” by some of my staff and coworker-friends. But yeah, I was never sold on the OVERLY simple plan to begin with, but hey, wasn’t my money and I have a mortgage, so let’s suit up and slay them dragons. (Sorry, I know mixing metaphors.)

As time passed, the Sherpa and I got along less and less. I have to admit, I wasn’t very trusting of him to begin with, as on many levels, I felt the plans presented to me were the strategic equivalent of Snake Oil. But I don’t believe I performed my job any less efficiently or accurately due to my mistrust.

But as the end of the reign of the Wayward Sherpa came to a close. I was presented with a rare opportunity to have one-on-one meetings, fairly regularly with him. And in one instance, it was face-to-face, vs over the phone.

I forget all the specifics, but it went something like this.

Me: So you were hired to lead us to victory.

Sherpa: I don’t see myself as a leader, more of a guide.

Me: Need you to explain that in more detail.

Sherpa: Let’s say there is a mountain over there. 

Me: Ok.

Sherpa: I am here to help the team get up the mountain, I am not here to lead you up the mountain, but to help the team come together and climb that mountain.

Me: Right, but there has to be some known path up the mountain.

Sherpa: Even if I had the answers on how to get to the top of the mountain. I wouldn’t tell you, I am just here to help bring the team together to climb the mountain.

It quite honestly at that point, I stopped believing anything the Wayward Sherpa told me, ever.

Because, as the LEADER (CEO, President, Supreme-Commander of the Allied Forces, etc) it is you job to tell us how to get to the top. And if you happen to be wrong on the way, hopefully it doesn’t cost lives or livelihoods, but you are not being hired to help us up the mountain, you were hired because you have the gumption to LEAD the team up the mountain following your plan, you know the one with the partners that don’t exist, I mean they did, but now they don’t.

Given the mountain analogy he used during that conversation, I coined the name Wayward Sherpa.

So what to take away from this.

If you’re going to be a leader, take ownership of it, don’t just think you’re there to guide a team. You’re there to lead that team, and in some instances that will mean you’re helping department leads/managers vs being in the trenches, but in the end, that plan is yours, good or bad, failure or victory.

Secondly, if you’re working for a Wayward Sherpa, get your resume together. Because, the place you are working, it will limp along until the death rattle and if you have access to petty cash, not telling you to commit a felony, but if you can cover the losses from your own savings account, book a ticket to Vegas, you might save the company.



Choose-your-own Career/Adventure

There are no doubt several schools of thoughts around the natural evolution of one’s career in any sort of modern company (namely hi-tech companies).

But the main focus I have is around the idea that the natural evolution of a team member is to become management. The dreaded management, with great responsibility, likely comes more money.

Early on in my career, I was presented with an interesting scenario, that due to my young age, I was told I could not be the manager of the team, and therefore I had to interview a short list of candidates that the VP of Sales had chosen for Director of Sales Engineering.

At the time, I thought I was ready to manage, but I am knowing what I know now, I know that I wasn’t ready. But as I was most knowledgeable in the team (I think there were 4 other sales engineers, but we eventually hired a 5th), so as most knowledgeable, I led training sessions, I coached them through calls with potential customers, basics of doing the job.

At the time I didn’t realize it, but I was basically a team lead, who had the opportunity to hire my own boss. I hired the one that seemed to be the best fit for us in terms of industry background, personality and technical skill. And Larry was good, though when we hired our 5th, I expressed a concern about him and that I didn’t think he was going to be a good fit.

On a small aside, shortly after the 5th was hired, there was a discussion that came up in a team meeting about moving the commission structure to more of a pooled commission system, which I guess on some level, if I hadn’t had some deals closing imminently, I likely would have been in favor of some sort of hybrid where 25% of the commission goes into a pool that the team gets paid out of, as you know in the end, we all help each other. But, as the deals that were about to get paid out, were all mine and had been in the works for a while and with realistically no help from others, I was against it. As was Larry, I remember him telling the 5th not to bring it up again, and in such a way that meant that they had already had a conversation about it and told him that it wasn’t up for a debate.

The 5th later caused more issues and tried to jump departments, by way of a project that had him over at the development office (some 30 minutes away), yet, the project was not making any progress and when Larry would call over there, the 5th was missing. Comparing notes with folks over in the other departments over there, it seemed there was quite a bit of time ‘missing’.

But back to managing vs leading.

I eventually was able to hire/build a team of developers, several iterations of my career later at what I view as almost 5 companies from when I was an unofficial team lead. The company paying me only changed once though, long story for a different post.

I went about reading books and reflecting on what I felt were good bosses during my career thus far. Looking back, Larry was a good manager, and while I didn’t learn anything technical from him, he pointed out areas of professionalism that I could work on and I took them to heart.

I think the two books that had the most impact on my views on hiring/building and managing a team were Managing Humans by Michael Lopp and Smart and Gets Things Done by Joel Spolsky. Those who were close to me at that time might have seem me read and reference other books, but those were either oriented towards marketing or towards general business management, those two books I link in this post are the ones I really feel had a substantial impact.

During that time, I hired nine developer, we didn’t have all nine at once, I think at most we had 4 web devs at one, the general principle was to have one front-end oriented dev and one back-end oriented dev, the two could do parts of one another’s jobs, but to achieve a high-quality piece of digital work, you need specialization.

I also was ‘given’ some staff from other departments, in one instance, this lasted for about two days. And the feedback I got was to the effect of ‘He said you guys were just in Chaos,’ well I guess depending upon what you’re comfort level is for the unknown, yeah we were in Chaos. We were in the middle of building a department and we didn’t know a lot of what we were going to be doing, but to us at that point, it was exciting.

The other, we had him until budget cutbacks came into play, it was against my wishes to have him let go, but it came down from a higher level of management. Aside from being friends with him, I felt the elimination of that position meant that our company/division was going to lose autonomy and on a deeper level, I took it as a sign that we were done, but no one wanted to admit it.

So during this era of my career, I dealt with vacation scheduling, performance reviews, 1-on-1 discussions (fairly weekly), code reviews, write-ups, letting folks go and also firing those that repeatedly failed to comply with company policy.

And out of all of that, I feel that I did lead the team on a technical direction level and I did my best to manage them, but for a time there I did have a development manager, who dealt with the nitty-gritty of the scheduling and making sure tasks were getting completed, because as you grow as a company, those tasks are still all very important, but can bog down the ‘leadership’ of the company, so you hire folks to handle those tasks.

I sort of look at it this way, often Project Management is mistaken for Product Management and a Product Manager is often mistaken for a Project Manager. To which, I personally take offense.

Product Management encompasses the tasks of project management, which means a good Product Manager has to be able to manage a project. But a Project Manager doesn’t generally make any decisions about Product, they are there to ensure the project completes as it was planned.

Leaders can manage, and managers can lead, but realistically you start to reach a level of work and company growth/size that requires specialization, going back to the idea of a front-end and back-end developer working on a web app, it will be higher quality, because while the back-end dev can edit some CSS, it is highly unlikely they will be able to implement a grandiose web design, much like a front-end developer can make the web app talk to the database, but they will likely run into issue trying to design a database and application that can handled significant volume.

With all of that said, what is my point?

I have lead teams (sometimes folks that didn’t report to me or technically even work for my company, eg contractors) and I have managed staff.

I don’t like managing staff. While I was managing staff, I was also trying to do my own job and I was also doubling as systems admin and a level (probably 2nd level, but felt like 1st) tech support for a number of our customers, but was doing that so my developers could continue to develop and I didn’t have budget for staff to do those roles and if I had bogged the developers down, we would have had issues completing our projects on time. So I took it on, removing the obstacles as best I could, per what I learned from Mr. Spolsky.

But given the choice between being a senior level individual contributor and a manager, I feel I would take the senior level individual contributor role, every time. (But given the choice of unemployment and managing staff, oh yeah, I would manage staff, until I could go elsewhere.)

My view on this may eventually change, but it also may not.

I leave you with these words, paraphrased, that were given to me by a VP that I worked with a long-time ago (feels like a lifetime ago), “You have to look out for your career, no one else is going to be looking out for it.”

So pursue what you want to do in life, pursue what you like to do. Every jobs has things that we don’t like to do, but if that is all your job is, things you don’t like to do, seriously look around, you might have to move, but look around.

Some links I found on the concept of Management vs Leadership

Wall Street Journal

Educational Business Articles.com

Peeler Associates


Leading vs Managing


Last year I had the opportunity to work with Builders License Training Institute, they were taking an application from a vendor and taking it in house.

To respect NDAs and such, let me just say that they were a very brick-and-mortar with some ‘mail-order’ business elements, so the online application was helping to really change their way of thinking, I had the opportunity to do some linux server admin work for them, and I also did some business style consulting.

I recommended some books on Product Management, and tried to give them a crash course in how to manage developers and what I felt were best practices they could do in terms of task management and source code management. These were concepts that any competent business owner should be able to grasp at a high level, but without being technical, they would never be able to really follow-up on, that comes down to trust of the coding staff.

They’ve taken to Product Management and one of my contacts there has the title Product Manager, which makes me feel really good. They’ve also taken to vertical branding for other markets they are targeting with their training software.

And while my engagement with them was short and really centered around some servers I turned up for them, I feel that I helped them get to where they are, but I take no credit. It was the hard-work they put in for the last 15 months since I worked with them. We are keeping in touch by email, here and there.

I had the chance to meet other startups at the Three Day Startup event in Traverse this past summer and with my friend Kevin’s joining Aceable, it feels like startups are everywhere.

Makes me wish I was 10 years younger.

Busy Summer

I’ve spent a lot more time working this summer than I had last, resulting in less kayaking and less running/jogging on the back roads near the cottage.

Finding a work-life balance is something that I think everyone needs to find for themselves.

When I was at the cottage the previous two summers and it was just me and my Father-in-Law with my wife visiting occasionally, I would work a fair amount at night and sleep in a little bit and then some during the day and would find myself going for a run in the afternoon (3 or 4pm) or I might Kayak for an hour then, and then usually again after dinner.

But this summer with my wife here in Michigan, I wanted to spend more time with her and my client needed me during a normal work hour, which has meant less kayaking and less running/jogging. I cannot blame this all on work, there is a part of it that is just personal conviction.

But there was a lot of stuff I had wanted to do this summer that I let slip by, I am glad that I went to Traverse for the Startup Weekend. It gave me a chance to meet some folks that I would consider a friend, not a really close friend, but more than just an acquaintance, I also met a number of people I would call acquaintances.

But there was a Maker Lab type setup at the NMC that I wish I had been able to make time to go to, but with Traverse a good 40 minutes away, it is hard to be able to make it there in the evening to spend time working in the Maker Lab, not so much because of the 40 minute drive there, but it would be that 40 minutes home.

The State Theatre in Traverse is volunteer run and to some degree reminds me of the Alamo Drafthouse, before they started franchising/showing up everywhere. They show “almost first-run” movies, it looks like they get movies from a few months back and sometimes foreign films, we saw Jon Favreau in Chef and happened to show up on “Free Popcorn” day, they definitely could have used an experienced concessionist back there slinging popcorn. There were a number of things that they were doing wrong, and while I don’t think I could have eliminated the wait that folks endured for their free bag of popcorn, I definitely would have shaved minutes off the wait. Some of their issues were purely technique, another part of equipment, get the right tool for the job (namely a metal popcorn measuring cup).

But why do I bring up the State Theatre, because on Friday nights they show a late night flick and for a great price like 2 tickets for $5. That week it was going to be “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the downside it did’t start until 11pm. Back in Austin, Gina and I would have been there, but with a 40 minute drive home through the woods of northern Michigan, nope.

So while I truly love Bellaire, there are some drawbacks of small-town life, being far away from neat things like the Maker Lab or the late night Friday flicks at The State Theatre. But with my Internet connection, I am never far away from work.

Which is why finding that work-life balance is important, a number of times I have found myself sitting at my desk at it is 6:30 pm and before I know it, the clock has moved to 7:15 pm, and I was supposed to stop working at 5:30. Also, I have a BAD habit of not eating lunch until about 3pm, but namely because from noon until about 3:00pm I have a hard time finding a stopping point.

But just like the nice 40 minute walk I took yesterday, I took Emma Lou (our schnauzer) for a walk, you have to just make the time.

Startup Weekend

I have lived in Austin, TX for the last 15 years, they call it Silicon Hills, I have worked for companies that are basically all startups, at various stages of growth. I am not sure that I ever want to work for a truly large company. One company I worked for, Simplified, reached about 230 people, including our office in the UK (outside of London) and a couple of guys in Hong Kong.

At the time we reached 230 or so, there were folks that I didn’t really know, I mean not even their faces, might never even had seen their name except for some poorly done mass e-mailing that included everyone’s email in the TO: field. When I truly realized that I no longer knew everyone at the company, it felt weird.

Bear in mind, I was like employee 12 or 15 (I forget) and at one point I did all of our onboarding (we didn’t have an HR dept back then), so I literally met everyone in the company as they signed their paperwork and such. Probably around 40 or 50 folks in the company, I stopped onboarding, but it didn’t sink in until we had hit that 200 mark, it also sank in about then, because we had three locations in Austin and were looking to consolidate into one location (but that building was too small, so we took down other office space).

Then other companies, I was one of maybe 20, point being of all of this, there is something weird that happens to the way a company works and how it feels to work there once a company reaches certain employee sizes.

I have to say that I do truly enjoy a startup style/size company, you get a chance to be multi-disciplined, which helps keep things interesting, though there are times when having the opportunity to focus on a single discipline is enjoyable, nigh calming and serene.

Back to the title of this post, Startup Weekend, enter the chaos.

Well, hopefully organized chaos or merely chaos theory, there is a Startup Weekend (sometimes called 3-day startup) being held in Traverse City this weekend.

I grew up in Lansing, I lived there for about 18 years. My parents worked for the Red Cross, a bank and finally the great (and very broke) State of Michigan, eg pretty much civil servants. They were not entrepreneurs, my mom did some art on the side (enlarging photos by hand in this really cool ink-dot style, very cool stuff) and made a little side money at it, but neither parent was ever really business oriented. I am not saying that all of Lansing was like this, there were folks out on the hustle and not just sales folk, I mean actual business men.

But honestly, culturally speaking, growing up you heard kids saying what they wanted to do when they grew up and it was the usual ‘Doctor, lawyer, scientist’. The Internet wasn’t really a thing yet and computer programming, while it existed, the Open Source culture wasn’t there, so there were many barriers to entry for teens to think about how to build the next big thing that would make it to an IPO, hell I don’t think I knew what an IPO was until college.

My friends and I would routinely start designing a video game, the content anyway, based upon the latest game we were playing, I remember working up content for several inspired by Dragon Warrior. In today’s day and age, if I was still that middle-schooler, I could in a weekend knock out a playable demo of my content using a variety of Open Source starting engines for RPGs on PC, OSX or a mobile OS (iOS, Android).

That is the world we live in today, where the ability to quickly execute an idea is almost better than what the idea is. Because the sooner you can throw it against the wall and see if it sticks, the faster you can move on to something else (to see if it sticks) or to begin refinements and how to turn that idea into a real money maker.

Upon moving to Texas, and working for a startup (Open Source still wasn’t a big thing yet, but the Internet was in full-swing), I got a real taste for entrepreneurialism. I had coworkers that were insistent that they were just doing what they were doing until they could get their own ideas going. This was a strange and foreign concept to me at the time, since back in Lansing, it really felt like your job prospects were limited to…

  1.  GM / Car Companies (even though none of my immediate family worked for them)
  2. State of Michigan
  3. Michigan State University

But in Austin, you could work for Dell, IBM, 3M, Texas Instruments, AMD, random software startup, University of Texas, State of Texas, or try to start your own. It just seemed like there was so much more opportunity to be had in Austin. And on many levels, there was more opportunity, but I feel that part of it was just cultural.

Back to this coming weekend, I have been trying to keep close tabs on Michigan’s economy, my wife wants to move back here permanently, and well in Austin there are opportunities for consulting business or permanent positions with a wide-variety of tech companies, in Michigan as a whole, not so much, even less when you look at where I would want to live, northern Michigan.

Being a technical consultant has advantages, in that you can work from just about anywhere, you just need a client that doesn’t need you physically present much. Technology has helped with this immensely as well, Instant Messenger helped to supplant phone calls (and long-distance bills), and the likes of Skype video or Google Hangouts mean that you can feel more connected with remote clients/coworkers than ever before.

But if I had to find a permanent tech position based out of northern Michigan (or on some level anywhere in Michigan), I feel it will be fairly difficult, that is until the last couple of years. I saw a few things happen that told me that the tide is changing.

  1. Broadband access, the ability to get high-speed cable modem, and I don’t mean like 10 or 20Mbps cable modem speeds, 100Mbps speeds became available up here in Bellaire, which is a town of like 1,200 people and I am not sure that census doesn’t include some snowbirds.
  2. Mobile coverage, three years ago, my cell phone barely worked out on the edge of the dock. Now I get 4G and LTE coverage pretty much everywhere in a 15 mile radius, barring the movie theatre that place is like a faraday cage (that and Mrs. Pete restaurant, dead zone inside).

And last year, while I was looking on Tumblr, I happened across a reference to Coolhouse Labs, a tech accelerator located in Harbor Springs (north east of me by just over an hour). This was BIG, there were some minor tech players in Traverse, but a whole accelerator in a town that is almost 3 hours away from Traverse, that seemed like a significant step up for Michigan’s tech scene.

And this year, Startup Weekend.

For the record, I have one major client right now and they keep me plenty busy as their CTO, but I am compelled to participate in the Startup Weekend.

Next year maybe I will try to be a mentor or something, we shall see, but this year, I am going as a developer. I wish I had the whizzy iOS and Android skillz that I have no doubt will be in demand this coming weekend, but what I lack in the mobile development space, I make up for in solid database design and strong fundamentals of web application and web services API architecture designs.

I have half a case of redbull and I am going to try and get a couple of good nights sleep before the weekend.

I will blog it some on here, but I think I will probably turn on a new Tumblr to blog the weekend’s events.

I don’t know what will come of it, I hope I make some friends in the tech space, it would be nice to be able to talk shop with folks.