Two things got me thinking about my first job out of college: (1) retouching my resume and (2) scanning through the compiled list of experiences Microsoft has put together for people to use as a basis of having a full-career path at Microsoft.
One of those is “start-up.” Now, you could consider getting a Version One product built from scratch and out the door a “start-up” experience at Microsoft. It made me think of my time as EPOS Corporation, and some of the more interesting experiences there.
When I started, EPOS had sort of three arms: Ampex production-floor monitoring, government contracts, and general consulting. I didn’t have secret clearance so I ended up in consulting. Eventually, the Ampex product turned into general plastics-injection monitoring and I ended up there, through-out my fine two-year tour of duty. During that time, EPOS also grew into an early distributor and developer of voice-response systems (“Press 2 to… yada-yada.”), which eventually became its core business before being acquired.
Today, I was thinking of three experiences that kind of cover my turns of employment at EPOS:
- Going to the International Paper Mill Company plant in Selma, Alabama to get their fiber-optic network repaired. Like any paper mill, that placed reeked so much that I carried the stink home with me in my suit.
- Royally pissing off some of our key Ethyl plastics injection molding customer in St. Petersburg, FL. More below..
- Drilling into the chasis of a plastics injection machine to mount a transducer, sick as a dog… somewhere in Massachusetts. You know how McCoy on Star Trek would always remind Kirk that he was a Doctor? I was putting my weight into that drill, grumbling, “I’m a developer, dammit, not an electrician!”
The second experience was interesting. Ethyl was adopting more and more of EPOS’ hardware and software to monitor their floor machines (producing things like Polaroid camera bodies and such). Two of the plant managers sat down to talk to me about the features they wanted to see in the future versions of the software.
As they explained to me what they wanted, my engineer brain was panicking. These were features very specific to the ins and outs of how they ran their particular plant. We were in the middle of trying to produce a one-size fits all monitoring system. Oh, no, visions of one-off code and #ifdefs and busted builds for Ampex because of Ethyl features started clouding my mind and I probably fuzzed out for a little bit.
When I was given a chance to comment, I said, “Well, you know, whatever we do has to be applicable to all of our customers.”
Very reasonable response, yes, quite so, said the panicky code-reviewer thoughts in my head.
“Well,” one of the managers said, leaning in and giving me a dead-serious-frozen-one-to-one-look, “we’re your customers, and we’re sitting in front of you right now.”
I found out soon afterwards that my boss was told that I was no longer welcome at the plant (my work expected to be told of some sort of scandalous event vs. me just pissing the customer off by not properly acknowledging them and their ideas as important).
In the long run I saved the plant’s bacon somehow… either helping them fix their IBM Microchannel PC (microchannel… that was the death-nail to the adage, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”) or perhaps phoning in remotely to fix something. I was welcomed back with open arms and went onwards to design and implement a quality-control system that we installed there. Oh, wait, I remember: I helped them have a flashy walk-through of how much the system was improving things when the Ethyl brass visited.
So that was my gentle yet shocking introduction to letting your engineering process override your customer relations. What I thought was an innocent statement of fact torqued them up and put me on the blacklist for a while. We incorporated their feedback and it was good. We didn’t do everything they wanted, but even then you could export files into some other tool and do the rest of what you wanted.
Listen to your customers. Especially when they are right in front of you.