The other day I was thinking about my first ever job in this industry as a junior software engineer at the age of 20. I was doing okay with my studies at the Athens university of applied sciences but I was working outside of this industry. I had to gain some working experience in the field, so I made a decision to find part time work in a small software house. The (bad) experience and lessons learned in those couple weeks are still with me till this day … almost 20 years after!
I got a flyer from the job board at school and I walked a couple of kilometers to the address of the place. I didn’t have a car back then (or for the next 7 years), so I had to use public transportation (bus) or walk wherever I wanted to go. I rang the doorbell around noon and went up on the second floor. There I introduced myself and asked for an opportunity to work with them. The owner/head of software team asked me a few things and got to the technical parts of the job.
- We are working with visual studio, but we are using HTML pages as forms for our product. In a sense we have copied the Amazon model!
Impressed, that I was going to work with the next amazon, I immediately said Yes to the offer.
- Do you know HTML ?
- No, but I am a quick study.
He smiled at me and gave me (I think) this 800 pages book to read about HTML4.
He then told me:
- Read this book and come back when you finished it.
That was Friday noon.
I spent 10 hours quickly reading the book and keeping notes. Then I made a static demo site about Milos Island, where I had spent two weeks in the summer with my girlfriend. I had photos and material to write about, so I did that as an exercise.
Monday morning, I was presenting him with my homework. He didn’t believe me and spent a couple of hours talking about HTML4, just to prove that I had made the site, reading the book he gave me. In the end he was convinced.
My next assignment was to learn about Visual Basic and Visual Studio. I had a basic idea about this but I had never worked as a professional programmer, so he prepared a few coding exercises to get familiar with the codebase. This was my onboarding period.
- Take this exercise and come back when you finish it. It will take you about a week.
Next day, I was again first in the office.
- So you came back to ask for help. That is okay. You should ask for help but you need to make an effort to do it yourself.
- I finished it, it was easy.
- Really? Then here is your next assignment. This is more difficult. Come back when you finished it.
Next day … I was back in the office.
- I finished it, what is next ?
- Okay, read this today and come back tomorrow.
Read it, returned the next day.
- Okay, I need you to sit here and work on the next assignments. I want to see how you are working on these coding exercises for myself.
Next two days, worked there on coding exercises to get familiar with their codebase. He was impressed and I was very happy.
Next day (Friday):
- You now have access to our production code. Here are your tasks, whenever your finish something I want to see it. But before all that, here is a copy of our product. Today you will test it and report any bugs that you think we need to fix.
I took this task as my personal goal to prove myself. Worked ten hours that day and made a few comments on how to improve customer experience.
I asked if I can take the CD back with me at home and tested it on my personal computer.
It was a windows executable and the installer was pretty decent.
Next, next, install, done.
My windows 98 second edition didn’t have enough free space on my hard disk, and I needed to also install oracle to work on my semester lab exercises. My 8G hard disk and the gazillion of floppy disks around my home office on my Pentium III was my entire kingdom back then. So I uninstalled the application and rebooted my computer.
Then something horrible happened. My computer could not start the operating system. There were indications of missing DLLs.
I re-installed (repair) windows and was curious about what happened.
I re-installed the application and re-uninstalled it once more.
Reboot Windows and again missing DLLs.
I returned on Monday morning at the office and explained in details the extreme bug I had found. When a customer removes our software, they would corrupt their operating system. The majority of our customers didn’t have the technical experience to fix this problem. So I made it very clear that this is something we need to fix ASAP and we should inform every customer not to remove our application and reboot their machine. I was really proud that I had found this super bug and that we were going to save our company.
And then the owner told me:
- Our customers are paying us for installation of our software application. They are not paying us for fixing their computer problems.
- But this is something we introduced.
- Do not be silly, we are professionals, we do not make mistakes.
- But …
- No butts, this is not our problem.
First business lesson was:
- We do not make mistakes, customers should pay us for fixing our bugs!
The next thing was to check the installer. We’ve noticed that they had marked a few windows DLLs as important to be there for our application to run. To avoid any mistakes we copied these DLLs from the application’s CD to our customer’s windows. The uninstallation process, was removing everything that installed so … the windows DLLs were gone! It was a simple mistake and easy to fix. Click on the correct checkbox for those files, not to be removed during the uninstallation process.
We needed to distribute our application to all 2.000 customers all over Greece. We had to burn 2.000 physical CD’s, print 2.000 CD covers, compile 2.000 CD cases and put them in 2.000 envelopes and write 2.000 addresses on the envelopes. Then visit the local post office, pay for stamps etc and mail 2.000 CDs to our customer’s snail addresses.
We also had to provide letters of instructions:
- Uninstall the previous version
- Install the new version
in any circumstance do not reboot your PC till the new version is up and running. Then copy your license key into the program and connect to the internet to upload your contracts/data or sync your data from the central database to your laptop/desktop.
For every patch (that meant a new CD to sent) our business model was to get money from our customers for our work and any expenses for distributing these CDs around Greece. That was the business deal with our customers. Customers were paying us, for our mistakes and could also take a week or so to get the fix. Depending on the post office delays. License keys were valid (I am not sure but I believe) for a year and then there was a subscription model for the patches. If customers wanted to subscribe. then they should pay us for every CD, for every patch, for every mistake. Our business model depended on that.
For some reasons I had opinions about this effort. I made a suggestion to use our web server (web site) to provide the patch, so the customers can download from the internet and install it immediately without waiting for weeks till we sent the next CD with the latest version. Also ,no need of extra money for the post office or CDs or burning 2.000 CDs through the weekend. Customers should pay for the patch (our work) so this way would be best for everybody.
The owner replied to me, that they made more money with the current system, so no need of making things easier or cheaper for customers and I should keep this innovated ideas to myself.
At that point, the thought that I wasn’t working for the next amazon came in mind. They would put this extra profit on top of their customer’s needs.
Finally, after my first week as an employee, I was now writing code as a software engineer. I did an impressive work of fixing bugs and refactoring code and in a sense made our product better, faster and safer. I had ideas and worked closely with the senior programmer on a few things. I was doing good, working fast, learning and providing value.
I’ve noticed a specific coding style so I kept it. The senior programmer could read my code and comments (I wrote a lot of comments) and vice versa. Finally I had joy from my work as a programmer.
I vividly remember a specific coding issue, even 20 years after it happened. There was a form with 10 buttons. 10 clicks were the maximum possible events on this form. So I wrote a case statement of 9 events and one default. I submitting the code and the owner/head software programmer came to the office yelling at me.
- I’ve started reviewing your code and I can not read it. Why you are writing code like this. this is shit code. Case statements!!! No no no no. I want from you to write the same code as I write, so I can read/review it.
- But your example is a nested if-then-else for 11 events and we only have 10 events there. I made a case statement of 9 events and a default. It’s better.
- No, this is not better, it’s shit. I can not review your code. I want you to delete everything and start from the beginning. I want to read your code and think that I was writing this code instead of you.
- I am sorry, but I think your are wrong on this. This is better, trust me. I worked closely with our senior programmer and we believe this is better.
- No, remove everything.
after a couple of hours
- So I need to talk with you.
- Sure, what can I do for you?
- I think this collaboration is not working between you and us.
- okay, I am really sorry about that. Can I please ask what are the problems so that I can improve in the future. This is my first job.
The truth bomb:
- You have all these new ideas to disturb our business model and cash flow. Using the web server to publish and distribute patches? Come on, you are very young to give me advice on how to run my business. you do not know anything.
- You made a lot of comments and suggestions about what we are doing wrong. This should never be the case, especially if you are talking to customers. We never make mistakes and we need to be paid for every customer request. I never make mistakes. I have a master’s degree in computer science and you are still a student. If something is wrong, customers should make a request and we are going to make a patch. That’s it.
- Finally ,you are writing code that I can not read/review. I am the head software engineer and I need from you to write code as I write code. You should never introduce anything new that I can not read.
Two weeks, I felt like really shit. I felt like I didn’t know anything about business but he paid me for the whole month.
After all these years, I now believe that he was afraid of my ideas. Of using the internet to help our business and reduce customer’s costs but the most important was he was afraid that new people came to his business and wrote code that he could not understand.
I made a promise that day to myself, that last Friday from my very first job:
- I will try always to do my best in this industry.
Almost 20 years have past from those two weeks, I never worked as a programmer, I chose to work as a sysadmin, mostly doing operations.
Thankfully I think I am doing well. So here, to the next 20 years ahead.
Thank you for reading my story.