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Sybelius Brown, codeslinger for hire

  • June 1, 1998
  • By Adrian Scott
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I enter the office, one of the first developers to arrive at the early hour of 9:30 am. I'm Sybelius Brown, code-slinger for hire. My current gig is with Brotherson & Co., an online commodities trading startup subsidiary of a big three-letter insurance/financial services company. It's hard to call it a start-up -- we've got to deal with mainframe legacy systems of the offline units of the company. And half of our development team are Cobol re-treads from the East coast. My friend Jimmy in the next cubicle actually calls it a "start-down." Two developers jumped ship last week and Jimmy and I are not sure whether to follow them or ask for more dinero.

The MBA biz dev managers nurse their triple choco-lattes on the other side of the open room.

I go through my voicemail and company e-mail. We're almost due to launch Phase I and tension is growing. Key pieces of the communication set-up haven't been hammered out yet. The senior veeps of the parent company wanted the finished site yesterday ... well ... last month. Our managers are freaking out and trying to help us code -- not a good thing.

"Message 1. April 16th, 5:35pm. "Hi Sybelius -- Where are you?," the voice of Peter Peterson, my whiny project manager. "Left already? I've just e-mailed the revised project plan with a breakdown of sub-tasks. Please review it and let me know if I've left anything out."

"7" -- the delete key. I never look at project plans. But having them keeps Peter happy and employed.

"Message 2. April 17th, 9:05am. Hi Sybelius, this is Joan Peabody at All-Online Technology Recruiting." I grab a pen and start scribbling on a scrap of paper. "Joe Fung gave me your name. I've got a contract that would be a good match with your interests, with Java, JDK1.2, Netscape Navigator and HotJava language. Give me a ring if you're available, 408-555-4312."

After writing down her phone number, it's "7" -- delete key, and "* *". "Good-bye." Gee, when will Internet recruiters learn how to send e-mail? I guess around the same time we developers start responding to their e-mails.

My machine is booted up and I try to get to my personal Web page.

"A connection with the server could not be established."

Great! The network's down again. I unpack my backpack, pulling out the half-gallon of orange juice I picked up on the way in and a couple of new books on finance and CORBA stuff.

Over in the computer room, the assistant Sys Admin is trying to find a clue. I could help, but I've got e-mail to catch up on. So I head back to my cube, pull my backup laptop out of my desk and boot it up with its wireless modem.

Personal e-mail time -- it's all very business-related of course :). My hacker buddy, Aleph, is e-mailing about the upcoming press appearance of Linus and Andreesen.

An old friend is e-mailing about a new start-up that's looking for blood, cc-ing the president of it, a "Stanford MBA that created the word Intranet." Hmm... the next e-mail is from the man himself, wanting me to stop by after work today. "You're going to love what we're doing! Just wait until we talk!"

The MBA biz dev managers are talking about their weekend snowboarding at Tahoe on the other side of the open room.

A pint of orange juice later and the network's humming again. Jimmy's arrived in the next cubicle and is checking his stocks. "Sybelius, there are some good values in database stocks right now," he says.

"Sorry buddy, I follow the 'buy high, sell higher' rule of tech investing," I riposte. And I'm checking my stocks too. Have to put all this crazy money I'm making somewhere. No need to go to Vegas. Just login and start trading."

"So Jimmy, are you looking around?," I ask, changing the subject to the big thing on our minds. I've ventured over to his cube, so nobody hears. His cube is stuffed with every kind of peripheral you can connect to a PC: from mundane speakers to a scanner, his own printer, a drawing input pad and even a joystick.

"Yes, Syb," he replies. "I'm doing a little surfing through the job postings. I'm pretty comfortable here though. Anyhow, keeping my eyes out."

"Yeah, me too," I reply. "Headhunters are calling as usual, and a couple of startups want me. I don't know about that though. I've done the start-up employee thing before." I head back to my cube and my e-mail.

An e-mail comes in from the development group doing the client-side piece with the latest versions of our common objects. I unzip it, try to compile and realize we have another versioning problem... Ah, version control systems -- another "I told you so..." ARGHH!!

It's a good thing I'm emotionally detached. If I were an employee instead of a contract code-slinger, this would probably be driving me crazy.

It's getting close to lunch, and I'm supposed to meet up with Janice Red, a girl in marketing from a travel/health content site. She just started there and I ran into her at the corner cafe yesterday.

At the park, I wait for a few minutes and Janice saunters in. Her dark, long black hair alights on the black top she's wearing with black slacks. "How's it going, Janice?" I ask.

"OK, just in the midst of a marketing plan that's going to be presented to our board," she replies. "Burrito or sandwiches?" she asks, taking charge.

"How about burritos?" I ask.

"Yo quiero," she says with raised eyebrows. Ah, a spicy one.

Twenty-something graphic designer weenies are draped across the park's grass like bacalhau on a Portuguese fisherman's drying racks. We cross the park to grab a burrito.

"So, how's your day going," she asks.

"Oh, version control problems, network problems, situation normal," I say. "Oh, I'm meeting with some start-up CEO tonight, he wants to recruit me."

"That's cool. Yeah, I'm thinking of moving on. I'm not sure about content. It's so long-term," she says.

"What else would you want to do?" I ask.

"Oh, I think I want to stay in marketing, but something where there's more money. Maybe software, or I guess finance would be good," she thinks aloud.

"Well, either way, go for the money," I say.

And my cell phone rings.

"Syb, uh, we need you for an emergency meeting. We, uh, lost some backups of the client-side code, and it's almost end of day for the East coast folks. We need to figure out how this is going to impact our project plan," says the tight-necked voice of our project manager, Peter Peterson.

What to do? My client's freaking out, but I'm trying to impress Janice. I could invite her over. We're almost halfway through the burritos. OK, I don't want to ditch Janice, but I probably should get to the meeting.

"OK, Pete -- I'll be there in 10 minutes," I say and click off.

"Janice, want a quick tour of our place? Some crisis has come up, and there's an emergency meeting. I sorta have to get back."

"Uh Syb, we just got here... "

I finally placate her, and we head back to my office. I give her the two-minute tour. I introduce her to my cubicle neighbor Jimmy, but skirt by Peterson's office. I leave her with the marketing folks, because they can talk shop for a long time once you get them started.

The emergency meeting is in our conference room, which we call the Folsom room, named after the prison. Netscape does the same thing, though they have a lot more prisons.

The usual finger-pointing occurs, designs get re-hashed for the third time and by the end of the meeting we can't remember what we decided on. Meanwhile the East coast folks we teleconferenced in all want to head home. Peter's looking to Jimmy and me for answers, because we're the main developers left since the other two departed last week.

Oh, and then Peter finds out he forgot to hit the resource leveling button in his project management software, so all the dates in the revised project plan are messed up.

I duck out of the meeting and go across the street to get more OJ, some chips and a breath of fresh air. I have a "No B.S." meeting policy, where I leave meetings when it becomes very apparent that people have no clue what they're talking about. Folks don't love me for it, but it's doubled my productivity.

Afterwards, I hide in my cubicle a bit. I get a bit of tangential coding done, then start Web surfing. I do some searches to find out any stuff on this start-up CEO I'm meeting with in just a couple of hours. Then I do more coding. A slip of paper falls off my desk. I pick it up.

Oh, I'm supposed to call that recruiter back. I call, but she's on the phone with another candidate, so I leave a voicemail. The job description sounded a bit soft, but that's usual these days. You'd think that by now recruiters would know the difference between Java the language and HotJava the browser.

I return to my coding, after grabbing a swig from my orange juice. Oops, I've made a few OJ stains on my Object Hierarchy printout. Some of my code's been running slowly. It must be all that String Tokenizing. A few objects later, it's time to head to the interview a block away.

Piper Tu positively glistens, like a news anchor with fresh makeup. It's a little intimidating. You don't want to look straight at him; you're afraid it might rub off on you, or else turn you to stone. You can't figure out: does he want your soul or just your first-born? He's sharing offices with another start-up, a design firm. There are a few wooden desks or workbenches of the Home Depot handyman variety with a few machines on them. Pierced people from the design firm wander around in a trance matching the ambient music that plays in the background.

We go through the standard stuff of my background and his, and then he gets into the vision thing.

"The biggest Internet market is business to business," says Piper. "Yet it's really difficult to do highly-targeted advertising to a certain company, Sybelius. If I want to sell something to Sun, it's really difficult for me to place ads that will just be seen by visitors from sun.com. None of the ad networks has the reach to package up enough impressions. Nagano, our new company, is going to connect advertisers and marketers in the business-to-business market with their prospects." He's spewing now. I'm not sure if he remembers I'm there.

"We're going to buy placement on company Intranets, as well as e-mail address lists, from IT departments. Sybelius, that gives them a new revenue stream, and gives us a highly-targeted audience for expensive ads." Oh, he remembers I'm there. He's been to one of those sales courses where they tell you that a prospect's favorite word is their name, etc., yadda yadda, Sybelius.

"We've lined up $2 million already from Bumpher, Keepel and Tryour, the big VC firm," he says. Hmm... Two mil, not a lot, but enough to get a good start for an Internet company. He goes on to mention the big name PR firm, the big name legal firm and a few board members.

"I'm looking for someone to get our tech side in gear. I think you could be the one, Sybelius," he says, slowing down his voice and staring into my eyes. It's interesting, though something doesn't feel quite right.

"You'd get 2% in options, an excellent salary, a superfast machine, outstanding bandwidth (plus ADSL to your home), and an unlimited supply of orange juice," he added. Gosh, he knew my liking for orange juice -- must have done his homework... and 2% was pretty good. ADSL bandwidth to my place would rock. Next thing you know he'd say he'll have my favorite comic, Dark Knight of Vespa, delivered to the office.

"Oh, and I heard you like Dark Knight of Vespa. One of my buddies from school works at Marvel, so we'll get the newest issues overnighted to you before anyone else gets them."

Doh! This is getting a little scary. Piper has probably run a credit check on me too. He must really want me.

"Oh, and you're going to love the title I've thought up for you: Fulfiller of Technological Desire," he adds. Now I'm a little put off. What a lame title, and I'm not even into stupid titles, especially ambiguous ones.

"Hmm...," I respond, blank-faced, "Sounds interesting. What are you thinking salary-wise?"

"$30,000 to start with, though we'll review that every 6-9 months," he responds and his face is less intense than before. Gee, 30K is not so hot. First-year grads make more than that, and the dude's supposedly got two mil already. But 2% in stock options balances that pretty well.

"Hmm...," I say, "I'll have to think about it. I've got a few folks wanting me right now."

"OK," Piper says, returning to confidence, "I do need to know right away though. Give me a call tomorrow with your decision. I have a few other folks who're stopping by over the next couple of days. This is a really great opportunity. It's going to be BIG," he says as he puts his arm around me.

His arm feels like the clammy embrace of an octopus. The job sounds neat, all the right names, decent stock -- we'd have to do something about the salary, but hmm... something doesn't feel right.

I mumble, "Talk to you soon," looking down at the ground, and head out the door with my backpack on my back. I'll have to get advice from my friends on this one.

Adrian Scott . com is CEO of Aereal Inc., where he does high-end Internet consulting for financial services and technology firms, such as Bank of America. He has contributed to six Internet books, including "World Wide Web Unleashed" and "Java Unleashed," as well as several Internet-related publications. He has also performed with the New York City Ballet, sung with Placido Domingo and graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at age 16. Adrian Scott . com can be reached at: adrian@adrianscott.com.

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