I’d like to say I was born into it (and I’ve been doing it so long people would believe it), but it isn’t true.

My first piece of career advice

One of the earliest pieces of career advice I received was “find a company you like and stick with them, build up a good track record and that stability will show you’re dependable”.

I spent 8 years at my first job. I worked there until another company acquired our technology and moved operations out of state. Not exactly the way you want to go out, but hey, my first exit. I heard the founder of that company bought a castle in Germany. I eked out a decent middle-class salary and enjoyed a care-free summer off the severance package.

From there I worked crazy hours for a startup that went public (my second exit). The early investors got a nice payday. I got a nice return on my options but the stock price tanked before I cashed in my stock (I paid for myself) during the IPO. This was the highest performing team I’ve ever been on. We worked through crazy difficult problems at breakneck speed. But the hours took its toll. One by one the devs on the team left to take less stressful positions. The stock options weren’t all that lucrative (a 4 figure return wasn’t worth what we were going through). I left for an audio company that paid by the hour and didn’t care when or where I worked my dream job.

This didn’t last long. The audio company was a small one and was counting on sales of a new product to fund my work. The new product didn’t sell like they hoped and I was let go. From there I worked for a larger company until…

The downturn

2009 was a rough year for everyone. I survived a couple rounds of layoffs, including a round that removed the VP who hired me. But was eventually let go with a large portion of the company. Even engineers who had spent decades with the company were sent packing.

From there I started looking for a new job. I called a recruiter I trusted (!?) and told him I was looking. He told me no-one is hiring. And if they are, you’re probably looking at a $10k reduction in salary.

A $10k reduction in salary wasn’t an option

I was newly married, and my wife was in mortgage sales. Remember 2009? When the entire mortgage industry imploded and took the entire world economy with it? In the case I was feeling too sorry for myself, my wife was let go along with her entire industry. I needed to pay the bills. Unfortunately, my full time job interviews went something like:

Do you know WPF?

No (but I’m a fast learner)

Do you know WCF?

No (but I’m confidant I can pick it up quickly)

Do you know WWF?

No. Wait… is that even a thing? (turns out it was)

Thank you for your time.

A solid decade of learning new technologies and producing results didn’t matter.

My worst piece of career advice

As you may have guessed. My first piece of career advice was also my worst. Turns out a track record of dedication and reliability didn’t account for much. A proven ability to solve hard problems only helped you while you’re already in the job.

Skills get you in the door

Despite a long history of C++ and embedded work, my main skill-set at the time was WinForms. Which was about as in demand in 2009 as it is right now (non existent).

I needed to make a change. I decided I’d take a 6 month contract to keep money coming in until the economy improved. I was able to leverage my C++ and Message Queuing experience into a backfill contract for a company doing document processing for lawyers.

I went from furiously googling a trivial join statement (to say my SQL was rusty would be an understatement), to routinely adding functionality to the many services that were running the document pipeline. I eventually built a system that scanned the many scattered log files to detect when one of their services went down. This happened often without anyone noticing (for weeks?!).

I was thrown off the deep end and left to sink or swim. But I Loved It

Every time I heard a concept I didn’t understand, I went home and google’d it so I could respond intelligently the next time it came up. I spent my lunch hour pouring over books on C# and Design Patterns.

I loved learning new technologies and seeing how other companies used them. I learned a ton about LINQ, queue workflows, SQL and even some web programming. When that gig wound down I learned the startup I previously worked for, as an employee, needed help rewriting their platform. (It turns out a hand grown C++ framework wasn’t the the most reliable way to deliver digital signage content.) I told the consulting company that had previously placed me about the gig and they got me an interview at my old employer.

If you’re following: I introduced the consulting company to my previous employer. I did all the work. But the consulting company was still taking their cut while providing little value. All the value came from my own network.

I didn’t see anything wrong with this. Until one day I noticed a fellow consultant receive a check delivered directly to their desk. They were billing direct to the company, while I had another company taking who-knows-how-much off the top.

Wait, you’re working directly with this company?

By running your own company?

No one else is taking a cut?

…you can do that?

Stay tuned for how I started my own company and kept more of my pay by finding my own clients.