Walking Away from $350k

Nigel B. Peck
Dec 30, 2019 · 6 min read

I’d stayed for the money before. I wasn’t going to let it happen again.

Breathe. Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash.

My first week with an unnamed startup had been unorthodox to say the least. But then, isn’t that how startups are? That’s what I put it down to. At first.

It didn’t take long. I’d been dissatisfied before. I’d stayed for the money before. I wasn’t going to do it again. I was sure of that.

Let’s start from the beginning.

It was a Sunday evening in late September. The 22nd, if you want to know. I stood in the kitchen, preparing some coffee whilst going over the threads of conversation awaiting me on Slack.

I’d just finished my first week. I’d started last Sunday. It seemed like a year.

There was not really any concept of a break. I would stand up occasionally. Walk a bit. That was tolerated. As long as it wasn’t more than a few minutes. As long as I took my phone.

I hadn’t taken my phone this time. I was feeling rebellious. I would never have done it a week ago. Things were changing.

It was never spoken about. Forty hours was fine, he’d agreed; when I’d been close to walking away on day two. It probably was. But it wouldn’t have worked. We both knew that. It wasn’t his way.

“The sun never sets on my desk.”

It was all clear enough. It wasn’t discussed. I was paid for my time. The money was good. Get it done. I got it.

How had I got here?

Just eight days ago, I was happily settling in to a new home. My new mentoring venture was steadily accumulating students. I was working on some interesting projects. I was learning new tech that interested me. Things were good. But then… the question...

“I know you’re not available FT.”

It wasn’t really a question. More of a statement. A thought. I got the idea from the context. I knew he was saying something significant. I just didn’t know what. What the heck is FT? Financial Times?

“What’s FT?”

It seemed simplest. Just ask.

“Full Time.”

Ohhhhh…Oh. I see. Right.

I was working a freelance job. A sizeable piece of work. Perhaps forty hours. In chunks of ten. This was chunk three, I think. I forget.

We’d communicated through chat. First on the mentoring platform, later through Slack. I’d asked for phone calls. They rarely happened, if ever. It was a pattern. It would continue.

The question didn’t really come out of the blue. We’d been courting each other tentatively for days. But it still felt a bit sudden. I’m not that kind of guy.

“I’m available full time. Perhaps discuss on a call?”

He said yes. It didn’t happen. We did it all through chat. I guess I should have known. If someone can hire a tech PM, on a six figure salary, to be their right hand man, without even speaking to them, I reckon something’s probably not right. Something wasn’t. Next time I’ll know.

We did speak in the end. By which point, everything was agreed, and it was more of a formality. Fine. It’s remote, I’m paid weekly, it’s a type of work I enjoy. It’ll be an interesting experience. If all goes wrong, I can walk away. The worst I can do is lose a few days pay.

It was. It did. I did.

The handover.

The problems started in concert with the job.

“I don’t have time for any six hour handover.”

It wasn’t just that. There was no handover at all. Handover was, ask me what you need to know. On chat.

There was no documentation. There was no plan. There was no spec.

There doesn’t have to be. As long as it’s known, it doesn’t have to be documented. I get that. I work like that, when I need to.

But there are limits. There needs to be something to work from. Either written, or in the head of a responsive individual with communication skills, to keep everything afloat. As things improve.

There were neither. And the communication was abysmal.

“At this level of salary, strong communication and organisation are expected.”

It was. It didn’t need saying. But it didn’t go both ways.

Management (in) style.

The idea seemed to be that he could just say a few words, show a mockup of some kind, write a haphazard paragraph or two, and devs would get exactly what he had in mind. That this would be produced the first time.

This stuff would often just be left there for them to be expected to work on when the start of their day came round. No opportunity to follow up on anything. To clarify anything. Why would that be needed?

Even though what was wanted could change without you knowing. Even though the API was missing the stuff you were supposed to be displaying. Even though there were massive holes in the instructions.

You were expected to have ready what was needed, when it was needed, regardless of if you’d actually been asked for it, or had any chance at all of making that happen.

Nothing was realistic in any way at all.

Awareness.

He seemed unable to get that people were only aware of what had been communicated to them. That they don’t see it the way you do. That they will have questions.

That you will need to see where they’re coming from and help answer those questions. That you will need to keep them up to date if things change.

It’s called communication.

I see it in clients. Perhaps you do too. It improves with experience. It’s normal in clients. They listen (usually).

Churn.

But in a CTO. Managing a multi-million dollar development project. Responsible for all of the technical aspects. Of a project that is for executives whose first experience it is with a technical project.

This was a surprise. And a problem. Clearly he was aware of it. Everything about the project was built around shielding others from becoming aware of these failings. At least, becoming aware en masse, or doing anything about it.

Devs were totally shielded from any possibility of knowing who was above said CTO; of who they were working for. The name of the company we worked for, when we discovered it through necessity because it had to be in the contract, was using his name and placeholder companies of the same nature. No names of higher ups were ever spoken. It took a week to find out what the product was that we were building.

The executives and investors had his version of events, and no possibility of knowing otherwise. Everything was siloed.

“There’s been a lot of churn.”

Or…

“I don’t like shared channels. It worried devs in the past when they saw others going.”

You don’t say?

Ever considered addressing the problem at source? Oh, it’s the devs’ fault there’s churn. They should do better. Ah. Right. Hmm.

The structure of the work itself showed clear signs of all this. There were six prototype apps being built. Six completely separate apps. Not because this was needed. But so that the devs didn’t need to have communication with each other. Which would have been necessary for a single app with six pages.

And that’s really all they were. Single pages. Copies of interfaces from social media apps. So the management could have something to try “in their hand”. To really play with features; on a native app.

Fine. But as six separate apps. Many of them with similar features. All coded up in duplicate. And all needed urgently. Wasted effort, much?

Results.

Everything took forever. With no shared channels, there was no possibility for individuals to help each other with simple queries on how things were being done. There was no team. Masses of work was duplicated; management and otherwise. Nothing was smooth.

The project had been running six months. It was born out of a previous one that was scrapped. There was virtually nothing to show for it.

Help was needed. But not to do things better. Not really. That help, he could give himself. As a CTO, it was expected. Right?

What he needed, what he wanted, was someone to blame.

Someone to do what he asked. Not ask obvious and sticky questions about the process. Accept being heavily berated when things didn’t happen; as they surely wouldn’t. Ignore, or at least not discuss, the unreasonable, dysfunctional circumstances, that were bound to lead to failure.

Just take the blame. Presumably passing the misery on down the line.

And take the money.

That’s what you’re paid for, right?

No.

I’m not that type of guy.

Not any more.

I lasted another week.


The Heart of Software

New for 2020.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store