Only three times in the 25+ years I spent as a software architect was I a member of a team of developers who epitomized the notion of a group of people working together, not only for the success of the business, but also to ensure that each member continued to learn and grow in a high-spirited atmosphere. National Realty Trust in Mission Viejo, Ca. was this rare breed of selfless devotion to one another.
I had initially been hired as a member of a three man team working in a somewhat obscure area of the business. My knowledge of a nearly dead language (Visual FoxPro) put me at the forefront of their technology. Initially, I told my rep I wanted 75K for the gig, but they came back with 71K, which I accepted (not a lot of money, but definitely enough to live off of in 1999).
My first surprise came on my very first day – my boss took me aside and told me they had reconsidered my salary request and were going to pay me the full 75K! Elated was an understatement. She told me they wanted to start off on a positive note, and that solidified my desire to give them every ounce of strength I had. There was a much larger group of developers working on the main project, and while I was introduced to them, my work took me in another direction.
The unfortunate manner in which many large businesses operate is called ‘silo development’. This is a despicable atmosphere where each team competes with every other team, remaining secretive about technological advances. The goal was to make the boss look good, not the company. This was the rule rather than the exception, and it led to a divisive environment of envy and contempt.
I learned the true nature of teamwork about 60 days into my adventure there. My boss brought me and my two co-workers in for a meeting. We were told that our project was being terminated and we had three weeks to learn the main business language being used (Visual Basic), make a positive contribution to the company, or we would be fired! Talk about a no-nonsense approach, this was it. The three of us froze, unsure of how to start and where we were headed.
There is little difference between learning a programming language and mastering a foreign language. There are new words and phrases to learn, grammar rules, and all sorts of idiomatic expressions. I have never met anyone who conquered either in that short a period of time.
While a formal foray into learning Spanish gets you saying “Donde esta la biblioteca?” (where is the library?) during the first few days, it does not prepare you for the answer you would receive when asking the question, so the knowledge is relatively useless.
I was not prepared for what happened to each of us as we left the office that morning. The entire team surrounded us, divvied us up, and took us under the group’s wing, with an assurance that we each would indeed learn and contribute within the specified time frame.
The project itself was an ambitious one: develop the first nationwide web application to be used in the home sales industry to facilitate the ability of the public to locate their dream home anywhere in the continental United States. We had everything working against our success. The programming languages available to us were crude and not designed for the project we had planned. Our operating system had such stark limitations that it almost ensured failure from the start.
Without getting too technical, consider this: a web-based application created to being used by lots of people is like an eight-lane freeway with a ton of traffic moving rapidly in both directions. That’s how the phrase ‘information superhighway’ came about. The programming framework we were bound by put us more into a one way street with red lights at every corner.
We succeeded. We built a manageable and usable application that worked despite the technical straitjacket that bound us up. Each teammate took us under their wing, explaining the framework used to build the system. Remember now, there was no internet in 2000. No Google to research programming methods or an appropriate way to handle new problems which presented themselves to us each and every day. We did have these oversized instructional books, 600 or more pages to learn the ins and outs of the language, but by no means something we could digest in the timeframe we were given.
While our days sometimes stretched well beyond the typical eight hours, we were nurtured and taught the essentials of Visual Basic so well, that all three of us completed the tasks placed before us by the beginning of third week, ensuring our success – and continued employment. There were no egos, no pompous or arrogant moments of “I’m better than you.”
When a dentist hit a nerve in my jaw with a Novocain injection, causing me to develop Bell’s Palsy, the company continued to pay my salary for the three weeks I was out recovering, even though they were not required to do so. They actually cared, and were not shy demonstrating how much.
The only truly sad moment of my employment occurred on September 11, 2001. We were quietly working when someone wheeled a small television set in and turned it on.
Later that year, I saw a couple of guys working in a language I had not seen before. It turned out to be C#, the Microsoft programming paradigm that would nearly overnight make everything that came before it obsolete. It was also to be the basis for my next 20 years in the industry -- and the same guys taught it to me.
As George Harrison once said, “All things must pass”, and this truth hit home later in 2002 when NRT decided to move their operations to New Jersey. They offered us all substantial severance packages if we chose to not make the venture east. None of us chose to relocate. Several of my compadres moved to another company in the real estate market in a different part of Orange County. The stories they told were very scary indeed.
This was a very different company, one that bordered on madness. Employees worked 14-16 hour days and were required to sleep under their desks at night. Not doing so would result in immediate termination. No one made it home until Friday evening. While this company folded fast under these Draconian employment requirements, that would not be the last time that I would hear of something as patently evil. During one job interview I was bluntly asked “How much sleep do you need?” If it wasn’t for the six figures they dangled in front of me; I would have bolted fast before they could offer me the position.
At another job, the boss calmly announced one day that due to overseas competition and the strain on the value of the dollar, our work week was to be immediately extended from 40 to 60 hours, with no commensurate increase in pay.
While there would be two other companies that operated at a level of professionalism that was very rare indeed (College Loan Corporation – Rancho Bernardo, and TriTech – San Diego) , the rest reminded me of the hog farmer’s ranch always on the outskirts of a small town during the days of the wild west: they served a purpose and provided a service everyone needed, but no one could cope with the stench or the blood congealing everywhere.
Real teamwork is rare. If you are fortunate enough to find it, hold on to it, nurture it, treat it with love and kindness. It is like finding a four-leaf clover -- and may only last as long.