Grant’s Technical War Stories:
I have had a long and very interesting career in developing software, database systems, OLAP cubes, and other things. I have quite a few technical stories that can be told. And a lot of other interesting stories about events and experiences in my life. Like the watching the aurora borealis at 2:00 AM in Minnesota’s BWCA park, my Cessna 172 piloting and flying experiences when I was just 12 years old, walking the logs in the swamp growing up, and the hilarious Bobbie Louie and the Great Blue Heron story.
BUT I’m supposed to be talking about my career and job experiences here. With a subtle undercurrent of telling you how great I am, what great skills I have, and how smart I am. Since this website is my career website I guess I’m going to have to tell you a few, de-classified work stories that are pertinent to building up a good image of me in your mind.
Well, I’ll just tell you a few work stories. I could go on for hours but I have to get back to work (On the weekend? Yep, I’m a recoving workaholic. And, yes, I’m working hard at recovering!) And even though I know you have to get back to work too I suspect I’ve tweaked your curiousity about those personal stories I’ve mentioned earlier. So here’s what I’m going to do: Read through the next couple of business/work stories in following the theme of this website and then I’ll tell you (briefly) about one of my most funny personal experience stories – Bobbie Louie and the Great Blue Heron. (Egad! It sounds like a title fit for a Harry Potter book!)
Seeing Ahead (Or Not) – The 32-bit Compiler Story
So I’ve done a lot of different things in my career starting at the bottom in high school as a security guard and working my way through college and raising three kids as a single father for many years. I worked my way up to Senior Software Engineering Manager for a huge Japanese firm, was a Chief Software Architect, Database Systems Engineer, and many some other things. I have a very wide breadth of skills so I wind up doing many things. I also have initiative. One DBA I worked with had to wait for 2 weeks on a new database installation until the Sun field engineer could come out to install the Solaris operating system on his new Sun server. Only then could he install and configure his database server on it. Two weeks? I wondered why he didn’t do it himself. It’s straightforward and there’s a manual for it. Pretty simple. I’ve installed a host of operating systems and database systems. I tend to not have the narrow focus of most other people and can thus accomplish a variety of tasks from system administration to DBA to software architecture to software development.
I’ve also have this ability to both see the big picture and to extrapolate out consequences and results that many people seem to have trouble with. A vivid example is when I was working on operating systems for a big corporation we were moving from a 16-bit compiler to a 32-bit compiler. (This was a few years ago as you can probably tell.) The software architect in charge instructed everyone (including me) to go through all the extensive code and convert all the short 16-bit ints (integers) to 32-bit long ints. I promptly went to see him and inquired as to why we were doing this. He looked at me and scornfully told me that it had to be done to convert from 16-bit to 32-bit. I told him that it actually didn’t need to be done that the short ints would automatically be padded out to 32-bit long int by the compiler unless they were next to other short ints in memory in which case the compiler would automatically align the two 16-bit ints into a single 32-bit word. This would optimize storage space and execution speed. After all, it was an optimizing compiler from the Toronto group (who were very good at compilers) and I had checked the compiler docs and confirmed that this would indeed happen. He looked at me like I was an uncomprehending idiot and repeated in his Scottish accent that all 16-bit variable had to be changed to 32-bit variables so as to work with the new 32-bit compiler. Not so, I tried to explain to him. That didn’t work so I went back to work and along with a large number of other developers spent a lot of time unnecessarily changing all the 16-bit data type declarations in the code to 32-bit declarations. Fast forward now to a year and half later. I had moved on to anther group. One of my old team leads stopped me in the hall and said, “Did you hear the latest? They had spent 12 developers over a year to port the GDI subcomponent from 16-bit to 32-bit with the avowed goal of making it run twice as fast since the 32-bit operations were over twice as fast as the 16-bit operations. When they finished they tested it….And it actually ran SLOWER!” I looked at him and said sure I can understand that and indicated that I wasn’t surprised. He was startled and asked me to explain. I told him that merely changing all 16-bit shorts to 32-bit longs would not necessarily increase execution speed because now you were slinging around DOUBLE the memory size as before. Try going twice as fast with double the weight with the same engine size and it’s not going to happen.
So what does this story say about things? First that here was an instance that I saw ahead when others didn’t. Secondly that the corporate environment was unreceptive to realistic input and thus wasted effort and resources. And three that it’s a sad story. It’s sad because it happens time and time again in the corporate world that non-optimal paths are taken instead of straight line efficient paths. Many times this is caused by not having sufficient breadth and depth of experience to see ahead or to make the best use of the tools and resources at hand. Often claims of a vendor or the hype of a latest technology becomes the blind “pied piper” that projects follow into oblivion or to their wasteful detriment. I’ve seen this happen again and again in both Unix and Microsoft environments where “Let’s use this because it will look good on my resume” becomes more important then “What’s the best, most efficient technology and tools to use here?”.
Working Hard versus Working Efficiently
Another interesting story concerns a foreign firm. The people of this foreign country (Alright! You twisted my arm! It’s Japan I’m talking about1) have a reputation for working incredibly hard and long, long hours. Well, they work very long hours. They just don’t get as much done as an American working reasonable hours. And are not as flexible and creative as them either. In working for this foreign firm I witnessed this firsthand. I came on board to rebuild a shattered software development team. This I did and received a bonus for it. I found some really good developers that met a lot of challenges and met all their deadlines. Which, by the way, were the original deadlines of the previous team that bailed out. The foreign workers were obsessed to always appear busy, always be typing away on their computers at this or that. But their programming output was poor. They spent 16 hours a day at it but my smaller team wrote more (and better) code with a lot less hours. That’s why we were developing most of the code here in America rather than back in their country. Yes, working 16 or more hours a day every day of the week at simple, mechanical, rote tasks can produce more than an American working just 45 hours a week BUT not when one has to deal with the complexities of software in a product that has never been built before in a complicated, scalable enterprise environment. They never seemed to be able to understand that. I’m told that other companies from this country are not like this. And I note that recently this country has made some incredible breakthroughs in robotics (the Sony dancing robots) but I thought that the purpose of a development project (and business) was to achieve the objectives as efficiently and directly as possible. Why then not pursue the optimal path even if it’s a little different from what you’re used to in your country? One must be flexible to be optimal.
Now I won’t bore you with further stories of that company like the employee that was found in the morning collapsed in the hallway from overwork or the e-mails that I used to get at 1:00 AM, 3:00 AM, and even 5:00 AM from Toshi who worked for me. Great guy and worker that Toshi, but every Fridays at 9:00 PM he used to tell me how much he missed his wife and kids and I would say, “Toshi! Go home! Be with your wife and kids!” but he would work for a few more hours then go home and work more. I guess one workaholic knows what advise to give another workaholic. I left that company to go work for another startup (but not a dot com! I was smarter than that!) and that company subsequently went out of business with the telecom market collapse. Four hundred million dollars (including about $80 million dollars in the American operation) down the tubes. A dreadful waste of money, time, and human talent and effort.
And what does this story tell us? First that people can work hard but not efficiently. Secondly that some forces like the market are outside one’s control no matter how hard one works. Three that I’d rather work for a company that works efficiently, makes money, and does not go out of business.
Well, there’s more stories that could be told. I worked on a lot of software and database projects and hardware projects over the last several years. But that’s enough for now. You’ve been a patient reader and now comes the story you’ve been waiting for…..Bobbie Louie And The Great Blue Heron.
Bobbie Louie and the Great Blue Heron
I grew up in the woods of Wisconsin outside an industrial town. There was a family up the street that kept exotic birds caged in their backyard. There was a nice swamp fed by underground springs at the end of my dead end street. I grew up walking the woods and the logs in the swamp. The swamp attracted things other than adventurous young boys. It attracted birds, including the great blue heron one of the largest birds in North America. These birds would visit the swamp for feeding prowling the far shore away from the road. Eventually a pair of the herons nested in the front woods of the family up the road with the exotic birds in the backyard. Seems the herons were for some reason attracted to the other birds. They built a big nest in a big tree on the side of the front yard and people came from miles around to watch them and take photos. These were big birds with long, graceful necks. They would feed down at the swamp and occasionally fly around the neighborhood doing whatever herons do when they are not feeding, sleeping, or sitting on eggs. We got used to having them around during the summers. We learned to keep one eye always on the sky for them.
One summer day a school friend of mine named Bobbie Louie (it kind of rhymes doesn’t it?) rode his big the several miles across the big highway to come visit me. I showed him around my tri-level house and the yard. We were standing talking on the sideway on the side of the house between the kitchen and the big honeysuckle hedge when I spotted a big male great blue heron flying below the tree tops directly along the path of the sidewalk. This was rather unusual so I quickly stepped off the sidewalk and put a hand out and grabbed Bobbie Louie by the arm and tried to pull him off the sidewalk. I was facing the oncoming Great Blue and Bobbie Louie was facing me so he couldn’t see it. He resisted my pull, planting his feet firmly on the sidewalk, thinking that I was playing some sort of childish joke on him. I saw the separation and quickly told him that he needed to move and pointed up at the incoming heron which by this time had turned into a dive bomber. Bobbie Louie shrugged off my tugging hand, turned and looked up to where I was pointing, and the quart of bird shit promptly impacted on the top side of his right forehead in a huge splat of Great Blue whitewash. Quite a bulls eye! I had taken a couple of steps away from the sidewalk up the hill and thus was splash free. I was a bit used to such things as the birds liked to try to dive bomb us kids on our bikes throughout the summer.
After a moment Bobbie Louie turned toward me the bird whitewash running down his head onto his shirt. He looked so ridiculous that I burst out laughing. I laughed so hard that I fell down on the grass and almost rolled down the hill. He wasn’t’ laughing but boy did he look silly! Especially after I had tried to tug him out of the path of the bombing run. I finally got my laughter in control. He looked at me with the whitewash running down his head and front side and asked, “Do you have a hose?”. I said yes but suggested that he take off his shirt and I’d take him into the house and he could use the shower. He insisted on using the hose. (I’m sure my mother was happy about that!) So I led him the few feet to the hose, turned it on, and gave him the end of it. He let the water run down his head and after a few minutes succeeded in washing most of it off of him. Sometime during this I had another fit of laughter and it says a lot for him that he didn’t turn the hose on me. He didn’t want to go in the house and borrow some of my clothes while his were put into the washer. Luckily it was a warm summer day and he’d be able to dry out in the sun.
So I learned at an early age to beware skydiving bombing Great Blue Herons and other birds. Keep one eye turned up to the sky at all times least some surprise splat unto your head. I guess Bobbie Louie learned that when I tugged at him and told him to move that I wasn’t kidding. I bet you that the bird put a notch on his wing and was very satisfied with himself. That was the best bird bombing run of the summer. I never got hit at all. Luck. And skill. And always one eye towards the sky….
And More To Come:
Technical war stories are most often overlooked in our industry but they have great value in illustrating foolishness, idiocy, and what not to do. I have a bunch as I’ve seen more failures than successes. And that’s why I work by myself or in carefully chosen small teams – Because I can then guarantee success. Rather than being at the mercy of much less competent individuals.
I’ll have some more Grant Technical War Stories to add here in the future.
Here’s a sampling of some of the things that I can write about:
- The Million+ Dollar Dashboard Failure
- One Man versus a “BI Center of Competency” – Guess Who Won?
- My Predictions of the Microsoft Surface Failure and Ballmer’s Forced Resignation