Freedom to Speak

My friend Pete recently posted some negative comments about his former employer, IBM. They were simply his opinion of the working environment at IBM, but IBM legal told him to take it down. So he did, no doubt wanting to avoid a big hassle from IBM's legendary attack lawyers. But he has a right to have his opinion expressed, IBM doesn't have a right to whitewash from the world the negative opinions of its corporate culture, they don't have a right to squash dissent. When large corporations succeed in doing that, they erode everyones rights. Freedom of speech is perhaps our single most important right, without it, all other rights can be silently taken away.

IBM is a fantastically powerful corporation, who can sink their teeth into government and politicians and spends huge amounts on lawyers, bending the rules as much as possible in its own favor rather than compete on a level playing field. As you might imagine I hate stuff like that, and I like to do whatever small thing I can to fight such behaviors. So before I get too preachy and without any communication or permission from Pete, I've decided to repost 2 of Pete's removed articles here. Enjoy.

Apr 28 2005 - Closing thoughts on Workplace and IBM

That little pig drawing analysis post from the other day may be more on target than I knew. It said - quote:

I am realist.
I am direct, enjoy playing devil's advocate and neither fear nor avoid discussions.
I am emotional, naive and a risk-taker.
I am secure, stubborn, and stick to my ideals.
I am a good listener.

My recent comments about my last job have caused a bit of a stir. Before I move on and stop talking about the topic all together I have a few last words.

I still believe in the Workplace product vision. While I may have disdain for some of the technical leaders, the bulk of the staff are great people who work hard to perform in the mostly schizophrenic environment of the IBM software group. I also have nothing but good feelings toward the two levels of management with whom I dealt. Their jobs are among the worst I could imagine and they perform them professionally and diligently.

That said, as someone who took the ideals of IBM to heart: honesty, integrity and service to the customer, I found the Workplace environment unbearable. In my opinion, decision after decision has been made that favors personal agendas over either the goals of the organization or the needs of its customers. I never expected to agree with everything but when you agree with next to nothing I think there's a problem.

As the pig said: "I'm emotional, naive and a risk-taker". Deep down, I actually hoped that by being up front about the situation, maybe someone who could actually make a difference would finally hear about the mess and maybe some real change could come about. When I worked for IBM I was just a band 9 peon, but once outside, I at least had a free voice: Emotional - certainly, naive - probably, risk-taker - you be the judge.

While I've received much support from my old co-workers on the facts, many have also advised that I was perhaps a bit rash in saying such things in public. Time will tell what the consequences of my actions will be. As for the STSM's and DE's that I disparaged in my previous post, there was already a pretty clear understanding of my opinions regarding them before I left IBM. No new bridges were burnt there. But it did feel good to vent about it.

Back before I worked for IBM I used to wonder how a big company with all those resources could develop such crappy products like Topview or fail to capitalize on things like OS2. Working on Workplace has answered all those question in my mind. For all the talk about needing to execute and being responsive to customers I see a company drowning in a quagmire of process and ego. If I was Sam P, I would cut out half the management levels and flatten the whole software organization. And I would also familiarize myself with software anti patterns like: Architect Don't Code, Blow Hard Jamboree and Intellectual Dishonesty. There's no excuse for being organized for failure.

The IBM sales and support organizations may be amazing but they can only sell and support crap for so long before customers will take notice. In my opinion, they owe it to the staff, to the customer and to the stock holders to do a better job. That's my two cents and last words on the subject.

Apr 13 2005 - My Hardest Interview Question Before I started my job hunt a few months ago, it had been almost ten years since I had last interviewed outside of Iris or IBM. During that time I had forgotten the powerful collection of mixed emotions the process can stir up. On the down side there was self doubt and fear of rejection. On the positive side there's invigorating talk of new and different technology and the excitement of a new challenge. I can't say I enjoyed the process but it did provide a vehicle for some interesting self examination and introspection.

This time out, I spoke to a couple of companies before I finally landed my new job at Kubi Software. Both companies were in the storage space, building cheap scalable grids of commodity hardware based storage - much like Damien's original Couch idea. I liked one company, called Archivas, a lot but they decided I wasn't a good fit. Archivas was my first interview and I think I know why they reached their conclusion. There was one question they asked that I struggled with: "Tell us about the most difficult part of your most recent project". You would think that answer would roll off the tongue. The funny thing was I was stumped. I hemmed and hawed and just picked a tricky integration problem we had using DB2 row locks as a synchronization mechanism between mtas in a multi machine mail cell. When they probed on why this was so difficult I had nothing. The post interview feedback was simple: "We liked him but he didn't dive deep enough on the technical issues".

I've thought a lot about that question since then and I've come to a conclusion. While I may not be the deepest technician my main problem was that, by far, all the most difficult problems I had working on Workplace were organizational and procedural rather than technical. Sure there were tricky technical issues I faced but they were nothing compared to the bureaucratic mess - goat rodeo - cluster fuck, that was Workplace 1.1 and 2.0. (2.5 is better and 1.0 was a lot of fun but they're both different stories).

The worst example of a procedural problem gone out of control was the Portal install. In Workplace 1.1 and much of 2.0 when you need to install the latest build of Portal server it took anywhere from two days, if you were lucky, to a week or more of tedious hand editing of configuration files before the server would run. There was no automation for the process and no organizational investment in automating the process, so every few weeks all progress on Workplace would grind to a halt as people manually updated their servers. Hundreds and hundreds of Workplace developers and QE engineers would have to stop what they were working on and just follow pages of detailed install instructions. There were rouge attempts to address the issue but none gained team wide traction. All the while the drum beat of management would be pressing for faster action and more progress from development while apparently ignoring the team wide appeal for help on the issue. In retrospect it was the most frustrating and difficult development environment I've ever worked in.

I now better understand why that interview question was so hard. In comparison to the mind numbing procedural issues faced on Workplace, database deadlocks and thread safety errors paled as problems; days spent pouring over pages of logs looking for hints to a problem were a luxury and rewriting large chunks of someone else's code at the last minute to fix a critical issue was simple child's play.

In the end I'm glad I didn't get that Archivas job, as interesting as the storage issues are I like the collaboration space and am happy to have found a job where I can continue to work in it. I start at Kubi on Monday.

Posted April 30, 2005 1:23 PM