Dennis has left the building

I remember a young whipper-snapper starting at Critical Mass nigh-six years ago. Another newbie, Angie, had mentioned that she’d brought his stuff out from Winnepeg. Not that I was far off from being a newbie myself — it had only been a couple of months since I had started.

Since then, Dennis grew from being a quiet little kid to being the single strongest Senior Web Developer we have … or probably ever had. Dennis and I sat across from each other when we moved to the new building over five years ago. For a year or so, we would chat with each other over ICQ, rarely actually saying anything to one another. We’d work late almost every night. And we’d engage in endless debates about technology and management.

Dennis could always code me under the table. He was a better developer, no two ways about it. He scared me back then. I had mastered the ins and outs of developing for Netscape 4 — a true pain in the arse to support. And the browser equivalent of the evolutionary dead end. Dennis was already well into DOM-compliant development, and object-oriented constructs. He could code a regular expression in his head — something I can barely do in a regular expression-capable application reading a dummy’s guide. Despite his age (he was the youngest person at Critical Mass for about three years running), he developed as fast (or faster) than anyone else and kept his own.

A lot of people around here had the impression that I hated Dennis. I have to admit, I have no idea where that came from. Sure, Dennis did pick me off with an eraser once while I was on the phone, but I was just pissed off that someone had done that while I was on the phone! How did they know it wasn’t a client? In reality, I had — and still have — nothing but the highest respect for Dennis. He ran a team easily twice the size of the one I had with seeming ease, and kept everyone running smoothly. Dennis gets higher praise from his team under pressure than I did managing a team under considerably less strain.

I’m going to miss that devious smirk of his. You’ll know it when you see it. Dennis is outspoken when he has a particular point of view. He’s mostly patient, but when he wants to say something, you’ll see it. He tries not to immediately jump in, but will eventually force his way in. And he doesn’t come unprepared.

Tabs vs. Spaces. The single largest and most religious of the debates in programming. Which do you use when writing code? The Senior group finally had it out over a month ago. I brought beer to ease the inevitable pain. There wasn’t nearly as much yelling as I expected. Dennis had his argument for tabs nailed down. I figured he was going to win even before we started — he’d prepared himself for months.

Last Friday was Dennis’ “going away” binge. A lot of us went to the Ship (and Anchor) to commiserate with our loss. A few of us got into a heated … no, actually, just drunkenly loud discussion about the past, present, and future of Critical Mass. Those of us who’ve been around long enough to see the changes (for better or for worse), and speculate on what will be. I do know this much — you can’t go home. You can’t go back to the way things used to be. Times change, and you have to accept that the people you’ve known and the friends you’ve made will eventually go the route they need to, even if it is away from yourself.

Dennis was the #3 guy for Web Dev seniority. Now the #3 falls to Torin, who’s a year and a half behind me. That gap scares me a little bit. That’s a long gap between seniority. Mind you, we did have some questionable folks in that gap, and there’s been a long time for them to filter out. But still, it’s a little worrisome. Mostly because then the next question is: have I overstayed my welcome? It is not a case of there being a gap … but me staying too long in one place?

D-Money is gone, off to (assumedly) greener pastures. I’m gonna miss him, too. I miss a lot of people it seems, and a lot more often than I’d like to. I’ve written too many entries on people leaving. Inevitable or not for our industry, I still don’t like when it happens.

Take care, Dennis — keep shaking things up!

How do I know what I seem to know?

Ever find yourself providing information to someone as an “expert”, where the point of view flows from your lips as easily as drinking a glass of water, and then after you’ve finished wonder where you learned all that?

Lately, that seems to be happening to me more and more. Someone asks me a question, and I can enter on a diatribe about best practices for creating passwords on application forms, the principles about building websites as best to leverage the content and the technologies, or the best practices in implementing content management when you’re not even sure what architecture you’re dealing with.

Where the hell did I learn all this?

I think back to my university education. I went to the University of Waterloo. I went there because my high school counselor suggested it. I wasn’t originally even thinking of Waterloo. I was going to Trent! I wanted to take computer science and rule the world. In Ontario, though, you can only apply to three universities. (There’s a huge student population, and a lot of universities. Everything goes through a central agency. It’s weird, but it works.) Waterloo was my #3 choice (I think York was my #2).

I went to Waterloo because they offered me residence, and my parents were adamant about me living in residence. I had no idea what the impetus was for their desire to have me cooped up with 25 late-teen men, but in retrospect I know what they were trying to achieve. My first year at Waterloo remains one of my more memorable. Even today the smell of stale beer still bring back visions of walking down halls in Village 2.

Anyway, I went to Waterloo for computer science. At the time, it was part of the Mathematics faculty. Which meant that you had to take an inordinate number of math classes just to take one lousy computer science class. And let me tell you — anyone who complained about their math courses at university didn’t attend Waterloo. Remember — it was the Math faculty. They didn’t teach calculus — they taught you how calculus worked. I got 12% on my first midterm.

Ouch.

That should have been my first indication that perhaps I might not be long for the Mathematics faculty. Despite getting into the computer science stream in second year, and doing reasonably well in my classes, it was clear by the end of my second year at Waterloo that either I switched to a different line of study, or my arse would be sporting skid marks before too long.

English Rhetoric and Professional Writing. Yep, I’m officially an Artsie. I took all sorts of wacky courses at Waterloo: psychology, philosophy, physics, calculus, algebra, statistics, literature (several versions), music appreciation, Latin, Spanish … most of them aimed directly at my new-found major, but I still took the time to take computer science. Management information sciences (which was a total waste of time — I could have learned that course by reading a text book), development methodology, and networking theory (I learned how the internet actually works). But very little programming.

In fact the most programming I did after going into English was learning how to write HTML — something I got from my English Rhetoric 209 professor, Neil Randall. He scribbled a few tags on the board and gave us the option of either turning our essays in traditional paper, or online. (Little did I know where that would ultimately take me…) But none of my university career taught me what I know now — certainly not to the depth that I seem to have acquired.

Out of university, I was a technical writer, taking the love of writing and my technical know-how and actually making a viable career out of them. But I bored of it. A lot. Soon, I couldn’t stand technical writing. It was dull, repetitive. Mind-numbing, even. When I worked for Radical Entertainment, I took it upon myself to build some web-based productivity tools (such as a room booking tool) to avoid going insane.

When I started here at Critical Mass, I was hardly a web development expert. I was green. But back then, I was a butt in a seat, earning the company money. It didn’t matter how much or how little I knew. It was that I could do something. I’d never heard of an application server, never worked with a content management system, had a clue about any formalized process whatsoever, could barely code enough Javascript to do anything useful, and CSS was the most minimal skill for me. (Were I to apply to Critical Mass today with the skills I had when I was originally hired, I wouldn’t make it through the resume review round, let alone get an interview.)

Green as bamboo, and just as inflexible. Sure, I could bend, but there was no way I could hold my own to the people who’d been working there longer than I and understood the industry a lot better. I had to give into requests — no matter how outrageous — and accept direction from others.

That’s what I think about — that kind of helpless ignorance — when I stop and wonder how on Earth I managed to say something I didn’t previously know. And to some degree, still wonder if I actually know it. I don’t know if any of you have been in this situation, but when I get to talking about things that a mere six years ago I wouldn’t have given a second thought to (even if I knew enough to do so), I feel like I’m in some kind of verbal auto-pilot. It just comes out on its own.

It’s truly strange. I’ll actually be thinking to myself, as my mouth is motoring along, how is it that I can be saying these things? I’m not even actually thinking about what I’m saying! It’s just coming out, as if someone else were in control of my mouth. It’s like some freaky version of Being John Malkovich, except I have no idea who’s in my head or if they get dumped out on the Jersey Turnpike. More likely the intersection of Barlow and 56th near the truck stop, I think.

I always seem to know what to say. So far, I have yet to put my foot in my mouth. I haven’t said anything truly stupid. But I’m sure that day is coming. That’s what I fear most. That I’ll be in the middle of a good oration on the best way to handle organic search implementation with one of our clients when something comes out that I didn’t expect. It’ll sound something like this:

“The goal is to make sure that the document structure properly contextualizes the content, and is seeded with the keywords from the analysis phase. Rumper gilford flamma-lamma-ding-dong walla walla *snort* willy come home and BANG!”

It’s going to happen. I know it. The facade will come crashing down and I will be exposed for the phony that I sometimes believe myself to be. I still think of myself as that naive web developer, hired to slap together promotional web properties. I didn’t care about the standards, how to manage people, the intricacies of client communication, or internal politics. I was a grunt. I still feel like I am, and that somehow I’ve gotten where I am without truly knowing what on Earth I’m doing.

The reality is that I do actually know. I just don’t know that I know. Over the years, I’ve written a series of handy managerial routines that kick in when needed. It’s an automatic process, digging out lots of stored bits of knowledge and experience. I suppose this is what it’s like to have experience — and dare I say it, wisdom. You just know it. Temet Nosce. The whole Neo-save-the-world thing. You don’t have to think about it. It’s there. It’s ready and waiting to come out. You only need tap the resource, like uncovering an underground stream — it just flows out.

Still, it’s weird. I wonder how long it’ll be until I get used to this?

Rudy’s heading off for greener pastures

James on Monday. Rudy on Friday. I can’t make any “Rudy Tuesday” jokes on this one, I’m afraid.

Rudy was only the second Web Developer that we hired after moving into our current building (I can’t say “new” building, ‘cuz it ain’t new anymore). And that was almost a year after we picked up Carl.

Rudy was one of our workhorses. Give him a task, and let him loose. Didn’t matter how much time he needed to put into it, didn’t matter what the estimate was. He got it done, and it was done when it was promised. A quality that is not only admirable, but hard to come across. And it no doubt hurt Rudy’s social life, at least to some degree.

I never once heard Rudy complain over the years. Admittedly, I’m not sure complaining is even in Rudy’s nature. A couple of years ago, Rudy was in a fairly nasty motorbike accident, basically screwing up his legs for a month or two. But even when he struggled in for Jude’s farewell (see [[So long, Jude!]]) on crutches, he was still all smiles and laughs. I suppose that’s what I’m going to miss most about Rudy.

Rudy was one of the popular crowd, something I never was. Never been a popular person in general, really. I’m Joe Average. I have my ups and down, but when it comes to the end of the day, I don’t stand out, make waves, attract, or repel. In a group of two, I’m the one you won’t see. I wasn’t part of the 5% — even if I was included in a couple of events — and generally only find out about things after they happen.

That sort of thing really used to bother me a lot, being left out. I was never sure of it was a conscious thing: “Oh, don’t call Geoff — we don’t want him around here!”. Or was it just merely that I’m forgotten? Hard to say which is worse — exclusion or insignificance. They both pretty nasty. It’s also hard on the ego, being left out like that. It really makes you think about the friends that you have (or don’t have), and how people ultimately view you.

I’ve come to accept that I’m generally not liked. (Hopefully, it doesn’t extend to me being outright hated.) At best, I’m tolerated. I can’t trace the thousand steps it took me to get where I am. It’s those thousand steps — or thousand cuts? — that slowly wore away at any appeal that I did have (and probably some of the credibility, too). I might get the job done, but generally I’m just a bastard. An ass. Maybe it’s my own self-importance speaking to me, I’m not sure. But I know that people treat me differently now than they used to even a couple of years ago. And I feel alone.

With Rudy’s departure, isolation sinks in more and more.

Rudy was supposed to be my major project this year. Despite being at Critical Mass about three and a half years, he never made it to Senior. I felt he was ready, just that we needed to push him a little more. It was all minor stuff, too. And that the opportunity we had planned for him on the Michelin projects didn’t come through the way we’d planned. In many ways, I feel like I failed him.

There’s almost none of the old guard left. After Dennis, it’s about a year and a half before you get to Torin, the next most senior web developer we have. I talk to those who’ve gone to “greener pastures”, and I wonder what it would be like out there. In a little over two weeks, I complete my sixth year here at Critical Mass. I’ve come a long way … but at what cost? Maybe I’ve become too complacent? Have I been responsible for too many people leaving? Am I even competant in my job anymore?

I ask myself questions like this more and more. I do what I think is right, but is it? Maybe Rudy’s got the right idea — get out while you can and do something else. Work someplace different. Reground yourself before it’s too late. And maybe I am where I’m supposed to be. Maybe I’m already in the only place I can be. Oh, the questions…

Good luck, Rudy. We’re gonna miss you ’round the farm. Wherever you land, I’m sure it’ll be good.

Google at the CCAT Dinner

Google is the power in the internet right now. Issues with censorship aside (and their suddenly lacklustre results in the stock market — the revaluation is long overdue), Google still remains the top search engine and one of the best ways to engage in online marketing.

Which is the primary reason why when Google comes to town, you make an effort to drop by.

The CCAT — the Calgary Council for Advanced Technology — conducts regular meetings. What exactly this group does, I’m not entirely sure. But they do seem to arrange for an interesting networking opportunity.

Originally, I wasn’t really interested. Jim sort of goaded me into it, though. Aside from the fact that it was Google, it seemed like getting an entire table of us (eight, in total) would be possible … but only if I went. I figured, if nothing else, a change to see what else Google had up their sleeves might be something worth seeing.

The night started off at the Telus Convention Centre (lower level of the Glenbow Museum, to be specific), in what I can only describe as the largest networking scene I’ve yet seen in Calgary. I was hardly a shining example, focusing mostly with Rob (a former co-worker), Mark (from the Green Party of Canada), and a guy who specialized in PDA solutions. Hugh (whose name was recorded as “High”) scored about at least a dozen cards in the time we were there. There’s a man I need to learn a lot more from when it comes to meeting new people!

Table 20 was just us: Dave, Ryan, Allard, Nichole, Chantelle, Jim, Hugh, and myself. Ryan and I ended up with our backs to the stage, where Wendy Muller of Google would speak later on. Until then it was a variety of speakers from around the Calgary community. The only good one (I think) was the CEO of West Canadian, George Brookman. He had a calm, easy demeanour (and apparently knew most of the people in the room — including the mayor) and leapt into a speech that sounded completely off-the-cuff, and yet completely practiced.

Sadly, he would remain the best speaker of the night. The president of the CCAT read his script, and didn’t sound at all at ease in front of the room. Normally, the uneasiness should pass in a couple of minutes (or so I’ve read). Normally.

The keynote was Wendy Muller, the VP of Marketing for Google Canada. She’s been in the marketing industry for a couple of decades and seems to know her stuff. A couple of things were clear, however, during the course of her speech. First, as much as others look to Wendy to be the “voice” of Google Canada, Wendy doesn’t understand her field.

She’s been at Google for four years. But she doesn’t get the point. She doesn’t get the technology. She’s an old-school marketer. She knows the way things used to be done. The new way still seems to escape her, however. The presentation was short, and the Q&A period even shorter. Questions were often specific, but Wendy either hasn’t learned how to divert the answer (the two most common responses were “no comment” owing to specific internal situations; or a very long-winded answer, signifying nothing, ending with “does that answer your question?”).

And like the president who introduced her, she read her presentation, too. I’m no speaking guru, but even I know that you should practice your presentation. Make it sound good. Go over it again and again and again until you know it so well that you don’t need your notes. You should only glance at the presentation to make sure you’re covering all the points that are there. If you’re reading the points in their entirety rather than using them as a summary … might as well email the bugger to everyone on the list and save them the hour.

Well, the meal was pretty good. So perhaps it was ultimately worth it. Even if I didn’t win the iPod up for grabs.

I think Wendy needs to attend one of the major Search Engine Strategy conferences, and get to see how others present from her company. There’s a wad of Googlers who are lower-rung than her, and present a lot better. Wendy didn’t really say anything that I didn’t already know to some extent (clarification on statistics notwithstanding). And I doubt that I’m the only one thinking that.

Jaemo’s farewell

Another one bites the dust.

I hate it when friends leave, even if it’s just to go to another company in the city. And with James’ departure, it hits a little more. Not just because I saw a lot of my older self in him, not just because he was one of our Sr. developers, or even just because he single-handedly put an end to reply-alls in the building for a long time.

It’s probably because this place will be a lot quieter without him.

I still remember when James started. He was a young, brash, loud, and potentially brilliant developer. Which meant that certain people on the team immediately hated him. Why? Because James rocked the boat by refusing to fall in line. Unlike those of us who chose to go against doctrine in a more passive manner, James was much more vocal. Where others use subtlety, James used subterfuge. When others whispered, James cracked a whip.

Very early on, James single-handedly took on the issue of people replying to companywide emails with trivial points, often engaging everyone in a conversation that no-one truly cared about. James’ approach? The most effective weapon in his arsenal: comedic, sometimes outright mocking images. They did an exceedingly good job at putting replies to an end. James’ first image was beautifully simple: a small boy, praying at the side of a bed (presumably before he went to sleep). The caption read: “Please God, make it stop.”

James’ second reply was to a CEO’s email. I suggested that he might want to back off until he at least passed his probationary period.

I saw a lot of myself in James, only amplified a few times. The brashness of youth, the self-realization of brillance, the demands of excellence. James has yet to reach the age I was when I started (though he is close now), and I wonder if he will mellow over the years in the way I have calmed down. (Those of you who knew me as a teenager/early 20-something will no doubt find that hard to believe.)

I had hoped we could hang onto James, but after three-ish years it’s hard to hang onto veterans. That’s the nature of our industry — a couple years here, a couple years there, and the process goes on. The loss of experience and knowledge is often hard to deal with. It hurts every time we lose a long-term employee. We’ve seen this loss many times over, and we’ll see it again and again — the nature of our business.

Amy. Luke. Adam. Mark. Dave. Jaime. Christine. Andrew. Jude. Scott. Angie. Pat. Carl. Rich. Vlad. Neil. Tamara. Bill. Myles. Damon. Ed. Cory. Jules. Reid. Darren. Nancy. Rob. Jen. Graham. Dave (a different one). And that’sonly just those I can easily remember. I missed recording most of the departures over the last year due to my blogging inactivity. (There’s a thousand reasons for that, none of which have any real validity when it comes down to the fact that I just didn’t do what I should have been doing.) So for all of you who have left who wonder where your farewell is … I can only apologize.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming anyone for this. Ours is a hard industry, and it’s hard to stay here for long without the desire to move on. That’s assuming, of course, that the pressures of the job don’t get to you first. Client demands are often a hard thing, and they can wear you down. Even in the lower echelons, where client contact rarely happens, the trickle-down effect can be quite pronounced.

I suppose after a while you become immune to the pressure. Or you find a way of dealing with it. Or you go insane. Heck, there’s really only four options, and if you don’t decide to move on, you succumb to each of the other three over time … though the order in which each of them gets you is different from person to person. I think I’ve almost reached the “immune” stage. Or at least, I hope I’ve almost reached it.

So James is gone. Unlike Scott or Jude, though, he’s still in town. So it’s not so bad. And Mike has returned after his effective exile of about four years ago. Rudy’s going soon, so that’s something else to contend with.

Times they are a changin’. For better or for worse, that’s how life goes. It sucks when friends aren’t as readily accessible as they were before, but at least — if nothing else — the internet does make communication significantly easier.

Oscar Night: The 78th Academy Awards

You could almost have called last night’s telecast “The George Clooney Show”. That man attracts far too much attention for being only one person in Hollywood.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t deserve attention, but come on…

I have to admit, I wasn’t particularly thrilled to hear that Jon Stewart was going to host the Oscars. This is an event where the right person can do a spectacular job. Witness the years Billy Crystal and Steve Martin have hosted. The wrong person turns it into a complete fiasco, and you really wonder where the hell it’s all going. Witness David Letterman.

Despite missing most of the red carpet show (thankfully, no real fashion accidents this year — though I do have to say that’s most of the reason I watch that segment, anyway), I sat down with my ear-to-ear grin to watch the show. It started a little differently than previous years. In lieu of reviewing the movies that had come out and were nominated (as Crystal is oft to do in song), it was a recap of the hosts over the last ten or so years, all explaining why they couldn’t host. The nearest any of them really got to any one movie were the first two: Billy Crystal and Chris Rock, in a tent in a lush valley in the mountains. Both were “busy”.

Ironically enough, the funniest one was David Letterman, who claimed he couldn’t do it as he was watching over Steve Martin’s kids, so they wouldn’t “grow up funny”. (Steve had delivered the joke a couple of people earlier. The kids — and a dog — wore wigs reminiscent of Steve’s own white locks.)

Jon Stewart woke up from a dream, believing that he was asked to host the Oscars. Only to find himself in bed with Halle Berry. Another dream. When he reawoke, it was George Clooney. Not a dream. Sorta. Clooney didn’t really seem to be enjoying himself on that one, admittedly. But it wouldn’t be the last time that evening.

Most of the segments in the show were obviously due to Jon Stewart’s Emmy award-winning writing team. (The faux mudslinging ads for best actress and best sound mixing, modelled after the well-understood and well-used paradigm of political ads during election campaigns.)

There were a couple of slip-ups during the presentations. Morgan Freeman flubbed a line. Lauren Bacall, out to introduce the timeless film noire segment, had extreme difficulty with her lines — almost to the point where I thought she was going to give up and leave the stage. But she’s a quintessential performer, and got herself back on track to a complete finish. (My guess? The teleprompter ran too quickly.)

Yes, the Academy Awards are completely insular. They’re a reflection of Hollywood’s self-congratulatory nature, and really have no bearing on any dose of reality outside of the Los Angeles area. So what? It’s a chance to escape into something completely unnecessary, and watch famous people get jealous on each other.

It’s also a chance to watch some interesting turns of event. While there was no surprise that “Wallace and Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit” won for Best Animated Feature, nor that “March of the Penguins” walked away with Best Full-Length Documentary, there were a few surprises. I hadn’t expected Reese Witherspoon to snap up Best Actress. Judi Dench, certainly, but not Reese. I’m not suggesting that she’s not worthy of the nod, but I wonder what exceedingly minor role Dame Judi will win Best Supporting Actress for next year. Ang Lee wasn’t a surprise per se, but the competition was stiff. Philip Seymour Hoffman for Best Actor? Not completely surprising — he’s an outstanding actor — but my money was on Brokeback’s Heath Ledger.

Which does bring up an interesting point: “Brokeback Mountain” didn’t do nearly as well as the buzz suggested. Sure, the buzz is non-binding, but when you consider that the buzz had got to come from somewhere, there much be an iota of truth in it, right? I’m sure the theme to Brokeback will haunt me for years to come, much as the theme from “Shakespeare in Love” still does.

The broadcast kept to schedule, and finished on time — even a little early (by a couple of minutes, anyway). It wasn’t the best Oscar show I’ve ever seen, but it was far from the worst. And Jon Stewart? I think he could successfully host again. Once he got into his groove, he was an able host. Not as much an insider as Billy Crystal, and certainly not a lyrical, but at least he doesn’t try “Uma, Oprah” jokes.