Disclaimer

BEFORE YOU START: Please note that although I currently volunteer for both the Stroke Association and Age UK, the views expressed in this blog are strictly my own. I am not a spokesperson for either (or, indeed, for any) organisation, and I accept complete responsibility for the views expressed herein. As indicated by the domain name, I am based in the UK and the blog therefore has a UK bias - I've tried to use the Glossary to explain any ambiguous terms, but if you think there is anything I've missed, please message me.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

American Memories



I had a job in the UK between September 1995 and February 1997. I was a programmer with probably 7 years' experience, and a novice project manager. The company was looking for a technical specialist cum project manager, so I suppose I was a decent fit.

The company was a start up and everyone was working on just the one project - a web-based B2B purchasing solution. The web was, in those days, sufficiently immature (and the company's idea sufficiently visionary) that this company could quite happily get into meetings with the High-Street banks.

The product required quite advanced (for the time) encryption, and we ended up building on a commercial US library. The library itself couldn't be exported, but it was perfectly OK for our product to use the library, and for our product to be exported. It indicates that the lawyers didn't understand the technology, but I suppose nothing much has changed in that respect. I didn't have any hand in selecting this product in the first place, which probably also says how inexperienced I was.

So, the solution was for me to fly out to the USA to do the work. It was only for about a month, and my first taste of the USA. The company's backers were venture capitalists based near Washington, DC, so that was the natural place to work.

In the end, it was a small town right by Dulles (Washington's main) Airport. Aspects of the USA were brilliant but it was very "suburbs" - every journey had to be made by car, the highway was dotted with clumps of either houses or shops, and in between there was a whole lot of nothing. I didn't like the suburb aspect but I did like things like the shops in the larger malls (I bought a new wardrobe!), Mexican food, say. Some things. I have a vague memory that this was around Easter 1996, and because I thought it was a one-off trip, I tried to squeeze in all the Washington touristy bits - the White House, Smithsonian, Arlington Cemetery etc.

But because of the suburbs aspect, when I got back home I didn't take it any further, and the project trundled on. The company signed a deal with Barclaycard in the UK, but Chase Manhattan were also interested, and the US is a far bigger market than the UK. Meantime I had started managing the entire project, although, because it was a one-project company, there was a lot of involvement from directors. I knew early on that management was not really for me - one of my employees came to me one day with a personal problem, and I remember thinking, "stuff your problem, as long as it doesn't interfere with my deadline". Not a brilliant attitude on my part and, in all jobs since, I've concentrated on the technical side rather than on people.

In order to help close the deal with Chase, I was sent out to their campus in Tampa, Florida. for a few weeks to hold a series of technical meetings about how the solution worked. I liked Tampa, it was mostly very new but had areas with a decent history and vibrant atmosphere thanks to its Spanish background. Plus, of course, the weather was a big improvement on the UK. This was early summer 1996, and the trip culminated in a meeting at Chase's head office in New York City.

The series of meetings obviously helped, and we duly signed a deal with Chase. Instead of Washington, DC, we'd be located in Tampa, Fl. to be close to them. The company clearly had designs on moving to the US, so I let it be known that I'd quite like to go over there permanently, and they set the wheels in motion to obtain a visa. I liked Tampa much more than DC.

Chase must have been having their own meetings about the project, and the next thing I knew, Chase dictated that the project now had a sufficiently strategic importance, that they wanted us close by, in New York City. Personally, this was fine by me, since I'd liked New York City even more than Tampa. My first impression of Manhattan had been very positive. The only thing was that the cost of living was that much higher than in Florida, but that was the company's problem, not mine, right?

From midsummer 1996 onwards, therefore, I was over in New York City quite a bit, helping to set up a US operation. Funnily enough, I didn't do many "tourist" things, because there was no hurry. I did go up to the top of the World Trade Center, and remember going to Staten Island on the ferry, to see Liberty, but there was lots more I eventually wanted to do. I loved New York - it was very different to most of the US, just in terms of its compactness. And there was so much going on - if I had to identify the capital of the world, this was it.

By the end of the year, my visa had come through so it was time to make things permanent. I said most of my goodbyes in the UK and gave up my rent. Then, the snag!

Basically, the company offered me a deal to work in Florida, which I accepted. They offered me the same deal, but in New York City. In real terms, in the UK I had viewed a few houses and was ready to buy, in Florida it would've meant a nice apartment (rental) and a decent car, but in New York I'd have been renting a room in a shared house/apartment, in one of New York's other boroughs, not Manhattan. The trouble was, I'd been in New York for some months now, I'd made a few friends and, more importantly, had been involved in hiring future co-workers. So, I'd had some exposure to the market. I was being asked to take on quite a senior role, but at a quarter of their salaries. Presumably the company gambled that just the prestige of working in NYC would be irresistable. But whilst the location was attractive, I had my doubts about the company itself - was it really something I wanted to be tied to? I felt that the atmosphere could be quite toxic, even between the directors. The company was very marketing-driven, very good at talking the talk, but not necessarily walking the walk. I remember once working a 26-hour stint the day before a meeting, because somebody had promised something pretty impossible, and we'd had to do the best that we could, I snook a couple of hours sleep in the boardroom! Also the support we had from Chase was unusually limited, or so I thought at the time (I've seen it many times since). The middle-managers we dealt with harboured ambitions to become senior managers - they had to maintain a certain distance from us because if not, and the project went belly up, then it might rub off on them. Middle managers in large corporates think very much like that the world over - make sure you don't go out on a limb for anything, and you'll get promoted just for not screwing up! Actually, the senior managers I know got there precisely by going out on a limb and succeeding against the odds, but that's a different story, and I have the benefit of hindsight.

Anyway, the to-ing and fro-ing went on over Christmas 1996, but in the end I decided not to take the offer - it was a step backward rather than forward. I mean, I was still minded to get to New York somehow, and armed with the visa (which wasn't transferable between "sponsors", but which did at least show that my skills were specialised enough as far as the US authorities were concerned), whilst at the same time set up my own company in the UK, in case things didn't work out.

As it happened, I severed my ties formally with this company in February 1997, fortunately there was a spell where I was on gardening leave but on full pay, where I was able to develop my own business. I got the first work through my company in early March, down near Winchester (which brought me to this area), and over time lost the urge to work in the USA. I loved New York City but looking at how things turned out both personally and professionally, I can't really complain.

I got a letter from an official receiver, some months later, telling me that the UK arm of this company had gone to the wall - I suspect they put all their eggs into the Chase basket and Barclaycard weren't too thrilled - but by then I was nicely into the rest of my life.

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