I Fired Myself

If we’re friends on Facebook or Twitter, you know about my new job in Baltimore. Technically, it’s not a new job yet, as I don’t start until February 4. However, it’s a new job and a return, for the first time since 2006, to a more corporate (if laid back) working environment. I’ve only worked for one company in that period of time, and I was a founder. That, of course, is the hugely successful WP Engine. However, I left that role in October of 2011. I still didn’t have the motivation to not work for myself.

A little about this new role, however, since I brought it up. I feel it’s necessary in proving the point I want to make.

Corporate Culture

Agora Financial, as a division of Agora, Inc. was named the 2nd best place to work in Baltimore in 2011 by the Baltimore Sun. As an adopted Austinite, that label carries a high standard. In Austin, “business casual” is cutoff jean shorts (“jorts”) and a tech swag tee shirt with sandals. In Austin, the chic commuter rides a scooter or bicycle. Maybe even walks. In Austin, drinking a beer is not something simply saved for off-hours. In fact, many companies keep a refrigerator stocked with beer because, hey, the workforce can be more relaxed, efficient and productive if given certain leeway. Thankfully, none of us are drunks… maybe.

At Agora, I found a company that matched this sort of comfort level I’ve come to expect. When I flew up for an interview (and job interviews have been something I’ve not really had to do seriously since 2002), I emailed Mark, the Art Director and my point of contact, and very politely suggested I wouldn’t be arriving at their headquarters in a tie. Manage expectations, and such. Mark’s response was simply, “That’s fine. Business casual works”.

Business casual can mean many things. It’s sort of a catch all phrase that means different things to different people based on different companies policy ideas. So I wore some decent dress pants, a button up shirt and a vest with no tie. The team had sandals, jeans with holes, and hoodies and plaid-pattern button up shirts. I felt like I was in Austin!

Ideology

But company culture was just one aspect. The work they do perfectly fits who I am practically and ideologically.

You see, Agora is a publishing company first and foremost. I’m a publisher. I’ve written a book and worked with traditional book publishers. My first startup was a publishing company with, at our peak, 350 blogs. Agora’s model is different than those models, but they’re publishing. They are creating content that, hopefully, long outlives us.

They are a policy research publishing company. Those who know me know that I love policy, I hate politics. When I engage in politics, it’s usually from the lens of policy. Agora provides research analysis and white papers based on their policy research in a subscription format. So there’s also a revenue model. And they’ve been highly successful at doing this, historically through newsletters, for years. It’s a proven model, and they are a proven company.

In addition, their policy analysis generally comes from a libertarian (small “l”) perspective. As a left-leaning small-l libertarian, I enjoy this aspect of what they do (even though I suspect most of my colleagues and most libertarians as a whole are right-leaning small-l libertarians, I suspect that we all agree on a framework of responsibility and limited government in individuals life, and diverge on other less-important minutiae).

I was hungry for this job. It was a dream job for me. Join a company doing things I loved, in areas I loved, with tools (WordPress) I loved, with a style of corporate culture that I loved. When they made me an offer, I didn’t hesitate to accept and fire myself from my own company.

I fired myself!

Having the Balls to Fire Myself

Most people aspire to stop working for the man, and start working for themselves. There are entire classes at universities and colleges about entrepreneurship, and to be sure, entrepreneurship is the mode of decade.

The other night, I had the opportunity to guest lecture for an capstone course on digital entrepreneurship for American University. It was online and you can hear my story and lecture here. This course is a culmination of all the classwork done in this program and is largely a practicum of everything learned to that point. The lectures are a series of lectures from guests that give the students inspiration and motivation about their futures while they work on their individual projects.

During this talk, I spoke specifically about the time I left corporate America and went out on a limb. It was 2006. I had been working on a side-project basis for over a year building up a WordPress-powered content network and when we finally took funding, I was employee #1 or #2, depending on who you ask. I couldn’t wait to leave my computer-fixing job and go do something I really, really wanted to do instead and get paid for.

I’ve heard stories like that from hundreds of entrepreneurs. Most never look back with any regret, despite the struggles and sometime-economic instability.

I have a view that whatever I do, I do it because I want to. It’s very easy to look and say that running a startup, building a product, starting a company or, in general, working for yourself is, in fact, the holy grail.

From Happiness to Happiness

My view is that the holy grail should be happiness and motivation derived from what you do. Sometimes that means taking a more unorthodox step and saying, you know what… being an entrepreneur is awesome, but it’s a vehicle to happiness, not happiness itself.

So effective February 4, 2013, Aaron Brazell has been terminated by Aaron Brazell.

I don’t know if I would have fired myself to go be a developer in some developer-happy company that segregates the developer from the product line. In other words, a lot of developer-oriented companies have developers as a means to an end. Product managers go talk to customers, develop goals, milestones, wireframes or storyboards, make decisions on initiatives with corporate executives and the developers exist to make that shit happen.

Some people like that. Some people don’t want to be a part of the politics and roadmapping. They work better with a framework that defines what their role and deliverables are. For them, that’s happiness.

For me, happiness is seeing the vision, talking about what it means – the pros, cons, feedback – iterating, being a part of the process of both scoping and building and then allowing the idea to flourish. It means building something toward an end. In the idea of a startup, it means building a product and moving it toward acquisition, IPO or even failure.

As a consultant, there was no viable end. Unless I’m committed to building out a team (I’m not), increasing a production pipeline (without a team, I can’t), or other such motivations, a consultancy looks exactly the way it does in 10 years as it did on day 1 – find clients, build something for them, collect money, wash, rinse, repeat. There’s no glorious ending. To me, that makes for an unhappy Aaron.

Agora provides an exciting platform, an an innate sense of entrepreneurship internally, that makes me happy. If I have an idea, I can try it. If I think something could really work well, I’ve got a green light to work on it. All within a good developer situation where I also have deliverables, and things to look at and solve. The combination of such makes Aaron a very happy person.

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Photo used under Creative Commons and taken by photologue_np

My Three Tiered System to Job Searching

Photo used under Creative Commons and taken by photologue_np
Over the past months, since I parted with WP Engine, I have entertained many inquiries about my availability for other full-time roles. And I literally mean many. It’s been a great problem to have, frankly, and I consider myself blessed to have these inquiries while so many others continue to struggle to find work.

I also consider myself blessed to work in a specialty field. WordPress consulting, you would think, is something that is extremely saturated. To a degree you’d be right. As a consultant, I turn away a great number of projects because, frankly, they amount to building sites with WordPress. There is certainly nothing wrong with that kind of work, but I’ve found over years of consulting that it’s important to be a specialist. To not be a specialist means to compete with everyone else on the same level and that reduces the quality and quantity of projects I can work on.

Instead, I focus on high-end WordPress integrations and plugin development. Complex things. I make a reasonable living doing things that there are only a proverbial handful of people who have the ability to do.

At the same time, I continue to entertain full-time job offers. There are some great ones out there, but many just don’t interest me. I have a three-tier (God, as a beer advocate, I hate that term but in this case it fits) filtering process I go through when entertaining job offers. I think this three-tier system should apply to anyone and everyone looking to work in any field, and so I’ve decided to share it.

Is the money right?

We all need to live, and I’m not one who believes the starving artist mantra is necessary a healthy one. If you’re good at what you do, you should be compensated appropriately. Personally, I don’t think anyone would have an argument in this area. A seasoned DBA should not be making $50k, for instance.

As a consultant, I’ve come to have a lifestyle that I’ve worked very hard to achieve. I’m going to be 36 soon and I’ve been married, had a kid, worked on startups, lived in expensive areas of the country and cheaper areas of the country. I’ve built a lifestyle that no job should ever take away.

We all have our “number”. Know for yourself what that number is and stick to your guns when determining if you want to work for someone. Simply not enjoying your current job is not a valid reason to take less than what you’re worth.

Does the job make you want to jump out of your chair and SQUEEEE?

IF it doesn’t, walk away. You should love every minute of what you do and jump out of bed in the morning (after a reasonable period of off-time) eager to see what new innovations, products, ideas and relationships can be achieved.

To do less is selling yourself short. Never settle for anything less than awesome. Some inquiries, for me, have been awesome on the money side but I feel so dull and want to pull each fingernail out of it’s socket just thinking about it. Read my lips! I will never work in a cubicle again! Ever! Don’t ask!

Recently, I spoke with a company who demoed some of their products (WordPress-based) they were working on. They showed me tools that they had built in that allowed their 300some entities they managed to do amazing things (things I tried at b5media years ago [and failed]) in easy, intuitive ways. All I wanted to do was scream “OMGYESPLEASE!” through the phone.

If you don’t have that reaction, think really hard about whether you want to commit.

What’s the social impact?

I’m not a tree-hugger, but one thing I can say is that consulting is both awesome and terrible. I get a lot of benefits by working for myself. But that’s kind of it. I get lots of benefits from working for myself. No one else does. Just me. My world isn’t a better place because of my work. My wallet is happier, but the world around me still sucks.

So when I talk to companies about working for them, I want to know that my work has a positive effect on the world around me. Whether it’s education or environmental; sustainability or fitness; empowering others or enabling positive social change – it’s an important facet in what I look for.

Does the company reward employees for not wasting energy and taking the bus or riding a bike to work? Does the company offer some sort of subsidy or reward for green energy consumption? How many women are employed as engineers?

How does working for Company X positively affect the world around me?

I think these three things are co-equally important for anyone, not just me. I hope so, anyway. We shouldn’t hate what we do, ever. We choose what we do. Choose wisely.

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How to get a Great Tech Job

This post is a guest post from Sandy Smith, a hiring manager and PHP developer at Forum One Communications in Alexandria, VA. It was originally an email to a mailing list in response to a job ad posted by a recruiter. The job requisition was worded in such a way to make it sound like the recruiter wanted someone with every web-tech skill and a “mastery” of it for about $75,000 (USD), a salary that is extremely low in the Washington, D.C. area. His response was so good that I asked if I could reprint it. He obliged. Follow Sandy on Twitter at @SandyS1 or at his blog.

So, random thoughts from a hiring manager, speaking entirely for myself, not for my company (My team has no open positions, though Forum One is hiring):

1) This is perhaps not the best job ad in history but it is not that bad. “Mastery” is a very vague word, and nobody wants to advertise for someone who’s “mediocre” at PHP, etc. So cut them a little slack that word, which seems to be the big problem for most people.

2) Learn to read job ads for what they really want. They almost all must pass through an HR person who is NOT a programmer, and sometimes vetted language is helpfully “punched up” by some editor before going out, not realizing they’re effectively changing the requirements by using more “positive” and “colorful” language. I’m going to use “needless” “quotes” some more, “here.”

3) When we’ve worked with recruiters–and I assure you as a hiring manager I see the same ratio of good/bad ones (hint: don’t call me to ask about a position and then demonstrate that you never bothered to visit the company website to look at the description we have posted–and hint: when I say I don’t deal with recruiters and you’ll have to talk to the same HR person who didn’t call you back the last time, you not getting a gig doesn’t mean I’m suddenly empowered to deal with recruiters…so…don’t call me), we’ve usually just supplied a position description to them. They didn’t alter it much, so the wording may not have changed much if someone from the hiring org posted it themselves.

4) The years of experience and the main technologies mentioned are the important parts of a job ad, as are some of the “types of work environment” experience credentials. The extra stuff is usually requested by the HR person to give them a way to sort through the avalanche of applicants, most of whom are barely if at all qualified, who arrive in their inbox. So if there is, as I once abused a quasi-governmental agency for requesting, a ‘magical pony who craps rainbow sherbet is flitting around a meadow somewhere thinking to itself, “You know, I think I’d rather have a government web job,”’ they can find it.

5) The key word is “Drupal.” They’re not really asking for somebody who can invent a new algorithm better than quicksort or even bridge C++ to Ada to PL/SQL to PHP or implement a perfect Strategy pattern using techniques borrowed from OCaml…they’re asking for a PHP web developer who can configure, theme, and write some custom modules for Drupal that might work with some outside systems that others seem to be responsible for. Your best bet is to send in a competently formatted (and spell-checked–seriously, do not put “detail-oriented” and have spelling errors) resume and a cover letter addressing the important points and showing how your experience matches those points.

6) And yeah, if you can’t hang some Javascript and CSS with XHTML onto those template files, then you’re probably not right for the job, and you should move on. And start Googling some tutorials because I know I expect basic Javascript, CSS, and X/HTML out of even backend PHP developers.

7) There are a lot of people applying for much lower-paying jobs, but quite frankly, there are a lot of people who believe in spamming every open position they find with the same resume regardless of whether they’re qualified or not. Trust me, it’s really obvious to the people on the other side when you do this. You will get much better results if you target your application to the position, and skip ones that you know you’re not really right for. I realize this is hard when you’re not currently working, but a better effort on likely positions will get you more than minimal effort on every position you find.

8) Not every technical team is that great, and even if they are, they aren’t always great at finding the right people for the job, as the temptation is to hire someone like yourself, because hey, you’re awesome! Even if someone like yourself isn’t really right for the job. It’s not smart, but it’s really human. So while I have many issues with recruiters, I don’t think you can always lay the blame at their feet for not making their clients smarter. Who among us hasn’t had to swallow our pride and do something kinda dumb because the guy with the money said he didn’t care, he just wanted it that way?

9) If your organization is hiring for a PHP-centric position and you haven’t posted the job ad here–and there’s no legal/contractual reason you can’t–for heaven’s sake, why???

10) None of this is to suggest that recruiters don’t have problems of bullet-point matching that other people have brought up, or that they shouldn’t match candidates to positions using something better than what any random HR person can do in order to make them worth the money.

Photo by Utopian Branch Library

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