December 25, 2017

Ri3k

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The shortest job I ever had was just 8 weeks – half of which was serving out my notice period! It was my “summer job”, as it was just for June and July 2005. Once my RBS contract ended, a serious search for the next job began. There were a few bad interviews, an awful experience with a pushy dishonest recruitment agent, and a clearly best offer. Unfortunately it did not work out.

Ri3k was a reinsurance technology firm (it has since been acquired and no longer exists as an independent entity). It aimed to help bring insurance companies together to create reinsurance contracts and then manage the result. For the first few years of the company’s existence this meant working on intranets for big insurers and consulting on knowledge management. That funded stage 2 – the development of an automated marketplace for creating reinsurance contracts and storing them. These contracts would be extremely low volume (just a few hundred per year if we were successful), but very large ($100’s million each), and could be quite complex with a lot of back and forth negotiations including supporting documents/evidence. The system also had to be secure and secret, both for regulatory reasons and because reinsurance is a secretive industry.

I started as a Software Architect to design the new system – an initial 3 month contract leading to a permanent position if all went well. Another person came onboard at the same time as Project Manager (my organisational equal) to handle the development software team. There was an initial team of 3 coders to help out in the early stages, but this was expected to grow over time. The project was an interesting problem. Just the sort of thing I wanted to work on. Plus it was greenfield dev and someone else did the people management! The office location was a small recently refurbished office near Hatton Garden and we had good, modern equipment. The team seemed friendly and of decent talent. I have pleasant memories of groups of us going out to lunch together and sitting in the sun to eat.

So what went wrong?

It was management. I had two managers: one for people management; and, one for technical management. The people manager seemed like a nice guy – he interviewed me and got me excited about the job, but I had little to do with him after that. Unfortunately I did not get to meet my technical manager before starting as he was on holiday through the interview process. Especially unfortunate as we did not get on at all. He was near impossible to work with. He would change his mind daily on requirements, what was important, and priorities. When the current task was complete he would be upset that I had wasted my time on something so irrelevant. He complained I was making mistakes or forgetting things, but usually the examples he provided were directions directly from him.

Within a week I had started keeping copious notes on our meetings and conversations to ensure I wasn’t missing anything. I would double check my notes after writing them with this manager. Yet still he would tell me later that I had it all wrong and could do nothing right, even if it was something directly from my notes that he had confirmed. The new Project Manager (who was in many of the same meetings) agreed that I was not the problem, and that my technical manager was changing his mind constantly and blaming me for it. Then my manager started becoming harder to track down, becoming increasing absent. This had its benefits as it allowed to focus more on the work I thought needed to be done. Although there was also the negatives as when my manager returned he was even more insistent I was doing it all wrong. A couple of times I spoke to my people manager about the problem, but the response was always that he agreed that my technical manager was “difficult”, but good at his job and close to the CEO, thus I would just need to learn to work with him. The situation made me increasing miserable.

I handed in my resignation 19 working days after starting, and offered to leave immediately. This was rejected so I worked out 4 weeks notice, making 8 weeks total. It just wasn’t worth the pain of working with an obviously toxic personality. I believe I had made reasonable attempts at trying to make the situation work, but was met with unreasonable demands. I had notified management of the problems, but nothing seemed to be happening. Best just to leave and move on. It was not the easiest decision to make, as I had no job to go to next, but it worked out massively to my advantage.

The last four weeks there were mildly more pleasant. My technical manager was still often absent and regularly belittled me, but I cared less. On my last day I handed both my managers and the new Project Manager two documents (not to just my technical manager as I didn’t trust him). The first was a system design based on what I thought my technical manager said was required; the other was the system design as I thought it should be done. Then I walked out.

That winter the Project Manager contacted me. He said that there had been some changes at Ri3k. After I left, at first the project had stalled and could not get moving for several months. Then my old technical manager had resigned and not replaced (it was suggested he was forced out). Since then they had gone back to my old personal design document and started again from the beginning using it. He said it was going well so far, and they would really like it if I returned as Software Architect. I declined. Things were going well at my new job and I didn’t feel any need to go back to a place with bad memories. Still it was nice to have confirmation that it was my manager who was the problem and I did a good job, if only for a short time.

Some notes from my 8 weeks:

  • This is the only contract I have had where there was serious difficult with the recruitment agent. It took several months after leaving and many pestering calls before I was completely paid for all the time I worked.
  • The De Beers London office was just around the corner from ours. They had a heliport on top of the building and we could hear the CEO arrive and leave every day (normally 10-4, short day).
  • For my first 2 days on the job there was only me and and receptionist in the office. Everyone else was off at a corporate paintball camp. I just spent those days reading documents.
  • During my time here Google came out with their Maps web application – the first web app that could update content on a web page without requiring the whole page to be updated (you could drag the map area around and only the map itself would update). This was a big deal in web development and all the dev people gathered around to see how it was done. Once we had worked it out, my technical manager declared it easy, unimpressive and something he could do in a few hours. I saw at least a couple of people roll their eyes.
  • While doing some prototyping I made my (so far) only contribution to an existing open source project, providing a bugfix to C-JDBC, a now inactive Java database clustering library (see the release notes for version 1.3.1).

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