Life After Big IT

Tape drives at the Computer History Museum - Wikimedia Commons There’s a story I tell candidates during their interviews, that embodies the spirit of Vena. Shortly after I left a big IT firm to join Vena as the new development manager, I “Slacked” one of our coops to ask how hard a minor automation enhancement would be. I’d noticed how responsive people here are, so I was a bit annoyed when she didn’t answer right away. But the answer, when it came, was a simple one: “Done”.

At Vena the attitude goes beyond Can-Do; it’s just Do. People take pride in owning their work. Our culture values leading by example, self-discipline, and a passion for excellence. These attributes are intrinsic to some people but they can grow in anyone in the right environment. We try to hire people who are driven, who have high standards, who value failing over not trying. But we also look for people who are fun and extroverted because we know excellence comes from a blend of driving factors and social cohesion.

At my six month mark I see stark contrasts between Vena and Big IT, where I worked many years. I was Vena’s first dev manager, but we’ve grown fast enough that we already need a second; one of the manager candidates, who also came from big IT, asked me what I missed about my old job. “Absolutely nothing,” I answered. What didn’t I miss?

Meetings: In big IT, management is like high school: every hour you move to a different room. Only the bell is missing. Meetings eat up 3-4 hours a week for a junior developer, 8-12 hours for a senior developer, and 20+ hours for a manager.

I have 2 or 3 meetings a week now, excluding 1-on-1’s and interviews. When only essential meetings happen, everyone works to make the meeting worthwhile. When meetings happen because they’re scheduled, countless hours are wasted.

Process: The epitome of process in my old job was ordering a monitor. A 12-page PDF explained the order entry system and the eligible monitors. Once entered, the order went to some accountant who would reject it with “Please use account minor 1234” or “Please order monitor 5678”. Why couldn’t he just change the minor or item number for us?

We started a new developer last Monday, and on Tuesday our IT team slacked me saying “Stanley wants a second monitor. You okay with that? Cost is $200.” Yep, I said. That’s Vena process for you.

In my old job, we followed a laborious legal approval process to use open source software. At Vena, we use whatever open source helps us get the job done, and changes we think are generally useful are contributed back. Hundreds of hours I used to spend on open source legal issues are freed up at Vena to do real work.

Customers: The byzantine structure of the sales organization at my old company meant we had no idea who was buying our product. How do you motivate developers to do an outstanding job when the customer is invisible?

At Vena, every time we close a deal, an email goes out, “Another Vena Win” describing the customer requirements, our competition, and why Vena won. These emails constantly remind us that we are building a great product that people want to use. That’s a powerful morale booster.

Continuous delivery: At my old job we moved from waterfall to one month iterations, but we didn’t stabilize, the backlog piled up, and features dragged on and on. When we moved from a 24- to a 6-month release cycle we claimed that was continuous delivery.

When I started at Vena people were frustrated by the “unreasonable” two week turnaround for getting a server fix shipped. We soon moved to daily deployments, and have never looked back. We’re now working towards web deployments on the same daily schedule.

Are we having fun yet? At employee 1-on-1’s I like to ask: Are you having fun? In my old job the answer was: I like the work, it’s not bad. But to the follow-on question, What could our company do to make it better, the answer would be a litany of suggestions: stop downsizing, pay us more, drop our dreadful evaluation system. Eventually I stopped asking because people got demotivated thinking about everything that was wrong.

At Vena the answer I get most often to that question is “I love my job”. The people, the culture, the free snacks and veggies and cereal, and oh yeah, the work.

We know how to party! One Halloween at my old job I went to work as an Amish farmer. I sat through a meeting where no one even mentioned the straw hat and suspenders. Probably one in 50 employees dressed up any given year.

At Vena this Halloween, half of us wore costumes, we had a pumpkin carving contest, there was beer flowing and loads of finger food. And this December, for the first time in over twenty years, I got to go to an office Christmas party.

Small(er) is beautiful. When people hear me talk about Vena they ask why it took me so long to leave big IT. The answer is: I had no idea what I was missing. If you’re working for a big company you may like the job security and the lack of churn or challenge. But if you’re tempted by something more fun and exciting, check out a smaller software company. Vena is not alone in having this ‘startup’ culture in a somewhat-bigger-than-startup company. But I like to think we do it best!

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