Didn't work Wednesday: Consulting for R.R. Bowker

After being a stay-at-home dad for about five years (while also running Statsfeed, writing the ActiveRecord book, consulting part-time for reviews.com, and doing a few other ‘side projects’ from my basement)…I decided that I wanted to get back into the full-time work force.

So I began a conversation with one of the random recruiters who had reached out to me at that time (luckily, because of the many projects and things I have out there, I usually have a few recruiters reach out to me every few weeks)…and eventually I was placed in a contract gig with a company called R.R. Bowker.

I had never heard of the company prior to my interview, but it turns out they have a really interesting history. And in fact, Amazon started out by licensing Bowker’s Books in Print product (and then systematically improved and expanded upon that dataset to develop into the powerhouse/juggernaut in the publishing world that they are today)

Anyway - I was brought in as a programmer/team member on the efforts to help automate the process for ordering an ISBN – a sweet little market that Bowker has a monopoly on within the U.S.

Initially I took the gig for a few reasons:

1. The company was located very close to my house (they are just two towns over – about a 5 minute drive – in New Providence, NJ).

2. They were a mid-sized company with a long history so they at least had the appearance of job security (though we didn’t know it at the time, Lehman Brothers – where my wife was employed – was about to fall apart and take much of the economy with it).

3. They were offering a reasonable salary – not quite what I was making before I left to be a stay-at-home dad and do my own thing, but the other perks (commute, security, insurance) were good enough to basically even out.

4. I was bored with being a guy in a basement by myself, and I had felt like I had hit a ceiling on what I was going to do on my own. I wanted to get out of my self-inflicted rut.

Ultimately I would end up spending six months as a consultant, and another six months as a staff member before deciding to move on.

Before I talk about the specifics of why I decided to move on, I feel obligated to say that the tech. staff that I worked with were great (honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever worked somewhere where the people themselves weren’t great).

And like most 100+ year old companies, the company direction/mission was murky at best. They were struggling daily to adopt to 'modern technology’ and 'modern business’…they had a lot of tradition that had made the company what it was, and had always just worked, but that was now standing directly in the way of future success. They didn’t want to die, but they probably weren’t going to change either.

Whether they knew it or not, the employees could all sense this struggle to change…and it was very demoralizing. Nobody (close to my level) really knew the mission or direction of the company and so nobody really bought into anything we were doing. The general attitude was that it was a job…and hopefully it would be tomorrow too.

The company politics were also average of a mid-sized company. Partially because there appeared to be no clear mission or direction, and partially because of the changing climate, there were the usual struggles for power…the peacocking over small wins, and the passing the buck on any losses.

But these were all things I had expected, and honestly, I had no trouble dealing with myself (I think they are just the reality of most white collar jobs).

I didn’t love or hate the work or the company…and my general life philosophy is that I can find happiness, fun, and contentment is just about anything I commit to doing…so things were fine.

So why didn’t it work out? Why am I not still at Bowker? Well, there were two really big things (to me) that I just couldn’t get over.

1. The customers were mostly thought of as a necessary evil/burden.

2. There were clear limits to what an employee was empowered to do or not to do.

There were a lot of little things that revealed these two issues to me over time, and of course eventually there was a straw that broke the camels back.

The straw for me was when I was unable to directly refund a customer $20 for an IBSN they had tried (and failed) to purchase through the software I had built.

The bottom line was that my software had not worked. The client had amazingly managed to get me on the phone (I wasn’t listed as a contact anywhere), and after many apologies I ensured them that they would get a refund and I would make sure they still got an ISBN (which is all they really wanted anyway).

I then went about trying to figure out how to refund this client…and it turns out that not only could I not refund them (company policy), I couldn’t give them a free ISBN either (also company policy).

After much debate, me offering to pay out of pocket (which I was absolutely prevented from doing), and eventually me playing the “I already told them, and I already did it” card…I was able to get that specific client what I had promised…but I was held in contempt for it and made to promise that I would not do it again (in fact I was officially banned from being allowed to talk to clients on the phone again).

I made that promise, and I kept that promise - by leaving the company.

I might have just been a lowly programmer working in the back office, but if I couldn’t back up my own work, and my own mistakes personally – and do what was clearly right for the customer and the long term health of the company – then I couldn’t really believe in anything I was doing day-to-day for the company. And that’s not a life compromise I’m willing to make. Especially when I have choices.

I had still been doing some consulting for reviews.com throughout all this time…and they had been asking me to come back full time for awhile. I generally don’t like to go back to things I’ve left (because I believe I’ve left them for a reason)…but I couldn’t take it anymore and I decided to make the move back to reviews (where I could at least believe in what we were trying to do and have the freedom to always fight for what I felt was right for our customers).

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This is the personal blog of Kevin Marshall (a.k.a Falicon) where he often digs into side projects he's working on for digdownlabs.com and other random thoughts he's got on his mind.

Kevin has a day job as CTO of Veritonic and is spending nights & weekends hacking on Share Game Tape. You can also check out some of his open source code on GitHub or connect with him on Twitter @falicon or via email at kevin at falicon.com.

If you have comments, thoughts, or want to respond to something you see here I would encourage you to respond via a post on your own blog (and then let me know about the link via one of the routes mentioned above).