A Friday gripe session
I'm sitting in a booth at my usual Friday joint, nursing a double Scotch single malt. It's a neighbourhood restaurant, not classy in any way, but comfortable. It's very late for lunch, quite early for dinner, and the place is mostly empty, which is the perfect time. I'm looking forward to food, drinks, and a weekly gripe session with Robin, before I go home to forget about work for a couple of days.
Robin and I go back a long time. We've worked together for various employers over the decades. Even when we don't share an employer, we keep in touch. The Friday dinners have been going on for a couple of years, ever since her disastrous divorce. Over the past few months, they've morphed from bad-mouthing men and relationships to griping about work.
"There you are."
A tall, large woman comes in through the doors. It's Robin. Middle-aged, graying hair, tired walk. She lumbers to the booth, and collapses on the other side of the table from me.
"RUDE WORD I'm tired of Arnold. He's been especially tiresome this week."
No surprise there. Arnold's a regular target of Robin's griping. To say they do not get along is like saying sodium and water may have a bit of a reaction.
"Here, let me get you a drink. Your usual?"
I wave to get the attention of the chirpy waitress, and order Robin her beer. After a short minute, the pint stands in front of Robin, condensate glistening on the outer surface. A narrow ray of late summer evening sunlight lights it up, having navigated between tables, window ads, and potted plants to our gloomy corner booth. The effect is like a carefully manufactured beer commercial.
Robin takes an unladylike gulp. "I needed that. Shall I begin or do you have some urgent griping of your own lined up?"
"No, I'm just in the same rut as always, fighting the same battles, and slowly losing my will to live."
Robin nods. She's heard my gripes enough times.
"Today is the last day of our four-week Scrum iteration. You know what that means. Arnold runs meetings all day, just to so he can listen to himself all day. I swear he lives for this one day every month."
I've met Arnold a few times. He's handsome, and thinks his condenscending way of treating others is the same as having charisma. Even so, Robin hates him more than I can really understand.
"That's his one single talent: listening to himself talk." I'm goading Robin on. She needs to let off some steam, and this isn't the time to be fair to anyone else. I fear that if she doesn't get to vent enough some Friday, the next week there'll be an explosion. I also have an ulterior motive tonight.
"Ain't that the truth. He certainly can't do anything else well. Like run meetings. We had the usual five today, starting at oh nine hundred hours. Guess how long he stayed on agenda? I give you one guess. Go on!"
"Hah! Your naive belief in your fellow man will come back and bite your ass some day. Zero! He didn't stay on agenda a single minute today. He started the first meeting by saying he's going to talk about something entirely different."
"Yes, really. It was supposed to be the retrospective meeting, to go over what we've done over in this iteration. Instead, King Arnold the First started talking about the state of the loos and that time in that other company when the men's toilets were in a disgusting state and he had to physically haul the janitor in there to get them cleaned up. Toilets! Who the RUDE WORD in all the RUDE WORD world wants to hear about toilets in a work meeting? For an hour!"
That's two RUDE WORDs in one sentence. Venting is well underway and getting close to ranting. This is good, since I want Robin to get the past week out of her system before I make my move. I want her steam to run out, and her relaxed, to start enjoying herself before I suggest to her the thing I've been thinking about all week.
I'm amused by Robin's use of RUDE WORD. She's definitely not a prude and through her twenties she'd often swear in the most vulgar ways. Then our friends started sprogging, and getting worried that Robin would inadvertently teach their offspring most of the F dictionary. After a couple of dust-ups, a pact was made and she's been saying RUDE WORD instead ever since. I'm not sure that RUDE WORD is a thing small children won't enjoy saying very emphatically in kindergarten. I am looking forward to hearing what the teachers think of it.
We order, a steak with pepper sauce for me, fish and chips for Robin, and eat. Robin continues to vent, but slows down towards the end of the meal.
"I don't know, I really don't, how long I can continue like this. And it's not just Arnold, of course, nobody in the firm knows anything about making software. If I could afford to, I would just quit, but you know the divorce left me in a bad state, financially."
"Mmm, yes, it's a bind. I wanted to talk about that, actually. Would you mind staying a bit longer and have another drink?"
"Are you buying?" Robin usually has a strict one-drink limit, partly for financial reasons, but also because she tends to not like getting drunk, even tipsy. She's made enough mistakes when under the influence.
I wave the waitress again and we get refills.
"So, what do you have in mind?"
"I know you're not happy in your job, and you know I have reservations of mine. I want to fix that."
"Oh yeah? Do you have something concrete?" She is in the perfect state for this. She's calmed down, having gotten the week's frustrations out of her system, and is in a relaxed state and hopefully has an open mind. I'm about to suggest something that may upset her entire life, and I don't want her to reject it while upset, or take a leap with me into the unknown without weighing the risks properly. If there's sharks in the water, I don't want to be blamed for luring her into the sea.
"We've both worked for several different companies, and there's always some jerk or idiot ruining everything, right? Or several. We're also getting old enough that having to deal with same incompetences over and over in every job is getting tiresome."
"I've thought about this a lot for a while, and I think I want to start my own company. A small company, with a handful of carefully picked colleagues, a team that works well and can avoid all the usual bullshit."
"That sounds too good to be true. And therefore it is."
"Perhaps, but I think it's possible, especially now. I'm thinking specifically of doing something in the IoT space."
"Insecurity of things? You're not serious. All that stuff is just a disaster waiting to happen."
"I am completely serious. It's already a big market, but a young market, and there's a lot of wrongness there, wrongness that will be a business problem in the long run. Such as everything being horribly insecure. If things don't change, the market may collapse after another few PR disasters."
"Like the home heating system that was dependent on the manufacturer, who decided to discontinue the product line and shut down the servers? Thus making people's houses cold and unlivable?"
"Like that, yes. I think there's a real business opportunity there."
"Maybe. It would at least be good to build those things in sensible ways."
I've got her nibbling on the hook. We sit in the restaurant a long time, while I sketch the idea I have to start a business to develop tools and services for building high quality IoT products. I don't want to build the products themselves, but help those who do build them.
"OK, Anna, I believe you may have something. You're telling this to me beause you want something from me."
"Yep. I want you to join me. You're wasted in your current job, building web sites to help deal with government bureaucracy. You're a great developer and you think at the system level, like a good architect. I'm not a techie, you know that, so I want you."
"I don't know, Anna, you know I'm in a squeeze and can't take financial risks. As much as I hate my current job, they they pay reliably, and I can't afford to not be paid."
"I know. I don't want you to take risks you can't handle. I think you should find a new job anyway, somewhere that still pays on time, but where you enjoy yourself. But I'd like to work together again."
"I'd like that too, but it's damn hard to find another job. I'm middle-aged, which is bad enough in this industry, and I'm a woman, which makes it so much worse."
I sighed, since I knew exactly how that is.
"Here's what I propose: if I can say that you'll be on board, assuming sufficient financial security, I can talk to a few people I know who could fund us initially. If it's just me, they won't talk to me, but if I have a credible tech expert, I have an in."
Robin sits quiet for a while. Takes the last gulp from her pint. Looks at me hard. I sit and wait while she makes up her mind.
"OK. I'm not committing to anything right now, but I'm interested. Go talk to a few people."
It's the same joint. It's even the same booth. I nurse another double Scotch. I've arranged with the same chirpy waitress to serve a beer as soon as Robin comes in.
Robin is subdued. The waitress comes with a pint, and Robin puts her hands around it, fingers laced, but doesn't drink, just looks into the foam. There's no ray of sunlight today, the weather is gloomy making our gloomy booth gloomier than usual.
"Robin, what's wrong?"
"I'm going to be fired. Probably. Next week."
"It's my own fault. I blew up at work, at Arnold. They're used to that, but then I went and said that I'd rather resign than work with him anymore. You know what they're like. They're owned by an American corporation who think that looking for a new job is grounds for terminating employment. RUDE WORDers. They've set up a meeting with HR on Tuesday. It'd be on Monday, but there seems to be a queue of unhappy people for HR to intimidate."
"Oh, Robin, sweetie, that's awful. How are you holding up?"
"I'm angry and afraid. Mostly afraid. I was stupid."
"Maybe, but I don't think you did anything wrong. They're not the kind of people anyone should have to work for."
"If I'm fired, I don't know what I'll do. I hate looking for work."
"Well, I may have good news for you."
"Oh yeah? Your crazy IoT idea?"
"I met with someone who'd be willing to be an angel investor, and fund us for a few months. It'd not be a lot of money, but it'd be enough to get started."
"You're not quite filling me with enthusiasm."
"Sorry. I was hoping you'd think of this as good news, but you're clearly not in the right mood for that. If it helps, he knows me, and was impressed by what I said about you, so he'd be willing to put in enough for the first three months' expenses and salaries, for a fifth of the company."
"How much are we talking about?"
"You'd have to take a small pay cut, to start with."
"I don't know, I'm in debt, and I can't afford to ruin my credit rating any further. Sorry, this doesn't sound good to me right now."
"Let me see what I can arrange, please? Can I continue to talk to the guy?"
"I guess. I don't want to kill this, it'd be fun if it worked out, but my head is full scary visions of the future right now."
We change topic. It's time to not dwell on problems. We don't stay late.
Is that a train coming at us?
Another Friday. Another double Scotch. Another beer scheduled for Robin's arrival.
Robin flounces into the booth. Moody, depressed Robin is clearly not with us tonight. The weather has improved since last week, and the sun is shining outside. There's no ray of sunlight, since a beer lorry is parked in front of the windows.
"Don't you look like a cheerful person! What's happened?"
"They didn't fire me! I'm going to have to attend some workplace behavior training, but I get to keep my job."
The waitress visits us, and places the pint in front of Robin, who smiles back and nods a thank you.
"That's good news, sweetie!"
"I hate it actually." She grins, and takes the first gulp of beer. "I am going to be so angry after that training, but the black cloud of bankruptcy has passed, at least. I'll live. And Arnold is livid, he thought he'd finally be rid of me."
I grin back at her. "I'm so happy and sad for you, both at the same time. Those HR training courses are boring as RUDE WORD."
Robin giggles. It's like she's a twenty-year-old CS student again.
"I know what you mean, A."
"I almost hesitate to tell my IoT news."
"I talked to my angel investor again. He's a bit upset, since he thought you were in the bag, so to speak. He was all ready for us to start this week."
"He'd be willing to up his funding, so that you could keep your salary, but he'd want a third of the company. And he wants to start as soon as possible."
"You heard me."
"You're kidding me."
"But that's for three months. What happens after that?"
"After three months, we need to either have a paying customer, or enough of a product or service that we can attract real venture capital."
"That sounds risky."
"Of course. It requires us to trust ourselves so much we can bet that we can produce something useful to a customer in three months."
"Isn't that optimistic? Three months for a product that can be sold?"
"No, no, you misunderstand. We don't need to have a product in three months. We need to have a paying customer in three months. It's enough to have enough of a product to show a customer that they're confident we're going to get it finished in time."
"Trust me on this. This is where I am good. You make it, I sell it. I'm confident I can find a customer in three months."
"If you say so. I'm still scared."
"Here's what I want to suggest: I'll set up a meeting with you, me, and the angel, for next week. We'll prepare a sketch of a spec for the product for that, and discuss it with him. Afterwards, you get to decide if this is a train you want to jump onto. What do you say?"
"I can commit to a meeting."
"Great! Shall we order food?"
The rest of the evening we bounce ideas off each other for what the product should be, and should not be. Reliability, security, upgradeability, software freedom, performance, all the usual technical envisioning that happens at the start of a software project, when everything seems easy and possible.
It's a fast train!
I throw the office door open, with a flourish.
"What do you think?"
"It's an office."
"It could be our office. Do you want it?"
It's an office, all right. A front room, with windows in the wall towards the corridor, and enough space for a receptionist. Two back rooms, with outside windows. It's an old, red-brick building from the era between the world wars. A bit run-down, not entirely clean, borderline dingy. It'd make a great film noir detective office.
"How much is it? Seems a bit large for us."
"We're getting our first client signed up next week. We'll need room to hire a couple more people. You've worked wonders, the past two months, but we need a team."
"Shouldn't we get the money first?"
"Absolutely, but this is free now, and we need to decide if we want it, and if we do, we need to reserve it. Once the money is coming in, we can move in and start hiring."
There's a desk and a chair in one of the back rooms. The windows have grime on them. I pull a bottle of rye from my backpack, and two glasses. I pour the liquid, sit down on the chair, lift my feet on top of the desk, and pick up one of the glasses.
"What do you say, partner?"