Thursday, 27 July 2006

The Meeting that Changed my Life

Well, I spent a little more time over lunch yesterday reading some of the archived entries in the blog of La Petite Anglaise. Whilst she doesn't have a spectacular story to tell, there is nevertheless that "something" in her musings which makes it worth going back for more. Plus of course there is the general idyll (at least from a third party's perspective) of somebody who "ups-sticks" from England and goes to live in one of the most wonderful cities in the world.

It is one of those blogs which is so well written that you feel you're getting to know the person - a real "who I am". I suspect my own blog confines itself to "what I did" without going too much into the "who" part, and is probably not as good a read as a result.

One of this woman's entries was about how she'd met her boyfriend, and so it occurred to me that I could talk a little about my history, what I've done in my life and how I ultimately came to meet Jacqueline.
Well, I spent roughly the first half of the nineties in my first job, living in Oxford. I grew to hate the confinements of the job and as a consequence remember it as a pretty unfulfilling time. I had a couple of relationships but none (as far as I was concerned) was serious. Going nowhere.

In 1994 I got my "big break" work-wise, when I managed to find a job in IT for a very prestigious software house. Since I hadn't come from an IT background I was naturally full of trepidation, and initially somewhat concerned as to whether I'd "cut the mustard". To my surprise I found that not only could I do the job, but I could do the job pretty darned well. I got into not just programming but leading projects and doing project management stuff, and this whetted my appetite. My social life completely tailed off, since I was regularly putting in 13-hour working days - I remember I frequently used to fall asleep in the pub on Fridays, people thought I was drunk - but work-wise things were going great.

Trouble was, I'd got a taste for project management but there was limited scope at this software house. First and foremost I was a programmer to them. So eventually I started looking...

The next job was something of a rollercoaster. Lots more money and performing the role I wanted to do, this place was an internet startup in the very early days of the internet (1995, before Microsoft had even released a usable version of Internet Explorer!), peddling a B2B application. Plus I got to go and work in the US on and off for a year. Massive buzz, long hours, but in retrospect it was very stressful and put me off managing projects (or more specifically, managing people) for good, and made me a lot wiser to marketers peddling what was essentially vapourware.

This was literally one of those life-changing jobs. The company started off with venture capitalist backing, but the guys fronting the company were sufficiently good salesmen that they managed to hook Barclaycard, obviously a massive name - this is a good indicator or just how slick these guys were, and what the market conditions were at the time. Now, all we had to do was develop the solution... In came the unrealistic promises/deadlines - all the kind of stuff that 10 years' more experience you'd either walk away from, or at the very least turn around and say "you're not paying me enough for this shit".

Not content with the Barclaycard coup, these guys got themselves contacts at Chase Manhattan, and the push was on to corner the US market also. In fact, it was to drive this push technically that I spent a lot of time over there. We started off, around February '96, working from the offices of the venture capitalists, just outside Washington, DC (close to Dulles). Terrible place, completely put me off the USA. Bleak highways interspersed with housing estates and shopping malls. No kind of hub at all, very much "The 'Burbs".
Then, as things with Chase firmed up, the location got moved down to Tampa, Fl, where Chase had a massive facility (so too did the Yankees!). This was more like it. Wonderful climate, plus a city with a bit of history (I loved it in Ybor). Since it was obvious that these guys would need to recruit for their new US operation (and since it was clear that the US operation would be the main operation), I made it known that I'd be interested, they duly picked up on it, offered me the Head of Development role, and we got the lawyers involved to finalise the visa etc.

It was during this time in Florida that I started going on business trips up to New York City. Now, there was a place I grew to love. My kinda town! Plus I was working (or at least going to meetings) on Wall St itself. We were dealing more and more closely with Chase, and it soon became clear that they had placed quite some importance on the joint venture - they pressured the company to make its base in New York as opposed to Tampa. Of course, this was everyone's route to riches, and nobody was going to say "No" to Chase.

And that's how I ended up in New York. As I said, I loved the place. Chase had just taken over Chemical at the time so we got one of their old offices on Water Street, right on the waterfront at the southern tip of Manhattan. We even got ourselves installed in apartments (I'd grown to hate hotels) in Battery Park City, allowing us to walk to work each morning (ironically right through the World Trade Center complex). A wonderful time.

However, things weren't to last. The time got close when I would cease to be an employee of a UK company travelling over to the USA on business, and would become a genuine US employee. It was just before christmas '96, and all the visas had come through. Everything was clear. However my world shattered when, in a meeting with the chairman of the company, I was given the formal job offer and told that it would be on the same terms as had been talked about in Florida. Now, the cost of living in NYC is about the highest in the USA, and (according to some pretty definitive web sites) was around 3.5 that of Tampa. In real terms, this meant that the beachfront apartment and the Porsche which I'd costed in Florida would actually equate to a shared house/apartment, probably not even in Manhattan. We'd been in New York long enough to become acquainted with the work environment there - basically, anyone who was any good was a contractor, and anybody who wasn't a contractor was literally considered to be technically deficient in some way. And, we knew that a contractor could easily pull $1000 per day. So, that's what I asked for. Three times what was offered to me. I remember the guy (who had been totally pleasant until that moment) glaring at me as I was talking to him. I suppose it didn't help that about four other guys in exactly the same position as me had said exactly the same thing to him - well, of course we'd talked about it.

So that was the meeting that changed my life. The rest, as they say, is history. I flew back to the UK a couple of days before Christmas, a planned visit to say Hi to family etc. and also to move out of the house I'd been sharing in Oxford, and settled back to wait. In the end I spoke with one of the directors, who was the guy who'd originally hired me all that time ago and who was someone with whom I'd gelled quite well. As I'd thought, I'd pissed the chairman off so much that the offer had been rescinded. Still, I needn't worry in the short term because there would still be some handover work, which I could do as a consultant rather than as an employee. The first time it was discussed it was three months, then one month, then one week....

Of course, in the end nothing came of any of it, and my US experience was consigned to my memory banks. Do I ever wonder, "what if?". Well of course I do, but I think life since coming back from the USA has been pretty good to me, so I really can't complain.

The one thing I did have on my side was money, since basically for most of the previous year I had been living on expenses. fortunately this allowed me to bide my time and to set up my own consultancy company, waiting for the contracts to come along. Again, at the back of my mind there was always this fear that I wouldn't make it (plus I had to accept that as I consultant I would have to be far more "hands on" technically than I had been as a manager). However, providence obviously played a part, because within about a month of realising that nothing was going to come of any consultancy work with my former employers, I had secured a six-month contract with IBM (whose strongest selling point was that IBM is a great name to have on a cv!).

Since returning from the USA I had been staying up with my mum in Liverpool (I must chat about my deeper past someday!), but the contract with IBM was just outside Winchester. At that time, I thought it totally inconceivable that I could live anywhere other than in a large city, so a couple of weeks before the contract was to start I checked out a map and headed to the nearest urban area within striking distance of the contract.
And that's how I ended up in my ultimate batchelor pad, a lovely little place in the prestigious waterfront area of Southampton.

But talking about that and my adventures on the south coast will have to wait until another time...

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