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Why I Quit Programming

On Thanksgiving Day, 1999, I quit programming. Just walked away. After nineteen years, I had enough. I was done.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

In 1990 I had a startup software company that I loved. It was called Frontline Software Technology. Now, Frontline was, by just about every conceivable business measure, a sad little enterprise. We were very small, we had a very small venue stream and we mostly got taken advantage of by everybody we dealt with. But that’s not what we were about.

Everyday, when we got up, we thought about our customers. We actually cared what they did with our software, what they thought about our software and what they thought about us. We realized pretty quickly that if even one of them walked away from us, we were doomed. So we bent over backwards, everyday, to keep them.

We added features on a daily basis, we shipped out new versions each day if need be (this was before the Internet), we dialed into their systems to debug problems. We worked with our customers to understand what they were doing when our software let them down. We knew our customers by name, memorized most of their telephone numbers, we knew what they did in their jobs because we talked so often. Each day was exciting because we were in the trenches delivering value to our customers.

And we were happy.

Fast forward nine years. Our little four person startup had morphed into a 150-person behemoth. We had a whole floor in a Chicago high-rise, we had outposts in London and Paris, we had sales reps spanning the globe. We had 40+ programmers, we had 24×7 support, we had three levels of management, we had HR and lawyers and all of that. And, oh yeah, our customers. Our customer base comprised the biggest telecom players in the world, both old and new.

And I was unhappy.

We no longer cared about the customer. They didn’t figure into the equation. Once you had spent your whole day dealing with the beast that was the organization, you had no time or incentive to even think about the customer. We existed because we existed, a perpetual motion machine, a mobius strip of human motivations.

I had started out as a programmer, moved to VP of engineering, went back to programming and then got out to do R&D. But just watching those last two years, as the customer faded further and further away from the daily conversation, became too much. We had gotten so far away from the Frontline days that I couldn’t take it anymore.

So on Thanksgiving, 1999, I exchanged my C++ compiler for an exercise bike and waited for the inevitable hammer that was the end of the dot-com era.

I’ve gone over all of this old ground for a reason. In my next post, I’ll tell you what it took for me to pick up my compiler again, and why I won’t be putting it down anytime soon.


One Comment

  1. John
    Jul 08, 2010

    Great article – can’t wait to read the next post!

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