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Overload Journal #45 - Oct 2001 + Journal Editorial   Author: John Merrells

I find myself lacking a burning software engineering issue to bang on about in this editorial. So I shall subject you to a random collection of thoughts and comments until I fill the requisite space.

Computer Literacy: A chain of technical bookshops in the bay area named Computer Literacy has just closed its doors. This is a great shame as they were a great place to pick up weird and eclectic engineering textbooks. It's doubly sad as they were kindly hosting the ACCU-USA monthly meeting, and they carried our newsletter in all their stores. [accu-usa] Their stumble came when they set up a website called Fatbrain to sell books online. [fatbrain] Their costs soared competing against the online book-selling giants and in the end they were forced to sell out to Barns and Noble to survive.

Printers Ink: Another independent purveyor of strange books and magazines has finally folded. They limped along for a couple of years after benefactors stepped in to prop them up a little longer. They finally capitulated and closed all but the Mountain View store, which Books Inc took over with a renegotiated lease, and an inventory limited to the mainstream. [ace-interview]

Liar's Poker: Michael Lewis, an American journalist and author, wrote the book 'Liar's Poker' from first hand experience of 1980's Wall Street. It's an amusing account of his failure to become a big-swinging-dick of the bond trading world. [Lewis] His most recent book, 'The New New Thing', is a biography of Jim Clark, the Stanford Professor who went on to found Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon. Lewis became obsessed with what drives Clark to invent, build and abandon his creations. After losing control of SGI to its financial backers Clark set out to redress the balance of power from the money men to the engineers. [Lewis-Jim-Clark]

Economics: The economy of Silicon Valley was bad, and now it's getting worse. New investment from both venture funds and big companies has dried up. American enterprises live and die by their quarterly results, and with every dismal earnings announcement comes another round of layoffs. The flabby overcapacity built up in the booming internet years has long since been cast aside, now they're down to making hard choices about what's a core business and what's a non-essential accessory. The balance of power has flipped back from the engineers to the money managers.

Death of a dot com: In the new harsh environment of 'reality' my own new new thing just hit the wall. The third round money was raised, but the founders refused to sign the deal. They chose to own a big chuck of nothing instead of a small piece of something. Sigh. Anyone want to buy some intellectual property?

Interviewing: And so I've been out there interviewing, and it hasn't been much fun. A year ago the modus operandi was to contemplate what you'd like to work on, find companies that were doing that, pick the market leader, email the VP of engineering, negotiate a deal, reject the counter offer from your current employer, and start next Monday morning. Now job openings are scarce, the recruitment process is excruciating, and the competition is stiff. Managers are looking for people with very specific skill sets and background experience. They want people who have done exactly the same job before. There's not much learning opportunity in that.

Puzzles: I've had to relearn white board programming, and how to answer dumb logic puzzles. I find that my day job exercises neither of these skills. Ask me about using a pair of scales to identify the odd ball out from a bag of twelve using only three comparisons, and a say 'who cares'. Ask me about how to enthuse and empower a troublesome QA department and I'll wax lyrical about the wonders of automated testing. Do logic puzzles make people who can define, architect, design, implement, test, and deliver a product? Do crossword puzzles make writers? Nope. (Is this just me being crusty? I actually managed to answer the dumb logic puzzle correctly, but rejected the company on the grounds of giving me a lame and unimaginative interview. If you'd like to study and memorise the most commonly trotted out puzzles you'll find them listed on the web. [ace-interview])

Homework: I've been working from home the past month, but I'm being troubled by demons. They're tormenting me with all the alternative fun things I could be doing instead of work. I'm happily working away, deep in thought, and next thing I know I'm under a piece of furniture playing with the cat, or standing in front of an open refrigerator about to place a spoonful of peanut butter into my mouth.

Library: They can't get to me at the local city library, as they have no cats or refrigerators there. (In the USA the definition of a city is somewhat less stringent than in the UK. Mountain View has a population of only 75,000 people. Back home you'd need a cathedral and a note from the Queen.) Phrases that come to mind when I think library are: large print Mills and Boon romance novels, a strange musty smell, radiators leaking rusty water, books about Ashton Tate dBase 4, VisiCalc, and WordStar. But these do not apply to Mountain View City Library, oh no, for it has: A network port for every seat! Superb air-conditioning! Conference rooms for hire! And I think they have books too. [mtnview]

References

[Lewis] 'Liar's Poker', Michael Lewis.

[Lewis-Jim-Clark] 'The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story', Michael Lewis.

[Merrells] Overload 30, Editorial - Books, John Merrells.

Overload Journal #45 - Oct 2001 + Journal Editorial