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Signs and Portents; or All Zung Out
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jducoeur
I haven't been talking much lately. Sorry about that -- work has been sucking my brain, and a lot of it has been stuff I couldn't talk about. In general, saying publically, "I have a nasty feeling we may be going out of business" is a fine way to ensure that you do, so I've simply kept quiet. Today was the end, and it has been really kinda fascinating. This is long, but I need a good diary entry now.

Just before Thanksgiving, it became clear that Zingdom per se was at its end: the investors, quite reasonably, wanted out. We had a fabulous team, and (IMO) an idea with major promise, but it just wasn't what they had signed on for. There was a potential suitor for us to talk to; if that didn't happen promptly, we were probably heading for shutdown.

Yesterday was The Big Conversations -- the CTO of the unnamed suitor came over, and spent a good long time talking individually with me, Tony and Alex. We were really the only people left: Onur (the fourth engineer) was on his way out the door. So we spent over an hour each talking about us, and them, and what each company was like, and all of our expectations. We came out of it none too sanguine: while they didn't look like a terrible company, the fit wasn't great -- Tony felt that the technology didn't fit, Alex felt the processes didn't, and I felt that the strategies didn't. At the end of the day, Chris (our CTO and effectively the head of the company as we saw it) sent an email around saying that we would be talking about "next steps" in the morning. It wasn't clear whether the "next steps" were talking more deeply with the suitors, or arranging a shutdown.

Well, I got up this morning, went to exercise as usual -- and the episode that was up next to watch was The Inner Light. That pretty much answered my question: I can recognize a Portent when it slaps me in the face. For those who don't know ST:TNG, this is one of the best episodes of the series, but also one of the most melancholy. It's a story about the inevitability of fate, the need to both defy it as much as you can and face up to it when you must, and the fact that a bit of our essence can live on after a fashion, if we remember the lessons of life and pass them on. Beautiful stuff, but by the end of the episode I was pretty clear on what I was going to hear when I got in.

The meeting went as expected: Chris told us that the Board had decided to shut things down, effective today. The company won't formally go out of business for months yet, since we still have affairs to unwind, but nearly everybody was getting laid off. Disappointing, but not surprising to anyone. The complex question, particularly for me, is whether the project we've been on for the past two months -- code-named Salon, and Spark, and a bunch of other things depending on who you ask -- can continue. I'm quite passionate about it, and interested in either finding a buyer for the IP (so we can keep going), or starting anew and doing it myself.

The day was something of a whirlwind after that: all of us packing up, me making one or two last tweaks to the product (because there is still something to demo there, and I want to be able to do that), Tony putting it up on the public server, all of us negotiating prices for our laptops with the CFO, me writing up a prospectus for those lovely infrastructure libraries we've been writing, and of course, everyone swapping contact information. I wound up working a full day, getting out at about 5:30 with a full car.

And then I went to pick up my comics, down at Outer Limits. I've been buying my comics from Steve forever -- something like 20 years now -- so I mentioned that I had lost my job. I then mentioned that I was thinking of going it on my own, and how scary it was, and Steve agreed. I started to talk more about the scariness -- I have *always* worked for other people, and the idea of creating my own company for my own vision is slightly terrifying -- when I realized that Steve wasn't actually agreeing with me about *what* was scary. He's always run his own shop, and from his point of view the scary thing is working for others, who can lay you off for their own reasons. Bless him, it was exactly the perspective I needed at that moment: the realization that what I was contemplating isn't necessarily all that much scarier than what I've always done.

So the high points:
  • Yes, I'm now unemployed.

  • Yes, they gave us some severance -- not vast amounts, but enough to provide some continuity.

  • No, I'm not really looking for random programming jobs right now. I appreciate the requests for resumes and offers of leads, but honestly: if it's not in the social-networking-ish space, it's not what I'm looking for this month.
The thing is, I've been focused on social tools for, what, a dozen years now? I was using the term "social tools" long before it was fashionable. I've been doing socially-oriented programming since about '93, and doing it exclusively since '95. Heck, I wrote a patent (fortunately never submitted) on social networking back in 2000. So from my POV, the world has finally caught up with me -- the stuff that I love most, and am so passionate about, is suddenly hot. So I need to see what I can do there.

I'm going to talk to a few companies: it's possible that the right alignment might happen. But for now, I'm assuming that I'll probably need to create something myself this time. And the emphasis is on "need". Honestly, I'm a little burned out on coding for people who I don't think understand this space quite as well as I do: most of them have been smart, but most have been viewing all this social stuff as an interesting way to make money, not as a passion. They don't *care* about it so much, and they haven't really studied it.

So I think it's time to put my money where my mouth is, at least a bit -- time to follow my vision, and try to create something. It's a pain in the ass losing the Zingdom IP: besides the six weeks we put into the application, the Ea libraries are truly a thing of beauty, and I'll miss them, because they make app development so much faster and smoother. Overall, it'll probably cost me two months, and the market windows are probably tight. But I've got an idea between my teeth, and I have to chew on it.

Perhaps the most important high point -- no, I'm really not down about this. I'm annoyed at losing our headstart, but at least we now have resolution: more than anything, the uncertainty was making me bugfuck, swinging between elation at how fast we were making progress and depression that it could end at any moment. Well, now it's ended, but I still have that flute in my hand, and by God I *do* know how to play it.

There'll be self-doubt tomorrow: worries about whether I'm right, whether I can afford this, whether I'm just being self-indulgent. But for tonight, having a new direction actually feels pretty damned good...
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I've actually been planning to pull you in for kibitzing, as soon as I have something concrete enough to be worth it. You're one of a number of people on my flist who have relevant expertise and might find the project fun.

Really, the first steps are only a *little* bit innovative, making community communication within Facebook suck less horribly than it does now. There's one key idea that will go in early that is fairly radical, trying to mix up-tempo and down-tempo inside a single conversation, and that will need a lot of tweaking and tuning. Going multi-modal is in the plans as soon as it's practical to do so, but I may need backing before that is possible, for business reasons. But really, step one is allowing FB and MySpace users to do some of the things that LJ users take for granted.

But the longer-term objective is expansive: leveraging social networks to serve their implicit and explicit communities more effectively. I've only begun to scratch the surface of that idea, but I'm convinced that there's a lot of potential meat there. Even LJ, which in some ways is ahead of the game, is still publication-focused. My thesis -- and we'll see if I'm right -- is that *conversations* are really the most important part: that the "comments" are every bit as central as the main post in many cases, and that a tool designed for that purpose is a little different from the way LJ works.

(God, it's nice not having to live in stealth mode any more. It's just not my style...)

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Yaas -- you come at this from a much more rigorous background than I, and it would be interesting to get your insights on it. I have a strong instinctive understanding, but can't say I've studied computer-mediated conversation the way you have...

Well, it sucks that the company you had high hopes for has collapsed, but it's good to see that you're taking the positives from it.

Good luck and go kick some social networking ass.

Sounds like you're in a good place, mentally. Change is scary as hell, but can also be more fun than imagined. Good luck, my friend!

Now hat you're feeling free to follow your own direction, I hope it works out for you, and I'm curious to see where you go with it.

I hope you're able to continue your work in this area. It sounds interesting. (And I agree: the thing that makes LJ superior to other blogging sites is the ease of conversing in comments. That's major.)

If there are IP issues, can you buy the IP? If they're folding anyway, that might not be a ridiculous idea.

It's within the realm of possibility, but not likely. I've talked vague numbers with the CTO, and it looks like the minimum the Board would accept at this time is more than I can readily afford. I suspect that number will come down with time, but probably not fast enough for my purposes.

We'll see. The Ea libraries were a thing of beauty, and I hope that *somebody* winds up making use of them. They are trying to shop the IP around now, so it's yet possible that something could materialize, but this tends not to work. If it doesn't, I'm hoping I can at least talk the Board into open-sourcing the libraries, so that others can use them...

Yes, "The Inner Light" is one of the most wonderful TNG episodes. And good luck with whatever you're doing. You're amazing; I'm sure you'll come up with something.

(And it really is good that someone other than the teenagers has figured out that the comments are the most interesting part- because the adults can actually go and do something with that. At least, ones in your position can.)

Good luck. Social networking is still a decent vertical to be in. I see lots of jobs offered on LinkedIn and new ones are popping up every day. Let me know if you need any introductions though you probably know most everyone in the space.

Actually, I *don't* know many of the people in the space, oddly. I've been doing this sort of thing for a long time, but I've bounced so far around the industry that I don't know the movers and shakers especially well anywhere.

The main problem, really, is that I'm dedicated to Boston, and this business is still pretty centered in the Valley. If I do manage to get something up and running myself, I suspect that I'll find myself flying out there more than a few times...

Although we are not in the "social" space (thank goodness - I've never been good at "social"): Pega is hiring. Please remember if you need us, and also tell your co-workers.

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