Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Open Source Developer's Wife

When I was active in public relations for our software company, JBoss, I sometimes found myself in the awkward position of being mistaken for an engineer. Trying to engage in an elaborate discussion of how X works with me is pretty much equivalent to doing a strip-tease for a blind person. I don't care so much how X works; I'm more interested in what X can do for me. I'm not an engineer, I'm just married to one.

My 37th birthday is coming up and what I'd like most is for my husband to set up a separate blog for me on Blogger, archiving my posts on "Maison-Fleury" (I'll continue to cross-post on this blog), and my previous blog, "Objective Correlative, Confessions of a Wayward Academic and Would-be Propagandist," from Andy Oliver's Linux Integrators.

For his recent 40th birthday, Marc, dear old fashioned gentleman that he is, suggested I get a pair of DD, stripper-grade knockers. I declined. Ironically, it is going to be a lot harder for me to get blog help, than any sort of outrageous thing I could ask him to buy. He hates and resents being used as tech support, by the family. This results in the following sort of scenario: the children are threatening to spontaneously combust because their Disney movie won't play.

"Darling, could you please fix the DVD?"
"What are you going to do for me?"
"What I'm going to do for you is get your children to stop screaming."

Early in our marriage, I got an inkling of things to come. We lived in a studio apartment in Paris and were finishing our graduate degrees. We somehow had enough money to buy a Compaq computer. Soon, to my horror, my husband had gone off to the FNAC and bought himself some sort of dubious looking Linux distribution from a company named Keops or Cyclops. The guts of the computer were splayed across the carpet because he had decided to partition it, and all I could think was that he had completely invalidated our warranty and how in the hell was I going to write my master's thesis if that thing didn't work.

At the height of the tech boom and before JBoss, we lived in Silicon Valley. We had ordinary corporate jobs, and then Marc had an unsuccessful first company. Rent was high and there was a moment when our landlord sold our apartment. We had a fifty-pound bull terrier and our previous nothing special 1 1/2 bedroom apartment in Foster City, which I felt was ridiculously over-priced at $1700 was now going for something like $2200 a month and they wouldn't accept pets anymore. I wondered where we had gone wrong because it was impossible to find a place to rent and even more impossible to find a place that would take a 50 pound dog, and a place that will force you to give up your dog is a place that will suck the soul out of you. I was grateful to move to Atlanta. Silicon Valley felt like an industry town. It was rare to run into anybody who didn't work in software and everybody was comparing themselves and seeing how you measured up (which we didn't).

When we founded JBoss, we were young. We literally had nothing to lose. Marc complained a lot about work. At the time, it didn't seem like such a big risk to leave a corporate job. Anybody in the industry with reasonable skills (or without) could find an equivalent un-fulfilling job several months later, if things didn't pan out. I figured that nine months was reasonable to see if we could cover our expenses, expenses which became a lot lighter when we moved in with my parents.

In the early days I took care of the legal documents, accounting, setting up trainings, our economic life-blood for the first year or so, and basically dabbled in everything else that did not involve engineering. When we moved to Atlanta, our daughter was two. Initially I was going to look for part-time work and help Marc out with JBoss just until "things got off the ground." It quickly became apparent that no other job would provide me the flexibility, fun and pay-off we were seeing in JBoss.

Sales is one thing I've never been good at or enjoyed. We were fortunate enough to have our customers come to us and tell us what they wanted, but it soon became apparent we were leaving a lot of opportunities on the table, for lack of resources. it was a relief when we could hire Ben Sabrin. Having a full-time salesperson really paid off for us. The increased revenues also meant that I could concentrate more on public relations, which I headed until we sold JBoss to Red Hat. Before we had a marketing budget, we had a PR agency and a significant (for us) monthly PR retainer. However, PR, especially in a field like middleware, doesn't work in a vacuum. You have to have a product, customers and a story.

People used to ask us if were cash-flow positive. We couldn't have afforded to be anything else, having lost what savings we had in a previous unsuccessful company. With JBoss, we kept overhead under control, working mostly with consultants until our VC investment made it possible to hire more employees.

What is it like to work with your spouse? Maybe what made it work for us is that we've always worked in different fields, which minimizes the opportunities for friction. The downside of working with your spouse, when you're passionate about what you do, is that the borders between your personal and work life are very thin. We had to make an effort not to talk about work all the time. One day, I read a BusinessWeek article about my husband and JBoss that began with this "La-dee-dah, let's take a look at the demented Fleury family where their six year old daughter talks about whether or not IBM is after them on a Sunday morning" intro. I had gotten used to a certain amount of negative personal attacks in the online media, but it was very painful to have my children brought up in that context.

Selling the company was very hard. I don't think people can appreciate that unless they've done it. The attitude can be--just take your big ass divorce settlement and move on. However, when you're a creative person, it's difficult to give up control. You feel like you've sold your child upriver. JBoss had a very distinctive personality. We spent five years of our life building that company and were very close to so many of the people with whom we worked. We'd lived through a real roller coaster ride together. The difference between something and nothing can turn on a dime. You have a window of opportunity and you need to seize it. You need to make sure that all the struggles weren't for nothing and that you reward the people who've been loyal to you.

Back when we were struggling, I would occasionally run into or read about the Dot Com success stories. I remember thinking how these people were so full of themselves, so convinced that they had worked harder and were smarter than everybody else. The truth is that anybody with an ounce of perspective knows people who are smarter and have worked harder than themselves, people that didn't make it because the timing wasn't right or because of circumstances beyond their control.

We've been very lucky. In this New Year, I look back and am truly grateful for the opportunity we had, for the people we got to know and work with, and for the fun times we had together.

11 comments:

Roy Russo said...

"Anybody in the industry with reasonable skills (or without) could find an equivalent un-fulfilling job several months later, if things didn't pan out."

Boy, that sounds familiar.

Great post. I like the mix of Marc's economic charts and ramblings, with stories such as this one. The joint blog, I think, is good.

... and thanks for using basic 5th grade english on this post. This dumb kid from Miami can't follow your posts most of the time. ;-)

Nathalie said...

Hi Roy,
Glad you liked the post. That time (late nineties, early 2000) seems pretty far away, with the recent economic turmoil. I'm not actively working in the industry, so don't know things have been affected, but wish everybody luck and wanted to shed light on the details of our story.

For what it's worth the tech bust was ultimately good for us because companies that wouldn't have touched our product with a ten foot pole when the money was flowing, were suddenly willing to consider an upstart open source product.

Best,
Nathalie

Anonymous said...

We go into business, jump on the carousel and hang on for dear life. When the brass ring appears - you reach out to grab it, thinking "I'm going to take home the prize"! Few talk about realizing after grabbing the ring, the carousel stops and the music subsides. You start thinking "where's the next carousel"?.. followed shortly by, well - maybe I won't ride for awhile. For me that was one of life's toughest lessons. My wife and I are still adjusting after 9 years.. and now I'm looking for a roller coaster! Thanks for a great post, and greetings from SoCal.

Jean-Luc van Hulst said...

Insight full post!

Oh about Blogger. It's really _very_ easy since you're already blogger on blogger. Simply click on the "Create a blog" link in your Blogger Dashboard... ( http://www.blogger.com/create-blog.g )

Have fun!

Nathalie said...

Hi Anonymous from SoCal and Jean Luc,

As for digesting a past entrepreneurial experience, I think it's inevitable or at least a risk, if you're passionate about what you do, there's a certain amount of your identity that becomes wrapped up in your work. When the work is finished or doesn't turn out the way you expected, there's definitely a time of re-setting of bearings that has to go on.

Also, it's easy to become an adrenaline junkie, or maybe the field attracts that kind of personality. No matter how scary things look, you feel completely and thoroughly alive. In a perverse way the biggest crisis is preferable to the hum drum of ordinary, daily life.

Andreas Müller said...

Great post, Nathalie!

Nathalie said...

Thanks Andreas,
It's goofy to admit, but back in France and when we first arrived in Silicon Valley, before JBoss was even a spot on the horizon, I would read all these articles about successful entrepreneurs.

It was all this smug, self-referencing stuff along the lines of "deal-makers meet at Buck's in Woodside over pancakes," or "the hottest developers have been invited to Tim O'Reilly's annual genius
camp"..."The new ultra-rich. Think you've been
successful, here's a glimpse at people who can buy and sell you ten
times over. Only the most deluded rube would think he's somebody with
less than a billion dollars these days" or "Think you're hip? some
nineteen year old has just invented something that will completely
change the way we think about..."

I rented "Pirates of Silicon Valley," and actually went to some of these places I'd read about where "people who were changing the world" supposedly hung out, like some sort of suburban housewife taking the "Sex and the City" tour of New York--I actually got Marc to take me to Il Fornaio restaurant for our first wedding anniversary and was disappointed because it turned out to be some large, nothing special chain restaurant and nobody there exactly looked like they were changing the world.

Nothing I read actually gave me a sense of these people as real human
beings or any road map of practical (or random) things that had
contributed to their success.

This is meant as an antedote to that sort of literature, inspired by some Christmas letters we received and an offering to everybody out there who's struggling...real people, who get called crazy, who work in fields that the broader public doesn't view as hip or glamorous, who persist in doing their thing and following their vision.

Joel Jackson said...

Hi Nathalie.

You guys did build a great company. Ive been with RH 7yrs now, and a little after we bought JBOSS, RH's management sent me down to ATL to manage the inside sales team there. I spent about a year there and then got offered a field sales job....but I loved it. Great group of guys you had assembled there.

RH has probably bought 6-7 companies since Ive been here, but JBOSS was the only culture I wished we adopted more internally.

Have fun with life!

Bill Pyne said...

Love the mix of topics you guys cover.

Fantastic post. Is there a potential book on the real life struggles of startups? Perhaps taking Silicon Valley out of the mythic? It seems like there's plenty of material and, I'm sure, plenty of interesting personalities to make characters from.

fd said...

Ola Nathalie,

I am sure you have the talent to write a whole book about these years, not just this very interesting blog. It would be a very, very rich testimony of the 2000's with all the original view angles and tone that you can bring, namely because you and Marc are not traditional Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to say the least. I am convinced it would be a great book, for a lot of reasons.

As far as you being "lucky" with JBoss, yes, there is always a bit of luck in such adventures. But the talent that you and Marc brought to JBoss, combined with your energy and resilience, plus your ability to attract so many other talented people, is not luck. It's just why some people succeed and other fail. Like Alan Kay would have said, you did not try to predict the future back in 2000, you invented it...

Cheers!

Francois Dechery
PS: just saw that Bill Pyne had already suggested that you write a book!

Andrew C. Oliver said...

I don't know how Marc would look in those DDs :-)

Re: tech support, just say "I don't know windows" and leave it at that.