Caveat: My children are surfing the Internet playing with virtual fish as I write this.
Just finished reading Nick Hornby’s screenplay for “An Education”. As an aspiring playwright, I especially enjoyed the introductory section where Hornby tells the story of making this movie based on Lynn Barber’s autobiographical essay about her affair with a shady older man at the beginning of the 1960s.
Hornby points out the challenge in rewriting a memoir where a woman in her sixties writes about her sixteen year-old self. The point of a memoir is to be as smart as possible about one’s younger self. Meanwhile, “in a screenplay, you have to deny the character that insight otherwise there’s no drama, just a character understanding herself and avoiding mistakes.”
This made me think about episodes in my life that contributed to my “Education,” and the distance between the woman I am today and the naïve girl I was when I graduated from college. As I raise my own children, I wonder how to impart some of this acquired knowledge to them, so they can avoid the painful mistakes I made.
Children Interrupt: “Mommy can I make my bed and fold my pajamas for the rest of the year so I can earn $29 to buy some virtual fish and pearls?
Me: “No, but what you can do is think about ways to get a bunch of children around the world to ask their parents for money to buy things that don’t even exist. That’s a smart person who came up with that idea.”
Situation upon graduating from college
Graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude from Wellesley with honors degree in English literature.
Applicability and use of this degree in finding real world employment (in my particular case): None.
Sales and Trading job in Global Derivatives:
Failed this recruiting interview at a major international bank based on not being able to tell the department head a convincing story about how “street smart” I was. Not knowing what a derivative was probably didn’t help either, especially after lying about how “motivated I was” to get the job/find gainful employment/not go back home and live with my parents. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who didn’t know what a derivative was…
Thereafter, became extremely preoccupied with how to remedy the street smart situation, or more practically, convince other people I had remedied it.
Had to rely on family connections to get this job…was fired after 3 months for, among other failings: “talking while stuffing envelopes” and “forgetting the Xerox color-coding scheme for hand-outs.” The ambiance was straight out of the 1960s Mad Men secretarial pool, staffed by young girls from good families biding their time before marriage and housewives bored with the Junior League. Legendary was the Milf who dressed to emphasize her legs and décolletage as she leaned towards male chief executives at the moment of the crucial ask, imploring them to “think of the children.”
Most useful piece of information learned there—“always send hand-written envelopes with real stamps, girls, when you want to look classy and have strangers read your mail.” Whilst your vulgar (or more honest) operator might actually sleep with the client, a society lady, with well-honed skills, plays on your narcissism, vanity and social ambitions to clean you out. Hopefully it’s for a good cause. Least useful piece of information learned there: listening to The Head talk about all the fun things she did with her friend, The Billionaire. “The very rich are very different.”
Even then, I knew: no they’re not. They just don’t give a shit. Lots of very poor people don’t give a shit either and are “very different” too. The middle class, however, are most definitely not “very different” because they’re typically obsessed with what people think of them and studying the mores of their superiors in hopes of moving up the social ladder.
After disastrous fund-raising geisha experience, temped as actual replacement secretary for partners at (what was then) Big Six Accounting and Consulting. Was a big hit because I did not talk to my boyfriend on the phone, smack gum or put my feet on the desk. One Managing Partner of Tax was particularly impressed with me because I came up with the brilliant idea of sorting his mail. Also had to listen to him ask me if “my parents could spell” because my name had an “h” in it. Did not feel it was worth my time to explain that my maternal grandparents grew up in France or that other languages and cultures have other ways of spelling things.
What I learned: If I ever wanted to find out the real dirt on what is going on at a company or what certain people are like, I would definitely ask the secretaries.
Mutual Fund Report Writer:
First real job I got was as a writer for a financial company, editing the annual reports for their mutual funds. The department head who hired me was straight out of Mad Men/had been the head of creative for a major SF ad agency at an earlier point in his life. He hired me because I could write, read books, liked to discuss literature and because he had fond memories of dating Wellesley girls when he got his (never-to-be-used) degree at Harvard Law.
Memorable moment in job: telling billion dollar fund manager that Humpty Dumpty was perhaps not the best metaphor for the currently depressed stock that he expected to rebound because “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men never could put Humpty back together again.”
Grateful for: fun colleagues and wonderful second boss, former school teacher and published poet who showed me that women don't have to undermine each other in the workplace, and that you can be an effective boss without being a total hardass.
Realization: Unless you’re J.K Rowling, writing ability and familiarity with children’s stories are relatively low paying skills. On the other hand, managing OPM (other people’s money) is a great paying job, but only a fool would pay me to do that.
1998: Possibility: Marc would probably have happily built JBoss at Sun Microsystems for a 40% increase in his Pre-Sales Engineer salary and conferral of “Distinguished Engineer” title. Reality: It was impossible to build JBoss at Sun at that time, even more so for a low-level employee with non-established credentials.
Marc meets founders of WebLogic at JavaOne. They ask him if Sun is still the same fucked up company it used to be. He interviews for job at WebLogic, but this goes nowhere because they are bought by BEA and their hiring is frozen.
Our discussion about Marc leaving his job to become an entrepreneur:
“You’re going to leave a secure job with health care and benefits to write free software? If you are going to put all those hours into something, why not something that will enhance our future and pay for the baby’s college education?”
Ultimately, it was quit his job or go to therapy and pay somebody else to listen to how much he hated his job.
Realization: You have to really suck to not be able to find an equivalent, non-fulfilling job a year later if things don’t work out. In that case, you’re no worse off than you were before, but at least you’ve gotten the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” thing out of your system.
1999: Marc leaves to work on JBoss and receives a 300% salary increase for non-JBoss related software consulting in that period. Comment from a friend and former colleague about his desire to work as a software developer: “You’re moving down the food chain.”
2000: “This is not just a bad business plan, this is a horrible business plan:” Doug Leone, Sequoia Capital.
2001: Marc’s first start-up attempting to commercialize JBoss fails. My husband and I, along with our child and dog, move in with my parents. Marc comments to our lawyer at the time: “We’re the original garage company.” Lawyer replies: No you’re not. You’re the original in-law’s garage company.”
I decide to help him until he gets his feet off the ground, but wind up staying because the momentum really picks up.
2002: Twins are born, home office gets small. We look for office space as part of Georgia Tech’s ATDC Incubator program. ATDC’s response: “JBoss is a consulting company. VC’s don’t invest in consulting companies’ ergo a VC will never invest in you, so you’re not a fit for us.” We get outside office space elsewhere.
2004: We’re still not sure we want them, but top VC firms, attracted by JBoss’s user community and growing business, compete to invest in us. No VC would touch us with a 10-foot pole in 2000 when we had an early stage product and a company that was bleeding overhead. If they had, they would have bought us for pennies on the dollar and we ultimately would have gotten very little equity.
We built JBoss on our own because we have no other option and because it’s “fun to blow shit up” and beat down a billion dollar industry, especially if you can figure out how to get people to pay you to do this and make money that is good for you, whilst laughably small for your fat, established competitors.
Lesson learned: “banks only lend to the rich. Them that has ‘gits.”
David Mamet’s definition of street smart (referring to his Hollywood screenwriting work): “the moment when you’ve been seduced and abandoned sufficiently to tire of it.”
Am I more street smart now? Yes, this is because I’m older and I’ve actually been on the metaphorical “street”.
It occurs to me that the only people who are sufficiently sharp to be street smart without painful experiences are the motherfuckers who are always dreaming up ways to screw over other people first, so they’re super savvy at anticipating how other people plan to screw them.
When you are nobody, with no money and no connections and want to break into an established industry and do things differently you can expect to hear two things: “Who the fuck do you think you are. Piss off.”
Interested in being an entrepreneur? Re-read, the children’s story: The Little Red Hen. The only point anybody wants to “help” you is when it’s time to eat the bread.
Painful Learning Experience: The first partnership contract we signed at JBoss paid us on the basis of production sales of the partners’ software with clients of theirs who also ran JBoss. After several months without getting a check, we looked up their sales structure and realized this particular company didn’t sell production licenses; they sold development licenses.
Realization: Otherwise smart people are particularly prone to falling for low-level cons because it never occurs them that people would take advantage of them in such an obvious way. To this day, I still wonder what advantage these people thought they would obtain by pretending to pay us something as opposed to the ill-will they were going to generate when we figured out what they were up to. The irony: we weren’t even expecting money at that point, we were just were happy to be seen with them…
Growing up/getting more savvy: Being excluded from giving talks at JavaOne, realizing Sun had locked down all the conference space in San Francisco that week, realizing that it never occurred/was not feasible for them to lock down the bar across the street and holding our first alternative JBoss One conference at the Thirsty Bear. Handing out flyers for our conference at Moscone center and being treated like unwanted panhandlers/agitators by Sun’s Key 3 Media lackeys.
Realizing that a normal pass to get into JavaOne cost $1000, but press passes are free: Finding sympathetic editors and becoming the “boat people” of J2EE article publishing the three months before the conference—with multiple authors per article.
Possible advice to children? Per Neal Stephenson’s marine-raider and all-round badass Bobby Shaftoe in Cryptonomicon: “Display Adaptability.”
Ability to effectively transmit the benefits of my experiences to children without them actually experiencing any of this for themselves? Unresolved.
Advice My Mother Gave Me
Most useless advice (transmitted from her mother's memories of house parties in the French countryside in the post-war years): "When you stay at other people's houses make sure you scrub out the bathtub, sink and toilet after you have used them. Don't assume the servants are there to do this for you. They will be reporting any negligence in your personal hygiene back to Madame. Oh, and always tip the servants.
Advice I use most frequently: (my mother worked for many years as a chef and restaurant manager): Always angle your knuckles, on the hand that you are holding the food with, away from the knife when you're slicing. Always serve things that you can re-heat at the last minute when you have large numbers of guests.
Advice my mother gave me that I'm still trying to figure out: An object should either be beautiful or useful.