Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Home is the Hangman

I returned home to Australia permanently right before Christmas of 2006.

I took some time to get reacquainted with my homeland, going on some roadtrips, attempting to surf (it had been so long that I had forgotten how poor a surfer I am) and generally getting my life in order. My final manager from ATB soft, Sherman, approached me about working remotely and after I didn't say no, a contract materialized in my email. I hedged and delayed for about six months until he retracted it: I didn't want to work for him anymore.

Soon I started applying for local jobs, and found it to be miserable: there was less work going than when I had left in 2001. The work there was less interesting than before, and salaries had been falling steadily while I was away. Meanwhile, the cost of living in Australia had been skyrocketing. It was ugly out there.

I did some meetings with various people. A friend of the family who wanted to start up a startup, some guys who worked for a bank. The startup was too nebulous for me to take seriously, and the bank guys basically told me I'd be bored stupid (but well paid) if I wound up working there. They described me as a 'technologist', while they themselves were... well, they didn't way what they were. Paycheque Cashologists, I guess.

I sent out some resumes, with little enthusiasm. The job I'd let go for ATBSoft was much more interesting than anything else I saw, but I couldn't bring myself to work for them again. I got some bites soon enough.

The first interview I did was for a big contracting company. I did well on the initial interview, but I flubbed the subsequent testing round: I hadn't done any kind of written test since leaving college and I was unusually nervous. I'd never been into a written test completely unprepared. I have a distinct memory of  opening the booklet with numb fingers and immediately being assailed by vertigo. I couldn't read a word of it! It took me a couple of minutes to realize that I had the booklet upside down. I think it's the only test I've ever flunked.

I did another interview for a small company, Outerlink,  who did most of their business in specialized hardware. The software that ran on top of it was a fairly vanilla client-server RDBMS system, much like the one I'd worked on at my first job, and the people there seemed like nice, competent guys. I did very well on the test and I suspected I would get an offer when the manager decided to show me around the premises afterwards, with special attention given to the coffee machine.

Outerlink soon called me back and asked me to a second interview, so that the owners of the company could meet me. Again, pleasant and competent guys (one technical, one not). The technical one of them became a bit obsessed by cultural differences between working in the US and Australia.  I actually had to give a formal answer to the question: "Do you eat pizza?" Of course I answered "yes." I do like pizza, although it has never been a staple of my diet. I am a meat-and-potatoes man, and pizza is mostly dairy.

I became dispirited with the process, and winter was coming. A vagabond friend of mine persuaded me to travel up to Byron Bay with him for a week of sun, surfing and girl-chasing. On the second day I badly sprained an ankle, which put paid to the latter activities. I was looking lying on the sand, looking out at the waves, and finally starting to relax a bit when Outerlink called me on my cellphone to offer me a job. With a heavy heart I accepted. They invited me to come in and sign the contracts, and the said that I should have a look at the codebase first to see what I was getting myself into. That gave me some misgivings, but I told them I would be in later in the week when I returned to Melbourne.

The contracting firm called me to tell me that I had almost made it, but not quite, and to wish me luck. I told them I had already accepted an offer. I went out to Outerlink and we took care of the contracts. I refused their offer to check out the codebase first: I needed work, and I knew that if it was truly horrible I would have to refuse.

The same day I received a call from a recruiter who had lined up an interview for me with a video games company. This, finally, was an opportunity that I was excited about. New technology, fun projects. The recruiter warned me about long hours and low pay, but I said I was prepared to accept that. And I was.

I went to the interview on a Friday. I would, years later, discover than one of the guys who tested me there as an infamously brilliant and mental boy-genius fixture of the Australian games dev world, but he seemed like an okay guy in the interview. Not only did I do well in there, but I had fun talking to the guys about the process and particularly about the technology, and I think it showed. When they asked me what kind of salary I was expecting, I told them that I had an offer on the table already, and for how much. I knew it was high for a games developer, but it didn't feel particularly high compared to what I had been making in the US and I figured we could use it as a starting point as they bargained me down.

As soon as I said the number it felt as if the air had been sucked out of the room. They thanked me for my time and I was swiftly ejected from the building.

I had the weekend left and then it was back into the trenches: my first day with Outerlink would be the following Monday. I was already bored.

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