Sunday, 25 December 2011

Dude, Where's My Car?

I needed a new job. The IT business was booming over in the US and relatives were beginning to ask me when I would be opening my own startup and raking in those easy VC millions. This was December of the year 2000. I didn't want to start up on my own, but I'd been to the US a couple of times and I wanted to go there. The US was the real world.

I was bored with Tigerland. I was bored with database programming; I felt like I'd been there and done that. What I really wanted to do was graphics programming, so I bought an OpenGL textbook and started to teach myself some new tools. 3D was a lot easier with real libraries than it had been at University. I took my 3D projects with me to work and I worked on them at lunch time, much to Meggs' chargrin. It was quite obvious that the code I was playing with had nothing to do with Tigerland's business.

I had also started looking into what it would take to get me over to the US. An H1B skilled worker visa seemed to be the trick. I found an ad in the IT section of the Age newspaper (in a few years' time this section would be discontinued, and IT jobs would vanish almost entirely from Melbourne's biggest broadsheet newspaper). They were looking for programmers who wanted to work in the USA, so I sent in a resume. A couple of days later I received a phonecall inviting me to interview.

I called in sick on the scheduled day, put on my suit, and went in to the temporary office from which the Americans were conducting interviews.

The receptionist gave me a questionnaire to fill out. The only question I remember from it was "What is the minimum salary you are prepared to work for?" I knew roughly what that should be, so I answered it truthfully. Stupidly.

The Americans turned out to be a pair of Indians. The interview turned out to be piss easy. A C++ test that was much easier than the Tigerland test and some verbal long-answer questions about broader topics, like multiple inheritance. I breezed through it.

The company was a big contracting firm based in Silicon Valley. The Americans sold it to me pretty hard--the lifestyle, the location. "Oh, you like SCUBA diving? There's amazing diving in California." They told me all about the benefits: medical, dental, a relocation bonus... I was pleased, but in the back of my mind, there was doubt. There was a used car salesman vibe to the whole thing. I just didn't trust them.

The Americans' offer letter went into the mail the next day. A complete package: contracts, visa paperwork, the whole nine yards. The offer was for that minimum salary I had indicated. There was no relocation bonus in the contract and a few other promises were also missing. The Americans called me and asked me if I would accept it. Salary was not negotiable. They claimed that the missing contract items were in fact there. I told them I was thinking about it.

I rechecked the contract. The missing clauses were definitely not there. I had, meanwhile, been reading about the cost of living in Silicon Valley and I was becoming worried about it. One article spoke of a how the mayor of one of the municipalities there had had to resign because he couldn't afford to live there any longer. A friend of mine who lived in the States who and had some experience with budgeting crunched some numbers for me, and it looked as if I could scrape by on my non-negotiable salary... barely.

I wanted to go, but I didn't trust the company and I really couldn't afford Silicon Valley. I told them no. They tried hard to change my mind, but not so hard that they offered me more money. I walked away from the table... (my willingness to do this has been at various times an asset and a liability, across the intervening span of my career)... but now I had a plan.

It had been  ridiculously easy to get that job offer, I reasoned, and I hadn't even left home. How many more opportunities would I find if I actually went over there in person?

I was going to do it, early in the new year. I figured how much money I thought I would need to go over there prospecting and calculated a departure date based on that. I remember doing that quite vividly. I was by myself, walking down the street at lunch time. The sky was blue and I would soon be free.

Amos was back in town and the talk was that he was thinking about coming back, if there was room for him. I went to the technical director and I said told him that I was planning to leave, in case it had any bearing on whether he would hire Amos back or not. He did not seem surprised.

I went back to work. The days passed. I worked hard to close off everything that was assigned to me. Meggs didn't talk to me any more than he had to, and that was fine.

A few weeks later the MD invited me to the pub at lunch time and told me that Meggs had instructed him to dissuade me from leaving. He offered me money. I told him that my decision was made. I was going to the US. I also mentioned that the money he had offered wouldn't have been enough, either. He was shocked when I told him what the going rate for a developer with a couple of years experience was, but I knew what I was talking about and I had statistics to back me up.

We had drinks down the pub on my last day. I got monstrously drunk and Guthrie told me I could crash at his house, which was a lot nearer to the pub than my own. I threw up in the taxi. The following morning Guthrie offered to drive me home... whereupon we discovered that his car had been stolen. The film "Dude, Where's My Car?" was then playing in the cinemas and I thought he was playing a joke on me.

Still, Guthrie told me that despite all of the trouble, it was a very good week for him indeed: the directors had paid attention when I told them what kind of money we were worth and he found himself on the receiving end of a very large payrise once I was out the door.

As for me, I was bound for the United States. By then, of course, there was a new phrase in the air: dotcom bubble. One of our own ministers boasted that we hadn't been wiped out because we'd failed to catch the wave in the first place. But I was already on my way.

I would find out for myself just how much blood was in the water.

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