Twenty-one years in the software salt mines

By Jim Grey (about)

I wrote this post in 2010 at my main blog. It’s an appropriate start to my new blog about software product delivery.

A personal anniversary passed quietly last Saturday. It was the 21st year since I started my career.

It may seem odd that I remember the day only until you know that I started work on July 3, making my second day a paid holiday. The office was nearly deserted on my first day. My boss regretted not having me start on July 5 so he could have had an extra-long weekend too.

And given that we seem to love divisible-by-ten and divisible-by-25 anniversaries, it may seem odd that I’m honoring this 21st anniversary. But I was 21 years old when I joined that little software company in Terre Haute.

I have now worked half my life in and around the software industry.

taught myself how to write computer programs when I was 15. When I was 16, my math teacher saw some of my programs and praised my work. He encouraged me to pursue software development as a career. He began to tell me about this tough engineering school in Terre Haute.

I graduated from that tough engineering school with a desire to find work as a programmer. Jobs were hard to come by that year, so when the only software company in town wanted to hire me as a technical writer I was thrilled just to work. And then it turned out I had a real knack for explaining software to people. I did it for twelve years, including a brief stint in technology publishing and five years managing writers.

I then returned to my technical roots, testing software and managing software testers. I learned to write automated functional and performance tests – code that tests code – and it has taken me places in my career that I could never have imagined.

I’ve worked for seven companies in 21 years. The longest I’ve stayed anywhere is five years; I left one company after just 14 months. I’ve moved on voluntarily six times, was laid off once, and was fired and rehired once (which is quite a story; I’ll tell it one day). Changing jobs this often isn’t unusual in this industry and has given me rich experience I couldn’t have gained by staying with one company all this time.

I’ve worked on software that managed telephone networks, helped media buyers place advertising, helped manufacturers manage their business, run Medicare call centers, helped small banks make more money, and enabled very large companies to more effectively market their products.

My former office
An office I had at one of my career stops

Some of these companies were private and others were public; so far, I’ve liked private companies better. Some of them made lots of money, some of them had good and bad years, and one of them folded. Some of them were well run and others had cheats and liars at the helm. Some were very difficult places to work, but those were crucibles in which I learned the most. Others have brought successes beyond anything I could have hoped for 21 years ago.

I did, however, hope for a good, long run in this industry, and I got it. But I’m also having a hard time envisioning another 21 years. Maybe that’s part of reaching middle age – indeed, many of my similarly aged colleagues, some with careers far beyond mine, have gone into other lines of work. I’m still having a lot of fun making software, though. I currently manage four software testers, two test automation developers, and five technical writers. I get to bring all of my experience to bear, and encourage my teams to reach and grow. I don’t want to stop just yet.

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