The year was 1989. I was a young software developer working for a pharmaceutical distributor. I programmed in RPGII and RPGIII at the time on an IBM AS/400 computer system. Some of you historians will know of the AS/400 and the RPG programing language. At the time I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet. The AS/400 was hot stuff and would only get hotter through the 1990s.
In those earliest of AS/400 days, IBM had yet to build a decent search function into their basic database file utility.
I decided to see if I could build it myself – which, by the way, was way, way beyond my programming ability at the time.
After lots of trial and error in the form of blood, sweat and swearing, practice-practice-practice, and literally banging my head on the desk a few times, I showed the basic concept to my co-workers and they thought it was a great idea. I felt super smart to have thought of it and to have gotten it as far as I had at that point. I decided I would cash in on this amazing concept and soon-to-be software product. I would start a company, sell software to the masses and ride off into the sunset. (spoiler alert – it didn’t quite happen like that)
I spent every night and weekend on this project for about 5 months – that was on top of my day job and young family, including two very small children.
When it was finally done enough to share with the world, I placed an ad for my new software product in a trade magazine called “Data Network News.” The software tool was called “HotKey400.”
I got a PO box and a business checking account for my freshly minted start-up so I could receive the many checks I would soon be cashing. I had this fantasy that after the ad hit, I would open up the PO box and it would be stuffed with checks. STUFFED with checks… can you imagine?
Well…after the ad hit, I waited about a week and when I finally walked into the post office, my heart pounding with excitement, exhilaration, stress and anticipation…
I put the key in, I opened the door and… NOTHING. Nothing, nothing, nothing! But two pieces of advertisement from the magazine my ad was placed with. NOOOO!!
I was devastated. All that hard work and no checks. I was pretty green at the time and did not appreciate that people don’t just see an ad for software and pull out their credit cards and checkbooks. No, they want to talk to you first – at least they did in those days, but that’s a whole other thought for a future post.
I had committed to the ad for a number of months and ultimately it did generate some interest. Still, almost zero money made.
My first lesson in the software business was that while I might know a little about writing software, I knew absolutely nothing about marketing and selling software.
I got a call from a recruiter and after some discussion (coercion you might say) I decided to at least consider going on an interview with a fairly well known company in our town. I wasn’t the least bit excited about it and I frankly did not want to go meet these people. I had a decent job and plus I was still stinging from my recent entrepreneurial failure.
I got some pretty good advice from a coworker-become-friend who said, “hey, if you go on this interview you might find out you have a pretty good deal right here. You have nothing to lose and besides, you never know what they might have for you.”
Ok, so I went on the interview.
I sat with two ladies who grilled me rigorously for at least a solid hour. Midway through the interview it occurred to me that had it not been for the software I had recently built, there was simply no way I could have answered most of these questions.
Toward the end of the interview I shared my story about the software product, the hard work, the long hours, the ad in the magazine. I wasn’t sure I should share such a thing, especially since it seemed like such a failure, but they seemed impressed. That was the first time it occurred to me that maybe this software thing wasn’t the failure I had come to judge it as.
The women left the room and returned pretty quick with an on-the-spot job offer. I was shocked. They asked what it would take? I threw out a number. They agreed. Done! Wow. I’m still amazed at that, even now. This was not a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants company so I felt pretty special.
After sleeping on it, I accepted the position and for the next 3 years, they presented me with technical challenges and complexities that I never would have had the opportunity to work with in those early days of my career had it not been for this “failed” software product.
In 1993 my family and I left the state in hopes of stretching our dollars a bit further but it was a hard, hard decision to leave that company after what had happened there for me.
Looking back at my corporate career since then, this was easily the most impactful stop along the way, up to and including my CIO job which I held for 4 years between 2003 and early 2007. Each stop along the way bringing more and different challenges, each of which had, in some small way, their roots in that piece of software, which I no longer thought of as “failed software.”
It had been 19 years since I left that company and 5 years since we started our own business as a software company and consultancy (another story for a different blog post) where we eventually consulted and did contract programming work for companies around the country. See phs4j.com for more info.
In 2012 our salesman was actively prospecting for new customers and came to see me one day with an interesting lead. He said, “I was talking to a company called x (the company I worked for in 1990-1993, which was half way across the country from where we are) and they have need for a mobile app…”
I said, “wow, no kidding!?!? I used to work there…”
After several months and the usual series of phone calls, proposals, negotiations and a visit to their site, we started what became a very long term contract that kept 4-5 people from our team busy for 4 years. That was a big win for our company and ultimately all of it was possible because:
a) I had worked there in the early 1990s and there were people there that still remembered me.
And b) most importantly, this customer engagement had its roots in that failed piece of software from all those years ago!
There are always exceptions to stories like this and I have a few of my own but in the end, hard work is never wasted, if only for the lessons we learn that we can pass along to someone else. That’s what its all about for me so when I get discouraged, overworked, tired and stressed out – too many late nights and early mornings – I think of this story and others like it for a boost and I try to remember my hard work is never in vane. It is taking me someplace and probably to a better place than I had initially planned and hoped for. And so it was with HotKey400 – that failed piece of software.
Scott Salisbury, Motivated Code Pro Scott Salisbury is the creator of motivationalcodepro.com and the Managing Partner of Pinch Hitter Solutions, Inc – a software development consultancy focused on Java and Sencha ExtJS. See Pinch Hitter Solutions at phs4j.com. See my youtube channel at Motivated Code Pro.