Tales from the Trenches
EP4: Journeyman developer stories from back in the day
The early 2000s may as well be 100 years ago when it comes to the tech industry. Wouter tells us some stories about what it was like to start a career in IT back then and his encounters at some very traditional companies. The tech has advanced since then, but what about the rest?
I was a tech lead with no team but they kept me hanging around. In the end I fired myself.
Show notes

Wouter de Vaal has been 'around the block' so to speak. Since starting out with a short stint as a tester, he soon realized that wasn't for him. Throughout the early 2000s he worked at numerous large companies in the Netherlands and, as we know, the big companies is where all the drama is. Some of the stories he shares are quite outrageous. In this episode we cover:

  • How Wouter recalls the period around the .com bubble
  • The absurdity of the job of a software tester, at least the one he had
  • A number of interesting anecdotes about his time working in the IT department of various Dutch banks
  • A short but sweet stint at Philips with a rather unceremonious departure


[00:00:00] Christopher:

Wouter, when you started your career, that was around the time of the.com bubble bursting in 2000. Do you remember much of it or were you even aware of it?

[00:00:14] Wouter:

Yeah, it didn't really register with me because I didn't really have a context yet how these things work and all that. I was a student and I went to work. I had no idea what I wanted. So the only thing palpable was that when I had my new job, there was actually introduction days. We had three days with a new group of people. They hired a whole house for that. Just some holiday home to stay there for a couple of days and get trained up. We had some improvisation improvisation lessons. That was actually fun. There's this group of people in Amsterdam that's still doing that over there. So one of these people came along just to give us improvisation lessons, which was fun. And we had bike rides outside and all that. And I thought working is nice was downhill from there on.

[00:01:05] Christopher:

Oh, dear. And then all right, tell us what you were doing at that time and who were you working for?

[00:01:12] Wouter:

I was working for Logica back then, and the client was Telfort. Anyway, I was a tester, so I had no idea I wanted to do with my career. And so I was put in this little team test factory. Okay, we're just going to test new release stuff from the billing software that they had kind of software that you need to configure, and all these configurations need to be checked. And sometimes there was some SQL and some scripts. Anyway, so I was the guy who needed to test that. That work was also kind of ridiculous because I had no idea how that system worked. So the script came along. Can you test this? I'll need help from a developer from this. So a lot of times testing was just, okay, developer sits, he does his changes. I'll look, he tells me it's okay. I say, yeah, okay, it's okay. So that was my work there. And I had a manager. She was American, and for her I needed to bring a suit because in the beginning, I didn't wear a suit. I just had a blouse and normal trousers and all that. Trousers not too bad. Not shabby. Presentable, presentable. Normal shoes. Anyway, she told me, you need to wear a suit. And I said, Why do I need to wear a suit? And I pointed to a guy who actually wore a tie, and it was like, probably not Mickey Mouse, but really close. And I look better than him. Why should I wear a suit? You need to wear a suit. And then she got replaced by a Dutch guy, and I stopped wearing suits, and that Dutch guy was actually disgruntled with me. So I'm your boss now and you don't wear suits? No, I'm not going to wear suit unless you give me good reason, and he had none. Yeah. And actually, I found out he was writing over hours while he wasn't there, so didn't really have anything on me.

[00:03:12] Christopher:

That's funny.

[00:03:14] Wouter:

Yeah. I survived because I had nice colleagues, but I hated the work. At one point, there was an opportunity for me to go into that engineering part, like the people who are actually giving us software. But the account manager from Logic, I was reluctant because I was making them money, but I pushed with my supervisor from Logica, sorry, I need to do this. I cannot do the testing anymore. I'm done. Two more weeks, okay? Two more weeks, I'll survive. And then at one point, I got a call from the account manager. Yeah, we really like you to stay as a tester. I said nah, I really don't want to do that anymore. So he tried to convince me, okay, can you please give me your manager? So I handed the phone to my manager. Was actually two years younger than me.

[00:04:06] Christopher:

And how old were you?

[00:04:07] Wouter:

I was 25, so he was 23. So he took the phone, and then he started humming, like, yeah, okay, I'll tell him. And then he dropped down the phone, and he told me, you have to stay anyway. At that point, I called my other boss. I said, no, either you give me that job, or I'm leaving. So in the end, in two weeks, I left for that other job, but I started interviewing for new positions.

[00:04:39] Christopher:

I remember you telling me that you worked for a number of banks at the start of your career. Do you have any interesting stories about those days?

[00:04:49] Wouter:

One of an interesting story, small story, is with Fortes, and that's the bank that now doesn't exist anymore, they went bankrupt back in the days. Had some weird moments over there. At one point, it was taken over by the Belgians because it was a Dutch operation. But then the Belgians came along, so the whole thing was hosted in Brussels, and at one point, there was a bug, and from my side, I was mostly working from home. Sometimes I went to the office, but I had all the code on my laptop, so it wasn't really needed. I couldn't just run anything. When I fixed something, I emailed or chatted the lines of code that needed to be fixed by a guy who was working there on something else, but he could compile my shit. So he ran it there and say, yeah, it's working now. Okay, cool.

[00:05:39] Christopher:

So, you would past the code into chat?

[00:05:41] Wouter:

Yeah, something like that. Or email. I cannot remember it. But anyway, so we couldn't figure it out back then, so I needed logs, but they didn't want to give that. No. Instead of sending me the logs, they made a meeting. They wanted to analyze the program and see what's going on. We were told to come to Brussels, Brussels north, and then walking to the center where the office was. Really nice old office. So I had my Dutch manager with me from Fortis and then in the room were like in total ten people or something, totally different culture over there. And as I was just a programmer, I didn't sit at the table, I sat in a corner on a stool. Keep your mouth shut. You're kidding. Really? No, that's how it happened. And it was this woman manager in Belgium and she was all over the place and because it looked like the issue was on their side no, this is not our problem, can be. That was her whole thing. She wanted to make sure that it wasn't her problem. But we didn't care whose problem it was, we just wanted to solve it. And I was sure if I would have seen the logs it would have been no problem. But yea security here and it cannot be our fault and whatnot. So that meeting went on for one or 2 hours and then in the end there was kind of a compromise. So I was allowed to walk with her to one of her minions and the minion was able to open the log and show it to me. So we're there and I think one, two minutes, I spotted the problem. There's your issue. If you fix that, it's done. So that whole day with all those managers could have been done. If you just send me the logs I could send it back and there's no problem. Wow, brilliant.

[00:07:38] Christopher:

After that I remember you telling me that with some banking experience you took another job at a bank, although it wasn't a job that you necessarily wanted to take?

[00:07:52] Wouter:

I took that job because I had to get a job. It was past 9/11 and there was no work. So I took the first job I could. And the people were fun, I had a lot of fun there. But the job was awful. They needed an integrated because they had all these branches in their system. So every week I needed to integrate all the branches from all the people that were working and then see if it's still built. And that was actually a full day job. That's why they hired me.

[00:08:22] Christopher:

Just to do merges.

[00:08:23] Wouter:

Just to do merges. So that was the work. Only merges was really ridiculous. And also I needed to find out stuff. Okay, how does this work? So you start googling looking up online. That was already possible back then, luckily. But my workstation doesn't have internet, so I had to go to the hallway to the internet PC. So most of my time I spent on the internet PC because of course I was also doing other stuff there because the job wasn't really interesting. So yeah, I could sit there and do some stuff if I did that job, the merging, then everybody was pleased. But in the end I think I got some extra work there what was a little bit more satisfying. But the main job, that was just like a symptom of a system that was completely wrong. They moved from mainframe to websphere. Actually they hired a real bunch of real good Java guys and everything was working fine. So they still had these old geezers. IBM websphere was then pretty new project and this guy, he couldn't learn it, he just couldn't, he didn't understand. So in the end, I wasn't speed dial with him, I was this private help desk. Fine by me, because I had nothing else to do. I'll come by, I'll help you, help you click. Luckily when I was back eight years later at the same department and they had that shit together, so they asked how's this guy, is he still working here? Yeah, we kind of solved that problem. So they made a department, it was four guys in total. I think they called it a quality department. And they just dumped guys they couldn't use anymore because they couldn't get fired. So once in a while you see them walking around asking people if they need support with quality. Most people say, no, we got enough quality. And then they just go back to the basement and sit there, probably browsing the internet or whatever. Waiting for pension.

[00:10:22] Christopher:

Yeah, after that you had even another job at a bank.

[00:10:30] Wouter:

My third stint as a freelancer was at ING and there was all these financial guys, typical, you get some all fast and smart and snappy and not really IT. And then there was the IT department and there was kind of archetypical IT, couple of boring guys, bunch of nerds. There was a secretary there, he thought she was really, really important. And then you had these three guys actually leading department, which were really old geezers, and they grew into a manager role. And I cannot really remember what they programmed, but there was just the type of guys, nine to five jobs, biking to work, everything steady.

[00:11:18] Christopher:

Okay, I got it. So it's you and your three programmers, managers, tech guys and then this finance department which are like the business for you. What happened?

[00:11:31] Wouter:

Yeah, a bunch of things happened there because it was so messy. The financial guy wrote something in Delphi because he thought he could program. So we were analyzing that thing and there's no transactions here. If it crashes, database gets fucked up. So I started querying on the database. Yeah, records were gone. Some money stuff was missing, I think. Yeah, I think you're missing a couple of million here. No big deal. They just shrugged. I think you should fix this. And that guy that programmed it, he wasn't hearing it like, no, this is just working, that kind of guy. So we were writing this stuff. So we were doing that for half five months or something. And the prototype we written could replace that thing. That was already something. So it was helping. And it was supposed to become a big project and the project was being set up with the boss of the financial guys. It was an okay guy, but he was like straight to the point and I want results. Will probably take a couple of years. If you can make it, it will be worth your while, but if you don't do a good job, then you get kicked out or you got sanctioned or whatever. And I was just a programmer, but they listened to us because we were in that department and we're actually delivering stuff and we had some a bit of experience and we saw how this was, but actually we kind of rented out our bosses to that manager, like, you're not going to get that from these three guys. And then those bosses came to us kind of furious in a way, trying to be furious, but didn't come across really strong. If the manager from the finance got angry, then you were really scared, but with the other guys, okay, is this angry?

[00:13:23] Christopher:

Not convincing.

[00:13:24] Wouter:

Not really convincing. How could you say that? And don't you trust us? Don't you think you can do the job? No, I don't think you can do that now, to be honest. The colleague of mine said the same thing, but yeah, okay, if you think you can do it, you know what the terms are. So in the end, they declined the offer to do the thing. They could have made a real good career out of it if they would have done the project, but they knew they will fail.

[00:13:51] Christopher:

Sometime down the line, I guess you ended up going to Phillips, so I want to talk about that because I was also there, although you and I didn't really work together as such. But tell me what you remember of it and tell me what your role was there.

[00:14:11] Wouter:

My role was let me think. Oh, yeah, solution architect. There were quite a lot of teams over there.

[00:14:17] Christopher:

Yeah. Wasn't it like eight teams in the end?

[00:14:19] Wouter:

In the beginning when I was there was three. And then they had an extra team offshore and they bunched it up to eight teams. Incredible.

[00:14:28] Christopher:

Yeah. And it was especially incredible because this was the first time the entire company had ever done Scrum. I think nobody there had ever seen it before. And so everyone was trying to learn this new thing and they even had an external agency or consultancy come in to try and get this thing started. Right.

[00:14:51] Wouter:

Yeah. CapGemini had a field day there. They put in a lot of people there just to get this going because there were so many teams and so many work, so much work. And while Scrum as a one team, you can learn that quite easily, but to divide work over eight teams and put it all in one product, that's quite a challenge. And they did a nice job, actually. The people from CapGemini. They were fine, but it was just a shitload of overhead.

[00:15:19] Christopher:

Was it actual, like, agile coaches and scrum training?

[00:15:23] Wouter:

Yeah, we had an agile coach and then we had the product owner. Like I said, CapGemini had a field day there. They could experiment, play around, do stuff. Yeah.

[00:15:34] Christopher:

And remind me of that system that they had for dividing up the work.

[00:15:38] Wouter:

Yeah, they had this system of buckets. The type of work fit into a type of bucket. You can imagine this part of the website or some technical bucket or whatever, and then the buckets get divided with the teams. And there was a special fuck it bucket.

[00:15:54] Christopher:

Hahaha yeah.

[00:15:56] Wouter:

So if there was something we didn't want to do, I just put it on the fuck it bucket.

[00:16:02] Christopher:

That's funny. Yeah. They definitely always had a good atmosphere there.

[00:16:06] Wouter:

The atmosphere was good. They made fun. Also the product owner and all that with that bucket. But in the end, we were not productive. Hardly. There was one team, they did that mail grooming thing they delivered because that was just a nice little project. You just build it and go and the rest was just faffing around.

[00:16:27] Christopher:

Yeah. And that reminds me of how they used to do bug fixing and support. You mentioned that there was a remote team, an offshore team, and you had to transfer everything, all the code you'd written, to that offshore team. And they would do the support and the bug fixing.

[00:16:46] Wouter:

Yeah. So that support thing, that was just that amazed me. I told them, Why are you doing this? We are creating the bugs. We should solve them. No, this is cheaper. Okay, why is this cheaper? Yeah, these people we don't have to pay him anything. Yeah, but you have an extra transition manager, so there's an actual role being created, a Dutch role, a manager, which are not cheap, just to do that. And if there wasn't that role, it's just, okay, the bug comes to the team, they fix it. Done. And I remember one meeting with this guy because we needed to talk about, okay, how do we transition the information? And it was more about, okay, how do we write it down? And then he came up with this Excel sheet. Are you okay with that? So we had a meeting about it that lasted five minutes or so because fine, it's an Excel sheet. We'll fill it in if you want. All right, so we have 25 minutes left of this meeting. Shall we talk about anything else? No, I'm done. You can sit here all you want.

[00:17:50] Christopher:

He didn't know you, obviously.

[00:17:52] Wouter:

I'm going back to work. Jeez. Filling the time. Yeah. Such types that were there. It wasn't brilliant.

[00:18:00] Christopher:

I also remember that the whole thing didn't really last very long, did it?

[00:18:05] Wouter:

Well, it ended abruptly as well. It did, yeah, because we had eight teams and it was chucking along. The burn rate must have been massive. And then suddenly the news came. There need to be cuts. So I heard the news. I thought there that now. It's over. It's just stupid. There's so much money to save here and we came to work. No, we're not hurt by that. That's something else. Two, three weeks later meeting announcement. Everybody needs to be there. We're going from eight teams to one. My role was Tech lead back then. I moved myself into that position to have a more higher role, to improve the quality. Didn't really succeed in that, I must say. So there was nothing to tech lead. But they didn't kick me out. I found it strange and I was hanging around there. I just fired myself. Came in one day and went to my manager. Why am I here? I don't know. Shall I give you my laptop and patch? Yeah, that's probably a good idea. Here you go. Bye. And that was it. My unceremonious exit from Phillips.

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