August 11th, 2006 by Hugh
I spoke to Ian just after an employment contract from Exbiblio had landed on his desk. He has been working as a freelancer here since April – an experience which he compares to dating before marriage.
“It was an opportunity to make sure that we had same intentions and same desires and could tolerate each others’ quirky behaviour,” he says.
I remark on Ian’s unmatched red and yellow socks, but he says his quirkiness goes further than them: he doesn’t posses a good poker face, he says, and wears his emotions on his sleeve. Today he seems to be in a buoyant mood, talking rapidly while fidgeting with a springy plastic toy.
“I like lots of explicit communication,” he adds. “So when Ed [Mahlum] came to me and said ‘We want to make you an offer’, I was happy to be invited to be part of the tribe: I like that, but I had a lot of concerns because our relationship is going well, and why change it? How is our relationship going to be different after this change?”
Ian wanted to iron out any potential misunderstandings with his new employer along the lines of:
“If you are imagining I’m going to be come in at 8 in the morning because I’m an employee, then that’s interesting for me to know. And if I imagine that you’re going to put me in charge of strategic development now that I’m an employee, then that’s interesting for you to know.”
I point out that under the laws of Washington State, employees have no more protection from being fired than contractors (I have this from no lesser authority than Exbiblio’s founder, Martin King, himself). Ian agrees, but he sees the contract as being “statement of intention” to make the relationship long term.
“So long as we’re in a contracting relationship, the implication is that we are just sleeping together: it doesn’t mean a thing and I don’t want to meet your family. This (employment) is the way in our culture that you say I like your tribe. I want to be part of your tribe, and I intend to stay with you.
Ian admits that he sometimes has less than smooth relations with Exbiblio’s founder, Martin King. He says it’s nothing more than the usual run of things, but adds that this “statement of intention” protects himself from a rash decision on his own part to leave suddenly. He also believes it protects Martin from a rash decision to fire Ian. But he concedes it gives him no long term employment security.
“If a contractor is feeling upset, it’s easy to say, ‘You know what? I’ve got other things to do. God be with you. I’m on my way.’ As an employee, Ian says he will “ride things out for a while,” when they aren’t going well. He hopes that a fast growing company will give him plenty of opportunity to move around and develop. He can work on both software and hardware and he would like to manage projects.
Ian’s been in a management roles before, and he recognises that managers value reliability and predictably more than technical brilliance. A manager wants to know that an assignment is going to be done, and if it isn’t, to be warned in good time and given a reason. This can be difficult in a technical environment where the tendency is to do “cool thing” and really stretch to pull something out of the hat at the last moment.
He says that Exbiblio is unusual because the financial backer is the “wacky inventor” in the person of Martin. Usually shareholders or venture capitalists are pushing for a safer and more boring approach. Martin is always shooting for the heights. Ian finds that it’s new for him to discover that he is taking a more conservative view than the manager. But that’s one of things he likes about Exbiblio. “In the end, I want a story to tell. A good story is either a massive success or a massive failure, but not putt, putt putt putt…..’