A New Chapter

Four weeks ago, on my 35th birthday, I left my safe corporate job for adventures in startup land. Frustration and disappointment had filled my days until I was inspired by a speaker at a founders meetup. I jumped ship to go carve out my own slice of the world and shape it on the four foundational beliefs that must be upheld at any cost. Before I tell you about that, let me back up for a moment.

One of the last things I learned at university was the idea of Intrapreneurship, being an entrepreneur inside of a large organization. After finishing a PhD, I took a job with IBM Watson on a 25 minute phone call. I was hesitant taking a tech job without a technical screening. My mother told me it was meant to be, so I signed up and moved across the country to Denver. Ginni Rometty was on a mission to reinvent IBM and I wanted to help. The BIG BLUE boat was trying to turn itself around.

My first assignment took me to Alchemy API. IBM had acquired the artificial intelligence startup the year prior for its language and vision technologies. When I arrived, they were going through integration, or blue washing as we amusingly referred to it. IBM had put up a cultural wall to help protect and learn from the Alchemists and their ways. In many senses, they are more IBM than IBM.

My task at Alchemy was to apply Watson technologies to a large client project. Two months into my new big boy job I was laid off. Fortunately for me O Captain! My Captain! took me under his wing to support his crew. Having used Docker and Kubernetes since their inceptions, and written some other small tools they found useful, he saw my inner hacker aching to be let out. The remainder of my time at Alchemy was spent deploying Kubernetes in support of the Watson Natural Language Understanding service and generally helping other IBMers transition to Kubernetes and micro-services.

This last March, IBM slapped a production freeze down on Watson developers. People were pissed, but the goals were good and they put an education initiative in place! I threw together a presentation over night to explain what was happening and why this was a good thing. Beyond addressing the gap in cloud-native skills, they were talking about the fundamental cultural issues that plague IBM. Dead-line oriented practices, siloed operations, throwing responsibility over the wall, and a pervasive lack of trust. This was what I was looking for when I signed up. People and initiatives trying to fix the most core issues in one of the largest and highly successful organizations to exist. To me, technology transformation is about behavioral change at all levels of the bureaucracy.

A month later, they cancelled the initiative due to budget cuts while leaving a more cumbersome deployment process in place. I was crushed. I bled blue for this organization and they had just sold us short. Ask your people to change and then take away the support. You can imaging how it’s going… Damned be the quarterly driven.

My reasons for leaving have more to do with the deep cultural and behavioral issues that define the modern IBM. The four inviolable beliefs that laid the foundation to IBM’s rise to greatness… daily they are violated. My intentions are not to harp on IBM, though my time there provided me ample experiences that help me to understand my own ideas, what I believe in, and how I want to build my own company.

The four beliefs: (as written by Thomas J. Watson Jr.)
1. Respect for the individual.
2. Service to the Customer.
3. Excellence must be a way of life.
4. The goal is individual thought and individual action.

When I entered this world I was an IBMer. My parents met, married, and had three children while IBMers. Like the Watson’s, my family hails from upstate New York. These four beliefs were a part of my upbringing as well as Tommy J Jr’s. They were built into our cores. They influence ever choice and decision to be made. In 1993, IBM had their first ever layoff, my mother included. This is a company that made it through the Great Depression without cutting employee hours. Well, that day they lost the loyalty of their people, the IBMers. I’m not entirely sure when they strayed from the beliefs that made them great, but it has certainly become worse since. I do wish them well, they were my family for 35 years.

And here’s the point, if you aren’t happy where you are today, go make your own Utopia. Unshackle yourself from the chains of Idiocracy. Set off to do something great and don’t look back. Treat people with respect, make your customers happy, give it your best, and cherish wild ducks. Seems easy…

Just like starting a business right? One of the biggest draws to venturing out on your own is that you get to build a culture around your values and beliefs. How does one become a good leader? How do you build a culture that is good for everyone that interacts with your company? How do your help your people to grow? How do you inspire them to live and espouse your fundamental beliefs? Your people are your business and an extension of you. Take care of them.

So here I am today, embarking on a new adventure. Am I worried? No. Honestly, I’m not sure I know how to be worried. I’m excited for the things to come. I’m living my passion. I’m making the world a better place. I have a loving family and an amazing support network. I’m too focused on building, learning, helping, and making happier humans.

Where am I headed you ask?

Hofstadter.io — Building Blocks for Automatic Software.

Check it out if you like, it’s pretty rough right now. We will be starting by offering a fully loaded, production grade Kubernetes with all the bells and whistles. Our aim is to make developers and the CTO happy. Deliver higher quality software, faster, with more reliability and confidence. The long-term idea is to move up the stack and deliver technology without developers. To stay in the design space with the creatives.

Write out of a desire to record and share experience and ideas. - Micah Baldwin

As part of my startup land adventures, I’ve reached a point where I want to put my beliefs and ideas in writing. To share them with you. That we might learn a few things together. Because this is a conversation for us all to engage in. You will hear about Hofstadter and the journey in upcoming posts. But the foundational beliefs come first so that’s what I’ll be talking about next.

Until then…

What are your stories and philosophies on how to run a business? Are they congruent with the beliefs?