I think there are two kinds of people who go it alone and try to run their own business.
One is the skilled, capable engineer, probably fed up with working for 'the man'. These people know their stuff and are able to either do a great job, or not take on a job at all. Clues are that they're hard to find, always busy, and won't take on a new project unless it's something they're actually interested in.
At first glance they might look a bit more expensive than you were expecting too, because although to some extent they're probably doing it for the love of technology, they're not directly competing on price either.
(I can't, by the way, over-emphasize the importance of being able to identify jobs that are unlikely to go well, and turn them down on day one. This probably warrants a new thread all of its own.)
The other is the engineer, or wanna-be engineer, who can't get or hold down a good regular j
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shortcuts: hit alt+s to submit/post or alt+p to previewob, and who resorts to going it alone as a fall-back. These guys don't have the network of contacts to recommend them by word of mouth - at least, not yet - and so must advertise more widely. Competition drives down prices until, as you say, the going rate for a 3 month project barely covers the snack food budget for the job.
There is at least one more kind of person who will undertake this challenge. I know, because I do not fit into either of the previously mentioned categories. It is also a bit more complex than just being tired of working for the ‘Man’.
In my mailbag note to Dave (sent with the Rocket Kit), when I mentioned having experienced an extremely negative employment experience and being tired of working for the ‘Man’, I did not elaborate on the details as I was trying to keep it brief. This has resulted in some speculation that I simply got tired of working for other people, said screw it, and decided to launch my own company. This is far from the whole truth, so I thought I would take a moment and elaborate on my specific situation. I hope the following will shed some light on my specific situation and possibly help someone to avoid having a similar negative employment experience of their own.
First, a little background information about me. Having a love and aptitude for electronics, and technology in general, studying electronic engineering during my college years was an obvious choice. After college I worked in the Electronic Engineering/Service and Telecommunications industries for a number of years while I was figuring out my long-term career plans. During this time I even owned a successful consumer electronic service storefront for a bit (until the building/property was purchased for a new commercial development). Ultimately, I chose, and switched to Information Technology as a career path. That was the better part of two decades ago. No regrets. I excelled in I.T. and have become an expert in the field. My specialty is helping small-medium sized businesses overcome their legacy/badly-engineered information technology solutions that hinder employee productivity and business growth potential. I will elaborate on this a bit more in the paragraphs below.
My story begins in 2013 while I was deciding my next career/life step. The choice was basically down to two options, continue building my career in I.T. and move on to the next level, or start and build a new business. I spent the next ~6 months interviewing for select positions, thinking about business/product ideas, and finishing the renovations of my house. Ultimately, I decided if the right opportunity came along I would continue my I.T. career. I had already invested >17 years going down this path so it would be a lot to give up to focus on a business. I turned down many positions during this time because they did not meet my criteria. Until one did.
I interviewed with, and accepted employment at a small medical device manufacturer located in Redmond, WA, called Spiration. Beside meeting my criteria, it was also an opportunity to help out a company in desperate need of an I.T miracle. Their entire information technology solution, end-to-end, was a joke. Not a funny joke though. They never had anyone running I.T. for the company who was actually qualified, or even knew what they were doing, and it showed. For example, shortly before I took over, they let the magic smoke out of a UPS that they had severely overloaded, they also had servers spontaneously rebooting due to brownouts related to another overloaded UPS/circuit (all 15Amp 120V std. wall outlets feeding the UPS’s btw). There wired network was a bunch of default config switches routed through one single point of failure. The wireless network was a bunch of OTS consumer wireless routers connected to the DMZ through a 10bT Hub (yes, a hub, from the 1990’s). If you could even connect to the wireless network in the corporate office, you would then have to VPN into the corporate network. ISP connectivity was a 4.5 flex (1.5 for voice, 3.0 for data). Btw, on a wired connection, Internet page loads took 30-45 seconds on average, on a wireless connection, streaming Pandora was hit or miss (throughput rated worse than dialup during my initial testing). They also had a legacy Exchange 2003 environment. They owned a license for 2010 for a few years, but the prior admins could not handle the environment upgrade. Systems, core services, and enterprise applications were a mess as well. For instance, they were out of IP addresses, robbing Peter to pay Paul and such (they just had a flat /24 network) That is just a very brief list. Just about everything needed to be corrected, infrastructure, hardware, software, processes, license management. Most of all, they needed a unified vision for their end-to-end information technology solution.
They, the CEO & Executive Director of Finance, were looking for someone to come in and take over I.T. for the company. Provide a unified vision and direction, manage the I.T. department, and basically correct everything that was wrong with the information technology infrastructure. I excel at this, and I was looking for a Director of I.T. gig. This was a good fit. Of course, I did not have the obligatory five years of experience as a Director of I.T. that every organization wants. It’s the ironic thing where you need to have to already done a certain job for x years before you can get a job doing that certain thing. Long-story-short, I took a chance and entered into an employment agreement with the CEO, and the Executive Director of Finance. Prove my abilities over the next 12 months and get the title and the compensation to match. Goals and milestones were clear, and they were ones I could meet.
Over the course of the next year I overhauled the entire information technology solution at the company (top 10 listed): _1) A new scalable power solution from the ground up (new circuits, UPSs, PDU, all properly engineered). _2) A new converged, seamless, centrally-managed wired/wired network with HA for core/critical systems (collapsed core design, 3850-x stack (StackWise) as core, with integrated WLC, and a stack of 2960-x (FlexStack) switches for the access layer, repurposed existing HP switches for redundant server network backbone, and of course, implemented VLANs for proper segregation of traffic). _3) Redundant ASA 5515’s for FW/security. _4) Migrated to a 50Mbps fiber ISP connection. 5) Upgraded their legacy Exchange environment to 2010 and budgeted for upgrade to 2013 in late 2015. _6) Installed Lync 2013 as the first step towards a unified communication and collaboration solution. _7) Introduced hardware and software standards for client, server, and network hardware. _8) Implemented WDS for centralized image storage, network based client and server imaging, and future automation (once the legacy OS/software issues were out of the picture). _9) Replaced a legacy SFT solution that was costing the company $10k/yr in licensing (new solution was $800/yr). _10) Rectified most of their license tracking and compliance issues by switching to Enterprise licensing model, and migrating to O365 to replace many legacy editions of MS Office. That is just the top ten items. During this time I was also handling the management activities (budget creation/management, I.T. roadmaps, vendor management, project management, etc..) and also 50% of the help desk activities because they failed to hire the FT Help Desk tech (which was part of the original agreement). In the end, to make sure I met all goals/milestones and finished all standard work, I was working mostly 80 hour weeks, and also spending 15 hours a week commuting. In the end it was all going to be worth it, a small sacrifice to get the title and compensation.
Nice little review at the end of the trial year. I met all goals/milestones, had a ton of other achievements during the time, and the IT department was running smoothly (a first for this company). The review went well, and it was confirmed at that time that I would be getting the title and pay at the next HR/year-end cycle.
Then things started to get weird. First sign of trouble, during that same meeting, I was informed that the CEO and Executive Director of Finance now wanted to make the phone system replacement project a priority and get it done by the end of the year, despite the fact that this project was initially scheduled to begin (discovery phase) in Q2of the following year. There was also the fact that this was already a week into November. Getting things done during the holiday season is never an easy task, but running a complete corporate phone system replacement project from start to end in just over a month and a half, during the holiday season, is basically impossible. Especially when you are switching from a legacy digital key system to a HA VOIP system that integrates with Exchange and Lync. There was also the fact that most of the key players in the various business groups would be on vacation at various times. Obtaining the three necessary competing quotes and going through the review cycle would take most of this time by itself. I mad all of this clear and started the project, while setting the proper expectations. I mostly dismissed this odd request as standard corporate agenda and naivety regarding what actually needs to transpire for a project like this to be completed successfully. After all, this is not the first time I had seen decisions made at a high level, that were unrealistic.
By the beginning of February, I had the first quote for the new phone system on the CEO’s and Executive Director of Finance’s desks. By that time I had completed all discovery, business requirement gathering, and engineered a new Cisco-based VOIP system (BE6kHD, critical services in HA, room for planned expansion (e.g. CUCC) – 8800 series endpoints (phones), - CUPS for RCC and presence via lync - Unity for Exchange integration - 4331 ISR for SIP trunk termination (switching to SIP trunking from the legacy T1 PRI) - Barix Instreamer for MOH – etc. ). Took longer to get the two competing quotes. You have to purchase the Cisco equipment through a vendor, and Cisco gives the first vendor to contact them about a certain purchase a sizable discount. Due to this, no other vendor wanted to quote for the hardware. I ended up having to get competing quotes for other non-equitable hardware.
March. Things continue to get weirder week by the week. I get ready to take a vacation for a week in April, but I am informed that I will not be allowed to take a vacation at this time. The reasoning was (from the Executive Director of Finance), that if the CEO finally signs off on quote for the new phone system, and we can get all the equipment in, and all the consultant resources are available on short notice, I need to be onsite for the phone system installation during April. I stated that I would just plan for, and schedule the install for a time after my return (it is only a week after all). There was no rational reply to this, I was just informed that waiting a week was unacceptable and I would not be allowed to take my planned vacation. Btw – it is worth noting that at this point, the phone system quote had been on the CEO’s desk for signature for more than a month, and was still just sitting there. In addition, I am also given excuse after excuse as to why the Help Desk role has not been filled (or even advertised), something I was guaranteed would be taken care of by now. By this point, I have a pretty good idea that I am going to get screwed. I stick it out till the review cycle. In for a penny, in for a pound,….
April. Time for that title and compensation I have worked my ass off to earn. Of course the pressure is still on to install that phone system the moment after the CEO signs off on the project. There is also more than normal pressure to finish a bunch of other smaller projects (this had also been the case most of past few months). Interestingly, they delay the review cycle for everyone. Then, pretty much everyone has been reviewed except for me. More pressure to get some projects and upgrades done. Lots of other odd behavior as well.
It is now May. Review day finally comes. On the schedule. I’m the last one to get reviewed btw… Well, around noon on that day the other member of the IT department (legacy application support, mostly the legacy applications he coded, and also the other 50% of help desk tasks) announces that his mother is in the hospital (in Ireland) and he has to get on a flight. He will be gone 10 days. I get a scheduling update for my review shortly after; my review has been moved out 10 days. I confront the Executive Director of Finance at this point and get my confirmation. They are screwing me over.
Worse than the fact that they screwed me over, is that they always intended to screw me over. From day one. They needed someone to correct all their I.T. problems so that the company could grow, and so current employees could be productive. To achieve their end goal they lied to me, they deceived me. In those review meetings, in weekly meetings, even casual conversations, they lied to me with a smile on their face. They even conspired to get me to complete as much high-level work as possible before they would have to reveal the truth.
You would think the story ends there, but it does not. I cannot land another Director of I.T. role because A) I do not have 5-10 years in a director role (only 18 months), and B) Spiration is not admitting the amazing work I did for them; in fact, they are doing just the opposite. You see, they are pissed at me for making my situation public, and not just going quietly into the sunset after they screwed me. So, in addition to random passive-aggressive threat here and there, they are giving me bad reviews. I usually just inform potential employers that they cannot contact Spiration, which also looks bad. In addition, it I have heard that the Executive Director of Finance is claiming credit for all my hard work. Keep in mind that this is a guy who once told me he was wholly against any client upgrades to Windows 8 at Spiration because Windows 8 is a “tablet OS” and he and other employees need to be able to use a mouse and keyboard, using a touchscreen was not going to work out. Yes, he actually thought that it was impossible to use a mouse and keyboard with Windows 8. This guy is a serious jackass that just uses people for his own advancement and agenda.
Initially I did look for other director roles, and even considered a few close by SE roles. After some odd interview cancellations, I did some investigating and learned from a recruiter what the deal was. At this point I have declared my I.T. career dead. Murdered is a more apt term.
So, I am applying my original electronic engineering schooling, years of hobbyist experience, and my other skills to launching Zifnu Electronics LLC. I love electronics and technology in general, always have. This was the business I was thinking of starting in 2013 before I made the mistake of working for Spiration. I was always planning on launching the company eventually, I just did not have the time while I was dedicating 95 hours a week to Spiration.
Am I the most skilled and experienced electronics engineer out there, absolutely not. Do I know enough to keep my projects/products from bursting into flames, yep. Can I offer something that is unique and interesting, I would like to think so. The Zifnu Rocket Kit was something I wanted to bring to market because it is fun, and a bit different. It is a combination of things I loved as a kid, electronics and model building. I was also playing way too much Kerbal Space Program when I had the idea for the Rocket Kit, so that may have influenced me a bit as well,…
Even though the Kickstarter campaign was not successful, I do not consider this a failure. I never intended the Rocket kit to be a huge source of income. My intentions were to have some fun offering a unique product that hopefully inspired a few future electronic engineers, and maybe taught them some basic concepts related to electronics and model building. (Note: the instruction manual I had on the website was just the first draft, I was planning on expanding the content and hopefully getting some better illustrations in there as well.) Secondly, bringing the rocket kit to market was an excellent learning opportunity that allowed me to get all the manufacturing partner relationships in place for the Rocket Kit and future products. While I have done parts of this for other companies in the past, most of it was locally sourced rather than international. So this was definitely a learning experience. For one thing, I learned the regulations for manufacturing a product in China for marketing to kids under the age of 12 in the U.S. is a major hassle for a product you only intend to make 1-10k of. Which is why I chose to only market to 12 and above even though younger audiences would have enjoyed the kit as well.
The economics of it all. I did all the math up front, $50k for ~1000 units was the bare minimum. And at the $50k mark I did not even intend to pay myself a salary since the sum was so small, I would have just reinvested the profit in the company. Besides being a learning experience, it was an opportunity to get Zifnu Electronics established and promote a little brand/company awareness as well. I’ll be the first to admit that it did not draw nearly as much attention as I expected. I mean, really, who doesn’t love rockets?
Zifnu’s next product is something a bit more practical, I believe it will have a larger audience in general. Time will tell.