The Time They Tried to Replace Our Whole Engineering Team and It Backfired - A Cautionary Tale

This is a story about a lesson I learned when I was a fledgling corporate developer in my 30s. I say that because at that time I had already been writing code and making money doing it for around a dozen years, just not in the corporate environment. I actually avoided corporate work for as long as I could because I didn’t want to get trapped.

Having a working class day job and building my freedom through code on the side was the way I wanted it. Coding really wasn’t really a passion, the results were. It was a tool that gave me enough leverage to outrun whole teams trying to do the same things without code. If I got a corporate job, I might eventually make enough that I would no longer be this lean and hungry.

My Background

I never had any formal training writing code. After playing with BASIC in my teens, I left coding alone until I was about 25 when I had a eBay store and knew if I could write a tool that would scrape the auction data, I could have an edge. I found a copy of Visual Basic 6 and built the tool and it worked, but about that time I realized that I didn’t like the manual work involved in an eBay store. Then I got into affiliate marketing, learned PHP, MySQL, and SEO, and built a network of software sites. And with that I made two times what I made in my day job in construction and once it was running, I worked on it 5-10 hours a week.

When I moved cross country, I found another day job that was still in the construction industry but I found one that had web presence in the form of an ecommerce site. Within the year, they “found out” that I knew web development and I moved from window and door installer to web developer to replace the part-time one that came in one a week at most. And did that for six years and $400K in yearly sales turned into $4 million.

About the time my affiliate network stopped bringing in sales after six years, a recruiter contacted me and I started working a contract at a large advertising agency that paid 50% more than the ecommerce job. I worked through one corporation for another corporation, but as a contractor I was more like a mercenery and decided to consider myself one. So when I got an offer at a publishing company for 50% more again six months later, I jumped. I started as a contractor and they hired me when the contract was up.

My First Corporate Job

It was the first time I had a whiteboard test in an interview. After the interview was finished and I was at my other job, I realized that I had written the wrong code. So I called the recruiter and sent her the corrected code. I got the job and 10% more than what I was asking.

One thing I noticed about most of the work is that it moved slower. When you have to steal time from everywhere to build your own business, there is no time for slow. It was something to get used to and to tell you the truth, I haven’t worked at a programming job yet that was more driven than I drove my own self. There was Agile and Scrum and pointing tickets. There were all these meetings that happened before you actually got to work.

Also, it was the only place I’ve worked in the last 10 years where I had a workstation, but no laptop. So I would print out hundreds of lines of Oracle procedures and take them home to figure out what they were doing.

A New Direction

We had a PHP application that used Zend Framework and connected to an Oracle database. Most of the data manipulation happened in Oracle procedures. This job is where I got my SQL chops.

Then, it seemed like overnight, all the developers were the same, but all the managers were different. We also had a team coming in from New York that would be showing us our new direction. What that direction was, we did not know yet.

The new team met with everyone on my team, which was six developers. It was like the job interview all over again without the coding tests. When I was in mine, they asked me about my past and one of the “interviewers” smirked when I mentioned the shareware I developed. Granted, he was maybe ten years younger than me and was just getting facial hair when I was writing that code.

Then we found out the plan. Our stack was changing. We were going to Node.js and MongoDB. Our current database stored sales records on vehicles and equipment from auctions and other sources all over the country. From this, we built price guides using statistical functions, matrixes, and other types of complex mathematical functions. There was a large amount of relational data and remember, most of the algorithms were in procedures. Even I knew enough at that time to smirk with the rest of my team, because they also said it would happen in six months.

Restless Natives

Maybe I smirked a little less, because with my mercenary mindset, I was not invested and was willing to watch and wait for the dumpster fire. I knew that the two 50% raises that led me here meant I was priced below market value and had some wiggle room. Our Oracle database developer, however, saw the writing on the wall and was gone two weeks later.

For a couple of weeks, we went to Node School and learned how to use Node.js in a classroom setting. It was also announced that our team would be augmented with a development team from Estonia, so that we could move faster on the application that would replace our current one. Whatever, I thought, I still get paid even if this does not end well.

Then this new management team, whose experience included some social media applicaitons but never involved working on an application as data-centric as ours, held another series of meeting with the team. I watched everyone I had worked with over the last year go into the office, come back out, and go back to their desk to pack up their stuff.

My meeting didn’t go the same way. I was asked if I liked our new stack and I said yeah. I asked about the rest of the team and the guy who smirked about my past said they weren’t getting with the program and I was the only one left. And my job description would be changing. I would be working with, leading, and transferring knowledge to the new remote team. Was I ready for that? Again, I said I was.

That afternoon I got a phone call from a recruiter. The advertising agency I had left for this job was looking for contractors. Because I had worked there before, I could come back without an interview and they matched my pay. The next day I came in and gave my two weeks notice. I spent the next two weeks mainly transferring knowledge, since I was the only developer left who had worked on the app more than a month. Maybe things went well afterwords, maybe they didn’t. The company is still in business.


I thought of this story watching Blackberry, when Charles Purdy comes in to “fuck shit up” at Research in Motion and realized I lost something that I had back then. Corporate work has made me a softer, weaker person who thinks being mercenary is for the young. So I was right. I get paid well, but is that enough? I used to chase ideas I could build, now I look at 401Ks, stock options, and how many vacation days I get. The plan initially was to never have to worry about vacation days because I set my own schedule.

But I have turned down moving up to management multiple times, so maybe a little bit is still there and I’m still smart enough to know that will lock me in. As a developer, I can still build skills that work in corporate, that get me side projects, and that I can build my own products with. As a manager, I don’t even want to think about it, though I have at times and decided the corporate Kool Aid is just not that good.

Stephan Miller

Written by

Kansas City Software Engineer and Author

Twitter | Github | LinkedIn