American Memories

I had a job in the UK between September 1995 and February 1997. I was a programmer with probably 7 years’ experience, and a novice project manager. The company was looking for a technical specialist cum project manager, so I suppose I was a decent fit.

The company was a start up and everyone was working on just the one project – a web-based business-to-business purchasing solution. Think Amazon, but without the frills. The idea was that somebody could buy someting as quickly as possible for their business, and to speed past all the frills. The web was, in those days, sufficiently immature (and the company’s idea sufficiently visionary) that this company could quite happily get into meetings with the High-Street banks.

The product required quite advanced (for the time) encryption, and we ended up building on a commercial US library. The library itself couldn’t be exported, but it was perfectly OK for our product to use the library (as long as we sat physically in the USA while we built it into our product), and for our product to be exported. It indicates that the lawyers didn’t understand the technology, because physical borders are no defence against cyber attack, but I suppose nothing much has changed in that respect. I didn’t have any hand in selecting this product in the first place, which probably also says how inexperienced I was.

So, the solution was for me to fly out to the USA to do the work. It was only for about a month, and my first taste of the USA. The company’s backers were venture capitalists based near Washington, DC, so that was the natural place to work.

In the end, it was a small town right by Dulles (Washington’s main) Airport. Aspects of the USA were brilliant but it was very “suburbs” – every journey had to be made by car, the highway was dotted with clumps of either houses or shops, and in between there was a whole lot of nothing. I didn’t like the suburb aspect but I did like things like the shops in the larger malls (I bought a new wardrobe!), Mexican food, say. Some things. I have a vague memory that this was around Easter 1996, and because I thought it was a one-off trip, I tried to squeeze in all the Washington touristy bits – the White House, Smithsonian, Arlington Cemetery etc. I remember watching the Oscars live from a bar – it was Braveheart’s year and probably to this day that’s the only Oscar winner I can name.

But because of the suburbs aspect, when I got back home I didn’t take it any further, and the project trundled on. The company signed a deal with Barclaycard in the UK, but Chase Manhattan were also interested, and the US is a far bigger market than the UK. Meantime I had started managing the entire project, although, because it was a one-project company, there was a lot of involvement from directors. I knew early on that management was not really for me – one of my employees came to me one day with a personal problem, and I remember thinking, “stuff your problem, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my deadline”. Not a brilliant attitude on my part and, in all jobs since, I’ve concentrated on the technical side rather than on people.

In order to help close the deal with Chase, I was sent out to their campus in Tampa, Florida. for a few weeks to hold a series of technical meetings about how the solution worked. I liked Tampa, it was mostly very new but had areas with a decent history and vibrant atmosphere thanks to its Spanish background. Plus, of course, the weather was a big improvement on the UK. This was early summer 1996, and the trip culminated in a meeting at Chase’s head office in New York City.

The series of meetings obviously helped, and we duly signed a deal with Chase. Instead of Washington, DC, we’d be located in Tampa, Fl. to be close to them. The company clearly had designs on moving to the US, so I let it be known that I’d quite like to go over there permanently, and they set the wheels in motion to obtain a visa. I liked Tampa much more than DC, somewhere I’d happily have lived.

Chase must have been having their own meetings about the project, and the next thing I knew, Chase dictated that the project now had a sufficiently strategic importance, that they wanted us close by, in New York City. Personally, this was fine by me, since I’d liked New York City even more than Tampa. My first impressions of Manhattan had been very positive. The only thing was that the cost of living was that much higher than in Florida, but that was the company’s problem, not mine, right? At the time, everything for me was on expenses anyway.

From midsummer 1996 onwards, therefore, I was over in New York City quite a bit, helping to set up a US operation. Funnily enough, I didn’t do many “tourist” things, mostly because there was no hurry. I did go up to the top of the World Trade Center, and remember going to Staten Island on the ferry, to see Liberty, but there was lots more I eventually wanted to do. I loved New York – it was very different to most of the US, just in terms of its compactness. And there was so much going on – if I had to identify the capital of the world, this was it.

By the end of the year, my visa had come through so it was time to make things permanent. I said most of my goodbyes in the UK and gave up my rent. Then, the snag!

Basically, the company offered me a deal to work in Florida, which I accepted. They offered me the same deal, but in New York City. I researched, and that the cost of living in New York was 3x that of Florida. Additionally, I’d been in New York for some months now, I’d made a few friends and, more importantly, had been involved in hiring future co-workers. So, I’d had some knowledge of the market – I’d be managing people earning $1000/day, while I’d be earning a quarter of that! Presumably the company gambled that just the opportunity to work in the USA would be irresistable, but that was never really the case. I also had my doubts about the company itself – was it really something I wanted to be involved with? I felt that the atmosphere could be quite toxic at times, even between the directors (which they should never have let me see). The company was very marketing-driven, often making promises that were impossible to deliver given the technology of the time. I remember once working a 26-hour stint the day before a meeting, for exactly this reason – and I was expected back in the office after a half day’s rest!

Also the support we had from Chase was equivocal. I’ve seen it many times since, but at the time it was a new experience. Weren’t we all on the same side? The middle-managers we dealt with harboured ambitions to become senior managers – they had to maintain a certain distance from us because if not, and the project went sour, then it might reflect badly on them. Middle managers in large corporates think very much like that the world over – make sure you don’t go out on a limb for anything, and you’ll get promoted just for not screwing up! Actually, the senior managers I know got there precisely by going out on a limb and succeeding against the odds, but that’s a different story, and I have the benefit of experience.

Anyway, the to-ing and fro-ing went on over Christmas 1996, but in the end I decided not to take the offer – it was a step backward rather than forward for me. I was still minded to get to New York somehow – the visa (which wasn’t transferable, but it did at least show that the US Immigration people thought that my skills were sufficiently desirable), whilst at the same time set up my own company in the UK, in case things didn’t work out. I was really at the point in my career where I felt able to strike out on my own.

As it happened, I severed my ties formally with this company in February 1997, fortunately there was a spell where I was on gardening leave but on full pay, which I used to develop my own business. I got the first work through my company in early March, down near Winchester (which brought me to this area), and over time lost the urge to work in the USA. I loved New York City but looking at how things turned out both personally and professionally, I can’t really complain.

I got a letter from an official receiver, some months later, telling me that the UK arm of this company had gone to the wall – I suspect they put all their eggs into the Chase basket and Barclaycard weren’t too thrilled – but by then I was nicely into the rest of my life.

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