Like lot of other people I ended up with my current occupation by accident. I was more interested in trade and economics than technology. However I failed at the acceptance test for University of National and World Economy in Bulgaria and ended in the Technical University of Sofia. My mother was very disappointed: "You will never become a good engineer", I remember her saying. But here I am - after 13 years (or more if I count my intern time) in Technology, working for companies like 3Com, SAP and now Microsoft. And I disagree with her - I became good engineer! And I think that failing the exam was good thing for me.
My career started in the early 90s at my brother's company in Bulgaria, helping him to assemble and sell PCs . Because I was student at the time this was just a couple-of-hours-a-week job or summer job for me. In the early 90s the only way to get successful in Bulgaria was either with tons of money (we don't have rich aunt:)) or providing good service. He concentrated on the latter and after couple of years was able to build quite good customer base that generated good profit for the company.
While working for him I learned not only the technology but also how to interact with people. Thanks to those interactions I was able to get a couple of side projects like designing bottle labels on CorelDraw, or creating protected WinWord forms, or writing Cyrillized (comes from Cyrillic:)) driver for MS Word (for DOS) and other random stuff. I remember this guy with the labels - he was a gold mine for me and although I was getting only 10% of the money he was getting it was still a lot for the 2h per week I was spending with him. People like him who were not tech proficient liked me because I was able to explain them in simple words what is possible and what is not. My technology career began.
Tough Times, Fun Times
In 1996 my brother decided to move to US and he split the partnership and packed the suitcases. I was jobless. However this was the year of my graduation and I was quite busy to complete my thesis. Bunch of professors were amazed after seeing 5 web pages served from a web server running on my PC (which I dragged to the auditorium). In September 1996 I was done with the University and the next step was the army. You can imagine how surprised was I when the recruiters told me: "We don't have money to feed you and cannot accept you in the army at this time. Come back in six months!". Well! That's odd. Serving in the army was mandatory for every man in the country and I preferred to have this behind my back as soon as possible. I couldn't start something and quit in six months. Additional to that nobody will want me if they know that I am about to join the army in 6 months.
Couple of friends and I decided to make a partnership and sell computer parts. I was already into the Web and Internet because my degree thesis was building Web Sites (quite advanced for Bulgaria in 1996) and had already subscribed for dial-up Internet connection and e-mail address with one of the first ISPs in the country. It wasn't hard to find a couple of Taiwan and Hong Kong suppliers who gladly offered us good prices on memory and CPUs (we wanted to concentrate on small weight and expensive items to avoid high shipping costs - good idea from my brother that I opposed previously but once I started thinking about it I saw the logic). First delivery went pretty well - we had a box full of SIMMs and CPUs that now we needed to sell. Our customers were other small PC assemblers. I called some of the companies my brother worked with before and we were able to sell the box within a week or two with good profit.
Although most of the companies in Bulgaria did not give any warranty on SIMM modules we promised to our customers that we will take any problematic modules. Of course small percentage of the SIMMs failed and we had to take them back. We promised to replace them when the new delivery comes. Having in mind that memory prices were spiking at the time and demand was high we thought we hit the jackpot. Of course we immediately ordered more SIMMs putting all the money back in to the new order. However this one didn't go so well - big chunk of SIMMs were stolen and on top of that insurance declined the claim. After exchanging the ones that broke at our customers we lost not only the profits from the first order but much more. Third delivery was our last one. We almost broke even in local currency but then the hyperinflation took everything away.
Hyperinflation and dynamic exchange rates opened new opportunity. Because at the time the currency market in Bulgaria was so dynamic, currency exchange offices around the city had trouble getting the information on time and very often some were selling way below the price other were buying. I've sent couple of my friends with cell phones to wander through the city and monitor the rates. Once they've spotted the difference I've jumped in the car and completed the transaction. After paying their commissions plenty left for me. Once my friends saw what I was doing they became so excited that they invested their own money in it. For the next couple of weeks we managed to get really good profits. Everybody was happy :) However the government cut this easy source of income pretty fast with the introduction of fixed exchange rate.
Those quick money helped me get out of the whole with the previous adventure and survive for the next couple of months while trying another one. Again through Internet I establish connection with some guy in Dubai that owned a couple of juice factories, bottling facility for mineral water (who could imagine that Dubai bottles mineral water?!!) and had good connections with companies supplying PET (that is the plastic modern bottles are made from). He started asking whether I can find companies in Bulgaria, which he can buy fruit concentrate from and other that were interested to buy PET bottles. My teachers taught me for years that Bulgaria is agricultural country so we should be able to find juice producers and Coca Cola was also bottling in the country so they will need PET. Ready, set, go!
Surprisingly this guy was also planning vacation with his family in Bulgaria so it was easy for me to organize him couple of meetings. We met with Coca Cola representative who became very excited with the offer and said that he will buy (as far as I remember the number) 500K bottles per month. The guy from Dubai just laughed: "That's it?", he asked. As it came out this was very tiny order for him but he was hoping that once Coca Cola starts buying from him others will start too. My commission would have being ~$50 per order and I can assume he wasn't getting a whole lot. 50 bucks is not much but having in mind that salaries in Bulgaria were averaging $100/month for few phone calls and e-mails that was fine with me. I thought: "Couple of those and I would be able to feel free". Not so easy! First the Coca Cola guy came back and said: "I want commission too." And he wanted a fat one. And yes, it is illegal. Also, the juice concentrate story was complete disaster. The Dubai-guy got frustrated in the weeks after because the other one didn't want to lower his commission and the deal broke.
Begin of My Career
My adventure time seemed to be over. During all this time I was synching from time to time with an old neighbor and co-student of my brother. She worked for one of the biggest IT companies in the country and just opened the local 3Com subsidiary. Thanks to her recommendation I got an interview with the local sub of CHS - worldwide hardware and software distributor at the time. It was my first interview in English and my knowledge in the language was only from Internet and the Web books I read for my thesis. By some reason (I think my friend has a lot to do with that) they decided to hire me and I started as Pre-Sales Engineer for 3Com and IBM hardware. It was pretty cool to work again with customers every day. I learned a lot about networking and was pretty excited about 3Com products. However the pay wasn't so great (just $150/month) and was 1/3 commission based on the sales. And my sales counterpart wasn't able to close any deals without my help - she just wasn't right for the job and customers started ignoring her and coming directly to me. My main responsibility wasn't sales but pre-sales consulting and in our spare time they wanted from me and the other two technical guys to do some network and server administration. At that time I also learned Lotus Notes and Novell administration. After couple of months I decided that there isn't any opportunity for me and started looking for new job. Anyway we couldn't make the numbers neither for 3Com nor for IBM and it just wasn't worth it. Two bright spots were 1.) I met Polly (my wife) in CHS and 2.) this job opened new doors - people started knowing me and I created lot of contacts in the industry.
I applied for a position in the local office of Nemetschek (the CAD/CAM software vendor). Surprisingly it was in a small 2 bedroom apartment and I was the forth person working there:) I had no clue about CAD/CAM but my job was to actually administer the (take a breath...) 1 (one) file server and Windows based network we had in the office. Having less stress and 30% more money sounded good to me. My manager was pretty ambitious and he started growing the office rapidly. I convinced him we will need better infrastructure and he tasked me to buy the equipment and set up the cabling. So I did that and set up the whole LAN with on-demand dial-up Internet access. Because the headquarter used Lotus Notes too I set up Notes server with all the replications. Everything was working fine except the on-demand dial-up service in Windows NT server. The dummy service was buggy and in the KB article Microsoft posted about it the message was something like: "If it works - works. If it doesn’t you can't fix it and wait for the fix." However months passed and no fix was delivered. I found some third party application that did the job and everything worked fine from now on. My boss was so happy that he said: "From now on you are in charge of Lotus Notes administration for all the offices we will support. Also, work with this guy (some guy from Czech Republic) who is developing custom application; figure out how to develop it and deploy it." Good! I was sent to the headquarter in Germany for a week on a kind of Lotus Notes training. As it came out Germans who were supposed to train me knew less than me about Notes but I liked the trip :) When I came back I took two fast Notes trainings from the local Lotus dealer and ran back to Poland and Croatia to complete the deployment.
Unfortunately my boss declined to pay for my training (and its cost was as much as my salary for the month) and hired some guy who had no clue what Lotus Notes is, but was quite good bureaucrat, to be my boss. Coincidently the guys from the company I went to training called me after one passionate discussion with my boss (you can assume I had some attitude:)) and told me that they look for Notes developers and whether I would like to join them. Conditions: same salary with some bonus and free training plus increase of salary after every level completed. Why not? Here I am. I just started and my new boss came to me with the good news: "You will fly next week to Germany for a month to work onsite at our new customer." This is how I met one of my future employers and couple of old friends from school. After spending 4 weeks in Germany (and working under lot of pressure) I came back like beaten horse. Damn, I've worked overnight to assemble PCs but Fritz (this was his real nickname) was really though. So, he was happy with me and one more guy but the other two didn't work well. The project continued couple of more months but was obviously died at the end. I became a Certified Lotus Notes Developer, learned more Web development and Java. While being there we did some more projects, among which one for the Democratic party in Bulgaria to collect election votes and publish them before the official ones. After completing the application I was the one traveling across the country to deploy it (this was the time I almost rolled in my car). I met bunch of important people among which was the Prime Minister of the country (I am sure he doesn't remember me). Meanwhile also I was working (in the late night hours:)) on a side project for my friend from 3Com to connect Notes to Oracle RDBMS and pull sales data from it. The UI was dynamic web interface to Oracle with restricted access for local 3Com dealers only. Quite cool for the time and extending for my knowledge in technologies.
At the end of 1999 my friend from 3Com called me and said she needs a tech savvy guy for the position that just became vacant in the office. Salary - several times higher than my current one; benefits - company car, company phone, paid fuel, no overtime. Duh! At the time I was joking that my salary is higher than the official salary of Bulgarian President (and it was but we all know he was receiving unofficial one too:)). 3Com was great! Not only the benefits but the meetings with customers, international relations and the technology. Until… they killed it in 2000. We tried to survive in the second half of 2000 with selling more from the less that the company was offering. The things people liked were not more offered by 3Com. How can you fulfill millions of dollars quota if you sell network and PCMCIA cards. Especially in small country like Bulgaria. We were getting additional bonuses for selling Total Control hubs to ISPs but this was not included in our revenue. The good part was that I had the opportunity to travel a lot. The bad part for them was they sent me to US and I liked it. The funny part was that while I was in US (for just 10 days) the army recruiters remembered about me. Hey guys, I was 10,000 miles away and they've threaten me with arrest if I don't report within 24 hours. My brother (who I was visiting at the end of my trip) tried to convince me to stay but I was too loyal to my colleagues and the company so I boarded the plain. I dealt with the army recruiters immediately after I came back (the illegal way because there was no legal) and quit 3Com 6 months after that.
I boarded the plain and flew to US at the last day of January 2001. Not the right time to look for a job - right? I spent 5 months trying to find a job in the Technology area but without any luck. During this time I tried to learn as much as I could in order to make my resume more appealing to recruiters but with all .COMs falling apart nothing happened. Giving any hope I started packing the suitcases because Polly was pregnant with our first child Kalina. Then a reply on one of my messages in a BEA forums struck me. One of my friends, who was working for Fritz (see above) replied with answer and the question: "What are you up to nowadays?". I've sent him a mail telling him the short story and he replied: "Come to Germany! We are looking for Java developers."
I've cancelled my ticket to Bulgaria and rescheduled to fly to Germany. On the morning I landed I met with Fritz and he told me something like: "OK, here is your office. You start today!" "Wait a minute", I replied. "I don't have work permit. Also, my wife is pregnant in Bulgaria." "We need copy of your passport and will apply for permit, and we can pay for your wife to fly next week.", he replied. It wasn't so simple. Polly had some complications and couldn't fly. Additional to that finding apartment to rent in Germany turned out to be very tough job. Anyway, it took us almost 6 months to get back together with Polly; Kalina was born in Bulgaria and I was able to spend just few weeks with them during the pregnancy. I was tasked to research the integration of WebSphere Web Server with Lotus Notes and build application that pulls data from the content management system in Notes and uses WebSphere as presentation layer (with it's better performance). Soon after that DB2 and LDAP server came into play and we worked to build really cool Web presence for the regional banks in Germany. Technology was good and exciting and it kept us awake for days. I cannot image now working for 36 hours non-stop:) However not everything was pink and glory. It seems the contract Fritz made with the computing centers serving the banks gave the exclusive rights on the code and he wasn't able to sell it to others. Also, his approach was: "They can't do without us, so they will play my game." But around the beginning of 2003 the centers said: "Give us the code and look for other customers." That was it! I've met Fritz a year after - he was venturing with some guys from Ukraine and developing bank software for banks in UK. I really like Fritz as a person but as manager he hasn't done good job.
I left the company before it went in bankruptcy and started at SAP. SAP is great company but a little bit conservative. I worked in a team that was early adopter of their J2EE server and famous WebDynpro UI technology. The application we build was supposed to help customers manage their system landscapes and was pulling data from a custom CIM implementation. There was a funny story when I started. Right before we start coding we were supposed to prepare the infrastructure and the choice was between Perforce and the new source management system from SAP. "We need to see what will it take to onboard on the new versioning system.", my boss told me. OK! I checked here and there and learned that the goal is to retire Perforce and use the new one. Great! I send mail to the contact who was responsible for onboarding on the new system. "You can't onboard! Sorry!", was his reply. "Why not? We are new project and it makes no sense for us to start using Perforce and migrate after 3 months (that was the timeframe they wanted to kick off migration).", I replied. "If you want to get onboarded, talk with Klaus (as far as I remember the name)", the guy replied shortly. Klaus it be! I sent mail to him, CC:ing my boss and explaining how stupid it will be to start on Perforce and move to the new system in three months. The next minute my boss was in my office looking worried: "Do you know who Klaus is?", he asked immediately. "The gatekeeper for the new system?", I asked. "No! He is one of the VPs.", my boss looked worried. On the next morning we've called for emergency 15 mins meeting with Klaus and we got his blessing to onboard on the new system.
As I mentioned SAP is great company and I wanted to stay longer with them. However Polly won green card from the lottery and we decided to move to US. She had no chance to find good job in Germany and I wanted to move to US anyways. I started looking for job at SAP in their US office but outsourcing to India just become hype in Germany and there was no chance to get a application developer position in US. I tried with consulting but took me months to explain the recruiters that I am authorized to work in US (sometimes I am wondering what kind of people hold those positions). Nevertheless, after few months searching with the help from the boss of my boss and no success I told them: "Look guys, I am packing and flying in three months. If you find something I'll be glad to stay with you but I need to enter the country in the next five or six months." Suddenly, some development manager from Palo Alto replied to one of my applications and wrote that he will fly to Germany in few weeks and wants to meet with me. The meeting went well and he offered me position "one level below Architect" (read Senior Software Developer). He was going on vacation after his trip to Germany but promised his assistant to contact me. At the same time I applied for a positions in Microsoft and had phone interview with a recruiter and screen from a PM in Subscriptions and Commerce Group (SCG). The phone screens went well and I was scheduled for interview on campus in September 2005. I sent my resume to few other companies in US and posted my resume on few job boards and got few replies from recruiters.
Among the replies I got was one from Google, who even put me through a phone screen with recruiter and some girl from a product group. The recruiter was really cool and we had nice and long chat with her. She followed promptly and organized everything perfectly. I cannot say the same for the girl from the product group. The interview started with few introductory questions what I did and what I know. Then she asked me for a some command in Linux. I worked on AIX, Solaris and Linux but I am not a person who remembers things that can be found in less than a minute (using Google:)). I told her that I can get around pretty well with any Unix based OS and tried to politely explain that learning to cite every Linux command is not my understanding of useful spend time. "OooK! This is OooK...", she said with her slow and even voice. The next 45 mins every second question was about command in Linux or how can I do something on Linux console (using commands). Sure, I didn't get the job (which by the way wasn't Linux Administrator:)) but I didn't want it anyway, after this interview. Week after the interview I received mail from the recruiter that they are "sorry, but found better match". Although the interviewer sucked I was pretty impressed with the recruiters and the interview process in Google.
Taking More Risks
I flew from Germany on August 31st 2005. Still employed by SAP till the end of September (God, I love the vacations in Europe!) I felt pretty confident that I will get a job within a month. Around September 10th I flew to Nashville, TN and got an offer for Java Architect for pretty good money in a small software vendor. However those guys were not very clear what the other benefits were and I took them too long to figure it out. Meanwhile I passed two interviews with Microsoft (one with Server and Tools and another one with Members Platform Group). A day after I got the offer from Microsoft, I received phone call and the lady on the other side asked me: "Where in Germany is your stuff? We need to move you to the bay area." "Excuse me! What are you talking about?", I must have sounded very surprised because she wanted to confirm once again who is on the phone. As it came out she was from SAP Logistics and was supposed to move me from Germany to Palo Alto, CA. "This is all good", I said. "But I don't have any offer from SAP and besides that I already moved to US." Now she was surprised! She said that the hiring manager is supposed to get back in the office in few days but about month ago (before he left for vacation) he instructed them to get in touch with me and start the process. One month is a long time and lot of things can happen. In the next few days we exchanged some communication with the hiring manager and tried to get to some agreement on the offer that sounded better than Microsoft one but without success. I liked the guy however he worked under his constraints.
So, This is What People Call “The Dark Side”
Accepting Microsoft offer turned out to be very good choice for my career. I started as a Program Manager in MPG (part of MSN at the time) and worked on the internal ticketing tools for Customer Support. Not a cutting edge technology but the job was interesting and we had lot of interactions with people from support organization, which allowed me to learn how big companies think about the customer (hehehe, you think you know everything :)). After a year my management was so happy with me and they promoted me to lead the team that worked on the tool. I was responsible to complete the global rollout of the tool and put every agent who does consumer support on the same platform. It was quite big improvement for Microsoft because we were able to improve quite a few support workflows including Xbox repair process (that was big). After a re-org or two I ended in Windows Experience team and now I lead PM team working on Windows Help Client and Windows Web site.
This is not all but I think is getting too long. Therefore I will end with brief summaries of what I like and dislike:
- My Family
- Stock Markets
- Car Salesmen
How do I want to make my money going forward (think 5 years from now:))?
- Web next.0
- Real Estate
Thank you for reading so far!