Goodbye Zemanta

03.10.2011 23:26

In July I gave my notice. Today I signed off the final agreement. I'm no longer an employee of Zemanta. I don't regret choosing to work there, neither do I regret quitting.

I joined Zemanta just after my graduation in 2007. In part because I was somewhat disappointed at the Faculty I was studying at. Zemanta offered me an interesting challenge in a completely different part of science, opportunity to brush up my software engineering skills and a radical change in environment.

The months we spent on 4 Purves Road was in hindsight one of the most intense periods of my life. Both in the terms of learning new things, writing code and working and living together with a small team in a house in London. It was as close to the top of the world feeling as I got.

Moving back to Slovenia was also moving back to reality. Things we hacked together in London had to be put into production state, maintained and developed further. This was the time I finished up Zemanta's word sense disambiguation engine and in-text links recommendations and started working on a proprietary triple-store. All of which got through several iterations and ended up in a state I was reasonably proud of.

I learned a lot about the facts of real-life programming. The purely engineering work was already replacing research and innovation, but I still felt I was participating in development of something useful. Changing the world wasn't out of the question yet.

Then my work more or less turned into doing data integrations with various corporate customers of the more or less reputable content type. It was the financial crisis and I did what I could to help keep the company afloat, even if that meant a year of boring, repetitive work. I got out of practice with my previous work in natural language processing but did learn how communication between large corporate hierarchical structures is held and how I don't want to be anywhere near such discussions again.

After another round of investment, the crisis was over. The team increased in ranks again in 2011 and I moved away from touching up Excel sheets.

The work became addictive. It was just enough challenging not to be boring, but not breaking a sweat either. Neither could you call it innovative - I'm fairly certain a web crawler has been reinvented a thousand times over. But it was also incredibly rewarding in terms of work done and tickets crossed over. I sometimes spent evenings thinking up architectural changes and hunting little bugs long into the night.

I guess I got scared a little that if I'm not going to break the habit now I'll just keep sitting in this cozy niche.

The work on the aggregator is also characteristic of how my programming practice in Zemanta was turning. I was doing less and less original work and more and more mopping up past mistakes, fixing bugs nobody understood and cleaning up botched code bases. It's hard to keep working in a team where the person next to you might be the next cause of a lost weekend. Bugs bother me, and I tend to fix them.

Early morning in Zemanta office

I was skeptical of the bright new web 2.0 world from the start. But at Zemanta I had the feeling that I was contributing something positive to society. By developing genuinely useful language technologies and bringing them to the people I thought of all the web start-up business as just the current means of funding such development. And I want to believe that I was not alone with this feeling at Zemanta. Things changed and I found myself one day in a company that tried to emulate your average web start-up by catering to the lowest common denominator and having big media for customers and users as the product.

When I'm engrossed in work I tend not to notice such gradual changes in the environment, so the realization was a big disappointment that hit me all at once. It was an incident that got inflated way out of proportion and left me hugely disappointed at the company and people involved. They say that sharing a common goal with people doesn't mean they have the same motivation as you. I guess I learned that lesson the hard way.

The company culture itself changed in a significant way. I was no longer in an enthusiastic start-up but a company that started hiring expensive external consultants to increase productivity. Scrum. Agile development. Consultants that performed a couple of interviews and then came up with recipes that increase productivity 1200% [sic]. Two valued colleagues quit just before I did and that was the first time I heard that the company has management and that you can get in trouble by disagreeing with them. This company's problem is that people answer back too much and don't do what they're told was one memorable quote.

There's a saying that good engineering is beautiful, but beautiful engineering isn't necessarily good. There were good parts, but what I mostly saw in the consultant's work was plastering signs of a good team over the problems even though having those signs doesn't necessarily mean that you're a good team. Meetings after meetings, where nobody listened to nobody. I increasingly got the feeling that my technical knowledge and insight wasn't needed as only short term requirements ever got planned.

For the last few months I was purely running on inertia. It gradually decreased as the team changed and I could no longer feel the attachment I used to.

Sharks by Sam Sandberg

Photo by Sam Sandberg

Quitting was hard for me. Some manage to keep a firm wall between their professional projects and personal feelings. When I take over a project I try to do my best and I can only do that when I get personally involved. That's why it's now hard to leave things behind and wipe the code I've been working on for years from my hard drive. But I just could no longer ignore all the things that have been bothering me in the back of my head.

Last weeks I spent in the office I was working triple time. Closing up current things, interviewing new candidates to replace me and handing off responsibilities to current staff and having what you could consider exit interviews. On Friday around 10 pm I committed my last bug fix, turned off the lights and went home.

I was given the opportunity and means to reconsider my decision in two months, something I feel honored about. But I didn't change my mind.

When I came in today to give my signature I was expecting to go to one last lunch with the former colleagues. Instead, on request from the new lead engineer, I spent the lunch time giving a Q & A about some parts of the codebase.

No, I don't regret quitting. I only regret not being more vocal before the clock rang midnight. Zemanta, if this is the path you chose, I wish you best of luck. I will not follow it.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Life

Comments

Lepo napisano. Vso srečo še naprej, Tomaž :)

Posted by FenikZ

In "America" they say, "I screwed you over, but that's only business, nothing personal". I more believe to the opposite, it's personal before anything else. And working in sane environment is a top priority on my list. Good lesson learned!

Tomaz,

Working with you for the past half year has been an honor and a privilege, and I hope that our paths cross again many times - socially, professionally, but most importantly, in hacker settings.

( :

Happy trails buddy,

-Sam

Pred dnevi me zbudila novica o prezgodnjem odhodu Steve Jobs-a. Zdaj me prizadela tvoja zgodba. Imel si sreco s prvo sluzbo in odhod je vsekakor bolec. Kar nekaj podobnih dogodkov te sse caka. Upam, da bos najdel primerno okolje v LJ. Jaz sem te videl kot podiplomca v ZDA. Sse 40 let dela do mojega statusa upokojenca :-)

Posted this wonderful post and my comment to www.facebook.com/cyberhippitotalism: """Fellow hacker quits local startup (?) Zemanta after working there since the beginnings, and writes up a great exercise in personal work ethics. (Zemanta basically pioneered the Slovenian new-wave IT start-up scene back in late 2007, after winning the first Seedcamp, but then...). Tomaž, working & cohabiting London's 5 Purves Road with you, and the team, for those few months in 07/08 was mind-blowingly awesome for me. That whole experience inspired me to think about how hackers could co-live and co-work, so sprouting this, Cyberhippitotalism (CHT). /// I can also completely agree and personally relate with you've written. Much great fun & results with whatever you'll be doing in most immediate future. ^david"""

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