ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

My Best Bosses: Pat —

While not required to jump on his sword like my boss Brian, Patrick O’Malley was definitely up there, a close second to Brian in all he did for me.

By the time Brian hired me, he did so when I was 29, a veteran of hosting computers and UNIX and a bunch of other technical details. He found me communicative and engaging, and hired me without a second round of interviewing. The reason he had such a person to hire was because of Pat.

There’s a whole book in my time in the videogame industry (all two years of it) and that’s coming down the pike. In fact, that’s kind of the reason I started this weblog to begin with, to get my skills and chops up in writing so I can do that subject justice. But for the sake of explaining Pat, let’s leave me right at the end of my videogame life. I was 27, basically broke, thousands of dollars in debt, and months had passed since I’d seen a paycheck. Desperate, I knew it was time to move on, so I went to, of all things, the Usenet Newsgroup (New England Jobs) and searched for “UNIX” and “$”. Three places had a phone number. Pat picked up the phone when I called, and when I said I wanted to send a resume, and I still remember this so many years later, he said:

“So, tell me on the phone in the next two minutes why I should hire you.”

I stumbled along, on the spot, and then he told me to come down to Medford, Massachusetts, where the datacenter was, and do an interview. At this interview, he gave me a discussion of RAID, the use-of-multiple-drives-for-redundant-protection approach to storage, and then asked me to do some research on the subject and come back with some answers. I left and spent a week on it, and then came back. Now, interestingly enough, my resultant answers were wrong; I missed a basic fact and came to the wrong conclusions. But that wasn’t what Pat was interested in. He was interested in the fact that I’d wanted the job badly enough to do the work of researching, compose a report, and then come back in a week to present my conclusions. By the time I’d come back, I was well on my way to really understanding RAID (Pat loved RAID, it turned out) and he saw potential in this. Plus, I was not a freak.

Pat hired me for a 30 day trial as a consultant. He liked doing this and explained why (Pat could always explain his actions). Pay a nice fat consultant’s fee, make some good cash, and if at the end of 30 days you don’t fit in, well, at least you have a fat sack of mad cash. And I remember this month, too, because it turned out I was working 60 hour weeks or greater. At $50 an hour. In other words, I went from a job where I saw a total of $9,000 the previous year (because of the missed paychecks by the videogame company) to making $3,000+ a week. By the time my month of consulting was up, I’d paid off all my debts, every single one. I’d gone from a broke, burnt out lost soul to a completely healthy one. It was cathartic.

Pat had a number of interesting management approaches and philosophies. I got them either directly or indirectly, and they might not work for everyone, but I think it speaks to his character.

  • He hated freaks. By freaks, I mean people who were unbelievably talented in some field but utterly incapable of getting along with other human beings. If they acted weird, made strange declarations and pre-conditions for doing basic tasks, or were, basically, someone he couldn’t feel comfortable bringing in front of a customer, he didn’t want them. Part of that 30-day trial period was to see if you were a freak. He wanted friendly, smart, knowledgeable people who weren’t afraid to dumb down a subject to get the point across but could ramp back up in seconds if they turned around and faced another engineering type. All of his people were capable of this or they weren’t his people.
  • When you gave an estimate on the time to do a task for a customer, he doubled it.
  • He defended his group to the death. This meant he got a lot of hate from other departments. I could see how this would cause trouble for the company and is a classic example of warring factions, but he was our manager and it was about us. He said multiple times across the years, “if someone from above tells me to let one of my people go just to save money or to make a point, I leave first”. Claiming one of Pat’s people had done you wrong or was incompetent got Pat’s sights on you, and you found yourself in a pail with a shark and wearing meat sweatpants.

To say Pat’s sense of humor was biting is being coy. Stinging… surgical… a precision bombing campaign of gritted-teeth intensity’s a little more like it. If you watch my speeches, I will suddenly lay out a whopper of a line. Trust that to Pat. I soaked up his style like a sponge and it never went away. And this switchblade joke style made it so I still remember them, years on. I recall, for example, an argument with a vendor over downtime; the vendor wanted it on one day, Pat wanted it another. He looked over at me, smiled, and then said into the phone “Y’know, if you go out and speak to 100 guys in the industry, 99 of them are going to agree with me… and the other one will be you.

The world of YouTube has provided a quick and easy was to see Pat in action. Here he’s talking about something as simple as SMS (text messaging on mobile devices) and you can find, I hope, some of the roots of my own speaking style and approach to audiences in how he presents himself.

I must state again: this man quintupled my salary, on a hunch I’d do him right. He shot me up multiple tax brackets because I thought I was worth the risk. I hope I was. After Pat left the company, he occasionally called me up to help with a job or consulting project he was on, another one of the tools in his pocket as he did different work. His first love is teaching, but teaching pays ass, and so he goes between technology work and education. (He spent years as a trainer, if that isn’t evident).

We had years together, as a company’s fortunes ebbed and flowed, and we handled crises, triumphs and tragedies as needed. He could nail a situation in moments and give us the plan, or he could step back and let us do the work, just making sure it got done. He was, truly, one of my best bosses.

If he calls me and needs me, I’m already halfway there.

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  1. Chris says:

    Re: Freaks
    I’ve worked with so many of these types of people, great at their little niche specialty, but absolute SOBs to deal with every day because of their inflated egos and toxic personalities. I’ll take an easy-to-get-along-with but maybe-not-the-smartest-guy-in-the-room person over an egotistical know-it-all any day of the week.

  2. joat says:

    I’ve had the privilege to work for a lady who took a job more difficult than herding cats (hint: herding teenagers). She was one of those wonderful people who not only would accept you at your word (if you said a project would take 2 weeks, she’d contact you in two weeks), she would steadfastly take the bullet if you performed less than “external” expectations.

    It wasn’t until after she’d left that I realized that she not only had me putting in 50+ hours a week (and not hating a moment), she “forced” me to learn methods and practices which still serve me a decade later. I hope that I’m counted amongst the legion of people that have worked for her in the past and would take pay cuts and move to the Antarctic (if required) to work for her again.