Morgan (Host): Hey, everyone, welcome to the latest edition of ‘Client Horror Stories’ I’m honored and excited to have you on tonight, Ben Nuttall. I didn’t ask you how to pronounce your name when we were chatting before. Did I pronounce it correctly?
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, that’s good.
Morgan (Host): It’s good enough with my American twist. In honor of interviewing a Brit tonight, I have my American flag coffee mug with tea in it. But Ben, you have quite a story about your first job and lots of lessons that we can check so other people can avoid the horror stories that you survived. Let’s, let’s jump right in. I’d love to hear the story.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, sure. To begin with, I should say I work at the BBC now, which is, you know, a big and very well-formed organization with good software development practices in the UK. I work with a lot of young graduates and junior members of staff. There is a huge difference between the first jobs I had and the first jobs of my colleagues, who are far more well catered for and cared for. If I think about mine properly: it was quite different. From arriving at the interview to everything that should have been alarm bells going off. But I was young and naive and didn’t see the signs clearly, but everything from the start was not good.
Morgan (Host): I want to say that is a good point. I hadn’t thought about it before. Your first job ever truly frames what working should be like: it sets the norm. So if someone graduates and gets an incredible job at the BBC as their first job, they will think that’s what all jobs are like, and that’s how the universe works, but you can attest that it’s not how all jobs are.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, if you join BBC today, you will receive a lot of support, with good line management without wondering what it is like to work in this company, you will be just one tiny part of this huge system. You would be expected to be on the learning curve and will not have to handle great responsibility as a junior or a graduate. But in a completely another sort of affairs, like the one I joined in, I was the only web developer. I had to get the website up and running to what we never refer to as production since there wasn’t anything else to do. So yeah, people can have different experiences.
Morgan (Host): Totally! The way I judge the way the world works is the way I thought the world worked when I was 13. When you’re 13, you start to understand the world and what normal is. So, your first job has a similar sort of effect to that.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, that’s true
Morgan (Host): Let’s jump in. Let’s go through this story starting from that first interview. So, what happened? Ben Nuttall (interviewee): So, I turned up at the interview w
ith a proper interview outfit. So, I was wearing a full suit, smart trousers, smart shoes, and a shirt and tie. I went there and rang the bell. I was worried about getting there on time and finding the place and all that kind of things. I was a bit flustered, but then I showed up, rang the bell, and a guy came up wearing beach shorts and flip flops with a scraggly top, and I was there in a full suit. So, I told him that I had an interview with Chris, whom I had been emailing, and the first thing he said was, “Oh, Chris doesn’t work here anymore.” Now this was an alarm bell. The guy I was speaking to on emails two, three days ago was gone, and they were not expecting me.
Morgan (Host): I like articulating the Red Flags as we see them for our younger versions of our self watching. So, the first Red Flag is the very informal clothing, combined with a rapid transition without a handoff or expectation. Today, we realize that it smells fishy.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, yeah. Yeah. As a result, I would dress somewhat smartly if I were conducting an interview. Even if I wore casual clothing at my day job at an office, if I knew I would have an important meeting, or meet some external partners, or interview someone, I might not wear a full suit or whatever, but I would dress reasonably nicely, but I guess he wasn’t expecting me. So he had that excuse. So, this guy welcomes me in and asks what job I was applying for? I told him that I was there as a web developer.
He sat me down, searched for my resume in the other guy’s email inbox, and started scrolling through it. And again, I was thinking that I had spent ages getting the typography right, aligning all the columns to make sure the right words were in focus. And he’s just scanning through it in front of me in 10 seconds. So, he asked me which websites I had made before, and I gave him a bunch of URLs. He typed them in, opened up a few tabs, and flicked around them. And I donzzzz’t remember him asking me any technical questions. I think it was just like, if you can make websites, then sit in this chair and make websites for us.
I didn’t think that he’d offer me the job immediately, but he asked me to come tomorrow for a trial day. So that was a trial on a Friday. I did a full day’s work. Instead of starting on Monday, he asked me if I was free on Saturday. I hesitated a bit, but I said I was free. So he asked me to do another day tomorrow, and once I got started, I realized that this was his habit. He would try and get that extra odd day from you, and you’d naively believe, “Well, certainly they’ll pay me overtime for any of these extra days I’m doing,” but, in fact, that wasn’t the case. He was simply doing that, and after a while, I got used to it. I started complaining about some.
Morgan (Host): I want to add that it is a really good lesson because what happens all the time is people do these little things to get an extra hour, or four, or extra little things. And you don’t notice it, but it all adds up. It reminds me of taxi drivers in certain cities where they purposely take the slightly longer route to your destination to get that extra minute of the taxi fare.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): I’m not sure this is what it was. However, there is also a psychology of asking small favors and progressively bigger favors from someone in order to assert your power over them. At first they will ask for small things, and if you keep saying yes, before you know it, they will have a complete control over you.
I’m going with this story. So I started, and in fact, the first day was very interesting. It turned out that he had been building a web product on behalf of his boss and had almost overpromised and told him that it would be ready to be launched by such date. But they hadn’t hired a web developer yet. As a kind of jack of all trades IT person, he put the thing together using the wrong tools. He was using an E-commerce framework because he had used that kind of thing before. And he knew how to add the templates for this particular e-commerce framework.
He just botched this thing together and made something that appeared to be working. So, he sat me down on my first day and told me that it needed to be done. It was essentially a platform where one would embed flash and unity games to play on the website. But rather than just games that you can play
for free, just at your own will, you’d sort of pay credits to play the games to win prizes, some leader board. So the system needed to connect the games and everyone’s records that they would score at the end. So you had to have a login. And you had to have interactivity between this embedded game and the backend system. I had no idea what I was doing. I did not know where to get this thing to work. He sat me down next to one of the game developers who made that cool little game. And we had to figure out between ourselves how to communicate with them. At some point in the afternoon, we were making some good progress, but the guy in charge came back in and said that nobody is going home until it is finished. It was my first day, you know, on the job.
Morgan (Host): Wow!
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): And we were there until 9 p.m. And we got it to a point where the guy was happy with it. So we got to go home. But yeah, I just went back the next day to carry on.
Morgan (Host): So I want to make two comments on that. First, that’s a massively huge Red Flag. Not just to make you stay late, sometimes you need to stay late. But when someone says you’re not going home until this time that is just terrible planning. And on top of that, it was your first job. A few minutes ago, we discussed that your first job sets your expectations for what all jobs are like. So if that’s the first day, then?
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, I mean, I could have easily just walked out and said, this isn’t working for me, and I could have gone and found another job. But I went along with it. I needed a job because I just finished university and I needed to be able to pay the rent and things. So I was happy to have something that I was getting paid for.
Morgan (Host): Okay, so then that that happened to you, and she went home. And then?
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): I suppose it didn’t quite carry on the same. I wouldn’t say that we had late nights or anything like that, but we continued to build the site. They had people throwing money at Facebook ads once we had built it up enough that it was ready to be used, and there were lots of all sorts of crazy, crazy things like that. I should go into some background about the company.
So there was a property development company. They owned, rented, bought, and sold properties. That was the main business. And then the director of the company had this idea. It was 2011. The iPhone apps were the big thing of the year at the time. He suggested we should create a team to make apps, and we will make them and we will earn money. His dream plan was to make millions from the app. In that case, we got the person who ran the company’s website and handled the IT for the company. He was told that this is the budget for him to hire app developers and designers for some apps so that they could make some money. And that’s where this little team had come from.
They gave us a little office. It didn’t have any facilities. It had concrete flooring, bare concrete walls with graffiti all over them, and loads of PC. They told us that this is what we’d build, and you’d make a website for this and an app for that. The website they were building was designed with a bunch of graphical assets of farmyard animals for a game. For some reason, they had not gone ahead with it. But they had all the graphic design assets lying around. Essentially, they said, let’s use those farmyard animals as the theme for this arcade game website, which had all these farmyard animals all over it.
It was just loads of little things like that, which didn’t make sense without the background, but we got it up and running, and we had people using it as a result of Facebook ads. We were giving away prizes, small quite low-value prizes. I actually had a pretty good time building it. It was good fun. I was kind of left to my own. So, at one point, I swapped out the e-commerce framework because it didn’t really make sense. It was too hard to workaround. So, I got to do that my way. We built up this thing, and it was quite cool. And it was good fun for a while.
Morgan (Host): That’s great. I find it interesting. If you start with something new, you often joke about there being no concept of a production database because when companies hire inexperienced employees who don’t know how to do things, they might not even realize that there is a process that makes sense which leads to situations like the classic Oh, no, I just deleted the production database.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): I mean, everything. We didn’t, however, use any version control. Because it wasn’t something you were familiar with. I mean, it’s incredibly popular today for young developers and new developers to pick up from GitHub that was not as broadly used as now. And there were people using subversion at the time, but it wasn’t widespread.
Morgan (Host): I remember that. Yeah, this is old school.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): We weren’t even using that. It was just real amateur. But I’d say I was the only web developer, and I didn’t have anyone who tutored me by showing me the ways. They were paying us cheap salaries. And they had a bunch of people like me just out of university or just looking for a job. So, they didn’t have a source of experience or talent. They were just willing to have a go.
Morgan (Host): So the question is, you described a couple of hard moments over for the interview. And then the first couple of days, as it went on, did other disastrous situations slowly unravel themselves?
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah. For instance, the guy who owned the property company was a young entrepreneurial tycoon type who had a demeanor that hit me. He was quite young and small. He had a best friend from school. They had grown up together and he hired him to be his driver. He bought a Maserati car as a present for his friend and you know, who was his driver? So yeah, there were just weird moments like that. This guy just turning up with this Maserati, doing laps in the car parking. We noticed that the owner guy had a way of getting rid of someone when they annoyed him, or he wasn’t very pleased with them, or he just didn’t like them, rather than telling them they were fired and that they should get rid of them.
He would turn it on them so they would leave it on their own. He wouldn’t do that; instead, he’d go after that person in private. Bring them into his office and yell at them. He would tell them about themselves, their religion, and so on to the point that person would be infuriated and want to leave. This happened two or three times. One of the project managers was called in to see the owner. And he just came out storming, throwing things into his bag and muttering to himself, and swearing and shouting and telling announcing to the room that I’m off, I’m not taking any more of this. I noticed that the guy actually who brought me on, the one who interviewed me, the same thing happened to him a few weeks later.
We got to the point where he got rid of anyone who wasn’t just a developer or designer. So there wasn’t anyone really in between. Although I suppose there was another guy who was there. He was younger than me, and he was still at university but was in the placement year. In UK universities, after you do two years at university, you do a year in industry, and then you come back. His uncle was involved with the property business. So he got him in and asked him to work at this place. So he was essentially one of the two leaders of this company. Even though he was 19 and didn’t have any work experience but he was nice.
Morgan (Host): It is interesting. Now that we’re old enough and experienced enough to recognize Red Flags, several things are worth mentioning. First, having someone at the job who is not artistically appointed but just a kid on placement. Having that person in a position of leadership, like, like, how come there’s nobody seriously focused on the company? That would be a Red Flag to me. Another red flag is more subtle, but what I find interesting is the lack of level between the top and all the developers.
It’s interesting, I’ve learned some comments like this, and without a middle class, they usually turn out to be disasters. Some companies without the middle class have one big leader, and then lots and lots of soldiers on the bottom. Middle-class companies have leaders, vice presidents, directors, and a whole bunch of levels until it finally gets down to them and that feels more or less subject to the whims of a great leader then, as opposed to the first type of company.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, definitely. I’ve worked in different companies before, and I’ve been in a company where I’ve reported directly to the CEO. CEO and our small company had a good relationship. But then, over time, things have got more and more structured, and there have been more and more layers. And sometimes you think, Well, if you’ve got a good CEO, what else do you want? But being separated from them by some of those layers is a good thing because you don’t want to be at the whim of the CEO. And you don’t want to be in the direct line of fire. You want it to be filtered down through the layers.
Morgan (Host): Right.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): So, it went from pretty much three layers to essentially just two. So, him and everybody else. He got rid of people by essentially firing them. And then he was just barking orders at us now. We went to the point where he was just telling us what to do. We have to turn off the canned website. We have to restructure the way we sell tickets for games. I described earlier where you buy credits when you play the game, but it’s not this open-season game anymore.
He wanted us to build up a thing where he will raffle off 1000 tickets in a go, and then the game will go, so it didn’t require any work anymore. Then he asked us to put that project on the side. Now we will focus on making apps. So this is a point where it’s just the guy at the top, and he’s reporting to everybody else. So he’s telling everybody to make apps, and we got to the point where he set us in teams of three i.e. two developers and a designer. And each team had to make two apps a day.
Morgan (Host): One day?
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): One new app a day per developer and the designer split between the two. So yeah, one per day. So we’d be writing ideas on the whiteboard, but we did not have much time to think through them.
Morgan (Host): Would there be any app more complex than tic tac toe? Or like how you did that?
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, I mean we didn’t have any scope for anything interesting. We quickly ran out of ideas, and we ended up going for variations on the same thing. We’d built a quiz and change the questions next time with the same code, work, whatever. That’s what I ended up doing most of the time.
Morgan (Host): Wow! this is a huge Red Flag. He not only had crazy, unrealistic expectations but such an intense work rhythm that was designed to burn people out because that would burn any human out.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, things were happening fast, and we could not raise issues. We were just testing the water. The idea was if an app gets a lot of downloads, then we’ll put all the resources on that to make it look good. He was throwing stuff at the wall to see what stick. And then we’ll support that one. That was his approach. He just thought that would work. He had no experience in the IT industry. He didn’t know the app market. He didn’t know how to manage developers or how developers work.
One of the things I’ve noticed throughout my career is that it’s really easy for managers, directors, and people especially if they’re not in the tech industry to undervalue the creativity of the developers in the team. So they just think people, you know, he knows how to, he knows how to write code, she knows how to write code, sit them down, they can do all that, you know, with the ideas people, we can throw ideas at them. And the fact that they know that those people are capable of writing code and building apps with a creative mind. And such people have ideas of their own and creative solutions to things.
Morgan (Host): Yeah, unfortunately, I have noticed that pattern a lot. Often a competent person gets treated like a robot to produce the thing.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Code monkey!
Morgan (Host): Yeah, code monkey, exactly. And then that inevitably burns people out. This inspires them to quit sooner. But on top of that, it gets you worse apps, because the people who know only the technology can do this in this sort of way. You’re not harnessing or channeling creativity. Okay, so the question is, how long did this one app a day rhythm keep up?
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): I don’t remember how long it went on, but I didn’t stay long after that. The website thing that it was quite an interesting project, even though it was crazy and questionable in its legalities with gambling laws, but It was a fun project to work on. I was learning and building using my tools and stuff. But after we moved on to Apps, making an app a day was wasting time. I don’t remember how long it was, maybe only a few weeks.
But I got fed up with that. They never actually gave me a contract. So I didn’t have a notice period or anything. I was getting paid every month, so they were paying people; they just hadn’t sorted out any contracts. So I waited until the end of the month and made sure I was paid. And then I just said to the 19-year-old who was the guy left to report to, “I don’t feel like I have a place there anymore. We’re not working on the website. I’m not an app developer. So, I’m gonna go.”
Morgan (Host): How long was this experience?
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): It was less than four months.
Morgan (Host): When you told him you were quitting, did the big boss create the whole show and turn it on you and make you leave crying as he did with the others.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): I seem to remember he wasn’t around at the time, about which I was glad. I don’t think he would have cared. He wasn’t directly related to me leaving. But before this, a few days before, they told me that the web developer in the property business was off sick. And like my very first day, somebody had promised the boss that this new feature on their website would be finished and ready to show even though the developer was off. So they send me off to the other office and sat me down and I worked on the new feature all day. I had somebody to report to, and she told me what they needed and what this feature was. I worked on it got it all done fine, and she was happy with it.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): At the end of the day when we went to present it to the boss, he was not quite happy or maybe he wanted me to leave. He did this whole routine with me and just had a go and said, “Oh, this isn’t what we wanted, and this is not right.” And told me to go back to apps. It wasn’t quite as bad as the one presumably what the others were like, and it didn’t bother me the same way because I knew what he was like by then. Also, I was thinking about leaving, and I was waiting until the end of the month to get paid. So yeah, that did happen, but not on the same day.
Morgan (Host): This is possibly the craziest first-off story I’ve ever heard. And I’m happy you had healthy experiences since then so you can see what scene work is actually like.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Yeah, and I hope I’m giving a better experience to some of the grads and juniors that I work with.
Morgan (Host): I hope so. As we wrap up, do you have any step-back pieces of advice or high-level lessons that you want to impart to young ones, the throngs of millions watching this?
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Difficult. If you’ve experienced people working with you, you can use that time and learn a lot from them. I’ve worked with some kind of talented senior people in my next job. I worked with some great senior people I looked up to, and you can learn a lot from people like that. But if you’re in a position like I was, where there isn’t anybody to learn from, that’s a difficult thing. In my attempt to make the most of it, I encountered problems I had never encountered before and I had to devote some time to overcome each of them like I had to integrate with PayPal for the first time.
And I have to go and look at it. So tackling those problems can be daunting. It can be daunting if you’re very young and very experienced and are out of your comfort zone, but everyone has to do those things at some point, so take your time and do your research, find good resources, and see what other people are doing. Don’t be afraid to ask for help look around or reach out to other communities and find other people from the same boat to learn from.
Morgan (Host): I think that’s great advice. I would build on that and tie it into your story. I think a sense of smell is important, and I’m using smell metaphorically. Like if something smells fishy or funny or weird, It’s okay to ask your friends, and other people in the same profession, “Hey, we’re doing it like this. Is this normal, and I think that’s not”. Your gut is important.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): We don’t naturally have that sense of smell, but we will develop it over time after we learn from all of these experiences there. Some of the people I work with now have never gone through these experiences, so they’re not tripping over those hurdles as I did, so it’s a different way of getting through your career but it can be rewarding.
Morgan (Host): I agree, and these are great words of wisdom to impart to everyone. And you’re getting wise, you are no longer the 21-year-old kid at your first job anymore. Thank you for coming on. This has been interesting, fun, and enjoyable. And all you watchers, I hope you enjoy the story and cringe and get goosebumps as much as I did during this great story as well. Thank you until next time.
Ben Nuttall (interviewee): Thanks very much. Bye.
This transcription belongs to Episode #21, please watch the complete episode here!