The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

November 25, 2010

Everything’s Cooler When You Add Lasers: Making Custom Laser-Cut Christmas Ornaments

Filed under: Art, Design — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 4:35 pm

It’s a bit hard to believe, but by the time this gets posted another Thanksgiving will have come and gone by.  I’m actually writing this several days in advance of Thanksgiving itself, but I’m saving the post until after the annual Thanksgiving get-together when these ornaments are handed out.  If all goes well, Thanksgiving should be a pretty typical family gathering with all sorts of turkey and trimmings, an inescapable Cowboys game on the TV (normally I can’t stand the Cowboys, but given the fact that they’re standing at a 3-7 record while I write this there’s not much point in flogging that particular dead horse at this point) and the annual tradition of exchanging Christmas ornaments.  As I may have discussed a time or two in the past, I come from a family of what could be considered very crafty people.   In fact, several of my aunts have actually made a small business out of their craft hobbies, creating a large variety of different decorative products through woodworking and a vinyl cutter.  This means that a significant number of the ornaments in these annual exchanges will be custom-made, often with quite a bit of skill (and these days, often with quite a bit of custom cut vinyl.)  

I’ve actually tried the handmade ornament approach before, but the results have been decidedly mixed, mostly owing to complications related to the possession of a Y chromosome.  While I must admit that decoupage does provide some interesting design opportunities in the right hands, I’m pretty sure I am not in possession of said hands.  There’s also the fact that the acquisition of such materials generally requires an ill-fated excursion into one of the several arts and crafts stores found around town.  These, as you quickly find out upon entering, tend to smell like potpourri.  Strong, unmistakable, soul-scarring potpourri, the kind of stuff that can cause floral-scented nightmares for any man who gets exposed to the stuff for too long. Fortunately I’m pretty sure the stuff can’t actually kill you, only make you wish you were dead (or, if you happen to be female and/or domestically inclined, it can really help add that special touch to a room.)  The whole experience is a lot more survivable than I’m making it out to be here, but as a guy and an occasional nerd, I figure there’s got to be a better way.  Sure enough, it turns out that if I can manage to throw enough technology at the problem, there is.  Roughly a year ago, a place opened up on Capitol Hill in Seattle that provides hobbyists access to a number of various machines they might not otherwise be able to easily find anywhere, including a laser cutter and 3D printers.  While 3D printing is just a little bit out of my league right now, I actually found out that with free software and a quite reasonable learning curve I could actually put together a project that I could “print” on the laser cutter and create my own completely custom-made ornaments without having to go anywhere near a craft store. 

I should probably add the disclaimer that this post is not necessarily intended to provide a how-to for the process of making ornaments like these or other similar items, but I’ll try to share what I learned in the process and hopefully help out anyone who might try something like this in the future.  I’ve found that the available information on the Internet regarding laser cutting can be a bit spotty, and there were a few things that I had to figure out on the fly.  That said, if you can manage to find your way around a vector drawing program it’s actually not that difficult to do.  After the jump, a detailed look at the process behind the custom ornaments you see above.

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November 24, 2010

Random Thoughts: Post-Snowpocalyptic Wasteland Edition

Filed under: Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 10:55 pm

I’ve got a big post coming up later today on how I made the Christmas ornaments that I will be handing out in the family Thanksgiving ornament exchange (I keep deluding myself into thinking that this might actually be interesting to someone out there,) but in the meantime, here’s a few random thoughts to tide you over:

  • I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t surprise anyone around here anymore that nobody can manage to drive in the snow, but one way or another it still does.  Fortunately, thanks to my new job, I was able to just skip the whole mess entirely and just walk to work.  In a way this is nice, but at the same time it also means that I really don’t have an excuse not to be there when the weather gets lousy.  Well, maybe except for the fact that the combination of the holiday week, the weather and general circumstances meant that practically nobody else on my team was in the office this week anyway.
  • For some time now I’ve been awaiting some good weather-related carnage on 405 that I can watch (and most likely enjoy far more than I really should) from my high and lofty perch, but this past snowstorm proved a tad disappointing.  There were a few issues on one or two onramps and offramps, but beyond that there wasn’t really anything but a bit of somewhat slow-moving traffic to watch (and even that was fairly light)  Oh well, at least we’ve got a whole Winter of this stuff to look forward to…
  • Speaking of Winter:  In the shockingly likely event that most of the Winter is going to be like this, remind me to go hide in some dark corner and sink into despair, OK?
  • Fortunately, if I can somehow manage to survive this Winter, there is most likely going to be a 7-day Caribbean cruise to look forward to.  That’s the good news:  The bad news is that last time I checked, the end of March is still four months away.
  • Until earlier today when I had to go get a whole bunch of groceries to get ready for Thanksgiving, I had been able to avoid driving completely for the past three days.  Which, considering the mess we had out on the roads, was probably a good thing.
  • Speaking of grocery shopping, why the heck did I wait until the evening before Thanksgiving to go grocery shopping?  Oh wait, now I remember, something about some wintry apocalypse descending upon the land, ravaging all who dare to foolishly drive home from work on a Monday evening.  I’ve heard that one of those might make shopping a tad difficult.
  • Or at least it would if I didn’t live all of five blocks away from the grocery store.  But come on, it’s coooooold out there!
  • No, it’s NOT 40 miles in the snow uphill both ways, but come on, the grandkids don’t have to hear about inconsequential little details like that, OK?
  • After this evening’s grocery shopping, I found that behind the store there was a big empty iced-over parking lot, and just couldn’t resist the temptation to go mess around in my car a bit back there.  My car proved to be disappointingly stable on the ice.  I suppose this is a good thing if you happen to be trying to avoid sliding into oncoming traffic, but it doesn’t do much for hooning in an empty iced-over parking lot.
  • Note to self:  Go figure out how much it would cost to buy an Impreza WRX.
  • Note to self:  Disregard previous note to self after remembering how much insurance for one of the things would cost.
  • Reminder to self:  You probably could have bought one of the things AND paid for the insurance with all that money Amazon offered you.  What the heck were you thinking passing that up?
  • Note to self:  Oh, shut up already.
  • That new Microsoft store over at Bellevue Square is kind of cool, but I think practically every single item in the entire store can be found cheaper somewhere else.
  • The place sure seem to attract a whole lot of famous rock stars I don’t ever listen to though…
  • Speaking of which, It’s amazing how you can hear a multi-platinum, 2-time Grammy winning recording artist from what would be an equivalent distance to only a few rows away from the stage in a major concert venue (and not have to pay for it either) and not have it really register anything (lousy acoustics probably didn’t help much, something tells me that the architect who designed Bellevue Square didn’t figure on that particular scenario.)  In fact, the very next evening I went out to Crossroads to grab some dinner, and quite enjoyed the program of big band jazz music being played by the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra that evening.  Perhaps even more so than the famous guy from the night before, in fact.  Call it a matter of taste if you want (I know Dave Matthews has a very devoted following) but there’s just too many different types of music out there to follow everything all at once, not to mention quite a few that I don’t particularly care to even try to follow.  I’m sure that Dave Matthews plays the type of music (primarily acoustic guitar) that I could get into if I listened to enough of it, but there’s something that’s just a lot more easily accessible about the kind of music you hear over at Crossroads.  It’s really easy for the performers who grace their stage on any given Friday night to meet your expectations if you go in having none.  Just drop in, grab a bite to eat and listen to whatever happens to be playing, be it a Beatles cover band, a couple of guys on fiddles or a full orchestra.  You can just go in, sit back, and be entertained for however long you feel like being entertained. 
  • Speaking of which I really need to write more about Crossroads (the whole mall thing has really kind of fizzled out, but I’ve still got it on some back burner) and what makes the place tick.  Maybe after the new year.

Anyway, have a Happy Thanksgiving, and stay safe on the roads in whatever else Mother Nature decides to throw at us for the next few months.

November 22, 2010

Going Around the Table, 2010 Edition

Filed under: Family, Holidays — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:37 am

Yeah, I really need a new Thanksgiving dinner table photo.

As it always does, Thanksgiving week has arrived, bringing with it family, food, and hours of sub-zero camping out in front of stores for incredible bargains (for other people at least, such bargain hunting requires being awake at hours I’d probably never be awake at if I could help it.)  Owing mostly to the now standard three months of wall-to-wall Christmas (it would probably be four, but they’ve got to find somewhere to stick all the Halloween stuff) we get subjected to these days Thanksgiving has a tendency to sneak up on you, but at the same time it also seems that at some point the whole thing turned into one big weeklong turkey-flavored blur.  I’ve already spent several evenings over the past week and most of my Saturday afternoon working on Christmas ornaments for the annual Vanderhoeven ornament exchange (you’ll be seeing more on the ornaments after Thanksgiving, since several of the attendees will be reading this and I don’t want to ruin the surprise,) and tomorrow evening is the first of several Thanksgiving dinners which will be consumed over the course of the week, with a drastically shortened work week somewhere in between all that.  In a way I almost look forward to Thanksgiving more than Christmas these days, but each of these is enjoyable in their own way.

Of course, with Thanksgiving comes the annual family tradition of going around the table before (or occasionally after) dinner and talking about some of the things that each of us is thankful for.  For the past two years I have also done Going Around the Table Blog posts as well, and once again the time has come to count my blessings and take another trip around the virtual table.  Although a lot of my relatives seem to have pretty much given up on Blogging over the past few months, my sisters have been doing things that they have been thankful for as a theme on their Blog posts all month now, so at this point pretty much all I’m doing is trying to catch up. 

In preparation to write this post, I have gone back and read the past couple of Going Around the Table posts that I have done in 2008 and 2009.  Back in 2008, I was at a point where I felt like I was finally making some progress toward my long-term goals after years of stagnation, but was also at a point where I was just beginning what would ultimately be a fairly lengthy challenging period, first being out of work for six months , then ultimately having to settle for a Microsoft contract which was a signifcant downgrade both in pay and a significant step backward in my long-term career development.  Although the team I was on had some good people on it, the work was repetetive and things didn’t work right a lot more often than they did work, making the whole thing quite often a frustrating experience.  Even so, the job was getting the bills paid without too much trouble, and working is always better than not working, so I certainly can’t complain about that.  Thanksgiving of 2009 saw me at this point, where I had gone through some challenges and knew that there were more ahead, but I definitely knew that I could have been in a lot worse shape than I was, and I was certainly thankful for what I had. 

Fast forward to the beginning of this year, and once again I was facing a great deal of uncertainty.  The Microsoft contract I was on had come to an abrupt end, and prospects for finding another Microsoft contract without having to go through the 100-day break in service looked shaky at best.  Fortunately, it didn’t take long for an opportunity for some short-term work to come in, and within 2 1/2 weeks, I found myself reporting for a 2-3 week contract assignment for some company I had never heard of in a 120-year old third-floor walkup in Pioneer Square, where I was promptly informed that I would be testing the Beavis and Butt-Head app for iPhone.  This, of course, thoroughly horrified my mother, but the pay was good, and it was giving me an opportunity to work in some new things  Don’t tell anyone this, but the day I walked into this place was actually the first time I had ever used an iPhone (well, an iPod Touch) for more than a few minutes of playing around with a demo unit in the Apple store.  Fortunately, nobody seemed to notice this (filing some 15+ bugs against the app on the first day probably helped), and apparently I did a reasonable enough job with this that the 2-3 week contract ultimately turned into seven months, providing opportunities not only to work with iPhone and iPad, but also with Android (which I hadn’t used at all before that) and Blackberry (which mostly served to make me wonder who in their right mind actually uses this stuff, but that’s another post.)  If there was one thing that I really got out of the time I spent at Teleca, it was the realization that although I have (mostly) enjoyed the time I spent contracting at Microsoft and had learned quite a bit from it, at this point it had really turned into a dead end.   Getting some time to get outside of the artificial bubble that Microsoft forms around itself and getting a chance to work with and gain some skills with competing products has turned out to be very good experience, and one that I am certainly thankful for.  Getting into a FTE position at Microsoft was one of my long-term goals for many years, but now I’m not so sure that would necessarily be the right path for me to take (although I would certainly consider it if the opportunity came up.)  I’m glad that I got a chance to figure that out without necessarily needing to do so the hard way.

If you’ve been reading the Blog you’ve probably already been through the 2,700 word epic I wrote about the whole Amazon/Motricity situation (if not, scroll down a couple of posts and prepare to have your insomnia miraculously cured,) so I’ll refrain from rehashing that again here.  To make a long story short, as Thanksgiving 2010 arrives, I am finally getting into a more stable job situation with a good salary, good benefits, paid time off, room to grow and a walkable commute, and although the past 10 1/2 months have certainly been an emotional roller coaster in ways that have both been expected and completely unexpected (with more ups than downs, fortunately) I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that I have been given even if they do inconveniently all show up at once, and that I know that the Lord is continuing to watch over me in spite of my shortcomings.  I am also grateful for my family (which has grown once again this year as Jared and Emily’s first son Benjamin was born in May) and the support that they continue to provide.  I am also grateful for my other nephews (Connor, Corey and Brooks Jr.) as well.  Unfortunately, I’ve had to come to the conclusion this year that my whole Mean Uncle Brian routine was never going to work out, so I’ve decided to go with Crazy Uncle Brian instead.  I’m also thankful that in spite of the various difficulties that I’ve gone through over the past couple of years, one way or another I’ve always been able to make it through everything in one piece, and without ever reaching the point where I have been unable to pay the bills.  A combination of my parents’ teachings and experience (quite a bit more experience than I’d like really) has taught me to be careful with money and to plan for the unexpected (which in most cases has turned out to be a lot more expected than I’d care for,)  but the right things always seem to happen at the right times.  One way or another (and as I’ve said before, lately it’s been happening mostly in the “or another” category) things always seem to work out, and it is perhaps for that which I am most grateful of all.  There are still some things that I need to fix and that I need to find (foremost among those being a wife) but I’m grateful for all that I have.

Anyway, for those family members who might be reading this, if for some reason you haven’t been doing posts on things you’ve been thankful for all month, feel free to dust off your badly neglected Blogs and put together a post of your own.

November 19, 2010

It’s Not 40 Miles In the Snow Until the Grandkids Hear About it

Filed under: Random Stuff, weather — Brian Lutz @ 1:13 am

Between settling down into the new job and a project that I am currently working on (you’ll hear more about this after Thanksgiving, when the results of said project will be revealed at our family’s traditional annual ornament exchange,) I’ve been fairly busy lately.  In theory, this new job is supposed to mean that I’ve got more time to do other things like Blogging (mostly by merit of not having to commute to Seattle and back) and eventually I’m sure I’ll get there, but it seems like just as soon as I get more time there’s always something there to fill it.  I suppose I’m the type of person who isn’t particularly good at doing nothing (at least not without the proper circumstances) but those tendencies don’t leave a whole lot of time for Blogging.  I do have some posts in the pipeline that I’m working on, but in the meantime, I’ll toss out a few random thoughts to keep the place warm for a while.  After all, the weather reports seem to indicate that warm things are going to be in short supply for the next few days…

One of the nice things about my new job is that I now have the ability to easily walk to work.  In some ways this is nice.  I get some exercise out of the deal, my company pays an extra $30 a month for not driving, and I’ve already found that I’m doing a lot less driving than I normally would (not that a commute that short would be putting much mileage on my car in the first place.)  I describe the walk to work as being roughly 2 1/2 blocks, but if you’ve walked around downtown Seattle and downtown Bellevue, you’ll find that a “block” is a bit of a relative thing.  If you compare the two downtowns on a map you quickly find that Bellevue’s blocks are much larger than Seattle’s blocks, and that 2 1/2 block walk turns into roughly 4/10ths of a mile each way.  For comparison, back when I was working at Teleca in Seattle the walk from the International District station to the office at First and King was roughly six blocks, and came out to a bit more than 1/3 mile each way.  On most days if I can catch the crosswalks at the right time I find I can make the walk to the office from here in 10 minutes, give or take a minute or two.  That’s actually not far off from how long it would take to drive to my last Microsoft job from my old apartment at a distance of about 2 1/2 miles.

All in all, it seems to be working out pretty well, but there’s one pesky little detail to the whole thing that I may not have thought all the way through:  The walk to work is, as one of the various panic-inducing news stations might boast, ten minutes of uninterrupted weather.  And lately, most of that weather’s been pretty lousy.  So far I haven’t managed to get myself caught out in the rain yet, but especially over the past week it’s been windy, ranging from merely breezy to some of the just plain mean stuff that wears the term “Wind Chill Factor” like some sort of twisted meteorological badge of honor.  Combine this with the fact that the North Face jacket I’ve managed to somehow get fifteen years of reliable service out of doesn’t seem to do so great with the wind, and that it seems to now be showing signs that it may be approaching the end of its useful life (my mother might argue that this happened roughly a decade ago) and it looks like it might be time to make some updates to my winter wardrobe.  After all, we’re still a month away from the start of Winter at this point, and something tells me there’s going to be a lot more of this stuff to deal with.

And that’s even before the much vaunted cold snap we’ve been hearing about from the local Weatherati shows up sometime this weekend.  Most people would probably argue that whether or not they are fans of the snow, last year’s winter was just a bit of a letdown.  There were no major snow events anywhere in the Puget Sound lowlands, and aside from the one big December cold snap we got, the vast majority of the Winter weather we got was just one big generic mass of cloudy-and-45 for three months straight.  In fact, there really hasn’t been much snow here at all since the unpleasantness back in December of 2008 that made a huge mess out of, well, pretty much everything.  Naturally, this means that the various weathermen have grasped onto the first thing that looks like it might be snow in the forecasting models as far back as last Wednesday, and have been playing up the whole thing as some sort of potential snowpocalypse…  except for the fact that the models really don’t show much chance of lowland snow at all.  Most likely it’ll end up getting reasonably cold for a while, but won’t do much more than that.  Oh, and there’s also the fact that they all were so busy watching the forecast models several days out that pretty much everyone completely missed the windstorm we got on Monday that managed to cause some widespread (but ultimately fairly minor) power outages. 

Oh well, until I manage to turn into some sort of evil genius, build a diabolical contraption to change the weather and use it to hold the world for ransom there’s not much I can do about it except bundle up and slog through the stuff.  Still, I’m sure there will be something in the forecasts sometime during the next three months that I can exaggerate into a story I can tell the grandkids, right? 

(Well, I’m afraid we’re gonna’ have to count this one as your monthly weather complaint post.  -ed.  Yeah, so what else am I supposed to write about, cute little frozen puppies?)

November 12, 2010

The Magic of Real Things

Filed under: Culture, travel — Brian Lutz @ 11:44 pm

I had originally intended to have this post up a couple of weeks ago, but that was back around the time that things, as described in the post directly below this one, started going from being just a little crazy to being just plain ridiculous.  Now that I’ve started the new job things have finally managed to settle down some, which should allow a bit of respite, for at least a couple of weeks until Thanksgiving arrives and brings with it the whole general mishmash of the Holiday season (assuming that you haven’t already been wallowing in Holiday stuff since August, that is.)  Anyway, this post is intended to be a followup to a previous post from a couple of weeks ago,  which itself was inspired by the short trip I took to Disneyland in May, but sat in my draft queue for several months before it got finished. 

To briefly summarize the previous post, I talked a little bit about some of the challenges facing the designers (or Imagineers as the case may be) of the various theme parks in trying to create believable fantasies, and how this ultimately runs into the seemingly impenetrable barrier that comes with an inability for some people (especially adults) to suspend disbelief.  Although we can still appreciate the technical achievements that have gone into the creation of these parks and their various rides and shows, eventually there has to be a point where one will inevitably realize that Mickey Mouse is just a guy in a suit, and that the hitchhiking ghosts riding in your doom buggy are the result of animatronics and trick mirrors.  Those of us who might be bringing children along with us for the trip will make an effort to maintain the illusion for the benefit of the kids for at least a while, but they too will come to the same conclusion. 

So what can be done about this?  Well, right now, not much.  After all, the problems I’m talking about here don’t seem to be hurting Disney any.  In fact, Disneyland and Disney World managed to actually increase their year-over-year attendance figures in 2009 in spite of the economy, and the Disneyland Resort currently boasts record numbers of annual passholders.  California Adventure is expected to complete a major overhaul in 2012, headlined by the addition of Cars Land and the now open World of Color nighttime show, as well as significant rethemings of several other rides and areas of the park.  If you can manage it, I happen to think the parks in both California and Florida are well worth visiting as is, but as I’ve thought about this, I’ve wondered if there might be a completely different approach to a theme park that could not only provide an entertaining destination for people of all ages, but completely eliminate the issue of suspension of disbelief.  Why not build a theme park based on the real world?

Yeah, I already know that pretty much everything else I’m going to write here  is basically just delusions of grandeur (at least unless the stock options I have at my new job somehow manage to make me ridiculously wealthy,) but if you think about it, there are a lot of things in the real world that I think could be just as fascinating to children and their parents alike as any elaborately crafted animatronic ride-through.  Take, for example, manufacturing.  These days, the sheer amount of machinery and automation that goes into the production of all sorts of everyday items is staggering, and I suspect that most people these days don’t have a clue where most of the stuff they use on an everyday basis comes from.  Although TV shows like How It’s Made and Unwrapped have become popular enough to establish a small niche genre on cable TV, there just aren’t a lot of factories out there that people can go in and take tours of (Hershey’s Chocolate World in Hershey PA sort of fits the definition, but it’s only a simulation of the manufacturing process, as the number of visitors it attracts is too much for the actual factory to handle.)  Unfortunately, most factories tend to be dangerous and loud places, and wouldn’t exactly be good places to be bringing a couple million visitors a year into. 

Even so, if you could find a way around the various logistical problems involved, I could see a ride through a working factory being something that could have the potential to be quite popular.  After all, you’ve got plenty of action to watch (provided it can be done in a way that it can be made easily visible to spectators,) you’ve got a story to tell, and you wouldn’t have any problem stocking the gift shop at the end of the ride.  In fact, there’s a semi-obscure attraction offered at Disney’s California Adventure park with a small-scale tortilla factory that serves mostly to supply tortillas to some of the nearby restaurants, but also offers free samples to the guests as they pass through.  It’s a fairly basic operation without a lot of moving parts involved, but it does act as a bit of a proof of concept.  Of course, putting a small factory into your park making various trinkets is one thing, but if you really want something impressive you’d have to go for something big like a steel mill.  Quite frequently on TV shows you’ll see the giant smelting furnaces pouring out tons of molten steel to form giant billets and girders, and it looks like the type of thing that would be quite impressive to see in real life.  It also looks like the type of thing that could probably result in fiery death if you made one wrong move around the stuff, but that’s beside the point.

Then again, if you’re trying to build a whole theme park based on this stuff you’d probably need a whole lot more than that, but there are still plenty of possibilities.  I’m sure we’ve all seen young children fascinated by heavy construction equipment, as evidenced by the ongoing popularity of Tonka trucks and shows like Bob the Builder.  I’d be willing to bet you might even find a few grown-ups out there who, given the chance, might enjoy the chance to play around with a full-sized backhoe or a bulldozer for a while.  Once again, we’re running into some major safety issues, but remember that this whole thing is pretty much delusions of grandeur in the first place, so we can all pretend it’s perfectly safe for now.  And that you aren’t going to run out of stuff to dig in oh, about three days.  Even if you don’t exactly want random people off the street wandering around in heavy machinery, I think some people would find it interesting to go on a ride through an active skyscraper construction site to see how the things are built.  Which, of course, presents its own set of quite likely insurmountable challenges.

And even though big heavy equipment seems like the star attraction here, I think there’s a possibility that even slightly more mundane things could be interesting to play with given the proper context.  I know I personally like to tinker around the kitchen when I get the chance to do so, and would enjoy the chance to play around with some of the latest kitchen toys you’ve been hearing about in the really fancy places these days.  Stuff like sous-vide machines and liquid nitrogen freezers that most people probably won’t ever see outside of an Iron Chef America episode sound like they’d be fun to experiment with and try out, but are hideously expensive and would practically take up my whole kitchen here.  Heck, even spending some time a well-stocked kitchen of high-end equipment would be something I probably wouldn’t get a chance to do otherwise (they actually have a pretty nice kitchen downstairs in the lounge area at my apartment complex, but using it requires a costly rental of the entire lounge, making it impractical.)  Sure I’d probably manage to burn food and/or extremities horrendously in the process, but it would be fun to play with for a while, right?

And even though things like this would most likely be impossible to pull off in real life thanks to some combination of impracticality and/or swarms of rabid lawyers, you can still see elements of some of these in some of the places we have already.  In addition to the above mentioned tortilla factory example at California Adventure, there are several theme parks that include “behind the scenes” rides or tours, and I happen to think something like that would be interesting to do someday.  Those are pretty much only showing you what’s behind the scenes at a theme park, but when you think of the logistics involved in running a place that millions of people pass through yearly and keeping everything from falling apart at the seems, you can begin to appreciate the efforts needed to do this.  Ultimately, now that I think about the concept more and get it down in print (or whatever the virtual equivalent is supposed to be called) I doubt it would be possible to get an entire park out of these things (if nothing else, you’d probably want at least a few thrill rides to keep things interesting) but when people finally start to get bored of fantasies, no matter how elaborate, maybe a good strong dose of reality might be just what’s needed to keep things interesting.

November 7, 2010

Caught Between a Golden Rock and a Diamond Hard Place

Filed under: Personal Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 8:56 pm

I don’t even know where to begin with this post really.  Quite frankly, I don’t even really expect anyone to read it, except perhaps my future wife many years down the road (yes, I do still sort of believe I might actually end up with one of those someday) who, while in the process of telling the grandkids various stories of the old days, needs something to explain the whole “Did you know Grandpa was out of his flippin’ mind?” bit.  To make a long story really short, I am going to be starting a new job on Monday, one that finally allows me to get away from a decade of dead-end contracting and into a position where I have room to grow, actual responsibility for non-trivial things and a lot nicer benefits than I’ve had… well, ever.  That’s the ridiculously oversimplified version of it anyway.  The long version is a whole heck of a lot more complicated than that.  Let’s just say that if there’s one thing that I have learned out of the whole ordeal that I am now finally emerging from, it’s that oftentimes the unexpected onset of good fortune (especially in large quantities) can be just as nerve-wracking as dealing with a major (but probably not life-threatening, now that I think about it a little bit more) crisis.

As you might know if you’ve been reading the Blog, roughly a month ago I was in the process of trying to find a new job after my previous contract at Teleca came to an unexpected end back around the middle of August (although unlike quite a few of the contracts I’ve been on, they had the courtesy to provide a reasonable amount of advance notice before this happened.)  Given the years I spent in contracting I’ve really got a lot more experience with job searching than I’d like to have, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m any good at it.  Even so, for the most part things were going well, with a number of good contacts and several interviews (plus the usual mess of half a zillion different contract agencies offering the same few Microsoft contracts and seemingly competing to see who can lowball on the pay rates the most, but that’s a rant I should probably just leave unwritten.)  In particular, one phone interview for a QA testing position in came up that really sounded like it would be a good prospect.  This was with Motricity, a mobile services company located in downtown Bellevue, which given my current residence would reduce my daily commute to a couple of blocks worth of walking.  Apparently they liked the results of the phone interview as well, as I was informed shortly afterward that they requested an in-person interview a couple of days later.  Just a couple of hours before I was set to head over for this interview, I got a call informing me that the interview was cancelled, as the position I was applying for had been lost in the shuffle of a reorganization.  This was a disappointment, as I thought it looked like it would be a really good fit for my skills and my long-term career goals.

The next week or two of job searching after this provided mostly lukewarm results, but a couple of weeks later I got a call informing me that the position at Motricity had opened back up (albeit in slightly modified form from what had been discussed originally) and that they were once again interested in bringing me in for an interview.  This time around, the interview did actually happen, and in fact seemed to go quite well.  The thing about technical interviewing (another area which, in spite of plenty of experience, I’m not so sure I’m all that good at it) is that if you’re interviewing for a contract position, you’ll usually be talking to one or two people over the course of an hour or two, maybe three people if they really want to grill the candidates.  Once you start getting into interviews for full-time positions they really start to put you through the proverbial gauntlet.  This is quite understandable;  After all, hiring someone into a full-time position is a pretty significant commitment (especially in this day and age) and you really want to be sure you’re getting the right person.  This interview loop was definitely one of these through-the-wringer ones, as I spent most of an afternoon talking to a variety of different people in various positions, going through all the usual test questions, programming questions and even a logic problem or two.  All in all I thought it went reasonably well, but once you’ve had enough experience with interviewing you’ll always think of things that could be done better, especially on the big technical questions.  Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed a phenomenon in these types of interviews.  There are some of these where you know 20 minutes into the thing that you’ve completely and totally bombed the whole thing, and others that you feel like you’ve completely nailed it.  While it’s usually pretty obvious what the results of the former end up being most of the time, I find that it’s the ones I’ve “nailed” (in my own mind, at least) almost never produce the desired results.  Almost counterintuitively, I’ve found the most results in my interviews have come from the ones that seemed to go reasonably well, but with room for improvement.  I could probably find some job-hunting guru out there who could either explain the whole thing and/or provide fifteen different pieces of evidence refuting this theory, but it almost seems as if there’s some sort of “sweet spot” somewhere in the middle (well OK, maybe a bit to the higher end)  that seems to produce the best results.  But I digress…

Anyway, the interview came to a conclusion, and although I thought it went well, I was informed that it would probably be at least a week before I heard an answer back, as there were other candidates being interviewed for the position as well.  It was around this point that things started to get interesting.  Later that day, I received a phone call from an old friend of mine who just happened to be the test manager for the mobile team at Amazon, and he happened to have need of a tester.  Like, right away.  The next day I went in for a relatively brief interview that ultimately ended up being mostly a formality, and was asked if I could start out on a contract basis on Monday.  It did take a few extra days to sort things out, so I wasn’t able to start until that Thursday, but I hadn’t received any feedback on the other position up to that point, so I joined the team at Amazon and got right to work on one of the several projects they have going on there (most of which are subject to NDAs at this time, but the recently released Amazon Windowshop app for iPad is one of the major projects currently being worked on by this team.)  I got off to a not-so-great start by misreading the address when looking for the place I was supposed to report to for my badge and ending up 1.6 miles of walking away from my intended destination, but I barely managed to get settled in at my new desk before getting a call from the recruiter from the Motricity position informing me that I remained one of the front-runners for the position I had interviewed for the previous week, and that an answer should be coming shortly. 

It was on the following Monday that I got the call informing me that I was, in fact, going to be offered the Motricity position, although the terms of the offer were still being sorted out.  Yes, finally after over ten years of jumping around from contract to contract with little besides a plain old paycheck to show for it, I have now made it into a full-time position, albeit in a completely different manner than I had been planning on for so many years (but that’s a topic for another post that I’ll probably never bother writing.)  And the terms of the offer, which I was presented with later in the day, turned out to be even better than I had been expecting them to be.  As I set about the process of accepting the offer and getting the last few bits and pieces in order (complicated by difficulties in contacting several of my intended references) there was the little matter of getting out of the Amazon contract I had just started.  I gave a start date of three weeks from that day to Motricity, and started working on arrangements to attempt to make at least a somewhat graceful exit, which, even though the Amazon job was one of the long line of contracts I’ve been on, is a very difficult thing to do without looking like a total flake, especially only a week into the job.  I figured that there were a couple of responses I could have expected based on my previous contract experiences:  I could have either been  A) thanked for my services and escorted out the door that very moment, or B) congratulated on finding a full-time position and be allowed to complete the remaining two weeks I had before I made my exit.

What I hadn’t figured on was that there might have been an option C: that they’d actually make an effort to keep me there.  I was asked about some of the basics of the offer I had received and if I’d be interested in considering a full-time offer on this position, but I thought nothing more of it until I unexpectedly found myself being scheduled for interviews with several of my co-workers a couple of days later.  I guess this wasnt too much of a surprise following the previous conversation, but it did certainly complicate things a bit.  Nonetheless, I went along with the process since I was, to borrow a gambling term, playing with house money at that point.  There could be no harm in at least taking a look, right?  So I went through the interview loop over the course of a couple of days (with the weekend in between) and it seemed to go quite well. 

Sure enough, the next day after the interviews were completed, my manager informed me that an offer was going to be on the way soon, meaning that after years of dead-end contracts and pretty much taking whatever was offered, I was now going to find myself in the unfamiliar position of having two competing offers on the table.  I knew at this point that it was likely that Amazon was going to beat the other offer (at least in terms of money) but there were a few disadvantages on their side, mostly in terms of having to commute daily to Seattle.  Eventually this team would be moving to the new Amazon South Lake Union complex which is currently under construction, which would probably make the commute even more difficult.  Oh, and around the time that happens they’re also going to start tolling on the 520 bridge in order to pay for a replacement for the current aging bridge.  Nonetheless, I was assured that the offer I received would be sufficient to make up for any transportation issues.  And they weren’t kidding about that either.

When I got the phone call outlining the details of the offer, I had to have them repeat it, because I wasn’t sure I heard it right.  It turned out that their offer was significantly higher than the other one.  And not by a few thousand either.  Apparently the solution to the transportation issues involved going out and buying a new car, because between the extra base salary and the signing bonus (a term I’d only ever heard applied to professional athletes’ contracts before this) I was being offered, I could probably have paid cash for one.  And yet, in spite of the huge (relatively speaking) offer, I just felt that I couldn’t quite bring myself to accept it.  To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know exactly why this was the case though.  After all, I suspect that given those same two offers, nine out of ten people would take the bigger one without giving it a second thought.  I could have easily turned the money into a good down payment on a condo, or even a house.  And to complicate matters even further, my manager over at Amazon is an old friend of mine, who made significant efforts to sell me on staying with this team.  As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s amazing just how much dealing with a large amount of sudden good fortune can feel just like dealing with a large crisis, and this was definitely one of those times.  And on top of all that, I had less than 24 hours to make a decision between the two offers, as it would have been necessary to back out of the Motricity position that I was scheduled to start four days later if I had accepted the Amazon position.  After a significant amount of analysis, study and prayer, I was still having a great deal of difficulty making this decision.  And yet, I somehow felt that the first position offered would be a better fit for me and much closer to the answer to the obligatory “Where do you want to be in five years?” question that comes up in practically every interview.  Ultimately, the question ended up boiling down to two things:

  • How much is an extra hour a day (that isn’t being spent sitting on a bus) worth?
  • Could I really pass up all that extra money? 

I think the first question is, quite frankly, best left to a ravening horde of philosophers, but in the end, I decided that the answer was that I could, in fact, pass up the money, and my final decision was made to decline the Amazon offer and stick with Motricity.  I’m pretty sure my parents think I’m crazy, my sister thinks I’m crazy, several of my colleagues think I’m crazy, and I suspect that even Imola and Minardi think I’m crazy for passing up that much money.  I’m sure I’m going to end up spending far more time than I’d like to analyzing and wondering about this particular what-if scenario for the rest of my life, but this just feels like the right decision at this time.  As such, I will be starting my new job with Motricity tomorrow, and look forward to the new opportunities and challenges which await there.  This isn’t to say that I couldn’t have chosen the Amazon position though.  Under different circumstances I’m sure I could have been happy remaining there too, but almost counterintuitively I think the extremely large counteroffer may have almost worked against them in a way.  Had the offer I received been closer to what I was expecting to be offered (possibly a few thousand more than the Motricity offer, I probably would have been far more objective in evaluating the two positions next to each other, and it’s entirely possible that I could have come to the opposite decision.  But when the offer turned out to be far more money than I was expecting, it changed the subject almost entirely into a simple question of money.  Yes, money is nice to have, but there are a lot more important things in life than money, and I’m still trying to find some of those things.

We all come into our mortal existences knowing that along the way there will be joys and there will be sorrows, and there will quite often be difficult choices to make.  This was one of those choices, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve never expected to have a decision like this to make.  And believe me, the fact that I found myself forced to make a choice between two good things certainly didn’t make the decision any easier.  But nonetheless, a decision had to be made and the consequences of this decision are going to be following me for quite a while.

I sure hope I got it right.

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