Smartphone Magazine

Submitted by Ben on Sat, 07/24/2021 - 15:08

When I met Jessie in August of 2007, I was content to work 1/4-time for Prairie Star District and freelance for various other Web clients. I had moved to Fairfield, Iowa, and the flexibility of my work hours allowed me to attend lots of community events and learn about sustainability. The cost of living in Fairfield was very low, and I knew lots of other people who were not fully employed.

But when I thought about meeting my future wife's parents, suddenly being less than fully employed didn't seem good enough. I saw an ad in the Weekly Reader that Smartphone & PocketPC Magazine was hiring a Drupal developer. I had seen the magazine's storefront on the square and had picked up one copy after I bought my first smartphone, a Windows Mobile flip-phone. I made sure to mention this in my résumé, and although I had never used Drupal, I immediately got a call from the owner asking me to come in immediately for an interview.

It was about 8:00 at night. Hal let me into the dark and otherwise empty storefront and led me past the receptionist's desk, through a room packed with shelves of used equipment -- the company also ran -- and another room of cubicles, past a prominent poster proclaiming that "The mission of Thaddeus Computing is to be a Heaven On Earth Business," upstairs to his office. He briefly laid out for me his business philosophy and how it had led to the magazine being built on quirky and idiosyncratic software. He wanted me to migrate the magazine site to open-source software so that it would be more stable and secure as well as easier to maintain. Despite never having used Drupal, my experience with migrating PSD's site to PmWiki made me feel confident that I could do this. Hal promised to buy me books and courses and send me to conferences so I could learn Drupal quickly. The other perks that he offered full-time employees were related to TM practice and not interesting to me, so I talked him down from full-time to 3/4-time and walked home fully employed for the first time in years.

When I arrived for my first day on the job and met my coworkers, it became clear to me that Hal's business philosophy had affected more than the software. He prided himself on hiring people fresh out of high school -- specifically Maharishi School -- and providing all their training, so that they had no experience working anywhere else. This was the case for my immediate supervisor and coworker, as well as for the system administrator, among others. Notably, it was not the case for the guy who had built the Drupal site I'd be importing data into, who was from Milan and was headed back there soon to get married. The guy who had taken over responsibility for the proprietary site I would be importing from was also an experienced programmer who had left his family in Chicago to help with the project and was eager to get back to them. I don't recall his name, but I'll call him Paul.

The building had previously had apartments on the second floor, and my office had its own bathroom, though the bathtub was full of old CPUs for no reason that was ever explained. My coworker and supervisor shared an office across the hall, and I was glad to have a door I could shut against their lively banter when I needed to concentrate.

I got busy learning Drupal 5 and making tentative queries on the Microsoft SQL Server database that powered the live site. We had no test or staging environments -- everything we did was on the live sites, and Drupal at the time had no migration API, so my data migration took the form of a PHP script that SELECTed data directly from SQL Server and INSERTed it directly into MySQL. In hindsight, this was ridiculously dangerous, and we're really lucky nothing went wrong. There were backups, of course. Lots of backups, and we restored more than a few.

I had lunch a few times with Paul. He had one foot out the door, but he was more concerned about the system administrator, David, who cultivated a grumpy and negative office persona that may or may not have been his actual emotional state. He had a habit of saying no to any request before considering it and then complying later. Paul and I both felt that David could get paid much more anywhere else and was liable to quit at any time, leaving a huge knowledge gap to fill.

As it happened, Paul quit first, just a week or so before we were done with the migration to the new site. He went back to his family in Chicago. A few days later, the site he had maintained was hacked. Hal was furious and told me to look for proof that Paul had sabotaged the site. On the contrary, all the evidence pointed to Russian hackers and was easily repaired by restoring from a backup. I said if Paul wanted to sabotage the site, he would have done a better job. As it was, the security weaknesses in what remained of the old site just underscored our decision to use Drupal instead.

Just a month or two after I started the job, Hal called a staff meeting and said that he'd watched Steve Job's announcement of the iPhone, and that was the future of smartphones, and rather than shift the focus of Smartphone & PocketPC Magazine away from Windows Mobile, he was going to start a new magazine called iPhone Life. This turned out to be a brilliant move, but I was very skeptical at the time. It meant that most of the staff would be splitting their time between two magazines, until new dedicated staff could be hired. I got started building the new Web site in Drupal 6, which was brand new at the time.

In 2008, Jessie and I moved to Emporia. In hindsight, I don't know how I managed to keep working full time while moving and dealing with a series of household emergencies in the new house, but I did. Having fulfilled my purposes in working there, though, I started to tell Hal that I wanted to leave. Each time I brought it up, he offered me a raise to stay. I took the first two and stayed another 18 months or so, but I finally declined the third. I helped him find competent replacements before I left, but I heard the news not long after that David had resigned and left the gaping hole that Paul and I had worried about. It wasn't long after that that Hal sold iPhone Life to another publisher and shut down Smartphone & PocketPC Magazine, retiring from the publishing business.

I owe a lot to Hal for getting me established as a Drupal developer. I've now used Drupal for the majority of my career and the majority of Drupal's existence. But I feel like I learned almost as much about what does and does not keep employees loyal to a company.