From the Sidelines on Living on the Edge at Startups

Editor’s Note: The following technical writing humor piece by Lisa Higgins is part of our collection of “classics”–technical writing articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.  Lisa wrote the “From the Sidelines” column back at the turn of the century, and her humorous take on all things technical writing rings true more than a decade later.  Anyone living on the edge at startups can laugh along with Lisa.

Startups: We Laugh at Our Mortgage Companies and Our Retirement Funds

living on the edge at startupsTo put this in perspective, I never really started to appreciate heavy metal music until I was about 35. Pantera! Wooooo!

See, I’ve always been pretty responsible, really. I bought my first house when I was twenty-three, and I put money in my 401K even back when I was really living paycheck to paycheck. And since a frightening period back in the mid-90s when all of my freelance clients suddenly started bouncing checks, I’ve checked out the companies I’ve gone to work for to make danged sure they had some money in the bank.

So, anyway, if you remember some earlier columns, you’ll know that I’d sort of fallen into a marcom gig at my old company. I’d just slowly started covering for people on marcom projects, and I was good at it. Good enough that, eventually, every marcom project in the company had to go through me. I really thought I was digging it, too. I did. I mean, I was doing whole ad campaigns. I was writing slogans and designing “concepts.” I was busy and productive and getting to be creative and holler at people a lot and stuff. I was managing partner relationships and working with people all over the company to come up with marketing plans, and dealing with vendors and upper management, and getting lots of exciting political action. I knew lots of secrets, let me tell you.

But the thing is, I was going home every night and putting on my Whitey Will Pay t-shirt and creating new Sims based on people I knew. I’d take, say, a VP and some other annoying person I worked with, and I’d make Sims based on them and put them in a one-room house with a microwave, a toilet, and a tiny child-sized bed, and then I’d make them call the police for no reason and pick fights with each other until their days consisted of frustrated sobbing punctuated with pants wetting and short sharp bouts of ultraviolence. I was watching Fight Club way too frequently, and, as you’re already undoubtedly aware, I started to really really like Pantera. Wooooo! Pantera! It was pretty clear there was some kind of trend gong on.

So, this is where it gets hard to sort out. Did I just have a Big Midlife Crisis that caused me to completely lose my patience with the bureaucracy and the politics I was dealing with every day, or did I just lose patience with the bureaucracy and the politics I was dealing with every day and have a Big Midlife Crisis? I had to, if not figure it out, at least do something about it while I still had a healthy fear of that Lemmy Kilmister guy from Motorhead.

It doesn’t matter which came first, anyway. What matters is that, irresponsible heavy metal chick that I am, I quit my marcom job and went to work for a tiny open source startup as an information architect. I wear jeans to work every day, I telecommute whenever I feel like it, and I am working on a project right now with my ex- boyfriend! And yeah, sometimes, I worry a little that my paycheck might bounce. I figure it was either this or get some big red anarchy symbol tattooed on my neck or something. And, in retrospect, that tattoo is looking pretty sad and ineffectual. You know why? Because revolution is my name!

I mean, I do make a lot more money, and I do have about eleventy- bajillion pre-IPO options that may well, eventually, facilitate my life plan, which can be summed up in a nutshell as “all day long, I biddy-biddy-bum.”

Or I may be out of work next week. And I’m not talking about incredibly large values of “may,” either.

But I like my new job. I map out mission critical Web sites for marketing people who work for other companies–companies whose politics are of interest to me only in a vague and disinterested anthropological sort of way–and I make little chart thingies and I do some prototyping and some development, and I’m learning new stuff, and doing some stuff I already know how to do, and I’m making money for the company I work for.

I know this because I work for a company that hangs charts on the wall that show how much money we have in the bank and what our expenses are, where the money’s coming from and where it’s going. And I, like everyone else there, am painfully aware that the once great tsunami of venture capital has slowed to a trickle. So we’re not the crazy feral dot-com employees we all probably set out to be. We’re pretty conservative with the Sobes and the other hepster beverages in the fridge. We don’t complain about the fact that we haven’t had any new arcade games in the break room for a while, and sometimes, we telecommute not so much because we feel like it, but just to squeeze out those billable hours we’d otherwise spend on the bus.

But that’s cool because that’s what we cool people do. We live on the edge. We laugh at our mortgage companies and our retirement funds. And we do this in full knowledge that if worse comes to worst, we can always go follow Motorhead around and try to get with that hot Lemmy guy.

Lisa Higgins is a technical writer, turned marcom manager, turned Information Architect with a wicked sense of humor. Before disappearing into the ether of new career goals, she authored some great, timeless humor material for TechWhirl. If you're her, or you know her, tell her to drop by to catch up on old times.

Read more articles from Lisa Higgins