Exciting Times

Maybe too exciting, even.

Yesterday there was a fair at which the students of the applied CS and the business informatics program presented their completed software engineering (part II) projects to the public, meaning primarily the professors and some local IT firms. A few groups had invested a lot of effort in their presentation and accordingly less in their actual project. Their posters were extremely elaborate, while they had little to show in way of programming, in some cases nothing but a basic website with a single online form. Conversely, our poster was the ultimate understatement, just a logo, a graph symbolizing the idea of a transport network, with the nodes containing a few actual screenshots, and a two-paragraph text, but there was a lot of interest in our mass transit simulation which, afterall, was playable to the extent that you could build a transportation network and the people on the map, with their happiness color-coded green to red, were actually responding to it. I found it extremely basic, but it had a lot of business logic behind it and it moved. Anyway, people were interested, asked a lot of questions, and we won the prize for the best technical implementation. The prize for the best presentation went, deservedly, to the group that had invented a whole corporate identity and design, complete with matching T-shirts.

I wasn’t there, half of the time, because in parallel there was the exam preparation session in intelligent systems–the professor had steadfastly refused to move it so to allow us to attend the fair, and so at least one of us had to go. It was a waste of time, because she spent about 2.5 hours on elaborating on resolution in first order logic (which we had all done ad nauseam in logic in the second term) and the remaining hour on totally confusing us about propositional logic, basically telling the 50 people in the room that what we all had learned earlier from different professors about the subject was plain wrong. I can’t say I am looking forward to the exam!

Meanwhile on the job front I have ended up, I think through no fault of my own, in a completely awkward position. I am still somewhat puzzled by the fact that three companies I applied to never bothered to either invite me for an interview, or else let me know they’re not interested. But this is more than compensated for by the fact that right now I am sitting on a total of three definitive job offers, and two of the companies are all but haggling over me, or one does (because I haven’t told the other yet that they aren’t my only option). The third company seems only moderately interested in me, and in any case they have such serious problems getting their act together (so far, they have taken six weeks to speak with me on the phone, twice) that I do wonder they ever make any profit. Maybe they don’t.

Oddly, given my earlier stated preference for not going to be an IT consultant, both of the serious contenders are consulting firms. The one, in fact, is the one I mentioned that employs my wife’s closest colleague’s husband. They were very professional all the way. They responded to my application promptly and politely, then I got a telephone call from the HR department, and within 48 hours I had an appointment for an interview with their Java unit, although three weeks from that date.

And then chance intervened. I went to see the adaptive systems professor to talk about my neural networks, and somehow it took 90 minutes and I don’t really know how we got there, but he mentioned that he had a friend at an IT consulting firm that is a subsidiary of a very large aviation company. That friend was looking for good people to recruit, and he (the professor) would be happy to recommend me if I sent him a résumé. At that point I hadn’t had any serious offers and saw no reason not to. And then things started happening very fast. In the morning I had a call from the professor’s friend, and three days later I had a job interview, and to make things move along faster, it included the head of the HR department who would normally have been involved only when things got serious. It went well, I think, and two days later I had the job offer.

And boy, did he roll out the red carpet for me.  To be sure, I had managed to steal a glance at the professor’s recommendation which was enthusiastic, and I am not quite sure why, because we had only ever talked for longer than a minute this once, and not seen each other more often than 3 or 4 times. But even so all the advance praise was hardly justified. The guy made it sound like I was some highly wanted specialist that his company could not afford to do without. When all I really have to offer, beyond extremely good grades, is rather advanced age and a dusty PhD in, of all things, history. In any case, he basically offered me extra pay beyond their usual student’s rate, and at least implicitly a virtual guarantee for a permanent position with advancement option.

And with that information three days later I went to see the business unit manager and the team leader of the Java department of the other consulting firm. We had a 2.5 hour talk (just note, in passing, what this must have cost the firm!), and they were extremely professional, somewhat stiff to be sure, but at the same time friendly and clearly interested in having me, and they said that much before I left. So now I was stranded, and still am, with two serious offers.

And I have a very hard time making up my mind. Both offers are very attractive–in fact, both made it very clear that the student’s job will be just the first step towards a permanent employment. Both firms are comparable in size and focus. Both will pay me the same (cards on the table, 15 Euros per hour). I find the one firm slightly more interesting–they appear more dynamic, have a more diverse range of customers, more different projects, and I would be working with Java and possibly Linux and some very fancy new technologies, while the team at the other firm is a designated Microsoft team that, as far as I can see, primarily adapts products like Office365, SharePoint, and Azure to the client’s needs. And these clients includes quite a few I find not greatly likeable, such as big automotive or energy companies (nuclear power, you know). Also, the first firm is downtown, which combines much better with attending university and bringing kids to school, while the other is out near the airport. Then again, I really liked my prospective boss at that latter firm (my professor’s friend), while I couldn’t get a good impression of the team leader at the first firm, because the business unit manager was doing all the talking. So what’s worth more–having a nice boss (who besides seems to think the world of you), or working with the more interesting technologies?

I spent the weekend trying to figure that out and on Monday I was decided. Or at least I thought I was. In the middle of the project fair, my cell phone rang and it was the guy from the aviation firm–had I made up my mind? I said I had, but stupidly because I couldn’t quite explain why I had settled on the other firm–it was mainly my gut feeling–I ascribed it all to the logistics problem, i.e. getting the kids to school and back, and being able to attend university and at the same time find time to work for maybe a few hours here and there. Which works if the firm is 10 minutes from campus, but not if it’s 20 minutes away, in a completely different direction, from our childrens’ school, which is another 15 minutes from campus and from home. Just doesn’t add up if you are trying to squeeze 16 hours of work in a 30 hour or so week at the university. Which is true, but it was still a bad strategy. Because the guy replied, very charmingly and convincingly, that these were problems to be worked out, once we had a basic understanding. There was, after all, working from home and all that.

I have a problem saying no. Which combines badly with people who anyway won’t take no for answer, as he does. So after I had made up my mind with such problems, I ended up saying I would reconsider and tell him on Wednesday. This morning he called and offered, would you believe it, to give me a permanent position right away, instead of the usual student’s contract which is always limited to the present term and can be terminated any time with one month notice.

At this point I am becoming a bit suspicious. For Pete’s sake, I am just a student, not some highly sought-after specialist. Is the market really that tight? And besides, it’s starting to feel bad. All those expectations. And by now he’s so invested in this, he will likely be rather offended if I still say no.

And there is the added complication of my professor’s recommendation. I did not ask for it, he offered it. But still, he might resent it if I declined the (meanwhile very insistent) offer, and I still have an oral examination with him ahead of me, plus I will do the project proscribed by the curriculum for the fifth term with him. Right now I feel somewhat in a corner. I still prefer the other firm, not the least because it will feel so much better to get a job on the strength of my own application, rather than on my professor’s recommendation. You might say it’s networking, but it has a touch of paternalism that bothers me, particularly considering my own age. I’d rather stand on my own feet. But it’s becoming very had to justify saying no. In fact this is getting close to an offer one can’t refuse.

And I am still not even sure I want to be an IT consultant. To be sure, both firms have most of their customers in the greater Hamburg area, so one wouldn’t be travelling a lot. And apparently even with banks ties are no longer mandatory (though coats and shirt collars still are). But I always rather pictured myself as a developer–maybe a project leader, eventually, or even a team leader–I do like to organize. Still, what I have learned these weeks is that consulting firms value my biography, whether it’s the three  letters (which in Germany are really two letters and a dot) or the fact that I can obviously write and talk in cohesive sentences which reportedly some developers struggle to accomplish. So maybe that’s my place to be. Or at least something I should find out about. No need to stay if I don’t like it.

But you know what? This has all become very serious very fast. And it’s already starting to feel like my days at UAS are drawing to a close. Even though it will be at least another year.

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