Indelible Blue Pen

Jason C. McDonald (CodeMouse92)


December 19, 2013

Qualifications

file0001661109394What qualifies me to run a software company?

I’m not writing this to fish for compliments. I’m really wondering. The nice thing about a blog is that you can ask introspective questions like this without people thinking they have to come up with an answer.

Of course, this isn’t to say I doubt that I am qualified, somehow. I seem to just fit in the position. That said, I really have to wonder why it fits me – or more accurately, why I fit it.

From my earliest memories, I have always played “business.” Since I could hold a pencil in my hand, I’d keep detailed (as far as I was concerned) records of everything. By the time I was 8, I had a filing cabinet stuffed full of mostly-legible patient notes, store layouts, business letters to and from imaginary characters, spreadsheets, calendars, employee records. I always had an affinity for forms. (Funny thing is, I still do.) Throughout my childhood, I’ve run grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, theaters, bed & breakfasts, hospitals, and malls. At age 6, I started the “JCM Mall and Medical Center,” where everything was in one convenient mega-building. That company finally closed its doors when my imaginary friends finally faded into childhood once and for all, at age 13. Perhaps I’m just built for business, but I still wonder.

This question of qualification has been bouncing around in my head since I started MousePaw Games. I often answered myself by saying that I wasn’t really running much. I was just working with my business partner/partners, coming up with lots of detailed plans and cranking out code. I often felt like, perhaps, I was just fooling myself.

The past six months has changed that. I now employ three interns (one on hiatus for school reasons,) all of whom are excited about MousePaw Games. I have parents, teachers, and college professors getting excited about the project. So far, two of those professors want to help design content for some upcoming games. Another serves as my programming adviser. This little startup is actually starting to go somewhere.

We lack regular funds right now, of course, running on some early investments. However, I’m increasingly discovering the rare opportunities that affords us. We have no salaries, no income, no sales, and as such, we don’t have to worry about taxes and insurance right now. We can focus all our time and energy on making the best product we can.

The biggest part of all of that, though, is that I’m no longer a wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn with lots of ideas and nothing to show for it. Now, I’m a boss, a mentor, a manager, and a businessman. The revelation sunk in last night after completing a new feature with one of my interns: We’re actually making software.

But why me? What makes me uniquely qualified to run this venture? I don’t have a degree. I’m currently going for my Associates of Science in Psychology as it is. I’ve never run a business before – at least not in real life. There are hundreds of thousands of programmers who know more advanced theory than I do. I’m essentially a college student, working out of my house, trying to make my dream come true. Over the past few years, however, I think I have been able to find some pieces of the answer to my question.

Actually, I brought all this up to my computer science professor-turned-adviser when I was first considering applications for the programming internship I was offering. I was looking at bringing on two people from Eastern Washington University, ideally computer science majors. I, on the other hand, was entirely self taught, except for one early-level C++ class.

“I don’t know. I mean, these guys have taken advanced computer science theory. They know far more about programming than I do. What makes me qualified to train them as interns.”

I’ve never forgotten my professor’s response. “Don’t underestimate yourself. They may know some things you don’t, but they’ll be learning from you how it all fits together. You’re teaching them the practical skills they need. You’re good at that.”

My interns really do bring a lot to the table. Taking my cue from my professor’s words, I told them all right off the bat, “You will undoubtedly know things I don’t. As much as I can teach you, I know I can also learn from you.” After several months, I can say with confidence that I’ve learned quite a lot, and they’ve made a lot of clever improvements to my code. They’ve also told me that they’ve learned a lot so far already from me, from the experience.

It gets me excited to think that, if we’ve come THIS far since October, where will we be a year from now? Everyone is just beginning to find their footing. I’m starting to really learn how to manage, and how to mentor.

On the flip side of my job description is my role as CEO. I initially considered if that title really fit what I did. I can say with a certain degree of certainty now, with all the hats I wear on a daily basis, yes, it fits. Am I an experienced CEO? Hardly. But I’m learning, baby step by baby step, how to do this job.

The position isn’t really one of choice. Businesses generally find the best success when the person at the helm is the one with the crazy idea that the company runs on. I’ve been blessed to be advised by so many more experienced entrepreneurs. My mother, who is also signed on as my business partner (by my own invitation), ensures I don’t do anything really stupid. All in all, I’m in good hands.

Yet, I think my first coming-of-age as a CEO came six months ago, when I was meeting with one school about an internship position I was offering. I made an appointment, showed up a few minutes early, in business formal attire. The professor I was meeting with, however, never showed. No phone call, nothing. After waiting for 45 minutes, I left.

The next day, I received a phone call with a seemingly backhanded apology, complete with explanation that he decided he wanted to chat with someone else at that time. Whether that was the case, I do not know, but the lack of an initial cancellation left me wary. He asked to reschedule to the next day, which I agreed to.

When we finally did meet, I explained the details of the internship. In return, I received a lecture on everything that was wrong with my business model, aimed at my mother no less (whom I had merely introduced as my business partner). Despite having corresponded with “CEO” clearly in my signature, the professor seemed to brush me aside and tell my mother everything we were doing wrong in his opinion, and that we needed to go find other investors and corporate sponsors.

Then, the cherry on the top, he asked to see the entire 800 page script for the game before he would consider posting the internship offer. I told him I’d consider it, and we left. At first, I wondered if perhaps he was just being protective of his students, until I realized that no one needs to see a company’s entire creative intellectual property before posting an internship. And besides that, my business sense has been completely disregarded on account of my apparent age and student status, with no consideration that, perhaps, I might actually know what I was doing.

The next morning, I wrote a short, yet polite, message informing the professor that I was no longer interested in hiring interns from his department.

A few days later, I realized that my offense wasn’t unfounded. I really did know what I was doing to some extent. My extensive business plan had been validated, down to the last detail, by three different business advisers, all of them entrepreneurs with decades of experience. Perhaps that professor had meant well. I’ll never really know. But through it, I realized that I was no longer just playing “business.” This was the real thing.

I don’t know if there is some sort of social expectation, that recognizing one’s own ability is arrogance. I certainly hope not. What I do know is this: while I have many decades of learning and growing ahead of me, while I have only taken the first steps on a lifetime journey, I’m not on this path by mistake. For whatever reason, the good Lord has seen fit to put this calling on my life.

Perhaps it’s just that old adage in action again: God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.

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