Since the migrations are now well under way, and I’ve long since moved away from WT, I’ll take a few minutes to note my recollections of how and when things happened. This is not intended to be a critique so much as a record.
On Wednesday, August 24th, I received an email from Zac Cogswell (WiredTree’s owner) that all managers needed to be at a meeting Thursday night at 6PM, the phrasing was something like “you are a manager if you received this email”. A second email went out to all staff requiring attendance at a 9AM meeting in our office. A lot of questions and rumors were heard, but nothing too rash was planned. Brian had an interview with Amazon Web Services on Friday that he needed to reschedule, there was some question of whether it mattered that he be there at all. I recommended he come to work that morning.
On Thursday night, we sat in Zac’s office to meet. Mark, Yanina, and myself (support management) as well as Calvin and Pat (billing and infrastructure) were present. Zac explained that he had just signed the contract to sell WiredTree to Liquid Web, that the plan was to end operations in Chicago and move all customer services to Lansing under LW’s management, and that all employees would receive this information the next morning.
Andrew and Brian were in the office when I came back down, they could see the envelope I had with the stay agreement and details, but no questions were asked. I put this in my bag and went back to work. This was the hardest evening I had lived in a long time. Eva was much more forthright in her questions when she realized that I knew already what would happen in the morning, I was a bit curt and told her she was an adult.
Friday morning, August 26th, we all arrived between 8:45 and 9AM for the meeting. Brendan was still working, it is a hard time to start with trying to continue running an operating business while all of your coworkers are joking around in the room. He kept taking calls right up until the announcement. Zac came in, stood in the corner, to speak to everyone. He announced that WiredTree had been sold, that Liquid Web were the new owners, that the plan was to migrate all accounts out of Chicago and ultimately shut down. He explained the 24 hour needs of running an internet business, this was something he had been doing for the last ten years, and that he was ready not to need to read his email at all hours of the day. He introduced the team from Liquid Web, including Misty Coombs (HR), Jim Geiger (CEO), Carrie Wheeler (COO), and a few support management staff.
Jim Geiger gave a prepared talk about change, opportunity, how this could be a great chance in our lives, how LW expected us to continue providing the same levels of support, and to help smooth the move over to the new company. He expressed an interest in finding us jobs if any staff were going to stay until the end, and willing to relocate to San Antonio (LW had recently acquired a hosting business from rackspace) or Lansing. He gave a brief outline of the stay agreement, part of which was confidentiality, part of which was a completion bonus. I’ll have more to say about that later.
Carrie Wheeler gave a similar speech with more details, and at this point Misty may have started handing out the agreement papers to each person in attendance.
Dan Svetlik was in Las Vegas on vacation, they needed to call and email the details to him to get his agreement. No one was able to leave the meeting without either resigning or signing the agreement. Carrie and Misty setup in our lunch room (an antechamber to the office, controlling the only entrance). They were there to take the signed agreements and answer any questions. My main question, to Carrie, was what the contingency plan was if and when staff started to leave faster than their migrations could occur. I think I asked ‘what will we do in six to eight weeks when half of this team has quit’. The answer was that additional staffing would be brought in from remote teams (WiredTree was at the time hiring both BobCares and Touch Support to do helpdesk support). I was unimpressed with this, it’s hard to handle a 24-hour phone line and one hour SLA for hardware replacement for a Chicago data center from a desk in Croatia or Kerala.
Brendan decided he would finish his shift, but that he would not sign this agreement, and Friday was his last day. He worked non-stop til 3PM when I came back to start my shift, packed up, handed me his key and badge, and mentioned that this was his last day. I like Brendan a lot, but never liked him better than there. This was the start of a rapid decline in the better staff.
Of the key points in the agreement, which I alluded to earlier, the first was confidentiality. We were not to disclose the sale to Liquid Web, which would be grounds for termination, to either our friends or their clients. Additionally, a cash bonus, specified in terms of after tax dollars, was agreed on in the event I stayed to the end, projected at six months (for most of the staff, the projected end date was 4 months, or just about Christmas). This date was fluid, and there was no language to determine whether and when a firm date would be agreed to. The consequence is that it was hard to quantify this bonus, and hard to count on it, since it would arrive at an uncertain date. There was no binding agreement to continue working, the employment remained at will, which when I read through this and explained, there was no reason not to sign it, except Brendan’s principled stance. Since we were all free to quit with a normal two week notice, and they were free to fire us, there was no harm in signing the paper. They also added a fair amount (maybe 12-18 hours or so) of additional PTO for the time to assist in interviewing. The director of sales was given one months notice, it makes some sense to stop drumming up new business agressively when you’ve moved into a holding pattern.
By the end of the next week, every employee at WT was making alternate plans. Within three weeks of the announcement, Brian, Andrew, Eva, and Brendan were all either gone or had put in their notice. I took my fall vacation to Montreal. No new staff were being hired. The most senior staff were in the strongest position to find new jobs, and were the first to start leaving. An organization starts to disintegrate quickly when the senior team all pulls stakes, and this was showing both in the morale and in the support we were giving. Any interest from the infrastructure team to solve issues or push forward with new plans were tabled, they essentially became liquid web’s migration support team in Chicago.
When I came back from my vacation, I had a few interviews lined up, working with a few recruiters. This was in the beginning of October, and the delay was largely due to a typo on a resume I had sent out. On one day, I had a phone interview with a trading firm, a phone interview with BrainTree (a payment processor recently acquired by paypal) and a follow up interview on site with Mbira that afternoon. I took the two phone interviews outside by the river (I remember moving once or twice to avoid traffic noises). I did well enough in the face to face at mbira that an offer came through within 48 hours. I put my notice in that day. Within a week Mark and Yanina also put in their notice, effectively all support management would be leaving by the end of October. Brad Doutree (LW Support Manager) contacted me to make sure there was nothing he could do to dissuade me. I expressed to him more concretely the concerns I had asked Carrie about, that the best staff would be leaving faster than they could start their migrations, and that the best things they could do would be to expedite the transfers.
I caught up with a few of the staff in December, I’m not very social, and hadn’t kept informed of how things were going. They appear, the week before Christmas, to have finished the migrations of a few (perhaps 50) VPS servers out of about 5000 active servers. This was a long way from expecting initially to be 80% done by that time. Staff morale was absurdly low. Some shifts had phones completely ignored, and a long backlog of support tickets in the queue to be answered. Staff essentially felt immune to punishment, one person came in to work, logged in, saw how bad it was, and announced he was sick, then went home. This was the nightmare I feared when I started to look for a new job.
I would like to say that while the prospect of staying to the end, helping the new owners shepherd the clients safely to their new homes, had little to offer me, I think the execution of the announcements was well done. Everyone knew what to expect, knew that they needed to find a new job, and started looking. We all also had time to be picky. There is, and was, plenty of work for someone with experience in linux, internet, servers, scripting, and host of jobs. Some people got snapped up quicker than I expected. There are other hosting companies in Chicago, and Steadfast managed to find space for a lot of the staff, after hiring in the past about five previously employees. They all seem happy where they ended up, the pace is much slower, and they have time to grow. I cannot complain that we all got fair notice, rather than a brief announcement and pink slip party. Carlos remarked that Friday morning as the LW team was there, and the staff were filling out their agreements, that it was like being in Paris immediately after the arrival of the German occupation, nobody’s yet sure what will happen, what the terms are, but everyone is sure that something was lost. I think it’s safe to say we were all, with one exception, collaborators with exceptions. I won’t say it was the wrong choice.
Yanina worked out an arrangement to work a few nights (maybe close to full time) when it became clear that everyone was leaving, and her new employers were content to let that happen. I don’t know what her terms were. I do know that in October some stronger stay agreements (I think just adding some money and lengthening the agreement term) were circulated, there were additional confidentiality clauses there, and the details of these are not known to me.