Three Weeks In, A Look Back

I know I’ve been rather quiet since leaving AOL and joining up with Music Intelligence Solutions, but as you can see from Jen’s entries, we’ve been busy. I’ve been going back and forth to Savannah, trying to both get to know the team, the vision and the plans we have for launching, and at the same time, designing architecture, doing training and helping folks get up to speed on scrum and other stuff. It’s been a lot of late night, long conversations, whiteboard sessions (note to self, get a bigger whiteboard), and late-night epiphanies while trying to get to sleep.

I keep thinking about what I learned over thirteen years, and the people who took their time to mentor me, and the excellent managers I had who showed me how to deal with both pressure and conflict. I keep thinking about one of the first technical meetings I had way back in 1999 about AOL Search. We were just getting started with the project, and I was the front-end guy, and one of the only people involved who knew AOLserver and Tcl. So, there I was in a room with two PhD’s, with them asking me what I wanted the API to look like. Joe Dzikiewicz and Tom Donaldson sat there and asked lots of questions, we drew on the whiteboard, and I was freaked the hell out…

There are hundreds of people I should thank for helping me over the years. I tried to count up all the people I worked with at AOL, and it’s easily over a hundred and I got close to two before I stopped. But, the person I keep coming back to is Joe. He was one of the first computer scientists who took me under his wing. I don’t have a degree – everything I know about technology is either self-taught or through experience and others helping me out. I’ll never forget an IM Joe sent me while we were working on AOL Search. It went something like:

  • Joe: Hey, things are looking good, but it seems kind of slow. Are you threading the requests?
  • Me: Am I what?
  • Joe: … I’ll call

I think I scared him; but, he very patiently explained it to me, and then sent me off to figure out how to implement it.

I learned so much from Joe, and from the hundreds of other people I worked with at AOL – from my first manager, Judy Winger, who “saved” me from getting fired from a really stupid e-mail I sent to the wrong manager (well, that manager was the intended target, but…), Priscilla Serling for encouraging me to take the job in Virginia, to Robin Vinopal and Mark Robinson who taught me so much about how to treat the people who work for you, and to Bert Arians and Alan Keister for giving me all the room I needed to try new things. And all the nerds, geeks and smartasses I worked with.

It’s only now that I’m gone and have a couple weeks away that I see how lucky I was to work with all the people I did.

I’m having a blast at MIS trying to implement all the stuff I learned over the years at AOL, and all the stuff I wanted to try but couldn’t, either because of upper management (I can only say that I learned a whole lot about what not to do from AOL’s upper management over the years) or because I wasn’t in a place to do it. It’s been a lot of fun seeing my new team embrace all the things I’m throwing at them (and I’m throwing a bunch, everything from The Cluetrain to web standards).

It’s going to be an adventure, and before I get too far along in it, I have to say “thank you” to everyone I worked with at AOL. Without you, I wouldn’t be here, and I’ll be forever grateful.

By Kevin Lawver

Web developer, Software Engineer @ Gusto, Co-founder @ TechSAV, husband, father, aspiring social capitalist and troublemaker.


  1. Whoa, some heavy and exciting stuff. Best of luck getting all this going. Sounds daunting.

  2. Kevin, you probably don’t remember me, but I interned with your group under Robin back in the day. I was definitely unqualified for the position, but you always took the time to explain things in the least technical terms possible. I learned a ton. I’m pretty sure you even introduced me to Firefox and blogging (which we tried to use as a team status weekly instead of that 2 hour meeting we used to have!) amongst many other things.
    Good luck with your new career. I left AOL this year too after 5 great years, and it’s not that scary after all.

  3. kev, i know you remember me, because i bug you ’til this day 😉 but you tried and miserably failed (MY fault, not yours) to teach me Tcl way back when.
    i’m so tickled pink about MIS! i want to be on the beta 😀
    please go to lady & sons, and get me an uncle bubba’s postcard!
    i wish you and jen and the boys nothing but the best. i think the change of pace will do you all good, and i hope you love savannah. you guys are in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. Wow – this one’s going into my ego-boost file. Thanks, Kevin!
    A few thoughts on this:
    – It was great to watch Kevin bloom over the years at AOL, going in the time I knew him from a fairly junior front-end developer to one of the real technical leaders of the place. It was good to watch, and nice to know I played a part.
    – As the comments above show, Kevin took whatever I did for him and paid it forward. There were many developers at AOL who benefited from Kevin’s input and mentoring – I should know, one of the first things I did on leaving AOL was to hire away one of his best protoges.
    – Best of all, of course, was that working with Kevin was never a one-way street. I got a lot from him over the years, starting with exposure to the Cluetrain and moving on from there.
    All of which is to say: Kevin, you are more than welcome!
    Joe Dzikiewicz

  5. Interesting new position, Kevin! My daughter is a songwriter (see the url) and I’ve wondered if this type of service might be useful for her.
    I’ve done plenty of mathematical analysis and modeling in my own career, and the concept of applying algorithms and pattern recognition and affinity to music certainly seems reasonable to me.
    We might become a customer!

  6. How did you deal with the pressure and conflict working at aol?

    1. I got fat and caused trouble. I think I’ve felt more pressure since leaving working at smaller companies where I’ve been way closer to the money side of things, and know how much the company depended on my work. At big companies, the metrics always felt disconnected from customer happiness or real dollars, and “success” was defined in very odd terms. It was weird juggling the ethical issues of working for a big company that didn’t always do the right thing, and how to deal with it. I think I thrived on the pressure, sometimes in an unhealthy way. I always felt like I was proving myself, because I was just the web guy without a degree who came from the call center… even when I was speaking at conferences and working on web standards stuff.

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