The question seemed to hang in the air for a very long time, even though we both already knew the answer.I had been suspicious that one of my best developers had an alcohol problem for quite some time.
But this time the stench made me finally address the issue, something I should have done long before.
Let me take a step back and provide some history as to how this situation came to a head. Tim was one of the most liked developers in the company. He had been there from the beginning, one of the first few employees to take the risk and successfully launch the company.
Tim wrote much of the code for the original product and his code was still present years later. His code was legendary. But if you have ever had to troubleshoot or build upon the original code that was created in a startup, you understand that “legendary” doesn’t always mean quality.
Some of the code was extremely innovative and some of it was a mess. And come to think of it, this was what life was like working with Tim.
He was a great problem solver, yet thanks to alcohol, he was also a mess. But the mess was not obvious, which made this a tricky situation.
I was hired in to lead the team and inherited Tim. It seemed odd to me that one of the original founders was still a developer and not in some leadership capacity.
But then again, some people just want to code and not have other responsibilities, so it wasn’t shocking. When I first met Tim, he didn’t say much. He was nice and all, but just kept conversations brief.
In conversations with those who had worked at the firm for a while, I found out that Tim had bounced around to a few teams. Again, I couldn’t figure out why one of the original developers couldn’t find a home and ended up on the consulting team. I would have expected him to be writing core product code.
Whenever I asked someone about Tim the main response was “He is such a nice guy.” or “What a good guy.”So I figured he must be a quiet, affable genius and that I should count my lucky stars he was on my team.
Then the cracks started to expose the mess under his nice, smart-guy façade. He would show up to work later and later, with no notice to me or anyone else. His office door would be closed for hours, for no known reason.
I also noticed how bloodshot his eyes were. I once asked him if everything was okay because his eyes looked so bad. His response? “I have really bad dust allergies.”
So I asked the cleaning crew to give Tim’s office a good scrub down. But his eyes continued to have a red tint and I never noticed any sneezing fits or sniffles.
I should also mention that Tim was ALWAYS chewing gum. And his breath always smelled like strong spearmint.
The other thing that threw me off was that customers loved Tim. He was so knowledgeable about the product and he was a subject matter expert, even more so than the customer in many cases. And no one was complaining about his work or his behavior, so I wasn’t concerned.
Because of his founder status at the company, I ignored these warning signs. I shouldn’t have.
Then one day I received a phone call from one of our partners who was working with Tim at a customer site. They said that Tim wasn’t showing up to work on time and that his deliverables were slipping. Even they were surprised, because like everyone else, they liked Tim and respected his knowledge.
When I confronted Tim about it, he said he hadn’t been feeling well and apologized. Said he would be fine and that the deliverables weren’t really in jeopardy. I had no reason to doubt him. Well, in retrospect, maybe I did. Anyway, I didn’t make a big deal out of it and he did make the deliverable on time.
Then a few days later when back at the office, Tim disappeared in the middle of the day. No one could reach him and he didn’t tell anyone where he was going. Then around 4 PM I passed his office and saw the door was shut. I knocked and Tim opened the door.
The smell was potent. His eyes were the reddest I had ever seen. One amazing thing about Tim, though, was that he could be drunk as a skunk and not slur his words and walk a straight line without any problem.(Where did the term “drunk as a skunk” come from anyway?)
This is when I confronted him. He didn’t say a word, simply packed his laptop and left the building. I was flabbergasted. I had dealt with people who were violent, silly or incoherent when drunk, but never one who was calm, cool and collected.
I agonized about what to say to Tim leading up to the next day. I have family who struggle with alcoholism and knew this impending discussion had implications that were more important than what transpired at the office.
I also knew that if not addressed, things could get ugly in the office. In a past job of mine, a coworker who had a drug addiction broke in to the office one night and stole computers to pawn so he could get his fix that night. If someone would have been working late, something horrible could have happened.
Although others had turned a blind eye to Tim’s drinking problem, I felt I had to deal with it.
When Tim came in, he was on time and deliberately walked right past my office. I took a deep breath and followed. He looked at me as I appeared in front of his desk and said “Hey, what’s up?”
I briefly wondered if he didn’t remember what happened. I forged ahead with my planned speech about how drinking wasn’t allowed during work hours and that I noticed a pattern of concerning activity.
Tim laughed and said there was no problem. He had met a friend for drinks at lunch and it got a bit out of control. Plus he reminded me that the company had an unofficial happy hour every Friday at 4 PM with beer in an office conference room – which was true.
And you know, there wasn’t much else I could do or say. Even worse, I had screwed up. Since I decided not to involve HR the incident wasn’t documented. I naively chose to handle it on my own with a friendly discussion.
This was a bad idea on so many levels. I should have made it an official discussion, because this wasn’t the last time it happened.
Eventually his work started to suffer and he became unreliable. But because of his status in the company and because of his low-key demeanor while under the influence, Tim was able to skate by for longer than he should have – potentially putting him and others in danger, not to mention the firm’s reputation.
After our company was acquired, Tim cashed out and disappeared. I’m happy I don’t have a more dramatic ending to share because it could have ended badly.
If you know someone has a problem, find a way to bring it to the surface through HR and don’t bury it hoping it will just go away. It doesn’t matter if they are a founder, superstar or just your average developer. You might not be as lucky.
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Eric Spiegel is CEO and co-founder of XTS, which provides software for planning, managing and auditing Citrix and other virtualization platforms.