Archive for November, 2008

I work with famous people

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

I’ve somehow managed to work with a lot of famous people in my career. Sometimes even before they’re famous. It’s almost never by choice. What I mean is I never set out to work with famous people. It just worked out that way.

Fame is relative. Some of the people I’m referring to are widely known, but most of them are famous in the industry I’m in but not so much outside it.

Here’s a random sample.

Andy & Bill

Andy Hertzfeld and Bill Atkinson are a couple of brilliant designers who are best known for their work on the original Macintosh computer at Apple. I didn’t work with them then. That came later at a place called General Magic.

I did bump into Bill a few times at Apple in the late 80’s when he was working on a product called HyperCard. He loved to talk about whatever clever innovation the team was working on, with whomever happened to be nearby when he was excited about it. I was lucky enough to be nearby a few times.

At Magic I sat across the aisle from Andy and Bill and Susan Kare, who all sat together in the same large workspace. Susan was the graphic designer on the Mac, and also on the Magic Cap product we were creating at Magic.

By this time I knew their design sensibilities pretty well. I had just spent five years at Apple working on system software where I spent a lot of time patching and extending their code. I think you can learn a lot about somebody by immersing yourself in one of their projects after they’re gone.

Bill’s code is clean. Clean, clean, clean. Simple, straightforward, and correct. Andy’s code is clever. Never tricky, but sometimes subtle. Compact. (Clever is a term I usually use┬ápejoratively in a programming context but I don’t mean it that way here. Most people can’t pull off clever. They think they can but they really can’t. They’re better off sticking with simple. Andy can do clever.)

Pierre Omidyar

Pierre founded eBay and became a billionaire philanthropist. I remember him as that funny and kinda goofy guy I worked with at General Magic. He was working on what would become eBay while we were at Magic together. It was called AuctionWeb. He got very enthusiastic when describing it. Maybe if I’d shown a little more interest instead of trying to find a way to be needed someplace else I would have had a chance to become a billionaire philanthropist, too. (I mean, come on. Programming a web site? How boring is that? Sigh.)

Tony Fadell

Another Magician. I’ve worked with Tony twice now.

Tony was doing hardware and low level software design for Magic Cap when I met him. He was gregarious and funny and didn’t have an off switch. He acted up, acted out, and seemed to have the maturity of a teenager. We didn’t really get to know each other then.

A few years later Tony was working on a secret project at Apple that would become the iPod. I was in between jobs and enjoying my semi-retirement when he convinced me to come work on the project. The project was so secret he wouldn’t even tell me what it was until I had signed the offer letter.

Given my memory of the time we spent together at Magic I asked to speak to his boss first. I wanted to make sure he had adult supervision. As it turned out he didn’t need it any more. He’d matured a lot in those few years. Tony created a diverse team of great hardware and software people. He drove us hard and got great results.

iPod and the iTunes Music Store changed the world. And made Tony famous. Even more so now that Tony’s leaving his position as Sr. Vice President of the iPod Division.

Steve Jobs

When I agreed to work for Tony on iPod I only had one condition. Having heard some horror stories about Steve I made Tony promise that I wouldn’t have to be in meetings with Steve. He did, so I signed.

That lasted almost a week. I barely had Meeting Maker set up on my office computer when a meeting showed up on the schedule for the following Wednesday. “<codename> review @ SJ’s Conf. Room” (It wasn’t called iPod yet… it only had a codename. Which I won’t reveal here.)

What to say, what to say. I have lots of great Steve Jobs stories. Maybe for around a campfire when no recording devices are within 100 miles.

I’ll just say this. Any kind of product review with SJ can be brutal for the presenter but iPod reviews were especially intimidating. You see, I was the guy doing the presenting. I need to paint a couple of pictures to illustrate.

To demonstrate something on the Mac, like the Finder or Safari, you get a bunch of people in a long room with a table down the center. On the table is a projector pointed at a screen at one end of the room. You turn out the lights for better viewing and start showing off. The presenter can’t really see SJ, and SJ can’t really see the presenter. Even after the lights come on the presenter has a whole table and projector between him and SJ. Not to mention several levels of management around the table to run interference.

To demonstrate an iPod you get half a dozen people in a small room barely large enough for a table and a few chairs. Even though you give SJ his own iPod with the new software on it, the presenter (that’s me) has to sit close enough to see what SJ sees. As in, shoulder to shoulder. Physically touching. With the lights on. Senior management? Waaaaay at the other end of the table.

You get used to it.

Me

I used to be famous. When I worked at Apple the first time I became somewhat well known in the (very small) Mac development community for some tools I created and for my online presence in the days long before the world wide web.

One time at General Magic I wandered downstairs to interview a candidate for an engineering position. Our recruiter introduced me to him and his eyes got big. He said, “The Greg Marriott?!?!” And he wasn’t kidding around. I’d had that kind of thing happen before but never in a job setting like this.

Others

There are a lot of others I would like to mention but this is getting too long already. Maybe another day.