Got contacted by a recruiter about a manager position at Tivo. It would be managing an internal tools group.
Went to the interview. It went really well. I talked to 4 people, and we discussed compilers, debuggers, linux distributions, and how they were built and tested. How the open source community worked, and Tivo’s interaction with it.
We discussed personnel issues and performance reviews, and philosophies about hiring. I thought it was a great day of interviewing.
Then we got to the close. They asked me to sign something authorizing background checks (OK). And then they asked for a drug test, and gave me a list of approved labs.
I have never partaken of any illegal drug in my entire life. But that’s not the point.
I asked them why they cared. They told me that they really wanted reliable people that they could count on. I asked them if the background check included a police check. They said yes. I gave them my opinion that the police check should be good enough. They still said that the drug test was necessary.
I told them that if there was a false positive, and somebody told the health insurance provider, they could drop me from the health insurance, even if it was company provided. They tried to assure me that the false positive rate was very low.
I told them that I was not willing to submit to a drug test unless they had some legal reason, such as the handling of classified material, and if that were true, I would need a formal security clearance. I was certainly willing to do whatever it took if that were true. They told me that the security clearance was not necessary.
So I told them, “I’m not doing it. If that disqualifies me from this position, so be it,” and walked out.
The recruiter called me the next day, and said that they were willing to make me a generous offer if I would submit to the drug test. I told him no.
Apple was a difficult place to work. When I got there in 2001, Mac OS X had just been shipped a few weeks before, and my group was putting out the first separate Developer Tools disc. OS X was not a guaranteed winner; it was an “all-in” bet that the Mac could be advanced by replacing the OS with a NextStep descendant.
I managed a small team, but the team was somewhat dysfunctional. And we had a lot of work to do. One person was let go, and we hired another. But basically, we were swamped.
I also did a lot of non-management work; I build a lab of machines to test building Mac OS X with new compiler versions. Looking back, this was what I was most proud of from this period.
However, my relationship with my boss was rocky. One reason is certainly that I was naive in many areas, and just needed to grow up some. And it made my boss absolutely nuts.
During my second year, we got a new VP of our division, and most of the management staff changed. My boss was given a smaller team. I was not a manager anymore. Two of the other managers that had reported to my boss left Apple.
And I was left with a position called “Technical Project Manager”, whose job description was basically, do what it takes to make the Developer Tools as a whole to work for internal and external developers, but don’t do code.
I struggled. Right before I went away on my honeymoon, I made a call to integrate the latest software update into our Developer Tools build. This turned out to be a big mistake, as the Developer Tools had to be based on the first version of the shipping OS for compatibility, but I did not find out until I got back that my ex-boss had spent most of his Thanksgiving cleaning up the ensuing mess. More reason for us not to get along.
In 2003, they made a new organization called the “Developer Tools Program Office”, hired a new manager, and put me under her. And I blossomed. I largely defined the work I was doing, but she had feedback when I was going off the rails.
At one point, the VP of Dev Tools laid off a couple of people. My new boss informed me that I had been on that list, but since she was new, she told the VP she could not do her job without my knowledge and experience.
I tried to latch on as a developer on the compiler team. I ran into two problems: 1. Nobody at Apple believed I could code since I never interviewed as a coder, and the last experience I had at coding was 5 years earlier, and 2. The VP did not appear to think much of me at that point.
Also during 2003, I was asked to get another compiler ready, this time training another engineer on how to do it. That engineer’s boss was a friend of the VP, but this new QA manager was a workplace bully.
He berated, yelled at, questioned the ability, and otherwise mistreated his direct reports, while putting on a happy, productive face to his managers. With me, he got my boss to agree that building Mac OS with a new compiler was part of compiler testing. He then told my boss later that my work had been a “failure” because it had not been more automated, despite the large number of bugs we filed that got fixes, and the fact that the OS X management considered the compiler a success.
With all of that turmoil, I received my first ever “Needs Improvement” performance review. Given that I had almost been laid off, I figured it was time to find a new job.
Of course, there were very few jobs in 2003-2004 because of the bursting of the Dot Com bubble. But one day, I got a phone call from a recruiter at Amazon.
They were looking for somebody to manage their internal software tools team, which maintained their internal development and deployment environments. Sounded right up my alley. There was only one problem.
“I don’t want to live in Seattle.”
She went on the wax poetically about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. I told her that it would be expensive if they wanted to hire me to move to Seattle. Neither me nor my wife was really interested in the place. She had me agree to fly up there for the interview anyway, provided I passed the phone screen.
I verified that the phone screen did not required coding, and set it up for the time I was driving to work (at the time, my commute to Apple was 1+ hours each way). The person called me. He asked my about tools for inter-team communication, and I mentioned chat and wiki. He then asked me what a hash table was. 40 minutes later, as I pulled into the Infinite Loop campus, he said, “Well! You sure do seem to know your hashtables!”
When I got to the fancy downtown hotel in Seattle on a December Thursday night, I could tell this was a hiring factory. I got a little gift bag with some kinds of chachkis in it. There were dozens of them behind the registration desk of the hotel. In the morning, this hotel messed up my room service breakfast, so I got to the Amazon office quite hungry.
There were six interview sessions, with a break for lunch. There were basically discussion-based interviews; no whiteboard sessions or the like. I spent a lot of time talking about hash tables and priority queues with various engineers. Some kind of VP took me to lunch, which was in this awful little cafe a couple of blocks from the interview.
The first interview after lunch, somebody I knew walked in. He had worked on the ill-fated embedded IDE project in Atlanta when it was canned and he was laid off. Then, somehow, he landed with some StyleWare buddies on their failed startup in Portland, and then hired on to Amazon.
I flew back home that early evening.
On Tuesday, I got a call from Amazon. They said that they were interested in writing an offer, and wondered what I was looking for in salary and total compensation. I gave them basically double my salary. She said, “What? That’s really high. We don’t pay anybody that, pretty much.”
“I told you that it would be expensive for you if you wanted to move me to Seattle to work the very first time the recruiter called me, and I have reminded your people ever since.”
“Yes, but still, that’s really high! We can’t do that.”
“OK, what can you do?”
She gave me a typical, not-outstanding package that, given the cost of living adjustment, was just about the same take-home as I was making at Apple. I told her, no. She got off the phone. A few days later, I got this in email:
I wanted to personally send you an email in follow up to your recent interviews with us here at Amazon.com. I sincerely appreciate the time and effort you spent coming to Seattle to meet with all of us. However, after some serious discussions and review, the interview team has decided to pursue some other candidates for the roles you interviewed for.
As a result, I will personally place your resume back in our database for all of our recruiters and hiring managers to view. If anything appears to be a good fit that matches your skillset (sic), they will contact you and discuss the opportunities with you directly.
I want to wish you luck in your search for a new role and again thank you for your time and energy. I also want to thank you for your continued interest in our company.
She signed it, “Fondly”. Really? “Continued interest in our company”?
As for Apple, it got a lot better. I grew up a lot in those years. My new boss and I clicked, I figured a lot of stuff out, and things started being fun again. And I even managed to remain friends with the ex-boss.
On January 2, 2001, the Dow Jones Industrial Index closed at 10790.92, and the NASDAQ (where much of the tech sector listed stocks) was at 2474.16. Bay Area traffic was completely choked; commute times were horrible. Most restaurants had at least an hour wait at dinner time, and were turning people away at lunch.
At Red Hat, my team had basically mutinied, and told me that they were going to work in the Red Hat San Francisco office (instead of Sunnyvale), which was the office of a company that was acquired a few months earlier. San Francisco itself was a party. The Red Hat office was south of Market (called “SOMA”) was full of startups. And, every night, there were parties at some of these companies. At these parties, where the price of admission was your resume, supposedly you could get anything you want, including possibly illegal activities like drugs and prostitutes. I do know you could get free drinks and food. These companies were taking venture capital money, and throwing these parties, because they needed engineers. But it had the effect of lighting $1000 bills on fire.
And then the world changed.
When I went to work the week of February 15, there was no traffic. It was gone. Many, many companies had gone bankrupt in the six weeks previous. The restaurants had tables. Rents started going down. You could tell that the dot com bubble had burst. It was palpable, and there was panic, as unemployment went through the roof.
By March 31st, the Dow Jones was at 9799.47, and the Nasdaq was at 1830.42. And it would get worse.
The product I had been managing was a commercial failure, so my role was changed to manage GDB engineers, and the engineers formerly on my team were basically assigned to miscellaneous integration tasks. Red Hat was starting to lay people off to reduce headcount as it absorbed us.
At one point, my team was assigned against its will to bolster a huge project that was in trouble. The project itself was being run out of our Atlanta office, and we had to fly out there to learn how to develop this product.
Eventually, Red Hat and the former Cygnus engineering management team pulled the plug, and laid everybody in Atlanta off. There was one engineer working remotely from a farm house in New England, and they forgot to lay him off! He eventually was laid off a few months later after he did not adapt to working on GDB very well. One result of that project was that two of my better people left, both going to Apple.
So, Red Hat was in turmoil, and during all of this, I got another call from a different recruiter at Apple. It was for a Quality Assurance Manager position.
I was not a QA person, but I had managed some, and had come from a background of strong QA, both manual, and automated. So I agreed to come in.
I walked into the conference room at Apple, and there was the same hiring manager I had talked to a few months earlier. “Oh, hey, good to see you. Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
I said, as evenly as I could, “Well, you were going to call me with next steps, and you never did. So I figured that you weren’t interested.”
He looked genuinely puzzled. “I never called you? Huh. Thought I did. Sorry about that! We were looking a for a pure project manager, and decided that you did not match the roll.”
He continued. “We are looking for a QA manager for the Developer Tools group for Mac OS X here. Have you installed Mac OS X yet?”
The first commercial version of Mac OS X (Cheetah) had shipped a few weeks earlier.
“Well, I have a Power Mac 8600/300, which does not support it. I have not purchased a machine on the off-chance I would get a job that needs it…”
He laughed. We went ahead with the interview. I don’t remember much about it (other than an interview question I still can’t answer 17 years later. I don’t think that there is a solution, but the fellow was obviously expecting the answer to be easy). One session, though I got a surprise.
A few weeks earlier, one of my friends decided to throw a music parlour party. She asked many of her friends to bring some prepared music, and we would all play/sing for each other, and have dinner and wine. She sang, and her accompanist on piano was a good player. At some point, he started playing “All Blues” (jazz), and I started playing soprano sax along with him. We jammed out.
He was one of my interviewers; he was the compiler manager. So that was cool. And evidently, one of the guys who worked for me at Cygnus/Red Hat, and who had worked with me at Sun Labs, had recommended me. He met me at the door, and took my temp badge on the way out.
The interview seemed to go well; it was on a Monday. On Wednesday, my grandboss at Red Hat told me that he was moving me into a more senior management roll, managing GCC engineers. It was a step up in prestige and responsibility for me. I wonder if he knew I was getting ready to leave…
And I got the offer! Finally, the company I had most wanted to work for for 12 years was hiring me.
And I took it. My Red Hat grandboss tried to keep me, but my heart was already at Apple.
When they showed us the “Think Different” ad during orientation, I cried. I was home.
“Hello. I’m from Apple Computer. We are looking for a manager on our software team. Your experience with Mac programming, compilers, and as a manager are interesting to us. Would you be interested in talking to us?”
When I was in junior high, the school had a teletype hooked up to a mainframe, and a paper tape machine to save and read files.
I did some toy BASIC programming on that; it was fun, I guess, but slow, and loud. (Did you know that Control-G (BEL) actually rang a metal bell on the teletype?). It was also fairly obsolete technology. For 9th grade, my school bought a TRS-80 Model II with a cassette drive, which I spent a lot of time on.
However, one of my friends kept bad-mouthing it; his family bought him an Apple ][, and two Disk ][ 5.25″ floppy drives. He went on and on about this computer.
High school also had a TRS-80 Model II. I played with an Apple ][ in a computer store, and was impressed that programs in BASIC on the Apple ][ were saved with less space than on the TRS 80 (they probably tokenized it).
My first year at Rice, Apple introduced Macintosh.
Rice was one of the dozen or so schools that got first access; a few weeks later, Macs appeared on the computer building. I was spellbound. I loved it. I spent hours and hours playing with MacPaint. I did all of my papers with MacWrite. There was no way I could afford one for myself, so I could not get into programming it at that time, but as they quickly evolved while I was in college into real productivity machines, I wanted one more and more. Even more than that, though, I decided I wanted to write software for it, preferably at Apple. With my grades, I did not figure that the last part was in the cards, but one can dream.
My last year at Rice, I ended up working on the Apple ][GS, which at that point, had a Mac-clone operating system. So I kind of learned the basics of Mac programming working on GSOS writing AppleWorks GS. That company was bought by Claris, which I talked about here.
At Claris, after AppleWorks GS shipped and was end-of-lifed, I ended up working on the Mac on FileMaker Pro. I also worked on the Windows port of FileMaker, and then later, when the Mac moved processors from the Motorola MC 68000 family to the Power PC family, I did the primary Power PC port.
When I first started at Claris, it was a subsidiary of Apple, but an independent company, intent on going public. Apple changed its mind in 1991, much to everybody’s chagrin. However, some good came out of it for us Claris people.
The first is that, as a result of actually working for Apple, we got sabbaticals, six paid weeks of every five years in addition to the vacation time we accumulated. (Those are gone now).
The second big thing, though, is we got discounted prices on Apple hardware. There were three levels. One was called “2nd discount”, which was a small discount. People would buy computers for friends with that one. One was the “1st discount”. We got one of those/year, and it was a pretty substantial discount.
But the real prize was the Loan-To-Own (they got rid of this later as well). Once in your entire career at Apple, you could pay an upfront fee of basically manufacturing cost, and if you kept it for a year, and stayed employed at Apple for a year, you got to keep it. If you left early, you had to pay the difference between the Loan-To-Own price, and the 1st discount price.
You were also not supposed to sell a Loan-to-Own before the year was up. I know of one person who was walked out the door after Apple discovered that they had posted their Loan-to-Own for sale on Usenet.
In 1990, I finally got my own computer. I got a Mac IIci, with 8 MB RAM, an 80 MB internal hard drive, an Apple 15″ color monitor, and an Apple Portrait Display. And I have been a Mac owner ever since, although that IIci is long gone.
So, yeah, I live and breathe Apple to this day. And I was definitely interested.
The interview was at the Infinite Loop campus, which I had last visited in 1996, when I purchased my Power Mac 8600/300 on my last day at Claris. I was shown into a conference room in Building 2, where I met the hiring manager, and one of the lead compiler engineers. The hiring manager talked to me about project manager stuff, planning work, tracking it, process, etc. The compiler guy grilled me about the C language.
I thought I did OK. At the end, the hiring manager said he would call me with next steps.
On the way out the door, while I was there, I ducked into the Company Store, in Building 1. This is where one used to buy computers as employees. Now, it contained software, cables, and souvenirs (tee shirts, golf balls, etc), and computers were sold via an internal website.
While I as in there, a group of people came in. I looked at them closer after a few minutes. There were about six people, mixed ethnicity, longish hair. And I realized that they were a band from the way they were dressed and the way they talked.
I did not find anything I wanted to buy. On my way out the door, an Apple HR-looking person was escorting Lou Rawls into the store. It was his band that was already in there. Yeah, Apple has always been cool.
Alas, nobody ever called me about this position again.
A recruiter called me, asking me if I were interested in a dot.com startup in Berkeley. Normally, that was pretty far away from Redwood City, where I lived, but I figured I needed to check it out. The recruiter scheduled me to go meet the hiring manager in Berkeley one afternoon.
I got there, and the hiring manager turned out to be just this guy. He was the entire company. His idea was a primitive form of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Basically, he was writing software to read web pages and rewrite them so that marketing terms were near the top.
Natural language processing is hard, and he was trying to hire somebody to help him out. That was the entire product. Rewriting webpages. No business plan for how to sell this to people so that they could use the rewritten pages in production.
And no clue how English syntax actually worked (English was not his first language). And no idea how impossible it was to compute new sentences emphasizing search terms without destroying the meaning of the original webpage.
And he actually could not pay me; only offer stock. He did have a round of venture funding (welcome to the Dot Com Boom) for some unknown reason.
I tried not to laugh as I said, “No, this is not something I would be interested in.” Walked back to the car, went back across the Bay Bridge, and back to the Red Hat San Francisco office. What a waste of time that was.
I was still using altavista.com for Internet search. I got a call from a recruiter from Google, which was starting to capture some market share in the search engine space. They wanted to talk to me about a Software Engineering Manager position:
Thanks for taking a minute to talk to me earlier regarding our opportunities
here at Google. Are you ready for another start-up adventure? We want to
talk to you about being a Software Engineering Manager to provide hands-on
technical leadership to a team of Software Engineers. Don’t have a job
description specific to this role but I’ve attached one for the people you’d
be managing and would recommend you check out the www.google.com site for
more details on the company. Please email me or call me back with a couple
of days\times that I can arrange for you to talk to one of our senior
OK. Sounds good. I agreed to meet with them.
I went onsite. They had one building, the same building that is the main building of their Mountain View campus, which had been a Silicon Graphics building last time I had gone to the Shoreline Amphitheater for a concert (I think it was Moody Blues). The lobby was dark. All of the windows had the shades drawn, and they were projecting realtime searches that people were performing (“Charlotte dry cleaners”, “randall cunningham”, “jenna jameson anal”…) scrolling by on the wall.
I talked with two project managers in the first interview and they discussed what they were talking about. They were trying to scale up as fast as possible, and they needed engineers, but they also needed more project managers. They also mentioned how hard everybody was working.
Remembering the hell that was StyleWare, and the minimal payout we got when it was purchased, I was wary. I asked them if the engineers had to put in long hours all of the time. They said, well, there are crunch times that it’s All-Hands-On-Deck, but most of the time, people had good work-life balance.
I then talked to five engineers. I asked each of them if they felt that they had to work long hours to succeed at Google. Every one of them answered yes. They felt pressure to work all waking hours, and not to take time off, and work weekends. I asked what the reward for this would be. They all said, “We’re going to be rich!”
I had been through this dance before. When I got back to the project managers, I grilled them as to what the roles of the job would be. They included scoping features, planning engineers time to work on them, keeping schedules up to date, making presentations to executives, coordinating releases, etc. All of this sounded good, but I asked:
“What about the rest of it?”
“The rest of what?”
“The rest of what an engineering manager is supposed to do? Participating in software design, coaching engineers, ensuring engineers are training, participating in the hiring process?”
“Oh, well, we’re not worrying about most of that right now. That can wait until we go public.”
I switched tactics. “How many engineers are working here?”
“And who do they report to?”
“The VP of Engineering.”
“Is he or she here right now?”
“No, he is at a conference overseas.”
“How much time is he in the office?”
“Well, he travels a lot…”
“So who oversees the engineers?”
“Well, we schedule their work at track it.”
“What if there are problem engineers?”
“We don’t have those. They quit. All of our engineers are top-notch stars.”
“I don’t think you know that, actually. Somebody needs to oversee them and guide their work and careers.”
“No, they are all great! We wouldn’t hire them otherwise.”
I gave up. People asked me some questions, but basically, I spent all day asking them questions.
I talked to the recruiter the next day. She told me that they just did not think that the position I was advocating for was necessary at Google. They were trying to run a lean-and-mean engineering organization, and the engineers were expected to take care of themselves. They did not have real schedules, they had free food, they had on-campus services, and they were free to work on what they wanted. Would I consider being a project manager?
I told them I thought that they were wrong. At some point, there needs to be guidance for engineers that project managers in general don’t have the expertise or experience to give them.
She said, well, we are not looking for that, so I guess we have nothing to take about.
Those engineers were right. They got rich.
I was right as well, as is documented extensively (here is one example). Google finally started having managers a couple of years later.
Still, I could have swallowed my pride and been a project manager. I would be rich now as well, if I had survived. But I had been through an idealist, world-changing-in-our-minds startup before. I gained 50 pounds, and got high blood pressure. And I also had a lot of anger issues lingering after that experience. This looked like the same thing all over again. I am sure it was, but a few million dollars might have made the experience worth it.
I worked with this fellow at Sun Labs. He was utterly brilliant, in a mad scientist kind of way. Turns out he got his bachelor’s in chemical engineering, with a minor in music; he was a clarinet player. As we got to know each other, we became friends, and one day he asked me to teach his kids clarinet and saxophone. He said that they had fired the previous teachers, and he was hoping I would last longer. He also mentioned that he could not teach them; they did not get along when he was trying.
I taught them for 3-4 years. One of the kids lost interest, but as my day-job and his changed over the years, the other kid got a different teacher for high school. Good kid. (Found out later he interned at Apple in the group I had left previously.)
After I left Sun, aside from the lessons of his kids, we kept in touch. One day he asked me if I could sub for the Woodside Village Band, a local amateur community group. I played bari sax one Sunday, and sat next to one of my friend’s friends, who was playing alto sax.
My friend contacted me a couple of weeks later, and told me the alto player was the VP of Engineering at a startup, and had told my friend that they needed a manager to “reign in the software team”. I said, sure, I’ll talk to them.
The company was Foveon (a few more details can be found here). I was asked to have breakfast at a place in Menlo Park called Late for the Train (don’t know what it’s called now; it was at Willow and Middlefield). There I met the alto sax player again, two other execs, and Carver Mead, a pioneer in electrical engineering, semiconductors, and physics. He worked with Richard Feynman. This was a Big Deal.
Mead had invented a new photo optical sensor for digital photography, called the Foveon X3 Sensor, and founded Foveon to market products based on it. The first product was a camera system attached to a Mac laptop in a custom case. Photographers were supposed to lug this thing, set it up on a tripod, and take pictures from there.
The sensor is wonderful, but this system was hokey. However, small digital cameras had not really hit the market, and there were certainly no SLR’s. Or smartphones.
I was being interviewed because the VP of Engineering understood hardware but not software, and there was a team writing the software than ran on these Macs with cameras bolted to them. They had no manager, and the VP was lost trying to get them on track.
I went to their office in Sunnyvale. I was shown around. There were just flat-out amazing pictures. I saw incredible images of a segura cactus, El Capitan from Yosemite National Park, and Mono Lake. These were 5-6 ft tall with no apparent loss of resolution. I was then shown their studio, where they were taking pictures for brochures, advertisements, and as part of their QA effort.
I was then led into a conference room where all 3 engineers took turns grilling me about what I did and did not know about Mac programming. They did not do any coding problems or thought puzzles. They just talked to me about what a manager actually did.
I thought that the interview went fine, but the VP called me the next day, and told me that they weren’t going to hire me. I asked why.
“The team has no concept of what you would actually do, and they don’t think adding a manager would help their team at all.”
“What do you think?” I answered back.
“I’m inclined not to upset them too much.”
I persisted, “You were telling me that they were out of control, and you had no visibility into what they were doing. And you were having trouble writing up the performance reviews.”
“True. And I believe you could help us. But after weighing the options, we have decided we won’t be pursuing you for the position any more.”
I talked with my friend. He told me that the hiring manager was weak and non-confrontational about everything. but he really couldn’t help what he had already done.