Chuq Von Rospach is a Silicon Valley veteran doing Technical Community Management and amateur photographer with a strong interest in birds, wildlife and landscapes. My goal is to explore the Western states and working to tell you the stories of the special places I've found. You can find out more on the About Page.
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Monthly Archives: July 2003
I was considering talking about this anyway, but my programmer came into my office today worried he hadn’t been holding his weight (furthest from the truth, he’s actually kicked some serious butt for me), so I guess I better make sure there are no misconceptions here…
I’ve made a number of references to working long hours on the blog. That’s because I’ve been working a lot of hours, to the point I’ve put a lot of personal things on hold to keep things going at that place that I work…
But lest you think I’m chained to a desk and fed raw meet through the bars, here’s, well, the rest of the story.
About 18 months ago, I was on vacation up north (as usual). I’d been thinking things over for a while, and finally decided I was stagnating, and work just wasn’t all that interesting — I wasn’t challenged. So I wrote a note to my boss saying that I thought it was time to start thinking about transition issues, wrapping up what I was doing, transitioning the email stuff to other people, and looking for new opportunities for me. Now, the timeframe for this transition was a year or so, given what was scheduled, but I just felt I wasn’t growing or being challenged any more, and I was actually thinking maybe it was time to think about even leaving Apple, but my preference was always to find something new and interesting there, not leave. Given I’d been doing what I’m doing since 1996 or so, I don’t think I was being unreasonable…
So I actually did return from up north (sometimes it’s easier, sometimes it’s not…), and we started discussing the situation. Everyone was quite supportive and understanding, for what it’s worth.
Along the way, I wrote a proposal for a new internal system that involved some technologies I wanted to experiment with, and which I thought served some useful purpose. My thought at the time was that a reasonable compromise would be to continue working on my existing stuff, and use this as a possible transition to a new set of technologies, starting part time and growing it into a full-time gig if things worked the way I thought they would. It had some nice potential, a low cost of entry and an interesting ROI, and it’d solve (assuming it worked) a number of long-held requests inside the company. Not bad for a start… It was well-received, and we decided to go ahead with it.
Along the way, though, a funny thing happened. I’d been suggesting another project on and off for a while, something I thought was very interesting and technically challenging, and something that could both save Apple a chunk of money and improve the way Apple did some of their operations at the same time — lower cost, improved customer interaction, more power and flexibility, all in the same package. It’d floated about, but never really found traction or gotten much notice.
Well, for various reasons, the right place turned a corner and rear-ended the right time, and suddenly that first project got noticed, and started being looked at again. And then I’m being asked if it could be ready by This Day (TM), and what it’d take to get there.
So suddenly, I have my new project. I redo my project proposal, work out budget and staffing, estimate everything out, and it all gets approved. Basically, until that point, I’d worked almost exclusively on the “lone wolf” projects — I design, I build, I run. This new one’s big, it’s complex, it’s gotta be done by This Date, and there’s no way in hell I’m doing it alone….
So now I’m architecting a system and managing a team to build and operate it. Talk about wandering out from your comfort zone and stretching your wings. new challenges? technical growth? personal growth? I had it in spades. And in the midst of all of that, I made a simple, but huge, mistake.
That mistake was assuming how much of my time would be available to code — I made the assumption that I’d lose about half my time to managing things and maintaining other systems, and still be able to act as a half-time developer for the project.
Silly me. But I’ve got a strong stubborn streak (my bosses have a term they use with me at times, that of being in “violent agreement” again), and have always believed that whatever needed to be done, I’d find a way to do it.
So I had a problem. We made our first deliverable (barely). Getting there was fun. I think I wrote the “we aren’t gonna make it” memo three or four times. My boss talked me off the roof twice, HIS boss talked me off the roof once, and somehow, at something like 2AM on the morning of the day where the live/die decision would happen, it all fell together and started working, and the damn thing lived.
But the reality was, I wasn’t 50% coding,50% other, I was more like 90% other, 10% coding, and usually, I was the big red line noting the critical path on the schedule.
So I made a decision to try to find as much of that missing 50% coder as I could. I felt there was a significant committment from my company to this project, and there was a rather nasty budget impact to a bunch of people if it didn’t fly, so I felt there was no choice but to make it fly. It was my feeling, given the corporate financial situation at the time, that going for extra headcount wouldn’t work (and frankly, we didn’t have the time in the schedule to wait for the process to bring another body on and get them up to speed), and besides, did I mention that I’m a rather stubborn cuss who believes he can pull off pretty much any miracle?
(digression: in retrospect, I’d say that going back to for more resources would have killed the beast early on, when it was still unproven. But later on, once it was in operation and it was proving itself, I probably should have tried, and I probably would have gotten it — but by then, I felt the worst of the disaster was over, and for the most part, I think I was right. We still could have pulled in our schedules better than we did if I’d thought it out better. But I’m sometimes a bit stubborn, you know?)
So I did what I thought had to be done, crawled in a hole, pulled it in after me, and started hacking. The whole crew (four of us, plus my boss) dug in and fought the good fight. and it worked. We didn’t meet schedules as well as I wish I had, but we did okay. Not good enough, but okay.
So that’s why I’ve been working long hours. I made a proposal to Apple to build a Thing. they paid me to build it. There were groups within Apple that were depending on that thing, and I felt committed to not letting them down, to the best of my ability. so I did whatever I could to meet that committment. I also felt professionally I had a lot on the line; if it failed, I’d never be trusted again (and rightfully so), and that probably was ‘it’ for me at Apple. I decided that wasn’t an option. I didn’t feel like faceplanting with that many people watching.
And, you know what? (I say this around work, and people stare at me like I’m crazy) I haven’t had this much fun in years. I haven’t had this much personal and professional growth in a long time. I’ve had to grow myself technically to make this project fly, I’ve had to grow myself professionally, learning how to manage people, manage projects, coordinate the work of multiple people, deal with outside organizations that are now my clients — lots of things that have been on the “someday” list, and all showed up on the to do list along the way.
It’s been one hell of a hack. Sometimes stressful (well, no; usually stressful, but people tend to forget there’s good stress and bad stress, and it’s been mostly good stress), but always a challenge, and I love a good challenge.
Think of it if this way. You’ve been surfing for a while, you’re not a bad surfer. So you’re out on the board one day, grabbing 10′ waves, having a good time. And then you’re out there, and you see this wave coming — 15′, 20′, 25′. What do you do? Me — I start paddling. If you catch the wave and live, you really know you’ve done something. Now, it’s probably not the smartest to transition from 10′ waves right to 25 footers, but opportunity isn’t always going to cooperate. you can either paddle towards it or away from it, but it may not throw another chance like that at you.
Right around July 1, we checked in the last code that basically brought the key systems to the point where they needed to be. That’s been the transition the last week or so, as I realized it was time to dig myself back out of that hole, and get back to life. The system isn’t done — I could sketch out the next two years development if you asked nicely enough (and were internal to Apple) of stuff we need to (or should) do to this beast, but I don’t expect to ever have to submarine back down to make sure things happen. We’re actually in good shape on future deliverables right now (I always felt if we could Get Over The Hump that the stuff that Came Next would happen faster than expected; it was just getting there that went slower. So far, I seem to be right).
So I’ve spent a week recharging batteries and catching up on ~150 pieces of email, ~200 URLs in my “stuff to talk about” file (many of which I threw out as no longer relevant), and the yards no longer look like nobody lives here. Which has done wonders for my sense of frustration at seeing so much stuff in stasis… heck, I found the floor of the garage!
It was my feeling that an opportunity like this would only come once. I had to either grab it and hope it didn’t kill me, or let it pass and stay what I was, a pretty good email hack and special project gunslinger geek. Which isn’t a bad thing to be, but if you aren’t growing, you’re stagnating and dying, and I’m not interested in that. So I grabbed (and I’m still alive…). And I think I’ve done something pretty damn good, and pretty damn fun, even if I can’t talk about it here…
Sometimes, you just grab, hold on, and see what happens. Would I do it differently next time? Sure — I learned a lot, especially about my limitations and how to be realistic about them. Would I go back in time and do it again?
In a second. If you ever ready Tracy Kidder’s Soul of the New Machine, winning was something you did so they’d allow you to play the game again. Me, I’m looking for another quarter to stick in the machine…
That which does not kill us makes us stronger — Friedrich Nietzsche
Amen! — chuqui