John Porcaro and I are talking more now than we ever did when we both worked at sun… heh.

But he talks about how he wants to do more talking to customers, and not talking about them. Which got me thinking….

Have you ever stopped to think about how you got to where you are? For some reason, I’ve been doing a lot of that lately.

I spent most of my career at Sun talking to customers. When I came to Apple, I was already a Macintosh user (I bought my first Mac when the 512Ke was state of the art, before the MacPlus came out with a SCSI port….) from my days at National Semiconductor. One of the reasons I went to Apple was I was going to be able to start up a support environment, and I saw that as an opportunity to change Apple’s “we have no bugs, call your dealer for support” culture. Remember (if you can), we’re talking about the days when a IIsi was fast (at one point, my primary testing box for supporting A/UX was a II/SI running 8 megs of RAM. these days, my keyboard is faster than that…)

After a while, Apple started changing, not for the better. A couple of days before a vacation, we had a re-org, and we all got called into a conference room to meet the new bosses. We were told not to worry, our group was staying in Campbell, not going to Austin with some of the other support crew. I went on vacation, came back to find my job was moving to Austin. I made it clear my chair was, I wasn’t, and that I didn’t appreciate being lied to. I was told nobody had ever said we weren’t moving (by the person who’d said we weren’t), and that bad attitudes weren’t appreciated at Apple.

I took the hint, and found a new job — in the group that got to support the people in austin doing the support I used to do. That ended up in (name your favorite re-orged name enterprise solution, server solutions, server marketing, or apple business systems; it’s charter, basically, to sell into enterprise.

Out of that organization came another product, the Macintosh Application Environent (MAE). Laurie had started a mailing list for the Sharks on an internal Apple box in her part of the world, and I’d started one on the Giants (I was still a baseball fan in those days), as well as minor league baseball, since I’d really fallen for the San Jose Giants. Every so often I’d suggest we do mailing lists for products, but since we didn’t do support of end users (Austin did), it wasn’t considered part of our charter. MAE was different, however, and we felt it was one of those products that’d really be tough for Austin to support successfully.

We came up with the idea of creating mailng lists — not to support Apple Customers, but to allow Apple customers to talk to each other and talk to each other, and we felt they’d be able to help support each other, and keep them off the (very expensive) telephone call to Austin. Since we didn’t do support, we couldn’t call it a support list, and we made it clear Apple was an observer, not a participant. Today, it’d be considered a virtual community of some sort, but back then, that term wasn’t coined).

And Apple’s official mailing list system was born, sitting on my desktop machine ( bonus points for figuring out the name). Later it moved to its own box as (apple business systems), then (still couldn’t use the word support!). We moved from 68xxx to PowerPC, Sun kept growing the Sparc sun-4’s and eventually shut down the sun-3 line, and MAE came to a logical end, while A/UX died with the 68000 chip and was replaced with, well, nothing for a while, and then A/IX, since by that time, Sculley was gone, Spindler was in, and Spindler was partnering with IBM.

Apple’s struggles continued. In 1996, Guy Kawasaki started Evangelist, a way to rally the faithful around Apple, a followon to his earlier semper-fi (1995, I think), an attempt to reconnect with apple developers. he wrote, I ran the plumbing. There’s at least one book just writing about Apple at that time and what went on behind the scenes, and how Guy worked his butt off to save Apple from itself, and IMHO, I think there’s a 50-50 chance it wouldn’t have lived long enough to get to Gil Amelio without Guy’s energy and charisma and salesmanship. But I’m not writing that book as long as I work there… I like my job. (grin)

In 1995, both Laurie and I saw Apple as being in some trouble, so we took the plunge, and spent a couple of thousand dollars and had the internet installed in the house (a 56K leased line — remember, this was way before DSL). Plaidworks was born, mostly to be home for our personal internet stuff that currently lived on Apple hardware, back when that was fairly typical and low-key. We’ve had IP in the den ever since.

By then, my little on-the-side list server was running lists for people all over the company, and my primary job (webmastering and content geeking the server group’s web site) was increasingly difficult. it was decided the lists really needed to be a corporate resource, so my job got split in half, I went with the mail list part over to the IS world, soon thereafter Gil Amelio buys NeXT, Steve purges Amelio, and in March of 1997 my old group (and the Apple Network Server) is blown up and fades to dust. I was pretty much the only survivor from that group (although much to my amusement, in the last year, a bunch of them have returned to Apple in new roles, including people who now are part of the client group I do most of my work for these days…)

Always, I was looking for ways to help encourage Apple and Apple’s customers to talk — especially back in the days when Apple was falling apart.

And even today, I still have that goal — that and making sure Apple has a corporate infrastructure capable of letting me move to Oregon and continue working for apple via telecommuting without significant limitation (and then convincing my bosses to let me do it….). And turning back to John’s blog a sec, and looking around the net in general, it seems that some form of “connecting with the customer” is starting to turn into a key deliverable. Most companies will screw it up badly, too. Me, I’ve been trying to build it into the system for years, where I could — most of my life’s been aimed at connecting the tech side of a company with its customers and acting as translator, with a foot in both camps. Hopefully, i’ve given mine a bit of a head start…

it’s funny, but about two months after I wrote my first web site, I realized we’d need e-mail systems to really communicate with people, because the web is just too passive. But e-mail has its own flaws, and with spam strangling it, there’s a need to grow beyond e-mail as well as fix it. And that’s something I’ve been working on for a while.

Of course, I can’t talk about that yet….