December 26, 2004

Uncancelling the project...

Drop Cap I-1magine you are working for a high-tech company, and you've put a year of hard effort into writing a piece of totally cool software...and then the project is cancelled and you are out of a job!

Here's a story (thanks to Brian Tieman) of a guy in that situation at Apple computer, in 1993. Ron Avitzur decided to just keep working, as a sort of parasite-in-reverse. He still had a badge and an office, and so he carried on as if he were an employee. The result was the delightful Graphing Calculator. (It's still part of OS-9, and can be found in Classic Apps. And a new Graphing Calc is coming as part of 10.4)

...I was frustrated by all the wasted effort, so I decided to uncancel my small part of the project. I had been paid to do a job, and I wanted to finish it. My electronic badge still opened Apple's doors, so I just kept showing up.

I had many sympathizers. Apple's engineers thought what I was doing was cool. Whenever I gave demos, my colleagues said, "I wish I'd had that when I was in school." Those working on Apple's project to change the microprocessor in its computers to the IBM PowerPC were especially supportive. They thought my software would show off the speed of their new machine. None of them was able to hire me, however, so I worked unofficially, in classic "skunkworks" fashion....

...I knew nothing about the PowerPC and had no idea how to modify my software to run on it. One August night, after dinner, two guys showed up to announce that they would camp out in my office until the modification was done. The three of us spent the next six hours editing fifty thousand lines of code. The work was delicate surgery requiring arcane knowledge of the MacOS, the PowerPC, and my own software. It would have taken weeks for any one of us working alone.

At 1:00 a.m., we trekked to an office that had a PowerPC prototype. We looked at each other, took a deep breath, and launched the application. The monitor burst into flames. We calmly carried it outside to avoid setting off smoke detectors, plugged in another monitor, and tried again. The software hadn't caused the fire; the monitor had just chosen that moment to malfunction. The software ran over fifty times faster than it had run on the old microprocessor. We played with it for a while and agreed, "This doesn't suck" (high praise in Apple lingo). We had an impressive demo, but it would take months of hard work to turn it into a product...
Posted by John Weidner at December 26, 2004 5:17 PM
Weblog by John Weidner