I’m Old, Part LXVII: Ruining Prospects

The Friday of the week that I started at Adobe, Adobe held a developer’s conference for PostScript. The keynote that day was given by Steve Jobs and his talk included dual slide projectors. Presentation software was just a dream at that point.

After the talk was done and the crowd wound down, I made my way up to him and introduced myself. It was an easy introduction because my oldest brother, Mike, was one of the early coders at NeXT and worked on the digital library tools, if I recall correctly.

It was mostly gratuitous pleasantries, still it was nice to meet him. I moved on and met up with my boss, John Gaffney, and in turn met with the people from DEC who were responsible for the PostScript printer I was going to be working on for them. I remember the introduction because about 1 minute after the introduction, Tom Powers, who was the product manager, pulled out a list of new bugs found in the product and wanted to know what the cause was and how/when I was going to fix them. I didn’t know anything about the product yet. I hadn’t even learned PostScript yet. And he wanted me to comment on bugs? I made up a neutral bullshit answer on the spot because I was 23 and didn’t know what the hell else to do.

John and I went back to Adobe and worked on a couple of the bugs together. Pair programming was the right thing to do, especially considering that I was a complete noob and John could explain what was going on.

I took the PostScript reference manuals home that night and spent the weekend reading them and picked up the language. It helped that a year earlier I had implemented a version of FORTH for the Macintosh, so an RPN language like PostScript wasn’t totally foreign. In between working on bugs, I wrote PostScript programs to try out various language and rendering features. Not far from my cube there was a printer named ‘Quorum’ that I used for trying out code since there wasn’t (yet) an all software printer.

One of the first programs I wrote produced a sheet with “Steve Jobs touched me!” in huge letters. In a font with a teeny-weeny point size, I captioned it with “and I feel healed”. At that point, the Steve Jobs reality distortion field was known and the sign made me giggle so I posted it in my cube. It fit in with my early cube decorations including the article from the San Jose Mercury News announcing that Steve Hawley was starting at NASA Ames.

Well.

As it turns out, Steve Jobs routinely visited Adobe (probably because the NeXT machines were running Display PostScript). The lobbies of each building was staffed by a receptionist who answered the phones and signed in visitors. There was no real security beyond that. One day when I was out of my cube, Steve came by and the receptionist took him by my cube to show him the sign. Crap. Well. There goes that connection.

Still, maybe it wasn’t all that bad. I routinely saw him at the Palo Alto farmer’s market and said ‘hi’ and in 1999, I was having lunch with some friends at Apple and Steve was at the next table and I gave him a wave and he sat down and joined us for a few minutes. I wonder if that sign destroyed opportunities for me, but I can’t complain. Luck and skill has brought me plenty of opportunities in my career and I’m very grateful for that.

I’m Old, Part LXVI: CGDC

When I was at Newfire, we had a really good set of people doing marketing. I know this because I was at a party where I met my wife and her brother-in-law was there and he asked where I worked. When I mention the Newfire, he said, “Dude – you’re the guys who do 3D really fast!”

We had a booth at the Computer Games Developer Conference. The company worked together to try to figure out how to maximize our reach at the conference. For example, we set up a conference game of assassin and supplied the conference with Newfire branded suction cup dart guns. We gave out t-shirts. We embraced the “fire” aspect of the name. I made a faux bomb which was 8 dowel sections painted red and bound together with black electrical tape with wires running from them into a project box with a Radio Shack clock. These days, I can’t imagine that this prop would make it into the conference. We also set up a hospitality booth the first night of the conference. The way this worked is that we allowed each person in only if they got a Newfire temporary tattoo. Each person was allotted one cheap beer (Bud or Bud Light) and a bowl of Chili. I bought a couple very large bottles of Tabasco sauce, soaked off the labels and replaced them with our logo. In the suite, I was uncapping and handing out beers and Cowboy Dave was giving out chili. The thing that I really liked was that Cowboy Dave was being intentionally rude to the people coming through. When someone approached him, he would bark, “WHAT DO YOU WANT?!!!” which I found especially funny because there was no actual choice. It was chili or nothing.

The door was staffed by the girlfriends of Alan and Cowboy Dave. They were assigned the task of checking for tattoos and applying new ones. At one point there was some commotion at the door. A man was insisting that he get his tattoo applied to his butt. Oh Sweet Jebus. There was so much wrong with this. First, dude, not appropriate. Second, he hardly had a physique worth showing off. Third, he put the two women into a very uncomfortable situation.

After we ran out of chili and beer, we wound down the suite and headed out to mingle in the crowd. I remember being up on a balcony with Harry Vitelli, our salesman and he was completely itchy. He was looking down at the crowd and muttering about how there so many people and how could we take advantage of that. In a burst of inspiration, we grabbed a demo machine and a monitor and dragged it down to the pavilion and set up our “killer” demo on a grand piano and started selling people. I remember that we managed to get the attention of John Grigsby, an engineer at Atari with whom I went to college a few years earlier. We turned a lot of heads, which was the point.

As it turns out, this kind of sales work was not OK according to the conference rules, but we got away with it so yay?

During the days of the conference, we had people working the booth and also sent people out to get intel on competition and information from other booths. I remember Mike, one of our QA techs saying, “Let’s go out and get free stuff!” before disappearing into the crowd to get t-shirts and tchotchkes.

As I’ve matured, I’ve realized and embraced that I’m an introvert. This is funny because I’ve been a lifelong performer. Conferences. I’ve realized, are a challenge for me because even though I get along quite well with people, I get overloaded pretty quickly. However, with a team that’s all working in the same direction, it makes it that much easier. With a small company like Newfire, I really liked having the opportunity to contribute to the trade show and seeing how our team came together to get our messaging across.

I’m Old, Part LXV: Hallowe’en

Hallowe’en. I prefer the version with with single quote.
I love Hallowe’en. I always have. As an adult, I have taken a lot of joy in the process of creating costumes for Hallowe’en. When I started at Adobe, I made a pair of costumes for me and my ex-wife: A large-size plug and socket. I was the plug. It was brilliant. Just rude enough. My ex-wife got stopped by people for weeks after, saying “you were the socket!” She wasn’t too happy with that.
A couple years later, I went as 2/3 of ZZ-Top. I made a cardboard version of Dusty Hill with an articulated right arm and I dressed as a coordinated Billy Gibbons. I made a connecting rod that went from my right arm to the cardboard Dusty Hill so that we moved in sync and I brought in my guitar and an amp and played Tush for the Adobe contest.
The next year, 1994, I spent three months making a face hugger from Alien.

This was no small task. First of all, in the proto internet age, there were no easily accessible photo references. I had to special order a coffee table book about the production of Alien just to get a couple of marginal reference stills. I made clay pieces, made molds out of plaster of Paris, did castings in latex, built an armature out of hobby brass, wire, heat-shrink tubing and RC airplane hinges. Wearing this on my face, I had a really interesting experience. I could just barely see through some of the leg gaps via peripheral vision. As such, in order to make eye contact with someone, I had to turn slightly, which would make them turn and then I’d turn, and then they’d turn. Whoever I was talking to and I would end up doing a weird dance.

Next year, emboldened by my experience in molding and casting, I decided that I would go as a 10th century interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Yes, that’s my own hair. I grew out my beard for a few months, made plastic spikes for my hands and feet, a prosthetic wound for my side and a muslin loincloth. One piece I was particularly proud of was my ID badge. Adobe had recently switched over to a photo ID system. The badges were pretty nice. Your badge had your photo and your first name in BIG LETTERS and your last name in small letters. My badge read “STEPHEN hawley”. The badge was made with some tweaks to try to minimize forgery. What they didn’t count on was that an employee in Adobe (me) had access to some decent scanners and printers. I made a scan of my badge and using Adobe Photoshop, I removed my name and matching the font, I changed the name on the badge to “JESUS h. christ” and printed it out on a nice dye sublimation printer named “DON’T USE. EXPLODES” then laminated it and attached it to my badge. Oddly enough, I successfully used the badge for the next several months and was never challenged.

The next year, working at Axial (which would become Newfire), I decided that I would go as a cockroach.

This was so much fun. I bought sweatpants and a couple sweatshirts and some fabric and made the costume.

Wait.

You made this?

Yup. See, when I was in 8th grade, I had an awesome art teacher. Herb O’Brien. He did a unit with us on soft sculpture wherein we made gnomes. We learned how to work with sewing machines, how to do embroidery, stuffing and so on. I bought a sewing machine and applied most of that to this costume. I couldn’t get sweats in the right color, so I just dyed them.

I will point out that in 1996, my experience in fabric stores was interesting. I spent a lot of time walking aisles looking for just the right fabric for various projects and I got a lot of stares from the women in the store as I was always the only man present. Oh – and if anyone says that there is a difference in thinking skills viz 3D visualization between men and women, show them a pattern for a vest because there are some truly mind-bending transformations in there.

The next year, I was dating a wonderful woman (I ended up marrying her, ha!) and we decided to hold our own Hallowe’en party with coordinated costumes. I went as The Tick and E went as American Maid.

E made her costume from scratch (awesome). I bought several  dance leotards and dyed them (wrong color – easy to fix), and modified them as needed. This included sewing gloves, making booties, making foam rubber muscles, and so on.

When we moved to Massachusetts, we carried our joy of Hallowe’en along. One year I made a fake skunk skin cap and went as “Skuny Crockett – Davey’s lesser known, but more widely shunned brother”.

Atalasoft was fantastic. Most of my coworkers were way better at their costumes than me. Dave Terrell, when his wife was expecting, decided to grow out his beard through her pregnancy. At Hallowe’en, he dressed up as a Hasid (his wife is Jewish and approved, so no appropriation there). Jake Lauzier dressed up as a puppet theater. Bill Bither dressed up as a fairy (Tinker Bill). Christina Gay did a very respectable Awesomeo 3000. I was so happy.

I never really had a lot of time to since I’ve had kids to dedicate to my own costumes. One year at Atalasoft, I managed to pull of a decent enough House costume. It was particularly funny because Eric Deutchman dressed up as the devil and kept offering people candy in exchange for their souls. Since I was House, I was playing the part as a devout atheist and repeatedly denied his existence and asserted that religion was fairy tales for the insecure. I can’t say who had the harder time keeping a straight face.

What does this have to do with software, with coding? The process of writing software is a fundamentally creative process as is making Hallowe’en costumes. One of the better smells in your company is how creative the costumes are. Creative costumes = creative employees and that means all kind of good things.

Foster creativity in your peers and it will show in all kinds of ways and you will have a much better place to work.