I’m Old, Part XXVII: Engineering Maladies

The Acrobat project was an incredible chunk of engineering done in a very short period of time. It was seen as a “land grab” project so engineers committed a great deal of time. Or were committed to a great deal of time. It was nuts. Many weeks on end, I was in the office 60+ hours a week for weeks on end. I know that there were a number of heated discussions between management and human resources because a huge number of engineers on the team were at the limit of time off accrual. That’s a bad thing. It was worse that HR’s request to get people to go on vacation fell on deaf ears.

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At one point, I was at lunch with Nathan Graham, Alan Wootton, and Mike Pell. I was irritated because I had an involuntary twitch of my eyelid which was driving my batshit insane. Nathan noticed, and said just a little too cheerily, “oh, you have the eye twitch!” In talking with this little group, we discovered that we all had a lot of things in common to some degree or another: stomach pains, loss of appetite, grouchiness, loss of sleep and so on.

I found it so distressing, that I went into Alan’s office, erased his white board and drew in a grid. As an aside, I often did this. I’ve discovered that I think much better with white boards. I’d be happy with an office that was floor to ceiling white boards. That hasn’t happened yet. Back to the grid.

In the left most column, I listed all the Acrobat engineers. Across the top, I listed all the stress-related maladies that we’d talked about at lunch, plus a few more. While I was doing all this, Alan was busy working on some bug or another, usually one that involved a test file of his that has a scanned image of a can of Coca-Cola and some crudely polygonized numbers. Then I filled in all the boxes for me using the Consumer Reports style rating symbols above. As an afterthought, I made a key. Then we marched the engineers into Alan’s office and had them fill out the chart.

It looked like a massacre when they were done. The board was covered in red dry-erase marker. Some engineers felt the need to extend the symbology to include a fully red square and had updated the key for the meaning to be “rampant”.

It wasn’t pretty. It should have be actionable, but I don’t anything every was done. At least not by management.

In the trade rag Mac Week (a.k.a. Mac Leak), there was a column one week that was poking fun at people/products in the industry. The Acrobat marketing team was giving an unofficial “feet of clay award”  for taking forever to pick a product name (in pre-release it was called Carousel), and then picking a name with no meaning.

In talking to Alan, we decided that we should make this official. Alan and I had been fooling around with a material for doing life-casting called moulage. It’s melts at about 120F and when cooled a bit, has the consistency of pudding. You can goop it on body parts and it takes very accurate impressions. When cast with plaster, you can see pores and tiny skin lines. Alan made a moulage mold of one of his feet and then cast plaster colored with gray RIT dye into it, making a clay foot.

After Acrobat 1.0 was announced as a product, we had a meeting in the cafeteria for all of Adobe software teams (there were usually separate meetings for printer engineering and product engineering). I requested time to give out Acrobat Achievement awards. To prep, I had made a bunch of overhead transparencies. My introduction slide was a 3D rendering of the brand new Adobe logo floating over desert sands. When I put it up, I introduced the awards and then said, “by the way, does anyone know if this is correct use of the Adobe logo?”

A few days earlier, the marcom department had sent out an impenetrable memo of correct and incorrect usage of the new logo. There was a smattering of laughter, plus angry looks from a group of irritated marcom people.

We gave out the feet of clay to Rob Babcock. Then we gave out the Mary Kay Cosmetics award, a pink plastic model of a Cadillac, to Dina Sakahara for reporting the most “C” (or cosmetic) bugs. And finally, I put up a copy of the malady chart, lovingly recreated in Adobe Illustrator. Nabeel Al Shama was the winner. Although ‘winner’ is an odd word to use for his suffering. Still, I gave him a Timex watch because their slogan at the time was “takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

As a more experienced engineer now, I think I would have tried to fix this situation by trying to work on it from the top down. People burned out really badly by the end of 1.0 and I feel like we lost a lot of engineers as a result.

If nothing else, I think that what more people needed to take to heart was a couple things with regards to vacations:

  1. Nobody is so important that they can’t go away for a couple weeks
  2. If there is no good time to take a vacation, then therefore any time is good enough
  3. You’re not given vacation. You take it. Take it jealously.

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