Thursday, April 27, 2006

Why Germans drive me nuts...

Today's front page article in a large German newspaper talks about the fact that the predictions for economic growth this year were almost doubled yesterday, employment is up sharply, the federal reserve bank made a few dozen billion euros in profits, tax revenue is up by a large percentage, and government dept is going down faster than expected.

It's headline? "Stronger than expected economic growth might create problems for government."

WHAT THE FUCKING HELL??????????? I grew up there, but occasionally their mindset just baffles me.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Earth Day

To celebrate Earth Day, a song for the polluter in chief.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Sailin' and Datin'

In the morning I took a cool kick-the-fenders sailing cruise from Alameda to Angel Island and back. In the afternoon, I had a blind date.

I learned three things
(1) The new Hunter 36 is amazingly easy to sail: only 5 lines, autopilot, jib furling, flaking mainsail.... Much easier than the 1850s Boston cutter I was on last time. You can even turn it on a dime on your own
(2) Cherry soda and malt whiskey is weird but not bad.
(3) Women become incoherent after 3 Bailey's Comets.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


My sister had her first baby a few days ago.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Horse Trailer

It's raining again in the East Bay. Apparently 2006 is the wettest year since Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered California. Yesterday, the snow on Mammoth passed 600 inches or 15 meters...

So, on with the story:

"Do you have a US drivers license?" "Not yet" "... Anyway..., we need you on the Hivemobile, can you fly to Orlando on Saturday?" That was just about how my first business trip for the Hive started. For the next 4 years, enough of them followed that I am still drawing on my frequent flyer miles six years later. In some months, I flew home, threw my clothes into the washer, repacked and was off again.

This first trip stuck in my mind, though, both because of the emergency landing in St. Louis, and for my first exposure to the Hivemobile.

The Hivemobile came into being during the run up to the three year delayed new version of the Hive's main--at at that time only--product: Hive 2.0. It was pushing past the envelope of what development tools and hardware allowed at the time. And, in mission speak, it was to change the world, revolutionize all aspects of human life, and bring fame and prosperity to anyone at the Hive. Our only fear was that even after favorable reviews, many hundreds or millions of dollars, a tour of our CEO through the most prestigious institutions of science and learning, and all kinds of email and PR initiatives, some students or potential customers would somehow miss it and be left in archaic darkness.

Also, technology companies had to be creative, think out of the box, and change the paradigm in everything they did. So while we didn't quite reached the level of inspiration that make CueCat a household name, something needed to be done!!!

Taking a clue from the Weinermobile, the marketing director decided that we needed a mobile demo station that could bring Hive 2.0 to the people. Since the Hive was nothing if not energetic, a 40 foot horse trailer and a pickup truck were shortly procured, test driven on the corn field studded plains, painted, outfitted with 12000 pounds of furnishings and computers, and sent off on its inaugural journey. The fact that the Australian driver ripped off a few struts that were a bit too close to the ground driving it from the baptism ceremony in the company parking didn't give anyone pause. Neither did the fact that shortly afterwards he discovered that he could break the trucks rear window by taking a sharp right turn. As we found out later, the outfitting had raised the weight of the trailer to a point where it was too close to the ground, tilted the truck backward enough that the front of the trailer hit trucks back window during sharp turns, and busted tires whenever driving over a curb.

These technical difficulties got greatly compounded by the fact that the person who initially planned the trip left without telling her successor that the preliminary list of stops was a superset that still needed to be whittled down by two thirds. Blissfully unaware, the successor proceeded to book every single stop on the original list. So a typical day in the first six months looked like:

-drive from hotel to location at 6am
-wake event sponsor and janitor at 6:30. At least this ensured that we would never be asked back.
-set up and start the generator
-talk to the occasional visitor who mistook us for the Jaegerettes for 6 hours
-pack up
-drive 400 miles to the next location at 45 miles an hour and stop for gas every 150 miles
-check into hotel at 3am and find some parking

rinse, lather, repeat.

Unsurprisingly, the staff consisted of two masochistic drivers and new employees who didn't know better. The Hivemobile had its perks, though. Since my partner would only arrive a day later and we didn't have an event until Monday, I decided to drive the gaudily painted truck from the hotel to Kissimmee and spend the day the day in Disney World. When I pulled up at the end of the long line going into the parking lot, the attendants frantically waved me to pass by the queue and drive into an almost empty lot. Getting out, I discovered that I had ended up in the employee lot with direct access to the park. The truck's psychedelic paint job had obviously convinced the guards that I had to work for the Mouse, saving me an hour and $45.


Pronunciation: 'mi-shon
Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin, Medieval Latin, & Latin; New Latin mission-, missio religious mission, from Medieval Latin, task assigned, from Latin, act of sending, from mittere to send
2 a : a ministry commissioned by a religious organization to propagate its faith or carry on humanitarian work

I think one of the keys to understanding computer companies in the 1990s is that it wasn't just a job, or a business plan, but that 99% of the ones involved were on a mission. And this mission wasn't just to provide shareholder value, or putting out a good product--all of that was boring and "old economy"--but the fanatical believe that they were going to revolutionize the world, change every paradigm and delivering humanity from the Dark Ages.

1996 was still before the Internet craze hit fully and my co-manager who left for six weeks before the .com crash told me that being able to order posters off the Web would "totally revolutionize people's lives, change the way people communicate, and generate a lively community of on-line poster buyers"--Unfortunately, this type of rhetoric was about par for the course for the .com evangelists that bombarded the hive with business plans and partnership offers in between 1999 and 2001.

Nevertheless, the sense of the "we have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we are wearing sunglasses" mission was strong and apart from helping to put up with the long hours, the salaries and the insane workload, it also tended to inoculate anybody who was part of the revolution from criticism and occasionally common sense. Funnily enough, the movie to best encapsulate the spirit--and the missteps--of the mission movement is Blues Brothers rather than Revenge of the Nerds. Although the typical nerd is much more likely to pick The Holy Grail, because in it everyone was crazy--while the unwashed masses WHO DIDN'T GET IT were the other 99% of society.

A few of the funnier cases of delusion that I remember were: The Horse Trailer, How We Invented SPAM, and Why Won't Bill Gates Talk To Me? -- We'll get to them in the next few posts.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Living on internet time

Even though it was almost eight years old when I joined, the hive was still very much in startup mode. From the ratty futons in the breakroom, over the dress code that could charitably be described as informal, to the odd working hours, and the free Mountain Dew that the web developers used to spike the caffeine content of their coffee.

I remember that I was immensely impressed how my new boss, the web manager and one solitary proofreader kept one of the largest corporate websites of the time working and up to date until I had to stay late enough one night to see that the web group also included a few other people--all of which showed up for their shift after nightfall and left before daybreak. One or two of the pale gaunt or pasty zombies apparently hadn't seen day light in months. After the shifts, they moved back to their basements, BBS, or other internet projects.


Startup: 1. A company recently formed, usually till IPO.
2. A company making up for total lack of managerial structure,
business processes and anything resembling a clue
with enthusiasm, smarts, improvisation and money.

"Welcome to the hive. Nice to have you." The Marketing Director (who was also the Art Director and lead designer) looked slightly befuddled, partly since nobody told him I would be starting in his division today, and partly because it was his normal mode of operation. The expression deepened after I answered his question as to what I was supposed to do, with "Something for the CEO, they haven't told me all the details yet." "You'll need a computer and an office." Some fugitive looks through the design department's hallway later, he pointed at a PowerMac 950 next to a 21" monitor. "Why don't you take this one and..."--more looking around--"And set up in that corner office over there." In five minutes, I had snagged the fastest Mac in the building and the largest corner office in the building. Unfortunately, the office didn't last more than a few weeks as the frenetic pace of hiring continued. In fact, I moved into a cubicle before the IT department got around to setting up my phone four weeks later.

Starting without a permanent office and with pilfered equipment is actually par for the course in most computer companies. Back then I attributed it to the relative youth or the company, but the last person I hired ended got his office after a few days sitting at a desk in the library by shuffling the business manager for Oceania into a cubicle in the operations department and its occupant got kicked into an empty office in the sales department. ("We'll fix that later") At least he got his computer within two weeks of starting his job, allowing me to sneak his "borrowed" laptop back into the trade show stock.

If I had any doubts that the hive wasn't like any other place I had worked at, the email from the HR director starting with "In view of recurring complaints, I would ONCE AGAIN like to remind everyone that pants (or skirts or dresses) and shirts have to be worn at all time..."
Accidental streaking--usually from the shower to the perps office--continued to be a recurring issue. The last one I remember was the sales director who walked from the shower to her office on the other side of the building wearing nothing but a towel occasionally when she roller bladed to work. Since she was blond, cute and 35, nobody minded that as much as the geeks who preceded her. This history also explained the hilarity that broke out when a female intern sent email to the office email list wanting to know if the hive's dress code was formal or business casual. Frankly, since she rapidly got nicknamed Debbie after getting here, and shocked the few over 40s in office with her elaborate but skimpy club attire, we never figured out why she bothered to ask in the first place.

Episode 2: A house deserted

Before I get too much further into this, I should probably point out that while my former place of work--henceforward referred to as "the hive"--might come off as dysfunctional mess, it is actually an extremely successful and well regarded company.

In the almost ten years I spent there, we outthought, out-designed, out-programmed and out-marketing-ed each and every one of out direct competitors, were profitable every single year, grew consistently, and arguably did change the world. Which squarely put the hive into the top 1/10th of one percent of all software company ever started. Or, to put another ways, we were less screwed up than most anyone in the business.

Most of what has been going on at the hive is fairly standard fare in software companies, but for all of this, no less insane.

After a few frantic weeks, I defended my thesis, got special dispensation to be able to pick up my printed degree the same day instead of two months later, got off the plane and took a cab to the hotel next door to the office.

"Your room reservation has been cancelled." were just about the first words out of the check-in person's mouth. After the rushing sound in my ears has subsided a bit, I asked them to call across the street to clear up what could have only been a misunderstanding. Nobody answered the phone, so with a sinking feeling, I left my 100 pounds of luggage with the very suspicious concierge, walked across the street and took the elevator up to the office.

The empty receptionist's desk comforted me a bit, because it explained why no one picked up the phone. But the fact that the entire 6th floor was completely deserted at 3pm on a workday was highly puzzling and unnerving.

Checking the offices at the hive one by one, I finally ran into a 16 year old kid who after a series of Kafkaeske misunderstandings informed me that "Everyone is at the company picnic and I don't have any idea how to reach them." Amazingly for a computer company, they picked a site that had no cellphone coverage at the time.

So I went back to the hotel, checked in with my own credit cards and consoled myself with the fact that even if they had decided that they didn't want me anymore, I had gotten a free flight to the US out of it. Unfortunately, only the outgoing portion since they were to cheap to spring for a return ticket.

The next morning I learned that at least the HR manager was aware that I was coming, but she was apparently fairly alone in that. A few calls back and forth cleared up the room cancellation. Since the hive is named after the founder, the hotel took the call canceling his room as a blanket cancellation of all company rooms.

Tracking down who I was going to report to took some more doing, though. Due to the glacial pace of the INS, I had been hired by the European division and started working as a consultant on special projects for the CEO, but I still needed someone to show me the ropes, get me an office, a computer and in general be responsible for my unavoidable screw ups. After an hour and a half of calls, I ended up working for the web manager (19 or 20 and with the company since she dropped out of high school after her internship), mainly because the interrim R&D director was out of the office, the marketing director was in a 4 hour meeting, and the marketing manager had a doctor's appointment.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sleep makes you successful

A few days ago I had lunch with one of my ex-employees who escaped the Midwest a couple of years before I did in Berkeley. It brought back a lot of memories about the company and the people that were my colleagues for about a decade, so I decided I'd take a shot at writing up things I remember. Since I am not very good at following through, lets see how long the series goes.

Episode 1: Sleep makes you successful

This whole thing started in 1996 when I was about to graduate with a degree in nuclear physics at a time when the end of the cold war really put a damper on job options for people who can explain how to build a nuclear bomb or how to write pulse trains for MRI scanners in excruciating detail.

After a few rejections, I wrote a really weird application to a company who's software I've been using extensively for my thesis--only to have my faculty advisor make me re-implement everything in C so he could understand it. Ok, his argument was that since I was leaving, they needed the code in something "free". Obviously nobody ever needed the C code I wrote, because it most definitely didn't work correctly. (A big THANK YOU to Numerical Recipes, the scrounge of generations of technical students. If anyone has ever found a non-trivial algorithm that worked reliably in this opus, let me know )

Anyway, as IIRC, the application included a few lines of Macbeth, fleeting references to computers eloping together, and something like: "Since I've been bugging your tech support for years, I think it's only fair if I see the other side of things."

Mailed it and forgot about it until a twenty-something who turned out to be the director of European operations called me out of the blue to set up an interview.

We talked about 30 minutes, only interrupted by the frantic barking of my 100 pound Rottweiler Alsatian Spaniard mix who was upset at having his evening walk delayed. Apparently this convinced the interviewer that I was too valuable for Europe and I was offered an interview at the corporate headquarters in a town in the Midwest I had never heard off.

So, after explaining to my faculty advisor that I had to take a 3 day trip to the US and would hand in my thesis late, I ended up--jet lagged and not having had much sleep in what turned out the flattest county in the US. Since I only had 36 hours before my flight back, and also because of the frantic pace in software in '96, I went on the accelerated program. After the relocation agent picked up at the airport and proudly showed me around town ("Here is where the tornado hit three days ago! See how it took out all the homes on that side of the street!"), I spent the rest of the day being interviewed by what felt like everyone in the company--finishing with the founder, owner, chief scientists, and CEO.

At that time, he was on a 6pm-6am live schedule (no, that's not a typo), so he was fresh as a daisy while jet lag and lack of sleep were catching up with me. Apparently, I impressed the hell out of him by nodding off repeatedly during the interview.

So, I was offered a job as the go between the technical and marketing departments on the spot and sent to bed. All under the condition that I would start ASAP--which translated to remotely within a week and on site two weeks after that.

Little did I know at the time what the relations between the tech nerds and the marketing droids at a software company are like.

The next day, I got back on a plane, slept 22 hours and proceeded to hand in my thesis, giving my advisor the good news that he would be one unpaid laborer short and asked if he could fit my defense in between packing and flying back to the US two weeks later. At least he took it better than my flabbergasted parents.