October 06, 2011

me and steve jobs

i've been surprised at how many people have talked to me in the last 10 hours about the death of steve jobs and the future of apple ... i worked there for seven years, almost 20 years ago, but it seems to leave this indelible impression on others.  my youthful passion ran high there only because i worked in the best conceivable group, with the best possible people, in a company that mimicked a 10 year old boy's dream fort.  like someone dating a super-model, i was two orders of magnitude out of my league.  and loved it.

when i worked in the valley i was lucky in that i brushed shoulders with some of the biggest of the big.  cursed in that it never ended up having any serious financial meaning.

i have several good steve jobs stories ... a couple i'd like to put down after talking with pals about it, but i'll give you this one for now.


we had a decade long tradition of juggling at apple and the atrium of new-ish R&D campus was the perfect spot.  as long as someone in our juggling clique worked at apple, that's where we would go practice.  the spring of 1998 was an even numbered year and that meant bo3b was working at apple.  juggling on campus?  easy.  i didn't even have to use the fact that i knew all the security guards to get in.

steve jobs was recently back on the terra firma in a big way and heads were rolling.  projects, and in some cases, entire departments, were catching the axe.  most -but not all- of the chop was to fat from the crazed pepsi cola years of too many egos and not enough people who actually understood what a legitimate financial direction should be for a latter 20th century technology company.  (if you missed what it was like, don't worry, you'll get to see this happen all over again with ms. whitman at the wheel of HP.)

employee fear ran high.  there was a good chance that anything you said on email could (and would) be read.  you watched your back, turned in your status reports, never played the video games in the hall and, for damn sure, never got in an elevator with steve.

that is, if you actually cared about your job and what it meant.  my friend bo3b ran in a higher playing field.  he worked hard and (way more than frank sinatra) did things his way.

juggle in the atrium while steve jobs is working just upstairs?  you bet.

every time we'd get out the props and start, dozens of people would say something along the lines of "steve jobs will fire your ass."  i thought it was unlikely, but maybe possible?  and anyway, it wasn't my ass on the line.  i get banned and, what?  steve takes his wand and makes the security guards not know me any more?

bo3b wouldn't even discuss the matter.  he was so much cooler than that.  more fearless.  and hey, he didn't really need that job anyway.

every monday we'd cause a ruckus.  and every monday we'd never see steve.

weeks went by like this with nay sayers getting ever more adamant ... you could sense the disappointment in their people whenever they'd see the two, three or five of us going at it.

one day steve will bring down the hammer ... oh yes ... he will.

and then one day steve walked in.  i knew he was in the building before i even saw him because people always acted differently around him ... like the way water behaves after you throw a pebble in it.  he was talking to someone i didn't know, a valley insider and techie -but not an apple guy- probably someone from pixar (a company he still ran at that time).

he stopped and watched us for a couple of seconds as his accomplice yammered on, then went away.

"hey bo3b, think you're gonna get a call from steve's office this afternoon?"

"i guess i'll find out."

the call never came.

the next week we were juggling and in the middle of a ten club feed, just beyond the pattern, i could see steve on the second floor railing looking down at us.  a couple minutes later, he was down with on the first floor and he beckoned me over.

"hi steve."

"hey.  are you guys going to be here tomorrow?"

"no.  we only juggle on mondays.  why?"

"oh.  my daughter was going to be in and i wanted to show you off to her."

"bring her on a monday and we'll do it."

which we eventually did.  (just for the record, SJ's daughter was sorta bored by it all.)

months passed.  as christmas neared, apple put a christmas tree in the atrium.  a big one.  right in the middle of our juggling spot.  we juggled a bit, kinda cramped to the side and steve walked by.  he stopped and watched a bit.

"you guys are pretty good."

bo3b was quick on the draw, "we'd be better if this fucking tree wasn't in our way!"

steve laughed.  he went to lunch, came back, watched a little more, then went upstairs.

when we came in to juggle on the following monday, the christmas tree had been moved to one side of the atrium.