Next month I will observe the 10th anniversary of my start date at Apple Computer: May 13, 1996. Now, this statement on its own is misleading, and doesn’t adequately reflect the amount of time I spent at Apple. For one thing, I don’t work there anymore, and haven’t since August of 2002. For another, I started as a contractor almost 2 years prior to that date. But that start date is important. It’s burned into my brain forever, alongside my Apple employee number. Why? It’s the day, the pivotal fork in the road where my life changed forever.
You’ll find that Apple employees past and present “just happen” to know the exact date of their hire. I’m sure the phenomenon applies to employees of other companies as well, but I bet if you take a group of 10 people, 5 of whom are Apple veterans, and ask if they know off the top of their head the exact start date for any of their past jobs, the Apple employees will beat out the others with frightening regularity.
One reason for this obsession with the date of hire is pride. The day you start at Apple, be it as an administrative assistant or the CFO, you’re joining a proud legacy, and you know it. I still remember the thrill of receiving that offer letter. I grinned wide, stared down at the relatively meager salary I’d be earning, and signed away my agreement to start in two weeks.
I wanted two weeks because I needed to emphasize the start of something incredible and new. I needed a rite of passage. I had been Daniel Jalkut, relatively bright student turned Apple QA contractor. Now I was Daniel Jalkut, Apple employee and engineer. I was part of the family, and I felt that everywhere I went people would just sense that I was different.
I traveled to Mexico during that two week pre-employment vacation, and suddenly I wanted to relate to everything Apple wherever I went. In Tijuana, where I walked across the border prepared to catch a bus further south, I spotted a night club with an old Apple-II era logo as its marquee. I was tempted to barge into the night club and announce myself: “Soy empleado de Apple. ¿Como están?” The fact that a group of Tijuana drunks would be totally disinterested in this fact didn’t compromise my feeling of kinship with them.
Getting My Feet Wet
My first manager at Apple was an extremely kind yet gruff guy who seemed to respect my youthful ambition to always do my best. Afraid that I would be fired when they found out what a fraud I was (a common fear among all people, I found out later), I kept copious notes for the first month, detailing every minute of time I put into the bugs that were assigned to me. When the first month expired, my manager checked in with me on my progress. I reviewed my notes with some dismay: I had only fixed 4 bugs (albeit some hard ones) in the first month I was there. The time had been spent on necessary tasks like becoming familiar with the sources, organizing my office, etc. I nervously admitted this during our meeting, to which he replied something along the lines of “Geez, leave some for the other guys to do!” He had expected a much longer break-in period before I touched the sources at all.
He was always straight with his employees, and never sugar-coated even bad news from further up the management chain. His first act of shocking managerial honesty came in the meeting where I learned I was being hired:
“They told me to negotiate salary with you. I am allowed to pay you as low as $X or as high $Y. Which do you want?”
$Y was about $15,000 higher than $X, and each was a lot more than I’d ever made before. I laughed nervously and said confidently, “I’ll take $Y.” During that first meeting I wondered if it was a manager trick to get me to take a low number, but over the following few years I learned it was just his style.
Give it to the New Guy
A funny piece of trivia about my first job at Apple is that I was technically hired to work on PowerTalk/AOCE, a technology which had just been essentially cancelled, and the former team laid off. Apparently Apple had to keep the sources “at the ready” and have somebody prepared to do a quick bug fix if one of the important clients of the software ran into an emergency. So they gave my manager permission to hire a general integration engineer whose top priority would be maintaining PowerTalk. This didn’t exactly thrill me, but the fact is PowerTalk opened the door to my permanent employment at Apple.
On my first day, I received three CD-R discs which had been rescued from the disbanded PowerTalk team. The PowerTalk source repository, as it was, lay in my hands. My responsibilities were simply to make it build. Anybody who complains about Xcode or UNIX makefiles should count their blessings. The PowerTalk build was fueled by a complex MPW script that, among other things, relied on the computer’s hard disk being named exactly the same as the PowerTalk build engineer’s disk had been named. Fortunately, I never had to actually fix anything in it.
My life changed forever on May 13, 1996 (a week before my birthday). Nothing I’ve achieved professionally would have been possible were it not for the encouragement, camaraderie, and pride that my coworkers and the company itself shared with me. It says something important that Apple still wielded such magic powers 20 years after its founding. And it says something even more that today those powers are as strong as ever.
Stay tuned for more “Remembering Apple” articles as I reflect on the past and indulge in nostalgia. From here on out all reflections on the past will be tagged “folklore,” in honor of Andy Hertzfeld’s folklore.org project.