Apple: A Romance

If I ever write a memoir (and let me tell you, I plan to–I've got way too many great stories just begging to be told), I think the Summer of 2003 will almost certainly be its turning point.  It was in August of 2003, you see, that I fulfilled a longtime dream: I left Denver (my birthplace and home of 26 years) for California, started a job at Apple Computer (as it was then known), and set about reinventing myself. 

In many ways, my life had been leading to that point.  As a child I was profoundly impressed by an educational game called Robot Odyssey that I played on my friend's Apple IIc, and with a demo of Bill Atkinson's early Macintosh program Hypercard that my dad and I watched on television.  As a college student I was inspired by the quixotic, charismatic portrayal of Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley.  And as a chronically bored Java developer in the Denver financial world I pined for the Silicon Valley of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs.  I spent almost every night after work building the most impressive Mac application I could and raising my profile through my Mac development weblog in order to get the attention of the high priests in Cupertino.  Eventually it worked–I finally got an interview with my first boss at Apple during Worldwide Developer's Conference in June of 2003, was hired in July, and was living in the Bay Area by August.

To say this changed my life is an understatement.  Where I had spent most of my first year out of college only sporadically employed (thanks to the dotcom bust and ensuing recession) and frequently wondering if I'd ever work in the tech industry again, now I was suddenly working for one of the most admired and innovative tech companies in the world.  Where my previous job had mostly involved working on in-house financial applications that I couldn't care less about personally, now I was directly involved in creating products I used passionately every day.  Where I had once been a fan, I was now an insider.

My life changed profoundly in other ways as well.  I had become frustrated with the insularity of my life as a shy kid in Denver, where I mostly socialized with a small group of my high school friends, and the difficult experience of looking for a job after college taught me the value of connections.  When California offered me the opportunity to reinvent myself, I determined that I would force myself out my shell, and for a time I made a point of turning down no social invitation.  Many of the people who grilled me so terrifyingly in my all day interview at Apple became a sort of surrogate family–taking me kayaking in Monterey, initiating me in the natural wonders of Northern California, helping me shed 20 pounds, inviting me to parties and other social events, introducing me to an ever wider circle of people, and becoming my roommates when I got up the nerve to make the once unthinkable move to San Francisco.

Needless to say, these were magical, transformative, romantic years of my life, and for a time I simply could not imagine myself ever wanting to leave Apple.  It had provided me with so much more than a livelihood: it had provided me with a life.

As with any whirlwind romance, though, the honeymoon couldn't last forever.  Apple may be a very special company, but it's still just that: a company.  And, like any company, at the end of day it needs to take care of business.  In Apple's case (or at least the part of Apple I worked in), that business is shipping amazing software on impossible schedules with astonishingly small teams.  It's been Apple's business since the "90 Hours a Week and Loving It!" days of the original Mac team, and the grand tradition continues to the present day (just ask anyone on the iPhone team how much vacation they've had in the last year).

Like the Macintosh team of old, I started out at Apple as a young engineer willing to subordinate my life (for a time) to something I was passionate about.  When I left my first position at Apple (in OS X Integration) for a real engineering job in Pro Apps, I was eager to make the features I was assigned the best they could be, even if it meant putting in difficult hours to get them done on schedule.  So I put in the hours.  I worked evenings and weekends.  I worked while I was ill.  Even when I ended up laid up at home in the throes of what turned out to be mononucleosis (a condition, for those who haven't had the pleasure, that lends itself more to constant unconsciousness than constant concentration), I sat in bed fixing bugs.  And little by little, I burnt myself out.

But it wasn't just the workload.  As the stress and hours increased at work, my 45 minute commute down 280, which I had initially thought of as a reasonable (even pleasant and scenic) drive, became a soul crushing daily slog.  With most of my social life in San Francisco, but my demanding job an exhausting drive away in Cupertino, I started finding it harder and harder to keep up relationships.  As a recent article about commuting in The New Yorker put it:

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller “Bowling Alone,” about the disintegration of American civic life.) “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”

Perhaps most importantly of all, though, I began to feel more and more that my job at Apple, once a source of such growth, was now holding me back creatively.  The natural curiousity, drive, and entreprenurial spirit that had once led me to develop two significant Mac applications, write a widely read weblog, and explore a variety of experimental side projects, had been all but crushed under the weight of a gigantic bug queue and long commute.  My well respected side projects were rapidly turning into abandonware, and my once compelling web profile had been reduced to a trickle of Twitter and Flickr posts.

Still, my attachment to Apple was so strong that it was going to take a lot to convince me to leave.  It took the encouragement of a number of good friends (who I plan to thank in another post) and, fittingly, the advice of Apple's two founders to convince me it was time. 

First, while driving home one night, I happened to turn on NPR and hear an interview with Steve Wozniak on the locally produced show "City Arts and Lectures" (I can't find audio or a transcript on the web, sadly).  In it, Woz told the lesser known story of Apple's founding from his perspective, and one part of his account in particular caught my attention: how hard it was for him to leave Hewlett Packard to start Apple.  Unlike Jobs, Woz didn't take Apple that seriously in the beginning, and hadn't planned to leave his beloved job at HP at all until the venture capitalist providing them seed money made it a condition of funding.   Woz loved HP, a company created by engineers for engineers, just as much as I loved Apple, and for a time he felt that it was where he'd spend his entire life.  It took a great deal of prodding by friends to convince him that it was worth leaving a prestigious job working on products he so dearly admired (in this case the HP graphing calculator) to pursue some wild eyed venture with Steve Jobs.  In the end, of course, the risk was more than worth it.

Second, I kept thinking back to Steve Jobs' inspirational 2005 Stanford commencement address, and in particular the part where he talks about how he decides whether his life is on the right course:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

For me, that answer had definitely been "no" for too many days in a row, and with the project I'd been working on wrapping up (it was announced, to a very positive reception, last Sunday at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas) I decided it was time to take the plunge and try my hand at a new venture (more on this later).  My last day was Friday, April 13, 2007 (hopefully not an ill omen for either me or Apple!).

I will always look back very fondly on my time at Apple, and I'm forever indebted to the friends there who gave me my big chance, took me under their wing, and taught me so much.  Apple remains, in my mind, a very special place, and I consider it a distinct honor to have been there during a large part of what might be called the company's "Silver Age."  I expect Apple will continue to amaze and delight us for years to come (the iPhone is a tantalizing start), and I'm looking forward to experiencing the excitement of its surprises as an outsider once again.  And who knows–as one of my bosses there was fond of saying: "The question's really not how long have you worked for Apple–it's how many times."  I wouldn't be at all surprised to find myself back in the halls of 1 Infinite Loop someday.

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52 responses to “Apple: A Romance

  1. Bravo, my friend! Can't wait to see what you do for an encore 😉

  2. Rock. Well done, Buzz. I'm so excited for you! And I hadn't known that you moved to the Bay Area around the same time Glenda and I did. We should compare stories sometime!

  3. Hooray Buzz! I'm also waiting to see what kind of cool stuff you'll do with your creative energies restored to thier full potency.

  4. Great story, and congrats on wrapping up Soundtrack. I hope you have been enjoying the downtime this last week… Good luck!

  5. Buzz – found you thru Twitter. What an amazing post. I"m really looking forward to seeing (hopefully you'll keep us up to date) what's next. Enjoy some decompression time – you deserve it.

  6. Leaving a job is really tough – especially when you love many aspects of where you are or what you do. I've been working in SF for a couple of months after six years in Palo Alto and Mountain View and I did that commute for so long. It changes everything.

  7. Hey Buzz, created a vox account just to wish you good luck. Interesting read. Looking forward to more blog posts, fixes to Cocoalicious and finding out what's next for you (and also when the WWDC party is 😉

  8. I'm right behind you handsome. So excited to see what you do.

  9. Rock on, Buzz. I'll miss you in IL1-3. But can't wait to see you around SF more 🙂

  10. Buzz – so excited for you. This is one of the best blog posts I've read in a long time, and I'm hoping to read more of your excellent writing in the future.

  11. Congratulations.. you're making me reconsider my decision to move down there from Portland to work on FCP. Is there more to life than where you work?

  12. So sorry to see you go (and that I couldn't convince you to join us!)…but I'm really looking forward to hearing what you're up to post-Apple. Hopefully I can find some time to head up to the city sometime to say hi….

  13. Here's to your inevitably bright future 🙂

  14. Leaving and taking "that leap" can be as exciting as joining. Congrats on making the move, I know it's a hard thing to make those big choices. I'm really looking forward to seeing what you're going to be doing post-Apple, and maybe seeing more from you about your projects and coding.

  15. Brilliant writing, as ever Buzz. This is reminiscent of my experience in leaving the academic career path that I had seemingly spent my life being groomed for.

  16. Many good wishes for your road ahead Buzz!

  17. thanks for writing this. work/life balance is important, it's good you are seeking to get your life back in order.

  18. Buzz, wonderful essay — I can identify with most of your feelings. After some of the comments on flickr, can't say I'm surprised — but I hope this means a revival for your blogging endeavors — I miss the Sci-Fi Hi-Fi weblog. Congrats and good luck!

  19. Nicely stated, and I can relate to a good deal of that in my experience with my last company. Good luck!

  20. Good luck! I've been there and know how your feel. I look forward to reading your memoirs.

  21. Hey Buzz,Mazel tov on your decision, and best of luck out in the not-Apple world. There is life after Apple. -Scott

  22. Best of luck to you!

  23. Buzz this post was so good I got a vox account just to comment. Your words ring with great truth for me personally, and I wish you the best in your next endeavor.

  24. It definitely takes time to get used to being an outsider again. Just wait until you have to start reminding your ex-coworkers that you no longer work there and they can't tell you the things they want to tell you. 😦

  25. Buzz, best of luck in the post-Apple (pre-Apple II? Once and future Apple?) portion of your career.

  26. Buzz, I also was so moved by your account that I created an account just to tell you. Leaving something one has put so much into is bittersweet at best, but I hope one day I will be able to do it with the grace and gentle self-understanding you have shown. It's got to be better than fleeing for dear life with scorched bridges burning behind you. Not that I would know… =)

  27. Thank you for your words, thoughts, passion, and vision, Buzz. I found your post via digg, and I'm very glad to have read it. It inspired me to make a few changes of my own.peace to you today

  28. "Business offers love to get money; buyers offer money to get love."

  29. (I also signed up for an account just so I could leave a comment, partially becauseI was simultaneously discovering I may not have the chance to do so in person anymore!)

  30. Well said, Buzz! I think this will be a good change for you, and I wonder what you'll come up with 🙂

  31. Thank you for your service to Apple Computer!Kind Regards,MacDisciple

  32. Thank you for sharing such a well-written and interesting post. I wish you the best of luck in your new venture. I too may just about to make a life-changing decision for many of the same reasons that you quote. Onwards and upwards!

  33. Does this mean we get new and awesome Podworks features???? 8D(I love the app, and it has served me well for years, so no updates seem necessary, except maybe compatibility issues that might come up.)Seriously, it sounds like you're making the right decision. Congrats.

  34. A very inspiring post. Thank you for sharing this.

  35. Great post Buzz! I hope you come to NYC this summer.. we'd love to see you. xoxo

  36. Buzz, thanks for taking the time to share your story. As a recent Apple refugee, I recognize the feelings. Keep us posted.

  37. [ciò è buono]

  38. followed a link over from fashionist.

  39. awesome and inspiring post Buzz…That I will take with me and learn from. I'm excited to see what your next move is and happy for you, for finding a path to happiness!

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