Shipping (circa 1995)

[1995-97, and yes, for those readers who were there, some stuff has been conflated.  Also note, whenever you think “Why didn’t they use the Internet to do that,” this barely preceeds most businesses having more than a couple hundred kilobits to the world.]

—-

The soda in the freezer detonates around 2AM.

It is hot in the loft where we are working. It is mid-summer in Silicon Valley, and the air conditioning has been turned off for the night to save money. Several hours earlier I’d put a six-pack of sodas from Costco in the freezer, gone back to hacking code and forgotten about them.

I’m lost in some pointer chase or another when there is a muffled thud, like a medium size bird hitting the building. Someone groans.

“Dammit,” says my cow-orker, “I’m not cleaning that up again.” He’d seen me put the cans in there just after dinner, warned me that I would forget about them and that he’d cleaned up that particular mess too often. “People keep putting sodas in there, forgetting about them, and I keep cleaning it up.” He makes epic amounts of iced tea every day, using real ice that he freezes himself from bottled water, and I guess he’s sick of iced tea that tastes like Coke and Sprite mixed mid-air and later scraped off the wall of a fridge.

He’s right, it’s my fault. I open up the freezer and pull out the remaining cans, every one of which is bulging with pressure and ready to blow. I gingerly put them out on the porch to defuse; the last thing we want near a bunch of computers is a bomb spraying semi-frozen acidic goop all over the electronics. I clean up the mess, lick my fingers and go back to work.

—-

The next evening there’s a bird in the ceiling. Because of the heat the doors to our loft have been left open. The deal in Silly Valley is that everyone takes advantage of start-ups: VCs screw you with terms sheets, headhunters try to get you to hire their cousins, landlords are bastards about running air conditioning, and apparently now even the wildlife just walks all over you. This bird flew in several hours ago, and it’s been fluttering around up there in this kind of cupola thing, a little like a bell tower without a bell, just lots of dust and dead bugs and hot air.  Could be a metaphor there.

Ever tried to program when there’s a worried bird right above you? I guess the worst that could happen is that the bird poops on your already crappy code, but it’s a distraction.

We try to get rid of it. The bird flutters around and avoids the wads of paper and other junk we throw up there. The ceiling is high, it’s a tough shot, and chances are that this bird has experience with other start-ups in the very same loft that our company is now occupying. Is this bird a portent? We have like six months of funding left before implosion (management is coy about exact numbers) and this stupid bird is not helping us ship product.

Finally my boss gets out the Nerf crossbow and fires a bright orange foam bolt at the intruder. With the very first shot the bird freaks, emits an angry twitter [no, not that kind] and zooms directly out the open doors.

My boss is at least as lucky as he is smart. He laughs. He is as driven as he is smart, too, and he tells us to get back to work. Tomorrow we might hit alpha.

—-

Today we didn’t hit alpha. Instead, the server we that we keep all of our source code on suffered a silicon heart attack and lost most of its disk drives and all of its marbles. It boots, sort of, but it’s insane, and it’s a sure thing that our source code database is counting fluffy little clouds in the electronic afterlife. So Right Fucking Now eight other engineers are sitting around playing Quake while I pick up the pieces. No pressure, okay? Just . . . get that thing working again. Can we get you anything when we go out for lunch?

Backups? Of course we have backups. But our source control system (which I won’t name, except that the advertising literature says that it controls source code in a perfectly safe manner) turns out to be allergic to backups; when I try to restore and then check stuff out it just gibbers and poops all over itself, coughing up code that is months out of date and also hopelessly mangled. Oh yeah, and tags don’t work either, apparently they never did, so all the carefully labeled interim releases have been vaporised.

I spend the day writing recovery tools that dig around in the database’s exploded innards and emerge from the pile of steaming offal with our glistening pearls of C and C++ and Java. I merge a bunch of source trees from other workstations together, and by evening things are patched-up and tottering, but builds work. I’m way behind in kills in Quake. The source tree we have now is probably what we should be shipping. Fill me with confidence. I put down the shovel and start doing my real job.

Two months later it happens again, right before Beta.

And again, just before our first real release.

I can’t quite put my finger on the pattern.

—-

I’m delivering software on my motorcycle, and the people around me in cars are trying to kill me. It’s not unusual, that’s what they usually do.

I have over $100,000 of software in my saddlebags. We’re sending a release to about twelve customers. The problem is that it’s late Friday afternoon, FedEx closes in about twenty minutes, and traffic is horrible. Welcome to Silicon Valley. The solution: fill my bike’s cavernous bags with the packages and zoom off between the lines of barely moving cars. I can get to Fry’s in ten and a half minutes (when you absolutely, positively need a couple of gigabytes in half an hour, I’m your guy). FedEx is a little closer and should be no problem.

I reach the counter with a few minutes to spare, and off the packages go. Declared worth, about ten bucks each; it’s just duplicated disks and photocopied manuals after all. Our suffering and long hours are completely irrelevant in this stage of a product. How much our sweat is worth to our customers we’ll only know after a few months. Some of them probably won’t pay us, others are getting free or evaluation copies. We might make some good per-seat sales.

I cram my helmet back on and head back to the office. I’m exhausted and exhilarated, and drivers are still trying to run me off the road and kill me.

This is my first start-up; before this I’ve only worked for large companies, and I’ve not had to worry about how phones work, how to hook up networks and buy bandwidth, or where cubicals actually come from. I’m beginning to see how important good sales and marketing people really are, and to be honest, how easy engineers have it here in the Valley. I suspect that things are not going to go well, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun so far.

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7 Responses to Shipping (circa 1995)

  1. sean says:

    Good story; the beginning was more or less exactly the initial scene from William Gibson’s short story Burning Chrome.

  2. TN says:

    Greetings from a senior software developer from Finland.

    I really like your little anecdotes. I find myself returning to this url again and again, and I really do not know why.

    There is a quality in your writing that is haunting. That is a good thing. You can not plan or design something like that. It just emerges if it wants to.

    Looking good. Keep on writing. Do not worry.

    Cheers!

  3. Marcin says:

    ‘I’m delivering software on my motorcycle’ is killing me :-> Monday is the worst day due to all these status meeting but you’ve made my day. It is 8:57pm here but better late than never. Thanks Landon.

  4. $mike cremer says:

    People are *still* leaving sodas in the freezer, and I am *still* cleaning it up. Dammit. Calistogas are the worst…

  5. Mike Taylor says:

    Again! You have made me snort coffee out my nose! You have a great sense of humor – I wish you worked in our software group…love reading the stories – thank you for sharing!

  6. Um, GUILTY! I know I left at least one soda in the freezer, and thanks, $mike, for cleaning it up.. I owe you at least a lunch for that.

    Landon, I’m coming to realize that those were the ‘good old days’ — I thought things were crazy when I worked there, but at least the team was full of smart and competent people (myself excluded, to some degree) who cared about kicking ass and providing great software. I wish I could say the same thing today.

  7. Impostor says:

    New Rule: Soda cans placed in freezer must be placed within larger containers such as gallon-size ziplocs?

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