Ask For Help

November 20th, 2010

When I first started working at Apple, I was 18 years old. I was going to school at UC Santa Cruz and studying to be a computer programmer. Like my dad.

I was lucky to end up as a Quality Assurance tester inside a software development group at Apple. I worked for the Software Update team, which was essentially responsible for diagnosing, evaluating, fixing, and shipping bug fixes for anything in the System 7.5.x era software that Apple was building at the time.

I was so bold back then that I told my bosses, and my bosses’ bosses, and my peers, and anybody who would listen that I wanted to be a programmer. I wanted to write Mac software. No, I wanted to write the Mac!

That dream came true on May 13, 1996, when I joined Apple as Software Engineer I in the System Updates team for Mac OS Engineering. I immediately went to work, fixing bugs here and there as fast as I could. I took copious notes, in an effort to assure my bosses that I was the right person for the job. How did I spend my time over the past 5 minutes? I could happily elaborate.

I was so nervous about my performance, so worried that somebody might notice I was a fraud, that I didn’t ask for help as much as I should have. When somebody assigned me a problem, I scraped the walls of hell to find the answers, lest it be revealed that I wasn’t quite as smart as I might have seemed.

All the bugs in our group were difficult. One day I was assigned a particularly vexing one. I had shown a knack for tracking down tricky issues, but this one stymied me. I hammered away at the bug but I couldn’t figure out the cause. I couldn’t even think of where to go next. I was petrified. This was it, they would learn about my incompetence and put me out to pasture. I decided to take a walk.

I clearly remember that balmy summer day in Cupertino. I was filled with dread. I walked from Apple’s Infinite Loop headquarters, across Highway 280 on De Anza boulevard, towards the expansive suburban doldrums of Sunnyvale.

My pre-hire boldness had abandoned me. “Maybe I should quit,” I thought to myself. “That would be a stoic way of getting out of this mess.” It sounds so dramatic in retrospect, but I was so sure of my failure, it seemed like an obvious move at the time. I talked myself through the facts of the bug in question, and simply could not think of a solution. I couldn’t think of a part of a solution. I couldn’t even think of a step in the direction of a solution.

I walked for an hour or more, and then returned “home” to my office at Infinite Loop. I sat at my desk and stared into the monitor, hoping against hope for some inspiration. My friend and coworker, Darren Litzinger, stopped by my office.

“What are you working on?” he asked.

“I have a terrible bug, and I can’t figure it out.” The thought of asking for help didn’t even cross my mind. But fortunately, my frustration spoke on my behalf.

Darren sat down in my guest chair and adopted an excited look. “Well, what do you know about the bug?” He was here to help. I hadn’t even asked for it, yet here he was. I could have asked for it at any time, and I didn’t even realize it.

Talking through the bug with Darren, he asked me to perform particular tests at the computer. I realized that we had completely different approaches to problem solving. It wasn’t that his were right or that mine were wrong, they were just different. As it turned out, his technique saved the day and we got to the bottom of the issue within a couple hours.

As I moped along De Anza Boulevard that afternoon, I thought that I might not be cut out for software engineering in general, let alone at a world-class company like Apple. After I retreated back to my office and got a surge of help from a trusted colleague, I realized that I was perfectly qualified for the job. Especially if I could ask for help every once in a while.

6 Responses to “Ask For Help”

  1. BWJones Says:

    Thanks Daniel, as asking for help is something we all need reminding of from time to time.

  2. Gordon Says:

    Daniel,

    Thanks for this post. You have articulated very clearly something I have personally felt for a long time. For me personally I have been a lifelong web hacker who has had a bit of “programmer envy”. But you hit the nail on the head. The thought, the idea, no the fear that one might be discovered as a fraud.

    But as I grow “older and wiser” I realize there is a huge gulf between sheer incompetence and merely misunderstanding. I have also come to appreciate the virtues of being “naive” or taking a naive approach to problem solving. To take things at face value and see if that can lead to useful problem solving insights. And being unafraid to talk to others and ask for help is the key to finding out the difference. Lately I tend to actively seek out the wisdom of others. In a way it is a means to find out how intelligent and capable others really are. At work I have become a bit of a pest. But I enjoy it because I enjoy learning how others think and solve problems. And as I gain more confidence in my own abilities this process of working through problems with others becomes more rewarding because you get to a finer nuance and deeper understanding of the problem and the solution.

    And then there are those rare friendships where you can share an intense zeal for a subject and can obsess together over a subject domain. What a sublime opportunity, to “geek out” about something in common. I think that explains the great dynamic and creative partnerships. Woz and Jobs, among others. So I guess the moral is cherish your friends, especially the ones who will humor your questions.

    Anyway, great post. An must read for any up and coming programmer.

  3. Jens Ayton Says:

    It’s interesting, in an entirely negative way, that programming – the nerdiest of professions – is so full of macho bullshit. The “rugged individualism” illusion, status seeking through unhealthily an counter-productively long hours… I guess testosterone will find a way. :-/

  4. Jack Says:

    @Jens Hmm. While there are definitely some in software that one could characterize as “macho”, I’m not sure it’s disproportionate to the rest of society. Don’t confuse macho with an obsessive work ethic or perhaps even “impostor syndrome”. Knowing Daniel personally, “macho” is not on top ten list of adjectives I’d use to describe him.

  5. Anthony Says:

    Hey Daniel,

    I know it is an old post but I just came upon it.

    First off great post, I was in your situation more then once and asking for help was the hardest and in the end best thing I could have done.

    There have been a few times that Darren also came to my rescue. He had the knack of looking at any problem and finding a path to the solution. I am happy that we shared an office, because I got to learn from him, and laugh with him on many many occasions.

    Cheers..

  6. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Glad you got the opportunity to benefit from Darren’s company and thinking, too!

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