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 12, 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.