I just read a piece by Mike Monteiro of Mule Design, mostly about choosing clients who you can stand behind, but hinging on an anecdote about interviewing a prospective employee:
I asked him if he agreed with how they made their money. He replied in the negative — he’d just done the design. I told him we didn’t take on any projects that we couldn’t ethically stand behind.
And here I’ll quote him: “Must be nice.”
And that’s when I decided not to hire him.
Almost 15 years ago I was working my ass off at Apple as a junior engineer in the System 7 software updates team. I was trying to make a reputation in my new career, but also doing my part to make sure we shipped on time. In a historical sense, most what we built is hard to get excited about these days, but we were doing the exact same thing that Apple does today: iterating to give our faithful customers a reason to stay faithful.
In a group that was primarily oriented around fixing bugs, my colleagues and I were especially susceptible to a problem that plagues many developers: once you’re on the tail of a bug it can be hard to stop hunting until the issue is resolved. Some days we worked short hours. A hard-won victory at 4PM might be grounds for calling it an early day. But other times, stumbling onto a glimmer of hope with an impossible bug that “had to be fixed by next week” was cause for camping out until the wee hours of the morning.
One of these marathon bug-hunting sessions had a coworker and myself working until 2 in the morning, bleary eyed, but desperate for a solution. Usually I would recommend rest and resumption when it comes to this point, but we felt sure we were on the verge, and this was an important, difficult bug. We had a breakthrough, and spent another couple hours verifying a fix, testing it, and checking in the code. We went home exhausted but jubilant.
I collapsed at 5AM and slept until 11, conscious that the bug-busting marathon was not over. My boss, my boss’s boss, and for all I know, his boss’s boss were all aware of what we had done. It was a significant win for the team, but there was plenty more to do.
When I got into work after noon, my colleague was already there. He was talking, in the common area of our floor, with a humorless, long-time employee who worked in an administrative role with our team.
“Where have you been?” she asked contemptuously. “We need to ask you about the blah blah blah.” I’ve forgotten the specifics.
“Sorry, I was here late last night and only got in a few minutes ago,” I said.
“Must be nice,” she answered tersely. Her words stung. I was young, trying to prove myself, and had just returned to the fray after helping with an important victory. She had left at 5PM the previous night and had a long, restful night’s sleep. Or at least, that’s what I assumed she did.
What irked me most about her “must be nice” comment was how profoundly void of empathy it seemed to me. I hated her for years because of this. In part because of her, I have since been extremely sensitive to these pithy, jealous expressions: they jump out like smarmy little diamonds. But when words like these occasionally get lobbed at me, I am not nearly as hurt as I once was. I tap into my own empathy reserves, imagine what a crappy life they me struggling with, and try to wish the best for them.
It’s not so nice to be a person who says must be nice.