Lessons from a Former Apple Engineer
A 3D Graphics Geeks’s Trip Along One Infinite Loop
I’m a New Yorker. Greenwich Village. My brother and I are typical bi-racial Village kids: dad / mom, African American / Russian Jew. Blackish / Jewish. Always the outsider. All mixed kids are born with X-ray vision. We see through the Matrix of racial division, no red pill required. We see it’s absurdity. It’s pointlessness. My dad left when I was 2 years old and I never saw him again. He didn’t contribute a dime to my upbringing. My mom did it all. “Leaning In” does not begin to describe the miracle my mom pulled off raising us. She got it done or we didn’t eat, period. I grew up somewhere north of poor and south of working class. New York was my second parent. It fed and nurtured my voracious curiosity and was the foundation for my intellectual growth. The people. The faces, so many faces. The sounds of The City. Salsa. Rap. Rock. Metal. The unending babble of street life. Sometimes: “Yo, my young brutha can I talk to you for a minute?”. Other times: “You want me to pay how much for that mashugana schmatta!” Often: “Go the hell back to Jersey, asshole!”
I graduated undergrad with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and after a series of rather boring engineering jobs I wound up one evening staring into my bathroom mirror. “Doug: I am just not feelin’ this engineering thing? Mirror: yah, I know”. At my day job I had begun futzing around with spreadsheets for routine engineering calculations. My interest piqued, I took an evening programming class at NYU. My inner geek began to stir. After completing the course I embarked on the first step of an adventure that would change my life. I quit my day job and wrangled a job interview with a New Jersey defense contractor looking for programmers. Using a strategy that can only be described as “clueless chutzpah” I walk into the interview, open my briefcase, and reach in. I pull out the source code listing for a dopey computer game I wrote as a class project and proceed to wave it in front of my interviewer’s face. I point animatedly at lines of code and yammer on about how cool it is in a deranged attempt to distract my interviewer from the blindingly obvious fact that I have zero actual programming experience. Somehow, it worked. I got the job!
Career Lesson 1
Always go. Always show up. Always meet the person. Tell a good story, swing for the fences. Americans love passion, energy, and hustle. We are suckers for a good story. It is in or DNA. It’s the American Way, baby.
Things began to accelerate. One day I read an article about computer graphics (CG) and learned about amazing CG research happening at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Virtual Reality. Head Mounted Displays. Graphics hardware. A CG playground and I wanted in. I headed to UNC for a Master’s Degree in Computer Science and an unexpected trip down the UNC rabbit hole: Saturday afternoon armies of blue haired grandmas invading Franklin St. headed to the Dean Dome to watch their beloved Tar Heels played basketball. Weekday platoons of chattering preening sorority girls headed to class all with perfect makeup at 8 o’clock in the morning. All the while my CS grad student buddies and I are beavering away in a darkened graphics lab.
As graduation rolled around Apple Computer came calling. Apple was hot for top computer graphics geeks and UNC was one of a handful schools to visit. Apple invited some of us out to Cupertino for interviews. At San Jose Airport I was met by a uniformed driver who ushered me into the back of a black stretch limo to take me to Apple. I plopped down next to two other slightly bewildered computer geeks. All of us with the same goofy “oh, hell yah” smile on our faces. My Apple interview process was a breeze and the offer letter soon arrived. I was headed to Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley. Not so much a physical place as an idea collectively shared by its inhabitants. It is a vibe. A velocity vector pointing up and to the right. Go fast or faster.
Cupertino. Santa Clara. Sunnyvale. Mountain View. Palo Alto. Menlo Park. A federation of undifferentiated, forgettable towns that all defer and adapt to every whim and want of its powerful and peculiar geek population. The Valley is bounded by parched tan hills to the south and east with the lush green Santa Cruz mountains to the west. There is no time in The Valley. There is no weather in The Valley. Just an occasional breeze and languid shifting palette of land and sky as yet another perfect day concludes with an impossibly perfect sunset.
There are no Negroes in Silicon Valley but there are certainly plenty of brown faces. The brown faces fall into two classes.
The elites: the massive army of Indian techies. Indians, some as black as night, perform an astonishing magic trick: they are black in America with none of the stigma of being black in America. Poof! Gone. I had no idea it was that easy.
The help: the hunched, diminutive, shuffling Mexicans. The cheap pliant labor that waters and mows the hissing lawns of the palatial tech estates. Mexicans don’t even rise to the level of other. They only serve. “Thank god I’m not Mexican!” I blurted out in disbelief the first time I saw their wretched existence. No worries, in time they simply disappear, invisible to the naked eye.
Look a bit closer and you discover black Americans actually do live here. Just … over there. Packed away out of sight and out of mind in a small dismal town called East Palo Alto on the other side of Highway 101. Billionaires on one side of 101. Ghetto fabulous on the other side. The bantustans of apartheid South Africa spring immediately to mind.
The main Apple Computer campus is located at One Infinite Loop. An utterly meaningless street address that is a conscious wink and nod to the software geeks housed within: an infinite loop is a programming error that mistakenly causes a section of code to execute over and over endlessly often preventing the rest of the host application from doing anything else.
My transition from graduate student to researcher in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group was seamless. The handful of grad schools focused on computer graphics research — UNC Chapel Hill, MIT Media Lab, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Cornell, and others — are akin to Division One basketball schools. We all did high level research — often government funded — working under highly influential, world renowned principal investigators. We create sophisticated bleeding-edge VR demos, invented new rendering algorithms, and wrote research papers for SIGGRAPH the annual global mecca for all things computer graphic. Apple was a horizontal move for me: similar work, fatter paycheck.
At Apple, a door opened. I stepped into a world of smart, passionate, driven people with skills across a range of computer related disciplines including computer graphics, video, audio, and human-computer interaction. Our collective concern — never verbalized but deeply held — was to humanize computer technology. We did not seek to “push the technology envelope” as every other technology company doggedly flogged themselves to do. Rather, our approach was to place the man, woman, or child at the center of our concerns and then think hard about what we could do to make technology disappear and replace it with an amplification of their innate human capabilities. Steve Jobs perfectly articulated this ethos when he stated “… a computer should be like a bicycle for the mind”.
Career Lesson 2
Seek out and surround yourself with smart passionate men and women from as wide a range of backgrounds and interests as possible. These qualities create an openness and generosity — “hey, check out this cool thing I’m working on!” — often lacking in other people.
The final project I worked on at Apple was hugely important for my career. I was invited to join the QuickTimeVR (QTVR) product team, an outgrowth of research conducted by colleagues of mine. They sought to capture the real world via photography and map it into a digital form — panoramas linked via embedded hotspots — that was immersive, evoked a strong sense of presence, and was interactive. Crucially — in classic Apple fashion — QTVR production techniques were approachable to amateur and commercial photographers alike. QTVR was an elegant and vastly less compute intensive departure from the prevailing CG obsession with highly complex rendering and shading algorithms combined with zillions polygons in an attempt to simulate the real world.
QTVR was a CD-ROM product doing well in the marketplace when I joined the team. This was the early days of Web browsers. Netscape was king of the hill. Google did not exist. One afternoon while noodling around with Netscape it dawned on me that QTVR would be an amazing Web product. The idea presented itself in my brain fully formed. Boop! People would distribute 3D panoramas around the world via the Web. Better still, they could embed links using our hotspots to link to other panoramas — or any linkable media — anywhere on the Web. I ran and told my team about my brilliant idea. Their response? Meh. “Dude, QTVR is a hot CD-ROM product. Web shmeb …”
I spent the next 50 days racing to adapt QTVR to a browser extension — one of the first. I created artwork and content for a website I built from scratch. Gradually the team and other Apple folks saw the light, and QTVR for the Web took off. It won industry awards — MacUser Magazine Breakthrough Technology of the Year — and paved the way for Google Street View. Importantly it gave me bulletproof credibility at Apple. I now knew I could do anything I put my mind to. I stayed on at Apple a while longer, did some consulting with them, then left to begin a solo career.
Career Lesson 3
Do the scary thing. The hang your butt out over the edge thing. The your eyes alone can see it thing. The won’t stop can’t stop thing. Expect to hear no. A lot. No. No. No... From your boss. From your peers. From your family. From your partner. From yourself. Mostly from yourself. Acknowledge the no. Welcome the no. Then tell no to step to the left because you need to get back on your grind. Fear and doubt are the perennial sirens beckoning you to stop. They are the unwelcome guests who take up residence in your head, refuse to leave, and demand your undivided attention. If you write software or novels, compose music or do any intensive headspace work, fear and doubt are two bleacher bums heckling you from the cheap seats in the stadium of your mind. Do not ignore them. Do not attempt to block them out. Instead turn and face them. Tell them your drive, your motor, your passion for your task is stronger than they are. They are welcome to stay and watch you grind.
That’s it folks. That’s a wrap. Like what I wrote? Let a brother know. An abridged version of this post originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s content platform.