Sunday, February 12, 2012

The day I grew up

Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011. As a long time Apple fan, Steve was a hero of my childhood. When he stepped down as CEO 6 weeks earlier, I posted on Facebook, "Steve is a personal hero, and I congratulate him on his epic career. Now I hope he will take some time to step back, enjoy his family, and let us younger folks change the world for a while." To which a perceptive friend took up Steve's voice and replied, "Just don't ƒ*^& it up." This is a story about how I grew up on that day.

As far back as I can remember, my best friend and I decided to be Mac game programmers. I think, although I did not know them by name, we saw ourselves as the next garage startup like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. We calculated how long it would take to save up our allowance to get our own computers. My friend had a slightly higher allowance than I, but I was no less determined to save for 1,299 weeks to get a Mac Quadra. That goal turned into a PowerMac, then an iMac as the years went by but I kept on saving.

Fortunately, in high school I started making more money by mowing lawns and working at Michael's craft store so my budget caught up with technology. I got an iMac, the blueberry gumdrop that was my prized possession. With it, I learned to render 3D animations, and develop websites, and played whatever shareware games I could get my hands on. Eventually that computer landed on my college dorm desk, where I upgraded it to OS X and learned how to use its UNIX underpinnings in my computer programming classes.

All the while, I was a fervent Apple fanboy, or as we preferred to be called, "Mac Evangelists". In elementary school I argued the merits of GUI interfaces and single button mice; graduating to topics like CISC vs. RISC instruction sets and big endian byte order in high school. In college I joined and helped lead the Mac User Group at CU and spent many hours in the club's office with the premise that students would come by and ask Mac questions. In reality, the Apple plug-and-play ethos I heralded meant nobody really needed our help. The office was just a nice place to do homework, or read rumors about Apple's latest developments. When I got a job at Apple, some of my friends said, "They just gave you the job because you've been such a fan for so long, right?"

Moving from Colorado to start at Apple was a trial of growth, since I did the 1,300 mile drive in a 22-foot U-Haul & car trailer all by myself. I drove through the mountains of Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California in February, through whiteout blizzards and un-plowed roads. I was homeless, trusting my meager savings to afford necessities along the way. But I also saw a lot of beauty, such as the Great Salt Lake and Sierra Nevada mountains.

One powerful lesson was discovering that the $1000 limit on my only credit card couldn't be paid off fast enough to outpace the "holds" on credit for the truck and trailer and one night in a motel. On the second night I ended up sleeping in the cab of my rental truck at a rest-stop in the middle of Wyoming. I donned 2 pairs of pants and all the sweaters I owned to stay warm in the freezing February night.

When I finally arrived in Cupertino and without any local friends, I had to unload the truck myself. I got so lost returning the truck that I had to call back to Boulder, interrupting a super bowl party to have someone look up Google Maps and tell me where I was. That made me late to return the truck, which I hated driving so much that I decided to abandon it until I could return the keys early before work the next day. Because of that errand and my unfamiliarity with bay-area rush hour traffic on a Monday morning, I was almost late to orientation. I regret none of it, because the thing I remember most about that weekend was walking into the atrium of 1 Infinite loop, giddy with anticipation and awe. 

So when Steve Jobs died, a part of my childhood died with him. But that is not entirely why I feel I crossed into adulthood on October 5th, 2011.


I awoke to the sound of helicopters. One, two… there's a third one. What's going on? Doesn't matter, we have to get to an appointment and then go to work. It's hard to judge the distance to a flying object, I wonder if those helicopters are over Mountain View or closer to us in Cupertino? Ah well, it'll be cleared up before our appointment is over and it won't even bother us.

I go have breakfast and check Twitter for trending topics about helicopters. Nothing yet, maybe Twitter is not the omnipotent service I've been led to believe. Surely someone with a smartphone has seen the helicopters. Maybe Silicon Valley hasn't woken up yet? Can't blame them, it's early by engineer's standards. But we have that appointment so there's no time to waste.

After showers, my wife finds something in the news. There has been a work dispute at the Cupertino quarry causing an unstable employee to gun down his boss and coworkers. Huh, that's not like the typical, sleepy, best-schools-nationally, restaurants-close-by-9pm, safe city news Cupertino usually gets. But the quarry is all the way across town, and we have an appointment to get to. I silently, insensitively hope it doesn't affect traffic for us.

We arrive at the doctor's office where my wife has her scheduled appointment. In the waiting room, the news is on TV. "The gunman left the quarry and drove East down Homestead." Uh-oh, that's right by our house. But we're now in Mountain View, and I'm sure they'll catch him soon. Besides, it's time for our appointment.

After the doctor's visit, I drive my wife to work and head back to Apple. Having missed half a day of work, and already late for lunch, I scarf down some leftover pizza and get to work. An email from Apple facilities arrives, "There is a shooter on the loose at Homestead and Wolfe. He has shot a motorist leaving HP campus in an attempted car-jacking. All Apple buildings at Pruneridge are on lock down, please report suspicious activity." Wow, shit just got real. HP campus is right outside our window, Pruneridge is our home address. If we had left an hour sooner we could have been the target for the car jacking. Did we see this guy as we left home this morning? Retroactive memory is a powerful and corruptible thing.

The minutes tick away and he is still not caught. I have plans to meet up with the guys for our Wednesday night game night but I'm beginning to have strong man-stincts to stay home and protect my wife. She'll be taking the shuttle and I don't want her getting off the bus at Valco mall, less than 1 mile from the last sighting of the shooter any more than I want to wait there for her in the car. We make plans for me to pick her up in Mountain View, and have dinner at Google.

The whispers down the hall of my floor have been serious, but waning as the day went by. Suddenly, at 4:31 they pick up perceptively. I hear, "Is it true?" "He's dead?" I start to relax. Until I check my email. Tim Cook sent an email with the subject "Steve" informing us of his passing. For a moment, nothing else is important. My childhood hero, an impressive visionary and ultimately, my boss, has passed away. 

Tragedy and fear have a way of changing a person. To experience both on one day is a life changing moment. But even that is not enough to make a boy grow up. Ready for another thousand words of my life story? No, the moment of my transformation was a quick thing. That morning, at the appointment for which we unknowingly risked life and limb, I saw my unborn child on sonogram. 

In the weeks that followed his death, I read about Steve's accomplishments. One interview quoted him about having kids, "It’s 10,000 times better than anything I’ve ever done." I feel the weight of this responsibility now, knowing the grey blob on the sonogram is counting on me.

For everyone, including Steve Jobs – a genius who wouldn't accept mediocrity to Shareef Allman, a simple concrete miner trying to get by, life is short. There is a lot to fear in the world, but there are always younger generations ready to change it.

And that's how I grew up.



Unknown said...

AMEN Brother! It makes me think back to the day I was watching the superbowl and helped you with directions :-) I was so scared for you but you didn't sound scared at all! It is so surprising to me that you have endured such tough challenges because you always do it with such ease. You have no idea how I still look up to you. I love to hear you talk about your unborn child because it makes it sound so real! you're going to be a daddy. I can't wait.

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