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Bil Lewis

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Eric Schmidt wanted to fire me my first day at Sun.

September 21, 2010

Eric Schmidt wanted to fire me my first day at Sun.

We were having an all-hands presentation on a brand-new product that was being released in a few weeks and Eric wanted everyone to know about it. It was an elaboration on source control using SCCS and a unique feature known as the "Translucent Filesystem". The idea of TFS was that you could "layer" your changes to files ontop of the existing system, so that you would see all the files in a directory, including your changes, whereas another person would only see the base files without your changes. The idea was that we could save vast amounts of disk space by not having to copy everything.

After listening to the description of the system, I raised my hand and said something like...

"You know, I'm a pretty smart fellow and an experienced Computer Scientist and I don't understand this. There are so many details and features to keep track of. And if I don't get it, our customers aren't going to get it either."

The presenter tried to explain why I was wrong, but didn't do too well. After a short response, she turned to other matters. Meanwhile, in the back of the room Eric was fuming. This was his pet project, based on work he'd done at Berkeley, and it was going out!

To his credit, he didn't fire me. To his discredit, he also didn't pay any attention to me. The product was released. It sold poorly and was the source of innumerable complaints and horrible bugs.

Sun required the systems group to use it and after six months of frustration and missed deadlines, they printed up a T-Shirt: "TFS--not ready for prime time" which they wore to work. Scott McNealy went ballistic and great unhappiness reigned at Sun for months afterwards. TFS was dropped and a couple years later the same group came out with the best source control system I've ever seen--based on copying the entire file structure of a project.

We scientific types like to think of ourselves as being logical and reality-driven. But we are subject to the same emotions as other people and sometimes those emotions win out over logic.

A year after this event, my boss came to me and asked me to estimate how long my portion of our project would take. I said "16 weeks".

He came back to me the next day and said "The other members of the team all estimate 12 weeks."

"Hmmm..." I said, "I guess they have less work than I do."

"Well, could you change your estimate?"

"Sure. What features do you want me to drop?"

I suspect you can guess where this conversation was going. At the end of the day, he went away angry and posted an expected FCS date at 16 weeks.

14 weeks later, I completed testing of my code, becoming the first member of the team to do so.

One might think this would earn me kudos for being accurate and skillful. One would be wrong. He wanted to hear "12 weeks". He didn't care that everyone would miss that date. They told him what he wanted to hear and I didn't. I was the pariah.

We humans do this all the time in all areas of our lives.

George Bush cut taxes for the top 1% by $400 billion on the assumption that those people would invest in new ventures and the taxes from them would more than make up the difference. It didn't happen and he ended up borrowing that money, leading eventually to the current recession. One might expect that people would look at this and say "That didn't work. Let's not do that again!" One would be wrong. We now have a significant gathering in the "Tea Party" demanding we cut taxes for the very wealthy even more. (It is worthwhile to note that you, if you're in the $100-200k range, pay higher taxes than Bill Gates.)

The point is that there is always enough unknowns in any system to allow proponents to claim anything they want. And sometimes they get mean.

I was asked in another job to add a minor feature to a product. I did so, providing a switch so you could get the old behavior if desired. It passed all the tests and went out.

Almost immediately there were complaints that it wasn't working consistantly. I investigated and discovered this to be true. Moreover, reverting to the previous version of the product did NOT produce the same results as before!

I was in deep doo-doo.

After two weeks of hard work, I finally realized that the product had NEVER worked correctly and the tests provided were trivial and used small data sets, which is why this problem was not discovered before. I told my boss that all of the past five years of analyses using this product had to be considered suspect. He handed me my walking papers.

In each of these examples, I had expected people to respond positively and they did just the opposite.

Sometimes the truth will get you fired.e were having an all-hands presentation on a brand-new product that was being released in a few weeks and Eric wanted everyone to know about it. It was an elaboration on source control using SCCS and a unique feature known as the "Translucent Filesystem". The idea of TFS was that you could "layer" your changes to files ontop of the existing system, so that you would see all the files in a directory, including your changes, whereas another person would only see the base files without your changes. The idea was that we could save vast amounts of disk space by not having to copy everything.

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