Choose Your Manager
The Context: Being a slacker
In the early months of 1994 I wrote a program to play
It was a magnificent piece of code, easily the fastest
Scrabble program I had ever seen. The implementation (in C) was based on the
GADDAG data structure and algorithm explained in a paper by Steven
Gordon. The resulting program was so fast that computer moves were
Unfortunately I had to keep my software a secret. The
lawyers at Hasbro love to send nastygrams
to anyone who implements a Scrabble program. These guys are a lot like the
lawyers at the RIAA who have become famous for their lawsuits against toddlers
and family pets. The Hasbro legal team is merely less prolific.
Actually there was one other reason why I kept my Scrabble
program a secret:
I wrote the entire thing on company time using my employer's
At the time I was working for Spyglass. We had recently
finished shipping version 2.0 of our flagship product, Spyglass Transform.
Things were a bit slow, so I was discreetly hacking on my pet project. I setup
my office such that nobody could see my screen from the door.
Unfortunately, I gave myself away. At times when I was working
on my Scrabble code when my boss (Tim Krauskopf) walked in the door, I would
flinch and quickly try to minimize the window. About the third time it
happened, Tim said, "All right, what game are you playing?" Suddenly I wished
I actually was playing something like Doom. In that moment, working on
non-company software seemed more shameful than wasting time in a first-person
I offered a full confession and an apology.
I don't remember what he said.
I do remember that he never mentioned it again.
The Inflection Point: Day 1 of the browser wars
A few weeks later, on April 4th, 1994, Tim once
again stepped into my office. He said he needed to talk with me somewhere offsite.
In that conversation, Tim told me that the Spyglass management
team was making the decision to abandon our then current business (scientific
data visualization tools) and get into the web browser business. He asked me
to immediately begin working and commit to giving a demo to an important
potential customer a few weeks later.
I shifted into high gear. I came in at 5:30 am every day
for weeks. I was writing code at a fantastic pace. The demo was successful.
We showed them our browser. It didn't have as many features as NCSA Mosaic,
but it was a lot faster. We didn't tell them that it was written from scratch
in less than a month by a kid who had never written any networking code
before. We got the sale.
And that was just the beginning. The project started out
with me alone, but two years later it was a team of 50 with me in a leadership
role. We were the first Internet IPO. We licensed our browser to Microsoft
and it became Internet Explorer.
That conversation on April 4th ended up being a
defining moment for my career. And it happened just a few weeks after Tim
caught me skiving off on the job.
What the %#$@ was Tim thinking?
The Premise: Tim made a wise choice
I'm going to surface a lesson from this story, but you
should probably read no further if you disagree with Tim's decision.
And if you do, I can't really argue with you. I'm not going
to defend my actions. I was being irresponsible, even dishonest. There are no
excuses for behavior like that.
Maybe Tim should have fired me. At the very least, maybe
Tim should not have entrusted the development of his company's next big product
to someone who lacked the discipline to stay on task.
Still, the overall results deserve some kind of voice in
this argument. Tim and his company were very successful. Tim drives a Ferrari
now. Tim's choice worked out very well for me, but it turned out pretty well
for Spyglass too.
The Lesson Learned: Choose your manager carefully
This story may seem like it's about me, but really it's
about Tim Krauskopf.
I've never asked Tim why, so I guess I don't really know. Maybe
he just believes that being obsessive to a fault about code isn't the worst
character defect for a developer to have.
I spent five years at Spyglass. The incident described
above is just one of many that left me in awe of Tim's leadership skills and discernment.
I don't think I ever really figured out what makes that guy tick, but I still
think of him every time I measure myself as a manager and leader.
The part that seems most astonishing to me is that he kept
his emotions in check. Didn't he feel any sort of disappointment or even
betrayal? Why didn't he overreact? That's what most people would have done.
I probably would have.
All I really know here is this:
Your manager plays an enormous role in determining the
success of your career. Choose your manager very, very carefully.
- Choose somebody smart.
- Find somebody who is not merely smart, but "emotionally
- Find somebody who is not merely smart, but wise.
- Choose a person from whom you can learn.
Just to be clear, I am not saying you are powerless. Your
success is mostly determined by your own abilities and choices.
But one of those choices is the decision of who you are
going to work with.
Don't take that choice lightly.
Update: See my follow-up.