The programmers and the ABCDEFG problem

A start-up company's online game project falls victim to a key coder's vacation schedule.

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Steve Sellers and John Hanke were pinching themselves as they drove from
Berkeley to San Mateo on that October evening. “It was like we turned the
light switch on,” Steve said.

Sellers’ and Hanke’s The Big Network was a year-old game site where
Internet users can play simple board games like chess and card games like
poker against other users. No sooner had they started putting feelers out
about their transition to Java than, suddenly, it was happening. Suddenly,
every big Web site had decided they wanted to offer their users simple board
games. Yahoo had bought one company, Classic Games, and Excite had arranged a
licensing deal with another game provider, TEN, the Total Entertainment
Network. Infoseek and Netscape’s Netcenter followed Excite’s suit. Steve
Sellers got a hold of a producer at Snap, the fastest growing search directory
on the Web, who stepped up and offered The Big Network a contract.

There was only one problem …

Snap’s representative, Dan Burkhart, had come to The Big Network’s
tiny little underground virtual office in Berkeley, and Dan had to ask — where
were the programmers?

Steve and John hemmed and hawed, not wanting to quite admit they were
a virtual company, and then Dan Burkhart asked, “Well, are they employees, or
are they just freelancers?” Snap wasn’t going to do business with a rag-tag
company that couldn’t handle the volume of its millions of users. John Hanke
had drawn up a schedule, and on his calendar he wrote the necessary
milestones in a red pen. Then he had scrawled a big green “X” on November
16th, launch day. Now that he had committed to this date, the Big Green X
loomed heavily.

“Well, they’re under contract,” John Hanke said. Freelancers, but
with some guarantees on availability.

So Dan asked the next logical question. “Do they have a stake in the
outcome? Do they hold options?” Then he stated the point more directly. “How
do we know they’re going to still be here next month?”

“Oh, that’s no problem,” John Hanke assured him.

“We’ve got a great relationship with these guys,” added Steve
Sellers. “We’ve known them for a couple years.” This wasn’t quite true.



John and Steve managed to get through the meeting without blinking,
but as soon as it was over they got in the car and were driving from Berkeley
to Belmont, just south of San Mateo.

The Big Network did have five low-cost freelance programmers who had
brought the company this far. In addition, Steve Sellers’ younger brother
Mike, who was the company’s creative director, could help out in a pinch. The
company’s chief technology officer, Arie Grossman, could handle site
integration. John Hanke’s plan — ever intent on saving money — was to fall back on that low-cost B-team with the code that wasn’t mission critical. For the
code that was, they would go out and hire the best programmer they had ever
known, Kevin Hester.

Sellers had known Kevin since they had both worked at 3DO together.
Steve never would have considered getting into the Snap deal if not for Kevin
being between projects right now and available. A housemate of Kevin’s, Mark
“Max” Maxham, had just recently started doing some piecemeal work for The
Big Network. He was proving to be just as studly as Kevin.

If by chance you’ve read “The Soul of a New Machine,” or any of its
descendant reportings on deadline development, you know how this “signing up”
session is supposed to go. The manager says to the programmer, “It will be
hard work, thankless hours for not a lot of pay. But it’s the cutting
edge — you’ll have to figure out how to surpass the technology of our
competitors. It’s a job for only the best.” And the programmer can’t resist a
duel, wants to prove he’s one of the best, so he signs on. For pride. For the
intellectual challenge.

That was the old way of working with programmers.

But, uh … the world’s a little different now.

Top programmers are not nerds stuck in the back room anymore. They
lead wildly imaginative lives. Kevin and Max are both pilots. One Saturday,
they held a plane party on the tarmac at the San Mateo Airport — just bring
$15 to cover the gas for an hour. Another thing they did was buy an old
Wonder Bread delivery truck and repaint it in pastel colors as the “Freezing
Man” truck, which they equipped with massive freezer units and drove around
the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert, handing out ice cream
sandwiches and Creamsicles to people in the 100-degree heat.

Kevin and Max live in a place they call “Geekhaus,” a five-bedroom,
split-level ranch home overlooking the Sugarloaf Mountain preserve in
Belmont. Every bedroom of the house looks to have been decorated by an
earthquake — clothes, books, sporting goods strewn on the floor. The
occupants seem not quite to have gotten the concept that certain things, such
as artwork, can be hung from the walls rather than just leaned against them.

Max wears baggy blue jeans, a baggy faded blue t-shirt, and sport
sandals. His fingernails are excessively short, all in the pink; his
fingertips swell up beyond the nail’s end. Max is pale-skinned with faint
freckles everywhere, and his hair, which used to drape on his shoulders, has
been buzzed off at one-quarter inch. There are two thin hoop earrings in his
left ear. He’s the same age as Kevin, 30; they’ve known each other since they
were 14 and growing up in Dallas, two young nerds who met online.

Kevin scuffles around the house in stone-washed loose-fitting shorts,
Teva sport sandals, and a black Shiner Bock (“go Texas!”) T-shirt. He is 6
feet 1 with precious little meat on his bones, a pale almond skin with peach
fuzz on his cheeks and dishwater blond hair that is accented, in back, with
a stringy ponytail dyed purple and aqua. He has a face of beauty, kind pale
blue eyes, and a gemstone earring of the same color. Their laid-back
appearance is mirrored in their dialect; their favorite adjectives are “foo,”
“large-N,” and “blah.” They can add a “y” to the end of just about any word
that passes over their tongue, and for added emphasis throw in as a prefix
“super-,” “turbo-,” or “giga-.” So while Steve and John throw out
market-savvy terms like “viral marketing,” “CPMs,” and “weighted-average
ratchet clauses,” Kevin and Max get a dismissive laugh out of that
“turbobusinessy” talk. Kevin calls the whole Internet startup thing “the
lottery wheel.”

Here is what you need to know about Kevin, which says a lot
about the plight of programmers and what they struggle with today. Kevin is,
by all accounts, a programmer’s programmer, an |ber-geek. Studly engineers are
always attracted to working with other studly engineers, and Kevin is a
studly-engineer magnet. If you’re lucky enough to know Kevin, you are tapped
in to a wide network of talented programmers who respect him.

In an economy like this, a guy like that should be fabulously rich,
right?

Not necessarily. Two examples. Back when he was employed at 3DO,
Kevin did some freelance work for a few friends at a startup called Artemis
Research. They were called Artemis Research only because the fitness studio
which used to inhabit the building on Alma Street in Palo Alto had left a
metal sculpture of an archer bolted to the brick exterior. They begged Kevin
to join the company as employee number 7. He thought what they were doing was
whizzy, but Trip Hawkins at 3DO convinced him that the future at 3DO was even
brighter. Working at 3DO had always been “insanely fun,” and Trip promised
more. 3DO’s stock was at 12. In the following year, it dropped to 3.
Meanwhile, Artemis Research changed its name to WebTV and sold itself to
Microsoft for $350 million.

You come out of a situation like that not knowing who to trust, who’s
“word” to take, who to work for. So you rack your brain looking for a livable
solution — is it freelance at a high hourly rate, fuck the options? Do you just
focus on lifestyle and ignore the security a big payday would bring? Do you
pore over Red Herring and Upside, hoping to kick-start a business savvy?
Do you restrict yourself to working for managers whose companionship you
enjoy?

This kind of thing, being so close to stardom without knowing it,
happens to Kevin all the time. The famous story about Kevin is this
friendship he struck up with another pilot at the Palo Alto Airport, back
when Kevin and Max owned a fabric-covered, 1960-model Piper Colt, and M-W-F
mornings at 7:30 a.m. Kevin would go earn his instrument ratings. On those
cold mornings when Kevin had to wipe the frost off his wings, he would look
with a little envy at this other pilot who kept his fancy Malibu in a dry
hangar. They struck up a friendship, talking strictly about planes, and all
Kevin ever knew about this middle-aged guy was that he had retired from pro
football. The guy had told him his name, but it meant nada to Kevin.

But one day, a cute girl at the office was talking about football,
and Kevin offered up that he knew an ex-49er. Who? she asked. “Jeff
somebody,” Kevin responded. She was trying to think of a retired 49er named
Jeff, but couldn’t come up with names. “His last name was Montana,” Kevin
said. “That’s it. Jeff Montana. Good buddy of mine.”

Let’s call this dilemma that good programmers face “The ABCDEFG
Problem.” I call it that because all good programmers have tons of choices to
work on, A through G. Some choices seem cooler and some seem dumber, some
possible and some improbable, but as to the payday lurking behind the door,
they all look alike. They’re just A through G, take your pick. Choice A may be
3DO, and choice G may be $2 million of Microsoft stock, and Choice C
may be a quarterback with four Super Bowl rings, but you just don’t know.
It’s sort of like choosing one million units of foreign currency by which
country’s paper bills have the splashiest colors, or making a million-dollar
bet on the NCAA basketball tournament by whichever team has the sexiest
cheerleaders. The variables that programmers have to go on (A-G) are not the
variables that determine the outcome (X, Y, and Z).

So when Steve Sellers and John Hanke sat down on the couch in the
Geekhaus living room, Kevin and Max had the ABCDEFG Problem in the back of
their minds.

Hanke tried to explain the situation. They had just
signed a big deal on a project that would go live in a month. It would
require a lot of programming to rebuild the system. A true challenge and all
that. “Soul of a New Machine” stuff. The Big Network didn’t have a lot of cash,
and so they wanted to offer Kevin and Max options on a share of the company.

“Oh, no thanks,” Kevin said.

“Not for me,” Max echoed.

John didn’t want to tell these programmers too much, for fear they
might go right to Snap and charge more money for the work. But at the same
time, he had to get across that this is a real opportunity. “It would be in
your best interest,” John tried. “It’s with a very major player. If it flies,
our company will become very valuable, very quickly.”

But Kevin and Max had their own secrets too; they really didn’t even
want to tell Steven and John how they had been burned by options so many
times before.

“We want you to be properly incentivized,” Steve urged.

“We’re happy to work at our hourly rates,” they responded.

“Well, at least can we put you under a contract to guarantee us a
certain number of hours?” John was aware that Kevin and Max were working for
several other companies at the same time.

“I can help you for a little while,” Kevin said. “I’ll do the
architecture. But from then on, it’s more of a job for Max.” Kevin is one of
the rare engineers in the valley who is really, really good at what is called
“hardware bring-ups,” the nether place where hardware and software meet. Most
hardware guys have electrical engineering backgrounds, and don’t understand
the importance of scalability. Kevin, who has a computer science background,
can design a software system in sync with the hardware servers to be the Big
Network’s backbone.

Being a freelancer was hard for him — he was so in demand that he
constantly had to say “no” to people and projects he’d come to like. This
angst tore him up. And whenever he wasn’t working, he was thinking about how
much money he could be making — how the opportunity cost of goofing off was
$110 an hour. That was no way to live.

Kevin believed he had just solved the ABCDEFG Problem by taking a job
at a reduced salary of $140,000 and working only 4 days a week. On Fridays,
he rolls out of bed and scampers across the hallway to the Geekhaus garage,
where Kevin is building his ultimate hack, an ultralight Dragonfly
kit-assembly airplane. When he’s done, he plans to sell Geekhaus and fly off
to Geeksville, a friend’s concept commune somewhere north, probably around
Boonville, where they can live together and telecommute. When he needs to
have meetings in the Valley, Kevin is just an hour away in the Dragonfly.

Max, though, was perfectly content being a freelancer. The longer he
goes without a regular job, the less he wants one. He calls offices “cube
farms.” He has the opposite mind-set as Kevin. He knew that if he worked
full-time, he could rake in $150,000 a year. But he only needs a certain
amount to live on every month, and at his hourly rate he knows how many hours
he has to work each week: 18. With all the money he’s hauling in as
Contractor Boy, Max hired a “personal assistant,” a friend named Chaya, at
$15 an hour. She repainted the Geekhaus’s kitchen an avocado color. She’s
sewing him a Willy Wonka costume for Halloween. He “commissioned” her to make
two turbosized bean bag chairs for the downstairs rec room, each the size of
a baby hippopotamus. His life now is “pretty zippy.”

What thrilled Max here was not the options, but the sure-fire
contract to go live on the Big Green X — that his code would be out there for
all to see, and soon. For a programmer, worse even than owning worthless
options is the humiliation of having built great software that still sits in
some dark closet, never implemented. By 1998, every programmer with a few
years of experience knew the humiliation of “going dark,” and it’s become a
bigger factor in how they decide The ABCDEFG Problem. Max says he has a
“priority knob” that he can turn up at times. He was willing to turn it up
for this opportunity, except …

“Don’t forget I’m going on vacation in 10 days,” he said. He’d been
very up front about his vacation all along. This was no surprise.

“Can you reschedule it?” John asked.

“We’ll make it worth your while,” Steve tried. There was so much
Steve wanted to tell Max. He wanted to tell him how NBC had bought two huge
chunks of Snap from CNET, and how NBC had hired Saatchi & Saatchi to create a
big advertising campaign for Snap to appear during the American League
Championships, when 60 million Americans would be tuning in to watch the New
York Yankees destroy the Cleveland Indians. He wanted to convey to Max that
this was no ordinary opportunity here. This was a chance to secure his
future. Surely, that was worth postponing a vacation.

“My vacation is inviolable,” Max insisted.

“Come on … “

“No. I won’t reschedule.”

“You must be going somewhere very important,” John remarked.

Max wasn’t even sure he wanted to tell them. Max was learning to draw
borders in his life. He was not going to get overinvolved here. Max has never
even been to The Big Network’s offices.

Max dropped the bomb on Steve and John. Max’s cousin had a friend who
had 400 acres of land with nothing on it but the kind of vegetation that
attracts deer, ducks, rabbits and squirrels. “I’m going to Tennessee to go
squirrel hunting with my cousin.”

Squirrel hunting! Oh my! If there was ever a moment that signaled
how the world had changed — a moment that signaled who was in power here — this was it! This is not 1993 any more, when game coders working on deadline were
barked at, driven to exhaustion and underpaid. This is 1998, and it’s the
era of the Internet, which has squared the complexity of programming, causing
a paradigm shift in the market for talented coders. Never before have the few
good ones had so much leverage. Talent! They are the talent, and it is their
schedule we will adhere to.

My brother and I are going squirrel hunting! A week in the mountains!

Hell, yes! The only time of the year to hunt squirrels is when the
first chilly evenings of autumn scare those squirrels into panic mode, and
those squirrels get so focused on their nut-cutting that they don’t notice
humans with shotguns marching through the grove in camouflage suits. It’s
also mating time, and the male squirrels let out a little mating bark for the
females, giving up their position. So tell that to Snap!

Steve Sellers and John Hanke were at a loss. “You’re leaving us
hanging here …” they said to Max. Even though Max would be around much of the
time, his absence in the middle meant he couldn’t be the Go-To guy.

Max’s friend Jason Tobias had been looking for a freelance project on which
to work. Max said they could look Jason up and talk to him.

“Is he good?” Steve asked of Kevin, trusting his old friend’s
judgment.

“He’s studly,” Kevin said.

“I’ll look him up,” John said. “I’d like to get him involved right
away.”

Po Bronson is the author of "The Nudist on the Late Shift -- And Other True Tales of Silicon Valley" and two novels, "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest" and "Bombardiers."

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