Quitting time

On this date fifteen years ago, several employees of NCD Software, formerly Z-Code, resigned simultaneously. I was one of them.

Two years earlier, Z-Code’s founder, Dan, sold out to Network Computing Devices over the objections of most of his staff. NCD, whose line of business had no discernable overlap with Z-Code’s, proceeded to drive Z-Code and itself right into the ground. Dan was the first casualty, lasting only a few months after the merger. NCD’s CEO and top VP, informally known as “the Bill and Judy show,” followed not long after. A lot of clueless mismanagement ensued. The energy of our once terrific engineering team dissipated before our eyes. We tried to turn things around, to make our bosses understand (for instance) that you can’t just tell an e-mail software team to make their e-mail suite into one of those newfangled web browsers that the new CEO had heard so much about, or that if you don’t pay your salespeople a commission for selling the company’s software, they won’t sell the company’s software.

Each time management did something boneheaded, we convened a session of “The Alarmists’ Club,” which met at lunch over beers and tried to think of ways to effect change at NCD. After enough of those proved fruitless, our discussions turned to how we could do things better ourselves. And so some time early in 1996 we sought the advice of a Silicon Valley lawyer about how to leave NCD en masse with minimal legal repercussions. The bulk of the advice was to put off discussion of any new venture until after the separation was complete; and to be aware that NCD was liable to use veiled threats, emotional pleas, and vague promises in an attempt to get us not to leave.

On 14 February 1996, NCD did all these things. We had prepared our terse resignation letters, offering two weeks notice, and delivered them in the morning. Within a couple of hours, Mike Dolan, one of the bigwigs from NCD headquarters in Mountain View, made the trip to the Z-Code offices in Novato to meet with us individually.

I was not yet 30, and when Dolan, an industry veteran, leaned on me in our one-on-one meeting I was definitely cowed. But my co-resigners and I had coached one another on how to withstand exactly the sort of combined intimidation and guilt trip that I was now getting, and so I stuck to my guns, kept the pointless justifications to a minimum, and refrained from blame or recrimination.

We maintained our solidarity, and because NCD declined our offer of two weeks’ notice, that was our last day there. We left feeling victorious, though what exactly we had won was never clear, and our sense of triumph was tempered by having effectively sandbagged our erstwhile coworkers.

After enjoying a few days of freedom it was time to start planning our new enterprise. But that’s another story…

Dad writes too

To help overcome my sons’ reluctance to do the ever-increasing writing portions of their nightly homework, and hopefully to cultivate a love of writing in them, last night I let them give me a writing assignment of my own which I worked on while they did theirs. My assignment, from Jonah, was to write about our Lego Millennium Falcon project. Here’s what I wrote and showed to the boys, who were excited about it, so I plan to do it again.

For my birthday in 2009, my sons gave me the Lego Millennium Falcon, which at the time was Lego’s largest set, both in number of pieces and in the size of the assembled model — about three feet long! I was very excited. The Millennium Falcon is the coolest spaceship in all of science fiction, and I’ve been drawing, building, playing with, and otherwise dreaming about the Millennium Falcon since I was eleven.

Working on the model was very challenging. First we needed a space large enough for the growing assembly as well as the boxes and bags of pieces. Second, the pieces were not organized in any meaningful way, so finding what we needed for each step took a lot of patience, squinting, and good lighting. Then of course there was the need to make sure that I and my sons all got chances to do the coolest steps as well as the tedious parts.

There were long stretches where we didn’t work on it at all, especially during the summer months when there were other, better things to do out of doors. Finally, after we returned from our Christmas vacation (2010) we made a big push to finish it. For one thing, we needed to reclaim the space that the boxes were taking up. For another, Jonah had embarrassed me by building the even-larger Lego Taj Mahal in mere weeks, single-handedly, while the Millennium Falcon sat half-finished. Finally, the closer we got to the end, the faster construction went, for two reasons: first, there were fewer and fewer pieces to search through for each step; and second, there were more and more cool surface details to add, helping to motivate us.

In the end, it took fifteen months to finish building the Millennium Falcon. It was worth the wait and the effort — the finished model is awesome. Now if only we could find a good place to display it!