I never knew Steve Jobs or Richard Greenblatt

I never knew Steve Jobs or Richard Greenblatt – but I owe my livelihood, and station in life, to these two men.

As a geeky kid growing up in Denver, Colorado, my first interaction with a computer, in 1976, was on a Texas Instrument’s teletype connected to a time-share computer via 300 baud modem.  My father, a couple of years later, brought home a Kaypro portable PC home running CP/M – to run a few programs for his job.  I never knew what was the essence of my attraction to these machines, but I was hooked.

As a twenty-something adult, friends noticed that myopic, obsessive, focus was unusually peculiar to my work habits so I visited a doctor to help me sort it out. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – the effects of which have virtually disappeared as I have grown older yet explained my troubled youth. In a social world, there is no great benefit to a precise eye for detail, but in the worlds of math, computing, cataloguing, music, linguistics, engineering, and science, such an eye for detail can lead to success rather than failure. It is dark comedy that the bulk of my professional duties are now sales.

Fred Ramsdale is the man who I hold responsible for setting lose my inner-geek. I could not tell you much about Fred, today, but at that time he was that smartest guy I knew (for good or bad). I started out hacking BASIC code on an 8086 PC, then Assembler on the first used IBM PC I Purchased for $3,000. Later I’d hack Motorola 6502 code on an Apple II. When I saw my first “personal” Unix V5 PC, with a real C-compiler I thought I was in heaven. The first executive management position, for which I was actively recruited in 1985, was with a liquid-level sensor technology company in Boulder, Colorado. It was based upon the 6502 chip and used RS-485 connection to an Epson HX-20 for monitoring.

In truth, I was never a truly gifted programmer, database analyst, or systems engineer – but I made up for it through mastering “first principles” and putting in long hours to accomplish what others did in a few hours – preferring more time to think about the problem, and drawing pictures of solutions, than simply sitting down and coding until I got it right. I viewed proficiency in many areas of computing as paramount to specificity. I learned how to write IBM VM/CMS kernel extensions, how to “boot” an IBM 4381, how to build cables for 3380 tape drives, Vax/VMS, TOPS, ad nauseum, ad nauseum….. But, most importantly, I learned to “think first, do a whole lot of homework, then act” – people will forgive delays for “cool things” but memories are long when useless crap is delivered to them on time.

High tech in Boulder, Colorado, did not harbor the allure of Silicon Valley. When Steven Levy’s book “Hacker’s” came out I read it in a single sitting…a 34 hour marathon. I was awe-struck by the focus that permeated the work of the people described in his book.  At the center of it are those early members of the Model Railroad Club.  I knew I had to get to Silicon Valley – but to get there, I must be worthy. So I taught myself hierarchical (IMS, FOCUS, Model204) and relational databases (Oracle, DB2, Informix).  In order to learn about WAN and LAN networking technology, Central Office switching, SONET optical switching I got a job at the local telco in its Detail Engineering Center…in an attempt to garner the knowledge I thought I’d need in Silicon Valley.  For a while I was mentored by an old Boulder hippie, an engineer who worked with John Bardeen in the War Department during World War II.

Steve Jobs

I read many books about him, his work ethic, his demanding personality and his foibles – but I always knew I would never be like him regardless of how many books I read. He was unique. I met him on a couple of occasions but those were nothing more than flirting moments. I know people who knew him quite well, I also know people who claim to have known him quite well. Those who knew him well rarely spoke of him out of respect for his privacy; those who claim to have known him dropped his name in conversation as though doing so would lend credence to their points of view. Some even tried to mimic the attitudes and behaviors of Steve Jobs – down to the turtle-necks. What drew my attention to Steve Jobs was his singular expectation that people deliver the very best of themselves, just as he did. I thought that to be a fair and reasonable expectation.

When I was recruited to Silicon Valley, the U.S. was in an economic downturn and John Sculley had a host of problems before him – not the least of which was Steve Jobs…then Gil Amelio arrived at Apple to further complicate the company. I knew then that I would never work for Apple Computer.

The books I’d read which described the excellence of Silicon Valley overstated the truth…in fact, those books described a very small sliver of Silicon Valley as was being demonstrated at Apple in the early 90’s. There was only one Jobs, one Wozniak, one Metcalfe, one Amdahl, and one Treybig…and I am not one of them even though I still aspire to be so.

What did I think was special about Steve Jobs? He had a once-in-a-generation understanding of what a consumer wanted before the consumer knew he wanted it. He proved you could not give a damn about what others thought, if you knew you were ‘right’. Steve Jobs reminded me that gut instinct is often better than an army of consultants…that it’s OK to make mistakes, accept responsibility, then move on. Not everything he did was successful, but those things that were successful were wildly successful.

More importantly he inspired many of us to have aspirations above our station and pedigree.

Richard Greenblatt

Richard Greenblatt set the bar for what a programmer’s habits can be, and still be accepted. I had read stories about Greenblatt from friends who had worked in Boston. He would often get so focused upon projects in them that his personal hygiene became a matter of some concern to his friends.

Cleanliness was a low priority – notorious tales abounded of his grunginess. Some recall that one of the things Greenblatt’s hacking precluded was regular bathing, and the result was a powerful odor.  So notorious was his hygiene problem that his associates created a new olfactory measure called a milliblatt. One or two milliblatts was extremely powerful, and one full blatt was just about inconceivable. To decrease the milliblatts, the story goes, his friends would maneuver Greenblatt to a an emergency shower for cases of accidental exposure to chemicals…then let it rip.

Elsewhere, Greenblatt became known for leaving ‘blattlies‘ as his calling card. A friend of his, Bill Gosper, onse disclosed to Steven Ley that Greenblatt had a habit of rubbing his hands together, which resulted in little pieces of dirt falling out. Gosper called these ‘blattlies’. When Greenblatt worked on Gosper’s desk and left blattlies behind, Gosper would make a point of washing the area with ammonia.

When I first started coding, I smoked, but I didn’t really smoke much. I’d light a cigarette, take a puff, then set it down on the edge of my desk…only to have it burn down the wood and go out. In a pack of 20 cigarettes, I got 20 puffs. When I got started, I’d go a week without bathing, curtains closed, room stinking like an ashtray…rarely seeing the light of day. I recall, at one point, planning on putting a small urinal in my office so that I didn’t have to enter a bright room in order to pee.  Suffice it to say that my I did not have the urinal built into my office…and I quit smoking, 0ver 20 years ago, once I ran the numbers to determine what a waste of money it had become.

Bill Gospers would later say of Greenblatt “He did what he was good at. He was a complete pragmatist. What people thought, be damned. If anyone thought he was stupid or nerdly, that was their problem. Some people did, and they were wrong.”

Why did I find Greenblatt inspirational? Because he gave license to marathon programming sessions which would last, in my case, sometimes 24 to 48 hours…only once could I make it to 72 hours. He proved you could not give a damn about what others thought, if you knew you were ‘right’. I always knew I would never be like him regardless of how many books I read. He was unique. But the one thing I will always thank Richard Greenblatt for is illustrating that it was OK to live on your own terms.

Greenblatt was a master of programming and, along with Bill Gosper, genuine hackers….the first in fact. They set the bar for the generation that came after them…at a time when to be a hacker meant something less nefarious, an more inspiring, than it does today.  He demonstrated that hard work actually means something.

I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about Steve Jobs since his untimely death- I have found many of them distasteful.  I, and many like me, owe our careers to the foundations and examples laid by Steve Jobs and Richard Greenblatt.  An entire generation of tech journalists owe their livelihoods to Steve Jobs…without Steve Jobs they’d be irrelevant.  I only wish they would be as kind to Steve Jobs, after he is gone, as he was kind to to them from afar.

I also wish journalists would pay attention to those worthy of mention:

Dennis Ritchie
Richard Greenblatt
Jim Gosling
Bill Gospers
Claude Shannon

…and countless others who have made Silicon Valley what it is…

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2 responses

  1. Nice article.

    I also admire the guys you mentioned. Stallman would have fit among them too
    You find me in disagreement with the cleanliness and the unhealthy habits you described. I see that as an unjustified lack of respect for themselves and the people around them.

    Roberto

    • …of the many warts any single person possesses, it seems a social inclination in Silicon Valley to overlook the warts and focus upon the merits of the person rather than their make-up & perfume.

      People who are masters of their craft can be excused for failing to possess personal regard for what others think.

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