Tom Dowdy

3 Apr 2022
SimpleText document icon (Macintosh, System 8).
SimpleText document icon (System 8).

Tom Dowdy was a software engineer at Apple back in 1995 when I was still writing Macintosh games in Lawrence, Kansas. One of Tom's programming responsibilities was to maintain Apple's SimpleText (aka TeachText) application (see document icon above) — a basic text editor that shipped with the Macintosh. He was also the tech-lead (engineering technical leader) for the graphics component of Apple's newest graphics framework called Quickdraw GX.

More relevant to my future however, Tom was also a participant on an early internet (pre-Web) kind of discussion forum called Usenet — a kind of "reddit" if you will — with all manner of discussion boards on every conceivable topic. One specific discussion forum was called something like: The discussion board was an online place where someone like myself could ask a Macintosh programming question and hope to find people smarter than myself to supply an answer. As it happened, I did post there and so did Tom.

Tom told me later that it was his having seen my posts on Usenet that casued him to consider that maybe I would make an interesting candidate for an engineering position that was avalable on the graphics team at Apple. I was a game programmer so he reasoned I probably had an above-average knowledge of the comncepts underlying graphics programming. Maybe Apple should extend an offer to interview me for the position.

I think this maybe makes clear the degree to which software engineering was something of a meritocracy back then. That is, I didn't have a degree in Computer Science, did not even graduate from a college known for its computer department. But I did write games and I was privileged enough to have access to the early internet/Usenet, and chose to spend some amount of my time doing more than just lurk there.

It's funny (strange) to imagine a hospital needing another surgeon and interviewing someone with no formal medical training but whose hobby is taxidermy … but I digress.

It was to my great surprise that I was in fact invited to fly out to Cupertino, California and spend a day interviewing for an engineering position at Apple Computer, Inc. Tom Dowdy had selected me, had the interview invite sent to me. Of course I jumped at the chance.

It's probably well known now that interviewing in tech is something like running a gauntlet — with all-day interviews where each engineer on the team (or pairs of engineers) grill the candidate for 45 or 50 minutes at a turn. In addition to being interviewed by Tom's manager and coworkers, I did finally get to meet Tom Dowdy … my benefactor if you will.

I was offered the job at Apple and accepted. Moving from Kansas to California in 1995 (with my girlfriend and two cats) was, perhaps not suprising, quite a big change. Never mind that I was also joining software engineers that were in every way my seniors. And I was actually working for Apple. At Apple! The mothership as they say. And with no real formal training. Looking back, I suppose I was just dumb enough to have accepted. (But so happy that I did.)

But for all the stress and feeling like I was a fake among all these super-star programmers, Tom Dowdy always put me at ease. I'm not sure why. Anyone that knew him though would agree with me when I say that he was laid back and had a friendly demeanor. I will say this about myself in those days: I was humbled by the talent I was surrounded by and I think I generally let people know it. I think I have always been honest and quick to say, "I have no idea what you're talking about," for example. Some engineers like Tom seem to enjoy taking junior engineers under their wing and explaining to them some new concept or how to use a certain tool.

The product that I worked on, Quickdraw GX, was soon shit-canned. This was the 2nd half of the 90's and Apple was at that point in its history when it was circlng the drain. It was another lesson that would be reinforced over and over in my three-decade career as a programmer: if you work very long in this field, know that everything will eventually change.

It was the supposed "dark times" to be at Apple: whole teams would be suddenly let go (the rest of us that lingered still might go through the abandoned offices of once co-workers looking to pull RAM out of their hardware for our own development machines). Some engineers like Tom, could see the writing on the wall early enough and knew when to switch teams. Tom ended up moving to the QuickTime team where he was able to continue to use his graphics talents. Later he worked on the iTunes visualizer if I recall correctly.

Other engineers like me seemed to haved survived those days somehow by luck — or at least not by their own doing. My whole team was let go by Apple, but for reasons I don't understand, a manager from Apple's ColorSync team seemed to like me and asked if I would join his team instead. (Instead I guess of being laid off.)

Tom and I would no longer be working on the same project but we were still working on the same operating system, still at the same company. We still chatted and shared ideas. I remember one year that Apple had sent him to a SIGGRAPH conference (an international, technical conference — one focused on graphics programming) and he came back enthusiastic about something called "blue noise".

We would have these technical chats, but we also talked about movies, music, etc. He had a lot of interests outside of software and I enjoyed talking with him about whatever.

One day though I learned that Tom Dowdy had died. It was quite a shock since he was more or less the same age as the rest of us — no more or less healthy as far as I knew. From what I had heard though he had simply died in his sleep. Perhaps he had a heart condition, I don't know.

Tom Dowdy.
Tom (image from Flickr, I hope the image owner is cool with my appropriation).

I have thought about Tom many, many times since his death. I recently left Apple after a twenty-six year career — I find that when I leave a thing behind I can finally stop and reflect on it. Somehow being "in the moment" has never afforded me the ability to be contemplative. But now I wanted to write something about Tom Dowdy.

In hindsight I can see how curious life is at times. That I would arrive in California and make my career at Apple seems to me so unlikely a thing — and it would have seemed even less likely to a thirty-one year old me back in 1995. How did that happen?

Life I think is generally a kind of mill we're on but that every so often, unexpectedly, little opportunities come along. This one though had a name behind it, Tom Dowdy. But then Tom leaving so soon also shows the occasional cruel turns of fate life can surprise us with as well.

Tom was a mentor and a good person.

I found out the hard way when I was new at Apple that introducing "Easter eggs" into the operating system was something best done with discretion (probably best reserved for the more senior engineers that had paid their dues). In fact, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple not only did Steve Jobs get rid of "about boxes" (where individual engineers would be given credit for their contributions) but Easter eggs too were now out of the question.

As I said at the top, SimpleText had been one of Tom's responsibilities even before Steve Jobs had returned. And I don't think anyone would disagree that Tom would be considered a senior engineer who had paid their dues.

Icon upside down.
Icon upside down.
Tom Dowdy Internet: do...@apple.COM
Apple Computer MS:302-3KS UUCP: {sun,voder,amdahl,decwrl}!apple!dowdy
1 Infinite Loop AppleLink: DOWDY1
Cupertino, CA 95014
"The 'Ooh-Ah' Bird is so called because it lays square eggs."