I was putting together a jigsaw puzzle the other day and it suddenly took me back to over twenty years ago when I was putting together another jigsaw puzzle — or I should say I was helping several people put together. That jigsaw puzzle was an enormous one, perhaps 5000 pieces that someone at work had deposited on a very large table in one of the common areas.
I remember the puzzle depicted a very old map of the world — like something a Renaissance-period Spanish or Italian illustrator created. It was the ideal subject matter for such an enormous jigsaw puzzle. I certainly had never seen a puzzle with that many pieces before.
I just tried to see if I could find something like it online: it looks like someone must have spent well over $100 on that puzzle. No matter, I was a programmer working at Apple Computer then and so were my coworkers — I suppose we were paid well enough for someone to be able to splurge on it.
I guess the punchline though is that this was during the second half of the 1990’s and Apple was, so the press said, circling the drain. Although financial matters weren’t really a part of my thinking back then, I know that Apple’s stock price had been steadily decreasing. We all knew the situation was bad. Whole projects were being shutdown, engineers and whole teams laid off. I think we all understood that any one of us, or all of us, might get the pink slip at any time.
In those days, you might hear about a team that got cut. Maybe a team that had worked down the hall, maybe up one floor… My coworkers and I would head to where the departed team had worked. There would be large blue dumpsters on wheels in the hallways. We would pull Macs that had been development machines out of the dumpsters and scavenge them for RAM or hard drives to upgrade our own machines with.
Telling it now, it sounds a bit savage, maybe callous (certainly opportunist). I don’t remember having strong feelings one way or the other during that time. Programmers had a way of landing on their feet. The engineers sent packing weren’t going to be standing in bread lines next week. This was Silicon Valley and the computer revolution was only just getting started. Most engineers that I had known or heard of that had bounced from job to job generally saw a salary increase with each bounce. Getting laid off was practically a promotion.
And so there we were, the survivors up to that point, whiling away some of the company’s hours putting a giant jigsaw puzzle together. Looking back on it now, it really is a bit funny to me: those of us just playing fiddles.
My recollection, though sometimes fuzzy, was that we knocked that puzzle out in a few days and that a second puzzle, with even more pieces showed up next.
Aside: the prospect of being laid off at that time had very little pull on me. I had not been working at Apple for very long when we it had struck the iceberg (or whatever it was). Accepting the job offer and moving from Kansas out to California had been a kind of adventure for me and my girlfriend, but the whole time I was wondering if I wanted to stay there or in fact return to the midwest. I liked the money I was making but had fortunately already used part of my salary to completely pay off my college loan. So, you know, I could return from my adventure, perhaps not as wealthy as Bilbo Baggins had been on his return, but I would certainly be less indepted.
You’ll have to just trust me on this part though: I was not a “programmer” in the general sense, I was a Macintosh programmer. Apple’s Macintosh computer, when I first saw it, held me in a spell and I was at that moment doomed to learn to program that machine and only that machine. I have told others this before and I meant it: if Apple had in fact ceased to be, shut down, I would have been the one to turn the light out — the last one on my way out the office door. I would not have pivoted and begun to program the PC. Nor would I have even considered going to work for Microsoft. (Part of the reason though may be because I am kind of stupid and had only learned how to program the Macintosh.) I had an Education degree from the University of Kansas after all: I probably would have started my teaching career.
Aside, aside: Holy hell, they have jigsaw puzzles with over 50,000 pieces now!