Management I felt myself… sinking

An Unreasonable Investment

Do you remember your first job? Correction: not your first job, but the first job you wanted. This is my career. This is what I want to do. I don’t want to screw this up.

I was a grocery store clerk, a butcher, a video store clerk, the guy who backed up the system onto tape drives on Saturday morning, and a bookseller before I landed my first job. A friend put a good word in for Symantec, and for a summer, I was an intern working on a database product called Q&A. This was the summer after my first year when I’d just absolutely crushed my first year of computer science at UCSC, and I didn’t want to screw this up.

This was a while ago. Like pre-Facebook, pre-Nescape, and pre-Windows. A long while ago — the concept of new employee onboarding was, “Throw the intern in the deep end and see if they can swim.”

After a week of letting myself familiarize myself with the product, my manager gave me the task of testing the natural language interface of the product. Natural language interface. This was 1989, and we were running software from a 3.5″ floppy drive. Q&A offered a natural language interface where you type questions against your flat-file database, such as, “How many invoices are greater than $500?” And it’d answer the question. No LLM required.

Magic in 1989. My responsibility to test. First job. Don’t screw it up.

The natural language portion of Q&A was written in LISP, the solar system’s second oldest programming language, specified in 1958. The oldest is FORTRAN by one year. LISP pioneered many programming ideas, including tree data structures, automatic storage management, dynamic typing, conditionals, higher-order functions, recursion, the self-hosting compiler, and the read-eval-print loop. LISP has a distinctive, fully parenthesized prefix notion. Modern LISP variants look like this:

;;
;; Triple the value of a number
;;

(defun triple (X)
   "Compute three times X."  ; Inline comments can
   (* 3 X))                  ; be placed here.

After talking with a few engineers, I found a copy of the current source code, fired up the editor, and saw LISP for the first time. And I felt myself… sinking.

It’s Just a Flowchart

First job. First time someone has asked me to test. First time I’ve been exposed to natural language processing. First time using a database. I’d been exposed to some Pascal in my first year, but those were self-contained 300-line programs completely authored by me. When I looked at Q&A’s LISP code, I was lost.

And this is pre-Internet. There was no “Learn LISP in twelve easy steps this weekend!” YouTubes. There were no online communities. There was a B. Dalton bookstore at the mall, and when I asked about books on LISP, they tilted their heads and told me to repeat myself… slowly.

My manager cheerfully asked me how it was going at the end of my first week. She seemed satisfied with my similarly cheerful and terse, “It’s going great!” She did not know that all I’d succeeded in doing was installing the latest test build, creating a few dummy tables, and an equal amount of dummy queries. I did nothing to test the product because I didn’t know what to do.

“You know, code is just a flowchart,” said Chuck.

Chuck sat in the cube across from me at Symantec.

Chuck was helpful. Whenever I spun around and asked a question, Chuck would stop whatever he was doing to help. Complete, fully attentive help. Answer-the-question completely help. He was intensely curious, kind, and full of enthusiasm.

Chuck wanted to help.

Fully Attentive Help

Middle of the week, I was staring at the LISP code and letting my mind wander, I spun around in my chair, “Ya’know. I kind’a want to go to Cambridge. I read they’ve got a new computer science program that is pretty good.”

Chuck spun around immediately and responded, “Let’s make that happen.”

What? “I was just thinking out loud.”

Chuck, “I know, but c’mon, let’s get you to Cambridge.”

“My grades are not great.”

“Ha. Grades. Don’t matter much. Don’t tell anyone. It’s the drive that matters.”

“I, uh, I don’t have the money to…”

Chuck, “Scholarships. Also, you’ll get a job. Let’s get you to Cambridge!”

“I don’t even know how to start, I…”

“I know how to start,” Chuck spun around in his chair, pulled out a black notebook, and started making phone calls. An hour later, he spun around with a piece of paper in his hand. “This is Sarah, she runs admissions at Cambridge. She’s expecting your call.”

“I…”

“Just call her. What do you have to lose? It’s a phone call.”

It took three days of badgering, but I called Sarah at Cambridge sheepishly. She gave me a full hour of her time where we talked about realistic approaches to get this twenty-something lanky California wanna-be computer scientist to England. When we were finishing, I asked, “How do you know Chuck?”

“I don’t know him. He called the admissions office and asked for the Head of Admissions, and that’s me.”

No, I Didn’t Go to Cambridge

I finished my internship, returned to UCSC, and became a Borland software engineer. After leaving Symantec, I continued learning interesting bits of Chuck’s past. He’d gone to Stanford. He rowed crew. Actually, he’d rowed crew for the Olympics. And he’d spent much of his summer internship investing in me for — to this day — reasons I do not understand.

What I do understand is many decades later, here at the beginning of 2024, I am writing about Chuck. After the internship, we chatted infrequently over early versions of email. He was intensely curious about my time at Netscape — I sent him a Mozilla t-shirt — but we lost touch over the years. I think he ended up moving to Montana to live on a ranch.

What I clearly remember is a human giving of themself to help.

In this New Year, I am asking you to find one human; it’s a non-obvious human. It’s not a direct report or a human where you are paid to invest. Find this non-obvious human and invest in them. Unreasonably, consistently, without expectations. While achieving their dream is a goal, your goal is to help without hesitation.

You want some free leadership advice? You build yourself by building… by helping others. The selfless act of helping humans will teach you more about being a credible leader than any book.

Your career is not your job. It’s the humans you help along the way.

Happy New Year.

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10 Responses

  1. Loved the point: help others selflessly. Sounds great! Thought the essay was quite well-written. Lamented the fact that I hadn’t gotten to meet Chuck. Sounds like a great guy and felt inspired to be more like him.

    Then, not being a regular reader, wandered over to the About page and read:

    “In many of my articles, I often refer to specific people as a means of telling the story… making a point. These people do not exist – I am not writing about you – they are fabrications that are specifically constructed to make a point.”

    Oh. Characters in the story may or may not have worked on software at Symantec. Chuck may not have existed at all. It may all have been a fabrication. There may have been no real motivational example event of human-helping-other-human.

    The writer simply wanted to sell the idea of Being Nice and constructed a fable to sell it. OK. The idea is still good, but the fabrication leaves the reader feeling more manipulated/betrayed than inspired. May have been better to abbreviate the essay to “New Year’s Resolution: Be nice. The End.”

  2. Chuck 5 months ago

    TY for this validation! Take care and keep it real!!!
    Chuck Ausherman

  3. Justin 5 months ago

    When I was early in my career, I was lucky enough to be mentored by not only great software engineers, but also great mentors.

    Thanks for this reminder to not only pay it forward but to also be sure to thank them for their wonderful help and advice.

  4. An Unreasonable Investment linked to this.
  5. Tim Gettig 5 months ago

    Great insight learned from your many years of experience and patience. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This is beautiful and it made me tear up. It succinctly and elegantly expresses how I feel and believe and have been helped and currently help others.

    There are many and yet few Chucks in the world – may we all be so lucky as to encounter Chuck in our careers and walks in life, and for us to all be champions for each other, one person at a time.

  7. Reading this improved my day (which has been tough, and in need of improving). Thank you.

  8. An Unreasonable Investment linked to this.