Robert Scoble takes Mark Lucovsky to task over seeing passion in Google workers sticking around until all hours of the night.

This is a hard thing to explain if you haven’t been there. I’ve been there twice, once with McAfee Associates, in full-bore, turbo-charged engineer mode, fighting against the world-wide virus writing epidemic in the very early days of McAfee Associates (from 7 people to more than 120 people). Fewer people would recognize that world as would recognize the world of a modern web site developer, so I’ll focus on the second, PayPal.

I remember working at PayPal during their heyday just before and just after going public, when we were fighting the ‘good fight’ against eBay, and I’d work all hours of the day and night not because I had to, but because it was deeply, personally important to me that we win, and because the work was so deeply enthralling that I lost track of time entirely. That everything be right, and that we be first to market with features, that our code be spectacular, that we be innovative and brilliant and FAST was our world. And until we were bought by eBay finally (demonstrating, imo, that we had the better service), no matter the hour, I never was alone at the office.

When you’re part of a brilliant team, trying to honest to god change the world, it’s not about deadlines. It’s about a form of love. It can be thoroughly, caustically destructive to everything else in your life, but it’s an experience I would be a lesser person if I had missed.

If you’re clocking hours at work, and the passion of what you’re doing isn’t keeping you rooted to your chair at all hours, loving the pure joy of creating, fighting the good fight, and trying to change the world, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good job. It’s just not THAT experience.

I promise, there’s far more call for people who work regular hours, meeting normal deadlines, doing solid, good work, than for those of us who burn so very, very brightly, but for so short a time.

If you’re really in passionate love with the work you’re doing, it’s not about working to 3am to meet a deadline. It’s about finally reaching a temporary point of closure for the days work, and raising up your head to suddenly discover it’s 3am.

And if you really, truly believe in your company, and you believe in your project, and have a fire to ‘win’ in some way (usually against a more powerful competitor) it’s not about accepting an imposed deadline that makes you work hard. It’s about DEMANDING a deadline that makes you work hard, but that you know you can meet. Because you know it’s important, and that every second counts, and you CARE about the company being not just first, but first with a brilliant, innovative, wonderful experience.

After it’s all over, it’s draining. It’s exhausting. It’s mind-numbing. You feel…dead, somehow, once the work is over, and you’ve been brilliant for so long, that you feel like your brain cells have used up all their energy. You go home, don’t show up to work for a week, recharge, find out if you still have any RL friends, do something physical (skydiving, rock climbing, hiking, etc.) to get in touch with your body again. You come back to work eventually, and you work with others to clean up any loose ends, and slowly you get back the energy from your co-workers, and the ambience in the office, and eventually you’re back on track to start another feature that’ll knock the socks off your competitors.

If you’re in a company where you are the dominant force, you don’t work like that. You don’t need to, the hunger isn’t there.

PayPal lost that hunger when eBay bought us. There wasn’t anything to fight for, anymore. We’d won, in a way, and lost in a way. I even asked it, when eBay management had a big meeting with everybody to tell us about their vision for us. I don’t remember if it was the meeting Meg Whitman was at, or not, but I asked something like, “We’ve been fighting eBay for all this time, and now we don’t have to. What will replace that, to keep the drive going?” The answer was a mealy-mouthed mess of future strategy and becoming the dominant payment platform. It wasn’t a battle anymore, we’d become the big company.

I left not terribly long after that, for health reasons. (Remember what I said about caustically destructive? πŸ˜‰ ) But also because I didn’t feel the passion in the hallways anymore.

The woman who I will marry in 36 days stood by me through it despite almost never seeing me, my friends teased that they’d forgotten my name, I ended up needing major surgery for a condition I let go too long… But I was part of one of those winning teams, fighting against terrible odds, doing brilliant work, burning so very, very brightly, and changing the world one line of code at a time.

I think Mark understands that, as Google has Microsoft with an unlimited war-chest bearing down on them. From what I’ve read, I don’t think Scoble completely does get it. He gets that passion is important (Channel 9 certainly shows that), but the fight against overwhelming odds that drives it to fevered peaks, that brings it to a different level…that’s what’s missing.

But it’s okay. Even I’m working a day job these days. I still have the intense passion to program on my own projects, doing it until 4am regularly, but I’m in a larger cycle of recharge, get in touch with life, etc., before maybe doing it again if I find the right company. Or maybe not. I’ll be a married man shortly, settling down in theory. Maybe I can’t fight those fights anymore. Maybe I should work at Microsoft. πŸ˜‰ Just kidding…

— Morgan Schweers, CyberFOX!


  1. On Robert Scoble Says:

    Morgan: I totally grok that. I’ve worked my share of 80+ hour weeks too (I have been inside a few startups/small companies). Even here at Microsoft you’ll see various teams go through this “missionary” work life. The Sparkle team video, for instance, was filmed at 7 p.m. during an evening when the team was preparing for the PDC.

  2. On Cyberfox Says:

    “missionary” work life.
    I like that… I can picture telling folks, ‘Yeah, I’m working missionary style at the new job.’

    But it’s true, it becomes a holy war in your mind. It certainly did for me. It’s why I both laugh at and can yet somewhat understand Steve Ballmer’s purported antics. He’s still a True Believer, and to him it’s still a holy war.

    To me there’s a ‘perfect storm’ of factors, when work absorbs me and eats my life… When dedication to work becomes overwhelming, and the hours stretch without even thinking about it.

    1. The company is on the line, so you MUST succeed.
    2. The coworkers are brilliant, so you MUST keep up with them to succeed.
    3. The work is technically challenging, so you MUST engage your brain fully to keep up.
    4. A desperate need to win against a dominant player, so you MUST band together to do the work.
    5. The employees feel the company treats them well, because otherwise nobody cares about #1.

    Microsoft clearly has #2, #3 in most groups, and sometimes has #4 (MSN search vs. Google), probably #5 from what I’ve heard, but #1 is just not there anymore. I don’t think there’s any project in Microsoft where someone will say, ‘If we don’t get this right, and brilliant, and execute incredibly well, Microsoft is going to go out of business.’

    It’s another reason that I think that a split Microsoft would be an even more incredibly powerful force, as it would add back the ‘MUST succeed’ factor.

    That’s not to say that #2-#5 don’t create a powerful force themselves, but without the drive of ‘We must succeed or this wonderful environment goes away!’ it’s not the same.

    Replacing #1 with internal pressure is actually counter-productive here, i.e. swapping #1 with ‘Lose your job’ doesn’t work, because it creates artificial stress. You KNOW the work isn’t critical to the company, so why is it critical to your income? It replaces dedication to the cause with fear for your job, which is immeasurably less motivating, and runs counter to #5.

    What has Microsoft replaced the first factor with? Perhaps a desire to spread the word of how good Microsoft’s technologies are? The promise to be part of the company that brings computing to the world? Ignoring the relative truth of any of those guesses, none are AS effective as not wanting the company to go away, but they can still close the circle and motivate employees, and obviously something does.

    So what IS the basic thing that makes Microsoft employees care about succeeding for Microsoft?

    — Morgan Schweers, CyberFOX!

    p.s. Wow, my comment page looks like crud. I’ll fix that tonight.

  3. On RedMage Says:

    I’ve long since lost any illusion of “Fighting the good fight” or whatever, when it comes to corporate interests. At some point, after a few start-ups, it became obvious that money trumps all else in the corporate world, and that everything else, including morals, were secondary.
    Not completely living in that world, I’ve opted for lower stress situations. And while still involved with startup companies, tend to work with people I want to work with, and not let the other considerations drive everything.
    And of course there’s always been the outside worlds (see my web site), and other interests. Congrats on the upcoming wedding – never thought I’d see the day! She going to make you shave? πŸ™‚ I took the plunge Mmmumble years ago myself, but as my wife would agree, you can take the hacker out of the machine room, but you can’t stop him from coding.

    -Chris C
    Boston, MA

  4. On Cyberfox Says:

    Hey Chris… LTNS!

    Yeah, you can ‘fight the good fight’ in the early years of a company, but eventually it becomes a steamroller. I’ve never been good at judging when that transition happens, though. πŸ˜‰ Gets me in a bit of trouble every time…

    In re: the wedding, thanks very much! I sometimes didn’t really think I’d see the day, either, but it’s rapidly approaching…and I can’t wait.

    And yep, she’s definitely going to make me shave. πŸ™‚ She’s also resigned to the fact that my ‘puters are a huge part of my life (that I was programming before she was born reinforces that a little), but I’d give it all up to spend the rest of my life with her. Happily I don’t have to.

    Nice photos, btw! Doesn’t the EOS10D rock? I’m still amazed, it’s a far better camera than I am photographer. My shots definitely aren’t as nice as the galleries you’ve got up, but I suppose I should start Flickring them…

    For a piece of silliness, by the way, as I noticed that your Beagle is named Babbage…my cat is named Shannon, after…Claude, of course. πŸ˜‰

    — Morgan Schweers, CyberFOX!

  5. On RedMage Says:

    Morgan –
    Re: wedding: I’m truly glad you’re happy! I’m sure married life will agree with you! Send me some pix of the newly minted wife, or some honeymoon or whatever. Especially AFTER the shave! I haven’t lost my beard in so many years I think it’s permanent now. It does go from neat-and-clean to are-you-jewish at least twice a year tho.

    re: EOS 10D, yup, love it! Opens up a whole ‘nuther concept being able to preview things instantly and not really worry too much about wasting money on shots. I only print things I want to these days, and I’ve even started selling some prints. Harvard U bought a BIG print a few months ago. Fun! I’ve been thinking about lighting, but then I’d have to move into portraits and that’s a whole different game. But I’m still thinking.

    I’m sure Babbage and Shannon would have a right ole scuffle. Babbage doesn’t hate cats, but he’s way too enthusiastic about playing with people or animals. He wants to be everyone’s friend and really doesn’t understand that not everyone feels that way.

    We should do a get-together sometime — Yeah, it’s hard to schedule the bi-coastal thing, but it could be done. We’d have to promise the SO’s that it wouldn’t turn into a geek-fest however.