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? ) 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. Just kidding…
– Morgan Schweers, CyberFOX!