I had the privilege of working with John Carmack as a technology evangelist at Apple when he ported Quake III Arena to Rhapsody, Apple’s internal name for the OpenStep/Mach kernel based MacOS X. I enjoyed John's reminiscence about working with Steve and Apple and thought I would share a few of my own memories from that time which provided me with some of the most satisfying moments and lessons of my career.
John was the first game developer I ever worked with. Three weeks after I sent him development hardware (an iMac) he informed me that the PC and Mac versions of Quake III Arena were in “feature parity.” I still recall my shock upon reading that email from him.
John agreed to come to Cupertino and meet with several teams to share his development experiences with them. I picked him up in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose. He stood unassumingly in the lobby, framed in the background by a Christmas Tree.
On day one, we met with several internal teams at Apple. I was accustomed to see 3rd party developers emerge somewhat awed by their meetings with Apple engineers. In John’s case the reaction was reversed. I’ve never seen anyone grok complex systems and architectures so quickly and thoroughly as John. Amusingly, he walked around the Apple campus unrecognized by all but for the occasional, former NeXT employee.
On Day 2, John was to meet with Steve. I never knew whether it was by design or not, but on that day John wore a T-shirt that featured a smiley face with a bullet hole in the forehead from which trickled a few drops of blood. After an hour of waiting for Steve in IL1, he marched into the room, and immediately mistook me for John Carmack, extending his hand to shake mine (we had never met). I locked eyes with Steve Jobs and looked down significantly at the Apple badge on my belt. Without missing a beat, Steve shifted his extended hand to John's.
That’s when Steve noticed the T-shirt and the meeting, as soon as it had begun, took a turn for the worse.
Steve’s jaw muscles visibly tensed and he became stone-faced. Clearly deeply offended by John’s T-shirt, he sat down at the conference table and looked straight ahead, silent.
John kicked off the meeting by saying, “So I’ve been working with MacOS for the past month and here’s what I learned.” His #1 concern (at an extremely high level) concerned OpenGL permissions and security for which he felt Apple needed a better solution than what he’d learned about the day before in meetings with the graphics team, even if it came at a slight cost in performance for 3D games. This was, suffice to say, typical of John in that he was approaching an issue from an objective engineering perspective and arguing for the most technically correct solution rather than pushing for something that might be of benefit to his personal projects.
Steve listened and abruptly said, “That’s not what we’re doing!” Then he looked at the three Apple employees in the room and asked, “Is it?” I confirmed that what John was raising as a concern came from a meeting with the graphics architecture team the day before. Without batting an eye, Steve stood up, tramped over to a Polycom phone and dialed from apparent memory the phone number of the engineering director whose admin informed Steve that he was at an offsite in Palo Alto. Steve hung up, sat down, and about 30 seconds later the phone rang with the engineering director on the line.
Steve said, “I’m here with a graphics developer. I want you to tell him everything we’re doing in MacOS X from a graphics architecture perspective.” Then he put his elbows on the table and adopted a prayer-like hand pose, listening to and weighing the arguments from his trusted director of engineering and from the game guy with the bloody smiley-face T-shirt.
And what happened next was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed about Steve or any Silicon Valley exec. Early on in the discussion, the Apple engineer realized that “graphics engineer” in the room was John Carmack. And he realized that he was going to need to defend his technical decision, on the merits, in front of Steve. After extended back and forth, the Apple engineer said, “John, what you’re arguing for is the ideal …”
He never made it to the next word because Steve suddenly stood bolt upright, slamming both palms onto the desk and shouting, “NO!!!!”
“NO!!! What John is saying is NOT the ideal. What John is saying is what we have to do!!! Why are we doing this? Why are we going to all this trouble to build this ship when you’re putting a TORPEDO IN ITS HULL?!!!!”
All of this was said with the utmost conviction and at extremely high volume. To his credit, John, seated directly next to a yelling Steve Jobs, didn’t even flinch.
What was so impressive to me in that meeting was not the drama so much as it was that Steve Jobs made a decision on the merits to side with John on a technical issue rather than his longstanding and trusted graphics engineer. He overcame his original distaste for the T-shirt and made the right call. Most CEOs would have dismissed John’s comments or paid them lip service. Steve listened to both sides and made a call that would have long lasting implications for MacOS.
As a comical aftermath to the story, John next told Steve point blank that the iMac mouse “sucked.” Steve sighed and explained that “iMac was for first-time computer buyers and every study showed that if you put more than one button on the mouse, the users ended up staring at the mouse.” John sat expressionless for 2 seconds, then moved on to another topic without comment.
After the meeting ended, I walked John to the Apple store on campus (this was before there were actual Apple stores) and asked him on the way what he thought of Steve’s response to the mouse comment. John replied, “I wanted to ask him what would happen if you put more than one key on a keyboard. But I didn’t.”
Good call, John