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Would YOU Work for Free?

September 19, 2014

 

Imagine a job where you have total freedom in how you spend your time—no meetings, no supervisors giving you pointless busywork, and no managers breathing down your neck. Imagine being totally free from company politics but having the ready respect and support of all your co-workers, and spending each and every work day devoting all your energy to a project you believe in so much, you're willing and able to get every detail perfect.

 

In 1993, 27-year-old engineer Ron Avitzur found himself in just such a position. He was happily putting in long hours on developing a cutting-edge graphing software for Apple: a program that created beautiful 3D renderings of math equations. It was his dream project.

 

There was just one small problem: Avitzur wasn't technically allowed in the building. The project had been canceled in August, and Avitzur had been let go.

 

But he wasn't going to let such minor details as no longer being employed by Apple stop him. "I was frustrated by the wasted effort," he writes on his website, "and so I decided to uncancel my part of the project."

 

Avitzur enlisted the help of a friend and former co-worker, Greg Robbins, whose contract had also just ended. On one hand, they were both risking getting in a lot of trouble in order to work for free for a huge corporation. On the other hand, it really was a lovely piece of software.

 

Robbins told his manager that he would now be reporting to Avitzur. The manager bought it and he kept his security badge. Meanwhile, Avitzur told anyone who asked that he reported to Robbins. This was enough to let them generally go unquestioned: "I relied on the power of corporate apathy," Avitzur writes.

 

"Since that left no managers in the loop, we had no meetings and could be extremely productive. We worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week. "

 

One day, a confused facilities manager asked why Avitzur's office wasn't on her floor plan. Avitzur cheerfully explained his project had been canceled and he was no longer an employee. Furious, she canceled his badge, and banned him from the premises. From then on, every morning, Avitzur and Robbins would sneak into work behind other employees, and hide in abandoned offices.

 

To a building full of stressed out, bored engineers, frustrated by the endless red tape and canceled projects, Avitzur and Robbins became office folk heroes of a sort, and many people were willing to help them—off the record, of course.

 

One night, a stranger slipped into Avitzur's "office" at 2 a.m. He was the man who made the master copy of the newest Apple computer prototype, and he was offering to add their program to the master copy—meaning they could sneak this secret program into widespread public circulation.

 

"Once we had a plausible way to ship, Apple became the ideal work environment. Every engineer we knew was willing to help us. We got resources that would never have been available to us had we been on the payroll...Engineers would come to our offices at midnight and practically slip machines under the door. One said, "Officially, this machine doesn't exist, you didn't get it from me, and I don't know you. Make sure it doesn't leave the building.""

 

In October, the software was nearly ready. Avitzur's friends who were legitimately still working for Apple called in their managers for a mystery presentation. Avitzur gave the program a whirl.

 

The managers were thrilled. It was exactly the flashy new program Apple needed to show off what the new computer could do—they'd thrown all their resources into building a faster, more powerful machine, without providing any way to prove it.

 

Why, they asked, had nobody been informed about this incredible piece of software? "I explained that I had been sneaking into the building and that the project didn't exist. They laughed, until they realized I was serious. Then they told me, "Don't repeat this story."

 

Luckily, the higher-ups in this project included the son of a math teacher who saw the educational value of the product, and Avitzur and Robbins were "adopted". They still had to sneak into the building every morning—getting badges would've involved going through Legal, which didn't seem promising—but everyone on the ground level pitched in to make the project a success. After months of hard work, long hours, and help from a huge number of people, Avitzur and Robbins had built a gorgeous, crash-proof piece of software for Apple—despite Apple.

 

"We wanted to release a Windows version as part of Windows 98," writes Avitzur, "but sadly, Microsoft has effective building security."

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