I’ve never known anyone named Roy Wildstein.
Otherwise, everything in this story happened.
In 1985 I was running a struggling tech startup in Mountain View, CA. I was the founder and CEO. Working two jobs. During the day I ran the company, and at night, along with my brother, I ran development. I had a group of people working for me on one project, and Peter had another group working on another set of projects.
I hired this guy Roy Wildstein to work on an idea I wanted to explore, doing a set of experiments with user experience. I hoped to iterate with him. He would work on a new approach during the day, and that evening I’d review the progress, and plan out the next day’s work. I had had success with this approach before, on both sides — as the programmer implementing someone else’s vision, and with a person implementing my ideas, rapidly, so we could design in a fluid way.
Roy couldn’t do it. I’d come back a day later, and he’d have nothing. The day after that, nothing. “I’m thinking about it,” he’d say. Or he’d do a drawing and show it to me a day later asking if that’s what I meant.
So I gave up on that idea, and gave him something else to work on. A much simpler project. Let’s get him some success I thought, let him see how much fun it is to get some interaction going. This time we were working on a new pointing device one of the computer manufacturers was coming out with. Again, no result from Roy. Lots of talk about how he needs to think a lot before he writes code. I wouldn’t understand his process, he said to me (he was about 20 years older). After a few weeks with no output, I was ready to give him something smaller.
I kept giving him smaller and smaller jobs. There were never any results. Lots of frustrated emails about how he didn’t enjoy working with me, and I wasn’t helping him do his job as other “managers” had done for him in the past. I didn’t see myself as a manager, more a collaborator, fellow worker, thinker — I wanted his work to fit in with what the other people were doing, what the other developers were doing, and what we could sell to users and to the other people in our company. I felt this guy was lucky to be teamed up with the CEO, but he didn’t like it.
Okay, let’s try having him work with someone else. Again, same story. I keep wondering why doesn’t he quit.
Finally, I had enough. I fired him.
A few days later, I got a certified letter from an attorney. The charge, age discrimination. I had never seen anything like it. I showed it to my board and lawyer, of course, and here’s what I learned, something that Roy clearly understood before he started working at my company. I could choose to fight it, and I would lose. In doing so I’d incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills, would spend days in depositions and in court, and I’d still have to pay. I could fight, because he was ripping us off — or I could pay, and move on. Of course I chose to pay. No one in business, where you’re fighting fires all the time, wants to take on an optional fight that has negative upside. If I did that, I would have been pushed aside by the board, and they would have been right to do it. You run a company to do great things and make money. There’s really no other reason to do it, imho.
If this all had happened in 2014 instead of 1985, it would have been all over Twitter, and in addition to having to pay the humiliating settlement to make it go away, we would also be damaged in the eyes of the public, and wouldn’t be able to tell our side of it. We’d have trouble hiring good developers. It’s possible we would attract more Roy Wildsteins.
I don’t know if there’s any solution to this. I certainly don’t advocate not hiring people Roy’s age — I’m now older than he was then. But every time a company hires someone who is not a young male, they run the risk that the new hire isn’t there to work, rather is there to scam you.
I did run into Roy again, 10 or 15 years later. I was at Apple for a visit, walking through the cafeteria mid-afternoon. It was mostly empty. And off in a corner there was Roy, by himself, reading a book. I thought there must be a lot of people at a big company like Apple, ducking out of meetings, hiding from their co-workers, being a low-intensity problem for some “manager.” Roy somehow makes it easier for them not to fire him, just leave him to collect his salary and not do very much else.
PS: If you have something to say about this piece, take the time to write a blog post and do something good for the web.
PPS: I would never advocate, nor have I ever practiced hiring only young males. Anyone who says that is wrong. (This is a story about me hiring someone who is not a young male. And I am myself not a young male — fully disclosed in the very paragraph people are howling about.)