I’m not a movie buff, but I found myself wanting to watch a movie this past week. I was scrolling through the 99¢ section on iTunes to see if anything stood out. After some scrolling, I saw the thumbnail for General Magic: a documentary about the worst Silicon Valley start-up failure no one has ever heard of. I was intrigued but kept on scrolling since I wasn’t in the mood for a documentary.
Eventually, after not seeing anything else, I decided to give it a whirl.
And I’m so glad I did.
What is General Magic?
General Magic was a software company spun-off from Apple and trying to change the world. It was founded by some of the greats from Apple, like Bil Atkinson, Andy Herzfeld, and backed by John Scully.
The third co-founder, Marc Porat, was the visionary. He discusses in the film that he looked into the future and thought of the idea of a personal communications device that would fit inside your pocket. You would have access to information, be able to message friends, and even purchase tickets for shows or movies.
Yeah — it was the smartphone before the smartphone.
And they were doing it. The built predecessors to USB, some of the earliest usable touchscreen devices, and even had the idea of a private cloud network in their bag of tricks.
They had the BEST engineers. At one point in the documentary, they show where many of the team members went after General Magic. Founder of Nest; leader of Android; VP of software at Apple; CIO at LinkedIn; and on and on.
This is one of the things that struck me: some of our current innovations came from the same people who lead the way in the 80s and early 90s. This group of 50–60 or so engineers seem to have shaped everything in the past 30 years of computing. How crazy is that?
What Went Wrong?
I find this fascinating, and yet is a familiar story. Some of the brightest, hardest working, creative people to have ever been in Silicon Valley couldn’t deliver on their promises.
They had a charismatic leader who sold people on his vision of the future. They had investments to build whatever they wanted. They convinced Wall Street to let them have an IPO without ever making a dollar.
There are numerous errors if you follow the timeline. They didn’t do the market analysis they needed to. They neglected the internet in favor of their own private network. They worked on whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, without focusing on core problems needed to deliver a product.
There is a moment when Andy Hertzfeld is showing off this super-fun and creative application playing with virtual pets. It’s engaging and, in many ways, jaw-dropping.
And he is showing this off while the whole product is crumbling around him.
It was a stark reminder of just how easy it is to get distracted. That talent alone is usually not enough to build a successful product. And that the hardest workers without a direction are just going around in circles.
What Went Right!
As the movie points out, though, most “failures” don’t end just like that. Each failure is a chance to improve and learn. Whether business, personal or technical, they can all be used to learn and grow.
As mentioned earlier, most of the employees from General Magic went on to lead companies. They built and invented what they failed to create at General Magic. Many of those technologies and devices are the ones that have changed our whole way of communicating.
General Magic might have failed at building the smartphone itself, but it certainly didn’t fail at setting the course of the future. In one of the videos, Megan Smith — who has been Cheif Technology Officer to the president — is being asked about the screen size and how small they want to make their “pocket crystal.” Without hesitation, she says, “eventually small enough to wear on your wrist.”
Now I’m sure she wasn’t the only person to have thought or dreamed about such a device, but her confidence is insane. Its as if she was thinking, “I know it will happen because I will be part of making it so.”
That is the kind of conviction that you need actually to make grand visions like those from General Magic happen. And the visions of that team have nearly all come true.
What Does This Mean Now?
As I wrapped up the film, I started thinking about where technology is now and where it’s going. It was surreal in a way, wishing I had been there as it happened. But of course, there are the same types of teams building and creating and dreaming about the future today. And their visions (likely) won’t come to fruition until 15 years from now.
There are teams at Google, SpaceX, Tesla, and Facebook dreaming about crazy ideas. There are new start-ups that we will see rise, fall, and wonder what happened afterward. Some of them will succeed and shape our future yet again. And that is exciting.
On a personal level, it’s a bit of disappointment. I’m not in the Valley at a start-up. I’m not in any of the FANG companies either. I’m just working at a company that is (in my opinion) still doing cool things, but not revolutionary things.
However, I did see just how much energy it took these people. The stories from the movie include building bunk beds to the team could sleep at the office. Developers were skipping showers and not changing clothes for days. Andy would pull full weekend-long stints to code up an idea they had Friday afternoon. It was a grind. These great technologists made some pretty extraordinary sacrifices to be the dreamers.
The reason I think that is important is that software development has now become cool and sexy. A job in the valley is toted sometimes as being the greatest gig possible. You have all these benefits and all this glamour and all this prestige. Plus, great pay.
But if software development roles in the valley are anywhere near what is portrayed in this film, it isn’t all glory. It isn’t the unlimited PTO and drinking craft beer at 3:00 pm on a Friday.
There is still sweat. There are still sleepless nights coding staring at screens that hurt your eyes. There is still a trade-off you have to make to be a dreamer and to work towards it.
All that to say, the dream gig of having a work-life balance and changing the world is probably not possible. Even in software where it seems the most achievable.
I highly recommend every software engineer watch the film. Learn some history about how the world became the way it is. Be shocked at how silly some of the team members sound when they say “the internet isn’t a big deal” and learn that one of their interns became the founder of eBay. Cringe a little at seeing the ship sinking, and the team in intentional ignorance. Dream a little with the same dreams this team had: to change the world.