The Original Macintosh:    4 of 41 
Black Wednesday
Author: Andy Hertzfeld
Date: February 1981
Characters: Andy Hertzfeld, Mike Scott, Steve Jobs, Dick Huston, Donn Denman, Rick Aurrichio, Jef Raskin, Burrell Smith, Brian Howard, Mike Markkula
Topics: Origins, Apple II, Management, Recruiting
Summary: A shakeup in Apple II engineering frees me up to work on the Macintosh

I could tell there was something wrong from the moment I stepped into the building, on the morning of Wednesday, February 25th, 1981. Instead of the normal office buzz, there was a muted sadness hanging in the air. People were standing around, huddled in small groups. I ran into Donn Denman, who had a cubicle near mine, and asked him what was going on.

"Didn't you hear? Scotty fired almost half of the Apple II engineering team this morning. He started calling people into his office since around 9am, one at a time, and telling them that they were being fired. I think over thirty people have been fired so far. No one knows why, or who's going to be next. There's going to be a meeting out back around noon when he's supposed to tell us what's going on."

Apple had just gone public a couple of months ago, and it was still growing at a frenzied pace. Sales were booming and there was no financial reason to pare back. I wondered what was going on.

"Do you know who they fired?", I asked Donn.

"Yeah, it's amazing. Scotty fired three out of the four managers, so almost everyone's boss is gone. And believe it or not, they fired Rick Aurrichio."

I thought that the managers were more or less incompetent, so that didn't bother me, but the Rick Aurrichio part was shocking, since Rick was clearly one of the most talented programmers in the Apple II division. He would usually do a week's worth of work in a day or two, and then spend the rest of the week messing around with whatever caught his fancy, usually one of the latest games. I understood how he could be a management challenge, but it made no sense to fire him. He was my partner on the new DOS 4.0 project, which was just getting underway, and the only other programmer besides me that was working on it, so it was especially distressing that they would fire him so abruptly.

So I joined the ranks of the shell-shocked, and listened numbly to the basement meeting where Scotty explained his rationale. He said that the company had grown much too fast over the last year or so, and had made a few key bad hires, who themselves had hired even worse people. He thought the Apple II division had become too complacent, and that we had lost the start-up hustle that was the basis of our success. He wanted to shake us out of our complacency and prune out the bad hires, so we could start growing again in the right direction.

Scotty himself seemed a little shaken and unsure. Some of the other senior executives were standing off to the side, but they didn't participate in the meeting. There was a Q&A session at the end of the meeting where a couple employees told Scotty how horribly he handled the situation, but in general everyone seemed listless, as if we didn't know how we should react. Within a few days, everyone was referring to the incident as "Black Wednesday".

Later in the day, I talked to Dick Huston about what had happened. Dick was an early Apple programmer who had written the boot ROM for the disk controller card, who was an astute observer of Apple politics and was friendly with Scotty. He told me that he knew that the purge was going to happen and had even met with Scotty a couple of times in the last week to help him draw up the list of dead weight. He also told me that Scotty had asked for the approval of Mike Markkula and the board of directors, and hadn't received it yet, but decided to go and do it anyway.

I told Dick that I agreed that Apple had made some poor hires over the last year, especially some of the managers, but a Stalin-like purge was not a valid way to run a company. I complained about Rick's firing and told him that the situation made me feel alienated from the company. I was the type of programmer who had to believe in what I was doing, and I wasn't so sure about Apple's values anymore.

When I came in to work the next morning, there was a message on my desk from Mike Scott's secretary, saying that he wanted to talk to me; obviously Dick must have talked to him. I called her back and arranged to show up at his office in an hour. Scotty looked harried, and our conversation was interrupted a few times by various phone calls. Scotty told me that he had heard that I was upset, and thinking about leaving, and wanted me to know that he wanted me to stay. He asked me what he could do to get me excited about Apple again. I told him that I might like to work on the Macintosh, with Burrell and Bud.

Later that afternoon, Scotty's secretary called to tell me that she arranged for me to talk with Steve Jobs. Steve had been involved with the Mac project for more than a month now, and, although I didn't know it at the time, had dismissed the founder of the project, Jef Raskin, the day before, making him take a mandatory leave of absence after Jef had complained about Steve's leadership.

Lots of people at Apple were afraid of Steve Jobs, because of his spontaneous temper tantrums and his proclivity to tell everyone exactly what he thought, which often wasn't very favorable. But he was always nice to me, although sometimes a bit dismissive, in the few interactions that I had with him. I was excited to be talking with him about working on the Mac.

The first thing he said to me when I walked into his office was "Are you any good? We only want really good people working on the Mac, and I'm not sure you're good enough." I told him that yes, I thought that I was pretty good. I was friends with Burrell, and had already helped him out with software a few times.

"I hear that you're creative", Steve continued. "Are you really creative?"

I told him that I wasn't the best judge of that, but that I'd love to work on the Mac, and thought that I'd do a great job. He said he'd get back to me soon about it.

A couple of hours later, around 4:30pm, I was back to work on DOS 4.0 for the Apple II. I was working on low-level code for the system, interrupt handlers and dispatchers, when all of a sudden I notice Steve Jobs peering over the wall of my cubicle.

"I've got good news for you", he told me. "You're working on the Mac team now. Come with me and I'll take you over to your new desk."

"Hey, that's great", I responded. "I just need a day or two to finish up what I'm doing here, and I can start on the Mac on Monday."

"What are you working on? What's more important than working on the Macintosh?"

"Well, I've just started a new OS for the Apple II, DOS 4.0, and I want to get things in good enough shape so someone else could take it over."

"No, you're just wasting your time with that! Who cares about the Apple II? The Apple II will be dead in a few years. Your OS will be obsolete before it's finished. The Macintosh is the future of Apple, and you're going to start on it now!".

With that, he walked over to my desk, found the power cord to my Apple II, and gave it a sharp tug, pulling it out of the socket, causing my machine to lose power and the code I was working on to vanish. He unplugged my monitor and put it on top of the computer, and then picked both of them up and started walking away. "Come with me. I'm going to take you to your new desk."

We walked outside to Steve's silver Mercedes and he dropped my computer into the trunk. We drove a few blocks to the corner of Stevens Creek and Saratoga-Sunnyvale, to a non-descript, brown-shingled, two story office building next to a Texaco station, while Steve waxed eloquent about how great the Macintosh was going to be. We walked up to the second floor, and into an unlocked door. Steve plopped my system down on a desk in an office near the back of the building and said, "Here's your new desk. Welcome to the Mac team!", before darting off.

I started looking around the office, and saw Burrell Smith and Brian Howard in the next room, huddled over a logic analyzer connected to a prototype board. I told them what happened and they said Steve had been over earlier, asking them if they thought I was any good. They were happy that I joined the team.

After helping them a bit with the disk diagnostic routines they were trying to debug, I returned to my new desk and looked inside the drawers. I was surprised to see that it was still full of someone else's stuff. In fact, the bottom drawer had all kinds of unusual stuff, including various kinds of model airplanes, and some photography equipment. I later found out that Steve had assigned me to Jef Raskin's old desk, which he hadn't had time to move out of yet.

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Andy, thank you for the kind words and your confidence in me back in those wild days. I actually recall you standing up in a large group and challenging my firing---we were all in the basement garage of the "Taco Towers" building on De Anza. As an engineer who always respected---and often stood in awe---of your talents, that moment was, for me, an important message that I knew what I was doing. The fact that you recall the event reinforces that feeling for me. As you recall, I was back on the job the next day. Part of the cause was due to my being "on loan" to Ken Victor's Apple /// group. Ken and I didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues; the firing helped me understand more about working with managers. (I'll never know for sure whether your expressed concerns helped my situation, but I'm sure they did.) With the Apple II group gone (manager Dave? Zimmerman, Bob Bishop, Woz in college, and now myself), there was no place for me when Ken declined to pick me up in the reorganization. A long talk with Ken helped bring me back into the fold, with a new attitude.
I also recall the meeting in the Taco Towers basement. We'd heard about the firings, and then we were told to meet in the basement. We all filed in, and there was Scotty standing next to a keg of beer. We got beers and sat down and Scotty began to talk. What stuck with me was his opening line: "I used to say that when being CEO at Apple wasn't fun any more, I'd quit. But now I've changed my mind -- when it isn't fun any more, I'll fire people until it's fun again." Standing there with a beer in his hand. Wow, I thought. In later years I witnessed many Apple layoffs -- and now Scotty's way of talking to us seems like a class act, compared to all the mealy-mouthed HR-driven rhetoric that replaced it.
Wow, is right. I have actually been through firings like this, where you get called into an office one by one to get fired and then there is a group meeting with the "survivors". At least they didn't hire consultants to do the firing ala Office Space. It really took balls though for people like Andy to stand up and protest the firings. Were they not concerned they could lose their own jobs? Apparently not. Of course, they were working directly for Steve Jobs at that point, so perhaps for those people it was not an issue.
I remember Black Wednesday very well. We were all huddled in the hallway asking what was going on. In walks a guy (I've forgotten his name) who asked what was happening, and we said "Rick Auricchio was fired!". This guy said "Wow, if they fired anybody, it should have been me." As soon as the words left his lips, his manager came up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder, and off they went to chat. 5 minutes later he can back and said "That was close. For a minute there, I thought they were going to keep me." He'd been axed right there, just like that.
This was interesting it helped me learn about Steve Jobs life and it helped me understand more about computers.
Today is the anniversary of that sad day.
The part about Steve just yanking the plug on your Apple II was painful...
An MP3 version of this story with audio clips from Andy and Jef Raskin is available at: