I officially started on the Mac project on a Thursday afternoon, and Bud Tribble, my new manager and the only other software person on the project, was out of town. Bud was on leave of absence from an M.D.-Ph.D. program and he had to occasionally return to Seattle to keep up his standing in the program.
Bud usually didn't come into work until after lunch, so I met with him for the first time the following Monday afternoon. We started talking about all the work that had to be done, which was pretty overwhelming. He showed me the official schedule for developing the software that had us shipping in about ten months, in early January 1982.
"Bud, that's crazy!", I told him. "We've hardly even started yet. There's no way we can get it done by then."
"I know," he responded, in a low voice, almost a whisper.
"You know? If you know the schedule is off-base, why don't you correct it?"
"Well, it's Steve. Steve insists that we're shipping in early 1982, and won't accept answers to the contrary. The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek. Steve has a reality distortion field."
"A reality distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he's not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules. And there's a couple of other things you should know about working with Steve."
"Well, just because he tells you that something is awful or great, it doesn't necessarily mean he'll feel that way tomorrow. You have to low-pass filter his input. And then, he's really funny about ideas. If you tell him a new idea, he'll usually tell you that he thinks it's stupid. But then, if he actually likes it, exactly one week later, he'll come back to you and propose your idea to you, as if he thought of it."
I thought Bud was surely exaggerating, until I observed Steve in action over the next few weeks. The reality distortion field was a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another. Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adopting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently.
Amazingly, the reality distortion field seemed to be effective even if you were acutely aware of it, although the effects would fade after Steve departed. We would often discuss potential techniques for grounding it (see Are You Gonna Do It?), but after a while most of us gave up, accepting it as a force of nature.