Asteroids and Dinosaurs

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Many years ago, I was working for one of the largest tech companies in the world (at that time, anyway). One Monday morning our team was called together and told that our project was being shut down. It came as a shock: we’d been making steady progress and were close to releasing something that other divisions in the company said they needed.

My boss had been with the company his entire career; he knew people who knew people. After a bit of digging he found out that a couple of vice presidents three levels up from us and three timezones away had been arm-wrestling for a year. The one we indirectly reported to had lost, and the one who had won was consolidating his position by shutting down everything his adversary had started.

I was outraged, but my boss just shrugged. “Asteroids happen,” he said. There you are, happily grazing on palm fronds and thinking about making little dinosaurs when wham! a cubic kilometer of rock hits the planet and that’s all she wrote.

In a small company you can usually tell when something’s coming: you may not know why the senior management team is spending all their time in the board room with the curtains down so that no one else can see what’s on the whiteboard, but you know it’s happening. In a large company, though, or a distributed one, too much is going on and too much is out of your peripheral vision. And if you’re on the other side of the planet from the point of impact, you might not even realize what’s happened. All you know is that the sky has gone dark and summer is long overdue.

I’m less outraged now than I was then. I grew up thinking that the dinosaurs had been failures because they went extinct, but they lasted about 165 million years and their descendents are still flying around all over the world. That long-ago project didn’t ship, but bits and pieces of what we built cropped up later in other things that members of our team were reassigned to.

And without that great big wham! 65 million years ago, my distant ancestors wouldn’t have had a bunch of empty ecological niches to expand into. Having a cubic kilometer of rock make a crater in your world is always going to be a bit of a shock, but after the dust settles, it’s better to think about how much there was and what came after than about how unexpectedly it all ended.

Jan 2023:

I wrote this shortly after being canned by RStudio for reasons that were never clear (at least not to me). I said I was less outraged than I had been the first time an asteroid hit me, but in retrospect it hurt more than I let myself realize—particularly as I watched the company ditch the instructor training program I’d built without telling people who’d paid and worked hard to get certified that they were doing so. Today, as big tech companies lay off thousands of people despite multi-billion dollar profits, I find it harder to shrug my shoulders and move on. An asteroid is a random cosmic event; a layoff is a decision made by people that hurts other people. Pretending that the latter is like the former is just a way to exonerate the powerful, and I think we do that too easily and too often.

“There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.” – Terry Pratchett