The Perfect Crime: Apple's Inside Job

When an Apple programmer’s project got canceled, he didn’t despair. He just kept sneaking into the office until the program was finished.

(Image credit: Joe Ravi)

Ron Avitzur knew his project was doomed. By the time his bosses cut the cord in August 1993, his team was actually relieved. The graphing calculator program they’d been working on for new mobile devices had finally been shelved, and they could all move on.

Most of his fellow programmers were reassigned to other projects within Apple. The company offered Avitzur a job, too, but it didn’t interest him. Avitzur, then 27, had been freelancing at tech companies since he was a student at Stanford—to him, the work wasn’t worth it if it wasn’t interesting. And what interested him was finishing the graphing calculator program that had just been canceled. But his ambitions were greater than that—Avitzur wanted to make the graphing calculator work on the new PowerPC computer that Apple planned to ship in early 1994.

The young programmer knew the project had merit. Everyone he mentioned it to exclaimed, “I wish I’d had that in school!” If he could just get the program preinstalled on the new computer, teachers across the country could use the tool as an animated blackboard, providing visuals for abstract concepts. The program could simultaneously showcase the speed of the new machine and revolutionize math class. All he needed was access to Apple’s machines and some time.

Apple Power PC G4. (Image credit: Clemens PFEIFFER)

In 1993, Avitzur had nothing but time. His girlfriend lived in another city, and he’d already spent the previous 18 months working late five or six days a week, sometimes until after midnight. His Apple gig had paid well, and Avitzur lived simply. He could work for almost a year without a paycheck. Plus, Apple had lots of extra offices and computers— who would it hurt if he just kept coming in? It would be the perfect crime.

On the last day of the canceled project, Avitzur’s manager called him into her office to say goodbye. He hadn’t completed the length of his contract, but the company would pay it in full anyway.

“Just submit your final invoice for what’s left,” she told him. That’s when it clicked: If Avitzur didn’t submit the invoice, his contract stayed in the system. And if his contract stayed in the system, his ID badge would keep getting him in the front door.

So Avitzur told his boss that he’d find someone to supervise him while he completed the program. Great, his manager said. Good luck. On the first day Avitzur came to work without a job, everything was pretty much the same. He drove his 1987 Toyota Corolla from the room he rented on the edge of a nature reserve in Palo Alto and parked in the lot outside Infinite Loop, Apple’s fancy new headquarters. He swiped in, went to his old office, and resumed working on the calculator.

Right away, Avitzur found help. His friend Greg Robbins also had an Apple contract that was almost up, so Robbins told his boss he’d start reporting to Avitzur. Robbins wasn’t getting paid either, but it didn’t matter. For the two buddies, it was about the work and the challenge. Plus, it was kind of a kick.

They worked in tandem for about a month. Robbins, the perfectionist, spent days tweaking the grayscale of a single pixel. Avitzur, the big picture guy, was more social. He chatted with fellow engineers, soliciting advice and mulling solutions. Avitzur’s and Robbins’s presence was an open secret; people admired their passion and believed in the project.

Then Avitzur got careless. He told the story to the wrong person—a manager who had come to tell him he needed to move offices.

“You’ll have to leave the building immediately,” said the woman. “I’ll have your badges canceled tomorrow.”

(Image credit: Andrew Hitchcock)

That’s when the real sneaking around began. For the next two months, Avitzur had to find new ways of getting into the building. He kept his canceled badge around his neck and timed his arrival for when he knew there’d be crowds coming through the front door.

“Morning!” he’d say to someone he knew, then he’d follow them past security. Avitzur was a familiar face and still wore his badge, so he looked legit. But he had to keep the badge away from sensors, which would sound alarms.

Avitzur also kept a list of phone numbers of friendly programmers in his pocket. If he couldn’t sneak in the front door, he’d call someone to let him in a side entrance. Inside, he and Robbins set up shop in a couple of empty offices. Though only a few dozen of the new computers were available for testing, friends ensured that Robbins and Avitzur had two of them. And people began pitching in—quality assurance specialists who’d gotten wind of the project would show up to test the software; a 3-D graphics expert devoted his free weekends to perfecting the program.

Still, the threat of being caught was real. Avitzur became adept at slipping into bathrooms and turning quickly down halls when he saw people from the facilities department or the woman who’d canceled his badge walking his way. Yet somehow the work got done.

Figure made with the Graphing Calculator. (Image credit: David R. Ingham)

By November, Avitzur and Robbins were ready to demonstrate the calculator. Engineers who had assisted the pair spread word of the project to their managers, who called Avitzur and Robbins in for a demo. Avitzur was prepared for the worst—ready to be dismissed as a loose cannon who had spent the last three months trespassing—but the demo went perfectly. When the computer came out the next year, Avitzur and Robbins’s graphing calculator program was on it. It has been loaded on more than 20 million machines in the decades since.

“It’s amazing we got away with it,” says Avitzur, who is still designing software, still living in the Bay Area, and still driving his 1987 Corolla. “Even more amazing that we ended up producing something of value.”

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coverThe above article by Erik Sass is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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