Why they call me “Gramps”
The first time I met Craig Federighi was the day he returned to Apple in 2009. He had left in ‘97 shortly after the acquisition. An event we at the home office in Cupertino always “hysterically” referred to as the time NeXT acquired Apple.
Craig is now in charge of all of Software Engineering, but back then Bertrand Serlet had just re-hired him to run OS X. Which is still a big job.
Anyway, Craig was back, hair and all. And Bertrand invited the department heads, which included me, to a large conference room to meet Craig and discuss the current state of the OS.
Almost as soon as I introduced myself, Craig said “I’m told they call you Gramps.” Which I’m guessing he heard from Bertrand. “Are you really okay with that?”
Pure Federighi earnestness and concern. Seriously.
So I explained that I was christened as such when I was only in my mid-thirties at Netscape, “Years ago when I got that name, I was actually young enough for it to be ironic. These days it’s a Human Resources policy violation.”
And Craig started laughing out loud. Drawing the attention of everyone else in the room. And, of course, a big smile on my face.
Thus began my friendship with Craig. And my quest to get him laughing in every meeting we attended from then on.
Eventually, Craig started using my nickname too. Hell, even Steve called me that once or twice. But for some reason, my boss, Scott Forstall, never used it. No idea why and I never thought to ask him.
So, how did I get that nickname at Netscape?
Back in ‘96 at the Land O’ Lizard, it was a tradition for teams to take new members to lunch on their first day of work. That’s the policy at every tech company, really. I started in April of that year (post-IPO so I’m not a Mozillionaire, unfortunately) as an engineer on the Mac Navigator team.
But the Mac geeks at Netscape were spread out across several groups. And almost all of them joined us for lunch. Which was good since the Mac Navigator team was so damn small. Even then that meant only about six or seven of us at the table.
One of the folks who joined the meal from another team was Tim Craycroft. I think he’s a VP at Amazon.com now, but I swear he must have been only 18 or 19 years old at the time.
Conversation was good and random, not just technical fluff. We were getting to know each other. I always like that.
Eventually, talk somehow drifted to politics. A topic, I’m told, that you should avoid at work. But none of us had good sense so we just went with it.
For some strange reason I made a joke about the Johnson administration. Yeah, I’m that hip. Now, I don’t recall the details but it really did get a few laughs. Really.
And then Tim asked, “Who?”
“You know, President Johnson,” I said.
“You know, the president between Kennedy and Nixon,” I said, hoping he was a least familiar with those names.
Tim stared blankly, waved his hand over his head in dismissal as if LBJ never existed, and said, “Whatever, grandpa!”
And the whole table burst out laughing. The little bastard.
Actually, he was smiling when he said it and I might have been the one laughing the loudest, so, fair is fair.
Anyway, I forgot all about it until the next day when another engineer who had been at that lunch, maybe Paul Chen, called me “Gramps.”
And then it just kept happening.
Eventually someone would say, “Hey, Gramps!” and I would respond.
Since I didn’t learn to program until I was 24 years old and didn’t start doing so professionally until after I was 30, I’ve always seemed to be older than my peers, at least most of them.
Maybe I should’ve been more sensitive to ageism. But, I don’t know, that seemed a little petty when I had all the privileges of being an English-speaking, reasonably straight, white male, too.
About a week into my tenure at Netscape, yet another lunchtime engineer approached me privately and asked, “Don, does it bother you being called Gramps?”
I tried my best to make my lip tremble and look like I was about to burst into tears. But I couldn’t pull it off and just started laughing instead.
“No, I don’t give a shit. It’s actually kind of cool since I’m technically the new guy.”
So I was stuck with it at Netscape. Everyone called me “Gramps.” Which was quite an honor considering my email address there was “email@example.com.”
You see, I was one of the few people in Software Engineering at Netscape who wasn’t referred to by their email user ID. Nobody called Michael Toy by his first name. He was “Mtoy.” Chris Houck was always “Chouck.” Jim Everingham? Just “Jevering.”
What can I say, it was a weird place. And not just for that reason.
And when I went to Apple in 2001, the user ID “don” had been long gone. Taken by some guy on the loading dock in Elk Grove, I think.
So guess what I picked? Yeah, “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Hey, I thought it was funny.
But don’t ever use that email address. I assume it’s as dead as my chance of returning to Cupertino. For all I know it forwards to Tim Cook now.
If you worked with me at Netscape, Eazel or Apple back in the day, you’re still welcome to call me “Gramps.” In fact, it’s kind of endearing. Like we’re all in a special club together.
And if you’re a “special” friend, you can use that name, too. Don’t ask, you know who you are.
But when I retired from Apple in 2012, I also retired “Gramps.” In a way, he was a character I played on TV. And that show isn’t in reruns.
More importantly, since I’ll be 59 years old soon, that name is long, long past being ironic. I may, however, let my grandchildren call me that. If I ever have any.
By the way, pro tip: don’t ever call my wife, “Grandma.” Certain death.