My site, Stockpickr.com, had 24 hours before it was going to go out of business and then I would probably have to kill myself. I had passed the 2 year point on a life insurance policy where it was now ok to kill myself so that my kids would still get the $4 million in the policy. It was Martin Luther King Day, 2007. He had a dream.
My site was anti-news. And I write for all the news sites. Get rid of me if you want. But you know you scare and panic people until they wake up with stomach pains at 4 in the morning. Just so you could sell another $1.25 with the next nightmare headline. And then you dump them and move onto the next panic.
So I made a finance site with everything but news. The only one. And thestreet.com had just announced it, and Jim Cramer was mentioning it every day on TV. And I knew that once Martin Luther King Day passed, I was going to go out of business.
Because you get what you pay for and I had reached across the planet to hire Indian programmers to program my site. And everytime Jim Cramer mentioned the website on TV we crashed. We couldn’t handle the load. It wasn’t rocket science. I’m a computer programmer. I should’ve just done it myself. But I hired a bunch of Jainists in Bangalore instead. One day they had a religious holiday. The other day the power went out so nobody was at work.. And finally I get ahold of them at 3 in the morning on Saturday night.
“Please. Please please,” I said to Arvind, “you have to fix this problem by Monday because Tuesday Cramer’s going to mention the site again and if we go down we’re out of business. You can’t have a site go down anymore else people don’t trust it.”
“We will fix it,” they said, “don’t worry.” And I waited. All Sunday morning I kept hitting reload. It was slow. I knew it wasn’t fixed. “Don’t worry, James. You worry too much,” Arvind said, “we will fix it.” I called up ten friends and we’d click simultaneously and the site will go down. “We’re testing stuff,” the Indians said, “it might go down but we know what the problem is. We’re fixing it.”
Monday morning I woke up. I had a letter from Arvind in India. In Bangalore. I’ve since been to Bangalore. At three in the morning their time, driving from Bangalore to Mysore. When are we going to get on the highway I kept wondering. Everywhere you went seemed like a side street. And random men and women walking along the side all night long. Men peeing on the side of the road. And little carts where the men would hang around drinking whatever. The cab driver had to stop and disappear for awhile and I stood outside thinking, “here I am”. I could just disappear and nobody would know, nobody would find me.
But that was years later.
Monday morning. 2007. Martin Luther King day. Letter from Arvind: “I’m sorry, James. But we have to give up. It’s late here and we could not figure out the problem. I’m really sorry but we have no idea what the problem is.”
And I had 24 hours approximately before I was sure I was out of business. When you are running a business, every detail counts. Your customers are not forgiving. Your competitors laugh in your face. Your benefactors deny they ever knew you. Your programmers move on to their next project and remove your name from their client list.
Your friends say, “well maybe your next business”. Your children want to play, not knowing that their lives, too, hang in the balance. But they don’t really care because ultimately they move on and leave their parents behind, move on to exciting new lives as artists, lovers, professional whatevers, saying, “I had a father once.”
So at 7am I made the call. I called Chet. Super Chet. I hadn’t spoken to him in at least eight years. His phone number was listed in Boston so I called him. He was the single best programmer on the planet. And he was born in India although raised in Texas.
I’ll give you one example. When IBM was hosting the live streaming Olympics in 1996 on the web their servers kept going down. Who did they call? Not their 10,000 person IT department. They called Chet in his apartment in the Upper West Side. He took his little computer and wrote some sort of networking protocol between his computer and 20 other IBM mainframes around the world. The Olympics was saved. IBM was saved.
Chet lived wherever he wanted. He worked on whatever he wanted. IBM didn’t want him to ever leave so they agreed to everything he ever asked for. He put out fires for them. That’s what he still does to this day.
We had worked together in 1988. But that’s another story. In 1996 he would hang out at my first company and do all the spare programming we needed on the weekends. For free. He just liked doing it. That was his weekend fun.
One time in 1996 he called me while I was out on the town and he was programming. “James! Why did you write the code this way? It’s like spaghetti. You took up 10 pages of code when just a few lines would’ve done it.”
“Chet,” I asked him. “Is the client standing right there next to you?”
“Yes,” he said.
“THEN SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
“Ahh,” he said, “got it!” And he hung up the phone.
Martin Luther King day: 2007, 6am. I call Chet for the first time since 1999. “Chet, it’s James.” “James?” “Look, no time to update. I hope all is well but I need your help badly.”
I explained the whole problem to him in about three minutes. I think I was crying.
“Ok, ok, ok,” he said, and he asked a couple of technical questions about how the site was built. I answered the best I could.
“Ok,” he said, “here’s the problem: I have a plane to catch to Paris at around 4pm so I really only have until 2pm. I’m giving a talk there and I can’t skip it. But give me the phone number of the Indians and give me access to all the servers.” I gave him all of the passwords.
“I can’t do this from home. I’m going to do this from the office. I’ll call you in twenty minutes.”
“PLEASE FUCKING FIX THIS!” I said, “THEY’RE FROM INDIA. JUST LIKE YOU! YOU CAN DEAL WITH THEM!” I’m not pretty in a panic.
“Ok, ok, James. You have. To calm. Down.” he said, “give me twenty minutes to get dressed and get into the office.” It was 6am and he had a plane to Paris to catch.
By noon that day he had spoken to the Indians, he had rewritten half the code, he gave them detailed instructions about what they had been doing wrong, he advised me on how to keep calm in moments like this and what I should be looking to do long-term to fix the site. He did all of this even though the site was written in a programming language he had never used before. On the way to the office he somehow learned the programming language.
By noon that day the problem was fixed. The site never crashed again.
By 4pm he was on a flight to Paris. When he got there I called him. “Chet, I can’t thank you enough. I want to give you a piece of the company. You deserve it.”
“No way, James,” he said, “remember in 1995 when we were on the 42nd Street subway platform underneath Times Square?”
“No,” I said.
“I was going on and on about distributed objects, blah blah and you said, ‘Chet! Shut up with that. Its boring. You should be doing the Internet and nothing else. That’s what is going to make your career.’ ”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“Well that conversation changed my life. I switched everything to the Internet. You were right! And its changed my life ever since.”
I didn’t know what to say. Maybe I vaguely remembered. He continued:
“Consider the favor returned.”
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