The Volcanic Dream of the Wild Optimists
11 March 2005There's an old story about a traveling salesman who sees a sign in front of a farmhouse saying, "Talking Dog for Sale."
He goes to the door to ask the farmer if he can see the dog.
"Sure," the farmer says. "He's out back."
The salesman goes out back and finds a friendly looking old Saint Bernard lying in the grass. "You talk?" he asks.
"Yup," says the dog.
"What's your story?" asks the salesman.
"Well, I was a young pup when I discovered my gift. Eventually, I was brought to the attention of the C.I.A. and they trained me to be a seeing-eye dog. Then they planted me with a known blind double-agent and I went with him to all his secret meetings. No one would ever think twice about saying something in front of a dog. I regularly related everything I heard to the authorities, and soon I became the most successful animal agent in C.I.A. history.
"But eventually I grew tired of all the travel. Even though I was a big secret agent, I was still a dog and had to fly in those freezing baggage compartments. It was no kind of life. So I retired from the C.I.A. and took a job as a security dog at a local airport. Even then I managed to foil a few sinister plots before giving it all up to live here on the farm, find a mate and raise some puppies."
The salesman was duly impressed. He ran out front to ask the farmer how much he wanted for the dog.
"Ten dollars," replied the farmer.
"Ten dollars!" exclaimed the salesman. "For such a great dog? Why so cheap?"
"He's a liar," replied the farmer. "He never actually did any of that stuff."
Recap: How We Got Here
To a degree, we--QSA ToolWorks, LLC--are that talking dog. We have an incredible history, which only seems to grow more incredible all the time. And there's an old saying that says "When something seems to good to be true, it usually is." Surely each of you knows some variation of this notion.
Why have we gone to such great lengths to avoid raising unnecessary expectations? The answer bears repeating, as we have several times since "The June 10th Adventure" began back in 2002. The announcement said:
Going forward, Autograph and Synergy make only the following three promises:
1. They will help you get what you need in the way of product, upgrade, services and support.
To the best of our ability, this is something we have done, and continue to do.
2. They will provide you with information, even if that information is simply to tell you that there's nothing new yet.
While it may occasionally seem like an eternity passes between messages, a look down this column shows 35 postings, which is exactly 35 more official communications between the company that makes Helix and the users that use Helix than done by all of the previous owners rolled together.
3. They will make a conscious effort NOT to raise your expectations unless they believe there is a solid basis upon which to do so.
When we set out on this trip, we were in what could at best be described--depending upon your interpretation--as a quasi-legitimate exercise in which our only plan was to execute items 1 and 2 above. We had no intention of doing one other thing beyond that. We were under the impression that the company we were working for was in a temporary bind, and would eventually pay us what we were owed. We believed it strongly enough that we agreed to run the business for them until they were able to resume control of operations.
The expectation we were most afraid to raise at that time was that work would be resuming on an OS X version of Helix. Under the circumstances--at that time--this was like an impossible dream. We had neither the knowledge nor the authority to undertake that work. Implicit in our agreement was that we would keep the day-to-day operations going and take whatever money it generated to pay off what was owed to us. It seemed fair, even though it was clearly illogical: after all, we were working off money that was owed to us!
Our own initial expectation was that we'd probably never make that money back. We figured we'd fulfill some upgrade orders and do some tech support in our spare time. But we discovered that the Helix world was really much larger than we knew. And in relatively short order we had been paid back. So we posed the question to management: "Are you ready to come back?" They weren't. So we asked whether or not they thought we should keep it going. They said we should. And we did.
A virtual company in a very real quandary
The first thing we did was to begin playing around in the source code, and before too long we learned how to fix a lot of little things about Helix that had always bothered us. And suddenly, we found ourselves using a really cool version of Helix and thought, hey... other people who use Helix would love this. So, in the immortal words of Warren Zevon, "we took a little risk."*
Suddenly, we were running a virtual software company. We fixed a few things ourselves and contracted with a few programmers who had the expertise to fix things we couldn't. Helix 5.1 shipped in December of 2002. The response to it gave us a good deal of confidence in what we were doing, which was totally unorthodox in almost every sense of the word. 5.1 was a modest upgrade, but it proved that our notions were sound and that this crazy scheme might just work. Yet still we guarded carefully against raising unrealistic expectations.
"What should we do next?" we wondered. There was only one answer that made any sense. As long as there was user support for the concept (and money in the bank), there wasn't another moment to lose. We wanted to get Helix to OS X, but this job called for much more power than the Recovery Team had at its disposal. And since management--which had only reluctantly bought into the concept of us mucking around in the source code to begin with--could still call an end to this experiment at any time, we were in a quandary.
Users were buying Helix 5.1 upgrades at a rate that would fund some serious development, but Helix was still officially not ours to do with as we pleased. We were working in a Twilight Zone-esque half-light: is it dusk and is night about to fall on Helix, or is it dawn and a new day is about to begin, or is this all some absurd dream that will abruptly end at any moment? We couldn't even say for sure if upgrade purchases would continue. What if we made commitments and hired engineers and suddenly had to end it all?
Smart and Stealthy Wins the Race
So we took another risk and set out on a journey that anyone in their right mind would have avoided, knowing full well that this work should have begun years and years before. Every day we maintained the status quo was another day that Helix slipped further into obsolescence. Rewriting Helix's networking, expanding its file size and getting it to OS X with a plan to expand beyond the Mac OS was, in retrospect, the dream of wild optimists.
Whatever we did would have to be undertaken while maintaining a very low profile. So we swore all of our engineers to secrecy and assigned code names to them all: anyone we hired to work on the code would go by an alias. Those code names would all be related to volcanos, like the names of our Helix projects.
Our plan was to rewrite the parts of the code that required an overhaul to become OS X compatible section by section. This would allow us to release each portion as it was done in case the rug were to suddenly be pulled out from under us. Delivering technologies as soon as they became available is why there was also a 5.1.1, a 5.2, a 5.2.1, a 5.3, a 5.3.1 and (as of April 22) a 5.3.2.
Freedom and Responsibility
As most of you know, in the middle of this process, an opportunity to own Helix presented itself. We made an arrangement we believed would provide adequate funding to put everyone to work without having to stop until we finished the journey to OS X. But things don't always go as planned, and the TCP/IP rewrite -- which began in June, 2003, right after we shipped Helix 5.2 -- presented us with our most difficult challenge to date.
When we first saw the new TCP/IP working less than four months later, we were feeling pretty good about our prospects. Little did we know it would take another 15 months to get to a level of stability that Helix users expect and we could release.
In the eighth month of that process, QSA ToolWorks at last became a reality, and we increased our contractor's hours, called in more experts and eventually solved the TCP/IP problem. In the meantime, we also conquered the 2GByte limit in Helix, completed the Helix Maintenance Manager and are now beginning to actively test the Helix 6 Server. But getting to this place used up most of the infusion of cash we got when QSA became the owner of Helix, and once again we find ourselves in the troublesome position of having to limit our engineers' hours, sacrificing speed in an effort to avoid running out of fuel.
One of our great Helix angels--one of our $10K Club benefactors--wrote to us the other day. He was one of those who made the TCP/IP conversion possible, and we hadn't heard from him since way before it was finished. He wrote:
"I have been hoping all was going well with the evolution of Helix. I can see this has not been at all easy for the Recovery Team, so I decided to keep a very low profile, enabling you to work without being unduly distracted by my concerns.
"You have already made fixes that are helping me quite a bit. I still have some daily hiccups with Helix, but these are things that certainly could be sorted out after Helix 6 moves from your virtual crucible into our silicon reality.
"Ah, the alchemists at work! Is that a gleam of gold? This precious thing Helix, more like a Hobbit's ring sometimes. A small band of true believers. How interesting the long-trodden path has become, now that we seem to be so close to that long-desired new horizon...
"The results of your work with Helix affect my daily life, and many others as well. Thanks again."
Thanks to him and many others like him, we have made it this far. However, we aren't there yet.
But we're well on the way. Consider three pieces of news...
First, Helix Maintenance Manager (HMM), the long-awaited successor to Database Chequer, will ship shortly, and you can place your orders through our web store now. See the new HMM page for information about this essential new product.
Second, Helix 6 Server testing has started. We have built the server, served collections, and visited them with a client. It's nowhere near ready for release, but the big news is that as we write this, there are no more preliminary projects that have to be completed and we have turned our full attention to actual testing and debugging of Helix 6 Server.
Third, today we lift the Shroud of Secrecy. When QSA became the owners of Helix, the necessity for concealing the identities of programmers working on Helix ceased to be necessary. Rather than create a distraction by revealing their names (and inviting the inevitable discussion about their qualifications, etc.) we decided to carry on as before, allowing them to continue their work in anonymity.
But we now find ourselves distracted by the effort to keep these secret identities under wraps. And so it is that we have decided to let you know who has been working on Helix for the last few years. Keep in mind that none of these people are full-time employees. They were all contracted to work on specific sections of the code. Some have completed their work and are no longer working with us. Others have just come on board. So if one of us told you X was not working on Helix, and now they appear on this list, they probably weren't working on Helix at that time.
What each of these people has in common with the others is that they undertook this work under extreme conditions, sometimes at personal and financial risk, primarily out of a deep love for Helix. We've always tried to be honest with all of you, and we thank you for giving us the benefit of the doubt while we kept these particular secrets concealed.
Now that you know their names, we respectfully request that you not bombard them with comments and questions. They need to be able to keep focus on the job that remains ahead. We'll schedule a Helix Chat at some point (maybe when we start testing Helix 6 Server!) and hold an official "meet and greet" session.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We will shortly update the Helix 6 page with the latest news and new pictures. The volcanic dream of the wild optimists is at last about to come true. But before it does, we need your help, starting with your opinion about one more thing.
We have not yet set the new and upgrade pricing for Helix 6, but we will be doing so shortly. And while we're not yet beta testing, we are alpha testing and we're getting that old feeling again, like we're going to make it. The biggest obstacle right now is financial.
During the last four years we've worked hard to earn your trust, and we are hesitant to do anything that would spoil that. Early on in this journey, we decided that we would not take advance orders for products until they were completely ready to ship. Yet in view of how close we are to our goal and how dire our financial straits, we are considering breaking that rule. So, we ask you, who are as invested in Helix as we are: would you pay for Helix 6 Server now, before it ships, or should we stay the course we've followed to this point? Jump to this survey page and let us know what you think.
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