David Gelphman's Blog


How I Became a Movie Producer

In my career I’ve been lucky to get to do a variety of things. At Stanford I worked as a graduate student doing research in high energy physics. My work at Adobe, RBI Software Systems, and Apple was primarily software development, but I also did 3rd party developer support, taught PostScript programming, wrote numerous technical documents, and even wrote a book. But I never imagined that I would be an associate producer of a movie.

It started on June 26, 2012, when a New York Times article caught my eye. Filmmakers Lindsay Blatt and Paul Taggart were making a short film, Herd in Iceland, documenting the historic herding of the Icelandic horse. The story they were filming was from another world, one so different than the one I live in, but one I have a connection to nonetheless. You see, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to ride my beautiful Icelandic horse Katla for 7 years now. She takes me to places that connect me with nature in ways that I could not do without her.

David and Katla

Reading the article about Lindsay and Paul and watching the trailer to their film brought tears to my eyes. The Icelandic landscape is so beautiful and seeing the elegant Icelandic horses running freely in it was a deeply moving experience. When I read that they had started a Kickstarter project, I knew I had to participate. I wanted to see their film succeed.

I’d already been part of several Kickstarter projects and it had been quite gratifying. In each case the results exceeded my expectations, especially the project by my friend Basho Parks, who created a wonderful album with his partner Jenn Rawling.

For the Herd in Iceland project, the question was how much to contribute. I looked at the project and they were trying to raise $16,500. At that point they hadn’t raised anywhere near that much money. I saw that I could be listed as an associate producer on the project if I contributed $2000. But that was insane. Yes, I loved what I saw of their project, but I’d never sent that much money to someone I don’t know. I’ve rarely sent that much money to anyone I do know!

I re-watched the trailer and teared up once again. I really loved what they were doing with their film and wanted them to be able to do it. It was right around my birthday so I decided I’d forgo anything else for my birthday and give myself the biggest birthday present ever. I signed up. It was crazy, but I was very excited.

The DVD for the movie arrived just before Christmas. Every year my wife Leslie and I pick a movie to watch on Christmas Eve and this time it was going to be Herd in Iceland. I put the disc in and as soon as the title sequence started I teared up. The sight of those horses in that country just does it to me. Herd In Iceland small

And when the credits come up at the end, there I am as one of the associate producers.

Credits small

Lindsay tells me that the Kickstarter money is, in part, enabling them to enter their film into film festivals this year. Most recently they attended the 2013 Black Hills Film Festival and were surprised and thrilled to win Best Documentary Short.

BlackHills Herd In Iceland small

I’m looking forward to them coming to festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area and I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that they get into the Santa Cruz Film Festival. If so, my many friends in this area that have Icelandic horses will be able to come and support it. And still more people that have not seen the beauty of the Icelandic horse will be able to share in that experience.

Lindsay has a calendar of their film festival appearances, but you don’t have to find a film festival to see the film. The movie and a book of images from the movie are available for purchase.

Lindsay and Paul made a lovely film and I am proud to have been a small part of it.


AWK! That Can’t Be Right!?

Predicting when software will be ready to ship is hard. Especially when the software involved is:

  • a complete rewrite from scratch of already existing software.
  • being written by a completely different team (and company) than the one that wrote the original code.
  • a system software component that interacts with virtually every 3rd party app on the platform.
  • required to be fully compatible with the existing software, plus new software and hardware in development.

But that was exactly the scenario I was in, along with Rich Blanchard and the rest of the development team, when I was at Adobe Systems circa 1991 writing a replacement for Apple’s LaserWriter printer driver. And the software we were writing was a critical part of Adobe’s strategic plan for preserving its largest income source at the time, PostScript licensing revenue. No surprise that there was a lot of scrutiny about the project and when it was going to be completed.

Years later, the website MacJournals.com did a write up about the project, including quite a bit about what role the LaserWriter driver software played in the printing system on Mac OS at the time. I have my minor quibbles with some of the details of that write up but one thing was true: that software project really burned me to the ground and was a major factor in my deciding to leave Adobe for greener pastures in 1993.

The Definition of Bad Management

There are a lot of stories about the project I could tell that would raise the hair of every software engineer on the planet, but one clearly defines the term “bad management”.

Part way into the project, Adobe hired “Stoy Aho” to manage the project and the engineering team. As far as I could tell, Stoy had no experience managing a software project or software engineers and there was no evidence that he knew how to write software beyond simple UNIX shell scripts. And even that ability became suspect.

As the completion date for the software kept being pushed out (see the bulleted list above for why), upper level management at Adobe started having meetings every day at 8am to discuss the status of the project. Stoy went to these daily meetings to report how things were going. In order to satisfy his need for something new to report, each team member was required to write a status report each day.

But we were converging on completing the software and some of the tension the engineering team members were feeling began to dissipate; things were looking good. So it was a complete surprise when Stoy came to me and told me how worried Adobe management was about the project. It turned out that he was showing them information he had calculated from our bug tracking database. By using the rate we were fixing bugs and observing the rate that new bugs came in, he had potentially useful information about predicting when the software would be ready to ship.

And that is why he was alarmed. Despite our sense that things were going much better, his analysis of the data indicated that they were getting progressively worse. I asked how he computed the results that he obtained and Stoy said he’d written an AWK script to process the raw bug count data. I immediately demanded that he show me the script.

I didn’t know the AWK programming language but it didn’t take me long to find the problem. At a critical point in his computations, Stoy had inverted the numerator and denominator in one of the calculations, causing his script to produce results that were the exact inverse of the truth! His program showed that the faster we fixed bugs, the longer it would take to ship.

Repeat after me: Stoy’s AWK script showed that the faster we fixed bugs, the longer it would take for the software to be ready.

This occurred over 20 years ago so I don’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but I’m pretty sure my response at the time was something besides AWK.