January 14, 2006

Illustrator Interview: Teri Pettit

So I'm starting a new "feature" here at the Real World Illustrator blog, which I'm dubbing "Illustrator Interview". My goal is to get to know more about the people who both create and use Illustrator. I hope to include Adobe engineers and marketing folks, and actual designers and illustrators, and plan on featuring a new interview each week. Who knows, you might be next!

In this first interview, I've asked Teri Pettit, Illustrator Engineer Extraordinairre, to answer a few questions about her job and her life...

When did you join the Illustrator team, and how did you get the job?

I joined in September of 1987. I was working at Xerox at the time, and Jim Sandman, who had been one of my managers there in the past, called me up and said "Are you ready to leave Xerox yet?" Well, it was getting pretty frustrating to feel that the work we were doing at Xerox was so invisible, with most of the public having no idea that our team had invented the whole desktop/icons/windows metaphor for personal computing. (Google on "Xerox Star Alto history" if you're curious.) But I'm the kind of person who is very slow to make changes, so I might have stayed at Xerox for several more years if I hadn't been dragged away like that.

The interview process was easy. It felt more like they were trying to sell me on Adobe rather than probing my programming skills. (The interviews at Xerox in 1978 had been a lot tougher.) Besides Jim, there were quite a few other engineers I knew from Xerox working at Adobe, like Dick Sweet and Doug Brotz, so I guess they were hiring me mostly on the recommendation of coworkers.

Back in those days, John Warnock came to the meetings where we planned features for Illustrator. Even though the company was almost 5 years old, it was still small. There were only about 160 employees.

What's your all-time favorite Illustrator feature that you worked on?

I guess it would be blends, especially the group blends
in AI 8, which I pretty much just did because I thought it would be cool.

It was inspired by a postcard that Russell Brown made as a marketing giveaway for AI 88, with an angel made of lots of little strokes morphing into a devil in a similar style. Since AI 88's blends could only be done one path at a time, the illustration required using the blend tool separately on each pair of matched strokes. Way back then I thought it would be neat to be
able to select two complex illustrations like that, and have the program automatically blend all the pieces at once. So when I got the assignment to make blends "live" in Illustrator 8, I took the opportunity to lobby for my pet group blends idea. I wish more people knew about it. But it's seldom discovered because few people even think of trying to see what happens when
they select two or more groups and make a blend.

I'd still like to get a chance someday to go back and fix up the areas of Blends that never really got finished, like more spacing options, and better control over the placement along a path.

Have you ever snuck an easter egg into Illustrator? If yes, what is/was it?

Now Mordy, you should know that at Adobe, engineers don't "sneak" in Easter eggs. We get formal permission to include them, and they get QE'd like any other feature. So, with the full knowledge and consent of QE and my manager, I wrote an Easter egg for AI 10 that turns the Symbols palette into a Q and A database about my daughter. It's impossible to find unless you're told how to trigger it. I put it in there mostly so she could show it off to her friends. It's still in the product, although I haven't kept the questions and answers up-to-date with changes in her life.

The way you invoke it is to name a symbol "Teri's daughter's". Exactly like that. Case-sensitive. Neutral apostrophes. Then bring up the Symbol options dialog with that symbol selected, and rename it again to something you want to ask about, like "hair color". Instead of being assigned the name you typed in, it will be translated into the answer to that question, if it's in the lookup table, or to something like "I don't know" if it isn't. Then you can Undo, and since that restores the "Teri's daughter's" name, you can enter another query. After a string of misses, it starts giving hints like "You haven't asked about her favorite food yet."

I haven't added any Easter eggs since then. Most cool Easter egg ideas would take a fair amount of programming time, and it's hard to justify that when there are real bugs to be fixed and feature enhancements to be made.

What's your favorite Illustrator codename?

Picasso, which was Illustrator 88. I wish we had continued with the pattern of using names of famous artists. There was Matisse (AI 9), but it was a just a throwback. It would have been cooler if it had been a continuous theme.

What is the craziest feature request that you've ever received?

I can't think of any feature requests I'd call crazy. You may have encountered more craziness than I have. The vast majority of the feature requests that I hear about, I concur with. And even the ones I don't agree with, I'd characterize more as infeasible or misplaced or incompatible with popular existing features rather than crazy. Like you'll frequently see requests for assigning various meanings to the Cmd/Ctrl key that would, in isolation, be nice features to have, but that would be incompatible with the current use of the Cmd/Ctrl key to switch to the last-used selection tool. And you can imagine the screams if we took that away.

The closest to crazy I see is that it's fairly common for the kind of casual users who don't want to take the time to become proficient with the basic tools to ask for very specialized tools or commands for making things that are already easy to construct by hand, like a Heart tool, or a Yin-Yang tool, or a filter to create expanding rays like in the old Japanese navy flag. Any one of those ideas is not so unreasonable in isolation, and would probably get more use than the Flare tool. So you can't really call those requests crazy. But the people making them never seem to realize how arbitrary it is to pick those particular figures out of all the thousands of other potential figures that are similarly easy to construct. If we made a specialized tool or command for every common shape or arrangment of shapes, the toolbox and menus would be so big you'd never find anything. People joke about the Flare tool, which I'll agree is too specialized to warrant a position in the toolbox, but at least flares aren't easy to figure out how to construct by hand.

What's your personal preference, Mac or Windows?

Mac, definitely. I'm notorious for my Windows aversion.

What's playing on your iPod right now?

Nothing. I don't have an iPod and have no interest in the whole concept. I've received three iPods as gifts from Adobe, and gave them all away unopened. One was a pretty high end iPod Photo that the engineers got as a shipping bonus for CS2. I gave it to my daughter and she traded it for an electric guitar, since she already had an iPod. I also don't have a portable music player of any kind, and never turn on the radio or any other kind of sound in my car. I like silence.

What was the nicest place you've ever vacationed in?

"Nicest" wouldn't be quite the adjective I'd choose - it was kind of hot and dusty - but the most fun and interesting vacation I ever had was a trip to Egypt I took with my then-boyfriend in April of 1984. We spent about four days in the Cairo area, and then went on a week-long Nile cruise. One of the coolest things I did on that trip was climb to the top of the Great Pyramid at Giza just before dawn and watch the sun rise over the Nile from its summit. We were staying at the Mena House, which is this Victorian-era hotel right at the foot of the pyramids, and this old guy who was peddling camel rides told us if we met him before dawn the next morning he'd take us on a climb up the Great Pyramid. For a price, of course. So we did. It's slow climbing; the blocks are about waist high, so you push yourself up onto each one with your arms then swing a knee up. I wouldn't be in shape to do it anymore, but this old guy was a pro at it. Then we took pictures of the sunrise, which didn't come out too well because it was still kind of dark. By the time we got down it was almost 6 am and they were just posting armed guards around the perimeter. That's when we saw this sign posted that it was illegal to climb on the pyramids. The camel ride peddler had conveniently started our climb on the back side where no signs were visible.

There are a few pictures from that trip on my web site, including one of me faking a belly dance for one of those get-the-passengers-to-embarrass-themselves "talent" shows on the cruise ship.

If you'd just won the lottery, what would be the first thing you buy?

Gosh, that's hard. I can't really think of anything I covet that I can't already afford to buy. I'm not a very materialistic person. I've never bought a single lottery ticket in my life because I wouldn't really care that much about winning. But I guess if one landed on my desk, I'd probably give a bunch of money to my sister and brothers, and then use the rest of it to go into semi-retirement, so that I could travel to all the places I want to see while I'm still young enough to enjoy it. I'd try to work out some deal with Adobe so that I could have access to the code, but have no assigned responsibilities. Just the freedom to write new plugins or enhance old features as the whim took me, and deliver them to Adobe, and they could pick them up or not. When I wasn't busy with a project, I'd go on a trip. I'd rather do a lot of two-week trips scattered around the year instead of a long extended one. I'd feel too guilty about leaving my cats alone for very long.

I like my job, but it leaves you so little time to do anything else.

If you were an Illustrator tool, which one would you be, and why?

Mordy, you ask the oddest questions. Nobody wants to be a tool.

If I have to pick one, I guess I'd say the Brush tool. It comes the closest to seeming alive. I'd get to swoop around leaving a colorful trail behind me, like Tinkerbell in the old Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color intro. (All my television memories are ancient. I haven't watched any television in about 19 years. Which is even longer than I've been at Adobe.)


Wade1066 said...

Mordy, enjoyed that interview. Is that woman available, by the way?

Newmango said...

Wonderful interview. I don't know about available, but Teri has always been the most accessible of the Illustrator team, it seems to me. I always wonder how finely she walks the line between being open with her knowledge and alerting the NDA police. I think she is a model of what a good engineer should be: not only in the work she does, but by putting herself out there in the Forums as an Illustrator advocate, and by being helpful, answering questions, and even occasionally agreeing with users who find a fault or two with the program she helped design. That creates the kind of good will that money can't buy.

Jean-Claude said...

Mordy, putting little interview like that is a wonderfull initiative. Starting with the Teri, the "Queen" of illustrator engineer, is great. It's always interesting to know some details and background history of people we know for so long. Keep the interview coming...

Teri Pettit said...

So, after you've interviewed a few more people, can we interview you?

Turnabout's fair play, after all.

Mordy Golding said...

I'm game! Better start thinking about the questions you want answered. After my third interview, I'll be happy to have the tables turned and you can all get ten questions....

Newmango said...

I'd also like to know a little bit more about the interviewee's career history. Where did you go to high school and what were your interests then? What was your college major? How did you get started in/develop an interest in your field? What kind of career/education path would you recomend to young people who are interested in doing your kind of work? That kind of thing.

aongus said...

Thanks for a great interview. Teri's posts on the illustrator Users Forum are always enlightening and entertaining -- she has a gift for explaining to non-engineers the technical concepts behind code, and how to use these features creatively. Incidentally, the Real World Illustrator book includes an explanation, with acknowledgments to Teri, of how compound paths work with non-zero winding & even-odd fill rules. For years, I've been unable to fathom this mystery. Thank you both for solving it:)

Phosphor said...

Teri...Did you get the email from me sent on Monday 16 January?