(This is chapter six of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
By the autumn of 1994 I was feeling pretty good about my crazy little website, which was bringing in more new visitors each day. I began to contemplate where this whole new web paradigm might be heading, and how it might eventually converge with the work I was doing as a database programmer on Wall Street.
Banks and investment houses were already obsessed with technological change in the late 80s and early 90s, the years before the Internet’s sudden rapid spread. Access to fast, accurate and complex information had become increasingly crucial to traders and analysts in this high-flying age of arbitrage and derivative markets, so firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Salomon Brothers, Lehman Brothers, Smith Barney, Bankers Trust and Merrill Lynch were racing to revamp their database systems while information providers like Moody’s, Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones competed to provide the best raw numbers for these banks to crunch. This was why techies like me flocked to Wall Street during these years.
Much of the change involved replacing gigantic IBM mainframe computers running IBM database software on IBM operating systems with small, inexpensive Sun servers running Sybase database software on Unix operating systems. The difference had to do with decentralization, with availability and access. In the old glass-room paradigm, data had been carefully controlled and centrally managed. Now suddenly data was everywhere, and nobody was in charge. Any trader who could collar a SQL developer to pound out a query or a C++ programmer to write the fastest and smartest application on the trading floor might be able to jump on a pricing change or respond to an announcement before anyone else figured out what was going on. No trader wanted to wait for the big company mainframe to finish a batch job — not when you could put a Sun server on your desktop and do it yourself. It was decentralization, democracy — almost an Internet mindset, though the Internet itself had not yet arrived.
That was the hype, anyway. By the time I became a employee of Sybase’s New York consulting office in 1992 Wall Street’s obsession with new technology had begun to veer towards the absurd, and the project I was assigned to at the JP Morgan bank on 60 Wall was a disappointing dud.
We were building a Sun/Unix/Sybase “proof of concept” trading system, but the project was over-funded, over-staffed, over-planned. Worst of all, it was not critical to the bank’s success, and there was no imperative to finish it. It was a show project, all image and no substance, designed to convince bank management that the tech department was capable of doing innovative things. We had about 40 team members, several of them old-school IBM mainframers who would have been happy to see our Sun servers explode and burn to a crisp, along with several younger staffers who were available because they were too mediocre to have been snapped up for the bank’s actual pressing work. JP Morgan was paying Sybase to have me and three other highly qualified software engineers participate in the project, but we all felt like animals in a zoo, and the long, dreary meetings and bloated schedules constantly dragged our spirits down.
I could have looked for a different job, but I stuck around because I had developed a comfortable (lazy) routine, and because I loved working in downtown Manhattan, the oldest part of New York City, with its crooked skyscraper canyons and ancient brick walls and crowded riverfront alleyways. I indulged my disappointment by taking long, long lunches every day, often wandering down to Battery Park to stare out at New York Bay and imagine myself as Ishmael at the beginning of Moby Dick. On days when my boss was absent, I’d take my long lunch hour to ridiculous extremes, walking all the way up to Greenwich Village to sit in Washington Square (where I’d invariably just feel stiff and out of place in my suit and tie) or taking a pointless round trip on the Statue of Liberty ferry or up the World Trade Center elevators surrounded by happy out-of-town tourists, all of whom I liked better than my co-workers back at the bank. I liked working on Wall Street very much — it was just my job I couldn’t stand.
I also liked being a Sybase employee. I had cachet among my peer techies, and could walk down the street with great pride. It was always hard to explain this to non-techies, since most people have never heard the name, but in the early 90s Sybase was one of the most innovative and exciting companies in the world. Humans lust after data, and Sybase was making data available in ways no company ever had before.
But now a new, loose, free data storage and retrieval technology — Tim Berners-Lee’s HTML — was changing the relationship between end-users and data in ways that relational database technology never could. HTML didn’t compete with SQL; rather, it turned SQL into a cog in a larger machine. I’d sat through a few Sybase sales pitches, and our salesmen always bragged that the Human Genome Project ran on Sybase. But now, I knew, the Human Genome Project was putting its data on the web for the whole world to see. Sure, they were still using Sybase on the back end, but the public website was what everybody cared about, and the back-end software was yesterday’s news.
Sybase is still around today, but it eventually lost much of its market share to a new and more powerful relational database from Oracle. The company gambled on a partnership with Microsoft, which turned the Sybase SQL Server into the still-popular Microsoft SQL Server, but in so doing lost its profit edge and reputation for innovation. Now only vague memories remain of the years when Sybase ruled the world.
Just as my company’s presence began to diminish in the Internet era, Wall Street also suddenly seemed a much smaller place. Hell, I thought, I never wanted to spend my life supporting capitalist robber barons in the first place. I didn’t know what my next move was going to be, but I had a feeling I wasn’t going to stick around down here much longer.
I had also lost interest in the book I was supposed to write for McGraw-Hill. I’d begun pursuing this book contract a year ago, but still felt pangs of bitterness about the fact that this contract had come to me so easily, while my earlier attempts to get a novel published by a major literary publisher had ended in crushing disappointment. My contract came in the mail, but it barely brought a smile when it did.
In fact, I didn’t want to write the book at all, and I took advantage of a flimsy opportunity to get out of the deal. As a Sybase employee, I needed permission from company headquarters in California to write the book. I expected a rubber stamp okay, but it turned out they were at that moment about to launch a new imprint called Sybase Press with a different tech publisher, and they did not want me to publish a book with McGraw-Hill.
I read this message with my cheeks burning, angry at the decision but also secretly and guiltily pleased. Putting on a show of slavish loyalty to my company’s uncharacteristically harsh ruling, I informed McGraw-Hill that I could not possibly write the book. My manager at the New York office felt terrible about this, while I felt terrible that I had to pretend to be upset when I was actually relieved.
Ironically, it was just around the time that I began to lose interest in database programming that my employer began to truly appreciate me. I was promoted to Principal Consultant, the highest level possible for a field office employee, and my salary was raised to $85,000. I now managed a team of six junior consultants, and after much pleading I was finally permitted to leave JP Morgan and begin a series of shorter-term assignments at Citibank, Paine Webber and Reuters.
LitKicks-related tasks and emails occupied my time every night, and I was getting a lot of writing done. I’d begun a series of articles and stories related to New York City and my hometown borough of Queens that I thought I might turn into my second website project. My second short story appeared in the September/October issue of InterText magazine, “The Thieves”, a tale of an angry and bored office worker in a small Connecticut town who suddenly crosses over into an impossible alternate universe where things are only very slightly different.
The best moment of the year came in late September when Abby was born. Deliriously happy that everything was going so well, I spent my two weeks of paternity leave in heavy workaholic mode as Abby (fortunately, a cheerful and easygoing baby) gurgled and slept. I bought a handheld black-and-white scanner and spruced up the LitKicks front page with hand-colored images of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. I then created a LitKicks “logo” by scanning a picture of French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine from a book called Absinthe: History in a Bottle by Barnaby Conrad III and hand-coloring it in lurid blues and greens.
I got a lot done during these two weeks. A cottage industry of internet service providers had recently sprung up, which meant Netcom.com was no longer the only game in town. I wanted a better URL — I have always believed deeply that attractive URLs are important — so I signed up with a new host, a Baltimore outfit called Charm.net, just so I could have http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn as my URL. I’m not sure why, but it still didn’t occur to me that I could register my own domain name (and I wouldn’t activate litkicks.com until 1998).
I also created my first personal home page for the site, illustrating it with an old scanned photo of me playing guitar while my oldest daughter Elizabeth, then a chubby two-year-old in diapers, sang earnestly into a microphone. The photo was out of date, but it amused me for its self-seriousness. There I was jamming with a two-year-old, looking as earnest as if I were onstage at Madison Square Garden, which felt like some kind of wry recognition of the silliness of my whole “web writing” pursuit, which is why I wanted to use it on my personal page.
I remember the autumn of 1994 as a blur of happy changes. And the changes were coming fast, because on October 13 1994 an announcement rippled across the tech groups on Usenet. The young computer programmer Marc Andreessen, already well known as the creator of the widely-used NCSA Mosaic web browser, had started a company — not a non-profit, not a research consortium, not a university partnership, but an actual profit-oriented corporation. The company was called Mosaic Communications, Andreessen’s partner was former Silicon Graphics executive Jim Clark, and they were immediately releasing a web browser that claimed to be worlds better than NCSA Mosaic.
There was an uproar, of course, beginning with a battle over the rights to the name “Mosaic”. The new company changed its name to Netscape, and their new browser became known as Mozilla. I downloaded Mozilla, like everybody else on the web, and I liked it. It was snazzier looking, with a little fiery animation in the upper right corner.
Netscape’s most controversial changes were to the HTML spec. Without calling for a consortium or a public vote, the company simply added several new and unauthorized additions to the HTML spec that would only work with the Mozilla browser. Now a web page could specify a background color, and could choose between left, center and right text alignment. There were also strange new things called “tables” which allowed web developers a much wider variety of design/layout options.
None of these new and unauthorized HTML tags made sense according to Tim Berners-Lee’s text-oriented vision of the web, which was all about using tags to describe the meaning and structure of text, not to implement design. Marc Andreessen’s bold and unilateral moves were immediately seen as a challenge to Berners-Lee’s leadership of the growing web industry, and many Usenet groups spent the second half of October arguing about whether to thank Marc Andreessen or lynch him.
I had mixed feelings, but I guessed I liked the way the new browser rendered interlaced GIFs, I liked Mozilla’s cute dinosaur mascot, and I got a kick out of the way Netscape was shaking everybody up. I sent Marc Andreessen a congratulatory email and he politely emailed back.
I sometimes thought we should have given Abby the middle name “Mozilla”, because she and the browser were born in the same fast-moving season. Or at least I thought it was a fast-moving season, but in fact things were going to just get faster and faster for a few more years, and then when things finally stopped they would stop fast too. We had just entered the Mozilla age.