(This is chapter 39 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry).
By the spring of 2001 I began to face the fact that I was probably going to lose my job at iVillage.
I’d been working on a Java version of our message boards to replace our old Perl code. I almost got the go-ahead to complete this project, but then a new proposal to outsource our message boards to a company called Prospero came up and stalled my plan. I fought against this proposal bitterly, not only because outsourcing the boards would leave me without a project but also because I believed it would be the wrong move.
If we outsourced our boards, I argued to our management team, another company would physically own our data. We would maintain legal rights, but this didn’t feel like a safe position in our turbulent financial times. What if Prospero went out of business, taking our boards down with them? What if they suddenly began running pop-up ads on the boards, even if our contract did not allow it? Several of us debated the pros and cons for weeks, and in the end my plan was axed.
I didn’t realize how big the momentum towards outsourcing was at this time. The struggling dot-com industry was gradually moving towards a new set of approaches that would collectively come to be known as Web 2.0, and externally hosted services like Prospero were an integral part of this trend. I suppose I should have realized this and not tried so hard to change the company’s decision. I may as well have been standing on a beach trying to shout down a tsunami.
Without the boards redesign to work on, I knew I was layoff bait. What, I wondered, would it feel like to be canned? I dreaded the idea of being singled out like that, of slinking away in isolated shame as friends mumbled their goodbyes, as I’d seen so many co-workers do in the past year.
If it happened to me, I resolved, I would walk out with my head high. Why should I feel ashamed? But it’s hard to buck the way we really feel, and I knew I’d have to hide a lot of emotion if it took place.
I even wondered if I might go insane if I were suddenly forcibly detached from the mothership of gainful employment. I’d been living the cubicle life for 17 years straight. Without a job, would I have an identity in the world? Might I drift away into incoherence, like a character in a Paul Auster book?
I was more worried about the emotional impact than the financial, because I still had a little bit of IPO money in the bank and at least one contract job to fall back on. Dan Levy had recently called with exciting news: Bob Dylan was coming out with his first new album since 1997 and his organization wanted us to completely rebuild his website. They wanted it bigger this time, with lots of features: message boards, a lyrics search engine, a concert calendar, a completely new design. We’d throw out our Perl code, Dan said, and build everything brand new in Java. And we’d be working with Sony Music’s online department this time, so If BobDylan.com 2.0 worked out well we’d get the chance to build other artist’s websites too.
Most importantly, they would pay well. This would be a good time to get laid off, I realized, because I could use the severance pay and the Dylan contract to bridge my way into a new career as an independent consultant. Logically, this made sense. But I was nervous about whether or not I’d be able to bring in enough income to pay child support and my own rent and expenses. And, I just couldn’t stand the idea of being cast out of the company where I’d spent two years, where there were a lot of people I liked.
I especially liked one person, Caryn Dubelko, who’d been working with me on a chat software upgrade. Caryn worked offsite as a manager in the Community team, and we communicated via Instant Messenger during the entire course of the chat upgrade project. I was impressed at first with her quality ethic. As we put together the schedule, she messaged me: “I really want to take the time to do this project right”.
You do? I thought. “That’ll never fly around here”. But I found her enthusiasm refreshing. Caryn and I chatted a lot and inevitably got friendly in between conversations about configuration settings and performance monitoring tools. She could really make me laugh, and I never knew what to expect her to say next. She’d message me random questions like: “what is your favorite Tom Petty song?”, or tell me stories about the small Indiana town where she’d grown up.
We managed to successfully upgrade our iChat installation along with all the chatter, assisted by a third team member named Dorothy “Hobbit” who may or may not have sensed that there was some serious chemistry going on between her co-workers. The new software held up fine and we were all proud of the work we did. Unfortunately, this barely helped my job security situation, since nobody in iVillage top management cared about our chat service (“it’s just chat”, we constantly heard).
I probably worked harder, and with a more positive attitude, during these last few months at iVillage than I ever had before. I felt personally invested in the company’s success, and I didn’t want my time there to end on a low note. When Newsday (my once-hometown Long Island newspaper) interviewed me for a “My Bookmarks” feature, I plugged two iVillage message board areas, ParentSoup and ParentsPlace, among my personal favorites. I guess I was really clinging on.
One Monday morning in late June 2001 we heard that a whole lot of people were going to be laid off this week. Lots and lots of people, we heard. I knew that my time was up. My office was already clean (in these post-crash days many employees had private offices, since they were free for the grabbing) and I’d already sorted my personal items for easy packing. I waited — Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Each day, I watched friends walk sadly away, cardboard boxes in their hands. I’d already brought in two sturdy shopping bags from home so that I wouldn’t have to walk away with boxes. I never liked being a cliche.
I waited and waited and didn’t hear the news till Friday afternoon. Yeah, I was out. “Thanks” I told Rich. “I know you kept me on as long as you could.” I packed the shopping bags I’d brought just for this purpose, wrote a quick goodbye email to my friends in Community, talked to a few friends in Tech, got in the elevator and left the building.
I began plotting my next life steps as I walked from 37th Street to my apartment on 47th Street. I would give up this expensive apartment and move back to Queens. I would do a kickass job on BobDylan.com and hopefully get enough music site work to pay the bills. I would buy a book on how to manage taxes as an independent consultant. Everything would be fine.
Up in my apartment, I realized I didn’t want to sit around, so I went back downstairs and walked up to Central Park. A bunch of Asian women were offering massages for $5 near the Bow Bridge, and for the first time in my life I got a massage in Central Park.
I then walked around for a few hours more, thinking and planning. When I got home that night I was very happy to hear a voice mail from Caryn. She was crying, and I was glad that somebody at iVillage cared enough to cry for me. I called her back — this was the first time we’d spoken on the phone except for short bursts or conference calls at work — and we talked for a long time.
My first couple of months as a self-employed techie went well, thanks to the BobDylan.com project. I loved working from home, not having to go to meetings or leave the apartment. I began seeing the kids on Wednesdays as well as weekends. I also began apartment hunting in Queens — I’d save money on rent and be able to see the kids even more.
My biggest problems were technical. I’d been dabbling in Java for years, but now I was responsible for building not only Jive message boards but also a Lucene search engine and a custom content management system, all in Java/JSP. I quickly discovered how much about Java I didn’t yet understand. The Lucene lyric search engine gave me the most trouble.
I was also working hard on upgrades to the Literary Kicks software, and cooking up a new project based on a hot trend that was currently getting some attention: electronic books. A company called NuvoMedia had created the first commercial e-book device, the RocketBook (yes, six years before the Kindle).
I liked the idea of electronic books, and decided to experiment by publishing an e-book of my own. Partly inspired by the disappointing performance of the 2000 New York Mets in last year’s World Series, I dug out the novel I’d tried to publish in 1995, Summer of the Mets, and began plotting how to launch it as an e-book. Maybe, I thought, I could use my now-again popular Literary Kicks site to generate interest in the book. It seemed worth a try.
Mostly, I plugged away on BobDylan.com, working long hours every day. I was feeding the lyrics to every song Bob Dylan had ever written into the Java-based Lucene search engine, trying to get it to spit out nicely formatted custom-designed result pages in response. Despite all the hours I put in, I was falling behind.
Dan wanted me to finish everything ahead of time, but our drop-dead date was the “Love and Theft” release date. Record companies always released new CDs on Tuesday (I never knew exactly why, but it was a firm rule) and the new Dylan album was scheduled to come out on Tuesday, September 11. The URL “bobdylan.com” would be printed on the CD sleeve, Dan told me, so it would really be a disaster if I didn’t finish all the software work in time.
Not long before the deadline I heard some excellent advance tracks from another big CD coming out on the same day as the new Dylan: “Blueprint” by Jay-Z. I had a feeling both albums were going to be something special. September 11, 2001 was going to be a big day in New York City.