(This is the first chapter of my new memoir of the Internet industry.)
I didn’t become a computer programmer because I wanted to. It was the door that opened for me.
I was a Philosophy student at Albany State, but my stepfather Gene kept reminding me that I was eventually going to graduate and nobody was hiring philosophers. Gene (a successful businessman who still gives me good advice whenever I need it) made me a better offer after my sophomore year — a summer job in the software department of the aerospace electronics division he managed, at General Instrument in Hicksville, Long Island. My brother Gary already had a summer job with Gene, so I decided to tag along. It was a better paycheck than McDonalds.
Back at Albany State for the autumn semester, I noticed a strange and growing convergence between the Philosophy department and the Computer Science department. My Symbolic Logic professor (who’d given me an A+) James Thomas suddenly resigned his full professorship in the Philosophy department to become a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in the Computer Science department. I asked him about it and he said “Are you kidding? This is what’s interesting in logic right now. This is where I want to be.” The fact that he was demoting himself from professor to grad student didn’t bother him at all. That’s the kind of “logic” I admire.
I then discovered that Professor Robert Meyers, the chairman of my Philosophy department, was very interested in artificial intelligence, and he and I put together an independent research project in natural language programming using LISP. I spent the winter semester making my LISP program parse, store and respond to sentences like “the duck is brown”, “all ducks are brown or white”, “is this duck white?”. The final implementation was impressive and Professor Meyers was fairly knocked out. What I mainly learned, though, is that simulating language feels like doing card tricks.
I ended up spending an extra year at Albany State and adding a Computer Science degree to my Philosophy degree. Then, dear reader, I joined the workforce.
Nine to five, like they say. I’d been cubicle-bait all along, wandering in pursuit of my muse, and now I was hopelessly trapped in a “good” but conventional and extremely demanding job. I worked long hours and fought rush hour traffic. I bought shiny shoes at Thom McAn, three suits at Robert Hall, and a cheap American car. I wanted to quit, but I kept getting promotions and raises, and I was learning cool things like Unix, object-oriented design and C++. The fact that I’d also always wanted to be a great novelist didn’t fit into the equation at all.
Fast forward to the summer of 1993. I’m 31 years old, married with kids and a mortgage, and approaching the top of my field, earning $72,000 a year as a Senior Consultant for Sybase, the industry leader in networked database systems. Now I’m more miserable about my work than ever, so bitter and angry that I have to take long walks around downtown Manhattan three or four times a day to keep my cool. I’m stationed in the Global Markets Trading Systems department at JP Morgan’s headquarters on the corner of Broad Street and Wall Street, now wearing an $800 suit I didn’t buy at Robert Hall, and now I hate my co-workers twice as much as I did before.
Looking back, I realize the extent to which I was in the belly of the beast. New York banks were (and probably still are) notoriously insane places for information technology professionals to work — the combination of Wall Street greed and Aspergers Syndrome pretty much guaranteed an aggression level constantly through the roof. Management styles were deeply inconsistent, inter-department sabotage was rampant, and long overtime hours were always required, which I found particularly aggravating because if I got home late I wouldn’t see Daniel and Elizabeth (two and seven, back in the summer of ’93) before bedtime, and this would make me even more depressed. I don’t think I was much fun to live with around this time, and I sure wasn’t getting any good writing done.
And then there was was the ultimate, horrible, horrible irony: the book deal. In the summer of 1993 I was approached by a friend who had written software books for McGraw-Hill, one of the top technology book publishers, to write a book on Client-Server Programming for Sybase SQL Server. Yeah, impressive. That’s my fucking novel. Client-Server Programming for Sybase SQL Server. That’s the one book contract that actually came for me in the mail.
I was in bad shape.
And then something good happened.
It came out of nowhere. Tim English, one of JP Morgan’s many VPs of research and development system administration something-or-other and a person who’d never talked to me before suddenly showed up at my cube with a request. “I’d like to set up Usenet access for my sys-admins”.
“Usenet?” I said.
“You haven’t heard of it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Find out about it. It’s good. My guys want to look at the Unix newsgroups out on the internet.”
“I’ll get back to you.” I said.
When the internet came into my life — about two years before it came into everybody else’s life, because I had this headstart — it felt like a break in the sky. I knew it was going to be important, whatever this Usenet thing was, whatever this Internet thing was (and I couldn’t just Google “usenet”, you see, because there was no Google back then, because back then Al Gore had just barely finished inventing the internet in the first place, which was why I was only now first hearing of it myself from this stranger named Tim English who obviously knew more than I did).
I was about to find myself liberated in ways I’d never expected. But incredible frustrations and disappoints awaited me as well. In the summer of 1993, someone a few blocks north of my building on Wall Street was about to invent the name “Silicon Alley”. A little thing called the dot-com revolution was about to explode, and my life was about to take some turns I’d never imagined.
Oh, and … I wasn’t going to be writing that book.