(This is chapter 38 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
Every once in a while you get a new boss you just know you’re not going to get along with. This happened to me in late 2000 after a series of layoffs and restructurings at iVillage.com.
We’d once nearly tipped 300 employees, and now we were 175 and shrinking fast. Our layoff days tended to coincide with the holiday seasons in 2000: there was the pre-July 4th layoff, the pre-Labor Day layoff, then the pre-Columbus Day layoff (and we didn’t even get Columbus Day off!), then the pre-Thanksgiving layoff (get out of here, turkey).
Every layoff was accompanied by a management shuffle, and after the pre-Thanksgiving massacre I found myself with a new boss named Stella Rotelli. Now, I actually liked Stella. She was a tad bit bossy, but she was certainly smart, had no trouble at all being decisive, and always said what she thought.
The problem was, Stella didn’t like me. And, like I said, she always said what she thought, so I had little trouble figuring this out. This was a problem, especially since she was now my boss and had the right to fire me anytime.
Why didn’t Stella like me? I really don’t know, but I think it had something to do with my laid-back manner, my sometimes overly existential way of answering questions, and possibly an independent streak that she knew wouldn’t fit in well with her parade. Well, I can handle it when people don’t like me. It’s their right, after all. But she was my boss, and I didn’t want to get laid off. And Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa were all heading our way.
And so, my fifteen-month adventure on the “product” side of the Internet industry ended. I went running back to Rich Caccappolo, who’d been my boss in the technology department fifteen months ago, and asked if I could rejoin his team. We agreed to change my title from Director of Community Services to Director of Community Technology (though I wouldn’t actually be directing anybody). I saw to it that the paperwork was quickly put through. Now I was free from the wrath of Stella Rotelli (though I still had to work with her as my end-user, and honestly she wasn’t that bad. Sometimes I actually like the people who dislike me).
But I felt sheepish joining Evan and Jim and Mike and Mozam and John and Joe and Fadi back in the tech catacombs of our new building. They looked at me like “you back again?”. Well, yeah, when a company is running mass layoffs on a monthly basis, a techie’d better find some real work to do.
So there I was, back in the nerd cubicles with the Rubik’s Cubes and the History of Unix posters. The offices looked the same, though we had actually moved to a smaller, more nondescript building in the Fashion District on 37th Street and 7th Ave. Candice Carpenter would have never agreed to such mundane office space (and maybe that was why they had to fire her).
It felt strange to be coding again, but I was excited to discover that the software development field had gone through some big changes during my fifteen-month journey on the Other Side. The biggest change was the programming language. When I left tech in 1999, web applications were still mostly written in Perl or TCL with C++ back ends. Now, suddenly, it was all Java. I was excited about this because I’d known Java was the ideal language since it was introduced in 1995, and I had been waiting for it to catch on. Suddenly, apparently, everybody was now coding pages in JSP, using the HTTPServlet specification, and communicating via XML (yes!) with Java back-end services.
This was a poignant realization for me, because I’d been writing C++ programs since 1988, and I was sure going to miss pointers to pointers and .hpp files. But I was also happy, because Java was a better and more logical language in every way, and I was bored with C++ and loved having a new object-oriented computer language to learn.
I was assigned to build a message board platform for our British subsidiary, IVillage UK. This was based on an open-source message board system called Jive, which Jim Berrettini had found on Apache Jakarta and heard was pretty good. I was asked to get a first prototype working, and once this passed inspection we got the go-ahead to launch some actual boards on iVillage UK. If this proved successful, we would then replace our clunky Perl-based Hypernews main message boards with Jive.
I fell back into the coding routine very happily. After a year and three months working every day with Family Point and Michael Rose and Alison Abraham and Stella Rotelli, getting my hands dirty with Java felt just wonderful, like a balm.
I also had a sneaky motivation for working so hard on the Jive message boards. As I put together the iVillage UK installation, I was going home every night and installing the same software on a new dev server I’d just built for Literary Kicks. My plan to turn LitKicks into a message board-based community site was moving forward fast.
The iVillage UK project was easy because I was building from scratch, but as I made progress on the new Literary Kicks platform I realized I was going to have to port the entire site, and five years of archived content, to Java/Jive. I wanted to keep running articles along with message boards, so I would have to find a way to turn Jive into a full-fledged content management platform. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Well, what the hell, I didn’t have a date for New Years Eve anyway.
We launched the iVillage UK boards system and it was a success. Meanwhile, in early January I had the new Literary Kicks message boards ready to go on a private dev server, but I wasn’t sure whether to flick the switch or not. Then one day while I was at work my friend Laki emailed me: Beat poet Gregory Corso, a favorite of mine, had died.
I couldn’t think of much to do about this except announce it on LitKicks — and I announced it with a message board, “For Gregory Corso”.
The software held up, and people seemed to figure out what to do. Yeah, these boards seemed like they would work.
After I tweaked the software on the Gregory Corso tribute a bit, I began trying out other ideas for boards. LitKicks 2.0 didn’t get many visits at first, since the site had been static for nearly a year. But folks eventually started rolling back in, and good conversations began to flow. I experimented with a variety of board names and taglines, and stuck with the ones that worked best: a free-for-all general board with the Joycean title “Utterances”, a “What Are You Reading?” running thread, a more serious-minded literary topics board called “Writers and Genres”.
Somebody suggested that I create some creative writing boards, and I thought this was a pretty good idea (remarkably, I never thought of the idea myself). I’d just read a biography of painter Jackson Pollock, and this inspired me to call the main poetry board “Action Poetry”. I also created some other writing boards like “Roadgoing” and “Stories”. “Action Poetry” was always my favorite, though (and is, today, the only part of the old LitKicks 2.0 message board platform that remains in place).
I met many LitKicks readers in the first few months of the boards that I would never have met otherwise. Some of the earliest to show up were “judih”, “billectric”, “jota”, “sooZen”, “mtmynd”, “doreen peri”, “Lightning Rod”, “panta rhei” and “Scootertrash”. New folks were joining the party every day.
I had no idea where I would take this thing next, or what it was good for. I guessed we’d figure it out eventually, and we were having fun.