25 Stories About Work – Building a Web Site, Then and Now

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

Chicago, around the year 2000, before the dot-com bust

Back around 2000 I worked in an “incubator” that was a digital design agency. At that time everyone was moving onto the web, and it was a giant land rush.

This was the first time I worked in an office with any type of serious amenities. They had free coffee, lounge areas, and the occasional foosball table. Previously I had been a buttoned down consultant, auditor, programmer and project manager – and all of the sudden the world changed and we engaged with a whole host of “creatives” and designers on joint projects.

Back then we all wore suits. I remember one day very clearly; one of the designers sat immediately in front of me. I was looking up and I saw “Victoria’s Secret” – she was showing off the new style where women were wearing their pants so low that their underwear was showing. To a consultant that charges hundreds of dollars an hour (not like we collected it, but that’s a different story) this sort of behavior and style just screamed WTF.

When we bid on a client our clashing styles were immediately evident. I started out the template to respond to the RFP (request for proposal), and was tasked with estimating the cost to reply to this opportunity. The creatives didn’t seem to understand any of my questions, which seemed pretty simple to me:

What are we delivering, and how many hours will it take to build it?

They couldn’t be pinned down. Were we making a logo, or a web site? Would it allow them to run transactions? At the time that was just a tremendous amount of work and seemingly an insurmountable task.

We ended up bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars for what, I still am not sure. The company who was “buying” our services was VC funded and was just about bled dry, without having even launched anything substantial. The era of the dot.com companies had petered out and we were entering a recession.

This weekend the NY Times had an article titled “Buying the Bricks for Your Online Storefront” that profiled two small businesses that use pre-fab websites to launch their businesses.

The newer generation of web services helps create the appearance of independent, professional, polished retail establishments… these services typically charge users a fee, beginning around $10 a month and rising as a shop sells more varieties of products.

Later they mention that not only were they starting at $10 / month, the businesses were able to get the sites up and running in just two weeks! It took weeks just to set up meetings to begin to plan what we were going to do, back in the day.

It is important to realize how the falling costs of technology and services drives employment, then and now. Back in the day we had floors full of designers and expensive programmers, as well as infrastructure and network staff to get it all running. Today these automated tools and cloud services annihilate the jobs that were once viewed as high end and promising. While technology employment continually rises, it isn’t the same people – skills change and if you don’t change with it, that cool job goes to someone else. Maybe their underwear is even sticking out of their pants…

Cross posted at LITGM

4 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Building a Web Site, Then and Now”

  1. Tell me about it.

    When I became a programmer in the early 80s, I thought I had a lifetime skill. Well, I did if I kept relearning new languages, concepts (never did fully get OOP)

    It is funny because while things have changed in other ways they haven’t. Cloud sharing is simply a form of time sharing, which was prevalent when the only computers were mainframes- a small business would lease time and disk space and have a terminal or 2 in their office that went to a mainframe who knows where.

    I can remember in the mid 80s, working for the state of CA and talking about the ‘latest thing”- Lotus 1-2-3 (remember that?) and Gene, the boss, said that they had something similar to it when he worked on a mainframe in the 60s. You didn’t have a terminal and you most likely got a printout of some kind (and had to wait for it for hours most likely) but the idea was the same.

    Only difference is that the power and cost of computing has changed exponentially allowing users to do their own rather than use a big company’s.

    I’ll tell you another thing that hasn’t changed – the difficulty in telling a user/customer “how much will this cost” – that hasn’t really changed. And of course the customer needs to know so he can budget.

    When I had my company we developed in-house a DOS program that garages could use. I had a user who was a beta test site and as I saw obvious changes I should make to make it usable, time (and money) went on.

    And it was innovative – we had a unix version, too.

    Just about the time it was ready for market some 4-5 years later, Microsoft went to Windows.

    And I learned an expensive lesson (for a small company) but know others have spent millions getting to the same end.

    And that is why you see so many crappy and poorly running programs out there – because marketing tells engineering “we have to have something out there – we can fix it later”.

    It’s an interesting business.

    But the Victoria’s Secret – I don’t get that.

  2. The photo.net site has been around since the 1990s. Nowadays it would be simple to create a site with similar features, using free/cheap tools such as WordPress and vBulletin. But back in the day those tools didn’t exist and the custom software behind their discussion forums was a rare and valuable commodity. The founders ran the operation like a tech startup and tried to cash out for big $. At one point they obtained fancy offices, always a bad sign. They were a year or two too late to make big money but eventually sold out for some millions, which in hindsight was a great deal. They used to have this history posted on the site somewhere, maybe still do.

  3. Those were the good old days of MarchFirst and Divine Interventures and all the other dot bombs that popped up in the West Loop. By 2000, the feeling around town was like the last night on the Titanic. Guys would get their seed money for their latest internet sensation and immediately lease a 30 ft yacht. The harbor was getting crowded with all the world beaters, so the ones that weren’t burning through cash too much traded up to 45 ft yachts before the season ended.
    They were hiring thousands of people right up until they went bankrupt. It seemed the rug was pulled up from underneath them all right when all the boats were put in for the winter.

  4. My favorite year was seeing all these strange ads during the Super Bowl – companies that nobody had heard of – all fed with VC money

Comments are closed.