As I mentioned previously, Wyvern Technology was the company I started with on the web. It was then acquired by the Landmark Communications, owners of The Virginia Pilot and other properties. This was when they became InfiNet. Later Knight-Ridder became a partner. Between the two, we covered newspapers across the country that needed to start looking at getting online.
Wyvern was situated in an office building in Norfolk, Virginia. Funny, I don’t remember how tall the building was. It wasn’t, but you took an elevator to get there so maybe three floors? Probably just two. Strange what the memory can and can’t remember. I’m not sure I could even find the building now, it’s been so long.
I’ve told the story of how I started there elsewhere. At the time, I was living with my girlfriend Nancy across the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in Hampton, Virginia. So going to Wyvern meant going both over and under the Chesapeake Bay. It wasn’t a bad drive except during heavy traffic. I think I was driving a Renault Alliance then, a small silver car that could switch lanes on a dime.
Tom, Richard, and Randy were the founders. Randy had something to do with setting up the hardware, I think Richard was general operations, and Tom was the president? I really can’t recall with any certainty. There was another sometimes volunteer, Rudy, who was there occasionally. Rudy had apparently tried to get the SLIP/PPP connections going but hadn’t succeeded. So I was, in some ways, the fifth person at Wyvern, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I kept gdavis for years. It became email@example.com, then firstname.lastname@example.org. When I finally got into the gmail beta years later though, someone else had already claimed it so I became davisge. Basic, easy to remember, professional. /Shrug. Just not the one I’d been using.
Did you know that in those early days, someone tried printing directories of email addresses? You could buy a book of nothing but names and email addresses. It was a useless directory, really, but it allowed the originators to grab some cash from book sales.
When Wyvern hired me, I’m not sure what my role was called at the time. I did some system administration until they hired John. John was great. He was one of the few people I’ve encountered that I could have really good conversations with about servers and system administration, and sometimes more diverse topics. He was a good man.
My role was strange. I did a bit of everything. I built their web, I wrote their documentation. I was tech support. If someone was having a problem, often a man named Kenny, I would field the call and talk them through their issues.
Kenny and technology just didn’t get along. A couple of times he came in the office so I could show him the things I was trying to talk him through. He had a good heart, just was confused by all these new things. (Sidebar: I recommend you read Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler, for some good insights on how people deal with our technological future and the anxieties it can cause.)
Once Wyvern was purchased by Knight-Ridder, the newspaper conglomerate, we became InfiNet. I remember trying to come up with a really cool logo, and failing. Another artist came up with a very nice negative space logo that they adopted.
Catherine came on as office manager. She didn’t like me. She was a no-nonsense kind of person. Me, I’ve always been a bit too playful for people like that. Many a nose has been turned up at my antics.
Let me give you an example.
The telephone interfaces that were placed in the cities where InfiNet was offering service did not get their passwords from a central database. Anytime a user was added, the account(s) had to be pushed to the hardware in whatever city it was in. If you bought a new account, it wouldn’t become active until I had pushed the passwords out, usually at 5pm daily. Then I’d pick up the phone, and use the intercom to announce “Password synchronization complete” so that everyone would know it had been done.
But sometimes, sometimes, I’d pick up the intercom again and announce “The white zone is for loading and unloading of passengers only.” A complete non sequitur but fun, right? Yeah, I remember Catherine marching into my little office in her black pants suit to tell me to cut it out.
Now Tom, didn’t like the way I dressed. I’d sometimes wear interesting hats. Nothing really out there, but just different enough to be, well, different with an actual feather in the hatband. I liked it. Tom didn’t want me wearing it to or from the office. He also told me, after I had my left ear pierced, that I would never sit on the board of any company with a pierced ear. So when I met the CEO of Adobe later, and he had both ears pierced, I wished I should have sent Tom a picture.
I also had a black formal jacket that I wore on occasion, and my girlfriend Nancy’s mom had made a a victorian era cape, my vampire cape.
Never underestimate the power of a good cape. It’s nearly always the right temperature and I soon found that beautiful women would come up to me try to start a conversation. Me being me, I never understood what other people expected of my reactions, so I never knew what to say. Naturally, Tom didn’t like my cape, either.
The little boy who gasped “Batman” when I stepped into the elevator one day did though. I will always remember his gasp of wonder.
The problem for Tom was that, in some ways, I was seen as the face of the company. I was the person anyone who needed help talked to, and I was becoming quite famous for Cool Site of the Day.
After the acquisition, they held a focus group with our customers to see what they thought of the company. I will never forget watching Kenny on the video tape say that he hated to bother me because he felt like he was keeping me from working on the next big thing. I remember the scoffs I heard when that was played.
People have always seemed to expect the next big thing from me. I have always been more inclined to hand my ideas to others and just focus on whatever my current obsession is. In those days it was pushing the web to its limits.
I was moved to a non-customer facing position soon afterward and they actually hired people to do customer support. So I could work on the next big thing? No, so I could work for Rick, our new director of business development, and I became the official webmaster. InfiNet leased the downstairs floor of that building and I had an office of my own. Lem Apperson came over from the Virginia Pilot newspaper to help build websites.
Our first commercial website was for The Virginia Peanut Company. Imagine transparent gif images of peanuts for list items on a grey background with blue links. There you have it, the primary design of The Virginia Peanut Company with the primitive code we had available. They had a form and people could order peanuts. One of the first online stores.
Lem was a good man with a big heart. I wasn’t always the nicest to him. I once, yelled at him for over-sharpening a peanut. Can you imagine? I’m sorry, Lem.
He gave me one of my best memories of InfiNet however. I still tell this story to others. I think I told it again just recently.
So, in those days Apple was going from the Motorola’s MC68000 microprocessor to IBM’s PowerPC processor for their systems. With this power came some new possibilities. I had the pizza box Mac, the PowerPC 6100.
Back then every Mac came with a microphone designed to sit on top of a monitor. It really wasn’t very useful, but when you consider that one day people would be talking to devices, it was really quite a nice way to try to get people used to the possibilities.
I hooked up my microphone and was trying out the “Computer” ‘do this’ commands when Lem burst into the room and said “Computer shut down” and it did. It was hilarious, and I love that he did that and I love to tell that story.
Tom and Richard seemed to understand I was a resource, even though I was odd and I’d never advance to management with my earring. They sent me, for instance, the the second W3C Development Conference in 1994, Mosaic and the Web in Chicago. It was there that I met Marc Andreeson and the crew behind Mosaic as they became Mosaic Communications Corporation. I heard that announcement in person. It was, in some ways, a tumultuous conference. MCC would become Netscape a few weeks later, I believe. I also learned a bit about VRML. Virtual Reality Markup Language.
I came back, gave an oral report of what I saw, and got to work again pushing the web to do new things.
I also started getting invited to speak at conferences. MacWorld Boston was the first. I’ll be writing about that a bit in another piece.
Things got a little weird once Knight-Ridder got involved.
A newspaper will tell you that it values the community it serves. The reality is that they value the advertising revenue from targeting their communities. The communities themselves are a means to an end, profit.
So the Knight-Ridder vision of InfiNet was apparently to become your local internet service provider. That seems reasonable, when you read it, right? So if you had an account you would dial up your local number and you could check your email.
If you weren’t at home though, there was no way to access your email unless you dialed that number local to your home. You couldn’t access your email from any other place. They were your local only ISP.
The customers were targets for the newspapers of their localities and so not the global internet. In the end, I understand greed didn’t work, but I was long gone by then.
One of Rick’s business development goals for the future were, smoked glass virtual reality buildings in an internet based shopping mall. The Aardvark Mall. Why that name? Because a name starting with AA is going to be higher alphabetically in any listing, right? Just ask Ay-ay-ron. Of course, hashtags didn’t exist, but #aardvark would beat even that. Everyone was still trying to figure out how ecommerce would actually work on the web.
A death can change the course of many lives.
When I was in High School in Walton, West Virginia, a band geek friend died, Earnie. I didn’t know him very well but he was one of our small band of band geeks. David, Brice, John, Gary, myself, and Earnie had hung out, ridden bikes together, etc. He had a genetically transmitted disease and one day, while I was away on a trip, he collapsed and was buried before I got back.
My father was bothered that I didn’t seem to show a lot of sadness or remorse at his death. I didn’t know him well, like my other friends did. I was the newcomer, moved there from Ohio. They had known him a while. I had no idea how I was expected to react, so I didn’t.
One Sunday morning Rick was fixing breakfast with his son, and suffered a brain aneurism. Rick was gone.
When I came into the office Monday morning Tom told me about it. I don’t recall reacting visibly, but Rick’s was the first death to really touch me, second only to the death of my son. I went back to the office and worked some, but I don’t think I got a lot done that day.
For the next few weeks, I cried during my morning shower.
I was a pall bearer at his funeral. I felt so out of place. Everyone else was wearing dark blue suits, and I just had an old light brown one. I wasn’t a suit or dress clothes person. I love good clothes, I’ve just never owned any.
There’s a moment as a pall bearer when you pick up the casket and you feel the body slide on the silk interior and thump against the side. I remember that vividly.
I missed Rick. He was a good man who wasn’t afraid to embrace of the visions of others. He and I got along well but he was gone when the shit hit the fan. I’ll be talking about that in part two.