Dialing Up The Web

Originally posted by Algonquin Studios CEO, Steven Raines, on September 23, 2012, on his blog.

When I first met Stephen Kiernan over 15 years ago, my business partner, mentor, friend, and the former CEO of Algonquin Studios was already an experienced programmer, analyst, and professional consultant. Just a few years earlier, I’d been in college working on sites for this new thing called “the World Wide Web” but by the time Algonquin Studios was hired to build a claims adjudication system for a national third-party administrator people had decided that this “Internet” thing probably wasn’t going away.

Early in his career, Steve worked in a software development package called KnowledgeMan, an all-in-one database / UI / business logic development environment. He’d kept up his technical chops in the Microsoft Windows environment as the databases became separate and 4GL languages were taken over by object-oriented ones. I viewed him as supremely technically savvy for someone I then viewed as an “old guy,” which is why I found it funny that Steve, despite his keen mind, didn’t use any of the terms for the web that my other partners and me, or anyone else we knew, used. Instead, he used these weird terms that harkened back to the days of Tomcat BBS. As an example, when he wanted us to see something on the Internet, he’d always say “Dial up that web site” as though he was expecting the screech of a modem at the beginning of each browser launch. This engendered more than a little good natured ribbing from the other partners and myself in those early days when half of the work day was sitting around trying to figure out how to be a business that didn’t make “real” things.

In the last year, I turned the same age that Stephen was when I first met him. In looking back over those years I realized how many of his antiquated (in the sense that things that are older than three years are ancient in the technical world) ways of referencing things had become my own. Not that I’d adopted his specific terms so much as developed my own which must seem equally ridiculous and anachronistic to the young men and women we have hired.

It’s not that I don’t know what I am talking about. It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert and as anyone who has started a business knows, you invest far more than 2,080 hours a year to grow one. Technology doesn’t grow at a pace that can outstrip that much effort and experience, at least not in just a few years. Instead, it becomes a badge of honor to reference those earlier days when things seemed simpler, whether they really were or not. There is an implication that somehow the things that are done after what you have been through are less visceral and meaningful; somewhere between “you kids have it easy” and “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Steve could have done all of what we did. Most of the technology was based on things he’d done early in his career. Still, as far as the web was concerned, he decided that it was best left for new dogs. It may be that you can’t escape the technological mindset that you have when you are young and obligation free enough to throw yourself fully into the technology and as you get older you eventually hit a threshold after which the only thing that matters is whether something works… not whether you made it with your own hands. What he kept for himself and shared was his reflections on his triumphs and mistakes and the lessons he’d learned working in those early systems that were in some ways much simpler and in some ways so much more complicated than what we were doing. I know it was a hard transition for him to make… from player to coach, especially now that I find myself in the dug out with my only at-bats in a cage demonstrating mostly to myself that I can still hit the ball.

More than once I have found myself using my own “backward” terminology with my team on purpose, like an inside joke with only one participant. I wonder now whether it was really Steve who was the one messing with us when he used to “dial up” that web site instead of the other way around.

I do find it ironic after all those years of chastising him for it we are now on the verge of having the majority of web use being from mobile devices. It turns out that maybe Steve was right in hanging on to that old dial-up reference. We are now far more likely to use a phone to get to a web site (or at least web services) than we are to make a call. I was recently looking at my phone and found myself thinking “Why do I have the phone icon pinned to every screen when there are plenty of apps I use WAY more often?” Perhaps it’s time to revisit some of his other anachronisms to mine them for the next big thing. After all, don’t they say everything old is new again?


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