We were the king
s, the players
. The ball was in our court
all the time. Money
was paper and time was scarce.
I was in Los Angeles some two years back. My roommate was there for a Short-term project and I was visiting him over a weekend. He was with a team of some 5-6 people, everyone had a rental car and a room to himself in an expensive hotel, all paid by the employer (Money was paper remember). L.A. is very different from Silicon Valley. The team liked it there. The driving was cut throat competitive, girls wore much skimpier dresses, beaches were way more accessible, and although none of us were really planning to buy a house yet, houses were cheaper. And well, anyway - the apartment rents were way, way less than in the Bay Area.
"I'll move here in a month", Ajit, the cigar lover, declared over breakfast. "I've started looking for a job here, enough Bay Area man, I love L.A.!" And we all knew that it wasn't just talk. We all knew we could find a job in San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago, New Jersey, Austin, San Jose, the day we wanted, with moving allowance, sign-in bonuses, stock options, and salary raise. We Rocked!!
Rajan from Southern India used to telecommute to New York City from the Bay Area every week, company expenses. Raju's client company had a fleet of contractors just because they had budget for them. The project got canned but money was there so all Raju did all day was browse the net and 'Live'.
Life was not all roses for everyone though. Working late hours, nights, weekends, junk food were the norm. Booze was company sponsored, so were breakfasts and dinners. We got ourselves the cars, clothes, food we liked, we never cared to look at the price tags or receipts; We just didn't have the time!! Money was paper and time was scarce. It was a far cry from the day I joined my Masters course in Computer Applications (MCA) a couple of years ago back home.
The first day I had joined MCA, a senior year guy, I still remember, was giving introductory lecture to the class. "What kind of money do you guys expect to get once you get out of here?" he asked. All of us from modest families, with modest expectations, answered Rs 6000.00 a month, some went up to Rs 8000.00. Some seniors snickered -"if you get 5000.00 PM, you're lucky, unless you work in COBOL for some Y2K project", they said. By the time the three year course came to an end, IT was at its peak. I got a job for Rs 15000.00 per month at a networking company where going to US for Short-term projects was the norm. I didn't even have a passport yet. Soon after I joined the job, my manager asked me to arrange one ASAP. I didn't take it too seriously then, but within a year I was working on a high profile wireless ATM research project in Princeton, New Jersey.
The employer paid the return air fare, expenses for stay at an expensive hotel for four months, car rental, food, general expenses plus Indian salary in my bank account back home. And I had working hours from 8 in the mornings to midnight everyday - weekends included. At end of 4 months, the project was extended and I moved from New Delhi to New Jersey with a very decent salary.
After a year, I moved from NJ to San Jose for a new project at a new client, I was still contracting but was getting more and more inclined towards a full time placement. These were the times of plenty. The keyword was 'new', and 'young'. These were the times of Venture Capitalism, Startups, IPOs, eBay, NetZero, WebVan, PalmV, Broadband, and Y2K. Ideas were selling like hot cakes. New web sites were launched almost every hour. In the real world, new restaurants were opening every day, every street corner, new offices and apartments were being constructed on every patch of land available. The home costs, and apartment rents were going up like stocks, Cisco was fighting a court case for building a campus at Coyote Valley; they were planning to employ 10,000 people per month for at least next one year. The future was broadband and everyone was ready for it.
We were the fuel in the IT economy. People like Me, Raju, Ajit, Rajan. We worked hard and earned harder. Money was paper (remember?) and time was scarce. The countless job offers were around, we dictated the terms, we dictated the price. When all you get is less than 6 hours of time per day for yourself anyways - might as well get the best price for your hour. Making career was stupid - making money was easy.
Meeting people earning 60-80K was rare when I first started working in U.S., but very soon every other software engineer you met was earning in terms of 100-120K; you didn't need many years of experience, nor a very wide array of expertise, one was enough. All you really needed to do was be ready to sell your time. All of it. (And by the way, there was no alternative).
Between buying a home, or using their savings to earn more money, a lot of people were choosing the second option. Some were using personal savings to start new ventures. Some, with lesser capital, were pushing all their money in stock market. I knew several couples where if the wife wasn't working, she'd take to invest in stock market. It worked great for most couples.
My roommate and I paid quite a handsome rent for an average 2 bedroom apartment closer to our offices (we would rather sleep than commute long distances, we had decided), but we used it exclusively for sleeping at nights. There'd be days we would not even see each other. We started for offices early and returned late. We would see each other once a week or something.
For me personally, with only a few years of experience, it became important to create a niche for myself technically and so I decided to be content with what I had and be with a job for a few years before switching. It turned out to be a good idea later, but initially, everyone I knew with the same job profiles considered such an idea outdated.
We were making the Internet. We didn't invent it but well, then nobody did. Some invented TCP/IP, Some invented ATM, and some did invent internet, but no one invented the Internet ('internet' - 'Internet' - they're different!)1. It was being made, it was being constructed, sculpted. We were making it, bit by bit with our hands (literally). When you were buying movie tickets online, you were sending your credit card information and receiving conformation numbers via zeroes and ones traveling over routers, switches, network cards we wrote software for, through web pages we had coded; on some web pages, if you cared to see source code for, you could find funny comments or variable names which all of a sudden made them 'warm', which made those cold business pages 'human'. That was Ajit, or Srini, or Mohan adding in a little personal light note to his work.
When you were accessing your e-mail, uploading images, downloading songs, playing games, reading news, chatting - there were bits dancing around in arrays,
chars we had coded, several of them over long weekends when we could've been out skiing or socializing, over nights when we could have been, for a change, sleeping peacefully.
People were changing jobs for money, and money was paper (remember) - stocks, stock options, thousands of pre IPO stocks for pennies each ... promising to give back millions. We were working like machines, to make these machines towards early retirements. Everyone I knew had a dream home, vacation, and vocation in works at the back of their minds. "Once I reach that figure in my bank, I'll retire and go live back in my small home town in India. I'm getting tired of all this.", I remember Rohit mention one time. As I said before - we had no other choice. Slowing down was not an option.
And that's when came the last quarter of 2000. It did hit after all, Y2K, just in a very different way than feared for years. You should've seen those parking lots...
All of a sudden, something forceful, something unseen ... yet, some said, pretty obvious, hit our industry. It was getting easier everyday to meet people who had seen it coming, though they could not explain what had happened either, they just knew the bubble would burst. I look at it like this - when you're seeing a balloon being blown, you constantly, but subconsciously, keep fearing, hoping, waiting for it to burst. Doesn't happen always, but when it does - well, you expected it. So honestly, none of us really saw it was coming. None of us knew.
It was also easy to meet people shocked by the falling numbers. Thousands were lost in 401Ks, millions in stock market. The paper money was just paper now. The paper castles, paper homes, paper cars ... everything was, all of a sudden, just paper.
returns were still there, my linked lists were still juggling bits. But all of a sudden it seemed no one wanted it to get any better, any faster. Layoffs, bankruptcy, close-outs were becoming common. Several of my friends got laid off. My ex office was closed down. Everyone was 'sent-off'. Several people I knew had to move out of Silicon Valley. Some on temporary status like me even decided to return back home to India; the future plans were all washed away. The only thing certain was uncertainty. Visibility, as has been the catch phrase for some time in Bay Area now, into future was low. The stocks were falling like rain. Sooner you were out of them, the better. Every gathering I went to, personal, official, everyone talked of someone they knew getting affected. It started with a friend of a friend of a friend getting affected, but the circle soon started to get smaller. Soon, people I knew personally got affected. The fire was visible, heat felt.
How has it changed things for me today? The job offers have vanished; Money is still paper - only that I know its just paper now. Working hours are worse because although the market has thinned, so has the workforce. It has just put extra work in each hand. My productivity is relative now; "Watch over your shoulder", my manager told me during my last performance review, "You could be excellent independently speaking, but its all comparative now. The lower 5% are always under the axe now. The times are not good ..."
Some Friday evenings I get paged and told I'm expected to work over the weekend and how the management already appreciates it. Need to be around for extra hours is not communicated anymore - it should be obvious to everyone.
So I ask myself, was the Internet created for freeloading? Internet was created with intention to make it an information sharing medium, but how? without money to allow it? Who'd feed it then? Why would Time, Newsweek, CNN, post their news stories for free on web? Why would Hotmail, or Yahoo give free e-mail services? Why would someone work for them without money? How were they all doing it so far? I guess the answer to the last question is an 'initial-loss' based business model in most cases, and so obviously it cannot go on forever. There ought to be money generated, one way or other.
Books, magazines, movies are sharing mediums too. Why are they not free? And even when I shell out money to buy a pricey magazine, why is it not advertisement free? How could Internet be just a free sharing medium forever?
Banner ads are stupid, we all agree, so is spam. Internet marketing in its current shape doesn't make too much sense. But doesn't making money from it?
'internet' was not designed for making money - but it wasn't designed for you and me either. It was created for scientists, defense experts to be able to keep in touch in case the traditional networks got damaged in a war. It was not created for us to download porn, songs, watch movie trailers, or have video conferences. It did this because we made it ... we were the Kings, in the game where being a player was to be a pawn ...
Conventionally speaking internet is a kind of networking, I can add three computers together at my home and create an 'internet'. Internet is a specific 'internet' - the global 'internet' we all use - aka World Wide Web (www)"
Many thanks to bindlenix
for being my unofficial mentor for this node.