Sunday, November 7, 2010

. . . How I became a Webmaster

In 1994 if you asked me my profession, I would have instantly answered that I was a Network Security Engineer.

If you asked me to describe what it was that I did for a living, I would have said that I design and secure networks, test the security of networks, and advise companies on methods that they can use, and policy that they should adopt, to keep their business network secure.

At some point in the Summer of 1994 that all changed.

At the time I worked through an agency that provided technical expertise -- for a price -- to mostly corporate clients.

XYZ Corp might have had a bad security compromise, and be in need of an expert to come in, trace the compromise to its source, and implement whatever changes had to be made to protect them from it ever happening again. In the process they usually also asked for a complete security profile of their network in case there were other holes that they did not know about. In a nutshell, that is what I did -- and I liked it!

The first two weeks of the month I might be commuting to Boston, and the last two weeks I might be in Denver or LA. Business sometimes took me overseas -- mostly Europe and Asia -- and it was very cool... Until I learned that we were going to be parents. As I contemplated the idea of being on the road two to three weeks out of every month, while my pregnant wife sat at home waiting to have our baby, it was no longer as appealing as it had been.

Then I thought about how much I would not like it that I would be traveling instead of spending time with my family, because my wife would not be able to go with me on trips anymore -- once you have kids it changes the way you have to live.

I realized that I needed a regular job; a place to work where I went to the same place, and where I worked predictable hours, so I told my agent at the company that represented me to the market, and she went to work looking for a gig that fit the bill. A months after the New Year she called me and said she had something -- maybe.

It paid a little more than I was averaging on the road minus per diem, and while it was not network security per se, it did require a strong background in that area.

"What is the job?" I asked.

"Webmaster for a game company," she replied.

"Web what?! What the hell is a Webmaster?!" I asked, and she told me.

Webmasters -- The people behind the curtain

Back then a Webmaster was much more than the person who organized and oversaw the creative side of a website. You have to remember that in the Summer of 1994 the World Wide Web was still pretty new, and the position of Webmaster was not a formal and well understood job.

At some companies the Webmaster was only responsible for writing the code that was the website, while at others they were also responsible for overseeing the web server, securing the companies net connection, and anything else that a resource manager responsible for what was really a new communications media could be convinced was part of their job!

The company that had contacted her was looking for more than just a person who understood how to configure a web server, or new how to build a web page. They needed someone who could do all of that, sure, but also put together a team of people to help construct what was, arguably, the first fully-automated web-based platform for Fantasy Sports.

The company was called Replica Corporation, and prior to moving toward a web-based platform, they provided their gaming service via computerized phone systems. The gamers would call the number for their "service" and using the standard phone keypad, log in, negotiate a series of menus, and make the choices they wanted to make for the game that they were playing, which for Replica meant either Fantasy Sports like football and baseball, or Fantasy Stock Market games.

It sounded like a good fit for me -- I had an advanced knowledge of web servers and the daemon, and a fair bit of experience with building web sites -- but mostly they were either personal, or volunteer efforts, because at that point the web had not caught on and simply was not the destination that it would become only a year later.

She set me up for an interview... The company created Fantasy Sports and Investing Games, from Sports Illustrated Fantasy Football to the Fidelity Investment Challenge, and it sounded like an interesting place to work!

My Introduction to the Web

In April 1991, I found myself backpacking on the Franco-Swiss border and badly in need of a place to stay the night. I had failed to make reservations at the youth hostel where I thought I was going to stay, unaware that in that part of the world reservations were a necessity, and the cost of a hotel for the weekend would have rivaled the price I had paid for my plane ticket to Europe!

Fortunately I remembered that a friend from university had managed an internship at the Conseil EuropĂ©en pour la Recherche NuclĂ©aire -- also known as CERN -- or what is now called the European Organization for Nuclear Research. After a few false starts — CERN is more a city than it is a facility — I managed to track her down.

Grace is a physicist, and a kind and gentle soul who was happy to put me up for a few days in her flat and be my tourist guide that weekend. It was a Friday morning and she needed to be at work, so we met in front of the market and she parked me in her flat, showed me how to operate the TV, the espresso machine, and the water closet, and hurried off to do that physicist thing she did at CERN.

Bored, I turned on the TV, but every show was in French, which I do speak, but rather slowly and not with a vocabulary suited to daytime TV. The folks on the telly were speaking so fast I got about one word in three if I was lucky, so I made myself an espresso and searched the well-packed bookshelf for something to read, certain that I would find a book more entertaining than the TV.

Everything in the bookshelf that was printed in English related to physics — except for one shelf full of bodice-ripper romance novels -- and I was not that bored!

Among the shelf after shelf of books in languages I did not read at all, or at least not well, I finally found one spiral-bound book that was in English; entitled "Information Management: A Proposal" by a bloke named Tim Berners-Lee, who it turned out worked at CERN.

Tucked into this book was a packet consisting of a proposal for use and notes from what I believe was a presentation on the use of this new software. As I read the book I experienced my first epiphany of my life — the book was about building a hypertext standard and a client-server model that would be called the "World Wide Web." When I finished reading it, my first thought was, "This will change the way people use the Internet!" My second thought was, "I cannot wait to see what this looks like!"

That weekend I had the chance to see the Web on one of the NeXT Slabs (a workstation computer that could also function as a server that was designed and build by Steve Jobs after he left Apple). The Web Server was a NeXT Cube, and both the server and client software was created at CERN, largely by a man named Tim Berners-Lee, who moved from CERN to a position at MIT later that year.

I did not get to meet Berners-Lee at CERN -- though I would have the opportunity to meet him a few years later at MIT and during the 4th International World Wide Web Conference in Boston, where I was a member of the MBone Team.

The point to all this is that I learned about the Web in that tiny flat in Switzerland, and a few years later after I acquired my own NeXT Slab, I actually ran my own web server, and created a few web sites. Did that qualify me to be a Webmaster? Well, sort of...

The Interview at Replica

As is often the case, there was more to this job than was instantly obvious. When I showed up for my interview it was with the company CFO and CTO, who sat me down in a meeting room and told me all about what they did there -- Fantasy Gaming -- and what they hoped to do on the World Wide Web very soon. They asked a lot of questions about my background, but what surprised me was that they seemed to be more interested in my abilities as a Systems and Network Engineer than as a Webmaster...

As the conversation moved towards the end of the interview I grew a little suspicious -- there was nothing concrete that I could point at and cry "foul!" but there was something slightly off. As we were shaking hands and saying our good bye's I asked them point-blank: "You are not in critical path on anything, are you?"

"Oh no, not at all," they lied, with sincerity.

I went away thinking that the interview had gone well. I knew that they had a dozen other people to interview, so I did not expect to hear from them any time soon, but the following day I got a call from my agent: Replica wanted to hire me.

"They want you," she said. "But not as a contract. They want you as salary, and they are willing to pay us our buy-out fee," she added. I whistled, then clucked my tongue. The buy-out to hire talent away from that agency was $50,000 and even in 1994 that was a lot of money.

"Are they serious?" I asked.

"They want you to start tomorrow," she answered.

My First Day at Replica lasted 336 hours

After all of the paperwork was signed -- my contract, my salary papers, insurance and other legal papers that included a stack of NDA's, I was shown my office, and asked what I needed as far as computers were concerned, both for myself, and for my staff. What staff? I asked. Why, the staff you will need to hire -- you have to do that, it is part of your job, they said.

As I sat at my mostly barren desk making the list of the kit we would need, I also made a list of the staff that I would need to hire, and I only just finished that when the manager in charge of the database section came in and dropped a bomb in my lap.

He wanted to interface with me on how soon I expected to get an Internet Connection in to the building, and whether or not the existing network would work for that, and would we be hosting our own email? I must have looked odd, I am sure I looked confused -- and then he said, "Man, I don't know how you are going to manage getting that game built and deployed in less than 6 weeks! You must have brass balls or something!"

A few targeted questions revealed that not only was Replica in critical path on a project -- it was now MY project, and they had a contractual obligation to a major Financial Services company to get that game up and running in one day less than 6 weeks! They had known that for half a year, they just only got around to hiring the Webmaster that week!

I was in trouble. I instantly understood that. I went directly to the CTO to get the true word -- how bad was the situation? Very bad.

I needed to put together a game that had precisely Zero lines of code already written, test it, get it online, and then make sure it worked under load. But before I could do that, I had to get them an Internet connection -- they had no Internet services. Oh, and I needed to get staff as well, to actually build the game!

That night I went home for the last time in the next two weeks -- when I showed up for work the following morning I had my sleeping bag and a duffel full of the things I would need, and I lived in my office.

I slept under my desk, and I ate take-away food from nearby restaurants. The space that we were in had previously had a gym attached to it, so there was a large bathroom with showers down the hall, and it had a decent lunch room, but not the sort where you could cook anything more sophisticated than a microwave meal.

I was hired on a Tuesday. Using connections from previous jobs and contacts at Verizon, I was able to bypass the usual roadblocks that are put up by the provisioning office, and get an order for a full T-1 line and Internet connection fast-tracked for installation three days later on Friday afternoon. I quickly revised the list that I had written on needed hardware, and I also revised the list on needed staff, changing it from what I wanted to what I knew I needed.

The server I chose was a Sun Netra Server, which had to be ordered through an authorized Sun Computer distributor, but that too was fast-tracked for delivery on Friday. I put the orders in for the PC hardware, expediting that through the CTO's office, and then I drove over to U-Do-It Electronics and bought the tools I needed, and a box containing 500 feet of CAT-5 wire, a dozen surface-mount boxes and all of the kit that went with it.

I spent Thursday wiring the office that I had been assigned -- a room about 30 feet by 40 feet in size sectioned off into six cubicles of varying sizes. Mine, for instance, was a little larger than the others, and had my desk and chair, and a love seat style couch, coffee table, and single matching upholstered chair in it, ostensibly for meetings. The couch was too small to be used as a bed, so when I slept it was under my desk, in or on my sleeping bag. I did not sleep much.

The PC's arrived late on Thursday, and I spent most of the afternoon and evening evening getting them installed on their respective desks, and hooked to our network, which was itself connected via a fiber backbone to a new switch in what was destined to be our server room -- a small area that was adjacent to the servers being used by the database and programming departments, and the client systems belonging to the IVR department.

At that point, Replica had about 200 computers on tables running the length of the building in four rows, staffed by part-time college students who would take the calls of the customers, and using the computer in front of them, enter their "moves" into the system. That was in addition to the automated telephone input and response system that was in the process of being phased out, to be replaced by the Internet.

Friday Arrives

When I woke up under my desk on Friday morning, I had a fully-functioning department with a staff of one -- me. On each of the six desks were two computers each -- one running Windows, one running Linux.

At the time I was partial to Slackware, so that is what was installed on the systems. We needed both -- the Windows boxes to interface with the existing network, and the Linux boxes for development. I was not sure what the staff would prefer -- Windows or Linux -- so I figured that having the option was the way to go. The Linux boxes were all configured for X11, and although we did not have an Internet connection at that point, could talk to each other and the DSN Servers I had put together using Slackware and deployed in the server room just fine.

The T-1 crew showed up early, and by 1 PM we had a fully-functioning Internet connection sitting behind a commercial grade firewall, with a DMZ containing our DNS servers and connections for our Web Server when it arrived. There was much rejoicing.

The folks from Sun showed up an hour later, and by 4:30 PM we had our web server deployed, tested, and functioning, but not connected to the Internet because it needed to be hardened and have the unnecessary services and ports closed. I could not do that immediately, because I had somewhere that I needed to be that afternoon.

-- 2600 The Hacker Quarterly --

At that time, in Boston, on the first Friday of every month, a colorful collection of characters gathered in the food court at the Prudential Center for the monthly 2600 Meeting. 2600 being 2600 the Magazine -- or 2600 the Hacker Quarterly as it was officially called. From all over the Boston area and points covering most of Eastern Massachusetts, parts of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine, computer and phone hacking enthusiasts would gather to chat, view impromptu presentations, and be social.

After grabbing food and beverages, the meeting would come together in the far rear corner of the dining area, and while it was half social and half serious, it was all fun. We played games like Spot the Fed, and talked about more than just the latest issue of 2600 or what the people were up to in our group and the groups within our group. It was a different era -- much different than what you find today -- but more important than that, it was where I needed to be, because it was where I was going to recruit the core members of the Web Staff for Replica!

The first person that I "recruited" was Sean Hamor -- AKA Sciri -- one of the smartest and most capable net geeks I know. As soon as I arrived at the meeting I sat down next to him, and I asked him how he liked his job -- at the time he was working for the City of Boston or maybe it was the MBTA? Anyway, he was working as a temp -- and he hated his job.

"Quit," I said. "Today."

"I can't quit, I need the money," he explained.

"Quit. Come to work with me. I can get you three times what they are paying you -- maybe more," I said.

I am not sure if he believed me right then or not... I called the CFO and told him that I had found the first member of the Web Staff, and I needed to have him in the office, first thing Monday morning, ready to start, and what would that take?

He had to be interviewed. He had to fill out some papers. It was mostly formality, I was told. And that was true. Sean started to believe me as the call progressed. On Monday instead of showing up for work at the City, he showed up at Replica, had his interview, worked out what he wanted to be paid, and moved into his desk that day.

The second person I hired was a young woman named Window Snyder, who was a genius at code and fully grok'd the World Wide Web. Based upon their recommendations we hired a coder -- a bloke named Steve who would have been right at home on Haight-Ashbury Street in 1968 -- and Replica had its Web Team!

After Replica sold its online gaming assets and closed up shop, the team scattered to the four winds -- Sean went on to work for Lucent Technologies, and eventually ended up as Operational Systems Administrator for Canonical USA, which I understand is a place and position he likes a lot. Window took the job as network security boss at Mozilla, where she hardened my favorite browser, Firefox, before moving on to Apple Computer, where she is the Senior Security Product Manager. I do not know what happened to Steve... But that, in essence, is the story of how I became a Webmaster!

The team that I assembled pulled off a major miracle, building the game from scratch from outline to finished code in less than 5 weeks. We did the Sports Illustrated Fantasy Football game, the Fidelity Investment Challenge, and a half-dozen other projects before the company was shut down, having sold-off its game business for serious money.

That introduction to the world of All-Area Utility Webmaster served me well, and the skill and knowledge that I acquired in the process has proven useful at other jobs, and in the volunteer work that I have done and continue to do.

What is a Webmaster?

To this day I am still not sure what the answer to that question really is... Despite the fact that the World Wide Web is nearly 20 years old, the reality is that the position of Webmaster still means many different things depending on the company.

To my way of thinking the easy definition is this: The person who is responsible for the day-to-day operation, planning, content, and content deployment for a web server and site. That sounds about right.

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