Operator? I’d Like To Make A Long Distance Call…To Hell

Posted Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 4:00 pm

After that silly foray into get-rich-quick schemes, we (still with my longtime biz partner), hooked up with a CLEC. A CLEC? Is that the present-pluperfect of Cluck? "If Roger The Rooster were to CLEC, it would wake ever’body up". (I have no idea whether that’s a genuine example of present pluperfect, mind you).

CLEC, translation: Competitive Local Exchange Carrier. That’s hilarious. That’s no translation, that’s a hairball! Real translation: a telephone company.

I grew up with a hard black plastic dial telephone. There was just "the phone company". Bell Telephone. Period. End of discussion. You leased the phone from the phone company, you paid whatever they charged. Period.

In 1986, there was some court ruling that broke up the phone companies, in order to create competition in the marketplace. Apparently, in 1998, a particular phase of that occurred, either due to new legislation or just the maturation of the technology, and so these CLECs started popping up all over the country.

The one we hooked up with turned out to be one of the largest venture capital, uh, ventures in history. More seed money was raised to start the company than had ever been raised in a single round of financing before. This company was going to provide business telephone and internet access bundles. And that’s where i came in. I was the internet guy. I’d have never had a chance at the job if not for my business partner. He engineered it all so that I could have autonomy as the Unix systems administrator, build the systems as I saw fit, and make it all happen.

It was a thrill, albeit with some intense bumps early on. But after I’d built all the servers, and gotten everything really running, it ran smoothly. It was a dream system, dual-failover load balancers, dual main servers – enterprise class (Sun E4500’s), and a redundant Netapp cluster for storage. It was sweet.

Those servers are still running to this day in fact. They’re not doing nearly as much as they used to – they’re gradually being decommissioned – but I’m damned proud the stuff ran and ran and ran and ran long after I left.

Next secret code for the word weary: ephemeral connection!

We’ll Be Right Back, After This Selloff

Posted Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 3:44 pm

After the company was bought out, with that nice-ish chunk of change in the bank, I took about six months off. The weight of the servers off my back, I was no longer jarred out of sleep by my pager going off, due to some crisis or another.

In the last month/two months of that, my former biz partner and I decided it would be fun to hop onto the then hot trend of "Day Trading" on the stock market. It had started making news some months before, and there were tales of people making genuine fortunes playing this game. So we rented a little office (in the same building where we’d started out that ISP!), got a connection to the net, each of us put up  some seed money as our starting ‘bank’ accounts, and started day trading.

What a whirlwind month. Watching little charts onscreen, little blips up, little blips down, and every blip causing a blip in my heartrate. Look it’s climbing really fast, should I sell now? But it might go higher! I’ll hold onto it a little longer! Wait, it just blipped down, dang, I could have sold at 14 3/4ths, but now it’s down to 13 1/2. but it might go up again, I’ll hang onto it! Now it’s down another point, it’s almost where I bought it! Sell sell sell!

I wound up making the most money that month on the few trades I made short-selling. Was that due to some gift of perspicacity when it came to foretelling the downward trend of a stock? No, it was the general trend of the market! That month – August of 1998 – the market took a mini-dive. I ended up only losing about 1/8th of the amount I’d put into the pot, thank goodness, but it certainly didn’t make us rich.

It was kind of fun, the same kind of fun one has playing blackjack. It was gambling. The stock market is the worlds largest legal gambling facility. period.

Timing is everything, and the company grew at a tremendous pace. We had a competitor in the region that was also growing very fast. But there was more than enough business for everyone. Nevertheless, the pompous young owner of that ISP actually had the huevos to come a-calling, and told my boss that there was no hope – he’d drive us out of business. Of course, my boss absolutely thrived on a challenge, so that just made us work harder. In the end, they outlasted us – by a long margin – but we sold our business to a large ISP conglomerate for some pretty good coin – we left the business profitable and thriving. Our competitor is still in business, and by all gossip I hear, the red ink is rising. The growth of the telcos as the providers has all but killed off the independent ISP.

I had a great love for that first business we had. I bought into the company for a small percentage fairly early on, and when we sold the company I made a small but nice chunk of coin myself. But when the evil conglomerate laid off all but three or four of us the day before thanksgiving, I wept openly in my office at how they’d raped and gutted us. I’d thrown my heart and soul into that company, took every customer criticism and praise to heart. I tend to be that way. I invest my self-esteem in the work I do, and have a tremendous fear of letting people down. It’s a curse.

Why, When I Was A Boy….

Posted Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 3:13 pm

I started out earning a living ‘on the internet’ in October of 1994. I was hired to answer phones for a small local ISP, that had recently gotten a 56K frame relay connection to the internet. I still vividly recall my first day on the job. The office was just a tiny half an office really. barely more than a very large walk in closet. The owner was the only staffer. He’d partnered with a fellow who printed a monthly rag about the online world, and they were leveraging that periodical as a ‘free’ means of getting the word out – advertising – this little ISP’s services. It worked!

That first morning I arrived on the job, my first responsibility was to check the voicemail. There were seventy messages from people wanting internet access. The voicemail box was completely full. These people were clamoring for a dialup connection, and businesses were calling wanting a permanent connection to the net.

I begged my boss – who later became my business partner – to stop advertising, just for a little bit, so we could take care of signing up all these new leads. I think he may have said he’d think about it. The man is a born salesman, icecubes to eskimos and all that, so the notion of not advertising probably just didn’t register.

Of course, we did get most of them signed up, and for every one we did, two more inquiries came in. At the same time, the servers were having some difficulties. The mailserver – oh sweet jesus that mailserver – was a little PC, I think an intel 486 – running Novell Unixware. What a nightmare. What a perverse nightmare. It was, quite simply, a very broken Unix. The mailserver software had some horrible bugs. We’d have outages. We’d lose mail. Of course, being the early wild-west days of the internet, the customers were just so darned happy to be online, and had no real benchmark to compare the service with, that while we did get many complaints, in retrospect they were incredibly mild. So long as we told them ‘yeah, the mailserver’s having problems we’re trying to get it fixed’, they were very forgiving. In fact, one of the things that made our service stand out was our honesty with the customers. When there were problems, we copped to them. And the customers loved that. We had a remarkably loyal customers base due to that, and I take a fair amount of credit for that.

As I was saying, that mailserver was a nightmare. And my business partner was way too busy following up sales leads and working on new advertising, to manage the servers. So, it fell to me. I’ve always been technically minded, and I took to Unix systems administration like a fish to water. In time, we moved away from the lame PC’s running questionable Unices. The gold standard was a Sun SPARC running Solaris, so that’s what we got.

The first Sun Server was a SPARC LX. Incredibly underpowered by today’s standards – 40mhz sparc CPU, I think at best 128 megs of ram. As I recall it cost in excess of $5,000. but it ran. And ran and ran and ran.

My goodness, I’ve gone into a lot of detail – and this is barely into the first year of my career, hardly even six months I’d say. I can’t imagine anyone reading all the way to the end of this. So I’ll say "spin on mutex" right here. You know the secret code now!


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