Today of all days is probably a good day to review how a devilishly handsome farm hand ended up being the Director of Applications for a major online media company. Ok, devilishly handsome MAY be a bit of a stretch, but I was buff (six-pack and all), tanned, with flowing locks of hair. Nowadays I can best be described “pleasantly plump”, white, and bald. But according to Seinfeld that still gives me a shot with Marisa Tomei.
Before I continue, I must apologize to my readers who are not so technically inclined. I’ll try not to dive too much into some of the technical jargon, but as I do feel free to skip that mumbo-jumbo. But from time to time it will be required, and this post is one of those exceptions.
In short, I’m where I am today because in my last year of high school, my brother bought a book on some new programming language called Visual Basic. But that in itself won’t get me enough ad impressions so let’s dive into the longer version shall we?
When Pete purchased the book, he didn’t really have a clue as to what it was, but it seemed very interesting. When he showed it to me, I too liked what I saw. At the time I was dabbling in writing windows applications in QuickC and this new “thing” seemed light-years ahead of what I was working with. Yes, the language was a step backwards (although I learned programming via Color Basic on the TRS-80 many years before, I had moved on) but the ability to create windows applications so quickly and easily was very enticing. The problem we encountered is that we weren’t really sure where to get this new software. There was no world-wide web available to us at the time. After some research we discovered it wasn’t available for sale in Canada, but after jumping through some hoops Pete did manage to find some place that would ship us a copy from the States. So, we decided to split the cost and we ordered ourselves Visual Basic v1.0.
From that point on the majority of applications I wrote were in VB. In fact, a few years later I was out of school and, determined to never work for “The Man”, I opened my own computer consulting and custom software business named “DataFarm Inc.”
One of my first gigs was a subcontracting job for The Hamilton Spectator. The Spec was owned by the Southam Newspaper Group and just happened to be where the central IT group for Southam (SCG) was located. SCG also happened to be where Pete started his career and where he was still currently employed. They had heard of my work with The Spec and they wanted to get into Windows-based development. I was offered a 6 month contract and at the end of that contract I was offered a full time job. I was reluctant to take the full-time offer at first due to my earlier intentions to stay independent in addition to my fears of working alongside my brother. But, the pay was good, the people were great, and Pete assured me that aside from working in the same office our jobs would likely remain fairly independent of each other’s.
Well, that last point didn’t survive too long. About a year and a half I believe. In 1997 the current head of Southam New Media, Mike, approached SCG (now SITG) with a proposal. They were currently outsourcing their online classified site to a company called Prodigy. Prodigy was introducing an upgraded version of their hosted solution, but the costs of the new system were substantially higher than what Southam was currently paying. Mike wanted to know if SCG was interested in taking on a project to build and host the online classifieds for ourselves. Pete, being in charge of the classified systems and having written the “print to prodigy” interface, was approached with the project. As I was one of the few non-VAX programmers on staff, he approached me with the proposal to see if I was interested. I had been reading about this new scripting language provided by Microsoft called VBScript along with some new technology known as Active Server Pages. The two of these together were proposing to do for web development what VB had done for Windows development years before. So Pete and I put together a proposal, including hardware and development costs, and lo and behold they actually went for it!
Now, let me be completely honest with you. To say that we didn’t know what the hell we were getting into would be an understatement. By that I’m not referring to how that project would lead us to where we are today (although that is just as true a statement), but the actual project itself. Sure, we had USED the internet for research, but that was about the extent of it. Up until that point neither one of us had actually worked with things like web servers , firewalls, HTML, load testing etc. There were no business objectives, user experience requirements, wireframes or mock-ups. Just build something and put in online. (How I miss those days!)
In my opinion what we did have going for us was talent and drive. We were both very good at what we were doing and this project, aside from being new and exciting, allowed us to utilize our existing skill sets and port them to this new online world that was taking shape. Pete understood “classifieds” like no-one else in the company and the introduction of VBScript allowed me to transition my current VB expertise with ease.
So, away we went. Pete looked after the data extract process, hardware, and managed the project while I wrote the import process, designed the database, and built the web-based front end. It even had an AJAX like clipboard utility which, if I may say so myself, was quite ingenious as the time. We bought a couple of DEC Alpha servers, loaded them up with Windows NT Server, SQL Server 6.5 and IIS. When that day came back in 1997, we “turned the switch” nervously. Although we never said so publicly, we both knew we had no idea what was going to happen. Would it really work under load? Would people like it? Well it did, and they did. The thing purred, and the people (both within Southam and the users) really did like it! What do you know? And that was the beginning of how I managed to find my way to where I am today. Welcome to the online world, de Groot brothers. Enjoy your stay.
(Who knows where I’d be today if Pete had brought home a different book?)