JOB-HUNTING: HOTWIRED, DELPHI AND PATHFINDER

The Memoir

(This is chapter eight of my ongoing memoir of the internet industry.)

On October 28, 1994, Chip Bayers of Wired Magazine posted on Usenet about an ambitious new website called HotWired.com:

HotWired is new thinking for a new medium. We call it a cyberstation, a suite of vertical content streams about the Digital Revolution and the Second Renaissance with an integrated community space. While HotWired is currently bound by technological limitations that restrict bandwidth, it represents the genetic blueprint that will evolve into the overarching media environment of the next century.

Further down, Bayers' post also said this:

HotWired is free to members. HotWired's revenue model is similar to broadcast media - content supported by sponsors. HotWired's sponsors are some of the bluest chip advertisers in America, including IBM, AT&T, Volvo, Sprint, MCI, Zima (Coors), Internet Shopping Network (Home Shopping Network), Club Med, etc.

I didn't know what to think of all the hype, or of the "tribal" design aesthetic. But I appreciated that HotWired bothered to have a design aesthetic, since most websites still featured black Times New Roman text against a pale gray background. I registered to become a "member" (a new concept at the time), but didn't find much to do with my membership. There were discussion groups, but they felt meager and artificial compared to Usenet.

The most unique thing about HotWired was not its look or its content but its business focus. Revenue model? Sponsors? Now this was something new. I didn't feel much confidence that HotWired would be able to pull this off, but it was the most ambitious concept I'd seen on the web so far, and I couldn't help wanting to quit my job and work for them immediately.

They were based in San Francisco, so that wasn't going to happen, but I was also starting to hear about various New York City web-oriented startups, about some virtual location called "Silicon Alley". Where, I wondered, was this Silicon Alley, and why couldn't I work there?

My rec.music.dylan friend Dan Levy was the most media-connected person I knew at the time, and he told me of up-and-coming companies like Agency.com and Sonic.net that would love to get their hands on a C++ programmer with database architecture experience. But, he said, they were small outfits and wouldn't be able to pay anywhere near my current $85K salary. I called a few headhunters who worked the financial/tech industry, but when they found out I was on the job market they only wanted to set me up on interviews with banks, and scoffed when I asked about working on the Internet. "I can get you $100K at Smith Barney," they would say. "Goldman Sachs will hire you tomorrow. Fuck the Internet."

Just to get one of these headhunters to stop hounding me, I went on a begrudging interview in January 1995 at Smith Barney, a company I found every bit as obnoxious as JP Morgan. I guess my disinterest showed during the interview, because I recall an aggravated Vice President nearly yelling at me in his office when I wouldn't say I'd accept a job on the spot: "You don't want to sit in an office like this someday? You don't want to bring home $250K and have two houses?" In fact, I really didn't. I wanted to work on the web.

At the same time I was yearning to leave this mythical place called Wall Street for this mythical place called Silicon Alley, I was busy analyzing and mocking the whole idea of web-based business models with several of my fellow digital artists, writers and musicians on an invitation-only mailing list called antiweb. We had no respect for companies that tried to float advertising or subscription plans on the Internet, because we had a better idea. The Internet would revolutionize publishing, we felt, not by bringing in new profit opportunities but by cutting costs, removing barriers, allowing creative people to reach audiences with fewer intermediaries.

Christian Crumlish's Enterzone was our model for a new web publication, and many of the artists and writers on antiweb contributed to this upstart online journal. Enterzone had no budget, no VC funding, no profit motive, and yet it provided a satisfying reading experience where HotWired's pages felt hollow and artificial. I also liked their logo better than HotWired's, though they hadn't paid anyone to create it.

This, I felt, was what the web was about: a no-bullshit outsider-art scene, a fresh pool of talent, a publishing format that enabled spontaneity and serendipity. Who needs HotWired's business model when you can publish online for free? The whole idea was to not need a business model.

But I was a hypocrite, because as I was running down capital-funded web ventures with my friends I was also talking to headhunters about getting me a job with one. In April 1995 a headhunter finally called with an opportunity to interview at Time Warner's Pathfinder, a vast new website emanating from the Time-Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas in midtown Manhattan. Time Warner didn't have a position that fit my salary or resume, the headhunter said, but he could get me in the door. Was I interested? Hell yeah. It didn't matter that I thought the Pathfinder magazine-oriented content strategy was bland or that I hated their artless design. I wanted to work on the web.

Looking back now at the choices I made then, I realize how sheltered, prejudiced and cynical I was. I was bursting with confidence because of the modest personal success I'd had since launching LitKicks eight months ago. I had become "somebody" on the web. Strangers were emailing me every day, and people were reading my fiction in Intertext and Enterzone. I also had a new gang of friends who made me feel creatively energized and accepted in a way my C++ buddies at work never could. So I thought I was brilliant, and I was sure my future plans were perfect, and I didn't see any need to look around me to see if anybody else was doing anything smarter.

I should have spent the first few months of 1995 finding Silicon Alley all by myself, without headhunters leading the way, attending industry gatherings, looking for consulting gigs, handing out business cards. Instead, I clung to my cushy cubicle environment and waited for headhunters -- who only knew how to work with big corporations, not small agencies -- to find me my next cubicle. It was a time to hustle, but I only wanted a large secure company to give me a good salary with benefits to work on some vast project that would probably fail, all so I could go on being an independent web artist who disdained the corporate world. My entire plan was a contradiction, based on bad faith, though I didn't consider this at the time.

I showed up at the Time-Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas intent on being the best candidate Time Warner had ever seen. I sat nervously in a waiting room under glowing electric signs bearing the names of Time Inc's impressive magazines: Time, Fortune, People, Sports Illustrated, Life, Money, Entertainment Weekly. A rep from Human Resources gave me the standard introduction, then walked me through an underground concourse to the Time Inc. New Media "basement" where I met a tall blond man named Oliver Knowlton, director of the technology team. We spoke in his office, but the interview went badly. He was looking to fill two slots, he told me as he cautiously fingered my resume, a senior manager and a junior programmer. But I was too junior for his senior manager and too senior for his junior programmer, and he didn't see how my financial experience would translate to publishing. I felt confused and upset, because I wanted badly to work here but didn't know how to convince him he needed me.

After this brief and discouraging chat, he brought me to a glass-walled conference room where I met his entire tech team: Jorgen Wahlsten, Shad Todd, John Deragon and Reuven Lerner. These were hands-on techies like myself, and the conversation flowed much more smoothly. They told me about the problems they were having using Perl and flat-file data storage to manage their daily operations. They had recently installed their first Sybase database but nobody on the team knew what to do with it, so even though Oliver didn't see how I could help, this team clearly did. I began to hope that they would talk their boss into bringing me aboard.

When I got home that night the headhunter called. "They're going to pass for now," he said. "But Oliver says he'll keep you in mind as soon as an opening that fits your level turns up."

"I could be useful to them right now," I complained. "The programmers know it. They practically told me they wanted to bring me in." I urged the headhunter not to give up on Oliver, and in the meantime he set me up with another interview at the main headquarters of Fox/News Corporation, just three blocks down from the Time-Life Building in the same midtown skyscraper strip. Rupert Murdoch's aggressive media conglomerate had just acquired a Massachusetts-based Internet provider called Delphi Internet, and had ambitious plans to turn it into a new web venture. I checked out Delphi.com but couldn't figure out what Fox's plan for it might be.

Fox/News Corporation did not impress me the way Time Warner did. I met only one person, a software engineer named Gary Shuster with a Russian accent and a worried, world-weary tone. He explained Fox's model for the new Delphi: they would make money by charging subscription fees like America Online or Compuserve or Prodigy. But America Online and Compuserve and Prodigy were non-Internet-based direct dial-up services, whereas Delphi was simply a web site, currently available for free. I couldn't understand why Fox thought anyone would pay $20 a month to use a website that they were now getting for free, and said so to Gary Shuster.

He shrugged. "That's not our job to worry about. Our job is to create a distributed Sybase architecture that will handle hundreds of thousands of membership operations a day."

"But if nobody wants to sign up," I said, "then we won't need to handle hundreds of thousands of membership operations a day."

He had already described the technical problems he envisioned in yoking this web-based membership system to a relational database back end, so now he smiled helplessly. "And if we don't bring somebody who knows Sybase in, I don't know if we'll be able to build it anyway."

I went home with my head spinning, and that evening the headhunter called. "Fox wants you. They're offering you $95,000".

I was happy, but everything felt unreal about the Delphi job. I had serious doubts about both Pathfinder and Delphi's prospects for success, but at least Time Warner had generated a lot of press for Pathfinder -- not very good press, so far, but at least people knew what Pathfinder was. Time Inc. New Media was an actual division of the company, with a heavyweight management team led by Walter Isaacson, author of a recent biography of Henry Kissinger. Fox's acquisition of Delphi, on the other hand, had gotten no press, and it was impossible to tell where the project fit into Fox/News Corporation's larger corporate picture. I tried to picture myself sitting in a cubicle next to desultory Gary Shuster building a registration database nobody would ever use. "Can't you call Time Warner and tell them they're about to lose their chance to hire me?" I begged the headhunter. I had to give it one last chance.

"What the hell. I'll give it a try." We told Fox I needed a day to decide, and by the end of the night the call I wanted finally came. Time Warner was willing to hire me, but they could only match my current salary, which was $10,000 less than Fox had offered.

"I'll take it," I said. And now the adventure really begins.

This article is part of the series The Memoir. The next post in the series is THE BEAT. The previous post in the series is CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE WEB KIND.
10 Responses to "JOB-HUNTING: HOTWIRED, DELPHI AND PATHFINDER"

by Tim Barrus on

I could care less about technology, the Internet, New York City, and the corporate milieu. As a reader, what I am attracted to here is the razor's edge which is the insight the writer here brings to his own internal mechanisms which are always not just grinding away, but cutting through what is the bullshit Hemingway talked about. How does this work and where does it work well. Example: In the space of one small paragraph the writer adeptly and fluidly goes from "I was happy..." to "I begged."

There's an edge. It rocks.

This is what compels the narrative along. And much more effectively than a timeline of events. The conflict between the inner dialogue wanting to do something original and the behavior (internal struggles with external) of the narrator (who is quite able to confidently see himself in a critical context) as a person who functions in the real world. It's this INTERNAL voice that explores this conflict that keeps the reader glued to the narrative.

Well, how can someone who... Do...

There is also a critical eye that explores the relationship between the creator and the audience and it's never turned off.

I like all of this very much. Or I wouldn't be reading.

When my friends give me their manuscripts to read, I lie a lot. I assure you I'm not lying here with an opening comment: "I could care less."

I want to give the writer something I rarely -- almost never -- give away. I might tell you what I like, but I almost never tell you what I want.

Because it's hard stuff for most writers to handle. Because writing can be so personal. Because in memoir you're not just reacting to a narrative as a mechanical device. You're reacting to a life.

What I want is more of that internal voice. Because it's sharp. It has enormous value to me as someone who is inside of the writer's head. With him. Hearing him. Seeing what he sees. Feeling what he feels. When the writer comes home at night...

What about the ride home from Midtown. How crowded was it and how can that description symbolically go to the journey of the job search.

What about the family the writer comes home to. How are they behaving in ways that are either relative to or divorced from the struggle of the job search.

Why this.

Example: The narrator is turning down ten thousand dollars. Okay, but I as the reader am wondering what the impact of that is. How does it impact the family the writer is sacrificing for in terms of what he really wants to do with the reality of being in the real world where people work and make a living. Maybe it doesn't mean much. Maybe it does. But we as readers don't really know. Does this decision impact the narrator's relationships. How.

And here is the gig with memoir.

We have to LIVE with the people we write about. It can be a real bitch. But I am not convinced you can say, well, it's a memoir only about me and the Internet because it's not. Memoir tries to wiggle out of that one all the time. But the good ones go to You and Us. Because external events are not enough. In order for US to internalize those same events, we require the journey to show us the connections and the conflicts internalized by the writer.

This is where memoir is like sex. This is why most memoirs either avoid sex or they embrace it or it's written badly (Updike). It's not really about sex. It's about connecting to the reader. It's intimate. The memoir is about as intimate as you can get. Because it's your guts. A memoir can be more intimate than sex. They are all either appealing to our (prurient or not) curiosity or not.

Because we are curious about ourselves.

But we as writers have to do it. People always give me their yadayadayada about what I as a writer owe to the reader in terms of format. I owe the reader a shape; a beiginning, a middle, and an end. I first and foremost and especially and absolutely OWE the reader a linear narrative or post-post-post modernism go gaga. I reject all of this.

What I owe the reader is the chopping block. That place where the meat is cut up and drips with blood.

Whether it hurts my relationships or not and I will guarantee you that it can.

What I owe the reader and what I owe the book are different.

O owe the reader that chopping block. But the reader is incidental. It's what I owe the book that transcends everything.

Memoir is the rubber and the road.

My wife has never read my books. Not one word. She has never read my magazine stuff. She has never read my newspaper stuff. She has never read a word of anything I have written.

She would go with me on tour and people would say to her -- blahblahblah (it's almost shocking how stupid the reader can be).

"I don't know, I've never read him," she'd say.

Mouths drop to the floor.

But she knows better than to go there. Because I am probably chopping up a scene or a piece of meat where she was at the dinner and the way I saw it was not how she saw it at all. That's just how perception works.

But what I owe a memoir is ME. No one else. You can lose a friend.

You can lose everyone you know.

The writer has to decide what the book is worth. Not in monetary terms but emotional ones.

What I want from this book is generically what I want from any memoir. I want that internal voice to connect the internalized observation to externalized events because this conflict inherently gives us a picture with contrasts, irony, misunderstandings, struggle, triumph, and lament.

The narrator is moving the story along in a time and a place and that has enormous value because it adds to our awareness of ourselves. In our histories.

I as the reader am apt to think: okay, where was I when the Internet was being...

Designed, kicked, pushed along, monetized.

And as the reader I now have a piece of that.

But I need some more. What were people wearing. Was there an ashtray on the desk (translation: were people allowed to smoke in an office setting at the time). When I came home with a list of possibilities but not a job what happened in the look or the eyes of my wife. You had a job interview where contact with another human being was made. But we spend most of our time and so much of our lives in a more abstract contact such as the space we sit in (on hold onto) on a subway. So the writer comes home after all of this and...

What was the contact with children.

Was it like the contact with the potential boss. Critical. Happy. Positive. Accepting or all the opposites.

Analogies.

There's an irony in having contact but no contact with fellow subway riders and the kind of contact a writer has with his children.

But life is hard. You either made contact with those kids (this could be anyone you live with) after struggling with a day like this, or you didn't.

So the reader is thinking: So. How interesting that he made contact with one human being in a day where he was exposed to a hundred thousand human beings and that larger number includes the relationships where we assume intimacy occurs. Or not.

Only that internal voice can give us that insight.

It's there. But as the reader of any time and any place and any point in history, I want it to go to the chopping block. It's not about the time. It's not about the place. It's not about the Internet. These things only are. It's about you. Because you have convinced us you matter.

http://le-too.blogspot.com

Tim Barrus, Venice

by Tim Barrus on

PSSSSSSSSS:

Example: "The story is about me, specifically about my work in the internet industry in the last fifteen years. I have seen a lot -- and survived a lot -- since launching LitKicks in 1994 and leaving my job in the financial software industry to work for Time Warner's first internet startup in 1995. In the years to follow I became a spoken-word poet, helped to launch one of the web's first advertising networks, insulted Bill Gates in person, published a book, built BobDylan.com, drank too many martinis, became a paper millionaire, went completely broke, got a divorce, watched my kids grow up, endured a year's employment in what must have been one of the most dysfunctional technology departments in the history of mankind (at A&E Network/History Channel), fell in love, and found a new footing online in the age of blogs and Web 2.0. I watched the birth of the dot-com industry, the birth of Yahoo, the birth of Amazon, the birth of Java, the birth of XML, the birth of Google, the death of the Pets.com sock puppet, and the incredible hair of Rod Blagojevich (okay, Blagojevich's hair isn't in the book, but everything else is)."

Things like the middle of a divorce, losing everything, falling in love, dysfuntional technology, publishing a book, insulting Bill Gates -- these things endear YOU to US. That makes it about more than you as you relate to the Internet. The Internet is really a context. What we care about as readers is YOU.

TB

by plump comfort on

Holy Cow!

I agree with Mr. Tim Barrus about what is compelling in the narrative.

And I think the subject matter is,and will be, monumental

Can't imagine Marconi or Edison or even Steve Jobs writing anything as half as exciting

More great stuff.

I used to have Delphi. At our think tank at the UF law school, we didn't have Windows on our computers. At home, I was also in DOS.

Boy, was that primitive to get on Delphi! I even knew it at the time. We were also involved with the beginning of the Gainesville Freenet, which we'd based on one in Tallahassee.

Tim Barrus knows what he's talking about.

Having said that, I should add that I do have an interest in "technology, the Internet, New York City, and the corporate milieu." I find it fascinating, and it is this facet of your memoirs that places it in an important niche.
The personal stuff makes it worth reading.

by BookCrazy on

Have been reading this memoir from the last hour or so from a 'cubicle' and am loving it. And mind it, I am no programmer or techie. I am a lawyer and a literary enthusiast. I can bet this is publishing material. This is also movie material.

by Levi Asher on

Thank you, BookCrazy! Glad to hear you think so.

by mike on

nuther good chapter

I remember 'wired' the mag, it had a new feel and in those first few years it was one of the best before or since. I still get it thogh it's not the same anymore but what is ?

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