Net Slaves Pay Tribute to Dot-Com Victims

BOSTON (05/31/2000) - Net Slaves: True Tales of Working the Web By Bill Lessard and Steve Baldwin McGraw-Hill, 1999, $19.95 It all started with two guys, an idea and a website. When Bill Lessard, 34, and Steve Baldwin, 43, were working together at Time Warner Inc.'s Pathfinder in 1996 (Baldwin was a technology editor and Lessard was a communications producer), they found out why the technology industry didn't sit right with them: long hours, high stress, zillions of dollars disappearing into doomed projects and an unbelievable amount of hype that most people bought into.

After enduring job after job in the underbelly of the technology industry--Lessard tore through seven in as many years working at what he calls "some of the most fabulous disasters in the history of the internet," and Baldwin bounced around the world of technology publishing enough times to leave bruises--the two decided to get together and write about what they'd witnessed.

To get fodder for the manuscript, they started www.netslaves.com, a site where others could share their stories. "We wanted to gather enough facts to see if we were the only two losers in the world," says Baldwin. Good news: They weren't.

And Net Slaves: True Tales of Working the Web (McGraw-Hill, 1999), which emerged after the website started attracting attention, is full of those storiestales that are engaging, hilarious and tinged with despair. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the less-than-innocent, but one doesn't have to think too hard to identify the guy with the "standard geek-issue, bowl-shaped cut" who just happens to be the head of a leading software company in Bellevue, Wash.) There's Jane, a freelance HTML coder who's blamed when faulty software announces that O.J. Simpson has been declared guilty after the criminal trial jury finds him innocent. There's Officer Kilmartin, who trolls the chat rooms and bulletin boards of a popular online service to make sure illicit material doesn't sully its family-friendly image.

There's Boyd, who leaves his job in a porn shop to take a hellish help-desk position that makes his former occupation look like a stay at the Ritz-Carlton.

None of these characters strikes it rich; many of them barely make a living.

And they have one thing in common: They are members of the class of net slaves, the stage hands who labor long after the internet stars have gone home.

Lessard and Baldwin divide the net slaves into categories, such as garbagemen (quality software engineers), social workers (bulletin board discussion leaders) and cab drivers (freelance HTML programmers). With each category comes a list of characteristics: fry cooks, who sweat it out in the startup kitchens and enjoy literature "written by an angry loner on the verge of cracking up"; cyber cops, who live at home with their parents; and their nemeses, the street walkers, who are all about to close on waterfront condos. The higher up the caste system you go, the fewer members there are. While garbagemen comprise 40 percent of the internet population, robber barons (self-explanatory, that one) make up 0.1 percent.

But while the stories are entertaining, the message they convey is grim:

Somewhere along the line, things went wrong with this internet economy. CIO talked to the authors of Net Slaves to find out why.

CIO: WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO STOP WORKING IN THE TECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY AND START WRITING ABOUT IT?

Lessard: Do you know what the definition of insanity is? It's doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. A lot of people who criticized us and the book have called us whiners. They say, "Why don't you just go get another job?" Well, we've done that over and over again. But the problem is that no matter where you go, companies are struggling. What we tried to do with the book is demythologize the entire industry and bring to the forefront the people who are really doing the work. We got tired of going to parties where people would say, "What do you do?" and then expect $30 million to fall out of your pocket if you said, "I'm in the technology industry."

We got the idea for the book, we interviewed some people, we sent it out, and none of the publishers were interested: It was too negative, it was too nichey, who cares about a bunch of geeks, blah blah blah. So, just short of jumping off a bridge with cables around our necks, we put up the website and it took off.

CIO: YOU TELL SOME PRETTY SOBERING STORIES OF NET SLAVERY. WHY IS THIS ALL HAPPENING?

Lessard: There's a lot of money at stake. It's a gold rush mentalitypeople are very greedy and ethically challenged, and a lot of abuses have come out of it.

We've kind of turned entrepreneurship into rock and roll. It's like CNBC is the MTV of the internet generation, and by extension, the CEO is the rock star. If this were the '60s or the '70s you'd have a bunch of people in a house saying, "Hey man, let's form a rock band, put out an album and make a million dollars."

Now it's a bunch of people in California who say, "Hey man, let's get together, form an internet company, go public and make a billion dollars."

CIO: THE TECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY CAN'T BE ALL BAD, CAN IT? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE GOOD ASPECTS?

Baldwin: One of the things I really loved was how positive everyone was about [the industry]. Whether or not the product they were behind ever made them rich, everyone really believed in the possibilities of this environment. It was tremendously exciting, and it still is, but I think one of the costs of this is that if you start to complain or if you say, "Why did I work 18 hours a day on a project that went belly up?"--if you start addressing the facts of work life--very quickly you're considered a nonteam player, and you have to really conceal that from the world. It's not really mind control, but everyone is so positive that there's a denial of the rough edges of this industry. And there are many rough edges.

CIO: WAS YOUR OBJECTIVE IN WRITING THE BOOK TO MAKE THE ENSLAVERS OR THE ENSLAVED TAKE NOTICE?

Lessard: I'd say that it's both. On one hand, we want people in this industry to feel that they're not alone. In the past year or so since we've had the site up we've gotten e-mail from all over the world. One of the most poignant said, "Until I saw your site, I felt like I was the only one in the horror movie that had seen the alien."

Baldwin: The idea was to try to create a sense of solidarity or nonaloneness among people who find themselves in similar circumstances. That's something we seem to have struck a resonant chord with on the website and in the book.

CIO: BUT SOME PEOPLE REALLY ARE SUCCEEDING IN THIS INTERNET ECONOMY. WHAT DO THEY SAY?

Baldwin: People say, "You guys are missing the boat! I've got a new airplane!

I've got three new girlfriends! I've got everything. And if you're not like me, you're a loser." They might be on top of the world right now, but where will they be when they are 30 years old? There's a lot of evidence to suggest that being a rock star Java guru or a C++ programmer is a young person's game, and you don't have a really long career life. If you're 22 or 27 you don't mind working 80 or 90 hours a week. Maybe it doesn't matter if you drop off the map.

But once you get to be 30 or 31, you want to settle down, you want to have a family, you've picked up some obligations. Are you still willing to work the 80 or 100 hours a week? And will they still want you? Whose fault is all this?

Lessard: We don't want to say it's management's fault, or that it's the venture capitalists' fault. People make conscious decisions. Nobody is holding a gun to their heads and forcing them to be in this industry. But if someone mistreats [these workers], they should not be passive about it, they should fight back.

Baldwin: It's also important to arm yourself with information and do your homework ahead of time. The net provides a lot of resources. That's the other side of it being a small business. Companies, too, have reputations. But companies are also very squirrelly. It's sometimes difficult to find out what a workplace culture is really like. I would definitely go in and inspect the place. Look at the programmers. Look at the environment. Do your homework.

CIO: IS IT POSSIBLE TO WORK IN THIS INDUSTRY AND NOT BE A NET SLAVE?

Baldwin: It is possible, but I would say it's certainly a challenge to be able to assert the kinds of claims one used to make about rights. It's not like we have a right to a 40-hour workweek. We don't. But people are still people. They all have passions. They still have negative things about them. And they're all expressed in the workplace.

Lessard: One thing we tried to make clear in the book is that it's not a static caste system. It's dynamic. You can reinvent yourself. You can move up the food chain. So while there are people who are killing themselves, there are others who are doing just fine as consultants or owners of small businesses.

CIO: IS NET SLAVERY A NECESSARY EVIL OF THIS ECONOMY?

Lessard: No. I have to go back to the mantra that human beings have not changed. People can do only about four or five hours of solid work a day. The reason people work so many hours in the internet industry is because of disorganization. For every bad software release, if they had only slowed things down a little bit, they wouldn't have to go back and redo it. In this economy, people work longer and stupider.

Baldwin: Part of what makes things inefficient is culture. The traditional way of running an org chart, running this hierarchical top-down approval process--I've seen companies that make the process two or three times longer.

I've also seen that at old-media brick-and-mortar companies where they just don't understand how decisions need to be reached for what is essentially an iterative project. It doesn't have to be this way. But it's a very young industry. The railroads had been around for years before there was any credible movement to make them more efficient, safer and unionized. And that ultimately made it difficult for railroads to survive. But for a while it was the only way people working in the industry could lead any kind of normal lives.

CIO: HOW CAN CIOS EMANCIPATE NET SLAVES?

Baldwin: In a certain way, CIOs have much more relevant experience because they've seen the software cycles, fought many of these battles and learned the truth: A human being is a human being. They know what happens to people under pressure. It's a shame that more [CIOs] are not brought in, consulted or listened to because I think they would have a lot to say. If they could codify their wisdom and put it into some organized framework, the younger dotcom companies and managers might immensely benefit from it. And I don't think there's an appreciation of that. You know, it's a young person's business.

These young code jocks know the code real well, but there's more to the world than just the code. This is running a company. It's not a game; it's not a virtual environment. There are a lot of lessons they're going to learn the hard way. But people in this business want to make a quick hit, make a billion dollars and get out of there.

CIO: WHAT DO PEOPLE FROM TRADITIONAL COMPANIES NEED TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT NET SLAVERY?

Lessard: Those people who do have more traditional business values should realize that most internet companies are culturally narrow. If you work in the IT division of a bank or an insurance company, everyone's role is defined.

There are definite functions and everybody knows what they're supposed to do.

Then if you go to an internet company, nobody knows what everybody does.

Everybody has titles like Head Yahoo, Chief Evangelist, Guru; nobody knows what they're supposed to do. And because startups are by definition immature organizations, the culture is basically the culture of the two or three people who started the company--in most cases, technologists. But you need different types of personalities in order to make a good company. People should not deny who they are, where they've been, what their experiences are. At the same time, old school technology people should realize that working at internet companies is a lot like making a deal with the devil. Most of what really happens in this industry is underreported by the mainstream media. Companies fail all the time.

A lot of companies fail. It's safe to say that one in 10 makes it to the IPO.

Yet you have companies that are nailing bunk beds to the cubicles and the developers are sleeping there. And nobody sees anything wrong with that. That's what's really sick.

Do you have tales of net slavery to share with us? Senior Writer Meg Mitchell wants to hear them at mmitchell@cio.com.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about CNBCPathfinder HoldingsTime WarnerYahoo

Show Comments

Market Place