My first “proper’ish” job was IT consulting for a small publisher that shall remain nameless. I had paying work before, temping for a warehouse stocktake and as a teaching assistant at university, but I never considered them jobs. In order to provide a little structure to my memories posts I’m going to go through my work and education experiences, starting with that publisher.
In early 1997 I began thinking that perhaps a PhD wasn’t right for me and started perusing the University job board. There was a part-time position to create an online presence for a publisher at a rate only a student could consider acceptable. It was a perfect opportunity for me to see what the world of work was like. Previously I thought I would stay in academia forever. Thus in early 1997 I ended up in the one room office of a small publisher with surprisingly high profitability based on the back of low costs in Australia and high sales in America.
The firm was run by a nice middle aged couple, publishing books of what essentially amounted to tables of data. They gave me a copy of their latest book and I immediately saw the potential for them on the then burgeoning web. They weren’t so interested in that, or at least they acted cool on the idea. Instead I spent the next few weeks (a few hours per week) hooking up the office computers to a local ISP, training everyone on the Internet (email, web, some basic html, etc) and creating a simple brochureware web presence. One exchange sticks in my memory. I asked about their database. “Database, what’s that?” “Where do you keep the data you publish?” “Oh, you mean Quark.” It turns out they kept all the data tables as text in their publishing system.
The most interested person in the office was the owner’s son. At the time the public was just becoming aware of the dotcom boom. He clearly wanted to make a mark on the world and saw the possibilities in his parents’ business. One day he said he had a great idea. We could scrape the Internet for email addresses and send all of them ads for their books. I told him about spam and that I didn’t want to do that. There were a few other strange conversations and I always felt a little uneasy around him.
The experience scared me back to my studies, but only for a while. After sixth months, I left my PhD permanently and started fulltime at Electrolley (but that is a whole other story). A few years later I bumped into the son again at the shops (just before the dotcom bust). He said they had employed a few students to build a site for the publisher and it was going well. No mention of the other stuff. I checked out their site and it did indeed look good and useful. For a fee you could subscribe to the site and get personalised access to their data. I looked again just before writing this and they still exist and have gone even farther, with more features including most recently iPad and Android apps. Yet I have never regretted leaving.