Dot Com Boom Stories with @chris.mrbananas.greening: TDI 6

Threads Dev Interviews

I am finding developers on Threads and interviewing them, right on Threads. You are welcome to follow along and let me know on Threads if you would like to be interviewed.

“Definitely – now it [programmer] seems like an obvious career choice. Back then it really wasn’t that popular. Though when the dot com boom came everything changed!”


Can you give us a description of your career and how you got here?

Thanks for including me in the series.

Probably like many people my age, I was introduced to computers at a young age when home computing hit in the early 80s. I had access to BBC Micros at school and a ZX Spectrum at home. I wouldn’t say I was a particularly outstanding programmer, but I quickly got into assembly language and wrote some simple programs. I never managed to write any complete games, but that low-level knowledge I picked up helped give me a massive head start.

Career advice was not especially good at that time (or I didn’t know what questions to ask) so I had no idea what jobs or careers were out there, but I knew that computers were interesting to me. At the time computer science was presented as a very theoretical degree so I plumped for electronics which seemed more practical.

Thankfully the degree I chose was heavily software focussed and by the time I came to the end of my undergrad, I wasn’t really doing much low-level electronics at all. I stayed on for a PhD and studied image processing and by that point it was obvious that programming was where I was heading.

I knew I wanted to work in a small company – I’d heard enough horror stories about large beurocratic companies. I was lucky to interview at a small company of just four people doing work in mobile telecoms – it was perfect timing as the networks were all switching from analog to digital. The business grew to around 30 people, I got itchy feet and tempted by contracting which at the time in the UK was very lucrative.

Somewhat ironically, I ended up working in a very bureaucratic retail bank, but once again I was lucky and got involved in the beginnings of their online banking system.

When the dot com boom hit I joined a business that was run by one of my university friends and we ended up consulting on a lot of internet websites. I guess that’s what started me on the path I’m on now with various stints in full-time work at startups or fractional CTO work.

Sorry – that was a bit longer than intended – and I’ve probably skipped a lot of interesting details!

I completely missed out going back to the first company I worked for, the business being sold and getting into app development when the iPhone was released.

Thank you for the detailed background. When did you realize tech and computers could be a career?

That’s a great question. I guess I knew that going to University would lead to some kind of job in technology, but I don’t think I had any clear idea of what I would actually be doing. It seems strange now, but I had no idea I’d spend the next 30 or so years programming! I did get some great work experience during the summer breaks, but even then, programming seemed to be a weird thing that a bunch of guys did over in the corner. Or it was something that was done as part of some other work.

It was probably during my PhD that I realized I was going to be a programmer – there was no way I could remember any of the electronics I’d learnt – and it turned out that I was a pretty good at programming.

I also started to get feedback from my friends who had gone and got jobs after graduating – and it was an eye opener when they reported back that they were programming as a job – suddenly it seemed obvious that’s what I was going to be doing as well.

Very nice, that makes sense. Yes, computer jobs were not well understood back then. I would argue they are still not very well understood by most non-tech people.

Definitely – now it seems like an obvious career choice. Back then it really wasn’t that popular. Though when the dot com boom came everything changed! We hired all sorts of people from many backgrounds – most of them turned out to be amazing coders.

Dot Com Boom: For those that don’t know, around 2000 the WWW became popular and many new web companies were formed. It was awesome….until it wasn’t. What was your involvement with tech back then? Do you have any great stories from that time?

A couple of funny ones. We were working on a large travel website and the team had got too large to fit in the main office. So they rented an office just down the block. The internet connection was not great so we had a microwave link back to the head office. The guys found an old trolley in a skip to mount it on so it could be wheeled up to an open window on the roof. We’d get an email at the end of the evening to remind us to wheel it back and shut the window in case it rained overnight.

Another time we were doing “load testing” and everyone in the office was hitting the site and it seemed to be running really slowly. Someone suggested checking another site to see if it was a general problem and everything on the internet seemed to be slow. We’d saturated our link to the internet but some of the boys convinced the CEO that we’d “broken the internet.”

It was a great time – until as you say the wheels came off!

The most amazing project came after the boom – there were still projects to do, we got called into one where the client was about to pull the plug. They’d spent a couple of million on it already and weren’t happy. We asked to see what had been done so far and we’re presented with a lovely book of wireframes. When we asked to see the code we just got blank looks. They hadn’t done any work!

There were some amazing people around, but there were also some real cowboys. As my friend remarked when another group of consultants marched in to save the day “you can hear the ringing of the spurs on their boots…”

There was no Azure or AWS back in the dot com boom, what was it like building a website back then? Did the servers run in a closet or basement?

Most of the time we were deploying into data centres. We’d normally have some big sun boxes and host everything on them. A few places would have racks in their offices but that was becoming much less common. We’d ssh into the boxes as you would now – often tunnelling through multiple machines to reach production. It was very rare to actually have to go to the datacenter and would only be done for really difficult problems.

The main problems were really about sizing how big a box you would need. You couldn’t just scale up the instance size – you had to get the hardware ordered, delivered and installed. Sun was still the go to place for hardware – but I do remember Linux was starting to get more common. People were certainly using it for running and testing locally.

I do remember one visit after the dot com crash. It felt like our boxes were the only ones in the entire building. Basically an empty white floor with our one black cage in the middle of it. It was freezing – we had to sit on the servers to stay warm!

What is the programming project you are most proud of?

That’s a pretty tricky question. For personal projects, I’m still quite pleased with the Sudoku Grab app I wrote for the iPhone. It was a good use of some classic image processing techniques on quite a constrained device. And it worked surprisingly well.

Wow – this was 2009! Sudoku Grab for the iPhone – sadly not on the store anymore and a whole bunch of similar things came soon after.

An iPhone app with a video from 2009!

On the commercial side of things, a few years ago I worked with a team to build React Native/Web application along with the backend. It’s being used globally by a bunch of blue chip companies and it’s enabled a really successful business to be built employing a whole bunch of people. There’s not really anything that clever about it, but it solves a business need really well.

What are you currently working on? And what about the next 3-5 years of programming gets you most excited?

I’m currently spending most of my time with a company that is trying to make waste more visible for large companies. Lots of businesses want to be doing better around recycling and reuse but they don’t really know what’s happening with their waste. It’s a tough problem there is lots of very rubbish data (ha!) and it’s not always in people’s interest to really show what happens.

I’m very excited by the recent AI advances – I’m finding things like ChatGPT as a pair programmer and copilot for some of more boiler plate stuff really useful. I think if we can to the point where we can describe what we want to do to a computer and have something that works well enough will be amazing.

I still think there will be a need for programmers and developers but our jobs will get more interesting. Getting the most out of a computer will still be a skill and still be in demand. AGI still feels far off but it is going to present some interesting challenges!

What advice would you have a person looking to get into computer programming right now?

My biggest piece of advice would be to stick with it. When you first start to learn programming it can be immensely frustrating and lots of the concepts are not intuitive and don’t make a lot of sense. It can really help if you have an actual problem to solve or an itch to scratch – learning to program simply for the sake of learning to program is very hard. Find a problem that interests you and try to solve it.

The other piece of advice is to not be afraid of the computer – there’s very little that you can do that will break the computer (at least not permanently!).

My final advice is that the world of technology is huge. If you find programming is not your passion there are plenty of other roles that are crying out for good people. Just having some basic knowledge of how programming works and what is possible and not possible will put you a cut above everyone else.

For anyone starting out on their career. It’s all about the people. Find people who are amazing and brilliant. They will take you to places that could never reach by yourself. And that doesn’t mean just programmers. Look outside of your box for inspiration.

How can people find you elsewhere online?

I’m here and still occasionally on Twitter as @MrBananas and YouTube… also on LinkedIn…

And thanks for having me on. It was great fun!

Here is the original interview on Threads.





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