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Archive for the ‘dot-com era’ Category

It is impossible to experience deja-vu for the first time.
I reckon the first time you experience deja-vu must be the second.

– Les Barker

These days, I can’t go to a networking event without meeting at least two or three people who are hoping to start their own high-tech business. Taking “Web 2.0” and “social networking” as their personal mantras, these contacts sound eerily like throwbacks to the dot-com boom. Enough time has passed, I suppose, for people to forget the lessons of that first infatuation with technology. As a survivor of that first era, I could tell them a thing or two, but mostly, I don’t bother. They wouldn’t thank me.

If the old dream was just about quick money, then the whole things wouldn’t be so painful. Most of the dreamers are going to fail, and that’s a lesson that can hurt, but can be valuable. If you find that your thirty thousand stock options are worthless in one company, you can always do what I did, and get another thirty thousand from your next company, continuing the process until reality sets it. You learn about persistence, and eventually you learn that hard-slogging work pays in smaller but more reliable returns – both useful lessons.

But, just like the dot-commers, the Web 2.0 generation isn’t only concerned about money. Most of its members would happily settle for survival as the owners of their own small business. Still more are attracted by being involved with something larger than their selves, for experiencing the sense of belonging that comes with being involved in the biggest trends of the era. And it’s this sense of purpose that is likely to shatter on the pavement when reality sweeps their feet out from underneath them.

Take me, for instance. My first dot-com startup, the pay was three-quarters of what I had been earning as a consultant. I never did believe – not really – that the company would go public and my stock options would let me retire. What concerned me was that we (and it says something about the spirit of the times that, for a non-team player like me, there was a “we”) were going to change computing by introducing GNU/Linux to the world.

Moreover, as the first non-developer hired by the company, I was playing a leading role (maybe theleading role in my own mind) in making that dream a reality, cutting bundling deals, hammering out a features list, going over legal contracts and licenses and discovering all the other thousand and one things needed to bring a product to market.

My second company offered much the same – only better, because this time I was working with big names in the field and being flown across the continent for the sake of my expertise.

Was I self-important to the point of blindness? No question. But other parts of my life were at an absolute nadir, and the dream gave some desperately needed meaning. It’s because I remember that desperation that I don’t want to spoil things too much for this next generation of dreamers. Let them dream while they can.

Of course, if they did ask, I would warn them that being tipsy with meaning doesn’t mean that they should abandon common sense. Half-intoxicated as I was, I never could see why those around me were working long extra hours when they didn’t need to, or sleeping in the cardboard boxes that file cabinets came in, just so they could have the full experience (in the same spirit, many line up for hours for tickets or Boxing Day Sales – not out of necessity but because they don’t want to miss the excitement). Nor could I see the point of those who hung on after I left, working for half pay and then deferred pay, or staying loyal before they were laid off. Too many dot-commers forgot in their quest for personal meaning that business remains business, and my only personal claim to foresight is that I twice remembered that simple fact and ejected before the crash came.

If asked, I would also tell them about my post-dot-com survival, about how, after feeling yourself in the avant-garde, laboring to produce dull and sensible things that people actually want to buy seems pointless and bland. And if you once believed that you were not only in the avant-garde, but leading it, then life in an ordinary office under managers and executives who know no more – and sometimes less – than you do becomes simply an exercise in sustained frustration. I would warn them that their experiments with meaning and work will make them unfit for anything else except becoming consultants in their own small business.

Not that this role is an unsatisfying one – far from it, I would say. After all, iit’s the one that I chose. But unless what you really want is not just purpose, but control of your life, it would be cruel to encourage anyone down this twice-trodden path. You’ll only be disappointed and unhappy, unless you are one of that handful who truly wants that direction in life, one of those for whom the boom-gone-to bust (and it always goes to bust sooner or later, believe me) means a hard-won chunk of satisfaction.

Like I said, I could tell this new generation of dreams these things, but they wouldn’t appreciate hearing them. So I try not to intrude on their dreams, and smile fondly as I hear their excited talk of commitment.

Goddammed kids with goddammed stars in their eyes. I hope they enjoy the roller coaster, and appreciate the ride when they stagger away.

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