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History of Slashdot Part 3- Going Corporate 126

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the are-we-sick-of-this-yet dept.
When we last left off we were in early 1999- Slashdot had a small business behind it, known as Blockstackers Intergalactic. But we knew that we would need real infrastructure to handle the ever increasing traffic and needs of our readers as well as our employees. A number of suitors approached us with deal of varying sizes and shapes, and we settled on one nobody had never heard of: Andover. (As a reminder don't forget to get your charity bid up ... some items are still reasonably priced! But the EFF always needs cash!)

Nobody had ever heard of Andover, and from our perspective, that was kind of the point. We had talked to companies that sold Linux distributions as well as a number of web network type organizations, but at the end of the day, we decided that we had to go with someone that would guarantee us editorial independence, and not create serious conflicts of interest by forcing us to favor some particular distribution. Likewise we didn't want to get into a situation where we were 'just part of a network' using all our stories to plug other network sites. Andover was not really a Linux company, so we were able to get a deal that met our needs.

I vividly remember the day we closed the deal. We went to some law firm high up in a huge skyscraper in Boston. Hemos & I signed papers lined from one end of a conference table to the other, along with Bruce (the pres of Andover). After that we went to the boston aquarium for a bit, and went out to dinner with the entire Andover staff at some seafood place that apparently is well known but I'm not a boston person so I don't really know what it was. I remember wanting to just read my email and being incredibly uncomfortable the whole time. I've never been a good person dealing with meatspace crowds. I was on the verge of panic the whole night. I had scallops and tried to smile and be polite when I just wanted to hide in the corner. I've still never really dealt with my ability to deal with crowds.

Following the sale, I found out what it meant to work for a large company. I joined the board of directors of Andover, but soon after realized that corporate boards are probably not the best place for me to spend my time. During that time we hired Jamie, Timothy, Michael and the company hired Pudge, Wes, and a number of other folks who initially worked for other parts of the company, but later came to work for Slashdot. Also we were able to give a paycheck to people who had, up until this point volunteering for Slashdot. Among them was Jon Katz who continued to write for us for a number of years until he decided it was time to write about dogs instead.

Besides an HR department, health insurance, 401k, and that other stuff, having a large corporate backer made a number of things possible. We actually migrated from just 2 boxes to like a half dozen. We chewed through a number of load balancing techniques and were able to scale up from a half a million to multiple million daily page views. We spent literally years getting by on minimal hardware. We spent years optimizing the code, adding layer after layer of caching. I still have mixed feelings on this matter. Had the corporate overlords given us a dozen machines, we could have been free to write a lot of new user features during that time. But instead we used the same database for nearly 5 years.

For me the biggest transition was offloading tasks to other people. With people on payroll, I was able to finally have engineers working on things instead of me doing most everything by myself. It took several years before I trusted the staff enough to take away my own CVS access, a decision that is really necessary. For years I was (fairly) mocked by Slashdot readers for my terrible way of developing code- I'd just write the code live on the site. When it worked, I'd just overwrite the old code live with almost no testing. On several occasions a typo resulted in a hundred emails in my box with readers reporting that Slashdot was no longer compiling. Under the corporate umbrella there was CVS committing, rollbacks, and scheduled deployment of code. I still get impatient with all this overhead to this day, but I know everyone prefers it this way. It's better, but it's definitely less 'Fun'.

Around this time a box arrived on our doorstep containing a bunch of glasses and t-shirts. They were unusual because they were clever and of good quality. When you do this long enough you really can tell when you're getting garbage, and when the people behind the work are smart and clever. The website was ThinkGeek. I brought them to Andover and pushed to have us acquire them. I shoulda got a commission off that deal... now they have like 30 employees and do millions of dollars in business. Most of the people that started the thing are still there (just like Slashdot!) and they are still doing great things (also just like Slashdot!) I still feel a strange connection to ThinkGeek... I think of them as my younger sibling... except that while I sit in the back of the class or maybe play on the chess team, they are starters in all the sports teams and get straight A's.

My first, last, and hopefully only ever COMDEX was in Las Vegas (although I went to Vegas countless times since for fun- NYC, Las Vegas and Tokyo are the 3 cities I love to visit). We had a crazy booth. It was absolutely huge, with bean bags and a plasma TV. ThinkGeek had this little niche in the corner. We had nerf guns. We had a install race- VA gave us a few machines, and we had people race to install Linux distributions on them. Patrick Volkerding. himself represented Slackware, and his machine had a faulty CD drive. It was hysterical watching him come in last. Some (shall remain nameless) distribution had a booth across the aisle from us, and speakers that were inappropriately loud. They would have constant presentations that were deafening throughout the conference hall. So we hooked up our own speakers and starting yelling at them and telling them their distribution sucked and making fun of their catch phrases... after you'd heard the speech 50x, it was pretty easy to mock. At least it was a distro nobody liked in the first place. My punishment for my bad behavior was catching the worst flu of my life. For some reason we flew into chicago, a 3 hour drive home. CowboyNeal and I were both on the verge of passing out, hallucinating with flu, singing at the top of our lungs just to say conscious.

Looking back, I think it interesting that the moment in my life where I most experienced the excesses of the dot com boom was followed by probably the single most terrible bouts of illness of my adult life. Kathleen took care of me for days as I couldn't leave the bed.

Along the way Andover went public in a dutch auction style IPO. I don't have much to say about it except that I think it was the right thing to do, even if long-term it didn't much work out for me personally nearly as well as I had dreamed at the time. No personal jet. No military style compound. But a nice house isn't a bad way to start off your adult life.

Just as I was getting used to flying to boston regularly for board meetings (and racking up crazy frequent flier mile status in the process, getting nearly constant first class upgrades) the 'Merger' between VA & Andover came along. I wasn't surprised when it happened, and at the time there was a lot that made sense. VA had SourceForge (and we had the competing Server 51 project) as well as Linux.com. There was a fairly intense rivalry between a number of people at the companies, although I never really felt it. The bubble that Slashdot has always tried to stay inside has insulated from corporate politics- something that is usually true today as well. I knew the contract we signed guaranteed me the editorial control Slashdot needed regardless of ownership, and I was confident enough in the leadership of VA that I would not have problems with people trying to wreck the site.

Of course all of this happened during the bubble burst where we all went from thinking we would retire by 30 to realizing that we might be broke and jobless within a year. I'm still amazed that Slashdot has survived. From Blockstackers, to Andover, to Andover.net, and then to VA Linux Systems to OSDN to VA Software to OSTG to SourceForge. I've had a lot of different business cards. The names have changed, and a few faces have changed as well, but the core the site, the attitude and spirit remain the same.

Part 4 will run next week where I'll talk more about present day Slashdot operations and philosophy.

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History of Slashdot Part 3- Going Corporate

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @12:22PM (#21011993)
    During that time we hired Jamie, Timothy, Michael and the company hired Pudge, Wes, and a number of other folks who initially worked for other parts of the company, but later came to work for Slashdot

    Anybody know what happened to Michael?

    He was one of the most abusive editors ever, using slashdot as his own personal blog, posting wrong stories, posting political articles that suited his viewpoints, and mod abused people who called him out.

    One day, he mysteriously disappears into the ether without notice. Did the slashdot brass kick him to the curb?

  • by orclevegam (940336) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @12:34PM (#21012195) Journal

    Likewise we didn't want to get into a situation where we were 'just part of a network' using all our stories to plug other network sites.

    The occasional slashvertisment not withstanding. To be fair though, I'm sure those aren't corporately mandated which was the point of that sentence, just people (ab)using Slashdot to generate some traffic.

  • Fret not! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CaptainZapp (182233) * on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @12:36PM (#21012213) Homepage

    No personal jet. No military style compound. But a nice house isn't a bad way to start off your adult life.

    Taco, as a fairly long-time reader and contributor of comments, let me add the following statement:

    You gained something more important then that and that's despite all the pissing, moaning and shoveling dreck into your general direction: Credibility & integrity and that's not a bad feat after being scrutinized to hell and back for ten years.

    Congratulations to the whole team!

    • by cweber (34166)
      Totally agree! Well said!
      I'm really enjoying this series. It brings back many fond memories, and some less fond ones also.
    • by gadders (73754)
      Not only that, you are (as far as I can tell) earning pretty decent living doing something you love. That's not to be underestimated.
    • by Epi-man (59145)

      Taco, as a fairly long-time reader and contributor of comments, let me add the following statement:

      You gained something more important then that and that's despite all the pissing, moaning and shoveling dreck into your general direction: Credibility & integrity and that's not a bad feat after being scrutinized to hell and back for ten years.

      Congratulations to the whole team!

      Interesting to see the sub 100k userids come to say the same. Seems like a lot of us (relative) old-timers are really enjoying thi

      • by baptiste (256004)
        Here here! While not a sub 100k, I've been reading Slashdot for many years, commenting here and there, and reading almost every headline that comes across, more so than any blog or web site. I always chuckle at the trolls who mock anyone who posts an Ask Slashdot question about something that doesn't rise to the level of quantum theory. Yet as an IT professional, I've discovered a number of new technologies, if not directly from a /. story, than from the inevitable net searches that a story may trigger and
      • by Alex (342)

        Interesting to see the sub 100k userids come to say the same. Seems like a lot of us (relative) old-timers are really enjoying this series and reliving the past. I can't believe I have at least checked the headline of just about every story over the past 8 years. Granted I will miss some on the weekends, or manage to resist the urge to review when I go on vacation, but I really enjoy the quick synopsis of things going on I wouldn't hear about otherwise being available anytime (what a messy sentence, sorry).
  • by J4 (449)
    So _that's_ why you guys had the cubicle walls at LWCE Javits 2k. ;)
    • Wow...that was a long time ago. It seems like yesterday Emmett was serenading the /. booth with Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" on his accordion.

      Hey Rob, I'm still waiting for my "Sounds of Slashdot" CD that you promised me :)
  • by Roofus (15591) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @12:42PM (#21012293) Homepage
    And all this time I thought I was just blocking his stories!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by unitron (5733)
      Yeah, but can you believe that they were paying Katz, and not the other way around ?!?
    • by loftwyr (36717)
      Funny, I only found out he'd left when I went to update my preferences and his name (and the blocking of) had disappeared.

      I sat there wondering how long he'd been gone before I noticed.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by bleckywelcky (518520)
      My memory of Jon Katz consists primarily of "In this post-9/11 world ..."
      • by mbspweb (135464)
        My memory of Jon Katz consists primarily of "In this post-9/11 world ..."

        Don't forget "In this post-Columbine world..."
        and "... writ large"
        Two of my favs
    • by Quay42 (444528)
      Is there anybody who _didn't_ block Katz's articles?
  • by cerberusss (660701) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @12:45PM (#21012359) Homepage Journal

    I still get impatient with all this overhead to this day, but I know everyone prefers it this way. It's better, but it's definitely less 'Fun'.
    It's funny but I actually like version control. I'm a "tools" kind of guy, during college I picked up using CVS and have always liked using it. When SVN came along, I picked that up too.

    For some people, this distracts from coding. For me, besides the initial learning curve, it doesn't. What distracts me most is pointless meetings, traveling to the other office, etc. With travelling and testing, sometimes a week goes by without touching any code.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by witte (681163)
      Heh :)
      Doing anything having to do with software for businesses without traceability, version control, etc. is seriously beyond stupid.
      Every time I join a project and I learn they don't know what version control is or simply don't want to use it, I consider myself stuck in deep, deep shit.
      I like good procedures and the supporting tools, they helps keep things organised and complexity manageable. A lot of devs or pm's don't seem to grasp it...
      • Sometimes bad version control is almost worse than no version control. My current job is using some horrible system called PVCS. And don't even get me started on their "deployment" procedure, it's a joke.
        • by spiralx (97066)
          Ha, I used that in my first job 9/10 years ago... and yes, it sucks. Then again, the ancient version of Surround I'm using at my current place isn't much better :(
        • by witte (681163)
          I agree on PVCS. There's much better tools for version control, and cheaper too. PVCS is unwieldy, slow and bloated.
          For small to medium sized dev shops, tools like SVN or Perforce are adequate, with plenty of plugins for tracking tools, Eclipse, etc.
          Bigger dev shops usually don't have a choice and are already stuck with some vendor specific closed-source monstrosity that only interfaces correctly with that vendor's other tools. (Read: vendor lockin is teh suck.)

          Tangentially, I heard there is a new version c
    • Well, I gather that you never had to deal with ClearCase [google.com]?
      • by quanticle (843097)

        Hear! Hear!

        My company uses ClearCase, and it combines the worst aspects of text-based config files and graphical, menu-based systems.

      • Actually, no. I'm a unix guy and the companies I worked at, engineers were in control of the toolstack. So I "missed" the chance to work with ClearCase and other commercial version control tools. I had a very short project using the Java client of Perforce, though....

        You might think that I'm a bit overdoing with the engineers vs. management, however in my experience managers have lost the experience to see through a learning curve and see stability, robustness etc. What is done then is that the tool with
  • For some reason we flew into chicago, a 3 hour drive home. CowboyNeal and I were both on the verge of passing out, hallucinating with flu, singing at the top of our lungs just to say conscious.

    That drive back to West Michigan from Chicago is hell. It's fine until you near the Michigan/Indian border and then it's all down hill from there. My things is having all four windows down, middle of winter, dead of night...it's cold, but I'm awake....the wife doesn't like it so much though, she might prefer it to my singing.

    • by n9uxu8 (729360) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @01:36PM (#21013157) Homepage
      The radio on the drive back to Michigan from chicago is HELL unless you like Delilah (does anyone actually like Delilah)?!?!? Thank god for satellite!
    • by TopShelf (92521)
      I remember making that Chicago-Ann Arbor drive one night in the dead of winter about 15 years ago, and the snow was coming down so hard you could only drive about 25-30 MPH and see about 30-40 feet ahead of you. Of course being a poor college student I didn't have the cash to get a room for the night, so I just pushed on. It was past midnight so there were few, if any, other cars on the road and the drive seemed like it was never going to end...
    • That drive back to West Michigan from Chicago is hell. It's fine until you near the Michigan/Indian border and then it's all down hill from there.

      Really? Actually I used to find that was roughly when the drive improved since the Chicago traffic started to subside, especially once past I-65, and there weren't any more stupid toll booths. I still didn't like the drive but I didn't dislike it as much as driving through Chicago. Admittedly that was partly my fault since the first time I did it, being an ign
    • by gmrath (751453)
      Umm . . . as a veteran city-of-Chicago highway driver (meaning any driving on Chicago tollways and Interstates is done only when absolutely necessary and then only aggressively for self-preservation - average speeds 70 to 80 mph bumper-to-bumper - what 55 mph speed limit?) I must say I found the several times I drove through Nashville and Atlanta much faster and much crazier, though I imagine that's because being in a strange town and trying to pay attention not to get lost tends to make things seem worse.
  • ...CVS committing, rollbacks, and scheduled deployment of code. I still get impatient with all this overhead to this day

    That's got to be more with the specific setup you had than with the philosophy in general, no? A good development sandbox setup where you can do dramatic changes, quickly test, and push to a generally stable live environment increases fun for most developers I know...

  • Interesting (Score:2, Interesting)

    by whackco (599646)
    What is interesting is your choice in corporate partners. I wonder if you ever regret not taking one of the other deals that might or might not have made you much more wealthy. Again: Might not have ;)
  • It's been fun (Score:3, Informative)

    by snowbrdr (994683) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @01:10PM (#21012771) Homepage
    Just wanted to say thanks for the ongoing story of how /. got started up. I've been coming to this site at least 5-10 times a day since 2000 when I graduated HS and have yet to be disappointed in the material I find on the main page. Keep up the fantastic work and I can't wait to see what the next 10 years has in store for /.! -a
  • by Evets (629327) * on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @01:11PM (#21012773) Homepage Journal
    Are there any old timers here who might want to out the linux distro from comdex? That part has me very curious. I'm thinking some sort of Lindows-ish distro.
  • Seafood Place (Score:5, Informative)

    by Se7enLC (714730) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @01:13PM (#21012803) Homepage Journal
    After that we went to the boston aquarium for a bit, and went out to dinner with the entire Andover staff at some seafood place that apparently is well known but I'm not a boston person so I don't really know what it was. I remember wanting to just read my email and being incredibly uncomfortable the whole time. I've never been a good person dealing with meatspace crowds. I was on the verge of panic the whole night. I had scallops and tried to smile and be polite when I just wanted to hide in the corner. I've still never really dealt with my ability to deal with crowds.

    It was probably Legal Seafoods. That's right near the aquarium.
  • PT Cruiser? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Skater (41976) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @01:26PM (#21013021) Homepage Journal
    Whatever happened to the Slashdot PT Cruiser? Did someone win it? Did they drive it with the Slashdot logos on it?
  • The Katz era... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MythMoth (73648) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @01:51PM (#21013389) Homepage

    Among them was Jon Katz who continued to write for us for a number of years until he decided it was time to write about dogs instead.
    Jon Katz's articles polarized your audience. What did you think about that?
  • The seafood place (Score:3, Informative)

    by lbjay (34118) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @01:56PM (#21013487) Homepage
    It was Anthony's Pier 4 [pier4.com], yo.
  • In the movies? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Schnapple (262314) <`tomkidd' `at' `viatexas.com'> on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @01:59PM (#21013529) Homepage
    My first, last, and hopefully only ever COMDEX was in Las Vegas
    Was this the same convention where you were filmed and later put in the documentary Revolution OS [wikipedia.org]?
  • But, there's naked super models and Playboy Bunnies...right? Please, say it's so!

    Otherwise, I'm leaving this dot-com thing I'm doing and I'm shaving the rest of my hair off and becoming a Buddhist Monk!

  • I've never been a good person dealing with meatspace crowds. I was on the verge of panic the whole night. I had scallops and tried to smile and be polite when I just wanted to hide in the corner. I've still never really dealt with my ability to deal with crowds.

    and then...

    (although I went to Vegas countless times since for fun- NYC, Las Vegas and Tokyo are the 3 cities I love to visit)

    umm. because you are a masochist?
  • "...My first, last, and hopefully only ever COMDEX was in Las Vegas... We had a crazy booth. It was absolutely huge, with bean bags..."

    I remember in the movie Revolution OS [wikipedia.org] there was an interview with one of the Slashdot crew, at a tradeshow, in a beanbag chair... was that the same tradeshow? Which staffer was it?
  • by wiredog (43288) on Wednesday October 17, 2007 @03:39PM (#21014953) Journal
    Since COMDEX is no more, probably 'only ever'

    I remember that booth. Not on the show floor, over in the 'Linux Pavillion' which, that year, was in a hotel attached to the LVCC. The BSD crew was there too. And the Caldera guys across the way making too much noise.

    The only time I've met any of the /. crew IRL.

    • by mbrod (19122)
      I remember their setup in the "Linux Pavillion" that year. I think they had a flat screen with /. on it behind them and small laptops they were using to access /. read submissions, etc. I was too intimidated by their awesomeness to chat with them though.
    • by hawk (1151)
      >Since COMDEX is no more,

      And here in Las Vegas, we only have one thing to say about that:

      Thank God.

      Seriously. We had wanted it gone by the early 90's, but even then, there was place else that could host something that large.

      It tied up facilities without the usual economic impact. The city was overrun with incredibly lousy tippers who didn't gamble . . . There were constant complaints of hotel "gouging" during Comdex but that wasn't really the case. Prices certainly went up (tripled in some cases), but
  • Among them was Jon Katz who continued to write for us for a number of years until he decided it was time to write about dogs instead.


    Good for us /.-ers. Bad for dogs.
  • Who hired Zonk? (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by fm6 (162816)
    And why?
  • ...we decided that we had to go with someone that would guarantee us editorial independence, and not create serious conflicts of interest by forcing us to favor some particular distribution.

    Given your current Corporate Overlords (stock symbol LNUX, owners of linux.com etc.,) how do you feel about conflicts of interest?

  • No personal jet. No military style compound. But a nice house isn't a bad way to start off your adult life.

    For those of you wondering where those dreams went, I give you a graph of VA/OSDN/Sourceforge's stock price [google.com].

    Weren't you worth a couple hundred million at some point Taco?

    (Note: I'm not trying to disparage or flame Taco, I'm just trying to use the graph illustrate to all the young-uns how insane dot-com bubble was. And people think the current housing bubble is bad!)

  • "Kathleen took care of me for days as I couldn't leave the bed."

    Now that's true love. (No joke. Taking care of a sick person is one of the least-fun things you can do.)

    • It's also one of the most rewarding I think.

      Me and my family took care of my dying grandmother at home for 6 months before she passed away.
      It's one of the most gruelling experiences of my life with a bitter ending.
      But in the end I felt good about myself (how weird that may sound)that all of us did it, even if it almost destroyed us as well.
      She was so loved by us right until the end and where ever she is now, I know she is looking down on us with the same love.

"But this one goes to eleven." -- Nigel Tufnel

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