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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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