Friday 11 November 2005

Surfing the dotcom wave

In my job as an IT consultant for a largish consultancy, I got involved in a project where the primary pitch to the client was along the lines of:

"build an e-commerce website, the stock market will love you for it."

It was true, this was 2000 and the market was still enjoying the early hand-holding stage of its New Economy romance. Any venture with the prefix e- attracted press and cash like a new popstar, and everyone was scared they were going to miss the boat. The second part of the pitch was:

"you're a very traditional [read bureaucratic] company, you can't do e-commerce, you should build a separate business with a separate culture to succeed, we can do it for you".

Classic consulting of the type my company just doesn't do, we seem to prefer to spend our time building systems rather than spouting about the latest fads, and certainly never believe that we're best placed to do the high level strategy consulting. Amazingly the client agreed to all of it, the proposed budget was chicken feed for them, and they believed in our evangelical salesman. He gained their trust and they bought his ideas.

A team was born, and I joined it. About twenty young, excitable, consultants and a few client staff started bouncing off each other to build the venture. Our first home was the top floor of our client's headquarters. We worked in a small, cramped, sweaty office, piled high with coffee cups, paper stacks and air conditioned by the incessant whir of server cooling fans. Our room was surrounded by senior managers' offices, quiet oases of beige carpets and long forgotten good-employee prizes. We were a team blessed by the New Economy and we rebelled against the unwritten rulebook of the stuffy residents; we dressed down, stole printer paper from resentful PAs, listened to music while we worked, smiled and laughed, played Half Life and Quake after hours.

Needing to move out from the parental home, a modern, glassy, open plan office in Reading was procured; blue carpet, table football, comfortable chairs, decent coffee. Now we had our own space to work, play office football, blu-tac data models to the walls, fill up with McDonald's wrappers.

The venture gathered momentum faster than anyone expected, a CEO, a CFO, a COO, a sales team were all appointed, and we in the development team rolled on and on. We built prototypes, converted prototype to system, padded and patched, suggested and added features, pointed out problems then solved them.
We worked like never before, wrapped up in a world of belief. None of us were motivated by money, even if the project came to rule the web, as external consultants we wouldn't get options or IPO bonuses, we didn't even get paid overtime. None of us cared much for glory either, although my tail wagged hard when praised.

Our eyes weren't shrouded as to the harsh realities of the new e-commerce world - quietly we would say it was doomed to fail, the user figures on the business case were almost certainly unachievable. It didn't matter though - we were wrapped up with hacking and hacking until the damn thing worked. Our need to deliver what we knew we were capable of overcame anything that could have stood in our way.

And underneath all the corporate funding and consultant bullshit we felt the same as the garage start-ups and the dotcom pioneers, those entrepeneurial spirits who fed off their own ambition and self-belief when all others doubted them. Clearly we weren't in the same league - we had job security and plenty of support from our bosses - but we got caught up with the same dizzying vibe, we worked 15 hour days for weeks on end, we came in at weekends, we were on call at 2am, we worked, played and (a few) slept together.

At the point we launched we knew we were the greatest team in the world, we could have landed a man on Mars within six months if only NASA asked. It was a great website, built on a great idea, and we built it slickly and brilliantly. We gleamed and shone in the glorious bright light of our own creation. Omnipotent, we had bent the world to our will.

Later, the world bent back. The venture has subsequently failed, a victim of corporate cold feet as the winds of recession blew through the paper thin walls of the New Economy. The all-conquering team has scattered and moved on. Even the domain name has dropped off the DNS Servers now, typing the URL into a browser will send a few lonely packets pinging through the gateways and routers with nowhere to go.

And five years on, even knowing that it ultimately failed, I'm proud enough to know it's the best work I'll ever do.

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