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I was an HTML Coder
in the Nineties
(and a brogrammer in the 2000s)


A Vignette from the Past

In the early 90s, the Web was not a commercial war zone that you find it as today. It was a truly magical, mysterious realm, and the wild west at the same time. You might think these were the dark days of the Web, but nay. They were the brightest of days on Earth. Even then, in the Web's infancy, there were many lifetimes worth of content to peruse. There was a tremendous amount of content hosted on academic servers and government sites, e.g. nasa.gov.

Content? Yes. Standards? Not much. UX? What? Did you say something?

I say this with absolute authority, as I sat there learning basic HTML in early 1994, when one was NOT pondering the next post to social media. You weren't thinking about cloud-storage. You weren't thinking about passwords or malware. You weren't thinking about VPN. I was not thinking about UX, templates, JavaScript, or double-density images. Things that today all designers and coders assume to be common knowledge. I did think about how to implement the tenets of print design on the screen.

Imagine! A time when HTML was not really a thing anybody did. This was a time, long ago, when putting the word "webmaster" on your business card <gasp /> looked fairly impressive.

I came from print and "analog" kind of graphic design. As I learned how to code a table I was really thinking, "Thank god! No more 6 a.m. press-checks!"

HTML was the gateway that made that happen.

Another big plus of Ye Old Web: There were no banner ads back then. Of course, this is a silly thing for me to say having worked at several paid-media placement firms (e.g. Essence, Razorfish). There was no advertising of any kind, by comparison.

The Internet was actually fast because it was mostly text. JPGs and GIFs were usually small, too. Here's a big one: There weren't the endless string of promise functions being called every time you do any damn little mouseover or what-have-you.

Things are absolutely idiotic nowadays, from a UX and coding standpoint. I digress...

And browsers. There were a handful of those to choose from. In 1994, '95, etc, a good browser wasn't even free. I paid $60 USD for a copy of Netscape GOLD Edition. It was a good product, worth the money (at the time). It came in a box on 4 or 5 HD floppy discs. Remember those?

Because I was a designer accustomed to thinking about text rag, orphans, and kerning, I thought about how to actually design pages. I discovered the image <map> tag (does anyone still use this?) and found some tools to work with them. Now I could create perfectly designed pages with simple links overlaying the entire design. To me, this would have been enough.

It wouldn't be long before designers would be red-lining page designs and generating style guides. But in '95, say what? What's a style guide? Your choice was Times Roman. Your colors were okay on Mac, but a lot depended on the CRT monitors and whatever your computer told you was possible. There was too much low end hardware out there, so you never knew what your stuff would like rendered on a Commadore. We had a design shop and were at first running Photoshop, Aldus PageMaker and Freehand on Mac IIs, Mac IIci's, a Power PC, and some Mac clones (when that was a thing....can you even believe Apple once outsourced their hardware?!). On the client's machine, everything looked a hundred times worse. For example, they had IBM PCs with 256-colors. So you'd always have to redo things. The sans serif fonts always looked bad. I always liked Courier, myself. So technical looking, like Lubalin Graph.

If you were a designer back then (you were probably a graphic designer) or a production dog, like me. We all came from print. We hated the lack of control on the web. For a time, there was a movement afoot to publish all Web pages in PDF format, so one could turn everything into the ultimate two-page spread using whatever design elements one desired. Ah yes, the PDF-Net. It would have been great. Of course, that revolt failed immediately. Designers would not be put in control of the look of the Web. The revenge of the nerds was taking place in earnest again, and THEY would control how things looked. If you were a designer you'd at least need to learn how to code a page.

Standards. Ha! No one knew anything!

We had a Global Village Teleport 1200 baud modem and were eager for the 2400 to come out. This device sat next to a fax machine. It sat next to a Mr. Coffee. We worked out of the sixth floor of the building that would soon become the Starbucks headquarters (2401 Utah Ave. S., SODO neighborhood of Seattle).

Ah yeah. I never went down to that Starbucks in the lobby. I drank from me Mr. Coffee. But I did eat in the Starbucks's cafeteria down on, what was it, the second floor?

I wish I had photos of this stuff.

Our Macs had 4, then 8 then 16 Mb of RAM. MegaBytes, people. I think our old Mac IIs had a single Megabyte of RAM, maybe 4. Could be wrong there, but it wasn't a lot. If you had to use the old Mac to do an Aldus PageMaker job, then you'd be smoking a lot more cigarettes that day as you waited for the page to redraw. Somebody had one that had 8 Mb of RAM. Megabytes! "Wow!" we all said, mystified by the sheer power of this seemingly infinite increase in horsepower. Note that at this time RAM chips were partially wired by hand, making them much more expensive than today's cheap memory. I eventually quit smoking because the computers got fast enough.

Another thing about that modem and Internet access. For a while we ran it off our business second-line. So if some smart client dialed the backdoor number, they might just get that squelchy modem squak instead of us.

1994. Kurt Cobain had just blown himself away. Did we turn to the Web for solace? No, because the AM newsradio station was always on. As someone working in the advertising/public-relations industry, this was an important lesson, in hindsight. The whole city (Seattle) seemed to grind to a halt the day Kurt killed himself. It was rainy. Courtney Love went to the fountain at Seattle Center and read some stuff. It was broadcast over the radio. I listened, bewildered by the whole thing. You see, now. This would have been a great moment to invent Friendster or Facebook or Twitter or anything like that.

That would take some coding and some visionary thinking.

Soon I figured out enough JavaScript (mostly by reverse engineering other page's code) to build image slideshows, do rollover magic and other effects. This was all very novel and would come in handy for a future career as a Web dev. Nobody had ever heard of that term before, though. You felt good when someone referred to you as a "webmaster." Sure, why not. It was far earlier than the chest thumping "full stack developer" era, but it's the same thing.

We worked way across town from Microsoft. "I'll NEVER work there!" I would declare. "Yeah. Apple  forever!" we would rant. Oh, such foolish words. This was before Apple's final crash and burn, before OSX, before Steve Jobs came back and long before Jony Ives designed unusable mice. Mac OS 6.5 something-er-other was pretty good, OS 7, better. OS 8 hadn't even happened yet. A guy renting space from us was using Windows 95. It was a bad Mac copy, and we all knew it. But the world didn't care. Mick Jagger replied to Bill Gates, "$10 million!" when asked how much he wanted billg to pay to use the tune for the Win95 launch. Ah yes, the old world would die. And us old-style designers with it. The nerds were now in full control. Mick Jagger had personally endorsed the rebellion. It was time to become one of them.

So I split for Microsoft.

I got lucky. My step-dad once said, "You caught the beginning of a gigantic wave."

True.

No more press checks! And now I would receive regular pay checks. I started buying programming books. There was a B&N just down the street from Microsoft campus where many long lunch breaks were taken perusing the computer aisle. This was before the online documentation was any good. There was no Stack Overflow from which you could snag the solution to any problem you might be having. Books were still king.

The 2000s would come. I would leave MSFT to enter the world of consulting. I would ride a grand wave that would morph into the Dot Com Bomb. For a brief time, my boss was a billionaire (on paper). I had years before I would vest, and would, like many others: LOSE this round.

But I was distracted with my JSP templates and other things, like downloading music for free on Napster during work. Like the fact that the consultancy industry was struggling. Things were changing. People would start sharing code samples online. There was even this strange thing called XMLHTTPRequest that a couple of our senior devs were toying around with.

It would change everything.

To be continued...