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Ask HN: What was it like to work at a “dotcom” in the late 90s?

I'm curious what the work environment was like back in the dotcom boom. Did the people on the ground believe the hype? What did it take to get a job in development back then? Are there any good blogs or articles I can read on the topic? I want to understand what it was like and how it's different from today's environment.

37 pointsmipmap04 posted 3 months ago19 Comments
codingdave said 3 months ago:

The word "startup" was only recently coined. We didn't know what we were doing. At all. All the standard business knowledge and tech knowledge that is comon knowledge today had not yet been figured out. Incubators were not a thing. The VC market hadn't yet figured things out. Hype wasn't about getting a huge exit, it was about people paying you millions for a static HTML page that happened to get some traffic. And simply the ability to put up a site could be a viable business. There was no tie between business value and company worth. It was all chaos, and truly a wild west type environment.

As far as the work environment, it is exactly what you read about. A few guys in a basement or a garage. A desktop sitting next to you as the server. Slinging code and trying to get it to customers. At my first startup, we didn't even have an internet connection - we developed on a local LAN, and transferred the deliverable to the clients via FTP from home, or sometimes even via disk. We got a few customer and rented an office space, and then had 6 guys in 3000 square feet of open space with a few folding tables. Later, we were able to build out walls, hire more people, and make it a real office.

We went public, had lots of paper numbers next to our names, and then it all crashed.

dfrage said 3 months ago:

> All the standard business knowledge and tech knowledge that is common knowledge today had not yet been figured out.

You're right about that. The lean startup, "there's no truth in the office", Minimum Viable Product concepts just weren't a thing back then, they would have saved one of the companies I worked for if the founders had known and accepted them. Instead they spent way too much time in stealth mode, hired a corporate lawyer to get them a bogus patent, were way too worried about competitors instead of ever getting traction for their idea, spent too much time debating details of the website, and who would pay what for precisely what sort of service, and too much upfront engineering to handle a huge demand which didn't materialize due to sabotage by the last round of investors who were found in desperation half a year before launch.

croo said 3 months ago:

What is "there's no truth in the office"?

dfrage said 3 months ago:

That any discussion of your potential customers "inside" the office, purely between people in your company, is highly to entirely speculative. You've got to get "out" of the office and sell your product, or not, to know. Hence the emphasis on having a Minimum Viable Product as soon as possible to know if there's real demand for it, and at what price.

scarface74 said 3 months ago:

At all. All the standard business knowledge and tech knowledge that is comon knowledge today had not yet been figured out. Incubators were not a thing.

Seeing that most startups are failing and the only YC company that has ever gone public - Dropbox - is still not profitable, I am not sure that we have “figured it out”, if you define “successful” as a company that makes a product that can sustain a company profitable.

How many successful exits have been through acquisitions by larger companies where the original product was killed either outright or through neglect.

apohn said 3 months ago:

I attended a well regarded Engineering school back in the mid '90s and people were getting developer and "IT" jobs really quickly and without much interview rigamarole. If you could build a computer and install Windows you'd probably get an IT job (not a great one, but the pay was decent). Able to configure an office NAT? You must be a networking genius. Pure software developer jobs were harder to get than IT jobs, but not that much harder. It was also easier for people with Engineering Degrees (e.g. Electrical Engineering) to get an actual decent paying engineering job as opposed to software becoming a landing place for all degrees engineering.

That being said, a lot of stuff that is trivial today was a complete mess. Ever spent days debugging why all the new computers are crashing and it turned out to be the driver for your network card conflicting with another card the IT department installed? Jobs in software and IT could be a total mess because of all the different things technical people were doing.

I worked for a small company with a CEO who had done well for themselves running a small non-tech company and they decided to invest their money in a .com/internet venture. It was almost a textbook example of a CEO who thought there was money just waiting on the internet and all you had to was build something. No strategy around how to make money, users, or much of anything. The company was circling the drain even before the product was released and I was too young and stupid to quit the day the paychecks started bouncing. I don't think that's very different than many startups today.

Another friend worked for a bigger hardware company that was living on all the .com money floating around. He loved it. When everything went bust that company went bust as well. Another friend was a CEO of a company that was "Surviving on signed contracts where we signed a contract with another company and they signed a contract with us." You can imagine what happened when the bust occurred - all that paper money vanished.

I actually think software jobs are a lot better now. There's a lot more definitions and better discipline about what a developer does. The tooling is certainly better. I think there's also more respect and awareness about software development from others. Plus, I can move my big monitor now and not end up with a back injury :)

BjoernKW said 3 months ago:

I worked for a .com (a German company, so technically a .de) roughly from 1999 to 2003.

The way I got the job was by founding a startup in the same industry that was bought by said company.

We mostly believed the hype. However, for that particular company and industry it wasn’t all hype but founded on reasonable assumptions. The company had its problems and has been transformed several times over the years but it still exists to this day!

Working as a developer back then was different because that role wasn’t the more or less well-defined job it is today (or in larger, established companies for that matter).

As a developer you often were responsible for all things technical, from the office network to installing new servers hardware to actual software development. Basically, it was DevOps before there was DevOps - albeit in a much less well-structured manner.

Interestingly, back in the day designers and developers rarely worked together in the same team. It was more of a “We throw web design artefacts over the wall and see what happens.” set-up.

romanhn said 3 months ago:

The documentary "Startup.com" provided an insider's view into one such dotcom. Check it out.

mipmap04 said 3 months ago:

Thanks! I'll check it out.

tom2000 said 3 months ago:

I worked as a programmer in SF/South Park for three different startups from 97 to 2001. The hype and excitement was intoxicating. The launch parties were crazy and money was being thrown around like confetti on New Years. There was a huge demand for talent and many offers were made on the spot after short interviews. There were no coding tests. One interviewer said "I'm running late and have no time to talk to you. I read your resume and I think you can do the job, the job is yours if you want it" The deepest questions were along the lines of "can you explain what a constructor is?"or "Can you sketch out an object oriented design for a vending machine". After the crash was like the day after a huge party and you wake up in a trashed living room with a bad hangover. I moved to the suburbs and took a job with a company that inspired the Dilbert cartoon characters.

sloaken said 3 months ago:

Oh you worked for Pacific Telesis? With the whole AT&T breakup and then re-merge that must be a good story on its own.

quickthrower2 said 3 months ago:

I just missed it. I graduated in 2001 and looking for a job was terrible. Companies that were larging it at the recruitment fairs a year ago were under water. I opted out of the "graduate recruitment cycle" as I didn't want to take days out traveling to London when I should be studying. So I was looking for a job in a state of effectively unemployment.

I was so desperate I applied to a company that was just a one man shop, and I'd be maintaining Access databases. And got rejected for a better candidate! I also had a job interview where "we get always the girls in for an interview to see what they look like" ... I'm a guy, but was pretty horrified. Did I instantly reject the company? No... I needed to eat. This was also at a time when "personality" questions and questionairres were all the rage, I suck at them, and man it was so good to be offered a job by a reasonable company that liked me for my ability to like ... write code.

I was like hold on they talked to me, gave me a coding test and made me an offer. Wow that was easy! Like now I'm thinking that should be standard. Any company who gets me in for 2 full days (after a first interview), unless they are sending me to the moon, can f'off.

apohn said 3 months ago:

>I just missed it. I graduated in 2001 and looking for a job was terrible.

I think for a lot of people that experience was a wake up call to the reality of the world. One year everybody with a technical degree is graduating with jobs waiting, the next year there are no jobs and even the most specialized (e.g. Microelectronic engineering degrees) people are having offers revoked. Family and parents don't understand because supposedly if you have a degree in IT or CS jobs are just waiting for you and plentiful. New graduates are wondering what's wrong with them that they can't even get the most basic job.

Plus, at that time you had to deal with Monster.com, which was one of the most horrible and SPAM filled BS job sites on earth. Post your resume and get an "exiting offer to be an entrepreneur" and it turns out you can be an agent for an insurance company in your local area. That made job-seekers even more depressed.

brundolf said 3 months ago:

I worry this is going to happen again in the next five years. Things right now just feel too good to be true for someone with a CS degree (or even a bootcamp certificate).

dfrage said 3 months ago:

One thing to focus on is how much of the crash was telecom vs. dot.com companies. An excess of fiber was laid, which was a boon to later companies like Google which bought dark fiber at low prices, competitive local exchange carriers (CLEC https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Competitive_local_exchange_car...) rose and fell based on changing law and regulations in the US, equipment manufacturers like Lucent were at the whip end of demand, especially since they financed a lot of the purchases of the equipment they were selling, and some of the biggest Internet service providers blew up in one way or another, see Worldcom for example.

The hype? Largely justified, even if the timing was off, there's no denying this has become a very big thing, note Amazon was founded in 1994. For me getting a job was no different than getting one prior to the Internet really taking off in this first wave.

BjoernKW's comments about the job being not tightly defined, and being responsible for many things including raw hardware matches my experience. And "cloud" alternatives to your own hardware, even if installed at a colo, weren't an option, weren't even for the start of 2nd batch of companies following the crash. And like his experience, one of the companies I worked for in the late 1990s lasted through it and way beyond, was independent until a few years ago when they were bought and folded into another company.

One very big difference is that the IPO exit option largely ended for most companies, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) in 2002 seems to have been the tipping point.

ncmncm said 3 months ago:

All the VCs thought you had to have Sun servers running Solaris, so that was what everybody used. I remember seeing pallets of them delivered.

mrburton said 3 months ago:

It was interesting. Shame http://fuckedcompany.com/ isn't on http://web.archive.org.

toomuchtodo said 3 months ago:

Pud roams around HN, maybe he kept a copy he could gift to the Internet Archive.

freehunter said 3 months ago:

I've read Bad Blood about the horrors of modern startups, but I've been looking for good books about the horrors of dotcom companies. Any recommendations?