Twenty seven

My first real job was at a company called AKQA. Nobody ever knew for sure what the letters stood for.

I’d been working, for fun, in an off license in South Croydon, while attempting to run a web design startup. The startup was going well, save for the fact that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, had no clients, no business skills and very little money. So, I thought, time to get a job.

Two weeks later, I was in. I’d had a 20 minute interview, at least half of which was spent admitting I knew no ASP at all but knew my HTML, and the other half was them persuading me to join. I took it for 20 grand a year.

First day on the job, I had to build my own desk. Seriously. They just pointed to a corner and a power screwdriver. Then I spent that week reading their ASP coding standards. I have still never written any ASP.

At the first opportunity, I jumped into some JavaScript. The guy I was working with, full of tall tales and brag, was struggling with a sliding bar. He’d copied some code from dynamic drive, but was then lost. “I’ve got it all done,” he said, “I just can’t make it slide right instead of left.”

I read the JavaScript book that week. Loved it. Memorised most of it.

We were working on a site for Littlewoods, a catalogue retailer. It was good, it had some fun quirks. The backend was written by some muppets from Oracle. We had no JSP back then, so they’d repurposed the span tag for server side markup. Weird.

As the site rolled out, the problem was always speed, and in those days that meant your modem. 28k was standard. The office couldn’t even manage that. We had a couple of ISDN lines shared between 150 of us.

Yes, 150. This company was the shit. All the major players worked with them. There was money coming out of their ears.

Not ours, you understand. There were no stock options. In fact, shares were divided (unequally) between the four founders – who were the oldest people at the company.

They were twenty-seven.

Anyway, site performance was key. Towards the end, I’d realised that I could just duplicate HTML on the fly for each item, reducing the bandwidth of the download by about fifty percent. I also wrote a clever tool that used LZW compression on the HTML, decoding with JS.

We didn’t go with either – they caused too many crashes. It was too far ahead of its time.

The other project I worked on was for Saga, the over-fifties club. They were huge, and just wanted us to build pretty templates for their own teams to build out. I picked up the project late – just bug fixing and a workshop to run.

The design we had was awful – it locked the site into a box designed for 800×600 screens. There was no space for any text, so we had to have custom scrolling boxes, each only showing a sentence or so. All this for old people. Terrible.

Of course, this was before accessibility (and apparently common sense) had been invented.

My major cockup in all this was the workshop. They’d paid an overhead for this, maybe 30k, I don’t know. But I hadn’t been briefed – I had absolutely no idea what they expected from it, or who would be there. I figured I could bluff it, talk them through the site.

We got there to find a room full of random people. From the IT manager of one team, to the press guy who wanted to know about the website. None of them knew what they wanted either.

I sat down at the computer they’d prepared. Everybody crowded round.
Netscape. Shit. Well, ok.
No Internet. Shit. But ok.
I pop the CD in from the office.

Nothing.
There was nothing there. I had nothing to show, nothing I could present.
When I got back to the office the next day, I asked the guy who prepared the CD why he hadn’t put the stuff on there as promised. “Oh,” he said, “it didn’t fit.”

So, yeah, what do you do?

I wore the shame of that awkward encounter for about a week. I still kick myself over it.

I quit soon after, but not because of that. I was young. Didn’t mind making mistakes. I’d already been promoted to tech lead, but I had no clue. I left in search of fame and fortune. It was December 2000. The bubble had burst, and the next job was harder to find.

Before I left, I hired this guy for my team called Dan. He wore huge trousers. But he was really smart. Got up to speed on everything in no time.

We kept in touch.
He’s now my Engineering Manager at Twitter.