Spring in Cambridge

Even though the weather is in the 40s, and the wind chill is wintry, today I woke up and went outside and felt like spring was finally in the air. Maybe I started to notice this last Friday when I went back to the Fog Creek garden in a t-shirt and wasn’t actually cold. 

Spring conjures up a funny set of associations for me. I think about the fact that it’s still daylight when you go outside after dinner. I think about living in a nice old messy house with real wood floors, lots and lots of books, and flowers in the garden. I think about two of my favorite places in the spring, Berkeley and Boston, cities that revolve around learning and education and the unbridled enthusiasm of youth and the belief that anything is possible. As a first year student I arrived at university without even the basic premise of the shape my life would take, but compared to the unspeakably horrible time I had doing compulsory military duty, any shape of life sounded utopian to me. I could be in theatre! I could write for the school newspaper! Politics! Hacking! Teaching! Art! I could become a competitive swimmer! Play piano! All possible!

Around 1993, I think, I finally got access to the World Wide Web at home. $35 a month for SLIP from Panix. One of the first things that captivated me was Travels with Samantha, by Philip Greenspun. The pictures were almost impossible to make out in 16 VGA colors; the connection was at 14.4 baud; the screen was 640×480. But Greenspun’s style of personal journal was captivating. He told us how lonely it was to live in Las Alamos for three months. He told us how to build an online community. He told us about his $5000 Viking stove.

Greenspun has been a key inspiration to many of us. He started a company called arsDigita, which was really just another consulting company for the Internet, but it had two things which made it uniquely different.

It had a personal voice. When you went to the home page, there was a happy little note about the new offices or the latest course offerings; the style was not boring corporate/marcomm happy-talk, it was Philip telling you that if you’re poor, there are some free services, but if you’re rich, head on over here and we’ll build you a nice service of your own, but bring a lot of money please, because the future’s so bright you gotta wear shades.

And it had education. The web was new and exciting and offered unlimited possibilities. Everybody wanted to learn about it and arsDigita would teach you, for free, starting with a book that cost about $15 more than it should because it was stuffed with completely irrelevant full-color photographs that seemed to be there solely to assuage the author’s egotistical photography hobby, but which really were so bright and colorful and optimistic that nobody could read that book (or any of the photography-filled pages of Greenspun’s websites) without becoming optimistic and excited about the future of the Internet, and when you did, there was a whole chapter on how to start a consulting company just like Philip and get rich off of the Internet, complete with suggested prices and detailed calculations of how you will make $250,000 a year and be able to buy $5000 Viking stoves and a beautiful condo in Harvard Square, in the spring, with flowers budding and optimist young students everywhere practically popping out of their tanktops. Stream of consciousness, random, and interspersed with completely random bogus snippets of half-baked Oracle SQL statements but goddamn it, there was a personal voice there.

(I know, anybody at arsDigita will tell you “no, Joel! It’s open source that made arsDigita different.” Or community. Or content management software. Sorry, all that stuff bores me. What excites me was the way arsDigita had a personal voice on the Internet that made it possible to relate to it in a human way, which is what people want to do, since we’re humans.)

Fog Creek Software was inspired in no small part by arsDigita; the code name for the company was “PaxDigita” and we took inspiration from Greenspun’s tongue-in-cheek corporate slogan “We don’t have venture capital; we have money.” ArsDigita thought that it was enough to be profitable. 

There were two things I thought that arsDigita did wrong. First of all, they didn’t understand that consulting doesn’t scale so well; if you really want to make an impact, you need to license software. A consultant working on a project makes ten or twenty percent profit. If you license software, each marginal unit you sell is 100% profit. That’s why software companies have valuations that are something like 25 times richer than consulting companies. Consulting is important and keeps us in touch with customers, and it funds the software development, but our goal is to be a software company. (ArsDigita seems to have learned this lesson. Allen Shaheen, the CEO, writes that “we are also considering developing and marketing additional software products using a different type of licensing arrangement. This investment is in addition to our investment in ACS as an open source product. We are considering this approach because it would allow us to accelerate our development of new and expanded features.” That’s happy talk for “the new features are going to cost you from now on.”)

The other thing I didn’t like about arsDigita was an almost religious aversion to Microsoft. There was a deep belief that arsDigita “eliminated risk” by never using a Microsoft product. The truth is, they just didn’t know anything about Microsoft products. Their religious bigotry struck me as just that: bigotry. In the words of Lazarus Long, “I don’t believe anything. Gets in the way of learning.” If you say, “we know Unix better, so we get better results with Unix,” you’re a scientist. If you say, “we don’t use any Microsoft crap, it all sucks” you’re just a fanatic, and it’s getting in the way of doing good work. (Greenspun has learned this lesson too; almost all of his bitterness to Microsoft seems to have dissipated and he finally admits, “I’m not motivated to fight a religious war for any particular database management system or Web server.” It’s nice to watch smart people learning.)

But there’s one thing that arsDigita did very, very, right, and that was the personal voice thing. The biggest thing I think about with Fog Creek is how to maintain that personal voice, and if we can do it, I’ll owe a big, big debt to Philip Greenspun.

For ArsDigita, the spring is over. ArsDigita found it impossible to hire engineers during the dotcom bubble without the promises of IPO riches, and took $38 million in venture capital. They grew from 5 to 250 people.

And then the excited exuberance gave way to a completely collapsed market for Internet consulting services. 

The VCs promptly installed boring old-school management who insisted on a happy-talk marcomm website with complete bullshit like “Fully integrated through a single data model to ensure consistency across all business processes, ACS empowers organizations to create Web services that maximize value for the end-user.”

Philip left.

The voice is gone.

To me, arsDigita will always remind me of those silly irrelevant pictures of pretty girls rollerblading and clam stands and boats in the Charles and sunsets in New Mexico and flowers and spring, and if you built it, they will come, and if you have a voice on your website, they will care. When I go to the website today and read that they “maximize value for the end-user,” I think of that dazzling, exciting kid you knew freshman year, who jumped from varsity squash to journalism to drama to campus politics, and was all fired up to change the world. But he got married, has 2 1/2 kids, took a job as an insurance agent and wears a gray suit to work every day.

Maturity is kind of sad.

But spring is in the air, and that makes up for it.

About the author.

In 2000 I co-founded Fog Creek Software, where we created lots of cool things like the FogBugz bug tracker, Trello, and Glitch. I also worked with Jeff Atwood to create Stack Overflow and served as CEO of Stack Overflow from 2010-2019. Today I serve as the chairman of the board for Stack Overflow, Glitch, and HASH.