How We Survived the 90s
ur transition from TV Production and writing to the fringes of the high-tech 90s grew directly from Gayle's job at San Diego Magazine, a job she'd had since before I arrived in her life. It was basically copy editing plus compiling the monthly events calendar. She reported to Chuck Bradley, the Production Manager.
One day, Chuck had to go to a family funeral at a critical moment in the monthly cycle of production. He called on Gayle in desperation, as the only person he could trust to "do the dummy", as it's called. The process is a theoretical layout of the entire magazine, obeying all the many requirements (sometimes conflicting) for ad placement and so on, making sure that every page is filled with something. I watched her (and maybe helped a little bit) as she struggled with this process, and a thought struck me: Here's a very complicated process which could be enormously helped by computerisation.
When Chuck got back from his funeral (and praised Gayle's work, by the way) I discussed the possibility with him. Chuck was computer-ignorant but agreed that certain rules of the dummying game were basically determinist and therefore open to computerisation. He let me have some of his paperwork as a guide. I sat down and began programming. In a couple of months, I had a working programme which I called "Magmaster". Chuck came to look at it and thought it had promise -- however, SD Mag had no computers in those days and the owners were ancient relics who were obviously going to be slow to see the point..
So I decided to set up in business with Magmaster. In my naiveté, I thought this was going to be a piece of cake. You could go to a reference library, get the phone numbers of every glossy magazine in the country, call them, talk to the Production Managers and persuade them they needed the product. I priced it at $1250 and figured if only 20% of city magazines bought it, we'd be rich.
What I should have done is play it by normal business rules: Do a proper business plan, get a bank loan, hire some programmers and salesmen, and take some risks. Instead, I went it alone. One complicating factor was Gayle's lack of enthusiasm. At that stage she had no faith in the idea at all -- so with the Company President lukewarm it wasn't very likely to happen playing by the rules.
The initial results of my amateur salesmanship were highly discouraging. A complete bust, in fact. But since version 1 was written in BASICA it deserved to fail. Somebody I met at a trade show pointed out that I had no hope of selling it like that, and I had to agree that, though the underlying logic seemed useful, its performance was pretty poor. So I decided to teach myself assembly language.
I eventually had the entire thing written in assembler. It was an incredibly fast and efficient programme but the very devil to debug. Slowly, business picked up. I made a sale to Philadelphia Magazine. Another to LA Style. I sold Spanish rights to a consultancy in Barcelona. An outfit called (if I remember) Media Policy Group asked if they could be my re-seller, as they had an existing programme that focused purely on advertising management. Eventually they sold a few. The CEO of the Policy Group was buddies with the fuddy-duddy owners of San Diego Magazine and, combining our connections, we were confident we could get our joint system installed there.
Then a very unexpected thing happened. The fuddy-duddies decided to computerise, but in the most cack-handed way we could imagine. The millionaire owner of Palm Springs Life magazine had taken the plunge, conned into it by a Palm Springs programmer called Gene Davis. So San Diego Magazine decided to buy the same system. Gene installed the hardware as well as the software, but it consisted of outdated terminals that were compatible with nothing else at all, programmed in a weird dialect of compiled MBASIC. Gene's problem was, he had no production module. In fact, by this time I'd been around enough to realise that there was plenty of competition for magazine computer systems but only one computer person understood the production side -- me!
Some negotiations ensued, very quickly. I agreed to rewrite Magmaster in Gene's weird language in return for a guarantee of 5 installations -- Palm Springs, San Diego, and three others unspecified. So for at least 6 months I worked at a terminal in the Magazine offices, getting to grips with Gene's ridiculous hardware. I also went fairly often to Palm Springs to supervise their learning curve. The San Diego production office was pretty pleased with the stuff I turned out -- others in the organisation much less so. I learned a valuable lesson in the fear and disruption that computerisation can cause.
The Palm Springs installation was the victim of cruel fate, in the end. At the conclusion of a three-day training session, the young production assistant who was due to run the system (Paul something, Paul Parton maybe) was totally won over. "It's great -- it's a piece of cake," he said as we departed for the weekend. On Monday morning I walked into the office to the news that Paul had gone out drinking with his mates on Friday night and all of them had died instantly in a high-speed crash. I honestly don't know what happened after that. My contract was over and it was no longer my problem. I liked the guy, though, so it was a downer.
Gene's "other three" installations didn't exactly materialise -- he paid me for two, but I think they were imaginary. I was convinced he would fail. Soon.
Onto the stage of my Life strode a corporation called R.R.Donnelley. HQ in Chicago, world's biggest magazine printer, they printed both San Diego Magazine and Palm Springs Life (plus HUNDREDS of others). I "became aware of" the fact that they were interested in pioneering an Electronic Customer Interface (ECI) and were looking around their clients to see who was computerised and who might be interested in being part of a pilot project. Shamelessly using some personal contacts, I got an introduction to the ECI team and went to Chicago to talk biz. By this time I could genuinely claim some expertise in this very arcane subject, and I could see that without question something like ECI was going to happen eventually; the potential savings were colossal.
Magmaster eventually became the heart of Donnelley's ECI, but it had to be supercharged for the really big clients who had literally hundreds of regional editions. To be honest, it never truly worked for the most demanding clients, due to the difficulty of debugging all that assembly language (by that time, a HUGE amount). In the end, Donnelley bought all rights to Magmaster, rewrote it in a database language; that didn't work either; last I heard it was being rewritten again, this time in Pascal (Oh My God).
Gene Davis went bust. Surprise, surprise. The old fogies at San Diego Magazine died. The new owner finally saw sense, tossed Gene's terminals in the trash and installed a Windows network. At last, at last, Magmaster was where it should have been all along. The efficient version, working in the office where the whole idea started. But there's a VERY ironic ending to that story. Chuck Bradley, the production manager who had started that whole phase of our lives because he had to be away at dummy time, was fired by the new owners. The efficiency of Magmaster made him redundant, at least in their eyes. So it seems that fear of computerization has some basis after all. The system is still running, at SD Mag and also at its big rival, San Diego Home & Garden. They've trained junior ad coordinators to run it. We just took the money and ran. Gayle wrote a novel.
At the time when Donnelley offered to buy all rights to Magmaster, we knew we were out of our depth negotiating the terms of sale. We went to see an asshole of a copyright lawyer in La Jolla, who turned out to be useless and greedy — but he did give us a reference to a guy called Bill Gladstone. Bill ran (still runs, actually) a company called Waterside Productions, which did many creative things but in particular was a highly influential literary agency. Bill took my phone call and listened to my story, and he was absolutely brilliant. For only 5% he took over the entire negotiation and got way more money than I would have asked for. We made nearly half a million dollars on the deal.
So I owed Bill big-time -- and the other person I owed was our friend (now dead, alas) Scott Fitzgerald. I always kidded Scott that he was a "tycoon" -- he looked the part, with his neat brush moustache and his military bearing. Scott understood business in a way I never will. Part of the proposed deal with Donnelley was that I'd be available to them as a consultant for a year after the sale, at a fairly decent daily rate. Scott said "Make sure they have to pay you whether they use you or not". That simple piece of business advice was worth thousands to us....
So anyway, we got along very well with Bill Gladstone and stayed in touch after the Donnelley deal was all signed and sealed. In 1992, with Bill Clinton elected, the political talk was all Health Service costs, "managed care" and so on. The Clintons vowed to solve the problem when they took office (which of course they did not -- or at best, did only partly.) However, Waterside Productions had a client who was interested in publishing a paperback book about the whole controversy. He had in mind a cheap "airport book" that would explain the roots of the problem, what the Clintons might do about it, and what ideas other countries had for controlling Health Service costs. We thought that was a pretty smart idea, and we had some interest in the subject, and since Gayle's novel had failed to find a publisher she was available. So we successfully persuaded the publisher to let us take on the project. I forget what the advance was, but it was worth having, especially since this was our first book.
So we threw ourselves into the research for the book, which was particularly arduous considering that we had to a) Keep up with what was going on in Washington b) Come up with some good stories illustrating what was broken in the current system, and c) assemble facts about the health services of UK, Canada, Germany and France. We got through most of it, and actually wrote more than half the book, before we got our first lesson in the arbitrary bullshit the publishing business throws at you. Bill called to say the publisher had changed his mind -- he didn't think the book would sell after all so he was cancelling. "And don't worry, you can keep the advance money."!!!!!
Meanwhile, something VERY interesting had happened. We discovered the Internet. We'd recently bought our first external modem — which screamed along at 300 baud -- and had begun to explore the world of bulletin boards. Somebody told me there was a lot of online information about the Clinton medical reform proposals on a service called Hands On -- I looked into it and subscribed. OH MY GOD!!!! It was just incredibly perfect for our research needs -- several bulletins and commentaries every day on the issues, the meetings, the personalities, the state-by-state arguments, etc. I could hardly believe it. Better yet, I discovered e-mail. Of course, in those far-off days there weren't many people around with e-mail addresses, but there were a few important ones. I could see that the world had changed.
So, when the Clinton book died on us, I did several things. I bought a faster modem. I bought the first edition of Ed Krol's splendid book "The Whole Internet" and came to grips with all the protocols. I wrote an article about it for the local computer society's journal. I got a shell account with a cheapo ISP that allowed me to learn all the protocols within the Unix operating system, and get a bit familiar with Unix itself.
I wrote a book about IRC (Internet Relay Chat) which almost recovered its advance. The publisher was Addison-Wesley, a very "collegiate" publisher that didn't believe in stressing its authors, so in some ways that was the best publishing experience I ever had. As a complete contrast, I wrote a few magazine articles about IRC and came across the most ignorant, illiterate, obstreperous editors imaginable.
I'd cancelled the Hands On account and got accounts with two small ISPs here in San Diego. I felt we had to be part of the emerging Internet community here (and I started the Internet SIG of the local Computer Society). At some point in 1993, esnet installed a new data-searching protocol called the "world-wide web" (the app was Lynx -- Unix-based, and text-only). I remember thinking "Fech, what do we need this for? We already have the gopher, which is perfectly excellent for finding out things". Ha-ha. On 23rd March 1994, our world-view changed radically. Gayle and I went to the UCSD Library to see a demonstration of a brand new Windows application, "Mosaic". It blew our socks right off, and we immediately became intrigued with HTML, the mark-up language that made it possible to bring multi-media to the WWW.
Since Mosaic was free, we downloaded it immediately and began experimenting. It didn't take much to become expert very quickly. We were involved well ahead of the popular acceptance of the net, and HTML version 1.0 was really very simple. An academic in Canada, Ian Graham, had a nifty web site that explained it all (he still does). Then, later in '94, one of our net buddies said "Seen this cool new web client called Netscape?" We looked. We admired. We applauded. As is now part of history, Marc Andreesen had absconded from his University with all the Mosaic source code and gone commercial. He wanted to call the new product Mozilla, but the guys in suits wouldn't hear of that. So Netscape it became. We began making simple web sites professionally — I think our very first contract was for a women's art co-op.
The next thing that happened (and I hope I have these events in the right order, but it doesn't really matter) was that we had a fairly obvious idea: Why not put Gayle's events column on the web? In fact, why not talk San Diego Magazine into paying us to create a giant web site for them? We set up a meeting with the new owner, Jim Fitzpatrick — my appointments calendar says 31st May 1995, 2pm. We took along a computer, actually owned by Mark Burgess of the Data Transfer Group. Mark got the idea immediately, and came along to help. We explained. We demonstrated. Jim went Hmmmm. Next thing you know, he had the typical reaction of newspaper and magazine publishers in that era -- "Are you fucking CRAZY??? You want me to put the content of my magazine in a place where people can go and read it FOR FREE INSTEAD OF BUYING MY MAGAZINE????"
Jim not only couldn't see the future, he fired Gayle as events editor. So she no longer had her column that she'd edited for nearly ten years -- but she still had a highly valuable resource. Her P.O. Box was on every media list in the city. We immediately started designing pages for her own independent web-based events calendar, which she called "ZOOM sandiego". Jim Fitzpatrick eventually saw the light and decided that a web site wasn't such a bad idea — but instead of coming to us, he gave the job to our nemesis Ron James. Ron had never written any HTML in his life (and probably still hasn't) — he got the job purely on his well-known bonhomie, plus personal contact with the magazine editor. To complete the irony, Ron's web site and ZOOM sandiego both debuted at the same Computer Expo in august, and I'm happy to say that ZOOM looked great but Ron's site was a total failure. It simply didn't appear as scheduled.
Meanwhile, a hot book publisher called Ventana came looking for an author for the first book about Netscape. Bingo. Gayle and I were made co-authors of "Netscape Navigator Quick Tour" and it was a terrific success. We made enough out of that little book to set up a decent retirement account for ourselves (the account was started with some of the Donnelley money). We have a shelf-full of the foreign versions of the book. We got on very well with the Ventana people, and when they went into business with Netscape to create the imprint "Netscape Press" we became hot authors for that imprint. We wrote as co-authors, editing each other and alternating the title of primary author from book to book. But I'm getting a little ahead of the story here....
At some point later in 1995, we decided to get more serious about ZOOM. It was the first-ever entertainment/sports guide in San Diego and we had evidence that it was gaining a respectable number of regular users. It wasn't generating any income but it was a terrific testing ground for our ideas on developing the WWW. The idea we now wanted to test was to have the whole thing generated from a database. Up to that point, it didn't have its own domain, but was accessed via http://w3.thegroup.net/~zoomsd; and Gayle had to laboriously make up a web page for every event she listed (she found ways to semi-automate the process, but still, it was far from ideal). So we did the following:
1) Registered our own domain www.zoomsd.com
2) Employed our daughter Alex to help out. Alex was now graduated from the Univ of California, speciality entomology. She had a passion for flying, and had gone off to Boston for a while to work in the airline industry. Now she was back and looking for a new career.
Our idea was to have a uniform (and easy) way to enter a new event into the system. It would then be stored in a database, and the web site would be totally interactive. Pages would be created "on the fly" by data lookups in response to user requests for information. The cosmetic aspects of the site would be contained in what are called meta-pages. It was unusual at that time, but a very common technique today.
Once we'd made that work, we took on the even more difficult task of listing movie synopses and showtimes. Believe me, the data management involved is quite something!!
By 1996, the Internet was no longer the playground of a techy élite. Everyone knew about it -- and most people were trying to figure out how to make money out of it (ourselves included, in an indirect way). ZOOM had had some coverage in the Trade Press, so what with that and the coverage of the Hamnet Players (which is explained here) we were a little bit known in the net community. We did a few database-driven web sites — a pet services site, and a kayak sales site (for which we were paid in kind.) Our visibility improved in June 1996 when we devised a world-wide synchronized meal, co-ordinated on IRC. People from USA, UK, Canada, Israel, Austria and Sweden prepared the exact same meal at the same time and chatted over the net. On our side we set it up on the back patio and invited Andy & Tina Rathbone, Ted & Jason Coombs, and Mark Burgess. We were "stars" of a PBS TV series Life on the Internet.
Several groups with an interest in doing what ZOOM already did approached us. One was the San Diego Union. We had a few meetings with them, and fantasised about getting the contract to set up their online edition, but I think they were just picking our brains, really. These days they're well established, and bloody Ron James got in there too.
The company we had more success with was America Online. They'd pioneered the concept of "Digital City" in Chicago, New York and New Orleans, and were looking to expand. They needed competent information sources in San Diego -- and that's exactly what we were. They also liked a good party -- and so did we. The negotiations hinged on whether we would be allowed to continue to run ZOOM in addition to supplying content to Digital City. We won.
We signed the contract with AoL on 2nd August 1996 -- then immediately left for France. Yet again we faced a client who was aghast that we were taking off for a vacation when there was work to do, and yet again we had to patiently explain that we were independent contractors who didn't need to ask anyone's permission to take a holiday. By the time we got back, Alex had stopped working for us and started work at Digital City. Very cosy.
At the time, AoL had their own totally weird language for page makeup. It was called Rainman, and was nothing at all like HTML. It wasn't even a markup language, just a limited set of page templates that authors could plug chunks of information into. We went off to Los Angeles to learn Rainman, and hated it. Hated Rainman, that is -- not Los Angeles, as hateful as that city can sometimes be. However, since we were stuck with Rainman for the nonce, I developed logical programming that would automatically create a Rainman page every time Gayle (or her new assistant) created a ZOOM data record. Very clever, and totally unique. Nobody else ever did that.
For quite a while things hummed along fine, and we had a steady income from AoL in addition to book royalties. Then, inevitably, changes came which were not all good. First, AoL HQ announced their intention to standardize all the Digital Cities, starting with the movie listings. We argued unsuccessfully that we should be able to bid on designing the National System. Not for the first time, we suffered from the perception East Coast people have that San Diego is Hicksville (AoL HQ is on the outskirts of Washington DC).
Next, they announced the death of Rainman. That was fine by us, especially since we earned a few extra dollars in February 1997 training all the DigiCity staff in HTML. The final decision, however, was death. They merged the San Diego and Los Angeles "cities", closed the SD office and cancelled our contract. Due to incompetence in the accounting department we continued to collect pay for six months after we'd stopped providing content. Alex lost her job but had no problem finding another. Gayle decided to try getting a real job and, to her surprise, having been out of the real job market for 18 years, she easily got a succession of well-paying contract jobs through a technical contracting agency, including a short summer stint in Qualcomm's documentation division. We kept ZOOM going for a while but reluctantly let it fade away in 1998. Some of our long-term users were pretty annoyed. End of an era.
At this point I was doing some perl programming on contract, developing some private clients and presenting educational TV stuff, but not much else as I recall. I had one web client needing regular maintenance — the entertainer Frankie Laine, who was a San Diego local. Gayle's Qualcomm gig ended and she got sent by her agent to a small software company called Elemental Software. Elemental had only one product -- it was called Drumbeat, and we'd seen it demonstrated at a conference in San Jose back in June 97. It was a web site design aid with an unusually powerful set of features to link information in a database to the site, so any change to the underlying database was immediately reflected in the pages served to the site's users. Same idea as what we'd developed for ZOOM, but much more powerful because it could use virtually any commercial data table whereas ZOOM could only fetch data from its own database.
Elemental was a small company containing some extremely bright and glamorous young people. They also liked to have social fun, so I got included in some of the parties as a "spouse" and got to know Gayle's colleagues. Late in 1998 they suddenly had a panic -- a new version of the product was planned for release and they realized they hadn't a hope of getting the user's manual done in time. In desperation they asked if I could take on some of the advanced chapters. I'd taken their training course but I didn't know the product that well. I said sure.
That's when Gayle had a highly creative idea. "Why don't we..." she said one night "...go to Paris to write this bloody manual?" Her idea was to find an apartment rather than a hotel room, and live as Parisians again for a while. It fit perfectly with Gayle's concept of being in Paris without behaving like a tourist, and the only problem was, it was totally unrealistic. Or was it?
By the time we got back from Paris (in time for Christmas) I understood the product a good deal better -- and I was then drafted in to write some of the Help text, so I came to understand it better still. Gayle and I decided to pitch for writing "Drumbeat for Dummies" which was, strictly speaking, a bit dodgy since authors of "...for Dummies" books are supposed to be independent of the product.
Our agent fixed it up very quickly. We wrote up a proper proposal, and delivered a sample chapter in March 1999. It was all done by the end of June. In those days, the "Dummies" imprint was the property of the original owner, IDG Books, and the process was pretty efficient. A bit too efficient, actually. We had a bit of a set-to with them because they didn't want to take the time for us to review page proofs. We protested VERY LOUDLY because in our whole experience of writing we'd never seen page proofs without errors on them — sometimes really bad ones. Well, first we won, then we lost. The page proofs were grudgingly provided. We found nearly 100 errors, some really really bad. We corrected. They ignored our corrections and the book was published with the errors uncorrected.
Gayle and I worked extremely well together. We had separate offices but by that time our computers were networked and we cross-edited chapters so that you really couldn't tell in the end who had written what. The whole process of providing illustrations, which had agonized us a bit for our first book, was by now very smooth (although certainly time-consuming). We didn't particularly like our editor, Becky, though — she was fussy and unhelpful most of the time. It was unquestionably her fault that the last-minute errors weren't corrected. She just seemed to lose energy at the last moment.
There's a "top secret" forum on the Internet for authors of "...for Dummies" books to grouse about the management to each other. When we posted our sad experience to this group they were amazingly apathetic. "Cock-ups happen all the time" was the general opinion. And this is a publisher who declares loudly in their instructions to authors that they're "committed to accuracy". Hmmmmm....
My professional life was about to take another strange turn. "Drumbeat for Dummies" was in the bookstores, and soon after we got back to San Diego I was contacted by an Atlanta company that specialized in high-tech training classes. They wanted to start classes in Drumbeat, and offered me a contract to teach it. I never really saw myself as a born teacher — I was much more comfortable with the more contemplative process of writing, or creating television. But the money was good, and I had nothing much else on, so I went for it.
The course I taught had actually been written by Gayle and Natalie Calkins, and I think they did a great job of finding interesting content to write around. Too often, software training courses concentrate on demonstrating the features of the product and nobody cares what content is being manipulated. I taught Drumbeat several times in Atlanta, and also in Chicago, New Orleans and Houston. The Houston gig was a bit of a bust, because it was in a private classroom where somebody had installed Windows 2000 — an operating system that Drumbeat was not compatible with. Oh well, at least I got to see Bob. Plus I got paid regardless.
Things moved along fast in 2000. First, it became clear that Elemental Software badly wanted to cease to exist. To be bought for a huge sum of money, that is. That, we discovered, is the way the high-tech game was played back in those heady days when Internet stocks were adding value every day. Some business-minded guy invests other people's cash to hire a bunch of very bright young people.... they have a lot of great parties and do a lot of hard work.... do the rounds of the trade shows and sell some product... selling is not the most essential part of the process, actually... then they either go public or get themselves bought lock, stock and barrel. Cash out and on to the next bright idea....
In this case Elemental dangled itself in front of the noses of the most powerful software companies in the world -- Microsoft, Adobe, Allaire, Macromedia, Oracle.... In the event, it was Macromedia that snapped up the bait. Elemental ceased to exist, had not one but two highly expensive parties to celebrate, and most of the staff were offered jobs in San Francisco. Gayle decided San Francisco was not for her, although we'd had plenty of jolly romps there. (Note that Allaire was swallowed by Macromedia in 2001, which in turn was swallowed by Adobe in 2005.)
Gayle and some other Elemental dissidents fixed themselves up with contract jobs with IBM, who had bought the rights to a piece of Elemental's software and set up a small office in Encinitas for the handful of Elemental employees they'd lured. At the same time she stayed on the transition team for Macromedia, rewriting Drumbeat documentation for their new integrated product, as yet unnamed, and writing training manuals, so for several months she pulled down two incomes.
This was the hot, hot upswing of the techno-boom-bust cycle here in sunny South California. Our retirement stock portfolios, tech-heavy because that's the industry we understood best, were going great. Gayle bought Qualcomm at $19 ($5 adjusted for splits) and, while she was working at IBM, it maxed at very near $300. I only persuaded her to sell half at that point, however. I also made money on Qualcomm but I got in a bit later and, jittery, sold when it was only half-way up the hill.
All of us who didn't take the offer to go to San Francisco were on tenterhooks wondering what Macromedia would do with Drumbeat. It was obvious they were going to merge it in some way with their own product, Dreamweaver. But would the result be Drum-weaver, Dream-beat, or something different. Our pal Julie Thompson was Product Manager of the new product, but her lips were sealed.
We didn't have too long to wait, as it turned out. Pretty soon, I was invited to be on the official (and top secret) beta-testing team, and then Julie asked me to devise and write the official 2-day training course. The new product was called "Dreamweaver UltraDev" (a slap at Microsoft's competing product InterDev) and it looked EXACTLY like Dreamweaver. Absolutely none of Drumbeat's "look and feel" had been preserved -- and precious little of Drumbeat's behind-the-scenes niftiness, either. It seemed Macromedia had paid all those millions simply to buy the brains of people like Julie -- and perhaps to take Drumbeat off the market.
They also went in for a bit of flagrant marketing dishonesty, promoting UltraDev as "the ideal tool for e-Commerce". In point of fact, the version 1.0 product had no e-Commerce features whatsoever (unlike Drumbeat 4.0 which was fully e-Commerce capable). Instead they opened their wallets again and invited Rick Crawford, a Drumbeat veteran who'd gone free-lance, to program a so-called "extension" which would add shopping cart features to the standard product if anybody cared to download it (for free). Rick co-opted both Gayle and me onto his team and we developed it together. Meanwhile I'd started the obvious process of negotiating to write "UtraDev for Dummies". So 2000 was the "year of UltraDev" and one of our highest-earning years ever.
The IBM work was winding down and working for "Big Blue" felt a little too restrictive for independent tastes, so Gayle went looking for a job again. It didn't take more than a week for her to find a job in documentation for a company called Motiva, that did big-ass project management software. She had an office in trendy Del Mar, where some extremely fine lunches were to be had. That same summer of 2000 we bought the house in Hillcrest, buoyed by the realization of Elemental stock options, several months of stashing away multiple incomes, and the remains of the Magmaster profits that hadn't gone into our retirement accounts.
Meanwhile, I found myself simultaneously writing "UltraDev for Dummies" and the official training course for the same product. That was a strain, I can tell you, writing in two totally different styles about the same topic. I managed, but relationships with the "for Dummies" editors were not good. By that time IDG Books had basically gone bust, and sold the imprint to a new company called Hungry Minds. Their logo was a pig with wings, so all of us authors called them "Flying Pigs" and even less complimentary nicknames. Later I learned to call them "Angry Minds".
Anyway, the new bunch of editors obviously had a meeting at which they made a totally predictable, nonsensical, boring decision -- "We need to be more efficient. Writers will simply have to work faster." They rejected the first two chapters I submitted and couldn't think of one single complimentary thing to say about my work. That got things off to a bad start, and we were sniping back and forth throughout the entire 5-month writing/editing schedule.
At the tail-end of the book-writing cycle the editor finally had a nervy B (the strain of working with me, I guess) and a different editor had to take over from her. But the book was published on time and did quite well for sales. Not long thereafter "Flying Pigs" went bust just as IDG had. "...for Dummies" is now owned by Wiley.
In our lives, the high-tech boom also turned into a bust. Our stock values dropped, some catastrophically. At one point I was very close to achieving my target of $200,000 for retirement, then I dropped to half that. Gayle was a victim in a different sense. At 2pm one Friday, the entire staff of Motiva was summoned and told that the company would cease to exist over the weekend, please collect your personal effects and go home. Bye.
Gayle grabbed the grapevine and found out what else was around. After a week or so she had offers from two companies -- Peregrine Systems, a high-flying software company in very much the same business as Motiva, and Lascom, a French partner of Motiva whose chief client was the Paris Metro and who were tentatively expanding into the USA, with a former Motiva vice-president now at the helm. With some trepidation she picked Lascom. Good decision -- in mid 2002 Peregrine was embroiled in a huge accounting scandal and laid off 90% of its staff. Lascom had a rocky ride in 2002 also, but hung on and is now reasonably stable, although with a much-reduced U.S. staff.
Demand for classes in Drumbeat vanished virtually overnight, and instead I had to start teaching the 2-day course in UltraDev I'd written under contract to Macromedia. Since the course had no e-Commerce content, I devised my own 1-day course using Rick Crawford's shopping cart extension and taught a combo 3-day course. My students appreciated it -- everyone wanted to jump on the e-Commerce bandwagon, it seems.
I was very, very short of work during 2003. The teaching gigs dried up completely and very few computer book authors were making a living by that time. I began to see myself as unofficially retired, and at some point I decided to make it official at next birthday (I'm writing this in September 03) -- I will only get a 6% reduction for retiring a year early.
On 11 mar Lascom Solutions reluctantly laid off Gayle. They simply weren't getting the business and it seemed possible that the whole US office would close down -- nice try, mes amis, but it didn't work out. She quickly found contract work with a branch of Verizon -- it meant commuting to Carlsbad again, but the pay was decent and she could work her own hours. Through the employment agency she also got excellent benefits, so my drugs (by now 3 a day, later 4 then 5 then 6) were subsidised.
Gayle was keeping a lookout for a more permanent job and in September put in for a job at the local company Pyxis who'd been bought out by medical giant Cardinal Health, who jerked her around and made her jump through hoops for about two weeks before brushing her off with "We have decided to continue our search for a suitable candidate". Shortly thereafter she walked into a next door office building in Carlsbad and thrust her application across the counter at a small start-up called Enviance and was hired the same afternoon, despite being unprepared for an on-the-spot interview in blue jeans. This was altogether more her style. She started Sept. 29th and thus began the years of commuting on the Coaster, watching that little start-up grow into a big success.
In March 2004 I began a different kind of free-lance work. Demand had been building up for documentation services for high-tech companies. Only the biggest of them had in-house documentation departments. As one exec put it, "documentation is a necessary evil." By that he meant that nobody had any faith that hard-copy product documentation was actually useful, or that anybody really read it. It could be expensive to generate. However, it was something that had to be shipped along with the software, or clients didn't feel they were getting a complete deal. The transition to on-screen and on-line help systems was pretty much complete. Gayle made herself an expert in so-called "single source" documentation -- meaning that a master file in an app such as Adobe Framemakercould be manipulated so as to create either hard copy manuals, help screens, or elements of web pages. The advantage being that a change to the master would ripple through all those products.
Gayle made a presentation on this to the Society for Technical Communication— a SIG for tech writers that ate rubber chicken once a month in a hotel in Mira Mesa. It also functioned as a clearing house for free-lance work, and our mate Cheryl Nemeth, a Motiva survivor, was the cornucopia of information about who needed authoring services. My first contract was a fairly big job for Ameranth Wireless. Ameranth specializes in apps for hand-held PDAs. With some help from Gayle and Cheryl I documented their restaurant management app, and later a poker room management app. I was making $50/hr and doing a pretty good job, I think. When they thought they had enough they just dropped the contract without so much as a bye-bye, and that was typical behaviour as it turned out. The companies very much see that as an advantage of free-lancers: No benefits, no loyalty, no commitments. I accept it, and I continued to get that kind of work up through 2012. Thanks, Cheryl.
In 2010 we joined forces again to create and edit an e-Book, but that's getting away from the 90s theme of this memoir, so I'll skip it.
The client who kept me alive through 2012 started off being called Spescom — another start-up offering comprehensive data management services, and whose CEO, Alan Kiraly, was ex-Lascom. Small world. I began writing and/or editing what eventually became a suite of about 30 manuals. Boring, but still worth $50/hr. In 2007 Spescom became Enterprise Informatics. Silly name, but fine with me — updating all those documents meant many billable hours. Then in January 2010 the company was bought by Bentley Systems and they told me this was the parting of the ways. Bentley had its own documentation people so they didn't need me any more.
Well, ha-ha, four months later they were back in touch saying "The new arrangement didn't work out." I told them I'd be happy to sign up again, but my hourly rate had increased 10%. Once again the entire library needed updating to conform to Bentley conventions.