A Web Developer from 2001 Wouldn’t Even Recognize this World


I work with people much younger that I, but the reality I’m discussing in this article is really just 12 years ago. It feels like another era entirely. This is especially true if you develop anything that touches the web.

When I started my career it was all about web applications that involved full round-trips to a server. You had a browser (or a WAP phone), your browser makes a request for a web page, waits a few seconds (a few seconds!) and you get a fully assembled HTML page in return. It didn’t matter because the Web was still so full of novelty we were just happy enough to be able to do things like read the news online. Maybe your local newspaper had a website, most likely they didn’t. There was no YouTube. Web pages weren’t really connected together in the way they are now. Back then it wasn’t like loading TheStreet.com required a bunch of asynchronous calls out to social networks to populate Like buttons – there was no social network. It was just HTML and Images, and it took forever. It was fine.

My first two jobs were developing an in-house cross promotional tool for an online gaming company named Kesmai in Charlottesville in 1997, and then I moved to New York to work for TheStreet.com in 1999. Web “applications” at that time were just an inch beyond putting some scripts in cgi-bin. At Kesmai it was Perl-based CGI scripts. Between Kesmai and TheStreet I was working on systems that used a proprietary Netscape server product. And, at TheStreet.com we were using Dynamo behind Apache, so we had JHTML and Droplets and that was my first encounter with a site that had to scale. We had a TV show on Fox and maybe something like 600-700 people could use the site at the same time. (Again, that was huge back then, how times have changed?) Everything was template-based, servlets were around, maybe, but I don’t really remember diving into the Servlet API and JSPs until Struts came along maybe in 2001.

Back then, companies like Forbes.com, which I moved to after TheStreet.com, invested a crazy amount of money in hardware infrastructure. There was still a lot of proprietary software involved in the core of a web site – expensive CMS systems, etc. Open source was around, yes – we ran Apache, but it isn’t like it is now. You likely paid a hefty sum of money for a large portion of your production stack. Around 2001 and 2002, a small group of people were starting to focus on speed, and the way you achieved speed at scale back then? Drop a few million on a couple of big Sun servers. It worked. It seems old-fashioned now, but as a developer I’d work with the operations team (then as now, the operations team didn’t know much about Java), and you’d help them size heaps and figure out how to make the best use of 64 GB of RAM on a E450. You’d run multiple JVMs on the thing, someone might install something like Squid to cache things at the web layer.

Back then, you could touch the servers. They were shipped to your offices. Companies like Sun and SGI invested a lot of money to make servers look all fancy. These things were purple they had blue LEDs (remember high-brightness blue LEDs were, at one point, really new to us all). I remember seeing advertisements for servers in programming magazines. Now if you look back at these, it’s as strange as seeing an advertisement for a station wagon in a National Geographic from 1985. These days, I don’t even know who makes the hardware that runs the sites I work on, and with the exception of the database server, I don’t even care if it is even a physical machine. Back then it was like everybody getting all excited about the E4500 that was in the foosball room.

There was no memcache, there was no AJAX, there was no AngularJS, there was no REST, SOAP was new and you probably didn’t use it yet, there was no Google Analytics, remember, Google was still a tiny startup at the time. I remember having a discussion about Ruby in 2001 with a colleague who was excited by it, but Rails didn’t exist yet. Perl and PHP were around, they’ve been around forever, but you really weren’t confronted with systems that spanned several languages. Javascript was around, but you probably weren’t going to dare use it because it wasn’t like there were any standards between browsers. HTML5, huh? This was back when people still used the blink tag. Need to crunch a huge amount of data: well first of all, huge is relative and you didn’t have things like Hadoop. Just didn’t exist yet. Big Data? Yeah, back then if you had 5-10 GBs you were running a huge database. Huge. XML was still a really good idea. Flash was about to really take off.

If we could travel back in time and snatch a web developer from 2001 and drop them into 2013, they’d flip out. They’d look at your production network and wonder what happened. We’d have to tell them things like, “you’ve missed a bunch of things, this kid at Harvard created a system to keep track of friends in PHP and that changed everything. Google now runs the world. Also, the site ‘Dancing Hamster’ isn’t what it used to be.”

I look at people that started working in 2007 or 2008 and I think about how strange it is that none of this is new – because I’m still living in 1993. I’m still amazed at the functionality of Gopher in 1993.

And you can thank Mark Smith for this YouTube video…