Princeton University Press just published my book, with its self-explanatory title, How the Internet Became Commercial (2015). Sometimes I am asked to explain the “secret sauce” of US commercial success. I point to the treatment of outsiders. There were few barriers to putting their contributions to good use. Mainstream firms were more than willing to employ them, or cut deals with them, if their contributions led to commercial success.
This may take some explaining. Today’s column provides a few stories.
The first story illustrates how the ideal of a technical meritocracy trumped social standing. In particular, good code could come from anywhere. The social status of its author did not matter.
Rob McCool was a programmer at the University of Illinois in 1994. He was the lead programmer on server software that worked with Mosaic, the most popular browser on the growing web. From the outset, the server software had been available for use as shareware, with the underlying code available to all. Many webmasters took advantage of it by adding improvements as needed or communicating with McCool.
The software was a collection of technologies that supported browsing and use of web technologies, including the protocols for supporting CGI script, which moved data from browsers to servers and back again. As it would turn out, that tool would become an essential building block for electronic commerce.
Long story short, just as the commercial web began to drive up demand for the software, McCool left the university (along with a few others involved with Mosaic) to work at Netscape in the middle of 1994. The university did not replace him quickly, and webmasters and web participants became frustrated with the lack of response to identified new bugs, or suggestions for improvement in the design.
Eventually, there were eight distinct versions of the server in use, each with some improvements that the others did not include. These eight teams sought to coordinate further improvements to the software descended from the NCSA server. In February 1995, they combined their efforts, making it easier to share resources, share improvements, and build further improvements on top of the software. The result was called Apache, and it became the most widely used server software on the Internet.
Think about that. One guy put together some good code, made it available to anyone, and then left it to online communities. Neither the programmer’s social station, nor his age, nor his ethnic background, nor anything else about his identity, had anything to do with the use of the code. That illustrates the technical meritocracy at work.
Insiders working with outsiders
The next story starts with an insider.
Tim Draper almost defines one archetype for an insider in commercial high tech. Draper has a Harvard MBA, and his father and grandfather were venture capitalists (VCs) on the west coast. Following that precedent, in 1985 Draper formed a VC firm in Menlo Park, California, eventually partnering with John Fisher and Steve Jurvetson to form Draper, Fisher, and Jurvetson (DFJ).
By 1995, DFJ specialized in funding entrepreneurs aspiring to start new firms. It still does today. Then, as now, the entrepreneur’s social station, age, and ethnic background did not matter. Very little about their identity mattered except what business they could build and its chances for success.
Think about that. That would happen in very few countries.
Anyway, back to the point of this example. One day two unknown entrepreneurs, Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith, created the technology that became Hotmail and pitched to DFJ. Bhatia and Smith were first-time entrepreneurs, yet it did not get in the way of a deal. Even with backgrounds as far apart as possible, none of that mattered, and the parties made their deal less than 48 hours after they first met.
And what a deal! Hotmail eventually sold to Microsoft for hundreds of millions of dollars. It also helped create viral marketing—that is, letting users help the supplier sell the product. That illustrates how the potential for commercial success can trump social station. If VCs can make a splash, then they will finance it.
The arc of Irving Wladawsky-Berger’s life would make any American proud. He immigrated with his family to the US from Cuba in late 1950s and worked his way up the US educational system, earning a PhD. His success embodied the notion that America was the land of opportunity for talented and hard-working outsiders.
He had worked at IBM the better part of his career and become director of a number of projects and divisions, when he got the assignment of his life—to put together an Internet strategy for IBM in 1995. Through this path, Irving Wladawsky-Berger became the first general manager for the IBM Internet Division.
Only one problem: IBM did not have an Internet strategy at the time, and the firm had just been through a near-death experience. Arguably, an Internet strategy looked like a key to further prosperity, and its success could shape the employment of tens of thousands of IBM’s people. Talk about pressure.
As it turned out, many of IBM’s clients—large enterprises—needed help integrating the commercial Internet into their businesses processes. Oversimplifying, integrating old IBM installations with new technology turned out to be productive, because it reused existing capital for new purposes instead of needing to build processes and operations from scratch.
As it turned out, Wladawsky-Berger helped IBM emerge with a healthy strategy and a lucrative line of services, and did so by adapting the Internet to new circumstances. The buyer of IBM’s services made out well, and so did IBM.
Think about that. This came from a guy who started life as an immigrant and never lost his accent. He became an insider at one of the largest computer companies in the world, which had been an outsider to the Internet. That illustrates how, even at some of the most conservative corporations in the US, commercial success and hard work overcomes outsider trumps outsider status.
You can Google it
Sergey Brin’s experience almost defines what it means to transition from outsider to insider. He came to the US as a child because his parents were trying to escape the oppression of the old Soviet Union. Once again, his experience should make any American proud, because the land of opportunity treated him well.
By the time Sergey had gone through university, his talents were widely recognized. He was such an academic star that the National Science Foundation helped fund his PhD studies.
It turned out to be a good bet. Brin teamed with Larry Page while the two pursued their PhD studies at Stanford’s computer science department. They built a project around page rank and eventually went into business for themselves with help from angel investors. They struggled for a while, and eventually their firm, Google, pushed the envelope on advertising around keyword search.
More to the point, status within the academy counts for very little in the world of entrepreneurial high tech. At best, status earned Brin and Page the right to be ignored by commercial firms.
Just contemplate how Brin got there at all. A child of an immigrant comes to the US with no social status, no wealth, perhaps a few family ties, and certainly none of the advantages of established family. In most countries, this kind of talent and hard work might find some success, but it takes something special and unique to overcome that and make a Google.
Let’s tie together these stories. Consider the lexigraphy for the term “wild ducks,” which has been a colloquial term in computing for decades. Wild ducks are a particular group of technically adept innovators, often considered social outsiders by those controlling funding. Wild ducks could exhibit a range of behaviors and social differences, which are regarded as potentially disruptive and costly to the regular operations of an organization. The reverse also often holds—that is, wild ducks regard the practice of those involved in regular operations as interfering with their inventive activity.
By the early 1990s, few remembered that the term “wild ducks” originated with Thomas Watson Jr., the charismatic chief executive officer (CEO) who inherited IBM from his father, and who built IBM into a computing powerhouse in the 1960s. Fewer still know that Watson borrowed the term from a story by existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Watson Jr was always very vocal about supporting his wild ducks at IBM.
To the extent that the United States had a policy for its wild ducks in computing, the absence of policy was its most salient feature. That has deep roots in US society. The absence of policy arose as part of a long-standing social compact to live and let live, to not interfere with freedom of expression, and to let a variety of cultures thrive.
The US is stocked full with some extraordinary individuals who, when given the opportunity, can do extraordinary things. Peasant or high Brahmin, immigrant or a member of a long-established family, they have played a positive role in the business of high tech.
It is remarkable they are allowed to be there in the first place. Let’s not take that for granted.
Copyright held by IEEE Micro. For the original essay, see here.