When it changed (1998?)

Anthropologist Biella Coleman just posted “1998 and the Irish Accent is Why I Study F/OSS”. She quotes a rumination by Don Marti on 1998 as a crucial and strange year in tech:

…there was all this fascinating news and code for 
recruiting new hackers at the same time that there
 was a huge power grab intended to drive hackers out.

Biella tells her own 1998 story as well:

…that was the year I ditched my other project and decided to go with F/OSS for my dissertation….I let the idea go for a few weeks, possibly months until one Very Important Conversation over coffee transpired with an Irish classmate…

So I asked my co-bloggers to tell us whether 1998 was a pivotal year for them, too. For most of us, it was.

Kirrily Robert

At the beginning of 1998 I took my first real open source job. Oh, sure, I’d been using Perl in my previous two, but this job (at the Monash University Computer Centre) was the one that changed me from being an isolated user of open source (or “free software”, to be more exact; the term “open source” was not yet widely known) to a passionate advocate and a member of the wider open source community. Monash had just bought a monolithic “messaging system” that encompassed email, bulletin boards, shared calendars, and the like. They’d looked at various vendor solutions, but the computer centre’s Unix nerds had insisted that whatever they went with, it had to support open standards: POP, IMAP, LDAP, and so on. They ended up going with Netscape Suitespot, and I was hired as a Perl developer to do integration scripting, especially around the LDAP directory service.

My job at Monash was the first one where I was allowed to run Linux on my desktop. I’d previously run it at home (Slackware 1993-1995, Red Hat around 1995-1997), but my employers had always insisted on Windows. That January of ’98, for the first time, I installed Debian. I was blown away by apt-get and never looked back; Debian and then Ubuntu have been my choice of linux distro ever since. The university also provided me with an account at the on-campus bookstore and certain amount of time for study, which I chose to use for self-guided study. Me and a couple of the other computer centre guys used to hit up the bookstore for as many O’Reilly books as we could find, print out stacks of RFCs, and go sit outside under a tree and mainline them. I learnt a lot that way.

1998 was also the year I attended my first LUG meeting, with the newly-founded Linux Users of Victoria, whose website looked like this at the time (via the Wayback Machine). Towards the end of 1998, Monash was again looking at buying a monolithic vendor solution for online coursework. Sun and IBM, if I recall correctly, were trying to sell us their offerings with truly enormous pricetags. During some slow time, I was trying out new CPAN modules and thought that this thing called HTML::Mason looked interesting. It was in alpha or beta at the time, but I messed around with it and mocked up a front page (or “portal” as we said back then) for an online learning website. I showed a few people, who showed a few other people, and the university quickly realised that they could build their own courseware system better and cheaper than the vendor solutions. So they ran with it, and it became My Monash, and won awards and stuff.

My 1999 was completely different — I left the university started my own open source training and consulting business — and since then I’ve worked for open source companies or on projects using open source software almost exclusively. 1998 was definitely the tipping point.


1998 wasn’t a big change for me. I was doing web and database development and wiring up buildings in a K-12 private school that’s part of the University of Chicago, teaching classes on web and email use, and doing freelance web dev. In mid-year, I started working as a programmer analyst for the University of California. For that job, I needed more Perl than just writing a couple of web forms. My department sent me to the Perl Conference in San Jose, which was vaguely exciting, but didn’t pull me into any particular communities.

I started writing Perl modules and tried to start the Orange County Perl Mongers, which had a few meetings and lived a while beyond my involvement. But it didn’t, as I’d hope it would, hook me into a good geek community. It was just kind of, well, a few sys-admin-ish guys 20 years older than me, having a beer and being either a little scary or a lot patronizing. I did not find friends or companions that way and certainly not anyone to talk about code.

1996 was more of a year of change for me. That’s when I started getting jobs based on my computer and Internet knowledge rather than just fooling around on Usenet or MUDs while I was at work — thanks to the explosion of people suddenly wanting to have web sites. However, during those years, rather than contributing to CPAN, I was writing MUD areas and tweaking a branch of the Envy code. There, I got a lot of approval and appreciation for my contributions, and direct feedback from other programmers and game players. Unlike hanging out with Perl programmers and sys admins, I was not under a constant (sexist) challenge to prove my skills and knowledge – the people I hung out with practically *lived* in my code all their waking hours. I didn’t know any other women who were coding and I would have loved to.


I don’t think I’d ever noticed how odd 1998 was world-historically before, because that year was one of the biggest inflection points in my own life.

Don Marti writes:

It was also the first year that Linux kernel developers got full-time jobs doing just kernel work.

One of them was the man I would end up marrying, and the reason he got it is because I found a job in San Francisco first, persuaded him to move over with me and supported him until he found work. I’d been editing a magazine in Sydney and utterly failing to persuade any of the publishers that Linux was exciting and that it mattered and that we should write about it. I got hired to write for a newsletter whose founders had deep, deep Unix roots and recognized Linux as the latest (and weirdest) iteration of the Unix literary tradition.

Moving to San Francisco was coming home. I made it to Burning Man for the first time that year, which felt like riding a tornado into Oz. I will never forget seeing the Man for the first time, at sunset, and marvelling at the completely unanticipated changes I had made in my life. I realized I had abandoned the scripts I thought I was supposed to follow, and had started making things up as I went along. In a funny way I open sourced my life.

Oh! My ultimate geek moment of 1998, though, came in January, when I attended an astronomy lecture at Macquarie University and came face to face for the first time with the Hubble Deep Field. There’s nothing in this universe closer to Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex than the first time you hear the words: “Those aren’t stars. They’re galaxies.”

Akkana Peck

I was at Netscape in 1998. That was the year we released the source to the browser. What a year that was! I knew about open source before then, of course. I’d been using programs like GNU Emacs, mush, trn and so forth for years, had a Linux box (not my main workstation at the time), and had contributed to various little programs that were shared around via methods like alt.sources and archie. But it never crossed my mind that a whole company — a company I worked for — might release the source to something like Netscape and I might get paid to work on it.

The month of March was intense. Every client developer worked overtime all month doing nothing but reviewing code to figure out what could and couldn’t be released. We had to remove anything owned by other companies, and management also insisted we remove any comments containing profanity, etc. Meanwhile, we had to set up a build system that mere mortals could figure out. The original build system was unbelievably complex. (Fixing the build was a huge win for everyone inside the company too, of course, and we should have done it years earlier.) Once the code was released, the whole company had to learn how to work in the open — communicating via public mailing lists instead of internal channels. That turned out to be harder than you might think, and a lot of developers (especially those on Windows with no previous experience of open source) were resistant.

So really, all of 1998 was a huge learning process for everybody — and it was awesome. We got so much help and support from people right away, even with such a large, daunting codebase. That was the coolest part — getting good patches from people halfway around the world.

Akkana blogs at Shallow Thoughts.

Helen McCall

When I think about it, 1998 can be described as a pivotal year for me regarding Open Source, though it was over the next two years that the effects became apparent.

In 1998 there appeared to be a massive explosion of interest in Britain in e-marketing, and a large number of small to medium sized companies had simple websites developed to market their goods and services. Most of these were hosted on Linux and BSD servers. It caused a massive development over the following two years of larger and larger hosting companies, all basing their products on Open Source to make their development financially feasible. Very quickly the small businesses wanted to sell their products directly on the web, and so started looking for programmers capable of setting up a database system, and doing all the backend programming.

Suddenly there was this massive sea-change in opinions in the commercial world, and Open Source hackers were suddenly recognised as being a valuable resource for anyone wanting to make money on the web. Linux became respectable because capitalists found a use for it. The IBM project to develop Postfix mail server lent even more respectability when these industrialists realised their mail was being handled by software developed at IBM.

It was at this point that I began to get contacted by companies who had seen my work on the LBC forum in Britain, and asked me to develop Perl/SQL back-ends for their commercial websites. I never had to advertise. Suddenly a reputation in OpenSource meant a hacker could earn a living easily. Today it is well established that giving away free Open Source software is a very good way of earning a living, but in 1998 this was a revolutionary concept which had only just taken hold of the commercial world.

Helen’s profile page

Mackenzie Morgan

Christmas 1997 was when my family finally got a computer with a GUI. Until that point, we had a DEC Rainbow 100, which was good for…nothing that I can think of. Finding software for a CPM-80 machine in the late nineties (especially without knowing what an OS is or that some software only works on some computers) was pretty much impossible. The shiny new Windows 95 computer had a web browser and Internet access, and I wasn’t limited to 40 minutes a day like at school.

So what did I spend 1998 doing? Learning to make websites, of course! I started out with a free host that had a wizard to set stuff up and then a big textbox to put in the body text. Turned out you could put HTML in too, though. I didn’t know about HTML, but then my friend Chelsey showed me how to use the <a> tag to have words (instead of the URL) for a link. Somehow I found Lissa Explains It All, a site for teaching kids about HTML and CSS. Years later, I still referred to that site when I wanted to learn to do CSS-based (instead of tables-based) layouts. There was another site I used too, but I forget its name. All I remember is that it was white with pink and blue accents and had a funny URL that would go to a band’s homepage if you screwed up the TLD.

1998 was the year I learned to write in a language machines understand. It was also the year Microsoft taught me that access to source code is a great learning tool. View -> Source in Internet Explorer was very helpful.

Sumana Harihareswara

My first technical writing job was the internship at Exodus I did the summer of 1998, between high school and college. My parents had a bunch of Indian friends and quasi-family in the Silicon Valley tech scene, and it was the boom, so I got to make money writing user help manuals right next to the engineers.

The first day, I walked in and saw a cardboard cutout of Dilbert in the lobby, because Exodus hosted the United Media site. Then I arrived in Engineering and heard people speaking in Kannada, my parents’ language. This was the first time in the States that I’d heard Kannada outside my parents’ immediate world – home, friends’ homes, and temple.

Looking back, I cringe at my unprofessionalism, and at using Comic Sans in Netscape Composer to write help dox. But I loved getting to interrogate engineers and explain their work in plain English.

I’d requested the booze/drugs-free dorm, Freeborn, at UC Berkeley, and the housing computer put me on possibly the geekiest floor of Freeborn. I met Mike Carns and a bunch of other CS, EE, and physics folk. We talked about science fiction a lot, and I felt at home, although my geeky guy friends called me “The English Major” because I referred to Star Trek episodes by titles and not stardates.

I took a CS class and did badly, lacking the patience to debug. Mike tried to help. He also gave me my first copy of Ender’s Game, got me addicted to Puzzle Fighter, and introduced me to a couple of his coworkers, Anirvan and Seth.

Within a few weeks, Seth had told me about the GPL and Linux (which I started running the next year), and suggested I try reading Slashdot. Slashdot led me to Segfault; within a year I’d be reading the editor’s blog every day, and within three years I’d be dating him. He’s in the other room as I type this.

The name of this post is a hat-tip to Joanna Russ’s classic short story “When It Changed,” and to Geoff Ryman’s speech at Wiscon this year. According to Ryman, “When It Changed” is a plausible title for any good scifi story; great scifi is about people dealing with the world changing around them, and changing in response.

7 thoughts on “When it changed (1998?)

  1. Trix

    Snap. 1998 was the year I entered the IT industry and I had my first systems administration job within 6 months. Perhaps something in the sunspot cycle?

  2. Helen McCall

    Good blog Kirrily :-)

    I thought I would add a bit more on the changes in society which were brought about by the Open Source revolution and philosophy.

    I slept on what I had written in my email to you, and found the connections between what was going on in the Open Source world, and what was going on in the greater world.

    I suspect that the sea-change in public perception of Open Source which appeared in 1998, was probably brought about by all the open discussion on the manifesto “The Cathedral & The Bazaar” published by Eric Raymond in 1997 (and which led to the book being published in 1999).

    Eric’s Bazaar model was a co-operative model, in diametric opposition to the prevailing empire building capitalist model.

    In 1998 lots of people were talking about the advantages of the Bazaar model. This model empowered ordinary people in all walks of life because it was community based and co-operative and Open!

    When I thought about this in bed last night, I realised that this was also a sea change in the arts world I inhabit.

    The theatre/circus community I am part of, really became a community about 1998/99. Before that it was just made up of competing practitioners. The Bazaar model was taking over and people were talking about keeping everything open, and co-operating with each other.

    Our circus troupe of aerial acrobats is totally community based now, and co-operates with lots of other troupes and circuses, and theatre groups etc. This year is the 40th anniversary of my first joining an adult acrobatics troupe. For most of the intervening period opportunities for things like running workshops or putting on performances in all the performing arts, were closely guarded secrets. The coming of the Bazaar Revolution meant that people started discussing opportunities more openly. This developed gradually to the point now when everyone I know in the Contemporary Circus world discusses what opportunities are about, and we share out those opportunities according to who can cover them best. So we swap opportunities openly and we all gain by this.

    We even discuss all our individual funding proposals and applications, and arrange not to clash with each other. The result of this is that all of our individual funding applications in recent years have been successful. The co-operative model is far more efficient than the competitive model.

    I am sure other people can find links to this revolution in other aspects of their lives.

    Best wishes, Helen McCall

  3. Liz Henry

    Reading all your stories about open source in the 90s, I realized I left out some crucial stuff. That was right around when I was fighting for open source solutions to be used over proprietary ones. I’d have management wanting to buy $200K of Sun and Windows servers, sometimes because of the perception of them as more professional or stable, and sometimes simply because asking for that much money for a project made a manager appear more important and powerful. “We can do it for 5K on a Linux box with free software supported by online communities of random hackers” did not compute! Mostly I would go rogue and do things that way anyway. So for example I started running RT, and because it was simple and worked, and probably because I paid attention to it, people used it more than they did the crazy expensive bloatware thing (whose name I’ve forgotten). I loved Perl because while management was still arguing about which super expensive vendor to go with to solve some problem, I would simply write some code to do whatever it was. Sometimes by secretly installing Perl on the loathed NT servers. Ha. So, though I didn’t find the connections and community I wished for (and that I have now), the beautiful anarchic philosophy was all there !

    1. yatima

      Oh my GOD yes. Watching startups I cared about plough tens or hundreds of thousands into big proprietary stacks like Sparc Solaris and WebLogic or NT and Lotus Notes, only to rip it out for a LAMP stack within three years… that was Not Fun.

    2. Skud

      I remember a lot of talk about “stealth Linux” which was always epitomised as a linux box under some sysadmin’s desk running Samba, while everyone in the company thought of it as a “Windows file server”.

  4. Mel

    Wow. In 1998, I was 12 and wouldn’t see open source for another 2 years (when I encountered a terminal in my high school running Red Hat Linux Something – probably 7). However, that was the summer I decided (after a glorious year in Mr. Panitch’s 6th grade English class) that the feeling I got from learning stuff I loved (math, science, writing) was worth being condemned as a geek by the entire middle school, so it was a good year for me too.

    I wish I’d known you folks back then.

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