So..I’ve been pondering some of my career choices of late and mapping the really interesting, and, sometimes, bizarre path I have walked. It’s been a fascinating journey. In particular I had cause to think back on when I worked in Amsterdam for a company called XS4ALL. There is no point to this story by the way… just a meandering tale of oddness.
So…as it happened I used to live in South Australia. My then partner (Honor) and I were artists and I had an opportunity to go to Europe for a festival in Amsterdam called The Next Five Minutes (N5M). I think this was around 1999. Back in those days, audio and video online were new. Media activists had not yet taken to the net, and those that had were struggling to work out what they could do to make the new medium effective as an activist tool. Back then also, the dominant mediums for activism were print, radio, and video… there was some broadcast video (TV) available for activists but it was pretty minimal. But video (tape) was quite a thing. So the Next Five Minutes had been about the use of Tactical Media (radio, print, video) for activist purposes and it originated from the practice and brain of David Garcia, an English activist and theorist living in Amsterdam at the time (now living and teaching in Portsmouth). David was/is a cool guy, but at the time I went to this particular N5M I didn’t know him.
N5M in ’99 was at this critical juncture. Video activism was quickly dying – the net was a mass extinction event for video tape….and yet the ‘old media’ was not taking to the net at any great pace. It was a ponderous moment. Everyone sensed potential for the net as an activist medium but no one had any real exemplar use cases or ideas on what would really work. There was just a lot of naive speculation. It felt like a community though, albeit a community of misfits trying to workout where and how they would now mis-fit.
So, just after N5M, NATO started bombing Serbia during the Serbian-Kosovo war. Many of our friends were activists and reporters working within that region. So I was sorta resting up after the event and I was invited by Geert Lovink to be part of a group to help these activists. We met in the loft of De Balie, a cultural institution in the heart of Amsterdam.
We were indeed a bunch of misfits with a mission – ‘help independent media in Serbia/Kosovo’ and yet we had no idea how to do it. Mostly we were artists, activists, theorists, video activists and some early internet technicians. I think to start we were about 6 or 8 people. I can’t remember the actual sequence of events, but eventually we called ourselves HelpB92. B92 (FM) was a radio station in Belgrade that was critical of Milosevic and the US. So nobody liked them. They were really in danger as a result of being the most outspoken and the most famous of the independent media in the area. So although our brief was to help independent media in general, we decided to call ourselves HelpB92 to leverage their profile to bring attention to the vulnerability of independent media in general.
Well, things happened. It should be noted that when I went to N5M I was stopping briefly to attend the event and my big plan was to go to London and make coffee for a living. That was kinda what NZers did – travel to London and get some sort of job and wing it for a while. I actually had no return ticket and I think I had around $600 Australian in my bank. Making coffee was my get rich quick plan. I’ve had others that have been just as effective in my life, like getting a philosophy degree and starting a community to make free manuals about free software. None of them, it should be noted, made me rich either quick or slow.
So this whole HelpB92 thing was out of the blue and subverted my plans to make coffee in London. So I did HelpB92 for a while and the stories around this are a whole other thing. It included doing some of the first online converts to raise money, inventing ‘new’ ways to use the net for activism and fundraising, and finally traveling to Macedonia to work with Kosovo Albanian refugees and The Dutch National Radio to get stories from the refugee camps broadcast on shortwave all over Europe. Oh…also driving out of Macedonia in a taxi when we thought the country was going to collapse either by invasion or internal war. I literally walked across the border into Greece leaving some very puzzled looks on the faces of the border guards…but anyways…another time…
The point of my story, if there is one, is that because of this, XS4ALL, who were one of the founding organisations of HelpB92, offered me a job. They were an Internet Service Provider (ISP) founded by some very famous hackers, one of whom actually was Rop Gonggrijp who did some pretty well known stuff like hacking on national television the digital voting machines and later being pretty central to the early days of Wikileaks. Back in those days XS4ALL was more of a hacker org than a company. It was actually trying to move from one to the other. One filter they used to keep the bad guys out and preserve their hacker culture was to ask all future employees to juggle. If you could juggle you were in. Thankfully, because I had impressed them, or rather because my very good friend Sjoera Nas convinced them I was a good guy that couldn’t juggle, they offered me a job.
But of course I turned them down. I was, after all, on my way to London to make coffee…what kind of nonsense was this? What do you mean a job, visa, $ for shifting etc?! I’m going to make coffee!!! So I turned them down no less than 3 times…. I have proven myself excessively stubborn with all my get rich plans and so I was going to stick to this one no matter what.
Then they told me how much they wanted to pay me, and it was a good deal more than the going rate in London cafes, so I said yes.
So, I was this artist guy in Amsterdam working for one of the most famous Dutch orgs of the day and they put me in right at the top. I was in charge of their flagship product – Autopilot. I mean….what???? I was barely technical. An artist with a BA in philosophy! I had learned to stream audio and video and stuff, but these days a 12 year old can do that…anyhow… this software was the talk of the org. It was going to be the game changer that blew every other ISP out of the water and clearly established XS4ALL as THE ISP you wanted.
On the ground though, it was auto dialer software… yes, that’s right, this was in the days when you used a modem and dialed in to your ISP to get a connection. ISDN had not yet arrived. It was good old 56K modem time.
The trouble back then was people had real difficulty configuring a modem to dial in. So it would be a major point of differentiation to have a no-hassle dialler. And Autopilot was it. However… in the process of designing and imagining what Autopilot could be, it became a holy grail. Autopilot was going to do almost everything except your washing up and ironing.
The team was great. 3 very ambitious chaps that knew a whole lot more about technology than I did. They were some of the hand-picked hackers in a company internationally famous for hackers. And I was in charge of them…it was bonkers.
So…long story short, or short story long depending on your boredom threshold… and this is sort of why I wanted to write this, to get to this next bit as it has caused me reflection over the last weeks… a new CEO joined XS4all not long after I started. His name was Doke Pelleboer. He was an amazing man. Gentle and wise. He started at the Dutch national telco – KPN, and when KPN purchased XS4ALL (which was very controversial at the time) they threw Doke in to clean up these dirty hippies (the founders of XS4ALL also had a club called the ‘Hippies from hell‘ which is something in itself) and get the show on the road.
However, Doke was smart and quickly realised that the reason why XS4ALL was sooooo very good (it was THE ISP to belong to if you valued privacy and security) was because of these crazy hackers. So it wasn’t a matter of just cleaning it all up. Doke had to slowly move the culture on, but without breaking what made it work. Tricky.
Doke was a great mentor to me and I can’t believe how much trust he must have had to actively invest in me to take me seriously. Doke was very very Dutch and in charge of a very very Dutch company (albeit a non-typical org, it was still very Dutch) and here was this relatively young NZer (I was about 30) who spoke no Dutch and had no serious technical background yet somehow was in charge of their flagship product when he turned up…I mean… that must have looked a little crazy.
But Doke was new and he was a very wise man. Nothing was going to change fast. It was all going to be organic. He also knew, how could he miss it, that Autopilot was THE most talked about product in the company. So, he hired some new folks. Lawrence (I forget his last name) was the ex marketing manager for Apple Netherlands so he brought him in as XS4ALLs new marketing manager. Cees (I also forget his last name) was some sort of financial whizz from somewhere, so he brought him in as the chief financial officer. I mean, these people were kinda exciting for the company because they were serious and had the chops.
So… almost at the end…one day Doke called me in to his office. In the office was also Cees and Lawrence. These were the new big guns, the top brass. I was nervous. Doke then launched into an overview of Autopilot. How exciting it was, how important it was for the company, how he had invited Lawrence and Cees in because they are excited by it. He had reserved x million Dutch Gilders for the development…it was going to be fantastic! Lawrence and Cees then chimed in with their enthusiasm. Then Doke turned to me after he had warmed up the crowd (me) and asked me ‘So tell me, what is the plan?’. It was a genuine question, he wanted to know my thoughts on how we were going to take this world beating product and, well, beat the world! …
It was an interesting moment. They were all looking at me…I could feel the need to say something genius… I had to illuminate the way forward! The moment was ripe! So I opened up my mouth and I kinda heard the words come out “I think we should ditch this product immediately”….
Then it felt like I kinda opened my eyes and looked around. Like what I imagine it must feel like when a bomb goes off next to you. You close your eyes bracing for the explosion and then open them to look around and see what the damage was… of course my eyes were open the whole time but you get the point…I remember thinking ‘shit, I just talked myself out of a sweet job! you idiot! why couldn’t you have bullshitted them! you and your stupid need to tell it how it is…will you NEVER learn?’….I mean, if they believed me then the product was dead and I’d be out of a job. If they didn’t believe me then I was obviously not the right guy for the job and I’d be out of a job… what a dummy!
Then I remember clearly what happened next. I’ll never forget it and made me love Doke instantly. Doke rocked back in his chair and with the biggest, most beautiful smile, laughed his fucken ass off.
I love that man for that moment, to this day.
But I had my reasons. It was a product that over promised, that had blown out its scope well before I got there, and generally speaking was a lost orphaned duck looking for its mama. So instead we planned the demise of Autopilot (which had to be done carefully) and they put me in charge of 4 technical departments. I guess, looking back, a BA in (ethical) philosophy was probably a good career move. Who woulda thought?
I don’t know the moral to this story. I just think it’s a good story and I feel honored to have been there to witness it all.