In 2002, I graduated from Brandeis University, along with my then fiancée, Lauren. She and I soon headed out to sunny southern California to start our “real” lives — whatever that meant.
Before we found a place of our own, we lived in my sister and brother-in-law’s guest house for a few months. Our guest house consisted of a bed, a bathroom with shower, and even a (vastly underused!) kitchen. We spent most of our time in the main house, hanging with the family (which at that point included two young girls, but not the 2.5 young boys that are now part of my sister’s family as well).
One day, though, I was sitting on the bed in the guest house, surfing, when — scout’s honor — I saw a pop-up ad that interested me. The ad was promoting PowWeb, a shared-hosting web company that was offering 250 MB of web space (wow!), up to 1 GB of monthly transfer (double wow!), and up to 250 email boxes at your own domain, all for the low, low price of $7.77/month.
Friedmans.com was unavailable. TheFriedmans.com was unavailable. FriedmanFamily.com was unavailable. Friedman.com was unavailable. Right before I tried “TheFriedmanFamilyEmailAddress.com,” I thought of TheFriedmans.net. It was — and is — my least favorite available domain for our last name; spelling it out on the phone requires not just confirming the “ie” in the middle, but stressing the “the,” the “s,” and then the “.net” kicker. But it’s been ours ever since.
Fast-forward a few months. I’ve been working, fairly unhappily, as an agent’s assistant at Paradigm in LA. Besides commuting more than an hour each way in non-stop valley-to-LA-and-back traffic, I was working for a miserable agent who shared his name with a Weekend at Bernie’s star. (And played on that name coincidence — this is true — when making restaurant reservations.) He had burned through several assistants before me, and when people at the agency heard that I was working for him, they generally professed concern… or condolences.
I wore a suit and tie every day (fine), drove a lousy commute (less fine), worked alongside a lot of other assistants who didn’t like me since I had skipped the mailroom and had been hired directly as an assistant (whatever), working for a boss the French would call “a giant dick.” And I was pulling down a whopping $25,000 a year for my 10.5 hour workdays, which were more than 12 hour days with travel. I was offered five days of vacation per year.
I didn’t love it.
I realized that working as an agent’s assistant for a below-the-line agent (the kind of guy who works with directors and costume artists, not actors or writers) in a midsized agency, and hating every second of it. (Although, to be fair, I was scoring some great stories. I’ll tell you them sometime.) I recognized that this was not going to be my path into Hollywood (for that, I would eventually depend on HireMeJimmyFallon.com), and that I had to get the hell out of there.
Cruising various job sites — I honestly don’t remember which, though I believe it was a meta-job-search-engine that ultimately prevailed — I stumbled upon an ad for a customer service job at a web hosting company. My web hosting company: PowWeb. I applied, the only guy in a suit that cruddy office had ever encountered, and got the job.
When I gave notice at Paradigm, a woman in accounting who hated my agent with a passion that rivaled my own, emailed me a message I remember word-for-word to this day:
Subject: HEARD THE NEWS
I went to work as a billing support rep for PowWeb. The guy I was replacing was a gay man suffering from AIDS. I was realizing that Los Angeles was a far cry from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.
Whereas my predecessor had seen the work as a full-time job, I was knocking out all the billing support emails in Helpdesk within my first hour each day. I tackled other custom support issues, but even those just didn’t take up enough time.
I decided to start learing about web programming. I had programmed throughout much of my life growing up — that’s how cool I was/am — starting with BASIC on our Commodore 64. I graduated through various computers — the KayPro, an Apple IIc, and then after a summer at camp where I was introduced to Macs, a continuing evolution of Mac desktops: LC, Quadra 610, Performa, G3 Tower, various grayscale/trackball laptops, and on and on. But after writing software and taking beneath-me programming classes in high school, I decided I didn’t want to study CompSci in college. I didn’t want to fight computers all day long professionally.
But now, with hours of free time at work, and dealing with the web all day, I decided to dive back in. A coworker suggested I learn Perl, which I did. I came in after a weekend and showed off some of the stuff I’d built. Another coworker scoffed: “Nah, Perl’s old-school. You gotta learn PHP.”
So I did. And then very quickly started learning MySQL as well.
Eventually, I was doing so much programming in my spare time at work (and home) that I suggested to management at PowWeb that I could help out with various development needs they had. Our sole developer had been our CTO, James, who at this point was not always interested in “coming to work” or “programming what needed to be programmed.” James was extremely talented, but had an annoying habit of writing code (always Perl) and not checking it in a web browser. Frankly, given that approach, it’s especially impressive how well his stuff did work, but he would introduce obvious bugs with every release because he couldn’t be bothered to check.
Anyway, management agreed to let me work on a few small projects, but insisted that I keep billing support as my primary focus. I worked on churning out those emails progressively faster, and hated when phone supoprt calls for billing came in, since it meant time away from whatever I was hacking on at the time.
I got good at web programming. I eventually applied for (and got!) another web development job, more than doubling my salary. (PowWeb offered a 40% raise to counter. That didn’t work.) From that next job (at eBoz, an unintentionally hilarious company we’ll save for another post), I eventually moved onto Intermix (the parent company of MySpace). Intermix was an incredible career move; I met the two guys I eventually created The Daily Plate with, and we eventually sold that company to our current CEO at Demand Media — who was also the CEO at Intermix.
Had I not purchased webhosting from a PowWeb pop-up while casually surfing in a North Hollywood guest house, the job offer from them wouldn’t have caught my eye. Had I not taken that job, I likely wouldn’t have learned about web development, at least not at the right time. And had I not learned about web development when I did, I would have missed out on some tremendous opportunities and experiences that I’ve had since then.
I don’t program professionally anymore, which is fine by me. But I do still run various hobbyist projects and sites, and I help out some friends from time to time, too. PowWeb’s changed owners since I worked there (and the original owner barely gave the remaining, all-long-term staffers anything when he sold it), but it didn’t change from its overall offering: A little too slow, a little too unstable, and a little too limited.
I’m now hosting virtually everything I do on the Internet at Dreamhost, and have been very satisfied with their service. But the day in early March that I officially cancelled my PowWeb membership, I definitely felt sadness, and a sense of loss. PowWeb unknowingly affected my life in bizarre and wonderful ways. And as crappy a web host as it really was, it meant a lot to me.