My first IT job was at a small company in Novato, California, that designed and built museum exhibits.  At the time most companies either designed the exhibits or built them, but ours was the only one that did both.  You could separate the services, and just do one or the other, but our end-to-end model was the best offering because the fabricators and designers were in the same building and could collaborate easily.  The odd thing about separating the functions was that we could lose a bid to design a project, but win the bid to build it, and hence end up having to work closely with a competitor to deliver their vision.

A museum exhibit we designed and built

The company was small–only 60 employees.  Half of them were fabricators who did not have computers, whereas the other half were designers and office staff who did.  My original job was to be a “gopher” (or go-fer), who goes for stuff.  If someone needed paint, screws, a nail gun, fumigation of a stuffed tiger, whatever, I’d get in the truck and take care of it.  However, they quickly realized I was skilled with computers and they asked me to take over as their IT guy.  (Note to newbies:  When this happens, especially at a small company, people often don’t forget you had the old job.  One day I might be fixing a computer, then the next day I’d be hauling the stuffed tiger.)

This was in the mid-1990’s, so let me give you an idea of how Internet connectivity worked:  it didn’t.  We had none when I started.  We had a company-internal network using LocalTalk (which I described in a previous post), so users could share files, but they had no way to access the Internet at all.  We had an internal-only email system called SnapMail, but it had no ability to do SNMP or connect beyond our little company.

The users started complaining about this, and I had to brainstorm what to do when we had virtually no operating budget at all.  I pulled out the yellow pages and looked under “I”, and found a local ISP.  I called them, and the told me I could use Frame Relay, a T1, or ISDN.  I had no idea what they were talking about.  The sales person faxed me a technical description of these technologies, and I still had no idea what they were talking about.  At this point I didn’t know the phone company could deliver anything other than, well, a phone line.  I wasn’t at the point where I needed to hear about framing formats and B8ZS line encoding.

We decided we could afford neither the ongoing expense, nor the hardware, so we came up with a really bad solution.  We ordered modems for three of the computers in the office:  the receptionist, the CEO, and the science researcher.  For those of you too young to remember, modems allow you to interface computers using an ordinary phone line.  We ordered a single phone line (all we could afford).  When one of them wanted to use the Internet, they would run around the office to check with the other two if the line was free.

A circa-1990’s Global Village modem

The reason we gave the receptionist a modem is amusing.  Our dial-up ISP allowed us to create public email addresses for all of our employees.  However, they all dumped into one mailbox.  The receptionist would dial in in the morning, download all the emails, and copy and paste them into the internal email system.  If somebody wanted to reply, the would send it to the receptionist via SnapMail and she would dial up, paste it into the administrator account, and send it.  Brilliant.

Needless to say, customer satisfaction was not high, even in those days.  Sick of trying to run IT with no money, I bailed for a computer consulting company in San Francisco and started installing the aforementioned T1s and ISDN lines for customers, with actual routers.

If ever you’re annoyed with slow Wi-Fi, be glad you aren’t living in the 1990’s.