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Serendipity: Why I Knew Perl At Just The Right Moment - Elf M. Sternberg
Serendipity: Why I Knew Perl At Just The Right Moment

Since I don’t have much forward-looking stuff to discuss these days, I decided to reach back and tell a few tales about side projects, career trajectories, and just some damn good luck.

In 1993 (yes, 22 years ago), I was working at one of the very first nationwide ISP’s, a small company known as Spry. Spry was trying to get off the ground with 2400b/s modem POPs (points of presence) in every major metropolitan area, selling something called Internet In A Box: An early (pre-Netscape!) browser, a gopher client (no kidding), an email tool, and a few other things. Today it seems unbearably primitive, but at the time it was a freakin’ miracle; customers could put in a CD, type in their zip code, and within minutes they were surfing the web! In 1993 there wasn’t a hell of a lot of web to surf if you weren’t a deep nerd, but hey, the cart finally had a horse to pull it.

I was working tech support. I was down in the basement, helping people understand their tech issues, explaining how to put in the CD and walk them through the set up process. It was a lot of handholding. It was labor intensive. I was one of 24 people at this particular bank of telephones, working the 6am through 3pm shift. It kinda sucked.

One day a woman appeared at the steps of the basement space. She actually bent down and leaned her head in, almost as if she feared touching the floor and becoming mired among the peons. I’d never seen her before. “Does anyone here know Perl?”

I raised my hand. I was the only one. “I know Perl.”

“They want to talk to you upstairs.”

Upstairs, Stuart, a manager for Spry’s sister company, a network provider, had a problem. Spry knew it needed content on the web for people to visit, so it had decided to leverage its Internet access and provide web hosting. Nobody there had any idea how. Worse, their very first customer wanted to be able to collect contact information from people on the web. The customer had a magazine article saying it could be done with a technology called CGI, which was written in Perl. Perl, in turn, ran well on SunOS, which was a good thing because that was the OS of choice at Spry. “Do you think you can make this work?” Stuart asked me.

Here’s where serendipity becomes important. I’d been a Linux nerd for barely a year; I’d installed it a year before and found it a much more comfortable environment than Windows after my precious Amiga 2000 had died. But I’d been on the Internet for a while already, and since I was playing with Linux I already knew how to compile things. I had a vague notion of web servers, and I knew Perl. “I think so. It can’t hurt to try.”

They gave me my own SparcStation and what was, for 1993, unlimited bandwidth. In very short order I had found the NCSA webserver, downloaded, configured (with --with-cgi, whatever that was), and running. I also installed Perl. I read the magazine, ran through the example, and had it up. I was able to change the example and fit it into the client’s pages. It took three days, but I had a working demonstration that matched the customer’s need. I even automated mailing the results every night.

They nearly tripled my salary, gave me an office on the top floor with a window. I was one of the very first paid webmasters in the United States, and that’s how Genielift became one of the first companies in the world with a web presence.  I stayed at that position for five years, and felt like I was constantly producing miracles.

Here’s the other part about serendipity, the Perl part. I had literally taught myself Perl two weeks prior. I’d never worked in a real scripting language before that; I’d written a few toy filters in AWK, and maybe edited a shell script, but prior to that I’d only ever worked in “real” languages: C, Pascal, Cobol, Fortran.

I’d taught myself Perl because Usenet’s porn repository had changed to using a new encoding technique that none of the software I used recognized. It was a minor tweak to uuencoding, but it broke everything. I wrote a Perl script to troll through the database (which was still disk-accessible; those were the days!) and decode every image it found, with a file to record work done so it wouldn’t process an image twice.

It was fun, and easy, and amazing, and I started to write a lot of Perl scripts.

But when I think about that: I had just taught myself Perl, and two weeks later that knowledge tripled my salary.

1 comment or Leave a comment
ungulata From: ungulata Date: January 24th, 2015 05:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
That was an awesome story. ^_^
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