I grew up in northern Virginia, about 10 miles from AOL headquarters. At age 15, I taught myself Java and C++. At age 16, during two summers, I worked for the now-dead boom startup Tidalwave Telephone (at various times also named Quantum Communications and Tidalwave Internet), located in Chantilly, Virginia, as a Java developer. I worked with an older fellow who did most of the database work, and together we did all the in-house development for the company as it moved from being solely an ISP to trying to bundle telephone and Internet. I stayed with Tidalwave part time into my senior year in high school (2000-2001), and Tidalwave shut its doors in spring 2001.
That summer I got a job doing Java, J2EE, and SQL work for a boom startup company called KnowledgeMax Inc. located in Bethesda, Maryland, through a friend (we actually worked for his next-door neighbor who was a senior engineer; my friend did IT work). I programmed over the summer and into my first year at UVa, and eventually quit because I needed to focus on school. KnowledgeMax was a one-contract company (an internal site for IBM, something like an in-house Amazon). KnowledgeMax went down in late 2002.
After a year of college I was sick of it and missing the money and glory of hacking. But by this time the market was starting to tank. Anyway, I left school looking for full-time employment. In the summer of 2002 I started work for MicroPact Engineering Inc, of Herndon-Reston, Virginia, doing Java, J2EE, SQL, Oracle, and some IT and client management tasks. At MPE I worked for an Indian Institutes of Technology grad who quit at the same time I did and is currently attending Wharton Business School at UPenn. We and three other people worked on a project that tracks reported EEO violations for federal agencies that my boss basically developed in about two weeks. This, in my opinion, was the true nature of the boom period — not the BS marketing and lies that people sold on Wall Street to get a massive IPO, but a hardcore engineer banging out some code that in two weeks seals the fate of your company.
Without the massive incentives that supposedly existed during the boom, I don't see this type of enthusiasm returning anytime soon to tech-related business. This product was sold to many agencies, the largest of which was the USPS. I personally was a contact person for the USPS as well as having full-time development responsibilities. MPE is growing their product line and developing as a company. I and my boss quit MPE in summer 2003, and I returned to UVa. I'm now studying math and econ instead of CS. I will work in finance after I graduate.
One effect the boom had on me was that I realized, yes, you can slave for someone else and still have the company fail — or you can become the person people are working for. It seems ruthless, but that's the lesson I was taught. Secondly, there was some magic in the air during the boom that is lost and that probably won't return for another 100 years. I equate the boom with the gilded age of the 19th century in terms of effect and excitement. That doesn't happen very often. Finally, The boom put a lot of hope into the hearts of a lot of people, usually small-time people. These people lost their investments or their jobs. A few lucky people, like me, got to go back to school afterwards and begin anew, and other migrant IT workers, mostly Indians, can now stay here if they wish. But mostly on the whole, everyone lost from the overactive hype ejaculation that was the late 1990s.
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A version of this article appeared in the March 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.