OMIP gets a cyber-job at

Published in Carbon 14 N° 19

It all started quite well, thank you.
After four years of Internet-surfing, I decided that it was time to maybe think of making money with that arcane knowledge and cyber-experience. France being a country where the stamped and accredited diploma is king, I registered at a "multimedia school" and went for the "Webmaster" course. Two months, too short; I already knew about 75% of what we learned, and ultimately wasted a lot of time. Even the languid brunette in the next row played hard to get the whole two months and, in the end, remained ungotten! But it got me all scrolled up, diplomated, certified, and... interviewed.
September 2OOO.
First visit to the school job counselor a month after the course ended. She hands me her cell phone:
-"Michel, how would you like to talk to this new amateur soccer dotcom? They need a webmaster."
-"Absolument, ma chère"
And the next day I'm in their offices, talking to the brothers Khaled and Nooredine (the names have been altered to protect the guilty), development director Gerard, and my future direct supervisor and content director (And former soccer pro), Serge.
The idea was to have a web site dedicated to soccer in general, and focusing on the amateur competitions in particular. The site would have everything and more. We would be all things soccer to all people!
Now, you know me. I laid on the charm, told them trans-Atlantic stories, and duly impressed them with my tech expertise and twenty-plus bilingual years in America. Especially the twenty years in America! "Because we plan to go international within a year and we can use someone who speaks English" Serge said.
-"We're associated with TF1 (largest TV network in Europe) and France-Inter (State radio) for web exposure and advertising revenues. We're developing a Manager's kit that'll help amateur managers run their team and organize their schedule on a daily basis. There are upwards of 12O,OO teams in France and I have a big address book, so we'll sell a lot of these. We also have a boutique selling sportswear and sports items of all types, and that one should be a doozy. We provide, through an associate, complete soccer player insurance coverage at very competitive prices. It goes along with legal professional services and career training and improvement courses. We're developing in JSP (Java Server Pages) a huge search engine and picture galleries of hundreds of teams and thousands of players, and we'll have a daily compilation of all the results of all matches in every one of the dozens of regional leagues and sub leagues in France, then other European countries as we expand. Within six months we'll have profit sharing and stock options for the employees. Ultimately, we'd like to sell the site for millions within two years and retire. What do you think?"
-" Did I tell you how much I looove soccer?? And I just happen to have a pen right here..."

So I joined the "team" as Webmaster in name; html-integrator in fact.
That month of September was all bliss and enchantment, I'll say!
Not only was I off into a new life in just one interview, with some decent Francs to boot, but it meant having to come into a swell part of town every morning. And I mean SWELL!
Picture this if you can: getting off the metro at Palais Royal, I step into the rue de Rivoli 18 inches from the wall of the Louvre, so it's 4OO yards of Louvre to the left, and 4OO yards to the right. Crossing the street, I get a right side view of the Palais Royal, while the grand vistas of the avenue de l'Opera, leading to the Palais Garnier, march out to the left. Another 10 minute walk in rue Richelieu and its four-century old townhouses, and I'm at the office. Huge offices at that, thousands of square feet on two levels, lots of space for everybody...
And that's everyday. I know, you feel bad for me. I don't get to enjoy all that luscious Jersey vegetation riding the speed line before getting to Camden...
Well, then it was all work and no play. Looking at Dreamweaver and Photoshop and Fireworks all day (no Flash for me, thanks!), integrating all the soccer stories and trivia the three or four writers concocted, and optimizing the action photographs this photo service e-mailed us from matches in the deep boondocks.
There were five of us, and we were in charge of the Press department and football content. Three of the four writers had played football (I'll call it that, from now on, but you know I mean soccer, OK?) professionally in the 1980s; one of them making it to the First Division for one season and playing against some of the mythical stars of the period—much to the envy of the other two who had to grovel in Second Division or worse, sometimes at the edge of losing their pro status.
But they worked well in this new cyber career and wrote many good stories. Of course, the site couldn't afford to send any of them on location to cover this or that match, nor could we hire locals to send in stuff regularly. So it was all rewrites of wire dispatches and sport publications, or copy-pastes from local newspapers with an Internet existence. Imagine running a web site dedicated to Minor League Baseball, and having to wait for the next day issue of the Butte Montana Standard to get final scores and a recap on that crucial Class AA non-conference American Legion double header between the Helena Senators and the Butte Miners, so your "journalists" can rewrite some other guy's story as if they had been there all along...
We did that every day, several times a day.
And it was a piece of cake. Nobody was the wiser, and after a while we were indeed getting local fans to email in their own private impressions of the week's match, complete with the referee's name and the pitch condition.
Across the hallway from us content boys were the computer guys (and gal) who liked to think of themselves as inventors and cutting edge developers. The bright future the Internet aimed for.
Oh, how they scoffed at good ol' HTML, how they swore tomorrow would belong to Flash animation and Java beans and servlets and Jrun Servers. The daily reality was, of course, far more prosaic. The Jrun server kept crashing and JSP pages not coming up, and the Flash animations were ugly, top and bottom heavy, and essentially did little else but "animate" some mighty big pixels floating about on the page, (which might have looked like a moving rendition of a football if you looked at the screen squinting from 3O feet away.) Real swell stuff!
I took all my lunches with the computer genies, however. The football types were just too, er... rustic to spend my lunch breaks with. The tech crew was at least able to handle conversation past the immediate concerns of their daily grind, (namely how to get a Flash movie to "get-URL and tell-target" so as to open this or that browser window into one or more frameset.) Meaning they could also rave about yet another reggae-pop-soul tune they'd downloaded earlier courtesy of uncle Napster, or rant about the perceived racist potential in some offhand remark someone may have made somehow somewhere...
But still I lunched and laughed with them.
The little fuckers were half my age, but still I thought I'd managed to get myself a membership in their posse. Of course, it can be difficult to fake interest in a non-descript, ragamuffin hip-hop soul number a la Mary J. Blige or Lisa Stanfield, or some "soul" ditty dripping some of that cavity inducing R. Kelly sweetener.
Seek ye not another musical style in their bill o' fare, for they neither knew nor cared about it at all.
Unfortunately, this amiable era was soon to end, with the first fall quickly upon us. After a mere month, we had to vacate the premises described above, and one of the partners offered the use of one of the classrooms in the management training school he operated.
Fair enough, except it meant a daily trek to Aubervilliers, a horrid suburb on the north side of town. No more Louvre and assorted royal palaces; the end to Renaissance townhouses and baroque mansions beckoning me every morning. Instead, it was “Bonjour” to dilapidated industrial tracts, bombed out factories, burnt out shells of unidentifiable origins and concrete block pedigrees.
We will not mention the one subway, two suburban trains, and occasional bus it took me to get there!!
These new dread and dire surroundings quickly had a bearing on morale, my own first and foremost. It became uncomfortable, an odd feeling suffusing the whole affair, barely discernible at first, then blatant and out in the open. Some of the partners stopped showing up every day, the old-time football stars who used to drop by and hang with us simply disappeared. I noticed that less and less work was being done, especially after content chief Serge cut his attendance in half. Now, what would you expect a gang of kids to do when the boss is out, and supervision drops out of existence? Why, NOTHING of course and let me tell you, they were real good at it!
Being the only one working and making an effort, while your alleged tech colleagues loaf, laugh and slack can be exceedingly frustrating and demoralizing. After throwing the Napster habit into the mix, it can get downright disturbing.
When we were in Paris proper, our ISP/host was across the courtyard from our offices. We had a coax cable going from our intranet server straight through the wall and into the ISP's quasi backbone Internet link-up. Talk about fast and furious: plain surfing the web was usually faster than running an app on your local hard drive. So nobody noticed when Napsterization went on full swing, from all hands on deck at that moment.
But now, in suburban hell, with a puny 128K ISDN connection and five fools downloading yet another Marley tune or hunting bimbos on IRC whilst the writers surfed for info on yesterday's matches and another did his Hotmail... well, my feeble and out-of-place attempts at working and transferring files via FTP onto the site crawled and ground to a halt pretty quick. And so it turned out that I had to sit next to a colleague who did NO work for weeks on end, I kid you not, but developed an impressive set of skills with Napster, Nero, and the burning of countless music compilations for his (delectable) wife and assorted cronies, on the company's CD-R drive.
Nicely, softly, diplomatically, I made ever so subtle comments to him about maybe helping me out instead with this graphic process or that animation's lack of fluidity, but to no avail. I could have talked for ever and a day, and I would have seen nothing but a bemused look on his face, with a hint of baffled annoyance at my preposterous implications that maybe something work related should be performed here!
Two months later, by mid-December, things were going nowhere fast and in all directions at once.
The partners engaged in a furious battle to get more money from investors (without having to give any control to those same investors, "Just smile, pay up, and keep quiet" was the way they wanted it), and get more individual private power for themselves. The crew was by now clearly divided, with the techies and the football types at each other's throats, and salaried employees doing what should never be done—taking obvious sides in the war between partners. If you're going to pick one boss against another while they fight over control of what makes your rent and grocery money, you'd better make sure you pick the right one. As you may imagine, my dopey colleagues picked the wrong horse. When one of the erstwhile silent partners decided he wanted to speak out on behalf of his sizable investment, and quickly won that battle of words, the workforce went overnight from a twelve to a four head-count, with yours truly the sole technical operator left in place.
By then I had been totally ostracized by the tech crew. It was fairly subtle at first, and only suspicion and paranoia told me something was amiss. But when full-fledged dinner parties for ten were organized out loud right in front of me, when restaurant reservations were made and car pick-ups organized, all of it without me, I think I got the message.
But it bothered me not. By then I knew their days were numbered, and it was a perverse delight counting those days, their days, all the way to the logical conclusion. Unfortunately, I had to go into the hospital to get operated for a hernia, so I missed all the dismissal fun, but best of all, I didn't have to pretend and say good-bye.
And then, there were four.
The following six weeks proved to be quite pleasant indeed. I got to redo the entire site, jettisoning all the bad Flash animation and ugly graphics, going for a strange earth-tone-meets-psychedelic look, which was a bit of a surprise for a football site!! We learned to accept that the Jrun server who compiled all scores, rankings, and schedules for all the different leagues, would conk out one out of every six starts. We were left to our own devices, with no boss or supervisor around for days on end. But we worked, and the four of us got more done in a month than a crew of twelve achieved in six! Needless to say, not having to cringe through hours of bad commercial music (or a daily thick cloud of cigarette smoke) helped a lot with feeling good about coming to work. And without a Napster fool in sight to clutter the connection, we had so much bandwidth we could bathe in the stuff!
But all good things (figure of speech) must come to an end. The head developer, the fellow who wrote and set-up all the JSP/Jrun stuff, claimed to have been owed a lot of money for writing questionable code and allegedly maintaining the sorry results. The money-people denied the claim, and the whole recrimination went on for weeks.
One day, after a particularly heated exchange between them, the site simply disappeared from the server. I noticed that all the Java .class and JSP files had been tampered with during the night, so it took me little time to understand what had happened. In seconds I jumped into action. It was beautiful, you should have been there. Never had a web site been turned from a technological hybrid oil refinery type of cyber operation, into a simple HTML/JavaScript Internet denizen, lean and trim as could be, in such a short time. After another hacking overnight attempt, and another quick parade from OMIP, we got an unexpected visit from our obviously frazzled former tech chief, who had by then realized he could not do anything to stop us from a distance, and had only one option left: turn off our local intranet server (a nice big Compaq pro server running on NT4, with three HDs, 5OO+ megs of ram, a Pentium III with a nifty 8OO Mhz clock speed), and change the password.
So he did just that and we ground to the expected halt. Good things coming in pairs, one of the shady partners (the one who let us use some of his space) had to move his operation very quickly, having run into a mysterious set of disagreement with his landlord. So without an accessible server, nor a space to spread our wares and do our thing, the decision making money guy with the mostest decided this was his cue to stop everything, pull the plug, plug the leaks, and lock his wallet.
And it was my cue to join former dotcom employees in that new international business practice of the hi-tech world: collecting unemployment!


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