Do Not Take this Software Era for Granted (Pt. 1)

Photo by David Švihovec on Unsplash

We live in an amazing era of software. We walk around with powerful networked computers in our pockets/purses where we can wirelessly download millions of software titles, most for free, in under a minute. While most people can appreciate how insanely cool this is, I think there is an important secondary effect. An aspiring software engineer or product manager can experiment and experience basically an unlimited range of existing software to find inspiration and to lean what’s convention and what products are paving new territory. That’s a really powerful dynamic, and I believe will give rise to the greatest generation of engineers and product mangers…all who will grow up with an addiction to downloading apps on their mobile devices and fiddling with little limitation.

Take advantage of this opportunity to experiment freely. Don’t take it for granted. You see, a lot of senior product managers these days grew up in an era where software experimentation was really costly. You had to pay big bucks for each software title and you had to physically go to a store to get them. I know, I know, the horror of going to a store. But that was the only way software was distributed then. And when you don’t drive and you don’t have any money, exposure to a range of software at a formative age was prohibitive.

Except if you knew a couple of important tricks and you were willing to break the rules.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a predecessor to the Internet called bulletin board systems (BBSes). Those that knew how to navigate it and who were willing to break the law could download practically any piece of software for free.

This is a multipart series about BBSes and my path to understanding software.

The Catalyst

One of the most important purchases I’ve ever made in my life, second only to my first computer, was when I was 14. I saved up $150 mowing lawns and fixing things at the local pool to buy a Practical Peripherals 2400 bps external modem for $150 in 1988. I wanted a modem to connect my computer to other computers, all in a quest to get more video games. [as an aside, in 2007, I later wound up meeting and co-investing with the founder of Practical Peripherals, Michael Seedman, which unbeknownst to him, was a thrill for me.] This purchase dramatically accelerated my understanding of software, deepened my obsession with video games, and ignited my desire to be a programmer.

The Pre-Internet inter-network

Before there was the Internet, there was a completely different way computers interacted: bulletin board systems or BBSes. BBSes were run by independent operators around the country called system operators or Sysops for short. Sysops would load up their PCs with a BBS operating system, they would connect a modem to your computer, and you’d wait for people to call your BBS. You’d know someone was calling when the phone rang and it had a bunch of unintelligible high-pitched tones (called the handshake) that made a fax machine sound like Pavarotti. Modems convert 1s and 0s into tones, transmit them over phone lines, and then the modem on the other side reversing the process. Modem stands for MODulate and DEModulate. Modems allowed computers to talk to one another before there were networks. The most famous modem was the one in the movie War Games that required a handset to be placed on the modem. Thankfully manufacturers figured out it was better to have the phone jack in the back of the modem.

Like websites today, each BBS had a different personality. Usually BBSes had a section to exchange software and a message board for various topics to be discussed. Some also had these vast multiplayer space trader games. Just think of Clash of Clans except it’s all text. In those days, long distance calls cost real money, so you’d generally troll around BBSes in your city. There was a guy who curated the Washington DC list of BBSes and most BBSes made this list accessible. Instead of an IP address or URL you have today, you literally called someone’s phone number with your modem. It was like a manual DNS for BBSes — that’s how you connected. You’d get to know the users on BBSes that you’d frequent since it was a niche thing back then.

You needed software to connect to a BBS. I used software called Telex. It had a directory of favorite numbers to BBSes and the software could dial phone numbers via the modem at incredible speed. But the best thing about Telex had nothing to do with BBSes. Whenever there was a concert going on sale, I’d use my modem to rapidly dial and redial the phone number. When I heard a ring through the modem’s speaker instead of a busy signal, I’d pick up the regular phone to talk to the human. I almost always got through since I had 10–20x more chances to get through than the average person dialing the phone back then. Many phones back then were rotary and few tone phones had redial. Now people write scripts for websites, spoof IP address and find ways to automate captcha entry, but it’s the same thing.

After BBSes became a more frequent habit, I decided to ask my parents for a second phone line. While most teenagers asked their parents for a second phone line to talk on the phone with friends, I convinced my parents to get a second phone line in the house so I could use the modem. It wasn’t a hard argument for me because my parents were sick of me tying up the phone line with a busy signal when I was calling a BBS. When we eventually got call waiting, another phone call would drop the modem connection if I was on. With the second phone line, everyone won.

Today, we take for granted that all of our devices are connected to a network. In 1988, that was a novelty and was largely the domain of hobbyists/nerds. But this connectivity did something crucial for me. It gave me access to a lot of software for free at a formative time when I was learning to program. I was able to fiddle around with 100s of different software titles and learned what a database was, how UIs worked (or didn’t work), different operating systems, etc. Some kids were voracious readers. I was a voracious user of software and video games. As a 14 year old, I got all of this software because I was a part of the BBS “underworld.”

More on the BBS underworld hierarchy and society in my next post.