Thursday, November 5, 2015

Twenty years of web design

I do not usually talk about my work but as the 6th of November 2015 marks my 20th anniversary of entering the world of work i shall make an exception and maybe drone on with a few war stories.

Having graduated in the Summer of 1995 with a degree in Software Engineering i naturally was aiming for a career in computing though i had little idea doing what. I was successful in my second interview after graduation and started work at a company called Third Wave. My new boss had recently been to the US and seen the demos of Netscape 2.0 which, it was hoped, would bring the new (and hardly used compared to today) world wide web to the masses. He also heard about the promising new technologies like SSH which would enable secure commerce over the internet, e-commerce in other words. I was hired to produce websites for a new off-shoot company called Tw2, specifically websites that could sell stuff...

Now this was all new to me to be honest, i hadn't even seen a graphic web page at that point. I had been using the internet since 1991 at uni but this was with telnet, ftp and the likes. I had "surfed" in text-mode using lynx and had done some basic html but not actually seen a proper webpage. Still that didn't matter i've never been one to worry about that kind of thing! On my first day in my new job i went online (dial-up natch) and had a look around. These were the early days of the web still, especially in terms of e-commerce. Amazon's website had only started up a few months before. An internet search (what search engine i used i cannot remember, this was years before Google) indicated that i needed to do some CGI programming and Perl. I hadn't heard of either before.

I also needed a web server, though we did not have any web space at the time. I ran OS/2 Warp on my PC at home and knew that could run a web server so i installed OS/2 on my work PC, downloaded a Perl implementation and started work. I was to create an e-commerce website for a large retailer called Software Warehouse. We were aiming to go live in early 1996 but first of all we had to prove the concept to the heads of the major software houses and suppliers at a presentation in a London hotel in December. Yes next month!

I was given a data dump of the stock database, a huge mass of text (text dump from SQL Server i believe) and my first job was to develop a CGI search for that data. This was not a simple process especially as i was having to learn Perl at the same time though luckily as i found out Perl is excellent for handling text files. With few resources online (and limited dial-up access anyway - i had to dual boot the PC into Windows to go online to look for stuff then reboot into OS/2 to implement what i had found!) i once had to resort to going to Waterstones one lunchtime and looking up how to do something in a book on Perl!

However progress was steady and as December approached the website was taking shape (albeit all running on my PC). My boss Ross was a great designer, and a rabid Steve Jobs and Apple fan (the man had a working Lisa in my office - i'm sure my later conversion to Mac-dom is largely thanks to him). His design for the Software Warehouse website was based on NeXT's site though went further. Our site was not just a digital brochure, visitors could search a database, could add things to a basket and then go and purchase them. This seems so common place now but in late 1995 it was genuinely cutting edge.

It was now time for the demonstration, where Ross would demonstrate my website (running on my PC still) to some of the heads of the British computing industry (heads of Adobe UK, Corel et cetera). I was there just in case anything went wrong... but no it all went smoothly and everyone seemed suitably impressed (or at least not too appalled). Now all that was left to do was actually implement the site on a proper server, installing the horror that was Netscape Commerce Server to handle the secure connections, and building a back-end for order management. But that was for 1996. This blog post is about my first few months at work as a web developer.

These days i am an e-learning developer, creating online courses for a distance learning college. I haven't really touched e-commerce (apart from as a user) since my Tw2 days (which lasted until the company went bust in 2001) but that's fine. I was there at the start, the Software Warehouse e-commerce site was one of the first in the UK, and i'm proud to have had to build everything from scratch. But life moves on and the stuff i do these days, especially involving responsive design for mobile learning, makes me proud too.

No comments:

Post a Comment