Tuesday, April 11, 2006

last laugh

When we moved to Texas in the fall of 1994, the Web was just starting to take off in Silicon Valley. You could see minor evidence of it at the time -- overheard references to hypertext in Palo Alto eateries, URLs popping up here and there, chatter mostly. Just before we left Los Altos (Spanish for "the mayonnaise-eaters"), I snapped a photo of a sign outside a building in Mountain View: it was a novelty to have a physical address refer to a cyberspace location.

In truth, I was glad to be leaving Silicon Valley. I was sick of eavesdropping on technophiles. My colleagues and I had been working on hypertext for over a decade already. Enough.

We moved to a rural area near Wellborn, a few miles south of the edge of College Station. You move to rural Texas, you think chiggers, cow pies, Aggie jokes, scorpions, and Jim-Bobs. So it was no surprise on that humid November day as we were watching the movers carry our few belongings into our new house that the guy who rode up to us on his John Deere Riding Lawn Tractor said his name was Jim Bob. Jim Bob. It was almost too much. But what staggered me is what Jim Bob told us he was up to.

He was running a Web server. One of his projects was to put small town Texas on the Internet. You can still see evidence of his efforts. Bremond, Texas: Home of Friendly People & Polish Sausage.

Jim Bob found his way into many of the talks I gave for the next couple of years. Just the juxtaposition of Jim Bob and the Web could elicit a pretty big chuckle from all kinds of audiences. I told the Jim Bob story even after we'd moved back to Silicon Valley; I told it until I was sick of it myself and it was no longer a novelty to have Jim Bobs on the Web.

Meanwhile, Jim Bob had found his way onto my Web site as well. Late in 1994, I wrote a few anecdotes about living in small town Texas, about having a propane tank, about giant satellite dishes, about cows. I added snatches of music too; a few bars from the Green Acres theme song seemed more than appropriate. I don't think I ever identified with Lisa Douglas, or even with Arnold the Pig, but more than once I felt like I'd been transported into a 60s sitcom. We even had a colleague who sounded like Pat Buttram (aka Mr. Haney). Naturally I made a link to Jim Bob's personal homepage. I remember it as having pictures of his wife and kids and Jim Bob himself. All it said was something like, "No time to be cool right now."

No time to be cool right now.

The link broke some years ago, and although I hate the idea of not having an up-to-date Web site, I never fixed it. I assumed no-one much went to those pages any more. The Web was no longer young and there were many other things to capture peoples' attention. I'd googled Jim Bob, and couldn't find a good photo anyway, just a shot of him hunting with his Ruger 270. So I never updated the link nor the text of the page. It seemed like the relic of another time and another place.

I decided to fix the link today. I don't know why. Some days, you just get a wild hair up your ass and you have to fix something that no-one really cares about.

So I did the obvious search. The results high on the first page didn't make much sense to me, SEC stuff, but sometimes someone's doppelgangers overwhelm the person you're looking for. It wasn't until I hit a link to a story in Bio IT World that I realized what had happened: Jim Bob had struck it rich within the last few months. Not rich-rich on that breathtaking scale of various dropouts of the graduate CS program at Stanford. But certainly on top of the heap for Wellborn, Texas, where houses still sell for under $200K and the best barbeque around is at Junek's Chevron Station. His company ClickFind had been acquired for $4M and $14M in DataTrak stock. According to Bio IT World, a trade magazine I hadn't heard of until today,

When the call came from DataTrak, ClickFind was not on the market. But Ward says he would have been leery of acquirers who could have bought the Bryan, Texas, company and moved it to San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, or some other Yankee metropolis where you may need a million bucks if you want a dwelling for little ones, spouses, and pets. Ward says he would never have considered such a move, to protect the cohesion of his 17-person team, all of whom are rooted in Texas.
$18M wouldn't have been enough to excite my notice; other people I know have become comparably wealthy and I'd never think to comment about it. It's just that Jim Bob was so out-of-phase with the boom and so out-of-phase with the bust.

But really it comes down to the story and how it always elicited a chuckle. People'd hear me give a talk and remember Jim Bob and ask me about him the next time they saw me.

One hot August day in 1995, Frank Shipman and I were having lunch at the FatBurger on University; it was the day Netscape went public. We were watching the coverage on CNN on FatBurger's TV, taking in the air-conditioned air, and watching the value of the stock climb before our very eyes. We calculated the fledgling company's valuation on a napkin: somewhere just shy of two billion dollars. It was unbelievable. How could this be happening?

That was over a decade ago. Ol' Marc Andressen is no longer a boy wonder. And it's been five years since the bottom fell out. People have forgotten about the gold rush quality of that period.

I guess Jim Bob won't be interested in that house on the street behind us that went on the market for $2.5M. It's a Modernist Masterpiece w/Stunning Views according to the postcard the seller's agent sent us. Two bedrooms, two baths, contemporary design, perfect for entertaining. Jim Bob can afford it now.

I just won't be telling that story about Jim Bob, his gigantic satellite dish, his John Deere Riding Lawn Tractor, and his Web server any more; somehow it's lost much of its bucolic charm.


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