Why Not.com

What surprises me most about senior year is how much it resembles freshman year--especially in the chronic questions that haunt conversations...

What surprises me most about senior year is how much it resembles freshman year--especially in the chronic questions that haunt conversations with my parents and friends. What do you want to do with your life? Aren't you going to be rich and change the world some day? The search for an "after"-life is just like the quest for a field of concentration, except that the choices are exponentially more numerous and the consequences more staggering.

The uncertainties that keep me up at night haven't changed either. With three years' pioneering as a website developer--I designed college.harvard.edu and thecrimson.com--a recent survey estimates that I could earn up to an eye-popping $108,000 starting salary at an Internet company. So, as I set my sights elsewhere, everyone asks me, "Why not .com?" And just like freshman year, it turns out I'm not the only one with some hesitations about the future.

What provokes concern about a .com after-life is how much being a webmaster today differs from its incarnation when I started. Then, designing websites was a sneaky way to get paid for something I loved: drawing. And the classmates I worked with to create on-line College calendars and Crimson databases were all kindred spirits: techie-wizards who programmed simply for the love of technology.

But in three years, I've witnessed a virtual revolution. The .commercialization of the Internet has fabricated an ethos of e-commerce so powerful that computer science and finance now share a common battle cry: "Who wants to be a millionaire?" The nerds--led by Father Gates--are having their revenge: classmates at all levels of technical experience are lining up along an emerging "e-track" to join .coms and start-ups so they won't miss out on the next-next big thing. The lure is so strong that a few have even left Harvard early to rush for the silicon mines of San Francisco.

But already, some of my classmates--usually the techies still hanging on for the joy of microchips--are beginning to reconsider lives in the fast lane of the information superhighway. The powerful commercial mythology of the moment, some of us worry, may be eclipsing the reality of the present--and the real potential of the future.

Two years ago, when economics concentrator Joshua J. Schanker '98 was a senior, no Internet-based companies came to Harvard's annual career fair. "The Web didn't become really mainstream until second semester freshman year--January 1995--when people started talking about Netscape 1.0," Schanker says. "Even when I graduated, there wasn't a track."

Today, ensconced in his brand-new Boston office, Schanker is CEO of bargaindog.com, an Internet start-up that provides consumer information on discounts and promotions at on-line merchants. Three employees are former Harvard classmates. "We have a very open environment, no cubicles. We're always in a big room, throwing around a football," he laughs.

That same fun-for-all sentiment surrounded this fall's career fair, where I counted some 29 .com-panies. Their representatives all touted the delights of their particular businesses while tossing about free logo-branded Koosh yo-yos and beach balls. In February, the Office of Career Services (OCS) held an additional career fair just for start-up companies--most Internet-based. "This happens with any industry. When the market is really hot, the numbers go up there," explains OCS director William Wright-Swadel.

As the demand of the technology market has increased, so has undergraduate interest in computer science. From 1994 to 1998, the number of CS concentrators almost doubled, to 187. Even so, the College's biggest concern may be its seeming irrelevance to some bright students. Dawn Lee '01, the incoming webmaster of thecrimson.com, says she's noticed a significant shift in the technical prowess of incoming students. "We used to say we could teach you all you needed to know," Lee says. "But now you really can't join Crimson On-line without already having some web programming experience." Yet only one class--a General Education elective--explicitly discusses the Internet, and CS concentrators frequently complain their classes don't teach the specific skills needed to work for a .com.

Consider my former classmate Carl Sjogreen '00. He has already left Harvard to work for the company that bought the start-up he and friends ran from their dorm rooms during his junior year. And that start-up--which developed an editor for a programming language called eXtensible Markup Language (XML)--wasn't Sjogreen's first. In high school, he ran his own Internet service provider, which he sold before coming to Harvard.

"I don't think I need a Harvard degree to do what I want to do in life," Sjogreen says. "I went to a private high school and got good grades so I could get into college and then get a good job. That was the life path--never challenged. Now you don't need college, if you have tech skills."

While a handful like Sjogreen leave early, even more students are busy building human networks at the College, like those of us at thecrimson.com, or the members of the Harvard Computer Society who started the "Tech Alumni Network" this fall. We talk about carving out an e-track, akin to the pre-investment banking track, through summer and term-time internships. "I've learned most from the other people I work with at the Crimson," Lee says. "There are definitely people who do internships over the summers and are working for Internet companies already. But because the Web is changing so quickly, people will have to shape their own tracks to prepare for an e-career."

What draws CS concentrator Zubin Teja '02 to Web work is the pervasive e-track confidence that he has the potential to create something new and significant. "I think that the Internet is at a stage analogous to early television," he says. "The Internet is really going to expand in the future because there are a lot of advantages to using it to share information." What attracts him, too, is a culture of youth, intelligence, and energy he associates with new .coms. "People in start-ups are a different kind. They are more independent--leaders of the pack."

Those sentiments, says OCS's Wright-Swadel, put Teja perfectly in line with his peers: "If you ask Harvard students what kind of people they want to be with in a job, they say, essentially, Harvard students--other elite students who look just like them."

But what may be new about Teja and others on the e-track is the power of the success myths that steer their career choices. The legend of Bill Gates '77 looms: everyone knows the story of how the world's richest man started the world's most influential technology company from his dorm room, and then quit Harvard to go off and seek his billions. "A lot of people join start-up companies just because there's all this hype about how we're in this new industrial revolution," Dawn Lee says. "They think if they don't join in, they'll miss out--and in 10 or 15 years everyone will be ahead of them."

Some of today's e-trackers nonetheless know that the myths of the moment obscure the reality about a virtual career. Mathematics concentrator Maryanthe Malliaris '01, who works for the start-up Zaps, compares many who rush to San Francisco to work in the Internet because it's "hot" to those who rush to Hollywood with hopes of becoming famous actors. "Their chances of success are probably about the same," she says. "The Internet business is like any other business: it rewards skills germane to its progress. It's not a lottery or Queen for a Day."

For all the fun he's having, Josh Schanker recognizes that the myths tell only about 10 percent of the story. "You hear about the lucky ones, not those that fail," he says. "I have a bunch of friends who are starting their own companies right now and are really struggling. Some don't have a dime of funding yet, and have gone without a salary for a while."

And they put in hours comparable to those of the most driven college students, says Teja. "I have a friend who started out working 70 hours per week. Some of these companies are successful because they can break labor laws." Carl Sjogreen, sustained for the moment by the joy of technology, already worries--at 21--that the new super cyber-achievers can't keep going indefinitely. "I'm not going to have the energy to do this some day," he says.

Is it the money that makes it worthwhile? "There are some people who want to do a .com and get rich," Sjogreen says. "They hear all these stories of 25-year-old millionaires out there and want to join them. But by and large, those people are in the minority."

Indeed, all of the students I talked to agree: although maintaining a minimum consumer lifestyle--usually involving a cell phone, BMW, or SUV--is important, they're not really in the .com game for the stock options. But they, and the national media, certainly talk about money and technology as if the two were inseparable. "When I tell people that I'm working for an Internet company," Malliaris says, "they half-jokingly ask, 'Do I get friends-and-family stock when you IPO?'"

"Start-ups are like a game in which we are a bunch of kids running around trying to have fun, but we're all very competitive," Sjogreen adds. "How much you IPO'd for is not just about the money itself, but it's a measure."

Playing the start-up game, e-track students see .com-merce not as an end, but rather as an intense initial business experience--the beginning of a business lifestyle. Of course, there is real risk associated with start-ups, particularly if the American economy "adjusts" the value of Internet stocks. But that risk, it turns out, is all part of the lifestyle. "I'm not worried, because I feel like I'm getting a great experience in this organization," says Schanker. "It's a very speculative space to be in--which is dangerous if you are worried about security--but coming out of college and not having a family to worry about, you have a lot of energy. If things go wrong, you can fall on your face, pick yourself up, and do something else."

So, why not .com?

Sjogreen may not feel he needs a Harvard education to be successful--but he's quick to add that he's glad he has one, and plans to finish his senior year at some point. Thinking about one more year of classes helps keep a future--and a possible teaching career--in focus. "When I die, I don't want my tombstone to say that my contribution to mankind was that I made an XML editor," he worries.

Welcome to post-Netopia--for some techies at least. Dinner conversations with e-track friends still turn to tomorrow's potential IPOs, but also to next year's quality of life. With a bit of prodding, they even turn to whether or not the e-track is good for the world we're wiring.

Those questions make her uncomfortable, admits Lee. "I guess it's inevitable that any new medium that opens up would be subject to market forces," she says. "When I look into choosing a career, I look at fields that are expanding and offer opportunities for growth, and it is inevitable that there will be people along the same track who are there just to maximize profit."

Today's e-track seems qualitatively different from the consulting/investment-banking track that so enticed undergraduates in the 1980s and '90s. A new mythology not only promises unheard-of material rewards to 21-year-olds, but also persuades us that we have the power to change the future through our keyboards.

Maryanthe Malliaris thinks the Internet's revolutionary rhetoric makes it attractive to e-elites. "It makes people feel good about participating in a reorganization of society--which in reality is based on the democratizing principles of $400-a-pop PalmPilots," she says. "The vocabulary we use to talk about the Internet is a way of absolving us from any real-life social responsibility. Oh, to be young, rich, educated, going to law school, but have two years to do whatever you want first, with the chance of making it big!" she mocks. "Working at a .com will probably be for our generation what backpacking around Europe was for our parents'."

As a means of redefining the future of the country, it may be just as ineffective. Certainly, the e-track doesn't remind us enough of issues like the digital divide, and how lucky we've been to have access to the up-to-the-minute training that lets us lead the Internet revolution. "The Internet has no inherent 'nature'--any more than the telephone or the credit card," Malliaris adds. "Until we succeed in leaping out of our bodies and into a fiberoptic cable, insistence that 'the Internet' will fix the world--without any work in the here and now--is tremendously irresponsible."

But not everyone keeps such nonvirtual concerns on their computer monitors. "The sexiness and excitement isn't in doing something real like solving world hunger," Sjogreen says. "That's not where people are going, I'm afraid."

Geoffrey Fowler '00 confesses that he does not yet have his own website.

Read more articles by Geoffrey A. Fowler

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