Illustration by Zack Rosebrugh
Illustration by Zack Rosebrugh

Work Culture

The way we used to work

By

Published on August 21, 2019

Illustration by Zack Rosebrugh

As of 2019, roughly 5% of the entire internet uses Mozilla Firefox as a browser. You're potentially reading these words in it. What you might not know is that the browser's very existence is kind of an anomaly, the result of a last-ditch corporate defensive maneuver.

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Back in the late ‘90s, dozens of programmers raced to make the Netscape browser open source before the competition gobbled them up in the first browser wars. Their efforts gave us Mozilla.

There’s an old documentary about their big crunch time. Called Project Code Rush: The Beginnings of Netscape / Mozilla (Dir. David Winton, released in 2000). It's available free online, with a CC 3.0 license (apt, considering the docs open-sourced subject matter). It offers an inside look into a very strange moment in time—pre-crash Silicon Valley, when AOL was still a frightening behemoth, computers were the size of Kei cars, and the internet was still unironically called the information superhighway.

It also shows the unvarnished reality of ’90s tech work—not only its aesthetics and culture, but also the personal toll that extreme crunch time had on workers. Perhaps alarmingly, despite all of the changes in the last 20 years, we recognize many of the same struggles that we have with burnout today, indicating that we still have big challenges to solve with the way we work.

Aesthetics

First, some background: Code Rush launches you straight into the trenches of the first browser war, showcasing a single year, starting in March 1998. At the time, Microsoft and Netscape were fighting for market dominance. By the time the doc was being filmed, Microsoft had largely won, despite anti-trust accusations. Leaning on the ropes, Netscape decided on a bold strategy—it would release the source code for its browser in an effort to bring in more users, and hopefully market share, so it could keep fighting. In much more hyperbolic terms, think of it like the evacuation of Dresden, except with computer code and tons of free cookies.

It’s kind of fun to compare/contrast the actual office environments shown in the doc to the other representations of that era.

Through the hazy video quality of the now severely outdated camera equipment is late-'90s Silicon Valley in all of its beige glory. There are hulking CRT monitors and grey cubicle walls and drab carpets with questionable stains. There are confusing fashion choices, like Matrix-style trench coats, and others that have recently achieved a vintage-cool, like wire-frame glasses. There are white boards covered in dry-erase scribbles. And of course, this being the valley, there are Nerf Guns, Nintendo 64s, and PlayStations, and piles of free snacks. Regarding the latter, it seems to be endless amounts of Keebler cookies, and piles of donuts. Might as well call it Project Sugar Rush.

It’s kind of fun to compare/contrast the actual office environments shown in the doc to the other representations of that era. This includes the critical/satirical, like Office Space, as well as the nostalgic. Regarding the latter, this usually is seen in the retro-cool popularity of vaporwave, in all of its neon glory, but for a more specific example, just check out the Instagram account @__________office (that’s ten underscores, for anyone counting).

The account features images of offices from the ’80s and ’90s, mostly from advertisements and brochures of those eras. They’re usually pretty slick, with bright colors and glass bricks, like someone opened up a hedge fund in a mall food court. Since at this point in time, computers hadn’t really been fully incorporated into modern office environments, the images are vaguely futuristic. 

The reality was, as Code Rush shows, not anywhere close. Regardless of the contemporary critiques about the merits of open-plan offices, it’s clear the design of our workspaces have made great strides in the last two-plus decades.

Perhaps because of the ambitious scope and timeframe of the project, the mood of the team sways between jovial and bleak.

Work/life balance

Perhaps because of the ambitious scope and timeframe of the project, the mood of the team sways between jovial and bleak. Many work late into the night and then start again early the next morning. Everyone looks tired, with dark raccoon eyes. They sound tired, too. One employee talks about his kid asking what he does at work. "I sit in meetings, and I feel depressed, and I read email," he says, half joking.

There are highly caffeinated arguments about processes, and delirious tired laughter at the morning bug count meetings. It's the beginning of the always-on workplaces that are now common. “Writing software is different from selling real estate," explains an employee on the night shift. "When you sell real estate, people are asleep at night. When they go to sleep, you have to stop selling real estate. Computers never sleep.”

And yet, this being the ‘90s, it was still possible to disappear. In the Netscape offices, there were over 2,000 employees. It became difficult to locate missing employees. Remember, this was pre-smartphones. At one point, employees struggle to find a missing programmer who stopped showing up to meetings and is desperately needed to finish a project. They run around the office halls looking for him, calling his various landlines, to no avail. It feels vaguely like a Dennis Nedry situation. Nowadays, good luck avoiding answering your email or Slack messages for more than five minutes without someone calling the FBI Missing Persons phone number.

Although their attempt at browser dominance was somewhat unsuccessful in terms of sheer numbers, they were extremely ahead of their time.

There are also hints at the contemporary adoption of remote work. One employee lives very far away, enjoying the cheaper housing and bountiful space of Michigan, only occasionally commuting into the Bay Area every few weeks for important meetings. In the doc, this is largely framed as an oddity, unique to the crazy work culture of Silicon Valley. Since then, though, it’s become increasingly normalized. According to a Gallup Poll, as of 2015, 37% of workers telecommuted at least two days per month. A dramatic increase from the 9% as of 1995, just a few years before the documentary was filmed. 

Open sourced

Once they finally ship their project, it appears the effort was worth it. Shortly after release date, the source code was downloaded thousands of times. When Netscape went public, its stock boomed. Unfortunately, all of this eventually met an unexpected twist: Netscape was acquired by AOL.

Though the stock market was pleased (the price doubled after the acquisition announcement), employees were shocked. At the time, many people felt AOL symbolized everything wrong about the web (much like a certain unpopular social media company today). It was a private, corporate walled garden, basically, the antithesis of the open-source dream of the Mozilla project. The Mozilla team had to write an explanatory blog post to reassure the community about its intentions.

Although their attempt at browser dominance was somewhat unsuccessful in terms of sheer numbers, they were extremely ahead of their time. The notion of a major company making its software open source is incredibly radical, even by today’s standards. In the subsequent decade, many other companies began to lean on the open source software, though this was perhaps not always necessarily out of radical techno-utopian notions about free software, but seemingly as a cost-saving measure. Open source can also mean free software and a free labor pool to work on it.

Burnout

Despite their success, by the end of the doc, the employees seem to be grappling with the effects of intense burnout. It’s kind of dark. They complain about how the grind never stops, how they don't have time to read or hear about the world, and about missing their kids. One employee mentions that a doctor told her that if she doesn't stop working so much, she'll likely be dead by 40. Many of them leave the company — to join new startups, or to retire and try to recover.

On some level, it sounds familiar to the contemporary discussions regarding burnout. The main difference being, alarmingly, it’s seemingly less of a choice to work so aggressively today.

“There’s a certain amount of my life I’m sacrificing, and I’m going to look back and a portion of this life is gone,” says one employee, in tired dismay. “You can’t ever retrieve the time that’s lost,” says another employee’s wife.

Yet another is straight-up angry, despite largely coming out on top. “Stock options are a con, it’s a carrot they dangle,” he says. “If you give up your one and only youth, maybe someday you’ll make money. It’s just a lottery ticket, a stupid tax.”

At least one employee takes it all in stride, and has a more neutral attitude. “It’s hard to be depressed about the amount of work you have to do when every other cube holds a millionaire.” 

On some level, it sounds familiar to the contemporary discussions regarding burnout. The main difference being, alarmingly, it’s seemingly less of a choice to work so aggressively today, as life is way more expensive and precarious. When young workers face crushing student debt, stagnant wages, increased housing costs, and an unemployment rate twice as high as other age groups—they’re more concerned about survival than striking it rich.

Was it all worth it? It’s hard to say. The end result — an open source, non-profit browser — was undeniably good for the internet at large. But the human cost is harder to measure. The doc feels like a warning from the past. The companies depicted in it, like AOL and Netscape, are long gone. Would their fates be any different, if those working the projects had more time to themselves, to rest and recuperate?