Goodbye ArsDigita

ArsDigita is gone. The rumors
say that RedHat bought all their assets, and the company was shut
down. It makes me sad.

I was excited about this company when I first heard about it. It was
so unlike anything else I knew. The company had a voice, a vision, and
a mission. A place in the world. A reason for being.

The voice was Philip’s, and he would tell you things as they are. Or
at least as he thinks they are. Or, as I found out later, as he wants
you to believe that he thinks they are. But still, it was refreshingly
simple and funny. It was personal.

He would say
things like: “SAP is the best thing that ever happened to
computer people. It appeals to businesses that are too stupid to
understand and model their own processes but too rich to simply
continue relying on secretaries and file cabinets,”
and he’d
even print it in a book about web publishing.

He made it seem like any idiot could do this, if only you looked at
things the right way and didn’t make things more complicated than they
should be. And I believed in that – heck I could do it, why shouldn’t
everyone? That was until I learned that
people are different in very real ways, that some people will learn
this easily and others will not.

ArsDigita had a mission
that you could actually understand and agree
to. “Our first principle is that we do not lie to customers. If
a service goes down because of something we did wrong and should have
known not to do, we tell the customer exactly what we did wrong in as
clear language as possible. Even if the customer might not know that
this was a stupid thing to do under Unix or Oracle, we explicitly tell
them “this was a stupid thing to do.” If we slacked off and partied
all weekend and didn’t finish some work that we promised, we admit it
rather than conjuring up mythical technical dragons to slay. We do not
take advantage of customer ignorance to hide our mistakes, a practice
that is depressingly widespread in our industry.”

Could it really be true?

I guess my suspicion should’ve been awakened earlier. In the first
of his book, Philip mentions how he and Peter
Nürnberg from Texas A&M once exchanged views on botany and web
publishing. I happened to have just finished a job where I worked with
Peter, so I asked him about his relationship with Philip. Turns out
Peter cannot recall ever having met the guy, though he had heard
Philip’s name mentioned somewhere. Peter was actually a bit pissed
that Philip made it seem like the two were pals, and had talked about
these things over a couple beers one day.

But I finally did manage to realize that things weren’t as great as
they’d seemed from a distance. I learned that the things he says
probably aren’t entirely false. They’re just slanted. And judging from
some of the comments
over at fuckedcompany, he probably wasn’t as great when you were
actually working for him.

Today, my sadness over ArsDigita’s death is like if a very old uncle
had passed away after a year of painful illness. It’s best for
everyone involved that the air supply was finally cut off, but it’s
sad to realize that this is the end of it, that all the good things my
uncle once were to me aren’t anymore.

When is it worth it?

On the whole ArsDigita experience was well worth it for me. I learned
a lot from working there. Not just technology stuff, but I also got to
try the whole US corporate experience, which operates at a different
level from paltry Denmark. And I managed to avoid being abused. I
insisted in living and working in New York even though there was no
office there, which conveniently kept me away from Philip and his
80-hours-a-week insanity.

I tried to make sure every day of work was worth it. Sure, I’ll work
80 hours a week if I’m reasonably certain it’ll be worth it in the
end. I wasn’t in this case, so I stuck mostly with a 40-hour work
week. Since I wasn’t in the office anyway, people could only tell if I
did my job or not, not how many hours it took me.

I tried to learn as much as possible while there. Read tons of books,
tried a lot of different things. I learned how to make internet
collaboration work, because the company was so spread out and I was
away from them all. And I made some good friends all over the country
– all over the world, even. “No-no, they can’t take that away
from me.”

Can we make it happen?

Yes, I’m a naïve dreamer, but I still believe that some of the ideas
are worth fighting for, even if ArsDigita, including Philip, shunned
them all too easily.

I believe in companies having a clear voice. There’s so much bullshit
being written in press releases. I just went to and picked the first
one on their list: “As businesses look to securely extend access
to information, applications and business processes to customers,
partners and employees, portals have become a critical part of
enterprise application infrastructure,”
some guy from BEA, who most likely never spoke those words.

Why can’t companies speak in plain language? Why do they have to
clothe their words in clutter and euphemism, and pump it up with hot
air? We’re all humans. None of us chose to be here. We should at least
talk to each other like human beings. Dare to be personal.

Remember the early
ArsDigita web site
? That was straight talk. The link under “Rich
Web Publishers” even linked to a page with a URL ending in
“crass-sales-pitch.html”. If that’s what it is, why disguise it? It
doesn’t have to be quite as arrogant and have that air of “we’re the
only ones who get this, everyone else are stupid asses”, but it does
make it more fun to read.

The “never lie to the customers” thing is the same idea. Say it like
it is, and have enough confidence that people will respect you for
it. And if they don’t, tough luck. Hopefully there’s someone else out
there who will. In fact, I’ve been thinking of instituting a policy of
“if you don’t like what you get, don’t pay” in my own software
consulting business. Can I trust my clients to not misuse it? Don’t
know, but it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

The software was open sourced, something that’s a very real benefit to
me: Even though ArsDigita itself has tanked, the source code that I
helped write still lives on over at OpenACS. Real people are using it to
build real web sites, people are maintaining it, and I’m sure a lot of
people learned from it.

I liked the whole idea that ArsDigita gave away things for free to
people who couldn’t afford to hire the company, anyway. ArsDigita
would teach people to do what they did, by publishing on the web,
giving speeches all over the world, through free boot camps (ahem,
recruiting camps), at aD University, and at real universities (which
were also made into a first-class recruiting channel). The idea was
good, the synergies were interesting, but what I really liked was the
spirit of “this is easier than you think, come here, and we’ll show
you how”.

It’s hard to admit — especially after the serial abuse that we’ve
all taken from ArsDigita in the past year and a half — but there
was a reason we were all attracted to ArsDigita. Something that made
us move hundreds or thousands of miles away from where we lived, to go
work for this company.

We all shared a dream of working for a company that had a personality,
that talked straight talk, that had a good heart (and made tons of
money in the process). It turned out that ArsDigita wasn’t that
company. But ArsDigita proved that there’s a real longing for such a
place in corporate America. Hopefully someone else will eventually
pick up the lead and make it happen.