Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Early Amazon: The first week

Scruffy. Chaotic. Exciting. That was Amazon in early 1997.

Amazon's offices were on 2nd Avenue in Seattle, near Pike's Place Market, a couple floors of a run-down brick structure called the Columbia Building. Those with a window in the front enjoyed a view of the local methadone clinic and a bizarre wig shop. You couldn't quite see the strip clubs; they skulked out of view a couple blocks away.

Now, I didn't have a window in the front, of course. That would be a bit much for the rookie, some wide-eyed student fresh out of grad school.

I had the kitchen. Space always was at a premium at Amazon, and that time was no different. My first day, I was led into my office, a card table set up in the back corner of the kitchen with a PC sitting on it.

The kitchen office was actually quite a bit of fun. I knew few at Amazon, and most people were too heads down for idle chit-chat. But they did want tea and coffee off the counter a few feet from my face. I set up a candy jar -- mmm, free candy -- and tried my best to suck knowledge out of anyone who passed by too closely.

My first assignment was to start learning the code base. Open a shell, fire up emacs, and start reading the code. I spent a few days tracing through the dispatches for different URLs, tracking how good ol' obidos -- the large CGI program that powered the website -- handled different queries, the home page, book detail pages, search, shopping cart, and the order pipeline. To this day, most URLs at Amazon still contain /exec/obidos.

Next, group discounts...

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

As I recall, you took my office (I moved to another kitchen). And you had it better than me, because I had to share your kitchen office with someone else before you came along. Software engineers get all the perks.

wendy said...

What you really need to explain obidos is Alex Yan's "obidos vs normal webservers South Park cartoons" drawings!

Anonymous said...

We'll be able to post that cartoon on March 31st 2006 when Obidos is "supposedly" "completely" deprecated :)
Notice the heavy usage of double quotes - McGil

Mike said...

march 2006? I think it's August now isn't it?
I just don't pay much attention to the presentation layers...