Half-century of service

Phil and Jeremy both turned 50 this year. They took the opportunity to write some half-century notes. Having turned 50 myself and inspired by them, I thought I would do the same.

0-10

I see the light 50 years ago in Molise, a southern region of Italy that also happens to be the smallest and less known. One year later, my brother joins the family. Our parents are from a small village in Molise heights. When I am three, my family moves to Nigeria, following my dad, who is employed in the oil field. We spend about two years there. The memories from that period are scavenged from some clips recorded by my dad at the time. A female monkey used to live in our garden. Our home was part of a walled complex. Two soldiers were guarding the entrance, night and day. The wall, I remember, was built with wooden pales, very much like those wild-west forts from the old movies. When we move back, it is for the North-Eastern part of Italy, in the Ferrara province first, and then in Ravenna. I guess there’s not a lot to say about this decade; the usual baby-son-of-a-middle-class-emigrant-family routine applies here.

10-20

Teenage turmoil. I’m an insecure, shy adolescent with way too much imagination and lots of unreleased energy to handle. The neighbourhood offers a good pack of friends. I tend to keep most of my super-fancy thoughts to myself. It does not help that I get strange looks when I try to share them with friends. Midway into the decade, I find out about computers. Claudio, who’s living next door, has a Sinclair Spectrum ZX. I am fascinated by it. After some little moral suasion, my dad gets me a Commodore 64, which I immediately nick-name Charlie. It unlocks a universe of possibilities.

At school, I meet Serena. In 1987, at seventeen, I overcome my shyness, go to the local computer shop, and ask if they’d be interested in sponsoring the first Bulletin Board System, or BBS, in town. Freddy, the guy at the counter, replies with a convinced yes. A few weeks later, Lorien BBS is alive and kicking from the shop’s backroom. Around it, a gang of local wanna-be hackers gathers. Among them is Stefano. I graduate from Ravenna’s accounting school with a computer-programming degree.

20-30

I spend one hell of a challenging year in the navy. It’s my first experience away from home, discipline is rigid, and the Gulf War is in full swing. After three months of training, I am deployed as a signaler on board a navy ship in the Mediterranean sea. When I get back from the navy and am about to enroll in the Computer Science course at the University of Bologna, Stefano and Freddy come up with this weird idea that we could start a software company. I enthusiastically agree. It’s the early 90s, I am 21, and the world is my oyster. We begin with courses, then pivot to what we were set to do: writing computer programs and selling them. The original Lorien BBS from the 80s moves into new offices and becomes Phoenix BBS, a fully-fledged FidoNet node1.

MS-DOS is dominating the market. We bet on Windows 3.1 and start writing software for it. One week I spend at my desk, hacking code; the next week, I load my car’s trunk with my software and travel around Italy, proposing my boxes to computer stores. At that time, software was sold on floppy disks, along with a printed manual, all packaged in cardboard boxes. I remember resellers asking why in the world we were selling Windows software when everyone was on MS-DOS. Later on, to leverage our now developed resellers’ network, we begin distributing third-party products, mainly anti-virus software: McAfee and, later, Norton and others. The Internet appears out of nowhere, and I don’t immediately grasp its innovative potential. I marry Serena. We live in a house we bought years before, with help from my family and a 20-year loan. Besides hacking at computers, my hobbies are hiking and climbing the Alps.

30-40

In 2000 our first son Marco is born. Giulia arrives four years later. Then comes Anna in 2006. Meanwhile, Serena goes back from teaching to being an epidemiologist, and then she eventually sets back again into teaching math in high school. I slow down on hiking and climbing and take on running, even competitively, and swimming. We sell our home, a townhouse, and move into a flat with an extra bedroom. In the process, we extinguish the loan. We are now debt-free, and it feels good. I miss the tiny little garden we had; we traded it for more indoor space: three kids and all. The company grows; we hire people. The 2000-2010 decade is a fast-paced one for me. A lot of work. The Millennium Bug; the advent of the Euro. I write the second installment of our company’s primary software product, an accounting application. By the mid-2000s, we are selling it all across the country with success.

Software distribution is a bitch, however. It grants high revenues but tiny, close-to-none profits. Meanwhile, the market has shifted from a network of myriads of small, independent, local computer shops to big franchises and, a bit later, malls. Many computer shops are forced to close down or join the franchise, losing their independence. Also, the software starts selling on the Internet. While our self-produced accounting application keeps selling well and for a good profit, third-party software distribution comes to a halt. Producers, anti-virus houses especially, are now by-passing independent software distributors like us, making direct deals with franchising chains and malls. Professional accounting applications are not attractive to malls and franchises, as they are all about consumers. Our infrastructure, built to accommodate for high volumes thanks to distribution deals, is now an incumbent. Struggling to survive, we pivot into selling our software online2. That’s when the world economic crisis of 2008 hits the streets.

40-50

We barely survive, not without scratches and pain. We’re essentially back where we started. Only a handful of us, revenues significantly reduced. Expenses, however, are also dramatically reduced. In 2012 we are all remote workers. Our premises (that we own) are rented. Somehow in the process, or maybe because of the process, I start open-sourcing some of my work3. That leads to a surprising and somewhat winding path where I emerge as an open-source author, conference speaker, consultant, and teacher. Somehow I am awarded the MongoDB Master and then Microsoft MVP awards. All of this is very rewarding personally and emotionally and is much needed after all the struggle. The smaller and agile company structure allows us to keep going. I drop running in favor of body-weight training (I think it is now called calisthenics). I finally get myself a motorcycle4; I always dreamed of owning one. Kids have grown. Marco, our first son, is currently studying in France at the university, and the girls are in their teenage years, doing what teenagers do.

Like I think everyone else, looking back, I often question some choices I made in my life. Ditching university to co-found a company at 21 was, of course, fundamental. Another pivotal moment was in the mid-2000s when the crisis hit us hard. I could have parted ways with my colleagues and attempt new ventures. But it’s all in vain. We’re left with what we have. I am proud of many achievements and don’t regret the mistakes. I (we) learned from them, and they also were, to some extent, the vectors for new opportunities.

Next

We’re about to launch the third installment of our main application. We’ve been working hard on it, and I can’t wait to see it being used by our beloved clients. This decade and the next one will see me still hacking and working on computers. More or less of the same? Possibly. Thankfully, I still love my profession. I can’t wait to see how our kids pursue their path in life. We will be accompanying them from a distance and when necessary. The world is their oyster.

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  1. I wrote a little about my time as a BBS Sysop, see here. [return]
  2. In 2021 I gave a talk about our switch to the online market. Both slides and video are available (Italian). [return]
  3. See my Open Source page. Also, I have a presentation titled My Story With Open Source. I presented it at several conferences. [return]
  4. A Triumph Bonneville T120. I also ended up founding and running the Italian branch of the Triumph Owners Motorcycle Club. [return]