Listen to Shadow Planet!

In praise of the serious playground

Listening to Stripe co-founder and all-around impressive human Patrick Collison on a podcast just now, I found myself smiling, surprised, to hear a word — a name — I hadn’t thought about in years. Patrick, recounting the origins of the company he started with his brother, said:

A particular thing I remember is Slicehost first coming out... basically the first really good virtual hosting provider. [...] With Slicehost, you could just create an account with your credit account number, login to the web interface, click CREATE SERVER, and twenty seconds later a root password would be emailed to you. And so, it was this incredible combination of the control you get when you have a dedicated server somewhere with the ease-of-use of these shared web hosting systems.

He went on to explain that Slicehost was an inspiration for Stripe, because it seemed like the internet could use a payment system with perhaps that same combination of slick user experience and deep programmatic control.

I was smiling as I listened to all this because Slicehost was an important platform for me, too: accessible to an enthusiast of my skill level (low) but with power and flexibility roughly equivalent to a “real” server in the “real” world. It offered a command line with no restrictions. Those are easier to find now; back in 2006, they were rare.

Slicehost enabled, therefore, a kind of “serious play.” My own experiments did not, of course, lead to payment infrastructure used by businesses around the world — but they didn’t lead nowhere. I wouldn’t have been able to program the system that put the first live tweets on TV had I not previously toiled for my own edification on Slicehost. More broadly, programming has given me a lot that’s not computer programs — funny how that works — but my enthusiasm would probably have atrophied without a place to exercise it.

As a counter-example: I remember my earliest would-be web project, an idea concocted in my dorm at Michigan State circa 2000. It was quintessentially collegiate in the sense that it involved ordering pizza. I designed and built a simple (and, to my eye, beautifully functional) website on a first-generation iMac, but the project stalled out completely when I realized I didn’t know how to run code on a server. Webmonkey’s tutorials did not extend that far. Even if they had, I understand in retrospect that I didn’t have the necessary permissions on MSU’s machines. I didn’t have a command line.

When you’re a beginner poking at something half-understood, these roadblocks can really set you back. I didn’t manage to get code running on a server until years later, maybe 2003, and I didn’t begin to play seriously on the command line until later still. That’s a long detour! If Slicehost had been around in 2000, I’m pretty sure I could have gotten my website running. And become the online pizza mogul of the Big Ten. And sold it all to GrubHub for $19 million in 2014.

There’s a whole timeline there.

The Slicehost era was short, only a few years, and the service is gone now, acquired and absorbed by the hosting company Rackspace. I’m glad Patrick reminded me that it existed so I could pause to appreciate what a gift it was; truly the right thing at the right time.

January 2016, Berkeley

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