If it wasn’t for Netaccess

Posted on:

Every once in a while I reflect on my past and think about the people in my life that had true effects on the path that led me to where I am today.

When I was in high school I had an opportunity to take a co-op placement at a fresh young company, Netaccess Systems, one of a handful of companies that had recently popped up in #HamOnt offering customers access to this new thing called the “Internet”.

Being a BBS kid at the time, I had experiences with FidoNet and Echomail and had some notions of how the Internet might work but no real practical experiences yet. I went to the placement interview and pretty much landed the job on the spot.

Every day, from 1-5pm, I’d take a bus to their offices, the second floor and top floor of a converted house on Main St West. My official job was customer support, but I was routinely tasked with doing other jobs, such as build up their online support section with FAQ’s and how-to web pages.

I learnt the basics of HTML and some rudimentary PHP and Perl programming from their in-house developer, who also taught me that not all things technical needed to be without a soul. He was a CompSci major who also studied Philosophy and it showed in everything he touched. His web scripts asked existential questions of the user, he collected old luggage, fans and cameras, and he was obsessed with Marcel Duchamp. I learnt a lot from working with him, though I’ll ever come close to having as much style as he does.

netaccess.on.ca from 1996 courtesy The Wayback Machine
Netaccess homepage circa 1996
(Image Credit: The Wayback Machine)

I got to tinker with their Windows NT 3.5 domain box as well as the BSD servers, how routers worked, and what T1 and ISDN connections were, and the differences between them. I’ll never forget the room full of dial-up modems, all stacked neatly next to each other on makeshift shelves. The experience of those early days on the Internet, was a definite turning point in my life.

When the semester was done, I was then hired full-time for the summer.  While my friends were washing dishes or cutting grass, I was in an office working 9-5. It was great, and to this day, I still can’t think of another time when I was as excited at there being so much to learn. Everything was fresh and new and I was eating it all up.

It is easily arguable that the 6-months that I worked at Netaccess were more transformative to me than the 4-years of my Software program in College.

Working at Netaccess, without a doubt, started me out on a path that culminates with where I am today. Obviously, with the the growing popularity of the web in the late 90’s, it would only be a matter of time until I was exposed to it, but the time I spent at Netaccess definitely gave me a head start, and also valuable insight and knowledge that I would have otherwise never had, at age 16.

I never lost touch with the good folks at Netaccess, and even returned to work for them in 2000, during another turing point on the web: the birth of the modern interactive website. Netaccess was delving into the New Media pool and I was there on the ground floor. Once again, I feel that I was given the opportunity to grow and learn, surrounded by knowledgeable people who gave me great opportunities, that I would have otherwise never experienced. I was studying Software Engineering Technology in college at the time, (a decision entirely attributable to the last time I worked for Netaccess) and found it fantastic that I was able to apply newfound skills immediately at my workplace.

As the days of dial-up faded away, and the broadband connectivity market got swallowed up by the phone and cable companies, it appeared that the era of the independent ISP was coming to a close. Rather than fade away into obscurity, Netaccess chose to innovate (or Pivot, as some would say) and moved into emerging technologies like Fibre Connectivity, Hosted Business Solutions and later on, IP telephony.

As far as hometown success stories go, Netaccess is a great example of a business that started, grew up and stayed in Hamilton, and a technology company from the early days of the Web that survived the dial-up wars, the Dot-Com Bubble and the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Over the years, I kept in touch with Netaccess and have always jumped at the opportunity to do business with them. Twenty years after starting up as a humble ISP in an attic office, Netaccess now occupies the 15th floor at Commerce Place in downtown Hamilton. Similarly, I’ve gone from being a zit-faced BBS’ing teenager, to a freelance developer and business technical consultant.

I guess both of us have come a long way.