Making the Extraordinary Commonplace

Digital Ocean

I owe much of my technology career and many of my technical skills to the magic that occurs at the intersection of curiosity and opportunity. My career as a web performance engineer started with a friend asking me if I could host a WordPress website that her friend owned. He was a busy law student and fellow black entrepreneur to boot.

“Sure,” I told her. I was hosting dozens of WordPress websites on my little server at that point, so I knew my way around the technology. What I didn’t know is that this project would change my life…

[dramatic pause]


Lesson One: Charging What You’re Worth

When I first started freelancing, I wasn’t comfortable charging people money. I searched for ways to save my clients as much money as possible, rather than extracting the maximum possible revenue from the engagement. Since I was employed when I took on this project, and because it was for a friend of a friend, I offered my services at no charge.

This would come back to haunt me.

Lesson Two: Hope For The Best, Prepare For The Worst

Migrating the site to my server went smoothly, but I didn’t have time to pat myself on the back. Shortly after traffic was pointed to my server, the server resources proved to be inadequate. In order to keep the site up, I was forced to upgrade the server at my expense while the implications of my generosity sank in.

There were a few important details about the website to which I was oblivious:

  1. It was a fast-growing media property with a hyper-engaged community.
  2. There was a bug in the theme that required a massive amount of storage space.
  3. There was not a clear path to profitability (i.e., no budget for retaining me).

So not only was I on the hook for the increased costs, I had to figure out what was wrong with the website, on my own dime, for the foreseeable future.

Oh, it gets better.

Lesson Three: Creating a Work-Life Balance

I wasn’t just employed during this misadventure, I was living out of a suitcase. If traveling 40 hours a month and flying twice a week is your idea of paradise, then I was living the dream.

With every day that passed, traffic to the site increased and the underlying problems compounded. As the site started crashing with greater frequency, I spent more time on the phone with technical support trying to implement solutions. I learned all sorts of command-line tricks and geeky workarounds to prop things up, but my skills weren’t keeping pace with the disaster that was accelerating.

I remember a period where I would regularly step out of a meeting to restart the server in order to get the site back up. Good thing I wasn’t up for promotion…

Lesson Four: Asking For Help

Ready for some good news? Here we go.

As I was staring down the barrel of a the-only-server-upgrade-available-from-here-costs-$750-per-month conundrum, I actually learned how to build servers.

A very smart and generous (and psychotic) engineer that I met on Twitter took me under his wing and introduced me to the world of web hosting engineering—how to build and optimize webservers. He was doing some contract work for a cool hosting company and after learning how he worked his magic, I could build a server at an economical price point that outperformed anything available off-the-shelf at the time.

This was a welcome milestone, as I was bankrolling a $300/mo hosting bill by this point. I think I’m still owed some kind of award for the effort I made five years ago, but I’ll take that up with the client.

I also reached out to a WordPress expert who helped identify the issue that was going on with the theme. I still didn’t know how to fix it, but at least I knew what it was (a malfunctioning image resizing script that was failing to delete its own cache, since I know you’re wondering).

I decided that commissioning a redesign was best since I could get a preferred rate by a talented friend of mine.

Lesson Five: Celebrate Your Successes

The new site was gorgeous. The new server was built. When traffic was pointed at the shiny new setup, an important chapter of my story was closed, and another one began.

We didn’t have a single issue with the site or the server after this. What I did have was new friends, new skills, and a new mentor. I parlayed the skills learned into a career that allowed me to leave my job and make a living from wherever I chose. The client and my friend got married, and he’s a member of the Abernathy board of advisors today. Life is wild.

Digital Ocean
Yesterday, in about three minutes, I set up a new WordPress site and server. Installing and configuring WordPress was never a challenge for me, but I did it in two keystrokes this time. And the server I spun up as a part of this process is capable of handling thousands and thousands of concurrent connections, right out of the box.

I didn’t have to call up a company to get physical servers provisioned for this project, I clicked about three buttons in the Digital Ocean control panel. The cost for this server? $5/mo.

To say that the web hosting industry has evolved over the past five years would be a laughable understatement. High performance web hosting—like with hosts such as Digital Ocean—is now trivial.

In their own words:

DigitalOcean is the world’s fastest growing cloud hosting provider built for developers. Our mission is simple: we’re passionate about making complex infrastructure simple and delighting our customers with a seamless experience that brings them joy. New users can easily deploy a blazing fast cloud server in 55 seconds with an intuitive control panel interface, which can be replicated on a larger scale with the company’s straightforward API.

It’s my pleasure to announce DigitalOcean as the latest Abernathy sponsor.

By willie jackson

willie jackson is an inclusion strategist who empowers thoughtful organizations and the leaders who run them.