I wasn’t the only one to check my router on the morning of Friday, Oct. 21. The internet was down, and our digital infrastructure was reportedly under attack. To some, this meant the end; to others, it was just a morning without music in the background. But the outage felt strangely universal, affecting the most intimate parts of our lives—Spotify, Airbnb, Twitter, Netflix, Amazon, PayPal, Reddit, the New York Times, and Fox News were all affected. The internet, as parts of the US learned in a few short hours, is everywhere.
The hackers targeted the Domain Name System (DNS), which is essentially the internet’s phone book. While most people were compulsively refreshing their screens, I was imagining the chaos playing out in a sprawling glass structure in Playa Vista, California. This monolith not far from LAX belongs to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the proudly omnipresent organization that basically governs the internet’s framework. I didn’t know they existed until I interviewed for a job with them last fall.
Admittedly, my understanding of everything under the hood was slim when we first met. The position—a technical writer with marketing-communication chops—was unlike anything I’d come across in my ten years as a self-described copy mechanic. But I prepared by finding every answer to every question out there. What was this place? What did they do? What was I signing up for? I recognized the acronym from owning small domains over the years, but not much else. Despite a thorough search and plenty of public chatter, I was no closer to understanding: On one hand, the nonprofit sounded like a mysterious NGO; on the other, a sci-fi federation of planets.
So I dug a little deeper. By 1999 the web was exploding in scale and scope, and the US government needed someone to manage its unwieldy phonebook. The internet needed order, not to mention maintenance and a few basic rules. That’s where ICANN came in, and they paired up with the US government. The decision gave us search functionality as we know it in the form of a safe, stable system of IP addresses. Some praised the formation between a private company and political forces, while others argued the DNS switchboard should remain open and unregulated.
Fast-forward to last month, and ICANN’s contract with the US Department of Commerce finally expired. (But don’t worry, the internet is still running as usual—well, nearly.) It arguably wasn’t the best time to enter the private sector, what with cyber-warfare and accountability on the rise. But the internet remains free and open with a framework that is utterly unprecedented, US-government relationship or not.
My interview experience was pretty banal: a phone conversation to start, a few written items, and finally multiple Skype sessions with personalities in far away places. Prepare for lots of time zones, I was told. (The irony of working for the very technology responsible for flattening time and space wasn’t lost on me.) The discussions were serious and thoroughly welcoming, like a college admission interview. They also carried all the weight of a should you choose to accept ultimatum, driven home by the fact that ICANN meets annually in exotic locales, from Marrakech to Hyderabad.
All in all, I learned a lot about the US’s digital governing body—but I learned even more about what it takes for someone to work at the internet.
Whether it’s a hot startup or a heritage brand, working in digital is basically part and parcel to any career path today. But think about the people, where and how you see yourself engaging. I now work in the tech industry—for one of the giants. Working at one of those pace-making companies is like being in a self-contained ecosystem in many ways, and it’s a rite of passage to see your first engineer walk into a glass door while looking at their phone. But I was surprised to learn so many at ICANN came from traditional media, such as print and television. Very few of them were serial entrepreneurs, and very few were tech bros. These weren’t digital natives—they remember pre-internet times, and our conversations reflected that experience. So consider your coworkers and how you like to communicate: Are you pinging colleagues? Meeting for coffee? Sitting in silence? It sounds obvious, but choosing the types of people you want to work with can be woefully overlooked when you get caught up with the free almonds and beer.
And that’s a huge responsibility. This fact was stressed more than once: As much as our culture is created on and by this thing called the internet, it’s still ultimately a community. ICANN’s official language is English, but its bylaws state at least six translations be made at all times: Arabic, Chinese, Russian, French, and Spanish, plus more online. If nothing else, this was a great reminder that people exist—both on and off the internet. From product development to press relations, the audience for anything in this nebulous landscape will always be a living, breathing community.
It might as well be a casino: no clocks, no time, no real place. Plenty of freelance professions are used to keeping strange hours for clients with timely needs, but for a copy guy, I wasn’t used to such extremes. I’ve since learned to adapt, and I’ve updated my CV to purposefully denote flexibility by including cities and time zones where you can find me. For example, I’m currently based in New York on Eastern Standard Time—that doesn’t mean I can’t take a call in Paris, but you know that it’s not ideal. Time doesn’t exist in certain industries anymore, so prepare to take that meeting when some of us are still sleeping.
I was skeptical about handling the massive amounts of data and localization work at ICANN—I worried about it even more than the bureaucracy. But we all worry about learning new skills, whether it’s a content management system or, in my case, distilling copy about wonky scripts and root zones into clear nuggets of text. I consider myself a copy mechanic. Recruiters and HR types seem to like that phrase too—it suggests a willingness to embrace ambiguity and rise to the challenge with only your took kit in tow. Action begets action, and experience is no different.
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In the end, the internet wasn’t for me. Or maybe I wasn’t for the internet.
For now, I’m back to managing copy and grabbing whatever interesting jobs it has to offer. But ask anyone in this line of work: Don’t dwell on the rejections. Keep sending those pitches, exploring those opportunities. (That is, until you wake up and can’t check your email one morning.)
Watching the news of internet outage unfold two weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think about ICANN and the people cranking the gears one more day. The nature of 9-to-5 work is changing, clearly: You might not hold the same hours as your colleagues, come with the same background, speak the lingo, or embrace your team’s Slack channel with the same gusto as that guy sending all those GIFs. But we should all remember: However this thing turns out, the internet is proving to be the one great equalizer, everywhere and everything at once.