Bill Woodcock is only 33, but he already has two decades of experience in computer networking. He has worked in a corporate environment; he has been a successful entrepreneur. But for the past four years Woodcock has been living the life of his dreams, traveling the world building Internet exchanges in places such as Nepal, Brazil, Mozambique, Vietnam, Tanzania, and Afghanistan. As research director for the San Francisco-based nonprofit Packet Clearing House, Woodcock has spent as much as 80 percent of his time globe-trotting. He doesn't make a lot of money—but then again, he doesn't need a lot of money: most of his living expenses are covered by his travel budget. And he's having experiences that he sees as priceless.
As a middle-schooler in Berkeley, Calif., Woodcock made his spending money by pasting strips of type into page layouts for the University of California Press. When the Macintosh computer came out in 1984, the press bought one, and at age 13 Woodcock got his hands on PageMaker, the pioneering PostScript-based desktop publishing program.
Large PostScript documents worked a lot better with a file server as well as a printer, so by age 14 Woodcock was entangled in AppleTalk cable, setting up his first network. In those days, having successfully set up one network made you an expert, so the youngster hired himself out for US $150 an hour as a networking consultant, working for such established companies as Universal Studios Inc., in Universal City, Calif., and Chiron Corp., in Emeryville, Calif.
He spoke at his first technical conference at age 15, and by the time he was a high school senior he was doing product design and technical documentation for Farallon Communications, one of the first companies to specialize in Ethernet networking hardware. By juggling independent study classes at school and taking long lunches from Farallon, Woodcock was able to interweave a 40-hour-a-week engineering job with being a full-time high school student.
Working at Farallon (now Netopia Inc.) introduced Woodcock to the idea that engineering could be an adventure. As part of his job, Woodcock provided phone support to engineers in the field. "That seemed really romantic to me, this 1950s ideal of American engineers traveling around the world building bridges and dams.
"Once I remember talking to a guy calling from a satellite phone in Saudi Arabia. He was trying to get an Ethernet hub working in a building that had mud walls and no power except a generator. Anytime he needed to run a cable, he had to use a battery-powered drill to make a hole in the mud wall. That seemed so exotic to me."
While Woodcock was troubleshooting Ethernet networks at Farallon, the Internet was starting to take off, and Woodcock got on board. He put modem banks and servers in his basement and started a business doing e-mail forwarding for corporations, billing them monthly. "I remember the first month, I made 50 bucks," Woodcock recalls. "I was happy about that." He named his little Internet company Zocalo, a pun in Spanish, meaning both "marketplace" and "wall jack." In the fall of 1989, Woodcock started college at the University of California at Santa Cruz; Zocalo, then a stack of hardware that fit on a desk, moved to his dorm room.
He majored in art, graduating with a bachelor's degree. Majoring in networking was not an option. "There weren't any classes in what I was interested in, there weren't professors, there weren't books. I had already worked for the company that was doing the first hardware, and I was writing one of the first books." (That book was Networking the Macintosh, McGraw-Hill, 1993.)
When he graduated from Santa Cruz in 1993, Woodcock was recruited by Bechtel Group Inc., the San Francisco-based contract engineering behemoth. At first he was thrilled—a job with Bechtel would clearly lead to the romantic life of an adventurer. Not so, it turned out.
"They had no interest at all in paying me to go out and run around the world doing fun stuff. They offered me a job running part of their corporate network in their high-rise office in downtown San Francisco, working 9 to 5. But what was worse, they had no respect for the people out in the field, the ones I admired so much. Instead, they thought of them as people who hadn't succeeded in climbing the corporate ladder," he recalls. "That was really the last time I thought of working for a big corporation."
So Woodcock moved himself and Zocalo back to Berkeley and put serious effort into running his company. "I'd get high-speed data circuits from the phone company, put routers at my end andat my customer's end, and give them an Ethernet port to plug into. If they wanted security, I'd build them a firewall. If they wantede-mail, I'd set up e-mail accounts." Woodcock charged both consulting fees and recurring service fees, and at its peak in 2000, Zocalo had 15 employees and $3 million in annual revenues. During the dot-com boom, Woodcock turned down offers as high as $36 million for Zocalo; at the time he still imagined that running the company would be a lifelong occupation. "My exit strategy was death by old age," he says with a wry smile.