Bill Woodcock: On an Internet Odyssey
He circles the globe to keep ISPs connected, returning occasionally to his high-bandwidth home
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.)
What he does: Designs and installs Internet exchanges around the world.
For whom: Packet Clearing House
Where he does it: Everywhere (except Antarctica)
Fun factors: Travels to remote and exotic corners of the world; solves technical challenges on the fly with a minimum of resources; makes people’s lives better
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.
But the venture-capital chaos of the dot-com boom made running an Internet service provider with a real business model (that is, making a profit rather than losing someone else’s investment money) difficult. And then the boom went bust, making the ISP business even more grueling. Woodcock saved his company by splitting it in two and giving the halves away, half to a friendwith a Web-hosting company, the other half to a group of employees. (Both companies have since done well.)
“I really just wanted my life back,” he said. “It had gotten to be such a worry. My main concern was just that all the employees and customers be taken care of.” Woodcock is proud that he brought a company through the dot-com collapse without, he says, “ever having to lay anybody off, without a pay cut, without cutting back on benefits, without overworking people, and without shortchanging customers. I made sure nobody got hurt in an environment in which a lot of people were suffering.”
It was 2001, and Woodcock was now 29. He had made no money from the disbursement of Zocalo; while it was running, he had paid himself an annual salary of $37 500—less than most of his employees. But for the first time in his life, he had some cash in the bank—years earlier, he had registered a few domain names, and in 2001, he sold one of those, domain.com, for $1 million. His living expenses were low, as he lived (and still lives) in a small Berkeley duplex that he was then gradually buying from his parents.
With 1.2 gigabits per second coming into his house, Woodcock has more bandwidth than most universities
Since 1994, Woodcock had been involved with Packet Clearing House, an alliance of West Coast ISPs. Back then there was only one commercial Internet exchange point, or IXP, at which commercial ISPs could connect with each other to pass traffic, and it was in Washington, D.C., so all ISPs had to send their traffic to and from Washington over slow and expensive leased lines. With about half of all Internet traffic going to and from California, a West Coast IXP would greatly help West Coast ISP operators.
The group started by building an IXP in San Jose, and it soon added more in Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Diego. Next they began answering requests from ISPs in other parts of the country for help with similar efforts. The group had no formal organization and no budget; members donated equipment and labor ad hoc.
When requests started coming in from ISPs around the world, Woodcock decided that the ad hoc, no-budget model needed a tuneup. PCH incorporated as a nonprofit in 1999, and in 2001 Woodcock began working full-time as research director.
The money PCH needed to make the transition to being a real company initially came in the form of grants from the governments of Sweden and Singapore. Then there were funds contributed by individuals, and now PCH also gets funding from a number of other sources, such as the United Nations, the Soros Foundations Network, and Cisco Systems Inc. Woodcock put most of his savings into the organization, and he didn’t draw a salary until this year; now he is paid $65 000 annually.
The organization has 10 salaried positions and some 30 to 40 regular volunteers. It has a small office in the Presidio in San Francisco, but Woodcock, when he is in the country, typically works out of his Berkeley home. The living room, filled with crates of networking gear, is a shipping and receiving hub. The dining room is an office where, when IEEE Spectrum visited, two engineers sat tapping on laptops.
Woodcock’s air-conditioned basement is filled with networking equipment and servers; two fiber-optic circuits connect him to the Internet, and with 1.2 gigabits per second coming into his house, Woodcock has more bandwidth than most universities. It gets used in a variety of ways. One server takes care of his friends and family; another routes most of the Internet traffic for the country of Kenya; and another hosts the audio files that make up the Web site for the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind.
At home, Woodcock spends much of his time building and testing equipment configurations before sending them off to remote sites. He also fields technical questions from engineers around the world via e-mail, voice, and videoconference. “If we are doing work here and we find out we need some little adaptor, we can run down to an electronics supply place and pick it up in 15 minutes for four bucks. The same part in Uganda is four bucks, plus $100 shipping, plus $100 in customs bribes, plus $100 in import duties, and all the time of the people to manage that process, and you’ve got the part six weeks later.”
On the road, Woodcock has found himself in all manner of unlikely scenarios. He consulted with one group of engineers while onboard a boat sailing Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay. He once wrestled his equipment into a roughly measured rack welded from scrap metal by a local craftsman. He has negotiated with government ministers in dozens of countries and has conducted countless workshops for senior engineers of ISPs.
Typically, Woodcock travels on “round-the-world” airline tickets, which are cheaper and more easily changed than point-to-point or round-trip tickets. One recent itinerary was San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Malmö, Jukkasjarvi, Oslo, Stavanger, Copenhagen, Bangkok, Taipei, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Mauritius, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Dubai, Kabul, Singapore, and back to San Francisco. Antarctica is one of the few places Woodcock has never been.
This much travel, he says, has been life-altering. “I never would have imagined that I’d get to see this many places, and I value the perspective that has given me.”
But while Woodcock loves the travel, that isn’t the biggest satisfaction. “It sounds trite,” he says, “but the fact that I’m helping people, that the work I’m doing is making somebody’s life better somewhere, that’s the big thing.”
To Probe Further
Bill Woodcock’s efforts in Kathmandu were discussed in the Nepali Times, 6-12 September 2002, http://www.nepalnews.com.np/ntimes/issue110/economy.htm. For more information about Packet Clearing House and its work around the world, see www.pch.net.