Nicole is responsible for managing the technical aspects of running TheForce.net, considered by many to be the best Star Wars site on the Web. An engineering graduate of the École Polytechnique de Montréal, she is a software engineer with extensive experience in ASP, ActiveX, MS SQL, VB, VBScript, and much more.
This interview was conducted in August 2000 via email by Wise-Women Web Site editor Makiko Itoh. Portions of some of the answers were taken from Nicole's posts on the Wise-Women list.
Wise-Women: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Nicole: I graduated in 1989 as an industrial engineer, with specialization in robotics and software. I ended up always working as a software engineer. I started a Masters in Cognitive Science, and User Interface Design, but never did finish it. Too much work was available. Paid work, that is. My first job was in the hotel industry, building the hotel management software, then I moved on to VirtualPrototypes, my first graphics programming job. I also met my husband there.
From VirtualPrototypes, I was hired by Softimage, which ended up being acquired by Microsoft. I got full training on Microsoft products while I was there. I left Softimage to become a mom at home, and pick up web work, in 1998. I don't work full time on the web, just enough to keep my feet wet, and my skills honed. (Editor's note: as of this writing, Nicole is expecting the birth of her second child very soon.)
W-W: How did you first get involved with TheForce.net?
NP: I got my feet into Star Wars fandom when Episode 1 came out and I started a website dedicated to Darth Maul. Eventually it grew old although the site is still up and running, and getting hits. (Anyway), I decided to move on and get to see more of (the world of) Star Wars. I applied for a tech position at TFN, and got accepted.
W-W: Can you tell us about TheForce.net?
Nicole: TFN is a Star Wars news reporting site. Anything even remotely related to Star Wars has a chance of being posted. There are TONS of stuff to cover. We also provide hosting for some encyclopedia-like sites, that cover everything one would ever want to know about the Star Wars universe. All vehicles, all races, the books, the comics, etc...
TFN is very often in the news. It comes and goes, depending on Star Wars popularity in the main media, of course, but it's mentioned very often. It's considered as the #1 Star Wars site out there by a lot of people, even beating the official site sometimes. Lately, we've been hosting a fan-made trailer for episode 2, which got our name on CNN, NetCenter as Cool Site of the day, MacCenter, Entertainment Weekly...
Traffic is around 40,000 unique visitors daily, as calculated by our ad software.
W-W: How big is the site, and what's involved on the backend?
NP: It's a huge site, served over eight servers. We use homemade Perl scripts, ASP pages, load balancing between 3 types of servers, (html cgi and multimedia), and we're now going to Oracle and JSP. It's hosted on Snowball.com.
Just as I was brought onboard, Snowball.com had already decided to move TFN to another type of server, from a Linux one. We're now running on Zeus, which (according to Snowball) has better load balancing.
W-W: What are your responsibilities?
NP: I make sure everything runs smoothly. Although I do not have access to the servers themselves since I am in Montreal and Snowball is in California, and as such am not doing any sys admin duties, I'm the main contact with our service provider. I tell them our needs, and they do it. I also make sure that everything we post works, and is maintanable. We have thousands and thousands of pages, most of them legacy pages, so I have to come up with methods to keep everything in synch, without losing links, etc...
I recently moved the whole team to Macromedia Dreamweaver, so we could use the Check Out/Check In feature, and avoid overwriting each other's work.
TFN started as a humble site, and just grew. Its main problem is team work, I'd say, because no one on the team has ever worked on a computer project of any kind apart from me. So I try to bring in order where there was chaos ;-)
W-W: Tell us how you go about making decisions about the management of the site. For example: how do you manage your message boards: Why did you go to Oracle and JSP? And so on.
NP: The type of decisions I'm involved with, have to do with how we will be coding the site. Because of the sheer number of pages and visitors that we have, the less load we put on the server the better it is.
Message boards: We moved the message boards to a totally different set of servers. Snowball has an in-house message board called Snowboard, which is ASP based, and runs off MS SQL. Snowboard itself runs over 8 different computers, but serves up more than one site. Our message board *used* to be Ultimate Bulletin Board, but it was crashing all the time at 2000 messages daily, and taking ALL CGI servers down with it. UBB seemed to have a memory leak somewhere in it, because we were eating all the ram on a 1 Gig ram machine at least 4 times daily...
Now that we moved to Snowboard, we've hit 5000 messages daily. I would have liked to keep control over the message board code, but I couldn't find anything Perl based that we could use and that could handle that load.
News posting: News posting is done via a CGI script. In order to avoid running the script for each user, it generates static HTML pages each time a post is done. It also generates a second set of HTML pages for PDA users ;-) Mosts of our hits go to those static pages. The rest of our pages are done with SSI, so we retain some control over the menus (and even then it's hard). There's one set of menus per section, but we have so many sections...
Our news posting CGI script is text based. All news are in a flat text file which is read each time, and re-written each time someone post something new. Not good (I didn't write it ;-) When I got onboard, that file was 8 Meg big. I split it into 2 parts. I keep the current news in a small file, and an archive that I let grow (the archive never gets re-written, just read in). Still, the text based format is very limiting for what we want to be doing. So....
Moving to SQL. We've wanted to do that for a long time, but Snowball couldn't offer us the hosting that we needed. Now they can. We had a choice of ASP/MS SQL, or Oracle/Java/JSP/etc... While I'm an ASP person at heart, Snowball isn't. They will offer us more support for Oracle/JSP than MS SQL/ASP, and I get to learn something new. Ok, so cheesy reason to choose a technology, but hey, I'm not getting paid, so why should I be looking for efficiency instead of experience?
W-W: How many people in total work on the the site, both in technical and non-technical areas? Where are the other people located?
NP: Overall, including all areas, easily 30 people. The main core staff is about 9 or 10. The people are mainly the States, and pretty spread out. We have one core person in Holland, and two (myself included) in Canada. If you take all people working on TFN, we cover the globe. ;)
W-W: How many hours do you think you spend working on the site?
NP: Too many!!! I guess I'm close to 40 hours easily.
W-W: How has the site changed since you got involved?
NP: Since I got onboard TFN, we doubled our daily visitors (although I can't be the cause of it ! LOL!!!) and the marketing rush for Star Wars Episode II hasn't started yet. As for pages, I found out today we have 3531 pages that are linked directly or indirectly from our front page... Wow.
W-W: Do you attribute the growth to your efforts? If so, in what way(s)?
NP: That's hard to say. With the work I do, I do not bring users to TFN, but I make sure that TFN can answer the traffic. For example, the message board was not able to withstand the amount of traffic that it generated. By moving to another board, it allowed our users to go from a bit less than 2000 posts daily to 5000 posts daily and more. So I do not create the need for visitors to come and see us, however if they do, the site has to be responsive. I am not responsible for content (or just a little bit) so I won't claim I'm getting visitors to the site.
W-W: You're obviously a Star Wars fan, and you must get a lot of satisfaction from the fact that you're managing a site devoted to a subject close to your heart, plus the challenges of such a big project. But what other benefits have you seen from your "volunteer" job?
NP: I've been approached twice by Lucasfilm and probed about my interest in moving to San Francisco to work on the official site. I have no interest in that right now, since I want to be close to my mom while I raise my family. Also, I ported TFN to Avantgo for PDA users, and it seemed I was the first at Snowball to achieve that. Now they've approached me to port their main site to a PDA format.
When I accepted that not-paid job at TFN, it really was for fun and to get the experience of a big site. Well, the fun is usually there and the experience sure has been there! It's a HUGE site. That Episode II fan made trailer was downloaded a million times by last weekend. I get to make all technical decisions, and am part of the team for editorial decisions, although not the lead.
I'm telling you, it's fun!
W-W: Can we ask a few more questions about you? Such as, how long have you been a stay at home mom, and how long do you plan to?
NP: Since my son's birth, in October 1997. I plan to stay at home till my youngest hits high school, whenever that may be. Possibly even a bit longer. I love working from home.
W-W: Do you plan to go back to working for another company when your kids are older?
NP: We're talking 10-12 years in the future here. I personally don't think I'll ever go back to the type of companies I was working for, big corporate things, and/or small start-ups who expect the world from you. If I go back, it would be for companies that care, possibly charity work.
W-W: What do you like/dislike about working from home? Would you do it even if you didn't have a small child (with one more in development)?
NP: I like the quiet, the freedom, the lack of stress. I'm not sure I would be doing it if I didnt have a family though. There's a lot of societal pressure to "be out there" and earn money. I still feel weird saying I'm a stay-at-home-mom when asked to fill in forms. It's very devalued. I'm lucky that my last job landed me loads of money (thank you Microsoft! ;-) The banks still treat me with respect because of that.
The permanent link for this page is here: http://www.wise-women.org/members/spotlight/nicole_p/