This is the personal blog of John M. Grohol, Psy.D. This blog is for personal reflections, thoughts on technology, web design, marketing, and more from the founder and CEO of Psych Central, the Internet’s leading mental health network. You can view my official bio here.
What follows is a embarrassingly long rambling about my computer and technology background, which is as much for my own recollection as anybody else’s. You’ve been warned.
What some people may not know about me is that I was a technologist and developer (out of respect for real programmers, I won’t call myself a “programmer” because I’ve never received formal training nor do I have a degree in computer science) long before I got my doctorate in psychology. I probably first became enamored of computers using PLATO at a University of Delaware computer lab. PLATO was a touch-screen computer system that was designed to help people learn. It was an astounding system (especially to a teen) and was housed in a room in Willard Hall. You just signed up for a time, walked in, and played (e.g., learned) for hours on this thing.
That sparked my interest in computers, and I moved into BASIC programming (on a TRS-80, really?), and from there into taking a PASCAL class (which I hated). After PASCAL, I resolved to being self-taught, and eventually got my own first computer — a VIC-20, followed by a Commodore 64. In college I moved onto a Franklin (which was an Apple ][ clone) and also spent a fair amount of time on other Apples of the age (like the GS). Floppy drives, baby!
The followup to the Commodore 64 was the Commodore 128 (double the memory with an 80-column monochrome display capability!), which I also owned. I ran the BBS described below on it.
During this time, I also got heavy into the local BBS (bulletin board system) scene, and helped with programming and customizing a number of them, including my own which I ran while at university, the 7th Society. (I still have print-outs of a few of the core BBS modules, with the changes noted.) Local BBSs were, in many ways, a precursor to the Internet. You called into a local telephone number with your computer’s modem, and you could exchange email and public posts (like a web forum) with other members of the same BBS. Some BBSs communicated with each other, too, and some even had more than one phone line so multiple people could be logged on at the same time. But most of the ones that were local to me in Delaware were single-line, meaning one person at a time. I even met friends on these BBSs who I still know and count as friends today.
To purchase my first PC, I used to comb through Computer Shopper like it was my personal bible. I would scrounge the ads looking for the best bang for the buck. My first PC, also while in college, was a 386-based Gateway. Who could resist those cow boxes and the homey image that you were buying a computer from a company sitting out in the middle of a farm field? Man, those things were heavy and easily weighed 40+ lbs (or so my memory tells me).
Of course, like any proper teenager and young adult, I spent countless hours game-playing in online games whose names I don’t even remember any longer. It was fun at the time, and there were more than a few mornings I woke up with very little sleep. And lookee here — I came out fine (hence the reason I’m a bit skeptical about things like Internet or gaming addiction).
While in college, I began spending more and more time on the Internet proper of the day — newsgroups, mailing lists and FTP sites. I became familiar with how they worked, their governance structure (yes, newsgroups had a governance structure). When I entered graduate school, I began sharing more and more of my knowledge about mental health inside of these newsgroups. I answered general questions and got into arguments with others about things like the effectiveness of psychotherapy. And I proposed and oversaw the reorganization of the sci.psychology hierarchy. (I also did some gigs for Prodigy, one of the three commercial online service providers of the day.)
I also taught myself perl and PHP — two computer scripting languages that built the original interactive web — throughout the 1990s. I discovered the simple joys of code reuse and open source, and released my first open source program in the late 1990s that allowed you to create a customized storefront based upon Amazon.com’s product catalog (with your affiliate code, of course) that used scraping. Scraping is going out and downloading another web page (in this case, Amazon.com’s), removing everything but the core information on the page, and replacing things on the page with your own codes and customizations. It is still used today, primarily to access information contained in older databases that would otherwise be difficult to access.
Upon graduation from Nova Southeastern, I took a job to develop a website from scratch based upon the kind of work that made up my personal hobby site, Psych Central. CMHC Systems, in Dublin, Ohio, employed me to design and implement the world’s first mental health portal. I designed, developed, implemented and oversaw it for four years, before deciding to leave and pursue my fortunes in the dot.com world with DrKoop.com. That didn’t last long (crash!), and I kicked around at another startup out on the West coast until deciding to move to Boston to join one of the first large-scale, online therapy (or e-therapy) clinics, HelpHorizons.com.
The world wasn’t ready for e-therapy in 2000. We had no problem getting 1,000+ mental health providers signed up. But we did have a problem with getting ordinary people to pay for video, chat and email-based psychotherapy. Oh well, lesson learned. I successfully sold that company to a workplace wellness provider in 2006.
After spending a few short months working for a Boston-area hospital in their IT department as a systems designer, I decided to take the full plunge away from working on psychology and mental health online, and went to work at Segway. Yes, you heard that right, Segway, that funny little personal transporter thingy. I was their web designer & architect, and helped design and implemented two sets of award-winning designs while there. I also ensured that the website would hold up under the massive traffic beating it took when it was publicly revealed — which it did.
After spending more than 4 years at the company, I decided it was time to move on and get back into doing psychology & mental health stuff online again. I joined Revolution Health, Steve Case’s mid 2000’s health play, as a consultant for their mental health content (working with some of the same folks I worked with at DrKoop.com).
While I believed at the time that Revolution was largely on the right track, it was a track I had seen played out before in the startup world. Grow to a specific traffic size (largely through acquisitions of existing properties), roll them up under your brand, and then sell off the whole thing to someone else (and cut half or more of your staff in the process). It’s not necessarily a smoke-and-mirrors thing, but it is a business strategy I see far too often in the startup world that is driven more by who you know and relationships, than actual originality or value.
So I left to focus all my attention on Psych Central in 2006. And haven’t looked back since — the best decision I ever made!
So yup, that’s a smattering of my computer knowledge and experience over the years. I now develop regularly in PHP (okay, script regularly), with all the back-end glue that keeps Psych Central (and a few other websites) running.