Velocity; calculus

You know how every now and then something you read or hear will just click with your current situation, and provide an answer to a question that has been plaguing you? Happened to me twice today.

The first one was Rands’s new article on What To Do When You’re Screwed. An early paragraph framed the issue for me:

“You’re a manager now. Congratulations. Either you sucked at programming and wanted to try a different influence avenue or you’re fed up with every other manger you’ve worked for and now you’re going to REALLY GOING TO SHOW US how it’s done.”

Now, I’m not a manager. I’m a developer. What managing I have done has showed me that I REALLY DON’T want to go there. But once you get to a certain point in your career as a developer, it can seem like the only way to move onwards and upwards is to take that position as a team leader, and get your foot on the management ladder.

I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately. Amongst other things, I’ve been fretting about the fact that at 32 years old, I’ve got a decade of work behind me, but another 30-40 years ahead of me, and what the hell am I going to for all that time? Will there still even be a software industry in the mid 21st century?

Rands then goes on:

“I’m assuming you’ve have passion regarding your professional career. You want to do more. You want make more money and, if it all works out well, you want to change the world.

“Maybe I haven’t been kicked in the shins enough, but it baffles me when I run into folks who are coasting through life. Doing the bare minimum to get by and… enjoying it? What exactly are you enjoying?”

Another thing I often worry about is that I don’t have much “ambition” in the traditional sense. I have no burning desire to be famous, or run my own company, or retire by the time I’m 40. Professionally, what I really want to do is be recognized for the quality of my work. I want to work on products that will be appreciated. I want my efforts to make other people’s lives just a little bit better, easier, or more enjoyable. I’m more of a craftsman than an entrepreneur.

Sure, I’d like to earn lots of money. I’d like to be rich enough to retire at 40. But what would I do after that? I think I would probably carry on doing what I do right now in my spare time: write, design web sites, build software. I’m sure I’d make some time for the wife and kids, and I’d watch movies, and play games; but fundamentally I think I’d be driven to make things.

All of which really means that what I really want to do is exactly what I’m doing now–only more so.

Being a contractor/consultant is not the same as being an employee. I have to take charge of my own training, and keep my skills sharp. I’m not working towards a promotion within a single company: I’m trying to enhance my reputation and make myself valuable to a range of clients. The reason I decided to move into contracting was not for the money, but to do more building and making, and to get better at doing these things, because that is what I want to do.

Sometimes these goals slip my mind; when they do, I lose velocity, I stall, and my mood sinks.

“Good managers keep their teams, their products, and their careers full of velocity.


“That’s a better term than upward mobility. Constant forward momentum.”

I’m my own manager now. Gotta remember that.

The second click of the day was a pointer from Eric Sink’s new MSDN column (Hazards of Hiring) to an article he wrote last year: Career Calculus.

Thanks for the reminders, guys. Turns out my glasses were on my forehead the whole time.


I don’t know what made me think of it, but earlier today I was struck by a particularly vivid memory of reading Storm comics. When I think of “fantasy art”, the first name that springs to mind for me is not Boris Vallejo, but rather Don Lawrence. Lawrence was never terribly big in the UK, but he was huge in the Netherlands. Storm was published in weekly chunks in the comic Eppo, and whenever a story was running the delivery of each new issue was an occasion to be treasured. Googling around this evening, I was sad to see that Don Lawrence died in December of last year.

I used to have a whole bundle of Storm books, but I haven’t seen them in years, which means they’re probably gone. They have all been reprinted in beautiful new editions, but at €595 for the whole set (about £400), they’re going to have to wait for a very special occasion. Goodness, the price of nostalgia these days….

Establishing Identity

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. Not in the psychological sense, but in the sense of establishing that you really are who you say you are. No matter where I turn, I keep stumbling across the issue:

  • Last week I had a dream about being on the run from the law. Fortunately, in the dream I had set up bank account under a fake ID, and I could still withdraw money without triggering any alarm bells.
  • On Sunday evening I was filling out a passport application form for Fiona. In order for the application to be processed, it will have to be countersigned by “a person of standing in the community” (e.g. an accountant, doctor, teacher, etc.) as evidence that I am Fiona’s father and not just some random dude applying for a passport on her behalf.
  • I’ve been looking at the new commenting features in Movable Type 3, and trying to untangle the shambolic mess of tags, script, and settings needed to provide integration with the TypeKey authentication service.

I have often thought about setting up an alternate identity. You know, just in case I might really need to go underground some day. How about you? How far have you gone down that road? In the questions below I’m not talking about nicknames, married/maiden names, names changed by deed poll, or other changes of name where your fundamental identity remains the same.


  • Have you set up an email account under a different name?
  • Have you corresponded with other real people through this email account?
  • Have you set up a web site or a blog under that name?
  • Have you posted a comment or written an article on a third-party web site under that name?
  • Have you researched and fleshed out the background of this alternate identity to a greater degree than just name, gender, date of birth, and country of residence?
  • Have you set up a Paypal, or other online money transfer account under this identity?
  • Have you always used an internet café, or an anonymising proxy server for your online actions under this identity? (So that your actions can’t be traced back to your own internet account?)

Real life:

  • Have you ever rented a mailbox or a storage locker under a different name?
  • Have you ever acquired fake official id documents (drivers license, passport, etc.) under your own or a different name?
  • Have you ever acquired real official id documents (drivers license, passport, etc.) under a different name?
  • Are you acquainted socially or professionally with anyone who knows you under a different name?
  • Have you ever used these fake papers to prove your identity for some purpose?
  • Have you ever acquired a credit card or a bank account under a different name?
  • Have you ever paid for goods or services with funds from this card or account?
  • Have you made sure that there is no link between your real home address and the address in which the alternate identity is registered?

Score one point for every “yes” you had in the On-line section, and three points for every “yes” under Real life.

Although false identities can be used as vehicles for doing harm, neither the on-line actions I noted above, nor their real-life counterparts are in themselves harmful. Yet the real-life actions carry so much more weight, because identity in the real world is a much more serious thing than it is on-line. It’s serious enough that in many places, establishing an alternative identity is a criminal offense.

People are already twigging to the fact that on-line identity can be equally important. Microsoft’s Passport system was mostly intended as a single sign-in mechanism to help users log in to multiple sites without having to remember multiple user IDs and passwords. It tackles the question of identity in a de facto kind of way: by gradually bundling all your systems access into a single login (“passport”), this login becomes your primary on-line identity.

Six Apart’s TypeKey authentication service comes at the problem from the opposite end: from the outset, TypeKey has been all about identity, with single sign-in thrown in almost as a fringe benefit. It is being sold (in a “free” sense) to users as a mechanism for proving that you really are Joe Bloggs. If you leave a comment on blog X, your TypeKey identity can prove to the blog owner (and to other readers) that you are the same Joe Bloggs who left comments on blogs Y and Z.

However, in support of the axiom that on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog, there is no way for TypeKey to establish that the identity “Joe Bloggs” doesn’t in fact belong to the real-life “Jane Doe”. And conversely, Jane Doe is free to set up multiple TypeKey accounts, so she can also be posting comments as “Adam Smith” and “Mary Robertson” whenever she feels like it.

FOAF and XFN are ways of establishing chains and webs of trust (A trusts B, B trusts C, therefore A trusts C, but possibly to a lesser degree) in a distributed manner. PGP (or GnuPG) public key signing provides a decentralized way of proving an identity, and as such is an alternative to TypeKey, but again with nothing to stop someone from having multiple identities.

As governments become more eager to distribute services on-line, finding a way to extend each individual’s single real-life identity into the on-line space is going to become more and more important. (Hello, biometrics.) Identity is also inextricably tied up with security, the buzzword of the decade, and as such will also be one of the keys to rolling back the tide of spam.

In real life, it is unusual and intuitively suspicious for a person to have multiple identities. On-line, though, it is almost the norm to carry around a different persona for every occasion. The present anonymity of the internet makes this possible. But with an increased focus on identity and security, is this a situation that can continue? Is anonymity a fundamental property of the virtual world, or is it just a passing phenomenon, indicative of the medium’s immaturity? Will it eventually become taboo to represent yourself on-line as anything other than your real-life persona? Or is the freedom to be whomever you choose something that our society is going to accept on a long-term basis?

It keeps me up at night, wondering if now is the last time I’ll be able to feasibly establish a new identity with the low-tech tools at my disposal. If I don’t do it now, will I regret it in twenty years’ time, when the UK has turned into an oppressive totalitarian surveillance state, and my humble blogging attracts the strict attention of the net police?

Okay…straying too far into paranoia there. But you know what I mean. Don’t you?