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A new decade

As arbitrary as they are, these transitions provide a kind of useful punctuation - a spot to stop and breathe.

For me, I think it might be useful to reflect on where I was at the start of the previous decade, where I am now, and where I'd like to be ten years from now.

Ten years ago

I lived in Oxford, as much my hometown as anywhere is, living in the house I'd grown up in long after my family had emigrated to California. Every year, I'd head out for Christmas, saving a little time to hang out in San Francisco.

I'd just had a turbulent year: In April, I had finally left Elgg after working on it for seven years, and had been surprised to find myself at the receiving end of threats from our investors after I tried to start a new social platform with a completely different purpose. This significantly limited my options - all non-infrastructure internet software is at least a little bit social - and although I'm pretty sure I would have won a court decision, my pockets were exponentially less deep than theirs. I returned to my roots and buckled down doing work in local media instead.

Nevertheless, I had just given a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School on user-centered design, was consulting with some former television journalists who wanted to save media through entrepreneurship, and I flew out to Washington DC to work with the American Association of Colleges and Universities. All of these events were small hints of what was to come.

My mother was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. We didn't know what lay ahead; for now, it was just a persistent cough.


Eight years ago, my mother phoned me to warn me that I shouldn't be shocked to see her using oxygen tanks over Christmas. It took me approximately thirty seconds to decide that I needed to move to California; practically, it took me five months. I arrived with two suitcases and the assumption that I would be here temporarily. Writing this now, I know I'm here for the long run.

She had given up her career in internet business analysis and become a middle school science teacher. Every day she went to work wearing oxygen on her back, looking a little bit like a Ghostbuster, until she couldn't anymore.

Six years ago, she had a double lung transplant. I was with my parents at their home in the central valley when they got the call, a little after midnight; they drove straight to the hospital, while I drove to Oakland to pick up my sister. I tried to raise my girlfriend on the phone, but couldn't. It was the loneliest two hours of my life.

I have persistent flashbacks of my mother sitting on a gurney outside the double doors leading to anesthesiology, telling me to be patient with my father and to look after him. We spent the night in the hospital, sleeping in the waiting room on makeshift beds made of teal vinyl-covered chairs. It wasn't clear that we would ever see her again. She emerged at 4pm the next day, unable to speak and in unfathomable pain. Eventually, I passed out in the ICU next to her, and the nurses told me to go home.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a symptom, not a disease. Your lungs scar progressively until you can't breathe. There's no cure. We didn't know what caused it, but my grandmother died of it when I was six years old, so we knew it was familial. My aunt was diagnosed too, and had lung transplants, before the side effects of immunosuppression were too much for her. Then my cousin, just a few years older than me, who left us suddenly. It was unimaginably sad.

And it was scary. It hung over all of us. I felt it acutely. A few years earlier, I had asked my girlfriend to marry me; she had deferred for a year before telling me no. Around the same time, I had ripped my life up to move to California. The country I grew up in voted to reject Europeans like me, ensuring (assuming Brexit eventually comes to pass) that I could never go back. The country I lived in elected a populist fascist as President. And it was becoming clear that I might only have a few years left. I felt destabilized and terrified. More than that, I felt worthless. I hadn't been able to build the life I wanted. I was damaged. And soon, I might be gone.

I gained a lot of weight and let my anxiety build. It was rare that I'd sleep through the night. All the while, my mother continued on her adventure, through a rollercoaster of medical crises and procedures. Often, it was like watching someone you love be systematically tortured.

Cutting-edge medical research finally caught up with my family, and we discovered that the pulmonary fibrosis was the symptom of a genetic condition called dyskeratosis congenita. At least, it probably was; we were at the edge of medical science. But the research offered hope, and I took it with both hands.

In particular, a genetic condition could be tested. The genetic counsellor warned that an adverse result could affect our insurance, our ability to buy a house; our entire futures. But my sister and I had Europe as a safety net. We had the privilege of just going back to a place with saner, more compassionate laws. And more importantly, we were told there was a 75% chance that one or both of us would have it. We had to know.

When, a year and a half ago, the genetic test came back showing that neither of us had the genetic variant, we burst into tears in the examination room. We called our parents, who also burst into tears. For my mother, the burden of knowing that she might have passed down her condition was lifted. And suddenly, I had a life ahead of me again. That same week, I had my first therapy session, and I began to rebuild.

In the midst of all of this, I had a professional adventure.

I became the hands-on CTO and first employee of Latakoo, which is still the way that NBC News sends recorded footage back to its newsrooms over commodity internet connections. (It's also the source of my only software patent.) I was the Geek in Residence at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab, serving the world's largest arts festival. I wrote a technical book on HTML5 geolocation. I co-founded Known, found investment, and did right by my investors by going to work as a senior engineer at Medium. I was a heavy participant and sometime organizer in the Indieweb community. My work showed up in the New York Times and in other people's books. I was west coast Director of Investments at Matter, a mission-driven accelerator and venture fund (going to the pub with Chelsea Manning as part of this will always be one of my favorite professional moments). I became VP of Product at Unlock, helping independent creators to make money from their work. And as I write this, I'm Head of Engineering at ForUsAll, which is trying to help people on lower incomes to build retirement savings. I'm far from being even a fraction of a millionaire, but I've had the privilege to do well, and hopefully do some good in the process.

And I've rebuilt a life in California. I have amazing people in my life - many of whom came through the Matter and Indieweb communities, for which I'm endlessly grateful. I still have my amazing friends from the UK, even if we're distant. My family is close and bound by love. It continues to suffer medical hardships. But through it all, I've been lucky.

Ten years from now

So what's next?

Thanks to the last decade's medical adventures, I'm a late bloomer. But I want to have a family, with a strong relationship built on mutual trust and intimacy at its center. If I'm really lucky, my future children will get to meet my parents; if not, I will carry their spirit and do my best to represent the best of who they were. I want a family life drawn from first principles based on creativity and love, rather than one built on established societal expectations: a progressive life created to support us as a partnership, rather than one built to make other people happy by painting by numbers.

My future children will be multi-national, as I am. Many passports, many points of view. And that's just from one side of the partnership. We'll be a mix of cultures, backgrounds, and contexts - ripe soil to grow something new.

I don't have any desire to be wealthy. I do want to be safe and comfortable. That probably means leaving the Bay Area and finding somewhere with a better quality of life to cost of living ratio. Edinburgh is the best place I've ever lived for this, but unless Scotland becomes independent and rejoins the EU, it's not somewhere I could easily go back to. Still, there's a big, wide world out there.

I want to do work that makes the world more equal, more compassionate, and more peaceful. What that means in practice is TBD, but I expect to co-found one more startup - not yet, but eventually. Almost certainly, it'll be bootstrapped and partially open source: a zebra internet / media business built with the goal of indefinite sustainability. If I'm lucky, I'll work with some of my former colleagues to make it happen.

I want to write a book. There is at least one novel in me. There is at least one non-fiction book about people working to make an impact using the internet. Ideally, I want to do this in the next year or two.

I'll also deepen my political volunteering. I began to give heavily to progressive causes, as well as canvass and campaign, over the last decade. My politics continue to be progressive as I get older, and I want to back my opinions with real, on the ground work. The current era demands it.

And I want to build a strong foundation for the rest of my life. I want to do meaningful work as part of living a meaningful life based on happiness and kindness. I want to leave the world better than I found it by showing up as well as I can through emergent strategy. At the end of it all, whether that's a few years from now or fifty, I want to look back without regret and know that I did well by the people whose lives I passed through, as well as people who I'll never meet or know. It's not about wealth; it's not about self-interest; it's about finding meaning through service, and happiness through connection.

It's been a tough decade for me. It has been for many of us. But I'm hopeful for the next one.