Monday, November 2, 2015

Selling Yourself, GitHub Edition


I really do like GitHub. Kinda.
I like GitHub because I'm supposed to like GitHub. Well, that's not entirely true; I have come to rely on GitHub Gists for posting PowerCLI / PowerShell / whatever code in my blog posts here because it's quick and easy to post. But mostly, I signed up to avoid community ostracizing. Because ego.

It's always fun to sign up for a new service when you're not in the early adopter crowd; username selection quickly moves past the epoch of the purely alphabetic and straight into the era of the alphanumeric. And believe it or not, the username of "mstump" is very, very common. I'm in constant competition my eponymous doppelgänger when it comes to account names on the Internet. He beat me to GitHub (by four years, so not even close), but I beat him to Gmail. It's a struggle, and it's real.

Ok. Let's get into this story.

A Brief History of Exablaze

I graduated* from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1999 with a degree in that most lucrative of majors: English. To top that off, my concentration was in Language, Writing, and Rhetoric. (I'm sure you've got a hilarious joke about liberal arts majors and coffee shops; I've heard it before, and it's not as funny as you think. And furthermore, your major is stupid.) Right out of college, I worked as a proofreader for a financial services firm on the third shift. Yes kids, in the not too distant past, corporations hired legions of proofreaders to work on a 24x7 basis. One time I was sent to Philly to be on-call with two other proofreaders just in case a filing was being prepared. The 90's were weird.

After about one week of this job, it occurred to me that I had made a huge mistake. Proofreading is fun and all, when you're a pain-in-the-ass 20-something with a penchant for pedantry. But man, that's no way to live. So I went to a job fair at the hallowed Cole Field House on campus at UMD and met up with employees from a software firm named Avectra. (This is perhaps another sign of the times; no self-respecting startup today would select a name as linguistically grotesque.) After a few interviews, an offer, an acceptance, and a two-week notice, I started my first job in tech... as a technical writer.

Prolly shoulda resized this. Eh, F it.
I quickly learned that Avectra was a new company: it was the new name for two former competitors that had joined forces. One of those companies was TASS; the other, Ablaze. For the next 18 months, I witnessed a melting pot of corporate cults of personalities: executives and senior directors from both companies positioning for leadership roles in the merged venture. Many winners, as many losers. I had no sense of stability while I was there, and eventually the churn and turmoil proved too much: just shy of two years, I accepted a position with another company, and left Avectra behind.

But Avectra was my first real job out of college, and to this day that company means something important to me. Not because their software was mind-blowing (though in retrospect, it certainly was). But because my coworkers were smart, funny, and motivated people, and a few of the suits were willing to take risks (including tolerating this former tech writer when he moved into the network administrator's office one day (because the previous network administrator quit to spend more time surfing)) and invest in their employees. So while I had terminated my employment with the company, Avectra has stayed very much with me to this day.

Before I left Avectra, it occurred to me that I had the most meaningful relationships and discussions with former Ablaze employees. I mean, most of those TASS people were just weird. So as I boxed up my office on my last day, I did the 2001 equivalent of creating a parody Twitter account: I created a new AIM screen name: exablaze.

For years, as long as AIM was the de facto instant messaging application on the Internet, I was exablaze. To friends, to family, to everyone. It wasn't just a username; it was quintessentially me.

Exablaze, the Australians

A couple of years back, a new company was incorporated in Australia. They selected the name Exablaze for their venture. You can search them up if you'd like; what they do and who they are is immaterial to this post. Some engineers from this company were interested in sharing code via GitHub, and they were keen to use the exablaze handle for posting. But wouldn't you know it? I'm exablaze on GitHub. Go ahead, take a look. My GitHub is pathetic. I'm cool with that.

An Indecent Proposal

In November 2014, I was contacted by GitHub support. They were relaying a message to me from Exablaze (the company), which bluntly asked if I'd change my username so they could have it. "Github will be able to help you to transition to a new name," they said. "LOL," I said. I politely explained that I wouldn't be handing over the username, as I'd been using it in various forums and communities and comms systems for a long, long time. (At one point, my LinkedIn profile used exablaze as its alias). GitHub replied, said they understood, and thanked me for my response. NBD.

But in August of 2015, I was contacted directly by someone from Exablaze. This time, the deal was slightly different: would you please hand over your GitHub username, and we'll hand over $1,000?

What's for Sale, What's Not

I completely empathize with Exablaze for going after my username on GitHub. I get it. I own a small business, and I get that names are important things. You want consistency throughout your social and technical communities. You want a common identity that is easily identifiable by those who you seek to engage. You want a name that means something to you.

But for these exact reasons, I'm not parting with my GitHub account. I'm not giving it away for free, and I'm not selling it for $1,000. I'm not interested in this transaction. The end.

Why? Because you can't just buy a name from someone. Names are more than characters in a URL, more than just an alias on a trendy code repository. Over time, the name of a thing becomes the thing. You cannot divorce meaning from name, certainly not after 14 years. And for me, using the name exablaze (admittedly, I do so infrequently these days, noted exception aside) is a way to honor the insanity that is my professional career in IT.


* - This is true, technically. But it's a story for another time.