What I’m doing now

In the spirit of Derek Sivers, I thought I’d write a quick update about what I’m doing these days. It’s not quite a “now” page in the Sivers model, but it’ll do .. for now.

I’m Head of Engineering and Sponsor Product at ForUsAll. Understanding what ForUsAll does, and therefore what I do, requires a little bit of explanation: in the US, rather than traditional pensions, workers tend to get something called a 401(k) plan (memorably named after its tax code). A part of your pre-tax pay is sent to a fund that invests on your behalf; many employers match your contribution up to a certain level. At retirement you get to withdraw those funds; the hope is that your investments have grown in value in the interim.

They tend to be jargon-laden, badly-run, and offer web interfaces that look like they were built in Microsoft Frontpage in 1998. And that’s if you even have access to one: most American workers at smaller businesses don’t, and therefore have limited access to decent ways to save for retirement. ForUsAll’s web platform makes it cheaper and less time-consuming for employers to run (or “sponsor”) a plan. And we’re working on other ways for regular people to build financial stability for themselves, even before retirement. It’s not about employees at well-funded startups or Fortune 500 companies; it’s everyone else.

So my role is to run the engineering team, as well as product for the employer side of the experience. It’s my first fintech company, but that’s not why I’m doing it — my personal mission statement continues to be to work on projects that make the world more equal, informed, and inclusive, and this fits the bill.

I’m bringing a few things to the table here: my experience building products from both an engineering and product strategy perspective, but also my design thinking and cultural development background. I’m finding that those instincts are coming in very useful, and my big self-development project is to second-guess myself less than I often have in the past. I’ve been given a large role in determining the future strategy of the company, and I’m trying to bring my all to it.

By the way, I’m hiring front-end engineers.

I continue to sit on the board at Latakoo, the media startup where I was the CTO and first employee. Its technology — which I helped design and build — allows networks like NBC News to easily plan stories and transmit video from the field using commodity internet connections.

Latakoo is profitable. Its cloud service is used by many of the news organizations you can think of, and its on-premise servers have found homes in their editing suites. I’m really proud to have been a part of it, and to still be able to help where I can.

I believe deeply in the importance of media in our democracy, and I’m always excited to find opportunities to help support its future. In February I helped run (with my ex- Matter colleague Roxann Stafford) a session on designing for equity as part of a Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms bootcamp organized by NewsCatalyst and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism with the Google News Initiative.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping to wind up Known’s incorporated corporate entity — and its hosted service, which is still online — this tax year. This doesn’t mean Known itself is winding down: the open source community continues apace, and has been funding future development through Open Collective. The Known copyrights and assets will revert to me once the closure is complete.

More of my time has been spent helping to care for my mother. It’s been a decade since her diagnosis, and my life has been turned completely upside down in the years since (including some time where I thought I probably had the terminal, genetic condition too). Being able to spend time with both my parents is a privilege. But it’s also been very easy to put my personal life on pause. I started this year with a determination to unpause — although 2020 has sometimes had other ideas.

I’m about to start a Gotham Writers Workshop course on writing fiction. Writing has always been my first love, and I’m determined to take it more seriously. I took some Stanford writing courses over the summer and found them to be both incredibly useful and motivating. I’d been waitlisted for a two year part-time novel writing certificate, but sadly didn’t make the cut. (Who can blame them — who is this tech bro anyway?) No matter; I’m finding other ways to improve my skills and get closer to my goal of actually publishing a long-form fiction book.

I came first in my group in the NYC Midnight flash fiction competition this summer; I’m waiting to see if I got into the third round.

I read a lot more than I write, and I’ve been trying my best to keep off the social networks. They don’t, as a whole, improve my life. But the addiction is strong. I just wholesale quit Facebook and Instagram as a protest against that company’s actions, and it felt pretty good.

When I thought I also probably had my mother’s dyskeratosis congenita, I gained a lot of weight. I’ve been trying my best to lose it, through only eating during an eight hour window, improving my diet, and increasing the amount of exercise I do. We bought a treadmill so my mother could walk without having to leave the house (my dad also has mobility issues); I’ve been using it to regularly run 5Ks. It’s nowhere near as impressive as my runner friends, but it’s a world away from my last few years. I used to walk 7–8 miles a day in the course of my life in the UK, and my life in California has never worked the same way. I’ve lost some weight but I’ve got a very long way to go.

I’ve been thinking about how I can help mission-driven founders. I was pretty naive when I founded Known, and more so Elgg; I’d love to help people who are genuinely trying to make the world a better place to avoid some of those same mistakes. Time is limited, though. So maybe an online book and/or community is the way to go.

What’s next:

In 2021 I want to …

… finish a fiction book. Whether it gets published or not is out of my hands, but I want to do the best job I can. And then prepare to do it again.

… lose that weight and continue to get healthier.

… re-find the joy in life. It’s been a tough year, and I want to find a way to have more time and space that’s really mine. Between work and caring it’s been hard to carve out room for my own life. I wouldn’t change those things for the world, but I’d like to be able to find a healthier balance.

Originally published at https://werd.io on October 3, 2020.



Writer: of code, fiction, and strategy. Trying to work for social good.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Ben Werdmuller

Writer: of code, fiction, and strategy. Trying to work for social good.