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2012

January 2nd, 2012 9 comments

It’s time for another one of those self-indulgent “what am I going to do with the next year?” posts. I can’t believe it’s been a whole year since the last one.

First off, I’m going to look at the past year. Finish SICP I definitely progressed with it, but not finished yet. Get a decent online portfolio As a matter of course I put all my toy projects into my Github account, but there’s nothing particularly exciting there. Keep blogging I did pretty well with this until October. Do something good in node.js I started this, and I’d like to carry on at some point. I definitely get Node now, but I want to play more. Learn a functional language I’ve started reading/working through the print version of Learn You a Haskell for Great Good, which is brilliant. Stack Overflow I kinda neglected my SO profile over the latter half of the year. Oh well.

So, those were the steps I’d laid out for myself for last year, but they were all in service of my main goal of 2011, which was to

establish myself as someone who knows what they’re doing and people will pay to code stuff.

With this, everything went better than expected.

In August, two crazy things happened. First, I was approached by a talent scout at Facebook and asked if I was interested. I said hell yes, so they sent me a pre-interview puzzle thing to complete. This was my solution. They liked that, so I went on to have three phone screens. After those they rang me up and asked if I’d like to come out to Palo Alto for an interview! My mind was officially blown at this point.

Things got even crazier when I received an email the night before I was due to fly out to see Facebook, from a recruiter at Twitter. I’d been referred by JavaScript guru Angus Croll, to whom I’m eternally grateful.

Anyway, I went out to Palo Alto, visited San Francisco, had my interviews at Facebook HQ, and flew home. After I got back I had my phone screens with Twitter, followed by another offer of an interview. I found out on my way to the interview in San Francisco that I didn’t get the Facebook job – they were looking for a JS/CSS developer, and my CSS skills aren’t top notch. Also, I think they picked up on my general meh-ness about the actual Facebook product.

So, another trip to San Francisco (which cemented my growing suspicion that SF is the place for me – such an awesome city), more interviews, and then, a few days later, a job offer! So, now I’m living in San Francisco, working on what is probably my favourite thing on the internet, with legends. And it’s awesome.

So, anyway, 2012.

2012

I don’t want to rest on my laurels. There’s still so much more I want to learn.

  • Finish Learn You a Haskell for Great Good

  • Finish SICP

  • Write something decent in Node (still)

  • Read more of the books on the first page of this legendary Stack Overflow question (I’m at about 30% so far)

  • Branch away from JavaScript a bit, maybe with Scala

  • Start blogging again (this is my first post since October – whoops!)

Anyway, here’s to 2012!

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Podcasts I listen to

August 13th, 2011 7 comments

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Any time I can find to listen to them I do – when I’m cooking, eating, washing up, walking to work, brushing my teeth, going shopping, running …

It’s not always easy to find the best podcasts, so I thought it would be helpful to list them here, along with a quick description, and some selected episodes where appropriate.

This list is in rough order of preference. I’m not saying the ones at the top are objectively better; just that I enjoy them more.

Drunk and Retired

One of my favourite podcasts. Coté and Charles Lowell just chatting, usually about software, but whatever else they fancy as well. Always funny, often enlightening.

Selected episodes

Back to Work

Merlin Mann (of 43 folders and Inbox Zero) and Dan Benjamin (of the Ruby world) chatting about creating, productivity, Buddhism and life. Hilarious and amazing.

Selected episodes

This Developer’s Life

An excellent podcast, unlike any other I listen to. Every episode follows a theme, with storytelling interviews around that theme, backed by good music. Can’t get enough of it.

Selected episodes

Ruby Rogues

This is a fairly new Ruby discussion podcast. It features all your favourite celebrity Ruby developers, like James Edward Gray II, Aaron Patterson, Peter Cooper, Avdi Grimm, Gregory Brown and more. It’s fascinating to hear these at-the-top-of-their-game developers talking about why they do things in a certain way. Each episode is a discussion around a specific topic.

Selected episodes

Software Engineering Radio

“The Podcast for Professional Software Developers”. An excellent, quite formal podcast about software engineering topics. It has a bit of a Java, patterns and model-driven architecture bias, but it’s second-to-none in terms of serious software engineering/development content. Most of the interviewers/editors are German, so it’s got a much more ‘European’ view on things (you may not think there’s any difference, but I think there is).

Selected episodes

The Pragmatic Podcast

This is usually interviews with Prag Prog authors, so can often come across a bit like a sales pitch, but occasionally there’s a real gem.

Selected episodes

A Minute With Brendan

Brendan Eich, JavaScript’s Daddy, talking about the present and future of JavaScript. Hear about JavaScript from the horse’s mouth.

Selected episodes

The Creative Coding Podcast

Fairly informal chats mostly about game development/general creative coding, with the odd interview thrown in.

Selected episodes

IT Conversations

I try to listen to every IT Conversations podcast, but there are a lot of them. It’s always interesting stuff, and it covers a wide range of topics in the tech world, from programming to biotech to robotics, etc. IT Conversations is actually a collection of other podcasts and conference recordings.

Selected episodes

Make All

Coté from Drunk and Retired, with his industry analyst hat on, interviewing programming people.

Selected episodes

ExplicitWeb

Three UK-based web developers talking about web development issues. It’s called ExplicitWeb because it has an Explicit rating on iTunes – be warned.

Selected episodes

The JavaScript Show

Jason Seifer and Peter Cooper with a slightly irreverent round-up of JavaScript news.

The Ruby Show

The Ruby equivalent of The JavaScript show.

Web Dev Radio

A podcast about web development from Michael Kimsal. Partly an interview show with various web developers, partly Michael just talking about stuff.

Selected episodes

The Basement Coders

Informal, Java-heavy discussion about software development. Don’t let the Java put you off though – I’ve never written a line of Java, but I still find it interesting.

Selected episodes

The Pipeline

Dan Benjamin interviewing various trendy tech people.

Selected episodes

The Changelog

“Open Source moves fast. Keep up.” New and cool stuff in open source.

Tech Weekly

The Guardian’s tech podcast, presented by Aleks Krotoski. A wide-ranging look at the tech industry.


There’s a lot here, but I can just about keep up. I never listen to podcasts when I’m not doing something else, so I don’t see it as a waste of time. In fact, I almost see it as a waste of time when I’m doing something mindless (like washing up, running etc.) and I’m not listening to podcasts. Maybe that’s a bit obsessive, but I think it’s a great way of learning masses of new stuff for free. Anyway, I hope you find something interesting in here. Enjoy!

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Reflections from a Kindle owner

August 5th, 2011 6 comments

Back in April I got a Kindle for my birthday. It’s changed my tech-life massively, and I thought I’d write a few words on that here, from a developer’s perspective.

(Disclaimer: the Amazon links in this blog post are Amazon Affiliate links, which means I get a percentage of any sales resulting from you following them. If you don’t feel I deserve that percentage, then feel free to go to amazon.co.uk or amazon.com [non-affiliate links] and I’m sure Amazon will be happy to help you find a Kindle.)

Books

I now read most books on my Kindle. In many ways it’s a better experience than a paper book – it’s much lighter than the average programming book, I can rest it on my leg without having to hold it open, turning pages is easier, and with a cover with built-in light I can read in the dark (e.g. I can read in bed without waking up my girlfriend).

It does have its downsides in comparison to a paper book as well – navigating between different spots isn’t as seamless/natural, even with hyperlinks; code listings often wrap (I usually view these in landscape mode, but even then it’s often not enough); it’s significantly more valuable than a book, so I need to take a lot more care with it; some nuances of book formatting don’t always make it through the conversion; and although it’s got a massive battery life, that’s still a consideration.

When I’m buying a new book online now though, I don’t hesitate to get the Kindle version (if it’s available). The benefits far outweigh the downsides.

Magazines

I’ve been wanting to read the Prag Pub magazines for a long time now, but I don’t like to sit in my computer and leaf through PDFs (and I certainly didn’t want to print them all out onto paper). Luckily, they’re all available for free download in Kindle format, so over the past few months I’ve gradually been catching up with the back issues. It’s a great magazine and I’d highly recommend it, whatever your e-reader of choice.

Blogs and essays

Instapaper is an essential tool for any Kindle owner. It gives you a “Read Later” bookmarklet, which enables you to mark any article to be read later. You can then tell Instapaper to deliver a collection of your unread articles to your Kindle regularly, for free! This has made such a difference to me. I come across so much good material online that I want to read, through Google Reader and Twitter, but when I’m at the computer I don’t just want to sit there reading blog after blog. Having those interesting articles delivered to my Kindle automatically means I don’t need to think at all – I can just read them when I feel like it.

In the same vein, I use Instapaper to catch up on older essays, such as Paul Graham’s massive collection or Steve Yegge’s drunken blog rants, that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.

Free 3G

What a tongue-twister. It’s amazing though – if you get the 3G version, Amazon give you free web access, wherever you are. FREE. It still astounds me. It’s not particularly fast, and looks pretty ugly, but it works. For looking stuff up on Wikipedia it’s great.

Conclusion

If you’ve got an e-reader, or something e-reader-like, e.g. an iPhone/iPad/Android something, I’m not going to tell you you need a Kindle as well. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. But for those that don’t have any way of reading electronic material away from a computer, I’d highly recommend getting one. It might change your life :)

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You should learn to type (properly)

June 18th, 2011 21 comments

The Typing of the Dead screenshot

As a developer, my job is to make software. To start off with, this software lives only in my head. Programming is the act of extracting the software out of my head and into the computer. The keyboard is the interface between my brain and my computer. There are times when I’m primarily thinking, and my speed on the keyboard doesn’t matter. But when a thought comes to me, I want to get it out of my brain and into the computer as fast as possible, or I might lose it. I need a high-bandwidth connection.

If you write code and you’re not touch-typing, I don’t think you’re taking it seriously. Touch-typing is one of the easiest things you can do to level-up as a developer – the return on investment is massive.

The keyboard is your primary tool as a developer, and you should wield it like a sword.

Also, if you ever end up in a situation where the world has become infested with zombies, and the only way to kill them is by typing at them, you wanna make sure you’re in with a chance.

How do I learn?

By now, I’m really hoping I’ve convinced you to give touch-typing a go. Now, here’s the good news: it’s easy! It takes a bit of time to master, but nothing like the effort that goes into learning a new language, framework, or pretty much anything else.

GNU Typist

The first thing you should do is download GNU Typist. Complete all the lessons in the first course (Series Q – Quick QWERTY course). Make sure you use the fingers it tells you to use for each key. And whatever you do, don’t look at the keyboard. I’ve heard that some people find this so difficult they put a towel or a piece of paper over their hands so they can’t see. If you’re looking at the keyboard, you’re doing it wrong. Even if there’s one key that you keep missing, the only way to learn is to keep on going until you get it right. Next time you get to that problem key, pause, breathe, and press it (use the Force). If it’s wrong, pause again, breathe again, and press it again. Eventually you’ll have spent so much time thinking about the position of that key that you’ll never have to think about it again.

Now, this is the hardest bit. Once you’ve finished those lessons, touch-type everything. Whether you’re writing emails, programming, working at the command line, googling, chatting, or anything, make sure you’re doing it like GNU Typist taught you. This is hard, because at this stage you’ll be slower than you were before. It’ll be so easy to lapse back into your old habits, so you need to be strict on yourself. Any time you start to look down at the keyboard, stop. Any time you start to use your index finger to type a character that your middle finger should be typing, stop. It takes a few days of this before you start to notice that you’re typing faster than you were before. But that point will come, and from then on, you’ll get faster and faster.

Next steps

This is the perfect time to start playing on TypeRacer. TypeRacer pits you against other typists over the world. It’ll only put you up against others of a similar speed, so you definitely won’t be the slowest there. It’s a lot of fun, and great practice.

The Typing of the Dead box

Another good one is The Typing of the Dead, if you can get your hands on a copy. If you’ve ever seen The House of the Dead, it’s like that, except you walk around with a keyboard killing zombies by typing. Seriously. It’s a great game, but beware – you don’t have to backspace over incorrect keypresses, so you’ll need to be careful or it could adversely affect your accuracy.

Once you’ve got your head around touch-typing, you may want to have a play with Vim or Emacs. They’re both well suited to touch-typists, as all the important commands lie under your fingers without having to move your hands, unlike in other editors (e.g. Page Up/Down, arrow keys, and, god forbid, the mouse).

I really hope you do give this a go, because it really will help you to improve as a developer. And if you don’t want to improve, what’s the point? Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

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27

April 29th, 2011 2 comments

Well, I’m 27 now. I thought I’d write a little update to my New Year’s 2011 post, to assess where I am and where I’m going. As before, if you’re interested then read on, but don’t expect any life-changing revelations or anything :)

Resolutions or whatever

The following are the headings from my 2011 post, with my thoughts/progress on each point.

Finish SICP

On my way with SICP. It’s a hard slog but enjoyable too. I really hope I can finish it this year, so I can start concentrating on other things. I’ve decided that it’s OK to skip the odd chunk of exercises.

Get a decent online portfolio

Haven’t really got anywhere with this yet, as I’ve been busy working and learning.

Keep blogging

I’ve been fairly successful with the regular blogging schedule – trying to keep to weekly posting. I’ve had some brilliant successes recently, getting onto the front page of Hacker News yesterday (a nice birthday present) AND appearing in JavaScript Weekly today.

Get some more freelance work

This is going well – given the nature of this kind of work I can’t go into great detail, but I’ve got more than enough work to be getting on with right now, so no complaints here.

Do something good in node.js/Learn a functional language

Not yet, but still hoping to find the time.

Stack Overflow

Well, I talked about the page numbers of the list of Stack Overflow numbers, but they’ve changed that now so any target based on that is a bit irrelevant now. The user pages now show a “top x% overall” reputation figure – it would be nice to get that to 1% (I’m on 2% at the moment), but I’m easy.

Nick Morgan, not just Skilldrick

This is going well. This blog comes up on page 1 of google.co.uk when searching for Nick Morgan and page 2 of google.com. Seems that putting my name in the header and sidebar worked! So a solid win there.

Etc.

I’m thinking more about the social side of things now too. I went to an excellent Code Retreat in Winchester (here’s a nice review), have been attending (and beginning to help organise) my local Ruby user group, and went along to the Bristol version of the Stack Overflow Meetup. All of these have been great ways to meet my peers, get to know some really nice people, and find out what other people are up to. The Code Retreat in particular was awesome and I’d thoroughly recommend anyone seek one out and do it. I learnt a huge amount and it’s affecting my coding constantly.

I feel a bit like I’m playing catch-up – most people my age have been doing this for way longer – but I also feel like I’m actually catching up. And I’m finally doing something that I really want to be doing. These four months have passed in no time at all, so I know it won’t be long until the end of 2011 and the start of my full-time freelance career. W00t!

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Seven steps towards becoming a professional developer

April 9th, 2011 10 comments

When you first start learning to program, the best thing you can do is just write code, and lots of it. Coding is a muscle, and it needs to be exercised.

That’s just a start though. If you enjoy it, and it’s something you want to do professionally, then there are some essential practices that you need to learn, and make part of your routine.

This list is split into two parts. The first items are directly related to coding. They all take some time to setup and master, but once you’ve got to that stage you’ll get nothing but good out of them. Think of them as an investment in your future.

The second bit is about the world beyond coding, and they mostly involve interacting with real people. If that’s not a problem, then great, but if it is, you’re gonna have to get over it, because dealing with people is a surprisingly big part of this job.

Coding

  1. You need to be testing your code. You won’t get everything perfect the first time, so at some point you’ll need to refactor. And if you refactor without tests, “you’re not refactoring; you’re just changing shit”.

  2. Your code needs to be under version control. I use git, but there are plenty of other options. Code that’s not under some form of version control may as well not exist. And using something with easy branching like git makes it much easier to experiment with big changes to your code that might not work out.

  3. Learn to touch-type. It’ll take a bit of effort, but it’s worth it. If you’re serious about being a professional, then you’re going to be spending a lot of your time on a keyboard. Learn to use it properly. Steve Yegge wrote a great blog post on touch-typing. If you want to learn, I don’t know of anything better than GNU Typist.

Everything else

  1. Start a blog. Write about code you’ve written, problems you’ve solved, things you’re learning about. It’s not for anyone else, just you. The act of putting your thoughts into words forces your brain to look at issues from a different angle. There may come a point that people start finding your content and making use of it, so it’s worth making it public.

  2. Join Twitter. Find local developers and the big names in whatever languages you’re currently learning. Twitter’s like a global virtual watercooler. People talk a lot of shit, but some of the most important conversations happen there as well, as well as job offers, so if you’re not involved you could miss out.

  3. Use and participate in Stack Overflow. You can get a lot of useful guidance if you learn how to ask questions sensibly, and you can learn loads by answering questions as well. Also, once you’ve got a good amount of answered questions, Stack Overflow becomes a great showcase of your knowledge and writing.

  4. Find a local user group. Google for the name of your town or city, the name of a language you’re interested in, and ‘user group’ (in Ruby that would be "#{city_name} #{language} user group"). There’ll be something out there.

That all looks too much like hard work to me

If you’re just starting out, these lists may seem a bit daunting. You don’t need to do everything at once, but if you’re taking this seriously then at some point you should be doing them all.

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A linguistic analysis of Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’

April 1st, 2011 12 comments

Edit: New readers are advised to check the date of posting before taking anything too seriously…


In recent months I’ve grown bored of this whole programming thing. It’s time for me to start focussing on my true passion – linguistic analysis of popular music.

I was first introduced to this fascinating subject by my university lecturer Allan Moore, whose insights into the hidden depths of popular songs were quite enlightening.

My first post on this new subject will be an analysis of Rebecca Black’s latest hit, ‘Friday’.

‘Friday’, or, Roads to Freedom

Rebecca Black, or, the protagonist

‘Friday’ starts with what is ostensibly a description of Black’s morning routine. Obviously, there is much more to the lyrics than what is visible on the surface. The first question we must ask ourselves is whether the protagonist of the song is Black herself, or a persona created purely for the purposes of the song. The ‘truth’ is not important – only our perception counts, so I won’t attempt to answer this question.

The protagonist wakes up at 7 a.m. Is that normal for the youth of America? It’s hard to say, but it is obscenely early, and it looks like Black is highlighting the plight of school children across the United States, under this oppressive regime.

‘Gotta be fresh’: what does this mean? ‘Fresh’ in the sense of clean or awake, or ‘fresh’ in the more hip-hop sense of the word? The use of such an ambiguous word at the start of this song sets the tone for the rest of it.

The protagonist goes to the bus stop, but then sees her friends. We assume that she was planning to take the bus, but was this just a ruse? Is the ‘bus stop’ a metaphor for meeting friends? Here comes the first dilemma of the day – should she sit in the front or the back? Clearly this is a metaphor for the classroom – should she sit at the front of the class or the back? We all know the ramifications of these alternative positions. In a normal classroom there is always the option of the middle-ground, but in a car this is reduced to the stark choice of front or back. Look a bit further, and you’ll find an oddity. Black doesn’t ask ‘which seat should I take’, but rather ‘which seat can I take’. It turns out there is no choice involved here – the protagonist is at the will of the fates (much like her school life).

We then get to the crux of the song – the evocation of ‘Fridayness’. Just like the Crunchie bar is designed to evoke ‘that Friday feeling’, ‘Friday’ is all about the truth and beauty of Friday. To really get the point across, Black repeats the word ‘Friday’ multiple times in the chorus. She also highlights the ambiguity of this strange day of the week. Is it the weekend? Or the precursor to the weekend? With the line ‘Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend’ it’s hard to tell.

Now it’s 7:45. A.m or p.m? Who can tell? Have 12 hours passed already, or is this still the morning? I think what is happening here is some kind of quantum superposition of the two states – the actual time doesn’t matter as much as the day. We are reminded slightly of the post-modernist masterpiece ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’, where school time and play time merge into a state of general ‘beingness’.

‘Cruisin’ so fast, I want time to fly’: we have now moved from quantum physics to general relativity. By including these references so close to each other, Black is almost mocking the current lack of a unified theory of Physics. This is followed by more Physics/Buddhist thought: ‘I got this, you got this’. We don’t know what ‘this’ is, but the fact that Black and her friend both have it at the same time tells us a lot about her holistic view of the world.

Skip forward a bit, and we get to the most genius part of the song, repeated here:

Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
Today i-is Friday, Friday
We-we-we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today
Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes afterwards
I don’t want this weekend to end

Black is truly putting the day of Friday in its context – after Thursday, before Saturday, and two days before Sunday. The lyrics here are split – we hear about Thursday and Friday, then a break, and then Saturday and Sunday. So Friday belongs with Thursday, and Saturday with Sunday. The past is the present, the future the future. This is the kind of depth that is all-too lacking in most modern pop music.

We now move to the secondary protagonist of the song, who I believe to be Black’s alter ego. This character is driving, thus removing the dilemma of front seat/back seat (there can be only one driver’s seat). Then on to ‘It’s Friday, it’s a weekend’, which contrasts with the other lyric ‘Lookin’ forward to the weekend’ – setting up a conceptual dissonance that is never quite resolved.

Conclusion, or, why does my heart feel so bad?

We have only scratched the surface of ‘Friday’ in this analysis, but I hope I’ve given you an idea of the depth of Black’s music. It’s all too easy to see this piece as just another Bieberfied tween pop song with no artistic merit, but as you will now see, this could not be further from the truth. So, go forth and enjoy this beautiful Friday!

2011

January 5th, 2011 28 comments

Ok, I’m going to write one of those self-indulgent “what am I going to do with the next year?” posts. If you don’t like the sound of that then I won’t be offended.

I’m working full-time for a publishing project management company based in Stroud, which is where I’ve been since I graduated in 2007. It was never my plan to stay there forever, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead. Then I discovered programming, and found that not only did I really enjoy it, but I was actually quite good at it. I agreed with my employer that I would work until the end of 2011, and from that point on I would become a professional software developer/web developer/programmer/whatever.

So, here I am at the beginning of 2011, and I’ve got exactly a year to establish myself as someone who knows what they’re doing and people will pay to code stuff. I don’t currently know whether I want to be freelance or employed – I’ll see how it goes. There are certain things I want to achieve this year, and I’m hoping putting them in writing will help focus my mind.

Finish SICP

I’ve been trying to read Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs for over a year, but other things have always come up to get in the way. This year I’d really like to finish it. I don’t have a computer science background, and I don’t want to be at a disadvantage to those who do, so this is my first step towards that goal. It won’t make me a computer scientist, but it will help me to understand things at a deeper level.

Get a decent online portfolio

I’d like to create a solid portfolio to show to potential clients/employers. That includes websites/apps/games, screenshots and downloads of desktop applications, and a lot of decent (and forked) Github projects.

Keep blogging

I started this blog a year ago. My first post with any significant views was in August, and since then I’ve had a fairly steady trickle of visitors with the odd spike when Reddit likes my posts. I want to get into a regular posting schedule, so that’s another aim. I’d really like to get to the stage where I have some posts saved up ready for future posting, but we’ll see.

Get some more freelance work

I was really lucky to pick up a bit of freelance work through Twitter towards the end of 2010 which slots well into my free time, pays well, and working on what could turn out to be a fairly significant project (the NDA means I can’t go further :S). I’d like some more of that for a range of clients so I have some security for 2012. As my spare time is the only time I have for learning new things and doing freelance work, I need to find a sensible balance between the two.

Do something good in node.js

I’m very excited by node.js. I haven’t done anything with it yet, but I really enjoy working in JavaScript, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about node. I’d like to make some node apps – hopefully enough to get to a position where people will actually pay me to do it.

Learn a functional language

At the moment I’m thinking Haskell, but I’d like to give Erlang a go as well. I want to do both, and more, but I’m very aware that a year is actually quite a short time, and I need to focus. So I’ll pick one and learn it, and see where that takes me.

Stack Overflow

I think a good Stack Overflow reputation is a useful string to the bow. At one point I wanted to be on the front page of Stack Overflow users, but the amount of rep needed per day just to stand still at that level is ridiculous. I’m currently on the 16th page, and I think I’d like to get to somewhere in the top 10 pages. I think any higher than that just takes too much time to maintain (and I’ve got other things I need to spend my time on – see above).

Nick Morgan, not just Skilldrick

I’ve been known online as Skilldrick for over a decade. For a long time I didn’t want to make it easy for people to associate my online identity with my real-life identity – the web was a lot more anonymous back then. Now I’d like potential employers to be able to find me online by my name, not my handle. Unfortunately there isn’t any mention of me on Google for pages and pages. So I’d like to get my real name out there a bit more.

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