The Spiderman Effect

A cosplay portrait of someone dressed as Spiderman.
Photo by Hector Reyes on Unsplash

I have been a software developer, a coder, for well over twenty years.  The earliest days of my tinkering began at home, before my tween years, trying to come to terms with the dialect of BASIC that was available to me on my Commodore Vic20.  I have to be honest a lot of what I learned was patience, and not a lot more than that to be sure, but as I got a little older I managed to learn BBC Basic at boarding school via an emulator on the Research Machines Nimbus PCs in the newly commissioned Computer Lab.

University did not really teach me much about programming, after all I was there to read English and American Literature, but I did learn how to make a UNIX login account work for me, email and finger, talk and FTP were among my new discoveries and I learned to use Vi before Vi(m) was ever thought of.

By the time I went out into the job market I was rudderless.  My degree had not gone according to plan and I had fallen out of love with academia to the point where my plans on leaving school were a distant and painful memory.  I went into a corporate sales track with a publishing company and for about six years I was a salesman by trade...

Towards the end of my sales career I started to engage in self-study on the subjects of the Web, HTML and JavaScript, and before I knew it I had quit my soul destroying sales career to join a six month course in which I would learn to program in PHP and ASP, as well as pursuing further accomplishments with HTML, CSS and JavaScript and thus I was reborn from this pupae of learning and doing into the life of a software engineer.

As I look back now, over twenty years down the road, I realise that my professional success (such as it is) has been predicated on an acceptance of constant learning - I am always trying to find out about and use new technologies.  I have learned and used several other languages, though I now favour Clojure above all others, and I have embraced the Cloud and PaaS and Docker and K8s and I know that until I set down my laptop I will carry on in that regard.

The fulfillment I have found in my work, is not entirely encompassed by the idea of constant learning.  Something else has driven my approach to work, well two things if I am honest.  The first is obvious, but not necessarily true for everyone; in my case I have never let the money be my guiding star.  Sure, I have always made sure that I have earned enough in return for my labour to be able to meet my commitments and my responsibilities, but I am someone for whom "enough" really is enough.  The much more important truth is that I have pursued roles and tried to work for organisations and companies that are trying to be agents of change and paragons of good in the working world.

The thread that weaves itself through the entirety of the Spiderman canon is the axiom handed to Peter Parker by, in most cases*, his Uncle Ben;

"With great power, comes great responsibility."

and as a lifelong fan of the friendly neighbourhood wall crawler I found myself referring to this core value in an early company all hands at my last job(**).  We were talking in a circle about the reasons why we were there, what had drawn us to the work and what had brought us together to attack the challenges that were ahead of us and when it came to my turn I just blurted it out;

"It's the Spiderman thing, right?"

Those of us who are lucky enough to spend our working lives gaining skills that seem autonomic to ourselves, but that in truth are rare and powerful in the eyes of so many others, can all see the way that the World reaches out to us for our contributions.  We can chase the Almighty Dollar, sell our time and labour and skill to the highest bidder regardless of their motivations, or we can acknowledge that the special thing that we can offer ought to be harnessed and aimed at something a little more positive than simply making a few people richer.

I am not suggesting that we all have to spend our entire careers working for charities or Benefits Corporations(***), but knowing that you can look yourself in the eye and say "I am doing something worthwhile", that's the X-Factor which keeps people getting up in the morning.  It is staggeringly difficult to summon up any enthusiasm at all for another day of work when you know, in your bones, that the people you are working for are not balancing their corporate and fiduciary duties with a morality and a sense of decency.  I know, I have been there - not all my working experiences have been as blessed as the ones that stand out.

I consider myself very, very lucky to have had a few really great experiences, ranging from the wildly optimistic and innovative, to public service, to truly mission driven, and in the last five years in particular, working at Cervest from almost its inception to a month shy of my own five year anniversary, I have known how powerful it can be to be a part of something that can make you feel proud as well as successful.

I am on the edge of a new professional challenge; in a few days' time I will start a new role, working at, a company that I already have a sense has a powerful culture of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, that has a mission of its own to solve big problems in a fast-moving and pivotal space for so many businesses that are adapting to the twenty-first century, either as new start-ups or existing giants needing to harness the power of their data just the same.  I am truly excited to bring my technical expertise, my experience and my other insights to bear, to help raise the bar across the business and play my part in making an even greater success of a company already doing great things within its category, be that commercially, technically, culturally within the business, or ideally on all these fronts at once.

So, what does it mean to weigh one's work-life in the balance of Peter Parker's north star?  You will know it when you see it, but from one professional geek to all of you others (be you geeks or not), if you can be honest with yourselves and know that your special powers, your great power to shape and move the World with our incredible influence is being put to good use, then you have won a great prize.  If you are looking at your self and wondering how your Great Power is being used to keep people down, to enrich the wealthy further without a benefit to the wider society you serve, the answer is within you - you have allowed that to be the case.  Do not despair; we have all looked around and realised that we are / were there by mistake, even if that mistake was thinking we could bear it.

Just find your place, find your moment to swing from a place of incomplete fulfillment to a place of joy, and when you see your moment take it.  Using the power of your mind, the fruit of your labour to do something that you can be proud of is possible, it truly is, and the more of us that strive for that, the greater the number of opportunities there will be for others.

In this emerging data age, in the near future where more and more of what is made and sold and profited from will be controlled (to some degree) by the Coders, join me (and many others, I am not special) in making the choice to do work that we know is good and that helps others be free.

"No. No, no, Peter, listen. You listen to me. You have a gift. You have power. And with great power…there must also come great responsibility."

I hope that Stan would not mind me saying "Excelsior!" to that; I hope y'all will allow me to get away with equating cutting code and web slinging.

(* In the most recent MCU Spiderman movie "No Way Home" the most recent Peter Parker hears this important axiom not from his Uncle Ben, who does not even exist in his reality, but from his beloved Aunt May, who reiterates this to him even in her dying moments.  May has always been a pillar of the Spiderman myth; giving her this powerful moment to build that foundation in Peter Parker is no small thing, and represents the people behind the movie using their great power to give power and importance to a woman that perhaps she should always have had.

** I was recently reminded of this moment by a (former) colleague as I was wrapping up and handing over, and it's pretty much emblematic of how I felt and still feel about Cervest.  I am sad to be leaving my friends and co-workers and the Cervest mission behind, but all things have a season and it is time for me to do something new.  Life is change, to think otherwise is to prepare oneself only for heartbreak in the end, better to embrace it and learn, grow and thrive in the journey.

*** If you don't know what a Benefits Corporation is, I strongly recommend that you look into it, here.  It is not the be-all and end-all of Corporate governance, but it's a pretty good yard stick and having contributed to a company's journey to accreditation there is a lot in there to be striven for.)

Photo by Hector Reyes on Unsplash