We have a fun one for you—the inaugural interview of our new Meet the Team series of employee profiles.
Meet the Team is an opportunity for our users and partners to get to know us a little better.
As a remote company with employees around the world—from the U.S. to Slovenia to Spain to New Zealand—it’s also an opportunity for our team to get to know each other a little better (especially with current travel restrictions).
Today, we’re introducing Erik Westra, technical architect at GlobaliD, head of GlobaliD Labs, and avid cyclist.
Not only is Erik working on a ton of super cool projects here at GlobaliD, he also has a unique perspective given his decades-long relationship with our co-founder and CEO Greg Kidd, which, as you’d expect, involves plenty of crazy adventures.
During our chat, Erik covered a range of topics:
- How GlobaliD Labs came to be
- Some of the cool projects Labs is working on right now
- How Erik met Greg back in the ’80s (spoiler alert: payments data, an insane bike ride, and hypothermia)
- Their first company together (which went public on the NASDAQ and had over 6000 employees)
- How a young Jack Dorsey hacked into their systems
- The time Erik saved both their lives (and the essence of their relationship)
- Standing up for their values and being sued for $13 trillion
- Coming full circle and the birth of GlobaliD (and Groups!)
Who are you and what do you do at GlobaliD?
My name’s Erik! I’m head of GlobaliD Labs, which is responsible for the experimental aspects of what we’re trying to build. My job involves designing systems, writing proof of concepts, and managing the Labs team. We’re always trying to push the envelope.
GlobaliD Labs exists because the current way we build our system has to be relatively structured to ensure quality code and security — everything needs to work and run smoothly. Like other startups, we employ agile frameworks for development, but we need to balance that with long term planning.
That has huge benefits for the quality of our core product, but sometimes this structured approach can crowd out more experimental ideas.
I like to call myself the unofficial champion of GlobaliD Groups. It’s a feature that’s been central to our long term vision from day one, but for one reason or another, we weren’t able to get it into a production environment. Something else always required higher priority when it came to the core business.
Even though Groups had a long term upside for us — especially when it came to our vision and our mission — we never had time to develop it.
That’s when we decided to spin it off and create GlobaliD Labs, which helps bring balance between our short term development needs with our long term aspirations. Now, we have a separate team dedicated to Groups that’s also exploring other cool ideas.
What kind of cool ideas?
We believe that Groups should be able to issue credentials to people. You might get a license to ride a particular mountain bike trail — one of Greg’s favorite things, being a mountain biker. You might get a ticket to a Zoom concert. Or you might get a credential for receiving a vaccine.
It’s an open platform so people can come up with their own ideas on how to use it. You could even set up a group and run your business through it — connecting directly with employees and customers, matching up seekers and providers of goods and services, managing bookings, sending and receiving payments, and of course marketing and promotions — all done through the GlobaliD platform.
Another project we’ve been investing time into is email — what I call the email anonymizer, an idea I find quite cool.
One of the problems today is that whenever you sign up for anything online, you need to provide your email. Do this enough times and your inbox is now full of spam. You’ve essentially lost control of your email address. With the email anonymizer, you can set up a one-time address. That way, you never reveal your private email. You stay in control of your email.
Let’s say you want to sign up for Amazon and they ask for your email. Now, you can create an anonymous address just for Amazon. If you choose to receive those messages, emails sent by Amazon will go to your private address. If you decide that you don’t want to deal with Amazon anymore, you can simply disable the address. Privacy is a fundamental tenet of our company, and this is another way of keeping your identity private.
It’s little things like this that I find quite cool. If both sides are using the anonymizer, you can actually have both parties communicate back and forth without either party knowing the other’s real address.
That’s just one of the things we’re working on right now. At Labs, we go in a lot of odd directions; there’s a lot of exploration. For every idea that does work out, there will be plenty that fall flat. Maybe they don’t work technically or there’s no business need for it. We’ll learn from those lessons. We’re the mad scientists at GlobaliD.
How did you end up in this role?
I met Greg [GlobaliD co-founder and CEO] around 1980 when I was still a young man — a very, very long time ago. I was studying computer science and psychology at university in New Zealand. I was really into human-computer interaction.
Greg came to New Zealand to restructure the banking industry. I was taking a part-time course in the evenings at the polytechnic at the time and word came around that people were looking for students to help with data analysis as a part-time job. I put my hand up.
It was a company called Booz Allen & Hamilton — where Greg was working at the time. They were management consultants working with Data Bank of New Zealand, a centralized check processing company, to help make their operations more efficient. My job was to analyze data using Excel macros, and the results would be displayed in various charts. Excel charts didn’t look professional enough for the presentations they wanted, so we had to draw them by hand in MacDraw.
One day, I was at my desk, busily drawing one of these charts when Greg walks by and notices my bike pump sticking out of my bag.
“Oh, you ride a bike?” he asked. It was more of a statement, really. “We’ll go for a ride this weekend. I’ll pick you up.”
Or so I thought. I figured it would probably be a three or four hour ride. After all, all we had were our road bikes — real, old-school technology. No problem.
But then Greg got this idea. “Oh, look. There’s this route — it goes over this hill and goes all the way out to the coast. This looks pretty cool. We’ll go that way.”
And so off we go.
That hill ended up being a rather large mountain — mostly rock with severe slopes. You can imagine us going up and down, up and down on these narrow-tired road bikes with our big clunky shoes with cleats on the bottom. I suffered something like six flats going over that mountain range.
Oh yeah, it was mid winter.
By the time we got to the other side of the coastline, it was dusk, and we still had another 70 kilometers to ride back to the car — the only silver lining being that it was on the road again.
But it was dark, and I was getting really cold. At one point, I became hypothermic and I had to lie in a ditch by the side of the road while Greg rode back himself to get the car.
In all, it was a 13-hour bike ride. It was absolutely insane.
That’s how we met each other for the first time.
We’ve been doing crazy things together ever since.
On the beginning of a lifelong partnership
Around 1986, Greg called me. “Hey, can you come meet me? I want you to see something.”
I met him at this really old, dingy building in downtown Wellington, New Zealand. People are running in and out with their bicycles. What are these guys doing, I’m wondering to myself.
Apparently, it was an urgent messenger delivery company. The guys running around with bikes were delivering parcels.
“Come look at this,” Greg said. We went up the stairs. “Open this door — that’s where we’re going. But be careful. If the wind blows, we’re in real trouble.”
We sneak in and shut the door behind us. On two wooden supports is this door covered with hundreds of bits of paper.
That’s how they kept track of all the parcels.
Their service could guarantee delivery within 15 minutes from the time of your call — super efficient. For a while, we just stood there and watched it work.
Then Greg looked over at me. “Can you build a computer program that does that?”
That was our first business together. It took us about eight years to build it. But it was very successful. Eventually, it made it to the U.S., and we actually wound up being listed on the NASDAQ. We had about 6,000 employees at one stage. The company was called DMS corporation — Dispatch Management Services.
We were really lucky. It was our first try at building something together and it succeeded.
On Jack Dorsey hacking into their system
We ultimately left DMS and explored various other ventures together. I want to tell you about one because it’s kind of interesting.
We were building a system for last-mile ecommerce delivery. You could order online, and someone would pick it up from the depot and bring it to you within an hour. We needed an admin interface that had to be access-controlled. “Let’s do something quick! Just hardwire it into the code,” Greg said — which was typical for him at the time. Everything was about speed and minimum viable products. So that’s what we did.
Of course, someone broke in and sent Greg a message: “Your security sucks.”
That someone was Jack Dorsey.
Greg decided to hire him and we worked together for a while before he went off and founded Twitter.
It was my fault that Jack broke in. In my defense, it’s what Greg told me to do. We’ve taken our security a bit more seriously since then 🙂
I certainly hope so! What’s it like working with Greg?
That’s been the essence of our relationship.
Greg lived in New Zealand for about six years — if I remember correctly.
“We should go for a hike in the mountains,” he said one day.
So off we went.
Along the way, we reached the Broken Axe Pinnacles. The name speaks for itself — it’s pretty insane, this narrow little ledge with maybe a thousand-foot drop on either side plus strong winds. We were creeping along this sliver of a ledge when suddenly it started sloping downhill, steeper and steeper.
“Come on, we gotta get down there!” Greg said.
“Hang on a minute, Greg. Let’s just wait and check.”
We stopped for a moment to check the compass and the map. Sure enough, that path dropped off into a cliff. Had we kept going, we wouldn’t have been able to get back up. We could have died up there.
That’s one way to view our working relationship — we’ve been working as a team for many years. There’s always a lot of back and forth. Greg would come up with all these mad ideas, and I’d figure out how to make them work.
It’s been like that ever since we met.
Public information should be free
We’ve had a number of crazy adventures together. Another one of the companies we worked on, 3Taps, was sued by Craigslist for the nice sum of $13 trillion — an insane, arbitrary number.
[3Taps was an exchange company dedicated to keeping public facts publicly accessible — which included Craigslist listings.]
Greg was steadfast — he believed that public information should be free. If the information is freely available, it should be available to everybody. You can’t make it available to some people and not to others.
[Greg was an executive producer of and contributor to the Aaron Schwartz documentary — The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.]
He fought the case, which went on for several years. It got pretty ugly and I wondered if we’d lose everything. Eventually, they reached a settlement, which Greg saw as a victory. He agreed to pay out $1 million — except to the charity of his choice, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
After that saga, we were in a little bit of a lull.
Then out of the blue, Greg invited me to join him in Ljubljana, Slovenia. You can guess where this is going.
The early days of GlobaliD
This was the early days of GlobaliD — the company had only been up and running for a couple of months.
We were there for two weeks, discussing the possibilities of a self-sovereign identity platform complemented with messaging and a wallet.
We came up with this notion of Groups. Having your digital identity is great. Here’s my phone, my wallet — my identity. I’m an individual. I can do what I need to do. But it’s when you have collections of people working together — there’s an emergent quality that’s greater than the sum of our parts.
That’s where Groups comes into play. It’s this notion that you can do a lot more with people together than with people individually.
I wrote a bunch of white papers outlining how Groups should work, but it took another three years to get the foundation in place. This is where GlobaliD Labs came in.
I’m going to paraphrase Greg here, but once you put together the three different pieces, identity, messaging, and money — and now with Groups — magic happens.
Most people in our company are relatively young. Greg and I — we’re not spring chickens anymore. We’ve worked on a number of projects over the years. With GlobaliD, we just thought, “Let’s do this.” It’s our last big chance to do something amazing.
This isn’t a job. This is a mission. We are absolutely one thousand percent dedicated to making this succeed.