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Architecture Journal Profile: Kim Cameron

The Architecture Journal

For this issue of The Architecture Journal on Identity and Access, we interviewed Kim Cameron, a Microsoft Architect whose thoughts on this area are the basis of one of the latest Microsoft initiatives in Identity Architecture: Windows Cardspace.

DD: Hello, Kim. Tell us who are you and what you do.

KC: I am Kim Cameron and I work as the Architect of identity at Microsoft. What I do is try and figure out what kind of problems can be solved with Identity and then how we can build the systems that respond to those problems. It’s a very-wide ranging type of work where we have to think about all of the different experiences in the complete realm of computing and how they relate to Identity.

DD: Many of our readers know you from the paper on the Laws of Identity you published some years ago. [A condensed list of Kim’s seven laws of identity appears in Fernando Gebara Filho’s article.] Can you tell us how you went from Kim Cameron the individual to Kim Cameron the Identity Architect?

KC: Well, it took a long time. In the beginning, I worked on e-mail and it became clear after a certain amount of time that, this is back in the 1980s, the problem of getting e-mail from one person to another person wasn’t really the problem of transporting a message; it was as much a problem of finding out the name or address of the person you were sending it to. In terms of routing things, it was a matter of how to find out where to route this, and so on. So it turned out the real problem with e-mail was more of a directory problem than an e-mail problem, and I started to become interested in directories. Once we started working with directories, it became clear that every little application had its own directory.

So, directories through their multiplicity were as much of a problem as a solution. I started to see we had to have a new way of looking at directories, which I called Meta Directory, to unify the different directories at a logical level. And you know, it’s a kind of a daunting problem. I started falling into this problem and no one else was looking at it, and that caused me to fall further and further. Basically, the problem hypnotized me and pulled me into being an architect.

This was long before I came to Microsoft. One of the reasons I came to Microsoft was because this is one of those huge infrastructure problems. This isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved by one or two people. It can’t even be solved by one or two companies. It has to be solved across the whole industry and you need to have a place to work where you can pull people together right across the industry. That was one reason why I was so interested in Microsoft.

DD: What advice would you share to those who want to be recognized for their abilities as an architect?

KC: I would have two pieces of advice. One is to fully explore a problem in a way that is extremely self-critical, so that you are willing to expose everything you think to a complete rethink all the time, and to make sure that you are aware of all the conflicting views and embrace those and embrace the knowledge in those views. In other words, be thoroughly scientific and nonemotional. Some people get on a kind of a hobby horse and then something else comes along that threatens their vision and there is a tendency for people to just cover their eyes. Don’t cover your eyes; embrace the ideas, because you have to really solve the problem. That is how you build your reputation—by solving the problem.

The other thing, which took me a lot longer to figure out, is that you have to really explain the story. The reason people do the wrong thing isn’t because they are evil or stupid or something, it’s because the story you know—the technology and science of it—hasn’t been explained properly. So, instead of arguing about the issues, you need to find ways to lay down the objective characteristics, and that’s what the laws of identity represent. It really wasn’t a change in my way of thinking, but a change in my ability to express my thinking.

DD: The architect role requires understanding current and future technical trends. How do you stay up-to-date?

KC: Well, one of the things I do is, I blog. When you talk about blogging, people often say, “I would like to blog, but I don’t have time and besides no one would read it.” In fact, when I started my blog, I definitely thought that no one would read it, but at a certain point, I realized it didn’t matter.

What was useful was expressing my ideas. Once they go into the Internet contraption, they are there forever, so I had to express them in a way that wasn’t too stupid, but also face the fact that I was going to be changing my ideas and this transformation of my thinking was going to be public. That was a starting point—a transformation of my thinking as a public thing, not a private thing. Then, other people who are interested in these issues may not sit there and read your blog on a daily basis, but every now and then they will sift through it. They’ll have reactions to it and often they will write to you. They will either write to you or about you. As I was writing about these ideas, other people would comment on them and point out, “This isn’t clear” or “This is not a good word because it implies the wrong things.” So instead of sitting in my attic and producing a paper that would be misunderstood by everybody, they actually helped me not only to improve entire points of it, but find a way to explain it. And of course, I wouldn’t have to go out and find out about conflicting ideas. People would come to me with, “Why don’t you look at this? Why don’t you think about that?” It became a tremendous point of concentration of information.

It’s paradoxical that by originating information, you actually end up consuming more information. So that’s one thing. Another thing is that being at Microsoft, we are very lucky because we get to be in conversations with many people in all different governments, industry, and the academic world. So, putting those things together, I would say to the younger architects, make sure you talk to as many people as you can. Be open; don’t avoid. I also try to read a lot.

DD: Name the most important person you have ever met in this industry. What made him/her so important?

KC: That’s a hard question. I have met a lot of very interesting and inspiring people; but I guess I’ll pick Craig Burton. Craig Burton is an analyst who used to be involved with Novell. He was very crucial to the original success of Novell’s Netware—the early version of Netware. When I met him, I had been working this Meta Directory concept and had actually started to build the Meta Directory. My company was producing this thing, but of course we couldn’t talk about it. We didn’t have any words for it, we just knew we had to solve a technical problem. Craig introduced me to this problem of communication and helped me understand that the communication process was as crucial to the technology as, say, the analytical process. For example, what is the name of something? As you try and name it, it becomes much clearer than the original intuition that you have as an architectural thinker. Initially, it seems clear enough to you, but when you go and explain to somebody else, you may have to sit there and work on it for 20 minutes to get the point across.

The aim is to make everything clear enough that you can get the point across instantly. So, it’s a matter of sharpening the concepts and of not being afraid to be sophisticated; in other words, there is no need to condescend to the audience. You can be scientific and feed as much clarity as you want. For example, we had the question of what to call this thing we had invented, and I just laughingly said, “You know, we had thought of calling it a ‘Meta Directory,’ but of course you couldn’t really call it a Meta Directory because everybody would think we are existentialists or something alien.” And Craig said “No, if you call it what it is, people will start to use those words. Call it what it is, don’t call it something else in order not to offend some people.”

DD: Is there anything you did that you’d do differently if you could turn the clock back on your career?

KC: I am not a person to think backwards that way. I guess if I had known what I know now at the beginning of my career, a lot of things I had done would have been much more successful than they were—right? When I did my original e-mail system, I couldn’t believe that I could actually withstand the competition, with others. It was only later, when I met these people, they told me that they were really worried about the technology that I had been bringing forward. In other words, I didn’t have a large enough view of what I was doing. I think that’s often the case. People look at a company like Microsoft and they say, “Well gee, if I am doing a technology and Microsoft is doing that technology—is it really worth it for me to be in the same area doing the same kind of thing?” And it is! Because it creates an ecology, and it creates room for these different products and points of view. The fact that Microsoft has a product creates the room for another product that may be specialized in some way, but that otherwise wouldn’t have any chance at all. So I can understand the synergy part of the industry. I saw it as very much “dog eat dog,” and now I am much more of a believer that “the other guy” is my best ally. Because we are both building this new world that hadn’t existed, and by having two of us build it we can do a much better job of improving our products—and we’ll actually sell a lot more of it.

DD: Do you see your ideas also being considered in other companies?

KC: Well, I don’t want to pose as the source of all thought in this area, but certainly other organizations have embraced much of my work. I’m also trying to synthesize what others are doing right. This is the idea of keeping your mind open and embracing what surrounds you. But it’s been very interesting, because the identity area is unique in some ways: Identity is most important when you are reaching across to somebody else—including a competitor.

Clearly, we can’t have a solution for the Internet that just works with Microsoft products. People live in a much bigger world and that whole world has to be aligned if technology is to be really usable. In this sense, I consider everybody else in the industry to be as much as an ally as my colleague in the next office here.

The industry is really coming together. The Information Card Foundation, for example, will have been launched by the time this interview reaches publication. So that’s all these companies who’ve come together to produce the compatible software we have, like IBM, Oracle, Sun, and even smaller companies: all kinds of people participating in this new technology.

DD: What does Kim the Architect’s future look like? What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?

KC: Well, I would like to see the deployment of this Identity Meta System. We are currently at the stage where various vendors have started to produce software, but we are not yet at the stage that people have deployed it.

I also have a project that I worked on earlier, which is a new way of conceptualizing and building directories, based on what I call “Polyarchy.” Polyarchy means that instead of having hierarchies, you can shoot it across these different dimensions. So, I am trying to evolve the nature of directories in that direction.

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This article was published in the Architecture Journal, a print and online publication produced by Microsoft. For more articles from this publication, please visit the Architecture Journal Web site.

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