Seeing an outline font recently reminded me of my first business cards, on which I was president of a not-quite fictitious company called Phlogiston Software. At the time (early 80s) I was freelancing and writing educational software on Apple IIs. My experience in the PLATO project had taught me a lot about the minimum requirements for educational software. Most microcomputer software at the time violated all these tenets — for example, it let users get stuck with no way to retreat or move on, providing neither hints nor help nor a way to retreat to a table of contents. My basic goal was to produce software that established a baseline for usability and educational utility. (The end product, co-authored with the late Stan Smith, was called “Introduction to General Chemistry”, published by a company initially called COMPress and later Falcon Software. It ended up doing significantly better than setting a baseline, winning one of the first EDUCOM / ENCRIPTAL Higher Education Software Awards.)
I invented Phlogiston Software when I discovered that nobody in the Bay Area, where I was living, would give me the time of day if I tried to explain that I was freelancing, but my background was… On the other hand, “This is Ruth Chabay from Phlogiston Software” was a magical phrase that opened doors and provided invitations to talk to AI researchers, participate in university seminar series, and embark on new projects. I filed for a fictitious business name, so the “company” was actually legit, but I remained bemused by the power of a corporate name.
One of my favorite incidents was an encounter with a well-known science educator at a conference. Peering at my nametag, he said “Oh yes, of course, that’s where you are.” I managed to keep a straight face, despite having made up the name only the previous day.
I still keep a few of the business cards, to remind me how much perceived status plays a role in success, not just in business, but in higher education and the scientific research community. Getting a chance to tell your story matters.