We’re excited to launch this new technology blog, where our developers have the opportunity to geek out on all things Postgres, Git, Open Source, MongoDB and more. Over the coming months, we’re giving you an inside look at the challenging work our tech team is doing to re-architect and improve the Emma application and to enhance the experience for our customers. In this interview, you’ll get to know three of our main tech blog contributors, Alex Ezell, Selena Deckelmann and Kevin McConnell.
What’s your role at Emma, and can you give our readers an idea of the main project(s) you’re working on?
Alex: I’m the Application Development Lead, which means I primarily focus on the development efforts that affect the application users see. My team integrates new features and design changes to the existing app using Python, Django, jQuery, and of course whatever HTML and CSS is necessary. Right now, the team is working to do away with some legacy parts of our app written in PHP, while I’m laying the groundwork for a from-the-ground-up overhaul of the app.
Kevin: I’m the Director of Engineering, which essentially means I’m overseeing our development, systems and QA teams, doing my best to help everyone work toward the same goals, and at the same time working with Marc Sexton, our Director of Product Management, to understand what we want to build and how we should be building it.
Selena: I’m a database analyst here, and I work primarily with the other developers on making the databases more responsive and friendly. I also work quite a bit with our sysadmins on monitoring, reliability and consistency in our environment. Lately, I’ve been helping with recruiting and getting Emma folks introduced to the kick-ass open source community in Portland.
Alex, you used to teach high school English. And, Kevin, I know you came to Portland via Houston via Scotland. I’d love to hear a bit about your nontraditional backgrounds and what brought you to Emma.
Alex: I started in software development out of frustration with the tools I was forced to use to publish my work at a sports publishing company. We couldn’t afford better tools, so I just wrote them. That was 12 years ago. In the interim between then and Emma, I spent some time teaching high school English and used a lot of code and databases in my classroom despite the fact that freshman English doesn’t really lend itself to technical intrusion. As for Emma, I came to Nashville for a failed start-up, but had met some folks connected to Emma, and so when I found myself with a lot of free time, I joined the team. The entire technology team was four people then. I like to think that being completely self-taught and coming from a mindset that’s more concerned with metaphor and symbolism gives me a valuable perspective on our entire enterprise here. That said, it’s been great to work with folks who come from more traditional backgrounds in computer science because the combination of that depth of knowledge and my sometimes lateral approach seems fruitful.
Makes sense. Selena or Kevin, any thoughts on finding your tech groove? Nontraditional versus traditional path, even though those distinctions are more fluid probably than they used to be?
Kevin: I started programming as a kid. I was just very drawn to it for some reason (to the point that I started trying to teach myself programming on paper before we got a computer at home; I know, I’m a nerd). I spent a few years just teaching myself, and then after a brief and pointless stint at playing in a band after high school, I predictably went to college to study it properly.
Alex: Kevin, what was so intriguing that you’d even do it on paper? Was it the problem-solving or something else?
Kevin: The intriguing part was just figuring out how to make a computer do things. I think sometimes if people aren’t telling you how to do something, then there’s a little more mystery to it. Trying to figure out how to repeat things when you’ve never been shown loops before, that sort of thing. Joining Emma was actually the first time I’d actively sought out a job that I wanted to do, though. Prior to that I’d worked at places where opportunities just sprang up, through people I knew and such, and that’s what took me from Edinburgh, to London for a couple of years, and then Houston. I found myself at a point where I wanted to live somewhere else and find a company I could really identify with, and that was Portland and Emma.
Selena: I started out as a Chemistry major, and mostly had only played Mad Libs and Dig Dug on an Apple IIe before college. At first, I tried to rebel in college by skipping labs, taking music classes and playing the violin all the time. But then I got my first shell account, which led to system administration, a job at a help desk, and ultimately, to switching my major to computer science. Mostly what got me into all that were the people — I loved learning about all the drama on the linux kernel mailing list and reading horrible stories from alt.sysadmin.recovery. I loved the jargon and the crazy pranks people played on each other. My boss sent me to my first nerdy conference. I was hooked.
What kinds of things get you excited about Emma’s direction and restructuring? What kinds of challenges are you encountering?
Alex: I’m excited about being able to explore new technologies as part of our platform project. Perhaps because of my background, I’ve always gotten a lot of pleasure out of figuring out the puzzle of how disparate technologies might fit together to achieve something worthwhile. I’m happy that we have the freedom and time to rethink everything that we’re doing and possibly use some great new technologies that have come up just in the past year or two like Node.js, document-oriented databases and new ways of working.
Kevin: One of the things that excites me about Emma’s direction is that there are still a lot of new areas we’d like to explore with the product, and we’re in the lucky position that we have enough ongoing success to support that kind of experimentation.
Alex: For me, the biggest challenge thus far has been trying to keep up the high standards we have for our existing app while giving attention to the shiny new thing that keeps catching my eye. I suspect that’s true about technology in general and most folks involved in it. It’s part and parcel of what we do.
Kevin: I also like the challenge of integrating new developments in a reasonably seamless way. We’re looking these days at some significant re-architecture projects, and working out how to incorporate changes to system structure, database schemas, technology platforms and so on into a running application can present some fun challenges.
Selena: I’m mostly interested in the re-architecture where it involves sending Alex MongoDB mugs that we drill holes into. (Writer’s note: ba dum dum.)
Alex: Another challenge for me is just dealing with a growing team. I have no management experience so getting six (and growing) folks working together well has its own challenges.
Kevin: Luckily you do very well at it though, Alex.
Selena, you contribute a dizzying amount to the tech community in Portland. How do you balance your Emma work with projects outside of work? Is there much overlap? Do you ever sleep?
Selena: Haha! I do tend to get up earlier than most of the people I work with, and I don’t sleep a whole lot. My husband is a teacher, so I get up at 5 a.m. most mornings with him. A lot of the open source work that I do is related to Emma’s application re-architecture — whether that’s meeting people who can help us or finding out about tools we can use. And then the other community work, like developing the pdx11.org site, is just a great thing for Emma to support and a way for us to be a good citizen.
Okay, let’s take a detour for a moment. What kinds of things do you do when you’re not engineering?
Alex: I’m a voracious reader, albeit slow. The Kindle is new to me and I’m happy with it, but I miss my stack of books sometimes. Aside from that, I spend the weekends at the playground with my son and harbor the idea that I might write jokes and tell them to people some day.
What’s on your Kindle right now?
Alex: I’m reading Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem right now and just finished How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.
Selena: I’ve been reading a book about clouds. But the fluffy kind, not the computery-network kind.
Kevin: On my Kindle I’m currently reading a book called How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Read into that what you will.
Where can you find the best fried chicken in Nashville? Also, whose got your vote in the much contested Hot Chicken debate?
Alex: Prince’s is definitely tops, but I’m more of a BBQ person than Hot Chicken. On barbecue in Nashville: read more here.
If you could invite any three people — living or dead — for a beer at Hopworks, who would you take?
Selena: Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo, to demonstrate her “bitch-wings” and swap stories with. Paul Fenwick, perl hacker and adventurer, for his crazy stories, enthusiasm and awesome conversation. And Marina Tsvetaeva, Russian poet, for her wit and intelligence.
Kevin: I’d like to have a beer with Alan Turing. That’s a terribly cliched thing to say, as a programmer, but I just bet it would be fascinating. I’d also like him to tell me how to pronounce ENTSCHEIDUNGSPROBLEM.
Favorite geeky movie?
Alex: I love Blade Runner. The movie is nearly 30 years old and still presents a more realistic vision of our possible future than any other science fiction movie I’ve seen. I also appreciate that it deftly combines some tropes of a genre film with a real visual poetry that transcends the cops and robots story line.
Selena: There’s a BBC series called Wire in the Blood I’ve been watching lately. It’s like CSI, but nerdier. For a geeky movie though, I can’t really remember the details of most movies, but Aliens is probably my favorite, both for the suspense and the unintentionally hilarious parts. “GAME OVER, MAN. GAME OVER.”
Kevin: I’m not sure if a TV series counts instead, but a recent favorite of mine is the show The IT Crowd. There are a lot of great geek-related references in there, but I think it’s also pretty hilarious for anyone, nerd or otherwise.
Can you give us a sneak peek at the kinds of blog posts we can anticipate on Emma Tech this year?
Kevin: I have a soft spot for all things related to automation, deployment and testing, so I’m hoping to write some posts about some of the more interesting things we’re doing on that front. My first post will be about using a Git hook to check for formatting errors when committing code changes, which is a nod in that direction.
Selena: I’m going to write about maintenance windows first, and how to make them not suck. I read quite a bit of tech news and commentary, so I’ll be passing on some of what I read with some commentary from our team. There’s also quite a bit of innovation and drama in open source database technology and community, so I hope to talk a bit about that as well.
Alex: Some of the first posts I’ve written delve into the details of our rewriting our PHP app in Python. (See Alex’s posts here and here.) When that series is done, I plan to write a bit about the explorations I’ve been doing with Flask and MongoDB.
We’re looking to hire quite a few developers at Emma this year. What would you like to tell potential candidates about working at Emma? What kind of people should apply?
Alex: My favorite thing about working in technology at Emma is the ownership of the application that each of us has. Every developer is making visible and concrete impact on the application every day, and it’s nice to see your contributions being released on a weekly basis. The kind of folks that seem to be most successful as developers at Emma are those people who can take a desired functionality and wrestle with it from start to finish until it melds seamlessly with the rest of the app. We have a unique user base with particular strengths and weaknesses, so it’s great when a developer can offer solutions that take that into account.
Kevin: I think we have quite a few challenging projects on the horizon, and so we’re looking for people who like solving difficult problems. That might sound strange to say — “Come work for us! It’ll be really hard!” — but for a lot of developers I know, that’s a lot more appealing than the prospect of doing the same thing day in, day out. We also have a product that a lot of folks love, and so it can be really satisfying to work on that and get feedback from happy customers.
Selena: Summing it up quickly is pretty hard for me when I talk with people. I usually ask folks about themselves, and then start a conversation about the types of things that interest them. And the talking typically meanders around code, sharing, beer, bikes, fun, Portland, creativity and living well. There’s a lot of room to grow here, and opportunities for people to “choose their own adventure,” while at the same time working to make Emma’s products better and contribute to the company’s culture. But if I were to sum up, I seek out people who are curious, enjoy a prankish sense of humor and put a priority on human connection in life and work.
Thanks, Alex, Kevin and Selena, for taking the time for this interview!
If you’ve got a hankering for a particularly geeky blog topic, let us know in the comments below.