Chris Kelly is a methodologist and developer working at Highgroove Studios, a development shop specializing in Ruby on Rails web applications.
A native of Atlanta, Chris’ role at Highgroove was designed with developers in mind. His job is to keep developers “happy and productive”—a task that, while not small, benefits clients and developers alike.
Read it in his own words below.
Matt: Let’s start at the beginning: how old are you?
Chris: I am 28, I think.
“28 I think”?
Last time I checked. I don’t worry too much about exactly how it is, cause it doesn’t matter too much.
So how long have you been coding?
It depends what you mean by ‘coding’. I’ve been playing with computers and trying to get them to do crazy things since middle school, probably. But as a professional, career-wise, I’ve been at Highgroove for 2 years doing Ruby on Rails related things. Before that I was at Sugar CRM doing Operations kinds of things, data-center automation and infrastructure stuff. And before that I was doing network performance things at Georgia Tech as a grad student.
What drew you to web development in the first place? And is it just web development? Did you just have a computer when you were a kid?
Didn’t really have computer stuff much as a kid. We got on that boat a little late. When I was in middle school I think. And…. learning how to do web stuff was kind of the easiest way to get started doing something with a computer.
You know, I wanted to have a page that had a list to keep track of things on it. And the way to go was to figure it out using HTTP server-side includes to start using the same bit of content on different pages, and then that turned into teaching myself some PHP. And while I’ve gone and touched a whole lot of different platforms, I really like writing stuff in C and doing low level kernel stuff.
But the web is the way to go to get what you’re building up and running quickly and to get it in front of the most number of people possible.
Do you think web development has more access to the public these days than desktop development?
Yeah definitely. I mean everything is on the web and there is very little reason to go native app. And in most cases if it’s desktop or phones it’s just everyone goes back to the web.
And even the desktop apps they’re making today are somehow connected to the web. Otherwise they’re kind of useless.
Interesting. So you’re kind of like a serial coder—you know a lot of languages. Your resume actually reads like a dictionary of acronyms.
Yeah I keep it there because it’s LOL, because it has so many things on there. And it’s not so much interesting like “Oh there’s a specific language on here,” but like “Hey guys, these language things don’t really matter that much.”
When I started at Highgroove, I’d never done anything in Ruby but I interviewed and was like, “oh I’ll go learn some Ruby this weekend,” or something, and my first week at Highgroove I was helping clients and adding value.
So I keep all those things on there to try to say that it’s not the language that matters. Once you know two of them you can do all of them.
So you honestly didn’t know any Ruby at all when you started at Highgroove (which is a Ruby shop)?
Yeah I probably had done little bits of Ruby things before, but I had never built a Rails app. Yeah. Just new to Ruby but I’d done a lot in Python and Perl and PHP … which, if you’re doing the basics is pretty similar.
So the learning curve wasn’t insurmountable.
Do you still feel like you’re learning something every day?
I’m learning something every day and if I’ve been doing Ruby for 10 years I’d still be learning something every day. There’s always little tips and tricks, especially with the Ruby on Rails community there’s so much new stuff constantly coming out. And Highgroove, we have a bunch of really really smart people with different backgrounds, so you’ll hear people having conversations about new and interesting stuff that you learn something from.
Do you think Ruby on Rails is the language of the future? Do you think people will stop using PHP in favor of Rails?
I’d say we’re not gonna be writing web apps in Rails in 10 years and to think that we are would be kind of crazy. That’s actually a quote from someone else here that’s been doing Rails for a lot longer than me.
Currently it’s the best tool and framework for the job, where the job is rapidly building and prototyping web applications. It makes developers happy, it’s a pretty easy thing to do. But someone else is going to come out with something that’s better, that is easier to rapidly prototype web applications with, and the day that happens all future Highgroove projects will be using whatever that new thing is.
Right. It’s an industry in flux.
So you’re title at Highgroove is “Methodologist.” What exactly does that mean?
We’ve got some internal teams at Highgroove. Right now we’ve got 3 teams that are all developers that work on client projects. And then there’s one other team that has everyone else on it. It has the methodologist, sales and marketing, president, and office manager.
The developer teams, their job is to make money and to keep the clients happy. Because you know, that’s what we want to do as a business, we need to make money and keep the clients happy.
And then the team that I’m on, our job is to keep the developers happy.
So we’re all here to help the developers do their jobs. With sales and marketing that’s getting new work and projects coming in and tracking new developer talent.
But my job is really just focused on making the developers happy and productive. So I sit in on kickoff meetings, I answer questions about processes, I kind of fight the good fight to not have this huge complex pile of processes. Let’s distill it down to the simplest things possible and let’s stop doing things that don’t work. And I do one-on-one meetings with every developer every week to see how projects are going. So I kind of have my fingers all over the place and step in where I’m needed.
That’s pretty incredible. So you don’t do much hands on coding, you’re actually the big picture guy?
I wouldn’t say I’m the big picture guy. I’m not the manager, I’m not telling anyone what to do or assigning projects or issuing reprimands for people not doing something. But I’m not doing much development stuff, so it’s really… I’m there to help developers do their jobs and make them happy and keep them productive.
That’s quite a unique position.
Yeah, we made up the name and made up the role as we’ve been hiring more people and growing here and…. you know it’s a little weird sometimes. Oh, I’m not a manager and I’m not a developer and I can give a big list of things that I don’t do.
But from our customers that I talk to and from our developers here, I am adding value and it’s….. it’s a pretty fun ride.
Are you comfortable with that state of change? A lot of people like to have a very specific job title or thing that they do. Are you comfortable with doing whatever it is that you’re needed?
It’s a lot of fun. I like solving problems and I like focusing on doing…. everyone at Highgroove, we like doing things the right way, and on our Rails apps that’s writing tests. But for running the businesses and doing processes that’s making sure that we don’t have people sitting in meetings that they have no business being in and making sure that we’re not doing a process just because that’s what we’ve always done, we’re actually doing it because we get some value from it.
So I’ve never focused on a particular technical kind of thing… but whenever there’s big problems to solve, it’s fun. And what I’m doing now is a different kind of problem solving than the specifics of building a web applications, so it’s still a lot of fun.
Let’s move away from the technical aspects of coding. One of the problems I’ve found with the life of a developer is that we sit in front of a computer most of the day and it’s really hard to stay active. I see that you mountain bike sometimes, is that what you do to stay fit?
I’d say sometimes is probably an understatement of that. So Highgroove’s got a big culture of bikes, we’ve got a bike rack in the office. I’m on a race team called Faster Mustaches that probably a third of the people I work with are also on. Some of the people I’ve met through racing and riding bikes actually ended up coming to work for us so that’s been pretty fun.
I do a lot of mountain biking and I do some other kinds of biking so I’m in better shape to have more fun mountain biking. And we’ve got a running group at Highgroove that we go for a run Monday after work. And we have a personal trainer on site who is here every tuesday and thursday and you can sign up for sessions.
And something new we just started doing is that Highgroove will buy anyone either a Garmin bike computer, a Garmin heart rate watch, and/or a Fitbit which tracks your steps during the day. We’ve got these devices and we’re tracking things online and there’s different people trying to outdo other people with the number of steps they’ve taken or seeing where other people are going for runs and riding bikes.
It’s a culture of healthiness that keeps us all in shape and makes us more productive somehow.
Do you think the activity helps you be better at your job?
Yeah, definitely. I walk to work right now and so just having the 10 or 15 mins in the morning to not be looking at the computer, kind of resetting my brain to start the day is really nice. And there’s been a lot of studies that have shown when you do exercise it helps you focus on more things.
We’ve got a blog post from a bit back on working, then going downstairs to the personal trainer for 30 minutes and then going back to your desk, and you just feel like you have superpowers to get a lot more things done and focus better.
Absolutely. Are you involved in the web development community in Atlanta outside of Highgroove?
Not too terribly much. My previous job I was doing operations and working from home, so I started to get involved a little bit. There’s an Atlanta Dev Ops meetup I did a couple times.
I started at Highgroove and dove headfirst into development stuff, and Highgroove runs the Atlanta Ruby User Group, and if you’re looking for smart Ruby web app devs in Atlanta, typically we’ve hired a lot of them, so I never got that plugged into the community because there was so much at work I could pull from other people.
I’ve heard that there’s a lot of development going on in Atlanta, it’s a huge hub for web developers right now. Do you get that impression?
We’re getting there. Everyone always looks at Silicon Valley and Route 128 up in Massachusetts, that’s where these technological things happen.
I’ve lived in Atlanta my whole life and I believe that we’ve got what it takes to be a big city that has startups and culture and community and technical aspects. I don’t think we’re there yet but I think we’re really getting there.
We’ve got a lot more startups, we’ve got angel and venture organizations that have started doing things, there’s a couple service companies like Highgroove that connect the dots and make these things happen…. and we’ve got a lot of big companies, there’s big Telco, Healthcare, and Transportation stuff that’s all based out of Atlanta. I think we’re slowly figuring out how to have that startup community and build more things.
So if you could give one piece of advice to young developers looking to get involved or to improve their skills, what would that be?
Pick a problem that is personally relevant to you that you don’t have a solution to and just go do it. I got interested in programming because there was something I wanted to do and I could make a computer do this.
I didn’t learn it like.. oh I’m gonna learn Java so I can be a Java developer. That would be terrible and I would not be happy with where I am.
One of the things that kind of got me in the door at Highgroove is I had…. a need to make graphs for my bike data. So I’ve got a spreadsheet with my bike stuff in it. And I made a PHP thing I can upload the spreadsheet to, and it makes a whole bunch of graphs and there’s features I can say, you know… how many times have I ridden with this person on a mountain bike, and it can answer those kinds of questions.
So that was just a little problem that I had that I learned how to do things for. And that directly translated over to some work projects. “Oh hey we need graphs, does anyone know how to use this graph library?” and I’d done that because it was something interesting to me.
For a new developer, you can go learn a tool just to learn the tool, but you’re not gonna remember it or really get value out of it unless there’s a reason that you’re doing it. And if you’re solving a problem that’s personally interesting to you, it’s gonna be a lot easier to decide you’re gonna stay in on a Friday night and build something cool instead of go out to the bar.
On the interwebs: ckdake.com / @ckdake