Geek of the Week: Apptio’s Bruce Henry, from nuclear physics to enterprise software

Apptio's Bruce Henry, a software veteran who got his start studying physics, learned everything he needed to know about teamwork from Battlefield. (Photos by Annie Laurie Malarkey.)

 Bruce Henry has worked for years in the technology industry, currently at Seattle’s Apptio, where he describes himself as a “process and organizational change ninja.” But he didn’t start out in the software industry. His degrees are in physics.

It’s an unusual transition, but it was his ownership of a propeller beanie that truly sealed his status as our latest Geek of the  Week. (See the evidence below.) Making the honor all the more timely, Henry is also a facilitator of the upcoming BarCamp Seattle event.

Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

What do you do, exactly? Job-wise I work at Apptio helping figure out better ways to organize and plan our software development work.  There are 50+ engineers working on an application that has a combination of data visualization, distributed computation, and a bunch of cutting edge stuff to make our customers wildly successful.  This amounts to herding cats, albeit highly technical, very smart and driven cats.  Think, hungry panthers with 150 IQs and opposable thumbs.

But what do I do?  I guess I think a lot about the interactions and design of complex self-organizing systems.

What makes you a geek? I revel in the minutiae of technology and science (and in using words like revel and minutiae).  For example, everyone else at dinner last night was talking about some TV show and I sat down with my friend Aviel from Simply Measured and had a little small talk about data analysis and Ruby on Rails.  You know, as an ice breaker.

You studied nuclear physics and now you’re in enterprise software? How did that happen? It was a surprisingly easy transition. From graduate school I went to Microsoft as a software tester. This was a natural transition from testing the entire universe to just testing software. Simple. Next a startup followed by Expedia where I got into project management.  Fast forward a couple of years and I’m at Apptio helping to design and manage their software development processes.

Geekiest thing(s) you’ve ever done, built, or worn: I have a t-shirt with the crowbar from Half-Life on it.  Also… propeller beanie.  Really.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) My trick, don’t separate life and work.  I mean if you’re going to spend 8+ hours a day working and thinking about something you should really like that thing.  If you really like it, why stop at the Work/life boundary?  If I find myself thinking that I can’t wait to get off work to go do what I really want to be doing then it is a signal that something at work has to change.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Web apps?  I think it is less important what OS I’m using than what I’m working on.  That said, I spend 90% of my time on Windows and the remaining 10% on Linux.  I find this odd since I was an early Mac adopter.  And when I say early I mean that I had an Apple Lisa with… wait for it… a 5MB external hard disk.  Dude!  I was *never* gonna fill that sucker up.  Storage for life baby! Yeah, Moore’s law cuts both ways.

Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? Adama.  But I can’t help but notice that you left Archer out of that list.  Do you think that Enterprise just didn’t make the cut?

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Oh god, you’re really gonna make me choose?!? Hey, wait a second… Give me a transporter and a black hole and I’ll show you how to make a time machine.  :-)

Transporter, for sure.  I love to visit places and a transporter would sure come in handy.  But I have to admit that I have significant existential angst around the whole “you cease to exist here but we build a new you at the other end” thing.  I mean, is that me?  Or just another me?  Time machine has some of the same issues.  Maybe if the transporter were more like the portal gun in Portal… hmm…

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Find a couple of my friends who are smarter than me who want to do something awesome (and if no one is willing to pay for it then it must not be that awesome).  Then build the heck out of it.  It would have to be something that really changed people’s lives for the better.

I once waited in line for … The Empire Strikes Back.  It was in Hollywood (at the Cinerama Dome I think).  I was with a bunch of my friends and we waited for a day and a half.  It was like a block party for geeks and a Sci-Fi convention all rolled into one.

Your geek role models (And why?):  Nikola Tesla.  How can you go wrong with a somewhat prickly inventor who in the late 1800s was throwing around 30 foot bolts of lightning, transmitting power without wires, and inventing radio?  Not only that, but like a true geek, he got outmaneuvered by Edison and Marconi purely through lack of political acumen.

Greatest Game In History:  Holy schneikies!  Uh… the next one? That said, everything I needed to know about strategy I learned from StarCraft.  Everything I needed to know about teamwork I learned from Battlefield (2, 2142, and 3).  But my fondest memories are of playing Quake2 CTF late at night at the UW Nuclear Physics Lab.

Best Gadget Ever: I gotta say, my Sonicare toothbrush is pretty awesome. No, really. Think about it, here is this stodgy, old, manual technology that gets totally overhauled by a combination of mechanical resonance, electrical resonance, feedback and inductive charging.  When I talk about gadgets that far outperformed my expectations, there’s my iPhone, and my toothbrush.

First computer:  TI-99/4a was the first computer I had at home.  My dad bought it and I modified the heck out of it.

Current phone: iPhone 4

Favorite app: Right now? Autostitch.  It builds great panoramas on your iPhone and it is really well made.

Favorite hangout: I friggin’ LOVE Top Pot in Belltown.  I live on the Eastside now, but my best memories of marathon design sessions are of sitting upstairs in Top Pot with my ovaltine latte and having all sorts of tech people wander in and about.  Currently I can be found at Victor’s Coffee in Redmond on Sunday mornings.

Favorite cause: I help produce the annual Circus of Dreams circus show that benefits pediatric brain tumor research through Children’s Hospital.  Great cause, lots of fun.  Plus, circus girls are crazy!

I am also a facilitator (shameless plug) of a user-generated technology conference, BarCamp Seattle, which is coming up April 28 in Fremont!

Most important technology of 2012:  Wow, hard to say.  I feel like there’s a tendency to say that what’s *hot* is what’s *important*.  But I’m feeling like the continuing trend in powerful, DIY analytics and metrics for large data sets is the biggie.  As more people are able to slice and dice the vast volumes of data that we generate to extract meaningful information I believe we will begin to see changes in every area of society.  There are efficiencies to be gained and myths to be shattered everywhere.  Data is our hammer.

Most important technology of 2015:  The one that has yet to be invented.  Seriously.  Somewhere out there is an idea, a little inkling, a spark.  Someone is going to take that a change how we live.  It will be deceptively simple and tangential.  For example, ubiquitous cell phones and SMS have completely changed the way we interact with our friends and collaboratively plan events.  We are much more spontaneous and fluid.  Something out there is going to have a similar effect, and we won’t know it until we see it.

Words of advice for your fellow geeks:  You can do it/build it/make it.  Do the thing that you love.  Don’t worry about what other people think.

Your site: http://www.brucephenry.com – But I haven’t posted much recently.

I have a number of “side projects”, but none of them are really ready for prime time.

Your Twitter@brucephenry. But a word of warning …  It swears like a sailor and … well … It also tweets in the third person neuter.  Hard to explain, but it blames @gregmushen.


[Editor's Note: GeekWire is a media sponsor of BarCamp Seattle.]

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to tips@geekwire.com.

[Geek of the Week photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey, annielaurie@geekwire.com.]

  • untitledstartup

    Ruby > TV shows (unless the TV show is 16 and pregnant).