Geek of the Week: Barnabas Kendall, web developer and ordained minister

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Barnabas Kendall has worked as a programmer for a wide variety of companies, but he has shown a knack for technology since he was a kid in Wisconsin — building his own PC and hacking the security system in his boyhood home to get online without his parents knowing. Today he’s a programmer at Scout Analytics, a predictive analytics software startup in Issaquah, Wash.

Meet our latest Geek of the Week. An ordained minister, he has a fascinating perspective on technology and what makes for quality products and experiences. “The foundation of technical excellence is love,” he says.

What does he mean by that? Continue reading for the explanation and much more in his answers to our questionnaire.

pulltwoWho are you, anyway? I grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a small city between Milwaukee and Green Bay famous for bratwurst and bathroom fixtures. My parents wisely distrusted their young teenage son with the nascent Internet, but they let me keep my homebuilt 386 desktop in my bedroom because I enjoyed repeatedly disassembling and reassembling it and they assumed I had no phone jack to hook up to a modem. However, my closet had the access panel to the home security system, so after lights out I was able to splice in a phone cord, silence the modem speaker and get online with one of those “50 hours FREE” AOL CD-ROMs. To quote Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, “life finds a way”.

I attended a small private college in San Diego for a degree in computer networking. However, due to the fortunate timing of the first Internet bubble I fell headlong into a much more interesting field, computer programming. My wife and I have been ordained ministers for over 20 years, and we volunteer several hours each week with our church. Quality education, whether scholastic, technical or spiritual, is extremely important to us.

I’ve worked for a string of interesting companies: I was an ASP developer at Shopping.com when it was bought by Compaq, merged with AltaVista, and imploded under CMGI. Later I was CTO of a small mobile software startup that was a little too early (remember WAP?). I also worked as a contractor at Enron, which was amazing from a technology standpoint. They spent an obscene amount of money on tech and I learned a great deal about enterprise-sized mission-critical systems under the tutelage of very smart people, rounding out my “real-life CS degree”. However, I remember taking a walk around the building one lunch and thinking “those are some huge industrial shredding machines.” I gave my parents a very bad stock tip that year.

What do you do, and why do you do it? Today I’m at Scout Analytics, a rapidly growing SaaS company in Issaquah that builds predictive analytics software: that means we can tell you when your customer is going to upgrade or quit before they know it themselves with real-time statistical modeling that would blow your mind. I’m in awe of the geniuses that make our customers’ data perform this magic; I’m part of the team that builds our application’s UI but not our public website.

I knew the day that I interviewed that there was an amazing, rare opportunity to build something new and great from the ground up. We agonized over both large architecture decisions and tiny interface details to help create an intuitive, useful, stable experience. Our positive customer response and anecdotes of great sales demos are very satisfying. I like to imagine that the best compliment would be similar to a movie CGI artist: if you don’t notice it that means we’ve done our job well.

Professionally, my niche is JavaScript application development. I am continually astounded how we have adapted a platform for sharing hyperlinked documents into the web we know today. Web developers must keep up with both the long history of web standards and browser peculiarities, as well as stay current with new browser features, emerging standards, and application frameworks. If I fell into a coma for 12 months I’d know nothing, and I love that. System and game console programmers build applications for comparatively predictable hardware. Mobile application programmers target a broader spectrum. Web programmers like me target a more wildly unpredictable runtime environment: the networked web browser. To me that is an exhilarating challenge.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? I think programming is a more creative endeavor than what non-technical people might think. Some of my friends give me the impression that they think programming is like mixing up chemicals in a lab or assembling robots. What practitioners of computer science share with artists, musicians, and writers is that our work product is the manifestation of creative thought. I can think up a thing, then write a program to do it, and then put it on the net and literally thousands of people could be using it within hours. This is almost like a superpower. I think there are very few jobs left which would not benefit from having some programming skills. I admit I may be biased.

Where do you find your inspiration? I like museums with old, well-built machinery. For example, at The Museum of Flight in Boeing Field, I was impressed with the outstanding level of engineering and craftsmanship, whether in a hand-carved wooden airplane propeller or a jet engine. It inspires me to thoughtful, purposeful design without ornament. I also enjoy watching shows like “How It’s Made” on the Science Channel for the same reason, especially when they showcase an artisan handcrafting something beautiful like a canoe or a violin.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Refrigeration. Without it, we’d have to live all spread out and spend most of our time hunting or gathering food and we’d have no time for playing Words With Friends.

Workspace

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I have a laptop that I plug in to a docking station every morning when I arrive and take with me every evening when I leave. Most of my co-workers prefer to use desktop workstations, but I prefer to have the option to go mobile and take my work with me with minimal disruption. I have two monitors on my desk (main for coding, secondary for mail and debug windows), and the same setup is mirrored as a standing desk just to the right. I try to keep standing for several hours each day because it helps me stay alert, but the mirror setup also helps when I have things to show cubicle visitors.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Multitasking is an illusion. Some think they can simultaneously talk on the phone and drive with no impairment, and they’re wrong. Similarly, others believe they can deal with things from home at work or vice versa and suffer no impairment, and they too are wrong. Choose where you are going to be and be there until you leave.

pullquotebarnabasMac, Windows or Linux? At work our whole app stack is Microsoft, so Windows it is. At home it’s all Macs; I will pry my wife’s MacBook from her cold dead fingers. I’m writing this on a Chromebook though, so at this very second, Linux I guess.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I think Janeway is most relatable. Star Trek captains reflect the contemporary political and social climate, whether it’s Kirk’s post-war American bravado, Picard’s struggle between technology and humanity, or Janeway’s feeling lost when there’s no one on your side. I think we live in a Kathryn Janeway world still, maybe more than ever.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? There are only two choices. A Transporter and a Time Machine are actually the same machine, and either one will kill you if it’s slightly miscalibrated by suffocating you in space or crushing you in the center of the earth. I vote Cloak of Invisibility as Least Likely to Kill Me.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … For profit, I’d be interested in launching the WordPress for e-commerce. Not because it’s been tried (Magento, etc.), but because modern tech makes this worth another look. Non-profit, I’d like to invest it into a combination of job-skill training and interest-free micro loans in the developing world, although that would be a tiny drop in the ocean of world inequity.

I once waited in line for … Nothing, if we’re talking about things like phones or games. I can think of nothing I have ever wanted that badly. I don’t think waiting in line is a badge of honor.

Your role models: My namesake, the original Barnabas, lived in the first century and was written about in the Bible. He was given the name “Barnabas” later in life because it means “Son of Comfort” and that describes who he was. He loved people and worked hard for them. He accomplished many good things because he always gave of himself unselfishly and tried to do what was right. My mother chose that name because she hoped I’d become like him someday, and I think about that often: is what I do every day consistent with the person I want to be?

As for someone alive today, Elon Musk is like a real-life Tony Stark. I admire his inability to acknowledge the commonly accepted definition of “impossible.” My father-in-law is one of the hardest-working people I know, and he has a real passion for excellence in his work.

Greatest Game in History: For me, it was the Mac version of Bolo by Stuart Cheshire. It was a simple tank battle game I played on the high school LAN with friends and teachers between classes. First of all it was both easy to learn and fun to play and secondly, the technology behind it was brilliant. It ignited my own interest in computer networks and taught me a valuable lesson about turning weaknesses into strengths with clever design.


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.

Be a future Geek of the Week! Fill out and submit our online questionnaire.

Best Gadget Ever: The computer mouse. Thank you Douglas Engelbart. Although I’m certain it will not be the last or dominant method of computer interaction, I think it changed our perception of and relationship with computers forever.

First Computer: I inherited an 8-bit Atari computer from my stepfather. The monitor was an 8-inch black and white TV. My first new computer was a hulking i386SX desktop that I later broke by trying to upgrade the CPU myself. It turns out that static electricity can fry a chip even if you can’t feel it, a $700 mistake I won’t forget.

Current Phone: iPhone 4, also known as “the last non-Siri iPhone”. I’m looking at Android next upgrade though.

Favorite App: If I don’t say “Bejeweled” my son will know I’m lying.

Favorite Cause: Education. The more the better.

Most important technology of 2013: $99 personal genomics testing from 23AndMe. I don’t think it’s completely clear how revolutionary this is, and that it is now primed for mass adoption.

Most important technology of 2015: Mass-production of graphene. It will enable many new advances such as cheap drinking water.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: The foundation of technical excellence is love. If you do not love what you do, then you will do it poorly. If you do not love (or at least, feel empathy for) those who will use your product or service, then they will be unhappy. Love is not a feeling you have or don’t, it’s something you work to cultivate.

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Twitter: @Barnabask

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