Geek of the Week: Zulily engineer Steve Reed, self-taught programmer

SteveReed2

Steve Reed grew up in Seattle, studied astronomy and physics in college, and learned to program on the bus.

How did that happen? His first job was at the startup Alive.com, which was acquired by Loudeye. A family friend brought him on board to do “menial website work,” as he puts it. He had always been involved in computers and programming as a hobby, running his own BBS in high school, and he seized the opportunity to get serious about it.

“I studied a lot on the job, read programming books on the bus to and from work, and took on projects that I didn’t know how to do,” he explains. “Eventually I learned enough to take on the “real” programming. It was mostly luck and the rest hard work.”

Steve ReedThe “father of three and husband of one” now works at zulily, the daily deals site for moms, babies and kids.

“I’m thankful to work in environments where I can ask questions and where trial and error is ingrained in the culture. That’s what I like about working at startups,” he says. “There’s no competition between developers because it’s sink or swim, so everyone helps everyone. I don’t think my career would have ever taken off had I started at a bigger company.”

Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

What do you do, and why do you do it? I work on relevance at zulily. Essentially, we are the team that makes zulily a customized and personalized experience for all of our members. It’s an important part of making our site usable and it helps to establish a personal connection with the moms shopping our site. They go on the site, and see sales that are relevant for them—it makes it seem like the site was designed specifically for them. It’s a differentiation for e-commerce to be able to personalize the shopping experience, and will be an important part of the business model moving forward. There’s so much choice out there, so it’s exciting to find ways to cull through it and bring real value to consumers.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? I think there’s a common misconception that the most important part of a programmer’s job involves choosing the correct algorithm to solve a problem, as if we pull them out of a playbook; or writing very intricate, nuanced and complicated code. We perpetuate this in the way we interview each other, I suppose. In my experience, the most important part of programming has always been simplification. Software with simpler features is often more useful. Simplified software is often smaller, faster, and more reliable.

Where do you find your inspiration? Initially when I first started programming, my inspiration was the need to prove myself. I didn’t have a degree to legitimize me, so I had to keep producing stuff that worked. Now I find that taking on projects that I don’t know how to do is the most inspiring. I like having the freedom to identify a problem and work through the issue to create something that works really well.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? May not be the kind of answer you are looking for, but I’d say agriculture. I don’t think I’d be here without it. I can’t grow anything. I would probably starve to death by now if I couldn’t buy food in the super market.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I like to keep it pretty simple. Not necessarily tidy, just simple. I’m a fan of one monitor with the keyboard right in front of it and everything off to the side. It allows me to really focus and not get too comfortable. It keeps the intensity up.

IMG_20130924_064518

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Try to focus on one thing at a time. I actively try to make myself available to focus on one project for as long of stretch of possible. I get in the office at 6:30am, so that I can have a good 2 hours where no one is around. My wife and I just had our third child, so balancing that means being okay with asking for a lot of help. Also, my family and kids are complementary to what I do. One does not replace the other, so I can keep those from conflicting. Essentially, I don’t mix work and play.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Linux for work and Windows for games at home (until Valve gets more games on Steam for Linux).

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I’m not a Star Trek guy, but I’d pick Picard because Patrick Stewart posts the funniest stuff to twitter. I’m a bigger fan of the actors than their characters.


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.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Why not something that does all three?

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … hopefully not burn through the money with nothing to show for it. I would want to start something that would last, that fills a gap in a legitimate market. So I would ask Darrell, our CEO, what to do. I know how software works, but have no idea how to launch a business.

I once waited in line for … The first iPhone. I don’t even think I did it on purpose, I was just overcome by the hype and did it subconsciously.

Your role models: My grandpa was the strongest, most hard-working, humble and gentle person I have ever known. He was a commercial fisherman and farmer. My first job was working on his boat in Long Island’s Peconic Bay at a very young age where I saw first-hand how he led his crew by example. As a person he was straightforward and honest.

Greatest Game in History Well, the “Greatest Game Ever Played” is the ’58 championship game between my New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts.

Best Gadget Ever: The minivan. Mine has two external video cameras (that I know of), and seems to do everything. Almost all of the doors open and close automatically. I sometimes feel lazy using it, but don’t all great gadgets do that?

First Computer: Commodore 64. I plagiarized my first computer program by copying it out of a magazine. The first computer I owned myself was a used 286 that I bought with some of my savings in high school. I ran my own BBS off of it.

Current Phone: Samsung galaxy nexus. I love the “cheap plastic” feel that so many others seem to abhor.

Favorite App: BaconReader so I can read /r/dadjokes.

Favorite Cause: To get people to use Tau instead of Pi.

Most important technology of 2013: 3D printing seemed to take off a bit this year, and could prove to be quite revolutionary once people stop using it to make 3D memes.

Most important technology of 2015: Not sure, maybe self-driving cars. I don’t think it will be in web or consumer technology though. Those technologies are making lives better, but I think the big breakthroughs are going to be in medicine or infrastructure.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: If you can conceive of a project, but don’t know how to do it, that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Find projects that will continue to challenge you. That’s the most gratifying work.

LinkedIn: Steve Reed

  • Guest

    Interesting Read and perspective on Technology.

    • Guest

      Haha. Interesting “Reed”.