Jensen Harris, co-founder and chief technology officer for Seattle’s Textio, has a passion and talent for classical music — and a music degree from Yale to back it up. But Harris feared that even with his Ivy League chops, he could wind up composing the music for dish soap jingles, toiling in obscurity.
Luckily, Harris was also skilled in coding, writing and selling shareware while in college. He had a choice.
“Did I want to be a musician with a computer hobby, or someone doing software with a music hobby? One was likely to be a happier life, so I came out to Seattle to intern for Microsoft,” Harris said.
“It’s really difficult to find opportunities and an audience with music right now. Whereas if you have a great idea and build something wonderful with software, you can reach millions of people,” he said. “To reach more people and having a bigger impact in the world, that was more satisfying than writing (music) for myself.”
Harris worked for Microsoft for 16 years. He led the creation of some of the most widely used productivity software, including Microsoft Office’s Ribbon user interface, the email user interface of Microsoft Outlook and the touch user interface built for Microsoft Surface.
In October 2014, Harris and his wife, Kieran Snyder, launched Textio. Snyder is CEO and Harris leads engineering, product and design as CTO.
“Textio is inventing a totally new product category — augmented writing — and so a lot of my job is in helping pull together breakthroughs in machine learning, natural language processing, data science, service engineering and user experience into one cohesive product,” he said. “We are creating so much that has never been done before, that a huge part of my job is just helping to make sure that the brilliant people we have are all working in one direction.”
His time spent composing music for all of the instruments in an orchestra actually translates nicely to shepherding software engineers.
“Composing music and building software have always utilized the same part of my brain,” Harris said. “It’s the same as bringing together dozens of engineers and designers and bringing all of that thinking into one harmonious product.”
We caught up with Harris for this Working Geek, a regular GeeWire feature. Keep reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: “5th and Madison, on the 23rd floor of the brand new Madison Centre skyscraper, across the corner from the Seattle Public Library”
Computer types: “I only use one computer, and I take it everywhere: a 15-inch current generation MacBook Pro. It goes home, it goes to work and either place I connect it to an LG UltraFine 5K Display.”
Mobile devices: “A silver iPhone X (no case), in my pocket. At home I also use a 10.5-inch iPad Pro for certain tasks.
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: “Here are a few less-known iOS apps I love: Focos (awesome bokeh photography with the dual-camera iPhone X) and Productive (helps you manage and track life habits). In the work realm, it’s Atom for text editing, Adobe tools for design (except Apple’s Final Cut Pro X for video) and iTerm2.”
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? “I strive for my desk to be completely minimal: just my monitor and my computer, with a single Thunderbolt 3 connecting the two and powering the laptop. I don’t always succeed, but I try to work back to this clean state periodically.
I use an OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock to make this connection (and allow me to connect extra peripherals to my MacBook Pro). And, of course, having mild OCD, hand sanitizer is a must. There is a peace to minimalism that can help you think, and can put focus on what you’re doing. The desk is just a frame for your work.”
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “People talk a lot about work/life balance, but I think it all blends together into just life. My wife is my co-founder, and we have three girls (ages 6, 8 and 9) and we try really hard to make them feel part of Textio. It has been really exciting for them to feel like they are part of starting a tech company; they are proud of it, and it helps open their eyes to what they can accomplish. At the same time, I try really hard to be present when I’m spending time with them and to not be constantly distracted by work. You have to carve out time to be free of devices, free of work stresses and just be really present for them. I lie in bed and read Harry Potter to the 6-year-old every night before bedtime (we’re up to the middle of book four!).”
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “I’m been recently focusing most of my thoughts on UI and product design towards Twitter (@jensenharris). Recently, I’ve shared a number of thoughts about the product crossroads Slack is facing and it was fun to see so much interest and passion from people.”
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “None. Textio doesn’t use email except for external communication; we are fully a Slack-based company. Email feels very early 2000s.”
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “This week, which is pretty typical, I have 27. But many of them are interviews, as we are hiring very intensely right now. And one of them is reading in my daughter’s first grade class (which I do every Thursday at lunchtime), so that hardly counts!”
How do you run meetings? “I try to avoid running meetings.”
How do you make time for family? “Because my wife is also my co-founder, we have blurrier lines than many families. We try to be very present with kids and not always ensconced with work—the five of us will all go play basketball at Madrona Playground or head to Seward Park to take in a sunny weekend afternoon.”
What are you listening to? “On the way to work, Dan Savage’s or Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast. When coding, almost always A State of Trance 2014, A State of Trance 2015 (both are compilation albums by Dutch DJ and record producer Armin van Buuren), or the Downtempo Instrumentals playlist on Spotify. When we’re fundraising, we always listen to the Spotify playlist Indie in the Kitchen for good luck.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “Cleveland Browns news. MacRumors.com. PPRuNe Rumors & News. Whatever Flipboard picks for me.”
Night owl or early riser? “Night owl. Given my own devices, I’d stay up working until 1:30 or 2 a.m., which turns out to be hard when you are up at 7:15 to get the kids to school.”
Where do you get your best ideas? “Usually when I can give my brain a break, getting out of the normal flow of daily work. Sometimes in the shower. Sometimes when I just put my head down on the table during a meeting I can go into a high-concentration mode and something pops out that I didn’t expect.”
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? “I admire people who find outlets that help them feel more centered and optimistic (exercise, yoga, mindfulness, meditation). The world can use more of that.”