Know This Nerd? Meet Colin Lee

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Colin Lee

Thanks to The Nerdery for underwriting our new series ‘Know this Nerd?’

Colin Lee is a corporate software engineer from Lakeville, Minnesota. He has also founded a startup on the side called BidNear.Us (formerly HoodBid), and because that’s just not enough — he’s running for Minnesota State Representative in Lakeville’s district 58A this November.

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When and how did you originally become interested in technology?

I was five years old when my father first brought home a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1. Having few games available, we had to write our own. My older brother and I started by copying BASIC games out of books from the library and began improvising from there. We spent far too many hours in front of a screen.

At what age did you write your first computer program? What did it do?

I was six. My first program was an ELIZA bot or chatterbot. It listened to user input and chose keywords to respond to. In this way, it imitated artificial intelligence. I was more proud of my later trick. I added sound to a pinball game on the TRS-80 by tuning an FM radio to the frequency of the processor and oscillating the chips using FOR loops.

What do you do now? What languages are you proficient in?

I develop automated software deployments to the cloud and over 3,000 testing centers around the world. I program today in nearly random list of languages like Ant, MSBuild, Powershell, Java, Android API, C++, Perl, Javascript, and PHP with Drupal. However, I have worked in many other languages like Ruby, Python, Fortran, and bash. I spent my first eight years in the industry as “just another Perl hacker” at a Linux employer. Odd bit of trivia: I turned down a first Linux job at Sistina Software for equity-only over a year before they sold for $31 million to RedHat Software.

What do you enjoy about it? What do you dislike?

I love solving problems. Outages can bring a huge corporation to its knees each month and upset foreign customers during peak hours. Cutting hours out of a gargantuan, manual deployment process by writing only a few hundred lines of code is hugely satisfying both for me and for the business.

The same problems in the space between development and operations are repeated everywhere you go. Most problems have inadequate software solutions that may break under stress. The DevOps field is growing very fast, so a lot of our tools are still young and require massive customization. During the eight years I was at Cray, I wrote a Perl tool which behaved similarly to Chef and Puppet because nothing like it existed at the time. Today, I find myself writing many plugins for these new automation tools because none has everything we need.

Which do you prefer in programming, the struggle or the achievement?

I would be lying if I did not say “the achievement.” There is intense joy to be had in seeing a deployment go off in record time without a hitch, a Drupal website drive more hits and interaction, or an Android app perform a useful function across a wide array of devices. I love getting a product in customers’ hands early and often so they can make feature requests and provide valuable data on the product.
The Nerdery

What people, groups, projects, or resources were most influential in your development as programmer?

My older brother, my high school AP Computer Science teacher, Larry Wall, and Linus Torvalds were all inspirations to me. I was active in local Linux communities from an early age and became excited about the prospect of open APIs and open protocols which are becoming more and more common and useful. I learned more programming behind my desk at home solving real problems than I ever learned during school.

If you were to be doing anything else, what would that be?

Web and mobile is where it’s at. Even with so much growth in the space, many new use cases for web and mobile technology have not yet been discovered. With BidNear.Us, I built a web service to solve one municipal problem with inefficient waste and lawn services, but I would prefer to solve a problem where the marketing isn’t an all or nothing proposition. The best businesses seem to grow organically from the feedback of early customers who are easier to convince than an entire neighborhood.

Where do you spend most of your time online?

Ten years ago, I would have said Slashdot. I literally learned about 9/11 there. Today, I read YCombinator’s Hacker News, but I spend a lot more time looking into real world problems. Being involved in politics has meant reading a lot of dry, wonkish articles. I read a lot about education and edutech. I still play video games when I have time. I enjoy real time strategy games like DOTA. I was a top forty Warcraft III player.

What concerns you most about where technology is headed?

Both privacy and community are important to our development as human beings. Many younger people seem to believe texting and tweeting equal social interaction. With schools limiting the teaching of critical thinking skills due to budget constraints and anti-intellectualism, we have to wonder whether our upcoming generations will be able to form a complete and rational argument. Or 140 chars, LOL?

Employers may judge you from your words on a post or tweet from many years ago. Or they may judge you based upon someone with the same name. We no longer own our own words in a world where our words are searchable. We’re just beginning to see problems defining our own identities rather than let our web identities define us.

Finally, I would like to see Minnesota’s educational standards devote more attention to the core issues around technology. Our schools have widely-divergent approaches which leave many poor districts’ students in the dust without the skills or the motivation to succeed.

What excites you most about where technology is headed?

Mobile is everywhere. APIs are open. You can combine products and databases today which you never could when I was young. We all have our own little machines in our pockets which are faster than an old Cray supercomputer and which can access resources from the opposite side of the Earth in seconds. If you know how to utilize the immense power at your fingertips, amazing things are available to you. Anyone can start a technology business in under a week with nearly unlimited server resources available in the cloud. The only expensive factors are health insurance and legal protection.

Knowledge is power. We’re seeing a new era of empowerment thanks to free sites like Khan Academy, Codeacademy/CodeYear, Coursera, Udacity, and EdX. The future of education is bright. Tablets will get much cheaper. If more districts pay educators to open up their lectures and texts, we could see the flipped classroom really take off. Every student across America would finally be able to learn at their own pace with personalized help from the instructor. I believe we’re finally seeing educational technology from the book Ender’s Game become reality at about the same time the movie comes out. Okay, we probably won’t have the mind fantasy game with the Giant’s Drink by then.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I am running for state office in Lakeville this November. My opponent voted against the Angel Tax Credit and for fourteen years has been making decisions with no understanding of technology issues or job creation. Learn more at http://colinlee.org. Whatever the results of this election, I expect I will finally have a lot more time afterwards to devote to tech projects like mobile apps and responsive web sites.

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