Know this Nerd? Meet Tony Collen



Tony Collen

Thanks to The Nerdery for underwriting the ‘Know this Nerd?’ series. 

Tony Collen is an independent software developer based out of Saint Paul, MN. When he’s not cranking out webapps, he enjoys biking, hiking, and the occasional game of Minecraft.

When and how did you originally become interested in technology?

My parents have been incredibly influential in my interest. My dad’s an electrical engineer by trade, and we’ve always had technology around. Computers, electronic stuff, etc.. It’s not even access to technology, but access to knowledge. Books, etc. I’m very grateful to have stuff like that.

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

I remember copying a BASIC program out of an issue of MAD magazine, I think it printed an ASCII Alfred E. Newman or something. Lines and lines of code. At that level, it wasn’t so much programming as typing exercise. I’d written a bunch of goofy BASIC programs on my Commodore 64 back in the day. I think I wrote a fake BBS at one point. At that time, I didn’t even know about assembly or anything, and I sort of wish I did.

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

These days, I’m an independent software developer. I’ve been building webapps for over 13 years now, and I still love doing it. I’ve been working full-time with Ruby/Rails since 2007, so that’s my bread and butter now. I can also crank out Javascript when I need. I’ve done my time as a PHP and Java developer, and dabbled in Python years ago.

How have you increased your skillset over the years, formally or otherwise?

Most of it’s been on-the-job. Solving difficult problems, whether it’s building some sort of new feature or functionality, or trying to get to the bottom of some obscure bug.

The Nerdery

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

The struggle up the hill is good, and the view from the top is great. I think it’s being able to reflect back at what I learned in the process, realizing some little new way of approaching a problem, or a small insight into a larger problem.

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

In the last decade or so, I’d definitely say the local tech community has been most influential. Years ago I had become interested in Ruby, so I started going to the Ruby.MN meetings. I’ve met tons of people and made friendships that have lasted for years, and learned a huge amount.

What do you enjoy about it? Is there anything you dislike?

Being able to solve new problems, the variety of work. One day I could be pounding out some Rails code, writing Coffeescript and CSS, and the next day I could be meeting with a potential client about a new project. I hate solving the same problems over and over again. I’ll start to get worried once my work starts to feel like the movie Groundhog Day.

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

If I had to choose a completely different job, maybe I’d become a truck driver or something, but that would mean not seeing my family! I’m not entirely sure.

What does agile software development mean to you?

On a high level, being able to manage and facilitate change — not getting locked into tomes of requirements documents, and accepting that things will change during a project. It also means doing what makes the most sense for the situation, and not get stuck on whether you’re practicing “true agile” or whatever. Be pragmatic, and do what works, but don’t be a zealot!

Where do you spend most of your time online?

When I’m not working, browsing, etc, I hang out on IRC a bunch with some good friends. I also probably spend more attention to Twitter than I should. I also play way too much Minecraft :C

What concerns you most about where technology is headed?

Privacy is the huge one for me, and it’s becoming harder and harder. I closed my Facebook account a few years ago, and only recently re-enabled my Google+ account so I could use hangouts. Security is a huge thing too, and I think it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.

What excites you most about where technology is headed?

It’s amazing how much computing power we have in our pockets these days. I recently came across a street map that I kept in my glove compartment in my car, and it’s rendered completely obsolete now that I have a smartphone with access to detailed maps of the world in seconds. I’m also excited to see more things become internet-enabled.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I love the local tech community! From things like the Overnight Web Challenge, to MinneDemo/MinneBar, all the great user groups — there’s plenty to keep a hungry nerd engaged here in the cities.