Thank you to The Nerdery for underwriting the Know this Nerd? series.
Nick Ciske is a a father + husband by day and web developer by night. A self described ‘generalist that has done just about everything related to digital media over the past decade,’ Nick is currently freelancing full time as a web designer/developer specializing in WordPress sites (CMS, eCommerce, MultiSite, Plugins, and custom database driven sites).
“I’m a minimalist, ‘less is more’ kind of guy,” he says.
When and how did you originally become interested in technology?
My parents bought a Vic 20 (with an audio tape drive!) when I was very young. I have fond (and frustrating) memories of playing a text adventure game called Pirates Cove — and dreaming of creating my own games. Later, we had a Tandy 2000 which I typed programs into from a magazine.
One year, I received a used 286 for Christmas. I edited the AUTOEXEC.BAT file in WordPerfect, which caused boot failures, thus I learned a lot about DOS/Windows fixing it myself. Eventually I upgraded to a Pentium with a modem — where I discovered the internet and HTML.
At that point, I dropped my interest in civil engineering to pursue becoming a Pixar animator. However, I ended up in web development.
At what age did you write your first computer program? What did it do?
4th grade, in Apple Basic. We plotted massive pixels on screen to make pictures of flowers and crude stick figures. It was very exciting at the time, but not exactly programming as we know it today. In 6th grade I wrote a program for a class assignment: “draw a picture with code.” I decided to animate mine:
Marvin the Martian walked across a Martian landscape, then the screen switched to him pointing his ray gun at you. The screen flashed random colors for a few seconds and beeped frantically.
I think my first program that actually did something useful was a GWBasic program that plotted the Mandelbrot set. It took hours to draw a screen so I’d leave it running overnight. After that I wrote screensaver like programs that would plot random pixels mirrored 2 or 4 ways to make cool patterns.
I started my career writing custom CMS software in classic ASP, then took a 6 year detour through the publishing industry (doing business development and web development). I quit my day job and went freelance fulltime in April 2010.
I specialize in Genesis themes and extending WordPress to be a customized content management system (yes, it does more than blogs).
Lately I’ve been building more and more apps on top of WordPress — membership sites, travel search sites, a video creation tool for schools, and e-commerce sites. I have a few premium (paid) plugins I’ll be releasing soon at PluginRefinery.com.
How have you increased your skillset over the years, formally or otherwise?
Taking on projects slightly outside my comfort zone. At first I took on anything PHP based, but now I’m trying to stay focused on WordPress while adding new challenges like different API integrations, new ways to extend WordPress, and new business models (e.g. selling plugins). You can’t beat getting paid to learn new things!
Playing around with new technology. When Flash was the rage, I had a site where I played with the nature of interaction (while learning more about Flash at the same time). Play is a powerful tool as it takes the pain out of learning.
Hanging out with smart people. I’m a regular at WordPress Wednesdays (a cohort of WP fans who cowork at CocoMSP each week). I read the blogs of other developers, local and global entrepreneurs, and industry veterans. Hacker News top 50 is a regular source of new ideas.
Which do you prefer in programming, the struggle or the achievement?
Can you have one without the other? I like them both! I’m a problem solver at heart — I was the kid who did word problem books in the car on vacation (and enjoyed it).
The struggle to solve a new problem, find a better way of solving an old problem, or gluing several components together to create an optimized workflow for a client is always a fun challenge.
The achievement when some code finally works, is more elegant than expected, or runs the first time is a rush as well.
What people, groups, projects, or resources were most influential in your development as programmer?
ASP for Dummies — seriously! It help me turn a temp job as an HTML coder into a career in web development.
My first job was a huge growth experience. I learned so much from my manager and technical leads there. They truly were mentors that helped me become a better programmer and person. My second job helped me understand agile development, the value of shipping, and the business side of things.
Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham opened my mind as well.
I did a stint with the crew at Modern Tribe where I learned a lot about managing large plugin projects, the business of WordPress, and received great feedback from code reviews and SCRUMS with the team.
Lately, the MSP WordPress group, WordCamps, and MinneBar have been influential in helping me envision a better future for my business, and having the chutzpah to go after it.
What do you enjoy about it? Is there anything you dislike?
I enjoy the freedom to work where and when I want, to choose my clients, and to choose the technology I use.
I love the creation aspect — every day I make something that did not exist yesterday.
I dislike the ephemeral nature of web development. Most of the things I’ve built have a lifespan of a few years. And years of effort are no longer anywhere to be found (except perhaps in limited form in the Web Archive).
If you were to be doing anything else, what would that be?
That’s a tough one. I really enjoy cooking. I don’t subscribe to cable or all I’d watch is Food TV. I’m a huge Good Eats / Alton Brown fan and love the science behind cooking. Feels a bit like programming at times (mash these things together, apply these transformations, output this result). Otherwise, I would probably be an engineer of some sort.
What does agile software development mean to you?
Development is an ongoing discussion with the client — scope always evolves and you never deliver the scope you started with — so you might as well plan for it. You’re never done — so accept that fact and build it into your development process. Get something done enough, ship it, then start again.
More phases (or sprints, or whatever you want to call them) are generally better for everyone involved. The sooner the client sees something working, the sooner you start having the real conversations. Estimating is the single hardest part of programming (for me at least) — Agile makes that less painful and less likely to derail things.
Clients know the pain points and processes — but getting them to explain them (without trying to solve the problem) is a challenge. I like Agile’s focus on stories vs. features.
Where do you spend most of your time online?
When I’m at work:
- Proofing client sites
- WordPress Codex
- Stack Exchange
When I’m not:
- Netflix or Amazon Instant Video
- Reading RSS feeds on my iPhone
- Facebook & Twitter
What concerns you most about where technology is headed?
Loss of Anonymity
The amount of information I see others posting on Facebook scares me. I still use it, but am actively looking for alternatives and try to be careful who I friend and what I post. I just don’t like where it’s headed since the IPO.
Lack of critical thinking
I see too many comment threads and poorly written/researched articles online that seem to be dividing rather than connecting humanity. Far too many people seem to believe misinformation and propaganda they read on the internet.
As someone who builds systems, security is a constant concern that many businesses don’t value enough. Password cracking technology seems to be outpacing advances in encryption technology.
What excites you most about where technology is headed?
I love the power we have today. Twilio, SmartThings, and others are making the offline world measurable and programmable — not to mention all the other APIs that make the internet such an amazing place.
Open Source Software
I make my living and pay my mortgage with mostly free software. This incredible resource and spirit of giving back is exciting to see, and it’s only accelerating.
What did we do before GitHub (and others)? What an incredible tool to democratize software development.
WordPress community & ecosystem
What an amazing community, all centered around a blog engine two guys forked a decade ago. Sure, it has it’s warts and #wpdrama, but it’s a testament to unifying forces of technology that such an incredible ecosystem exists and powers so much of the internet — not to mention the economy it’s created for themes and plugins.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would love to meet other nerds (and non-nerds) at WordPress Wednesdays. I’m there most weeks — come over and say “Hello World” sometime.