Know this Nerd? Meet Aaron Babcock



AaronBabcockThank you to The Nerdery for underwriting the Know this Nerd? series. 

Aaron Babcock is an independent Data Science Developer from the Twin Cities.

When and how did you originally become interested in technology?

Like a lot of developers, it was video games that first grabbed my attention. That naturally lead to trying to hack things up for an in game advantage or creating new content.

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

I was 10 years old. It did nothing. I copied it out of a book, and it probably wouldn’t have compiled, even if I could figure out how to run the compiler, or knew what a compiler was for that matter. Still, the idea of a machine automatically carrying out your instructions in a split second was fascinating to me.

Eventually I figured out the compiler, but I’m jealous of kids today who have a much lower barrier to entry for programming. Right click on any webpage and you can access a very nice javascript development environment. A few more lines of code and you can move and animate images across the screen. I would have been thrilled with that result on my 386 in 1991.

The Nerdery

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

I’m an independent Data Science Developer. I build systems that help people get insight from data. I can navigate all the typical engineering problems that pop up with Big Data using Hadoop/Spark, NoSQL or often, just using your current tech more efficiently. I can help bypass or breakthrough what initially looks like overwhelming technological hurdles.

A lot of business people get very frustrated with their IT departments. I try to be the developer that is pleasant to engage with because when we start the conversation I’m already speaking your vocabulary.

Towards that end I’ve become proficient in a number of languages and technologies.

Languages tend to have niches that they excel in, therefore I use the best tool for the job which is often one or more of these: Python, R, Java, Javascript, Ruby, Clojure, Groovy, Hadoop, Spark, SQL, C, C++, Objective­C, FORTRAN.

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

I keep abreast of new technology but I find the most valuable time I’ve spent has been pushing into areas of knowledge that are outside my comfort zone. I think there is a bright future for people who can fill the gaps between areas that are normally considered separate, like IT and marketing. For instance data science is very hot right now, but it’s not really something new. It’s the combination of the areas between computers science, applied statistics and business/marketing.

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

The struggle. If I’m not puzzling over a problem I feel a bit uninspired. I need something to noodle over when I’m on the bus.

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

Larry Wall, John Carmack, Rich Hickey, David Nolen, Chris Granger. These are various luminaries in the software world whose philosophies I agree with. I think a number of ideas from functional programming are really coming into their own lately, so I watch for stuff coming out of the clojure community. I’m also really excited about Chris Grangers work making programming more accessible via LightTable and now Eve.

Also, Descent 2 and The Cranberries. Descent was one of my main video game obsessions when I was getting more interested in computers. The Cranberries happened to be the cd that would autoplay when I turned the computer on and I never changed it. To this day I have a deep neurological, almost synesthetic, association with the Cranberries. If Zombie comes on the radio things smell different, colors deepen.

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

My favorite part of programming is learning. It is a myth that you can “learn how to program”. Instead you learn how to learn to program. That is, programming isn’t a fixed set of skills and technologies but instead is a moving target.

In grade school, I used to take learning for granted. I viewed it as a chore. Growing up, I’ve realized it is a privilege to be in a position where you must gather information, think creatively, and make decisions. Programming offers an incredible amount of freedom and opportunity in that regard. Every project is, to a certain extent, not something I’ve exactly done before. You’ve got to keep up and adapt.

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

Inventing, or some kind of scientific research. The best part of software is collaborating and problem solving, so I’d search for that in some other field.

Where do you spend most of your time online?

Hacker News, StackOverflow, Reddit, Twitter, random blogs, DataTau

What concerns you most about where technology is headed?

The divide between techies and non­techies. Progress will be determined by how well various disciplines can work together. Thats why some of the “techie backlash” stuff I see coming from San Francisco is concerning. Hopefully its just some growing pains the industry must go through as it matures and learns how to collaborate.

What excites you most about where technology is headed?

The increasing accessibility of programming to the general population. Today there are better development tools, more prominence in traditional education programs and things like MOOCs. I think the number of people involved in developing software is going to rapidly grow, even though a lot of those people aren’t going to consider themselves “programmers”.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’d like to mention how much I appreciate the Twin Cities tech scene. Earlier in my career I was in a place where there weren’t any local meetups or events and it was hard find and connect with other developers. When I moved to Minneapolis I became a lot more involved and its made a huge difference. Also checkout a cool prediction market focused on science and technology questions.


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