The Computer-Inclined

November 18, 2009

Roadshow stop: Nitobi Software

A rudimentary (and homemade) pictorial depiction of my day at Nitobi Software.

The lights were low and the place was filled with the constant accumulative hum of high powered computers. In the entrance way sat a Foosball table, the little plastic men, abandoned from a recent game, pointed all askew. A half assembled soap box derby car was propped up haphazardly in a corner. In the board room were stacks of empty pizza boxes. Desks were littered with jars of salsa and half-drank bottles of Dr. Pepper.

No, I wasn’t in my college boyfriend’s shared apartment. The furniture was too nice and the place too tidy to be mistaken for that. This was my Roadshow stop at Nitobi Software, a software development firm that builds web and mobile applications. Although one of the shortest commutes for me on the Roadshow (they’re located in Gastown), this, so far, was the furthest leap for me professionally. (As may be gleaned from my homemade drawings.) I don’t know the slightest thing about building software. I don’t speak the languages–PHP, Javascript, HTML, to name a few–or understand the jargon–complete UI, open source, wire frames. And, pre-Roadshow, I worked in fundraising and publishing–both predominantly female industries. (What’s the opposite of a sausage party?) So Nitobi’s all male staff of 14 was also a new one for me.

My mentor for the day was Brian LeRoux, a software developer who’s been with Nitobi for four years. (Before that he was ‘playing video games and pumping gas’.) According to him, his responsibilities include coding and client management. As well, he said with a laugh ‘evangelism and general B.S.ing.’ (No, that’s not developer jargon–he meant the universal language of bullshitting). Brian explained to me that software development was more like gardening than manufacturing–it wasn’t just building, but creating something that needed to be tended and maintained because of its ever-evolving nature.

After chastising me for not bringing my laptop (“Who comes to work at a software development company and doesn’t bring their laptop?” he asked) and mocking me for the analog notebook I did bring (spiral bound with ruled sheets), he told me to go check in with the ‘guys’ to see what kind of work they were doing.

I started with the front room, which housed about five developers. Some of the developers eyed me warily, curious as to what the heck I wanted. Others avoided eye contact. Some slipped on their headphones. (I wondered if they were suspicious of my lack of a Y chromosome or if they were just busy.) But these avoidance tactics weren’t going to stop me. I grabbed an ergonomically correct desk chair and rolled up to the first work station. From here, I hopped from desk to desk getting tours from each developer on what they were working on and what kind of projects they had worked on in the past.

I learned all about PhoneGap, which is an open-source tool that lets anyone (well, anyone who knows how) develop mobile apps with javascript. I was given a quick run through of a virtual social forum on Canada’s Arctic created for the Vancouver Aquarium. And a mobile petition application created for tcktcktck.org. I was shown an application that can give virtual tours of museums and art galleries, all on a smart phone. It was all amazing stuff.

Some of the developers were working on what they called their ’20 percent’. Nitobi has an 80/20 policy, meaning 20 percent of developer’s time can be spent working on individual and personal projects. According to Andre Charland, co-founder of Nitobi, product development has proven to be a good source of revenue, and he felt what better place to create these products then with his staff. PhoneGap is an example of a successful product built in-house. So eight hours of an employee’s 40 hour work week can be spent on doing his own thing–and he gets paid for it. Sounds like living the dream.

It was clear that fun was an integral part of this workplace. And not just the appearance of fun you sometimes see in big corporate offices to placate over-worked, over-stressed, and under-appreciated employees. These guys seemed to actually enjoy what they did and enjoy being in the office.

“We take work seriously, but not ourselves,” said Andre.

“Nitobi is the idealized fantasy of what software development is all about,” said Brian. “Other software companies are mostly cubical farms.”

At the end of the day, I was told I would be sitting in on a meeting with Mark Scott, President of D&M Publishing. As I made a few notes and waited for the meeting to start, I noticed a small group gathering around Andre’s computer. They were ogling a girly calendar–the Rad Boob Club Calendar, which was created by female skiers to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. It features photos of (fully dressed) female skiers doing daredevil moves off cliffs, soaring over highways, and plummeting down vertical drops. The guys appreciated it with the same enthusiasm one would expect from a swimsuit calendar.

As they admired ‘Miss December’, Brian proposed cracking a beer. Andre suggested waiting until Mark arrived. I assumed he meant waiting until after Mark had come and gone. Clearly I was new to the world of software development as beers were distributed ten minutes into the meeting. (And everyone, including Mark, took one.) With icy Pilsners in hand, the developers, designers, and Mark went through some of the finishing details of Book Riff, a new publishing website that will allow users to pick and choose from published books, add their own content, and have a book printed, bound, and shipped within 24 hours.

Admittedly, going into a day of software development, I figured I would be immersed in a world of computer geek stereotypes. But I was dead wrong. This office wasn’t filled with socially awkward, ill-dressed, girl-fearing men. What I discovered was quite the contrary–smart, creative, self-assured professionals who love their jobs, make super neat stuff, and work in an almost utopic office environment. Okay, maybe I have a residual soft spot for the computer-inclined because of my college boyfriend, or maybe it was the fact that they gave me free beer, but after a day of hanging out with software developers, I think they are, and what they do, is cool as hell.

Follow-up Thank You Email
Helen:
Thanks for letting me come in and follow you around. It was fun. And will definitely provide me with some good stuff for a post. It will probably take me a week or so to get a story fleshed out.
Thanks again. It was a real pleasure meeting you. Oh, and thanks for the pils.

Nitobi:
eh no worries — glad it worked out for you / let me know if you need any more details. feel free to stop by and drink our beer any time!

Helen:
You may want to reconsider your unconditional offer of free beer to someone who has no gainful employment. You may live to regret it! Will let you know if I have questions/need details. I’m sure I will.

Nitobi:
nah, anytime — fairly certain no guys here are going to complain. shit, bring some friends. =)

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2 Responses to “The Computer-Inclined”


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