A few Novembers ago, the UPS guy started showing up at our door with some odd packages. Torch fuel cylinders. A vacuum machine. Heavy, elbow-length gloves. Desk-mounted tweezers.
Little chunks of gold.
See, Christmas was just around the corner, and James Hill had decided to learn cast jewelry making so as to surprise his wife with some earrings and a necklace. The office meeting table was his studio, and after a few weeks we grew accustomed to the tasks of his craft: melting gold with a torch, sucking air bubbles from a mold with the vacuum machine, filing and polishing his casts, soldering things… When all was said and done, Mrs. Ruth Hill did indeed have a merry Christmas, and James, Populi’s polymath Chief Technical Officer, had acquired another esoteric skill.
As CTO, James is the guy who imagines Populi’s innards—everything from the programming languages to the database structure to the server configurations to the relationships among different parts—and then brings it all into being, whether by corralling Populi’s development team or through the sweat of his own brow. His raison d’être here at Populi is to use computer programs to wrangle new computer programs into being, a job that requires he mix abstract conceptualizing with a comprehensive technical knowledge of his tools and infrastructure. He knows a lot about computers.
“Computers suck,” said James. “They’re overrated.”
James grew up in the scrubby plains near Hutto, Texas. He occupied his childhood reading books atop hay bales, extracting recalcitrant goats from wire fences, and, in a murky brown catfish pond, learning to scuba dive. One time he was in a pickup truck with his father that broke down on a railroad crossing. To the east, a freight train was bearing down on them. To the west, a tornado had just touched the ground. DID THEY SURVIVE? Find out in the next paragraph!
Yes, they did survive. The train stopped for the tornado, and the tornado went elsewhere. You’d forgive James if he’d just took to sucking his thumb after that, but instead he took an interest in electricity and computers. An early success: using two stainless steel mixing bowls, he built a van de Graff generator. An old computer monitor prompted more ambitious experiments that culminated one afternoon in—according to his mother Becky—”a tremendous boom” inside the house. Terrified, Becky ran upstairs and “found him holding a couple of wires from the computer a few inches apart, with a blue arc buzzing across the gap. All he said was, ‘Look at this, Mom!’” To create the arc, James had wired the machine to a metal doorsill and then plugged it into the wall. The resulting surge clapped through the house, frying two other computers and temporarily stunning the TV and a toaster.
A former Microsoft VP steered the precocious high-schooler towards a lower-voltage facet of computing: programming. James took right to it, eventually landing a summer job with Dell. The corporate culture put a sour taste in his mouth, and James spent the next few years alternating between computers and other exploits. He spent one summer chainsawing mesquite trees in hundred-degree heat. He commenced a Computer Science major at Harding College in Arkansas. Next, something completely different: James decamped to Moscow, Idaho to start a liberal arts degree at New Saint Andrews College. During his studies, the NSA brass discerned his way with software, and on more than one occasion asked him to sort out problems with their old, creaky SIS. For the most part, though, he did all he could to ignore computers, instead earning his keep as a barista.
But as he neared graduation, James suddenly found his attention directed at a girl named Ruth. Tapping on a calculator one afternoon, he realized that slinging lattés wouldn’t do if she said yes to the question he wanted to ask her. Cracking his knuckles, he took a job at EMSI‘s development department. His work on their databases, and then on their customer software, eventually earned him a fancy VP of Development job title. One day while talking with Adam Sentz about NSA’s old, creaky SIS, James realized that the two of them could replace the old system with “something better than that in about two weeks.” And the rest is history…
With Populi, James has been able to develop not just college software, but also a company and culture. “This place is the antithesis of a large corporation. Instead of being a disposable cog in a very large machine, everything you do affects the company for good or ill. And it makes no pretenses of being an all-consuming thing—we all have a lot of time for our families and other, more interesting things.” Like jewelry casting, or another recent discovery, cheesemaking. Most interesting to James is Ruth, who, having answered “Yes” to that question he asked her, now tends to their five young children—one of whom, it must be reported, once whipped a belt around a ceiling fan, swinging from an ottoman to the sofa like he was Indiana Jones. Someone get that kid a couple of mixing bowls.
“Lemme put it this way,” said James, “I have a love-hate relationship with computers. I get a great sense of satisfaction from writing clean code. But the abstraction and transience of everything I do is frustrating. Software behaves somewhat like a living organism that you have to keep alive and constantly improve. Yesterday’s clean code is tomorrow’s outdated problem. Imagine having a child who never laughs at you or isn’t cute, but who still fills his diaper all the time. That’s what software is like.”