“My job is to go kill the theory bison and then drag its carcass back so that everyone can eat it.”
Programming for Programmers
When Steve Klabnik walks onto the back patio of Fritzl’s Lunch Box in Bushwick to join Tyler, Gregg, and me around a rickety table, it’s as if we already know each other. In a way, some of us do —the way you can know somebody from the Internet. But Steve also carries himself with welcoming assurance. He’s wearing his typical outfit: a black hoodie and skinny black jeans. The mohawk that used to get him confused with Skrillex is gone. He sits down resolutely, responding to Twitter with one hand, ready to be bombarded by questions both from us and his followers.
Steve is one of the world’s leading Ruby on Rails committers. Last year, he made over 1400 public contributions (“Wow, I’ve been slacking off, it used to be 2300”) and is the 200th most active GitHub user. He has built numerous Ruby Gems, and works as an educator for several projects. He taught programming at Jumspstart Lab. He’s spoken at countless conferences around the world, and recently started working for Mozilla to produce documentation and the original tutorial for the less-known programming language Rust.
Ruby on Rails, or Rails for short, is an open source web application framework which runs on the Ruby programming language. If you’ve visited Basecamp, Hulu, Scribd, Slideshare, Funny or Die, GitHub, or Twitter in the early days, you’ve used web applications built with Rails. The software that powers Mask Magazine is also built with Rails.
Besides being a prolific programmer, Steve is an outspoken anti-capitalist and Deleuzian who reads lots of philosophy. For example, he published the text “Deleuze for Developers”. Yesterday, he launched a new blog exploring the intersection between philosophy and technology: metaphysics.io.
Being a public figure in the tech world and advancing a public political agenda is uncommon among most programmers, so it’s not surprising he often finds himself in heated Twitter arguments. Accordingly, while we order food, Steve’s phone lights up over and over with notifications.
What’s today’s Twitter controversy?
I’m caught up in this argument on Twitter with a bunch of people. It’s about whether you need to study theory to become a programmer. People only see the first half of the problem. Yes, you don’t need to study theory to become a programmer, that’s not what I’m talking about. To make a terrible analogy: nobody expects plumbers to have a physics degree but they do have to know some things about water physics, and that can be learned in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve getting a physics degree. And that is super cool, totally valid, and not a problem. But that doesn’t mean that physics degrees are bullshit or not useful to plumbers.
How do you like Brooklyn?
Brooklyn is amazing and wonderful. New York City in general is. I’ve learned that I need variety, and you can definitely find that here. It’s kind of a country of it’s own. At some point, Bloomberg said that if the NYPD was an army, it would be the 7th largest army in the world. [Turns out it wasn’t true,] but in a certain sense, that’s the scale of New York— it’s massive.
I often pick a new neighborhood and just go to work out of different coffeeshops or parks. I realized they don’t turn off free wifi when the stores close so I’ve sat outside of Macy’s on 34th St at like 4:30 AM programming away, because why not?
Steve is originally from Pittsburgh, PA, and admits that, technically, he started coding at age 7. But he doesn’t really want to talk about that.
I kind of shy away from that fact because it perpetuates this bad stereotype. There’s this weird fetishization of young people who are good at programming and who end up being programmers. The programming I did from age 7 to 22 is worth the same amount of time as the programming I did from 22 to 24. One year during that time period isn’t qualitatively the same as one year of time in my adult life. I know a lot of people who started writing code in college who are really good programmers.
How did you become interested in philosophy and anti-capitalist theory?
I’ve always enjoyed intellectual stuff and been a theory-inflected person. But I started taking that more seriously when several personal events in my life eventually led to me being an anti-capitalist. My anti-capitalism is intrinsically tied to my interest in theory.
I was raised republican and Catholic and never thought critically about it. I like to joke that libertarians are republicans who met a gay person they actually liked. I became a libertarian in college when I made some gay friends.
I also almost married this girl I went to high school with and she left me for someone in World of Warcraft. At that point I decided that I needed to reevaluate my life. Laughs. When I came to think about it, I realized that I’d only ever assumed that all these things I thought of the world were true, because they were told to me and I never bothered to question them. So I decided to be a hard core libertarian.
The very first instance that led to me to becoming an anti-capitalist was that I was reading some stuff and had this epiphany. I thought, the fundamental problem of the world is definitely the accumulation of wealth; that’s totally a problem, and libertarians should figure out how to fix that. I didn’t really understand what a big idea that was. I'd never read any Marx or anything like that. I was totally ignorant but semi-independently I decided that that was the problem.
Our grilled cheese sandwiches arrive.
So then the G20 came to Pittsburgh, and I went to it. I didn’t really know what the G20 was, but the fact that people felt the need to fight cops over it meant that it was probably a big deal. As a libertarian, I vaguely didn’t like the cops already. Because I’m a nerd, I dressed like this.
Steve points at his clothes. All black.