Coding, arts, Cards Against Humanity, software, creativity, and self-imposed restraints.
Scott is a web developer and co-creator (with Naz Hamid) of Vapid, an intentionally simple content management system to create websites.
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Sim Salis (host): Scott, you are a software developer, but like your early projects show, I was looking at them, and you also trained in acoustics?
Scott Robbin (guest): That's true. Yeah. My Columbia College days, right.
Sim: The thing that we have in common is the Alma Mater. What was the path from acoustics to becoming a web developer for you?
S. Robbin: It wasn't a real choice at the time. So when I was, going to college at first at University of Iowa, I went there for a music composition.
S. Robbin: I played music in high school. I really wanted to continue it in college, so I was playing, and then I realized pretty quickly that, you know, playing music and being a performer and being a composer wasn't really, you know, wasn't my specialty. And, but at the same time I had been taking production classes in college, video production and audio production and I took this great audio production class and I said, this is fantastic. You know, what can I take next? And they said, that's it. You, you took the one class. If you want to go take more, you need to leave, you need to go somewhere else. So I, you know, I had a few choices and I ended up coming to Columbia College in Chicago. And the very first day I remember this, we were sitting in a big auditorium and there are, you know, a couple of hundred people sitting in there all on the same. The lead instructor said, you know, how many of you are here to be a recording engineer? And you know, everybody raised their hands and he said, great, you're all vying for like the three paid positions in Chicago. It's like you might want check out. We have other disciplines. Like, I'm not trying to dissuade you, but we've got, you know, live audio, we've got acoustics, we've got all this other stuff. So I sort of had that seed planted in the beginning. And then, I met one of my teachers an acoustic teacher, it was an intro to acoustics class and he was just one of the best teachers I had had ever. Some good advice had been given to me early on. You know, said if you find a good teacher, take everything you can with them. It doesn't matter what they're teaching. A good teacher is, is incredibly valuable. So I just kept taking his classes more and more and more like you're in sort of a semi-structured environment, right? There's like notes and keys and music and acoustics. There's, you know, the principles of physics, you know, and then you get to be creative inside there and decide what you want to build. And so it, it kind of, it appealed to me in the same way that music did and ended up pretty far away from doing any sort of audio engineering.
Sim: Well, coding is incredibly creative and it has the same kind of constraints that you were talking about. At least for me, I'm not a professional coder, but I can be taught, I'm one of those people that can follow instructions. So what was your first project? You graduate from school and it's a, BA in acoustics. And what is the first job that you have after school? I don't know if you had any in between, probably?
S. Robbin: No, well, I had some internships, which are nice. I did an intern, a couple of internships while I was at school. One was nice respected acoustics Firm on the suburbs and they did the renovation that, you know, Chicago, a symphony orchestra. They did Carnegie Hall, they were, you know, these big, big projects. I was there to organize it, a library. So I wasn't doing anything that interesting. But the prestige of that internship actually helped me get a job by accident. And it was a complete accident. When I was at Columbia, I was part of the Audio Engineering Society student chapter there and they were having a conference in Las Vegas. And so as part of being part of the student body, they offered to pay for us to go to Vegas to be at this conference and we could man the booth, and that was nice. And so when I was there I worked the booth and I was getting ready to leave and it was probably like an hour before I had to leave for the airport. And at the time I was a smoker. And so I went out to go have a cigarette and I was standing around, I was talking to some guys who knew one of my teachers and he was just chatting. And then we all walked back in together and we walked past one of their colleagues, and they introduced me because it had been an awkward not to, shook hands, and he said, oh, you know, if you're ever looking for a job, you know, let me know. And I was like, well, I have my resume right here. So I gave him my resume and a week later he calls me and he says, I'm, you know, I'm in Dallas, Texas, can I fly you out, you know, to interview you. And I did, and we went out to lunch and things went well and he hired me. And so like a week after I graduated college, I moved to Dallas, Texas to go work for this Acoustics Firm. And then flash forward in about three months and I'm, you know, with this guy and we go to another conference in like Seattle and we're having dinner at night and he's like, you know, so how do you know Rob and Dave? And I was like, who? And he's like Rob and Dave. And I was like, I have no idea who you're talking about. He's like, who introduced us? And I was like, oh, I'm like, I just, I had a cigarette with them. They were, they knew my teacher a little bit and he's like, I thought you were friends with them. That's kind of why I hired you. I was like, oh...
Sim: Thank you very much.
S. Robbin: Thanks. I hope I didn't disappoint you.
Sim: You ended up not disappointing them so.
S. Robbin: Well, yeah, that remains to be seen.
Sim: Well that's another story.
S. Robbin: It was just like, yeah, it was just totally wild and random. And, so it was my first job and I got a lot of experience.
Sim: Okay positive sides of smoking, getting a job.
S. Robbin: Exactly, the surgeon general doesn't tell you that.
Sim: Yeah, it should be printed on top of the pack.
S. Robbin: You don't need like a skull and crossbones. You need, like you know.
Sim: You might die, but it might also land you a job.
S. Robbin: Exactly; exactly, frankly, I thought Dallas was a miserable place to live and so I was like, I was ready to leave, it reminded me a lot of certain parts of the Chicago suburbs where you've got an expanse, you know, you have a lot of chain restaurants you had you know, strip malls and there were no sidewalks in between, strip malls, you have to drive from like one strip mall and then we'll get back in your car and drive like 20 feet to the next strip mall. Historically, I love density. I love the density of cities and I missed Chicago and I wanted to come back to Chicago. And so, what I decided to do was I left there and I came back under the guise of enrolling into a computer science program in Chicago. Summary of this is I came back for the, computer science program at DePaul College. I found myself writing accounting programs, which I thought was really boring. I met up with my old professors from Columbia College who told me about a program at Northwestern University that taught computer programming inside of the music department. So we were writing Algorithms for signal processing and you know, audio software, and I took that. So I was in Grad School for like one year, and all of this is just like, I was racking up huge amounts of student loan debt and thinking about like, what am I actually going to do when I get out of here? And one of my, classmates in from DePaul, I kept in touch with, she worked for Encyclopedia Britannica and she's like, you know, we're hiring.
Sim: Times to make those things digital.
S. Robbin: Yeah, exactly. She's like, well, it's actually just hiring in the tech support department.
Sim: So, how does your life proceed up until now today? The Path that you are here? How do you go through those things?
S. Robbin: By, yeah, also accident.
Sim: Also by accident.
S. Robbin: It’s always by accident, right?
Sim: It kind of is yeah.
S. Robbin: I mean, I feel like that it's true for everybody. You know, especially, you know, people in our age and our era is everything just kind of ends up being this weird string of events that you never could have predicted or, try to put yourself down the path and it's like this, you know, rolling and ongoing, picking up of skill sets that somehow worked their way into what you needed to be prepared for the next part of your journey. And you never really thought about it that way.
Sim: Do you see some synchronicity in that?
S. Robbin: Maybe, I'm sort of, you know, I'm fine with the randomness of it, but like it sort of works out that way and I find it pleasing.
Sim: Okay; Okay.
S. Robbin: At this point, you know, I worked for britannica during the dotcom boom bust. I worked for a School District in the suburbs for a couple of years, and then I landed a job back here in Chicago working for a real estate company, doing their website. It's great, great job, great job for the city. And I went to a party and I met this guy, met my friend Sandy, who's been my friend Sandy since then, you know, we're just talking and he said, oh, you're web developer, I'm a web developer. I just quit my job to be a freelance web developer. I was like, what? How do you do that? What is it like?
Sim: How do you pay for it?
S. Robbin: Yeah, he's like, he's like, it's easy. He's like, you know, a lot of people need developers and if you're available, people just, you know there's work for you. He's like, here's what you should do. This is like, I think in like a, maybe November or something around Christmas time, he's like, next spring come with me to, you know, South by Southwest here in Austin and then quit your job and we'll, we'll just be freelanced together. And I was like, yeah, that's great. Yeah, hilarious, and it's exactly how it happened. We went there together, we, you know, had a wonderful time, we met so many people that were doing the exact same thing that Sandy was doing and everybody had the same thing to say, which is there's work, you know, if you want work, there's work. And it's not, and I was, I always told my students, you know, you need about four months. The first month is when you're trying to find work. The second month hopefully is when you're doing it. The third is when you're waiting to get paid. And the fourth is if it doesn't work out for you, you know, a month to find a new job. And then, not too far from here, in Ravens Wood, there's a bunch of warehouses and, I think it was about like eight of us who are all doing something similar, just got an office space. It's kind of before there were a lot of co-working space.
Sim: You began your own co-working.
S. Robbin: Yeah, made our own co-working space and you know, and it wasn't that much money. And somehow we all had complimentary skills. You know, we would, some of us were writers some were, designers some were developers and you know, somebody would have a job and then everybody would kind of get to pitch in and help or make a referral to somebody. And this went on for a while and one of the groups of people that were in that office space was a company called Humanized. They were four college friends, one of which was named Aza Raskin. His Dad was Jeff Raskin, the creator of the Macintosh…
Sim: I was about to say Jeff Raskin from Apple. Okay.
S. Robbin: Yeah, I mean like weird coincidence, right? Like I didn't know him, he was a friend of a friend, and so we worked together for a while and then they ended up needing somebody to help out with some web development. So I you know, was helping with that, then Aza said, you know, I've got this other side project I've been working on. It's a music search engine called Songza, now you can tell where that he got the name from Songza, Aza and you know, would you want to work on it with me? And I said, sure. So we started working out together. And the premise was this, it was a search engine where you would, you would type in the name of a song and it would search YouTube, It would come back with the song and it would basically play the video but not show you the video. The video would be like, you know, a thousand pixels off screen but you hear it, and it turns out like if you close your eyes and you don't look at the videos, YouTube is like a great place to find music. So like, you know, we were like, are these like obscure songs? He was like, oh my God; you have like my band, the high school band song. How do you guys have this catalog? And were like, it's just YouTube you know.
Sim: See it, weren't you everything that, well not YouTube because you were kind of, you were still giving them views. So that's fine views blind views, you were giving it blind views, but yeah. So you were everything that like labels hated.
S. Robbin: Yeah, it turns out like nobody was really happy with you doing this sort of thing.
S. Robbin: The people were…
Sim: Of course, yes.
S. Robbin: People loved it, labels, YouTube hated it, It sort of exploded, you know, I think it was like 12 million page views a month. Like it was, it was nuts. You know, we thought this was like, this is it, you know, like when do I, when do I like, you know, buy my yacht? And it turns out like, like not like it didn't go that way.
Sim: Hello, I am Simone Salis and this is The Hoomanist support for this show comes from you. If you would like to keep enjoying new episodes regularly, please become a supporter now, visit hooman.ist/support. I am Simone Salis and this is The Hoomanist, today with guest Scott Robbin web developer and cofounder of vapid.com. So Scott, what did you learn from that?
S. Robbin: We ended up selling it to a company in New York that ended up turning it into more of like a traditional radio station.
S. Robbin: Or online radio, and then it got incorporated into Google Play.
Sim: Oh, okay. So the path was at the end of the day you ended up in Google play?
S. Robbin: Yes, it was a very big brief, exciting time of like those things where you know, this happens anytime you launch any project. You're like, is this going to be like enormous, in my life going to change or is it going to be a dud?
Sim: Because this thing can be, like you say, when, when you are so galvanized and then you need to resize your expectations, then you have something that maybe you incorporate in the future. Maybe not.
S. Robbin: Yeah. Yeah. I mean I learned a lot about, three things. Learned about scale and building things that you know, a lot of people can use and then realizing that you don't necessarily have to be an expert to do that. Everybody just finds themselves in a situation and use their skills to just try to make it through. And so I was like, well, if we can do that, if we can build the site beds, you know, has this volume of traffic and you know it and we're not like, I knew nothing. I still, knew nothing like relative to what I think I know now. I knew nothing about web development back then. It was just garbage thrown together. But like it worked, and that's fine.
Sim: Yeah, If the idea was good enough, I mean and the results like what's good enough for the user, the user like, oh, this is cool. I'm not paying for songs and I’m listening to them.
S. Robbin: Well, it's like, it's like, you know, I think sometimes we get into these mindsets where we're trying to build it for some like audience and we think what the audience cares about certain things. Maybe there are peers and we're embarrassed for them to see our code or to, you know, to, to see this video or auto we audio we put together. But in the end, like everybody's just like trying their best. You know, it's not, it does not. It's not. Nobody's that professional. So, we got a lot of experience and got to play around with a lot of software and grow some more. And then that sort of like led up to, I started to work for Cards Against Humanity, Cards, said we're looking for somebody to help us out with our website, at this point they were already a successful company, but they were doing everything themselves. There's eight cofounders and it's an interesting scenario and they're all talented in different ways, but they said, you know, we think we can hire a couple people to help us out. So they hired their first Customer Service hire and they hired me to help them out with a website.
S. Robbin: It’s one of those, you know, the, I think we all do it in terms of skill sets, but like what they were asking me to do was slightly above my head, but I was kind of confident enough that like by the end of the project I could get there and you know and just like, sure I can, I can do this for you.
Sim: I did TV shows like that. Can you deliver this Simone? Sure.
S. Robbin: Yeah, sure.
Sim: I will, I mean.
S. Robbin: Remember that's like half fun of I think being freelance is like, I feel like you get to explore the things you're interested in by making promises to people you know of, of something that you want to learn. You're like, oh you want to, yeah, you want to, you know, it sounds like with your project you definitely have to use this particular technology that just so happens to be something that I want to learn right now.
Sim: Yeah awesome, I mean I'm going to leave a little bit off of it. I'm going to have a bigger yeah.
S. Robbin: Yeah, give yourself enough time and yeah.
Sim: And if they're a decent person, you know, you try to deliver a good job. Like as you say, you try to hack things around, but the old suddenly your best to deliver what people are paying for.
S. Robbin: You basically understand you never over promise, you kind of know that maybe it's like a little farther than you know, but not too far but not too far. And you feel comfortable that you're going to get there. So the first idea was at that point they were only selling on Amazon. They were still like, there was, there were huge at that point.
Sim: Yeah, they started it right after it kick started, they were like top selling game on Amazon, well, board game on Amazon. Right. And then they were like, is that how Black box was born?
S. Robbin: Sort of in a meandering way, so they were selling on Amazon and when they approached me they said, you know, we're, happy. We like selling an Amazon but we want to see if we can sell direct to customers. And so they, at that point they had a couple of different expansion packs and the main game, so they created this really long box. I think it's like three or four feet long called the Bigger Blacker Box.
Sim: Sure, sure, the one with the hidden card sure.
S. Robbin: Yeah, the hidden card, exactly. And so, you know, they said this is only available, it's not going to be available on Amazon and we want to sell it. We want to create, you know, basically a single product, web store and we're going to fulfill through, you know, this particular warehouse. We want to take the orders and be able to send them to this warehouse and have them ship for us. And that was my very first job with them 2012 or 13.
Sim: Or something like that.
S. Robbin: Few, few month’s project, then we got done with that, they said, great, this went really well. We're excited, we want to build a full blown store, we want to sell all of our products on there. And so, that was a little bit bigger job than I could do. So I found some other freelancers to help me and we built that for the following year. And at that point we had the store up and running and a handful of warehouses in the country shipping these things out. And, they may have had this plan all along, but that's when they kind of revealed to me and they said, you know, we've got this great system of ways to take orders and ways to ship them. Let's see if we can do it for other people who are like us too. And that's kind of where the idea of black box came was to reuse that infrastructure for other people who are doing very similar things. Kickstarters or turning that corner of I'm selling 5, 000 of these things on Kickstarter. I'm going to manufacture 6, 000 of them. So I want somebody to help me because sending out 5, 000 packages is not an easy thing and nor is it like it's, it's not cheap. You know you go, you know cards gets a big bulk discount from FedEx because they send out all these packages. So let’s give other people the benefit of that. You know, we'll start this business and then after you send out the 5, 000 packages you have a 1, 000 of them left. They're just sitting in our warehouse. We can give you a little widget to put on your website. That's a full checkout process. So you can immediately turn that corner from being Kickstarter sales to day to day sales without having to really know or do anything. That idea of like, because they'd been selling on Amazon so long, but when you sell something on Amazon, it's the Amazon brand is front and center. Like nobody cares about the thing that they're buying. They do, but they're, the box comes and it's got the Amazon tape. And so I think Cards looked at that equation and said, you know, it's a problem, obviously we want to make money and it's great that Amazon sells stuff, but like they themselves and people who are starting Kick starters are really trying to like develop their brand. So what if when this package arrived, when the email arrived during this other [inaudible 20:50].
Sim: Customize the experience for the...
S. Robbin: For the brand, and you know, and there's still some, you know, it's kind of like square. If you're using square at a coffee shop, you know, you're using square, you might get a little square, you know, it's a very formatted receipt. But like they're still telling you, you went to, you know, the coffee studio, you know, and I think Cards wanted to put that experience forward a little bit.
Sim: Wanted to rebalance the equation a little bit further, yeah that's a great approach, especially, you know, as you say it, Amazon squeezes link. It doesn't matter if 12th south makes an original product, the Chinese knockoff is going to be much cheaper on Amazon and that doesn't matter to the algorithms and to the company, and all the intellectual work and physical work behind it. Yeah. That's great. So this was um, also good experience because you started like solo and then eventually built a small team for a new product like that and it was, it was nice.
S. Robbin: Yeah, it was nice and like, and that was mainly what was going on and was building that product. But you know, again it was one of those things where, you know, the first project I did with them; I kind of hardly knew how to build an ecommerce platform and then over the years picked up skills.
Sim: You learn in it.
S. Robbin: Yeah.
Sim: When did you start, is there ever a moment when you feel confident enough? You seem very conscious of never been able to reach a barrier and you're like, well I'm done. Like you seem very conscious of that, but is there a moment in your life when you looked at yourself and you're like, I got this.
S. Robbin: I mean looking back, I mean, you know, in retrospect, it's really like, it's, it's fun to see where you've come and the things you've learned. You know, I suffer from imposter syndrome just like everybody else, you know, in releasing Vapid or any of these other things. I'm always just worried like this is the time where everybody's going to find out I'm a fraud and this is thing I built is like pile of shit.
Sim: You know Scott that's why I invited you here.
S. Robbin: This is an intervention.
Sim: Now everybody is listening, Naz is going to puff out.
S. Robbin: I think it's part of that, like you're like a fear kind of like a, you know, a little flutter that's going on and a nervousness and then you sort of achieve calm by like, you know, satisfying whatever requirement you're trying to build. You know? And so every time you launch something, it's a nervous excitement. It's probably what you feel like at an Improv too. You're just not sure if like this time everything's going to go off the rails and it's going to flop and, and, you know, and sometimes it does and it's okay. And you can walk ahead and be like, wow, I learned something from it. Sometimes it doesn't, and you're like, oh I got it. You know…
Sim: Look at that it went through.
S. Robbin: You get like a brief moment of like feeling really good about yourself and then you feel, you know, then you turn inward again.
Sim: Yeah, yeah like what can I do now?
S. Robbin: Yeah exactly.
Sim: But so you have the little amount of as a moment of satisfaction and legitimizing your work.
S. Robbin: Tiny moments.
Sim: Tiny moments.
S. Robbin: Very tiny, moments.
Sim: Tiny, tiny intersections in between. Vapid, how can you explain that to a non-technical person? What is vapid? Because it's really interesting to me in the portion that I can understand and I'm able to, and it seems small and polished and thoughtful.
S. Robbin: Thank you, so I think the best way to describe it without actually going into technical detail is, you know, building websites is like anything else you do in this world. You know, you sort of set out to do the job of building a website. And along the way, you start realizing all the skills that you don't have to build the website. And so you back up and you're like, how do I, you know, how do I get this thing to work? You know, how do I get it up on a server? You know, people want secure sites, now how do I make sure it doesn't crash? You know, people are looking at it and you kind of start working back and next thing you know, like you're two months in, 10 steps back, learning a bunch of skills just to get back to the point of being able to build a website. You know, like doing the podcast, you're like; I want to make a podcast. You're like, you don't learn about microphones. You got to learn the software. You have to learn how to get it up on to iTunes and all this other stuff.
Sim: Sure and you, and let me interject on this, because as a person that podcasts need to have websites, not just that and it's not like in the 90s you open a tech [inaudible 24:53] and it's html. If you [inaudible 24:55] want to make your website. You either go to somebody that kind of gives it to you with this content management system, it's and the most famous our war press or the omnipresent Squarespace, bless them. Sure they're great but, you can't really do it from scratch on your own and have full control. It's like Cards against Humanity that wants to control the full experience and situation. You kind of either you learn about, having a private server and node, and it's a bunch of stuff that in the 90s didn't exist and it makes it very, very complex. And looking at Vapid it narrows it down to something simpler. Right; right.
S. Robbin: And as you're learning these skills, as you're learning about like node JS, you're reading articles on medium about how you should never learn node JS. Like somebody's like pulling you away from the thing you're doing, like it's this constant like cycle of doubt and, and realizing that you need to like sort of taking even a further step back to learn something, you know? And so you know, you, you sort of have to go back and then trace your way back forward. And this is true of web development, and so what Vapid is essentially saying, look, here's an easy way to build a website. And the only thing that you need to know, you really need to know is html, which a lot of people learn. You know, while they're, building stuff and all the other stuff, all the languages and databases and servers, we're going to push it to the side, but it comes at a price. You know, it's a constrained system. And so embrace the constraint. It limits you to the types of things you can do, that are more complex things and there's Word Press and beyond that let you do a lot more. But for most things, and most sites that feel like we build this is enough. And so if you embraced that constraint, you can get to the task at hand. And then later if you decide you need more complexity, you should be able to take what you've built here and move onto the next thing. And you don't feel like you're locked in and you don't feel like you've done a bunch of proprietary stuff. You feel like you know, your first step is a step forward. And so one of the premises was, look, we should be able to, you should be able to read the actual, the homepage of this thing and come away understanding like 80% of what you need to know and understand immediately whether or not it's for you or it's not for you, you know, which is hard to do these days. I feel like anything that you want to get into, you find yourself reading, you know, articles and documents and digging into it and you're like, it's hard to get an information upfront.
Sim: Well, Word Press at this point in this field has become the thing that everybody, well if you want to make a website, it's something that even people with no technical knowledge are going to know about. But t has become this all-encompassing monster off content and codes that is just everything on top of everything else on top of a market of plugins on top of it's something that really takes much of your time if you're a content creator or a person that just wants to present the material. And what, who was visiting the web? The Black Box website. I thought that the design, if, people listening go on Vapid.com and then Black Box there is a vague resemblance in the style of that. Do you work the designs yourself?
S. Robbin: That’s Naz yeah.
Sim: That’s Naz.
S. Robbin: Yeah, Naz and I have like a really wonderful relationship in that he's a very technical designer. Like he can, he can do all the code stuff and I'm a developer that has design sensibilities but not necessarily the skills, but we, meet and crossover in the middle and we do a lot of really interesting things together and have great conversations, very fluid conversations.
Sim: Now which obstacles have you been, trying to smoothen and now with Vapid? What is your timeline? What is, your idea for the project in the future? Where would you like to go?
S. Robbin: Yeah, I think, the interesting part is, you know, I'm maybe not new to startups, but I'm not all that graced with how to run an open source community. So that's been new because you have, you know, people that are contributing that have ideas about features that they want to see, bug reports, which are wonderful. And so it's, you know, you, you sort of working on this thing, I was working on it for maybe about two years, you know, before we released it. You know, it's just you, it's just you and this thing and it's wonderful and then all sudden you open it up and then, you know. Yeah, yeah. And in good ways, you know? And so it's, it's trying to find a way to like engage people and you know, and listen to them and hear what they want it to be also and try to let go a little bit, you know, not, not steer it so directly, but, but enough that it maintains its form.
Sim: Okay. It's is the art of balancing a father ship of the product and also being open enough to understand and take the feedback to make it a better product.
S. Robbin: Yeah. I mean it's a, it's a really hard thing. If your premise of the something is like, Hey, this thing is really constrained you know, and then you're like, now give me your feedback about how you'd like it, less constrained. You know, it's, it's a hard thing to manage because you're like, somebody gives an idea and you're like, that's great, but like that's a Wardress thing and maybe it's not our thing, and like am I being too stubborn or maybe it should be, it should have that thing.
S. Robbin: You know…
Sim: That's a hard role because you, end up being, you have to be the good judge and you, as long as you question yourself on the ability to, understand that, I think you're on a good track with that. I think, and I don't, I don't want to create, it's a different, a simple markup language like John Gruber did with Markdown, but there might also be the feeling, right, if, you know, at first you'd deploy this thing like Markdown is like, here is 10 features or at least declaring what it should be or what, and then you go like, well, but we would like to integrate tables and you're like, well the tables is more like excelled in Markdown…
S. Robbin: Yeah, yeah and then, maybe I'll be like, well, we'll allow regular html in there and people are like, I don't want regular html, I want a Markdown version of tables. And they were like, oh you know.
Sim: Yeah it’s like oh guys.
S. Robbin: It's like, you know, and this is not comparing Vapid in any way, but it's like, it's like the phoned, everybody was making phones with like, you know, palm pilots and like keyboards. And then the iPhone came out and had like a one button, you know, and everybody's like, well, where's my, where's my buttons? You know, and like, and but like you're, trying to go this conversation and be like, just trust me and that if we try this thing, we may find out that it might be, maybe you need more than one button, but like, let's at least give a try.
Sim: Let's see what happens.
S. Robbin: You know. But I like to think that there's like, there's some like engineer inside of apple who's like, he's just like, he's just arguing and had been for like 10 years. He's been arguing for like a second button. He's like, we can do so much more if we just had another button. And then like they come up with a new version of iPhone and they get rid of the button altogether and this guy like runs screaming mad outside and you're just like now zero buttons.
Sim: Runs through the wall.
S. Robbin: Yeah.
Sim: It’s just that.
S. Robbin: But it's like, it's, that sort of thing is like people have expectations of what they're used to and you're trying to get them to say, I know you want this, but like give this thing a chance. And then maybe in six months we'll talk about what it is that you really like. What's important to you though, huh?
Sim: Hello, Simone Salis here. This is The Hoomanist; honest conversations for technologically aware contemporary humanists get new episodes as soon as they are released on apple and Google podcasts, Spotify, Alexia or on hooman.ist. I am your host Simone Salis and this is The Hoomanist, today's guest, Scott Robbin. Scott is a web developer who works as product director and lead developer for Cards Against Humanity and Black box and together with Naz Hamid he co-created Vapid, which is a new simple content management system to create websites. And Scott, you're a parent, right?
S. Robbin: I’m a parent, yeah I'm a parent, I'm an open source parents. I'm also a parent, parent.
Sim: You’re an open source parent? Who are the contributors to the project?
S. Robbin: Yeah, are you talking about my real kids or the?
Sim: Your real kids, yes.
S. Robbin: Real kids yes Oh goodness everybody. Well that's a great parallel. So for a long time it was just my wife and I and we just got to control and shape them every single way we wanted to. And then, you know, obviously the grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins got involved. And then recently, you know, our youngest went off to kindergarten and all of a sudden like.
Sim: So, the school system.
S. Robbin: Yeah, he's learning swear words and like, you know, and like, there's all these other influences and you're like, I don't have as much control as I used to, but also like, that's kind of the point, isn't it? You know, over time to like, let go a little bit.
Sim: I'm not a parent, so I can in theory understand that. But I think it's a beautiful, you know, point.
S. Robbin: I think long-term letting go, you know, is probably true for like all sorts of things in our lives. I've just becoming a little more relaxed and okay, with change.
Sim: Okay, yeah. Yeah. Nice synchronicity. I found a quote that you would like, maybe I maybe be wrong, but I think that it's a quote that you like, it's 'sometimes good art is just knowing when to stop.
S. RobbinOh, I love that one.
Sim: Yeah, and I think it's pretty connected to what you were saying right now.
S. Robbin: Did I post that somewhere or did you just find it? Because that speaks to me.
Sim: I know that it speaks to you.
S. Robbin: Do you know why it speaks to me?
Sim: I might, but maybe you should tell me.
S. Robbin: So I drone on about this quite a bit. There's the movie Six Degrees of Separation with Will Smith. Is that, is that where it came from?
S. Robbin: Yeah. Right, exactly, so there's that wonderful scene in there where Donald Sutherland is talking about how he's at his child's, you know, kindergarten class and he's looking at all these like wonderful paintings, you know, and every one of them is Matisse, you know, how, how, you know, and he goes to the kindergarten teacher, teach me how, you know, what can I want to learn from you? And she said, I don't do that. Anything special. I just know when to take them away, you know? And it's this great idea of just like, it nothing is entirely in our control, you know, sometimes, you know, it's just sort of letting go and letting the thing kind of spin off and do its own thing a while or just be in its current state.
Sim: What are some things that it seems like you're learning this through your work with code. You're learning this in your personal life by being a parent. What are some things that were hard to let go partially in your life, but eventually there was the right decision?
S. Robbin: That’s a good one. I really get, I really, identify with a thing that I'm working on right now. You know, I wrap up my identity into it, you know, so when I was in college or like a band that I was in, you know, that's all it was for me. It was just thinking about that and working on it. And when it ends, it's, you know, its mourning, mourning the loss of that thing, you know? Songza was the same way; I was really depressed when I left Songza because I just thought about that for so long. Even Black box and you know Cards, I mean I'm still there kind of now, but it's hard because it's something that I, you know, it was who was had, you know, it was just occupied my thoughts for years, you know? And so some ways Vapid is like a rebound project, you know, like it lets me focus on something new to kind of forget the old. It's that stuff that, you know, it's sort of, you know, in between your thoughts, you kind of let, you know when you're in the shower or you're on a walk you like, it's something to kind of like, just think about and it gives you momentum. It's like a nurser for your life of this project that kind of needs, you know, needs you.
Sim: That's the image that I have when you talked about that because like I was picturing Black box like a small planet and you are, well your orbit is around that and then eventually you have enough momentum to break out of the orbit. And then Vapid is there as another planet and you start to be around that.
S. Robbin: But the times in between are like really kind of scary because then you've got nothing. That's the point, you know you were mentioning [inaudible 37:22] earlier; it was like when all the doubt seeps in. I was feeling really good when I was attached to Black box but now that I've gotten nothing, do I have anything? Like what, what do you know? Do I have skills? Do I, it was at the end of the line was I just kind of riding a high and now I'm going to go have to, you know.
Sim: That’s it.
S. Robbin: You know get a the job at IBM?
Sim: Wake up in the morning, fix them…
S. Robbin: Yeah exactly.
Sim: Fix for a few hours, that code maybe automate your way out of it a little bit. And people think you're working more than you.
S. Robbin: But you know, and then you find something new, any project in your life, it just, it makes you feel good cause there's, you know, the upper learning curve again.
Sim: And in your spare time. I notice that you have some like open Government projects for Chicago one is Sweep around U. S, Sweep around US.
S. Robbin: Yeah; yeah.
Sim: What is your purpose for this? So you see your new and managing this like open source projects, but you are not new at creating something that is useful for the community in your free time. What is your drive to do that?
S. Robbin: Well in some of it was necessity. Living in Chicago, I got a lot of parking tickets, but then, you know, it, it felt good. It's, I think we live in a time where everybody's trying to build everything for a global scale, you know, and when you get to build something that just affects you and what you think. I mean, Chicago is not small, but it's not thinking worldwide. It's thinking, here's a tool that's useful for a small subset of people. Which you know, is Vapid at its heart, it's a very specific tool for a small group of people and it's it, you know, it's kind of self-identify as if you're not part of this group, you probably don't need this and you can move on, and that's okay. The streets sweepings was, you know, something similar or there was one, it's defunct now, but it was, was mycartowed.com and it was just like your car was towed. Like I came out where's my car? You put in your license plate and it checks the City database and says, yeah, you got towed and here's where you can find your car. You know, and I got a lot of feedback. I would submit it to like, you know, hackathons and contest and people be like, yeah, but once they use it one time, they don't need it anymore. And I was like, yeah, that's what's great about it.
Sim: Sometimes things are like.
S. Robbin: We're the, how are you going to keep people around? How are you going to monetize it? And I'm like, you don't like, it's fine to have this thing that's like useful in the moment and then it's gone.
Sim: How do you approach your, digital life with that? Because most, this is the attitude that drives me insane. That is the goal of everybody is to get you started the thing the most and go back at it and look at it. And that's how notifications work and everything, and in my, on my phone I will know it's a hybrid, but at some point I had this approach. I was like, the notification can be on if comes from a real human being one, and that's the only case. I don't want any apps going like he needs the thing to check, no shut up. And then the APP is on my home screen only if, it's a service that I opened and I don't get sucked into, but I use it once, say GPS, maps, say transit, and say yellow pages. And that was my, that was my approach. But you seem very much aware as a developer and as a human being of this for how do you approach that in digital life?
S. Robbin: I mean, I sort of, it has evolved over time, but I'm the same way. Like I'm very, I try to be very deliberate about how I use something. We're starting to feel the fatigue of constantly being…
Sim: That’s the right push; It is a brain fatigue being of constantly trying that.
S. Robbin: And to tie it back together Aza Raskin recently started with some other people, a foundation I guess or some sort of organization that helped, but you know, I think it's, a problem that we're going to need to solve.
Sim: Well, you know, we have limited attention, and we have limited time in general and we need to learn to let go. So looking at your future, what, what do you think is one thing that matters to you at the end of the day? At the end of the journey, family with the community, like with yourself. What is one thing that you look back and we were like, I am glad, I'm proud that I cared about that in my life?
S. Robbin: I hope it's more about the community when it's all said and done. 10 years from now, you know, Vapid may not even be around or web development will be done by Artificial Intelligence and they won't need us anymore. And that's fine, I think that idea of, you know, communication with people and, sort of helping people also learn, you know, it's kind of the thing that that sparked, teaching a little bit. And I think that this is, you know, Vapid's a vehicle for building websites, but it's about helping people along that path to like building something and you know, and if, you know, in 10 years from now someone come back and not remember what Vapid's about, but they remember, you know, a point in their life where they learned something along the way from this. I think that that would be time well spent. I also think if you know, the idea of shutting complexity and you know, embracing constraint and embracing simplicity were something that, I mean I think that there's, something about constraint that lends itself to, in a sense like doubt. You're faced with a situation where you feel like you can't have access to everything you need to complete something. We start, you know, questioning whether or not, you know, our skills, if we're capable. Like if you're only given a screwdriver to build a house, you're like, that can't possibly be done. You know? And then somebody is like, well yeah, you could turn it around and kind of hammer with the back of it. You know? I'm like, I mean you can't actually build a house...
Sim: Sure but like being forced to report per say.
S. Robbin: Yeah, you have to be more creative and clever and resourceful. I think it's sort of like, it's like a really small burst of like maybe how we feel over a long period of time about doubts and setting goals and overcoming, like if you can kind of squeeze that into like a small little thing, and just test yourself quickly and then succeed quickly, I think it builds confidence. You know, you figure out whether or not it's succeeded or failed and it builds confidence by knowing that you survived it or it went well. I love things like those movies that were either, it's like the entire movie is set in like one scene.
Sim: Or like Dogme95 those kind of things.
S. Robbin: I like Buried with Ryan Reynolds and you're just like, you're like the entire movies in a coffin underground. Like, how's that going to work? That's going to be an awful movie. Like there's no way you're going to be able to entertain me for two hours, you know? But somehow it happens and then you just like, delighted cause you're like, that's incredible. How did you do that? You know, how did you pull off an interesting storytelling without changing the, the, the viewpoint? It's that much more enjoyable.
Sim: Do you think that constraints are able to, help develop creativity, creative solutions if they come from the outside or if they are self-imposed in the same way?
S. Robbin: I think they both are really interesting projects to do. If they come from the outside. I think we certainly start off in life, you know, by people giving us challenges and constraints and we work through them. You know, ideally at some point we kind of become masters of that, at least for ourselves, where we can create our own challenges. We set our own goals. But I still think, you know, even to this day, I really love when somebody else gives me constraints. But it's so enjoyable to have somebody else set that up for you. I mean, games, that's what games are to me. Somebody else setting the constraint.
Sim: What is the way that technology can help to reveal closed and constructive communities? Do you have any idea? I know this is a very broad question but.
S. Robbin: I think that, you know, I don't participate all that much in social media, but I think that the, the real benefit or the way that, you know, it can benefit communities is by offering means to, you know, to help people. But a lot of social media as we know right now is about showing or sharing something, you know.
Sim: It is a little bit like of a constant show.
S. Robbin: Yeah, it is. It is. But you know, I know people that use Facebook communities, I know people that have used it for grief when they've had a loss and people are there and they're supportive and it's been very useful to them. My wife is as you know, a very active member of groups that involve mothers, like new mothers and people that need help and you know, they, they come together as community in like ways. Wonderful ways that I, you know, I haven't experienced, but I see they benefit communities.
Sim: So, we go back to forums
S. Robbin: I think [inaudible 45:56] like forums without like the people kind of crashing it and making it a horrible place.
Sim: Okay, and kind of like elections for moderators.
S. Robbin: Yeah, exactly I mean, my dad, is a big, he's a big fan of classic cars, and so 20 some years ago, probably even 30 now, he started in a classic car club. And in the car club they had a forum, right? They had a monthly newsletter that would get mailed out to people, you know, and they were constantly writing should, they're like letters, like writing letters to each other or your emails. But they built this like amazing community of people, very, very tight knit community. But it was based on like helping each other and answering questions, like you said with forums. And I think that's maybe the way it moves forward. It maybe it's something a little bit more focused than a forum with the ease of, of all the tools we have now to post things online. It filters out a little bit more of the, you know, hey, look over here type thing.
Sim: Okay. So the next evolution of Vapid is going to be called, thoughtful, and it's going to be a forum system.
S. Robbin: Yeah this is going to be a forum system, actually this is the first time speaking of trying to become a better community moderator, we installed a forum to have people ask questions.
Sim: Nice, okay.
S. Robbin: I haven't been involved in that many forums before and it's been really nice connecting with people and just like in helping them out and, and you know, approaching each question from the standpoint of like, this person took the time to come here and ask a question. Yeah because I think it's really easy to get bothered by people. You know, this is like, this is like the, the sort of, you know, the downside of attention. You know, when, when you first do something you want everybody to like look at you and every single time somebody interacts with you, you're really excited. And then after a while like the kind of high goes away, and then these are people that just need something from you and then you're like a little less receptive and you know, and how do you approach every interaction from a fresh standpoint?
Sim: So apathy is a matter of, constant recommitment refocusing attention.
S. Robbin: I think so. I think it's, it's like whether it's, you know, through a company culture, if you're a company or you know, or individually just like, you know, thinking about the qualities of the person on the other end of the equation, you know, how does, how do the rolling stones come out every night and play, get satisfaction and get excited about it? How do they do it? I must have to think about how much they love their fans. They must've liked have to psych themselves up.
Sim: Even more, what puzzles me is like standup comedians that take a standup comedian that does the same joke 400 times. And how do you feel that I uh, yeah?
S. Robbin: How do you do it with any sort of passion? I mean it must be, it must be, you know…
Sim: It becomes a technical thing I think like to you there is less emotion involved then. I don't know. That's how I approach. I'm just trying to figure it out because, another thing that I do for a job is reading one liners, in Italian, like The Onion style, and read them in front of the camera and some of those, I read 200 times or on a recording they are shooting day sometimes I think the most, that I read, it was like almost 401 liner jokes during a day and people look at me or leave a comment is like, how does he stay serious? I was like, because I, it's not funny to me anymore. To me it's a game of how to read and put the intonation at the right moment with the punch line. So I don't know, it's just maybe refocusing. Maybe you just become more detached and unemotional.
S. Robbin: I've heard about that like in The Onion in the writer's room, it's just like people like sharing ideas, but like nobody's laughing.
Sim: Well, Scott Dickers, one of the founders of The Onion let me tell I had a couple chances to interact with him and like having that [inaudible 49:41] in a joke's been read at him. The most that happens if he's lightly curves the mouth to the left.
S. Robbin: That’s how they know.
Sim: Yeah, that's when you know that at least that's what I figure maybe it needs brain, the process is totally different, but there's what it was, it was like, Oh the guy moved his mouth a little bit. It must be the best jokes ever written on the planet earth like that. But so you were experiencing that, throughout the projects you are also noticing how sometimes the reason is like high and then it gets exhausted and you eventually need to refocus your attention and energies to being committed in making the product better and better and better.
S. Robbin: Yeah, and then you know, it's one of those things like Vapid is an interesting situation or any of these things are where you're building something that's highly technical where the end product is hopefully something that doesn't require a lot of technical ability. So how do you, how do you maintain a connection with the people who were using this thing? If, if you feel like they're not necessarily, you know, facing the same challenges.
Sim: So being the user and the creator at the same time can help you make the product better maybe?
S. Robbin: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think community is something that, you know, I hope, I hope this thing is remembered for
Sim: Scott Robbin today on The Hoomanist. Thank you, Scott.
S. Robbin: Thank you.
Sim: Scott Robbin is a Web Developer who worked as Product Director and Lead Developer. He also created Vapid.com an intentionally simple content management system for developers, designers, and everyone. You can learn more about that on Vapid.com