Steve was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How / why did you get into GIS? Or is it geo? Or spatial? What did you get into?
A: Ever since I was a little kid I LOVED maps – especially those cartograms in the atlas books, like Rand-McNally. Then in college I took an ink and vellum cartography class and loved it as well. In my junior year of college I did a research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascades. I chose to look at windthrow across the landscape. They had a GIS system with Arc/Info on Sun machines with the shelf full of manuals. I said: “What is this magic, computers and maps together” – I was instantly hooked for life. I digitized in their forest cover map on a big ole’ digitizer stand with a puck digitizer. From then on during my Masters and PhD I made sure to include spatial elements so I could get my hands on spatial technology: GIS, remote sensing, GPS…
Q: Are you more or less geo these days? How do you feel about that?
A: Working at Yale, I was an internal consultant to faculty, building all sorts of technology integrations for them, some of which was spatial. When I was at Red Hat I was less geo. Both of these experiences were really exciting – especially being able to bring the spatial examples and ideas to the larger technology world. But it was also great to bring the larger technology world back to spatial. I have always been a person who likes to mix different worlds and mixing these areas has been really fun for me. So I am not full spatial now (never go full spatial) but in certain ways I have more exposure to deep spatial expertise.
Q: You recently took a role with Crunchy Data. What does Crunchy Data do, and what will you be doing there?
A: Crunchy Data is a PostgreSQL company based off a similar model to Red Hat. We hire core contributors to PostgreSQL, like Tom Lane, Paul Ramsey, and Martin Davis. All software development gets contributed back upstream or at least Open Sourced, like our container work. We make our money off of support, training, and being the experts when people need it. My role there is to help application developers (end users) appreciate all the greatness of PostgreSQL. I focus on creating content and spreading information to make developers happy and successful on PostgreSQL in general and the Crunchy Data work in particular (like our work in containers).
Q: You are known as a strong advocate for open source, and a strong environmentalist. Are these two related?
A: Actually I think it comes more from my science and financially poor grad student background. Science usually pushes for open sharing of results and data, FOSS provides the ability to actually see the algorithms. As a grad student I was always resentful of being at the mercy of software companies about whether or not they would make their software available with decent pricing. And then, finally being in an ecology program, and then working at Yale in the social sciences, there was also a lack of funding and lack of size to drive feature development in software companies. So using software like Apache, R, PostGIS (QGIS wasn’t really around then), allowed us to do reproducible work, fund small features we wanted, and deploy them or give to students to run anywhere they want. In summary I think the strong correlation in me comes from FOSS and Science.
Q: Can a person be idealistic and pragmatic at the same time? How about an organization? Explain.
A: For sure, because they can operate at different scales. Idealistic can be a way to set long-term goals and vision, but you can be pragmatic in your tactics to get to your goal. Even so for an organization. That said you do need a careful balance. If you translate pragmatic to huge profits or exponential growth then this becomes much harder.
Q: Can you explain to me Kubernetes in a way that I can use in a social setting and sound smart?
A: Containers allow you to both install software and the configuration so that you can just do “container run” which gets everything running. This is game changing for both normal server software like geoserver or apache HTTPD but also for custom-built applications. But once you get the container running you run into all sorts of issues of how you run this for real. Like how do you route traffic to the application, how do you scale it up and down, how do you keep it running if it crashes. Kubernetes handles all those issues for you. It allows you to do that by writing a JSON or YAML file that defines how everything is “installed” and configured (this is called declarative infrastructure). So now on a developers machine running minikube (a small developer install of Kubernetes) they can develop their containers and the architecture. They can then give that to ops who can take the same containers, tweak the declarations to match staging or production, and away they go.
Q: You are a frequent speaker at tech conferences. Where do you stand on happy hour vs teatime at conferences?
A: I prefer tea time. I think alcohol should be left for people going out personally at bars afterwards. Alcohol being served at events, while making some social interactions easier, can actually lead to some negative consequences as well, especially around sexual harassment. Also, if I have one drink it usually just makes me sleepy – so tea time and fresh berries please. Tea has just as much variety as beer (if not more) so we can get all hipster with it as well.
Q: You have publicly challenged our own Randal Haleand his trademark phrase “Holy crap”, claiming prior art. How would you like to see the issue resolved?
A: Simple as Randal declaring me supreme ruler of the universe – that should suffice.
Q: You have been very open about your bout with cancer. In a recent tweet thread you addressed the fake “You can do it!” positivity that is common in today’s social discourse in general, and almost expected when talking to cancer patients. Why is this so prevalent, and what does it say about our society?
A: My main point with the response is that you should start by asking the person what they want, not just assume that the popular narrative of how people deal with cancer is the way this particular person is dealing with it. For me, the whole “kick its ass” didn’t really resonate with me – I preferred more of a “I hope you have an interesting experience and finding peace with it all”. Who knows if I would have gone to a different place had my cancer been terminal. Anyway, I think humans have a tendency to take a mental model (which are helpful in general) and overuse it for every situation they get into.
Q: What do you look forward to?
A: Spending time with my partner, Angelina, hiking and chilling with my dogs, watching anime and hiking with my kids, playing video games, fly fishing, and finally some good birdwatching. Those are things I look forward to, the good things in life.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: Hell no, I generally do not like the whole hipster movement except as something to make fun of. I mean I appreciate people who are hipsters and can laugh about it. But really I am more about average geo person, helping them get shit done, and hoping they feel good about themselves when doing it.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: You are good enough, you are smart enough, and gosh darn it people like you.