Gunslinger interview: Jon North
At the heart of everything we do here at Gun.io are our incredible Gunslingers. They’re the talent we send out to tackle the big ideas and help brands build and scale. And we want to share their stories with you in a new series called the Gunslinger Interviews.
This week, Cal Evans talks with Jon North about his path to software, that one time they each did UX, and what Jon has cooking up next.
Cal: Hi, and welcome to another episode of the Frontiers podcast. Hey, we’re gonna do something a little different today–we’re gonna interview one of the people that’s active on the Gun platform. We like to call ’em Gunslingers. My name’s Cal Evans. I’m your host, and my special guest today is Mr. Jon North. Say hi to everybody, Jon.
Jon: Hello, everyone.
Cal: Now, Jon, the first thing I always like to ask programmers when I’m getting to know them is: How did you get into programming? It’s a special kind of pain that only certain people do. So, what brought you into it?
Jon: Around the turn of the century, I found myself in Maryland–Gaithersburg. I moved out there after I graduated with a math degree to live with my girlfriend, and I realized that they were paying statisticians about $28,000 a year–which even in 1999 was not that much money. So I looked in the newspaper, and I found I’m probably the last person in history who will get a job from a classified ad. I started my career at a little startup in Reston, Virginia that was doing bond trading platforms in C++, and I had just happened to take two courses in C and C++, and thus began a 25-year odyssey with really no planning, forethought, or any other such thing.
Cal: That is fascinating. So you had some C or C++ experience, and you just decided to jump right into it?
Jon: I knew what a class was, basically, and they’re like, Great. Show up and do some user interface programming for us. That was about the last time I did serious user interface–that first year–and that was it. This is like CORBA. This was like objects over the wire, you know, 1.0.
Cal: Yep. I remember CORBA. I’m also not allowed to do front end work. My wife, the lovely and talented Kathy, is a great designer and a UX person. And she has forbidden me from doing anything on UX. I’m great on the middleware or on the back end – I can massage a database like anybody, but she does not let me do anything that people can actually see. Hey, so you’ve had 20 some-odd years now of work. Obviously you’ve had some interesting projects. Tell me about your favorite project.
Jon: Maybe some recency bias here, but the thing that I liked the most that I did in the last 5-10 years: I worked for this seed stage startup that was basically about to founder. They had their prototype, it was pulling in market data about crypto exchanges. This would be trades and orders–so basically the order book for Bitcoin, from Coinbase, or from Binance or whatever, and then the existing trades over the last end. And on the basis of this information, they were gonna do some analytics. They would basically put it in a data lake and they would manipulate it a little bit and give you some volume weighted, average price–some initial reads that different trading firms might want, like sort of first at level analytics: aggregation, ontology, all that stuff.
My job was basically to build up the whole market data platform. So basically build the ability to scrape n.exchanges where the initial n was like 20, and build that so that the latency was minimal with an SLA in the several-seconds range. The idea was, you’d get it from the exchanges, and you’d drop it off at a Kafka topic. And the Kafka topic would write to another Kafka topic, and so on, as the transformations from raw to ontology to price, for example, would occur. Those things would also write out to the data lake, and we would run queries with Athena over them–and this is Amazon Athena, so it was basically SQL over files in Parquet format.
So, the gist of this was, I didn’t know anything about AWS walking in the door. I didn’t know anything about Kafka. So I learned about both of those things, and over the course of about six months of 80 hour weeks, I was able to pull together a distributed system based on lessons I had learned in several other jobs, like the things I’d seen going well–and poorly–other people’s work, my work, my successes and failures, and this was sort of my initial Opus: the thing that I was able to build that says, Okay, I think I know how to throw a distributed system together that can be highly available and that can prove that it needs its SLA. And the reason I say that’s my favorite project is that a couple of years after that project was done, I looked back and I’m like, I could probably do this for a living. I could probably launch a consultancy off of this. And that is literally what I have done. Pretty good stuff!
Cal: Wow! That is impressive. You know, listening to you talk, it strikes me that most of the great programmers that I know are like you in that they are not–I don’t know how to say this so that people understand it. They’re not in-depth, heads-down coders. The great programmers that I know know how to figure things out and learn, and they can go in and they can say, Yeah, I can see that’s gonna happen, but we’re gonna need this technology. And then they go out and figure out how to use that technology. It just amazes me–the more people I talk to, the more I run into that type of person when I’m dealing with the really talented programmers. And the junior level programmers are the ones I usually find that are [like], I’m gonna focus on this one technology. And if they make the jump to, Hey, I can figure out how to do more of those, then they become the really good ones. Hey, let’s round it out and close out with this one question, because all of us are more than just programmers. Tell me about one hobby you have outside of tech.
Jon: It’s gonna be very, very cliche, but it is the case that for 15, 20 years, I’ve had an increasing interest in cooking. I like to put [things] together on the fly–I mean, this is the sort of purple unicorn crap that I like to do on my job. I like to throw together moderately gourmet meals in an extremely fast fashion and put them down in front of my family or put them down in front of my guests. So I’m looking for a combination of visual beauty–which is not how I put systems together, I am your backend guy. I don’t care about physical beauty at all in systems. However, when it comes to putting food in front of people, I want a color balance. I want a selection of beautiful textures, you know, all the different things that make an artistic experience out of food. And then I wanna be able to cook healthy food. I want a whole bunch of things to happen at once, and I want them to happen really fast in the kitchen! So that’s a consuming passion of mine outside of work.
Cal: Pardon me for a second–I’m booking a ticket to your hometown right now! That sounds fascinating. Jon, it was just a pleasure to get to know you. I know we didn’t get to spend a lot of time together, but I just wanted to get a little flavor of what makes you tick. I want to thank you for taking the time to be with us here on Frontiers. Audience, I hope you’ve learned something. Now, if you are looking for a top-notch programmer, Jon’s on the platform, and if Jon’s not available, we’ve got other ones that you can look at. Thank you so much for spending some time with us. I’ll talk to you next time right here on Frontiers.