misty xicum

Jacob Thornton Hates Computers

Engineer at Medium, the builder of Bootstrap and a not-so-secret lit nerd

Jacob Thornton, an engineer at Medium, speaks hyperbolically almost out of habit, but when he says, “I hate computers,” he’s not entirely joking. “I dropped out of grad school to work at Twitter,” he continues. “I was going to study sociology at the New School—I did a PhD for about a week—and I always thought I would re-enter academia. I really liked critical theory.”

Thornton cringes if you call him by his last name but happily answers to @fat. He is known for Twitter Bootstrap, built with friend and ex-Twitter colleague Mark Otto, but the former literature major also likes to reference Deleuze and Guattari (a copy of A Thousand Plateaus sits on his desk at work) and reserves a sincere enthusiasm for contemporary art and modern French literature. He’s fond of bursting out with rhetorical questions that imagine the world in a different way: “What if every time you dropped knowledge, you got a gray hair?”

A classic autodidact, Thornton has a penchant for researching anything that interests him deeply. His career as a designer and engineer, for example, started because he loved cartoons as a kid:

I was an only child, so when everyone else was getting in fights and hanging out with their brothers and sisters, I was watching cartoons and being hella bored. I saved up my birthday money for years so I could finally afford Macromedia Flash. I loved to draw, and I wanted to make cartoons. I knew nothing other than what I read on the Internet. After a year of killing myself trying to make a cartoon, I started to be able to make kinda sick cartoons. They were pretty good for a fourth-grader.

This grand plan to “break into the cartoon game” expanded when Thornton decided, with twelve-year-old panache, that he needed to build a website “so people can see these cartoons and I can get famous. My friend Benjamin and I made a website. Word got around, and we ended up making sites for high school bands and stuff.”

Thornton has never lacked self-motivation, but he occasionally chafes against institutional structure. He was failing out of college “miserably” until he stumbled into an English class taught by an instructor who “could talk about horror movies and the Kardashians and apply critical theory to them. It was awesome. So I became an English major.”

His fervent undergraduate interest in the Eastern European avant garde aside, Thornton also found a mentor in the professor who taught his intro to web design class: “This professor was French as fuck. All of his examples came from, like, obscure French film. We became friends, and I taught the lab for intro to design, so I got really good at the foundational CSS and Javascript stuff.”

After graduating, Thornton repaired to his father’s house in the woods of central Washington and “sent out roughly a billion resumes.” He landed a job with one of the two places that he heard back from, a startup in San Francisco.

Photo by Misty Xicum

The rest is not quite history. As Thornton tells it, “I had gotten hired for a job that I wasn’t even remotely qualified for. Every day, I could have been fired. I worked so hard, trying to learn more advanced Javascript because I didn’t know what was going on.” Fake it ‘til you make it might be common career advice, but Thornton pinpoints the precise moment when, for better or worse, he had made it in Silicon Valley:

“The realest moment of my life was when the whole team at this startup gathered around me, asking for an XHR request. I’d never done it, and I only kind of knew what it was. So I started typing and refreshed the browser and nothing happened. I did that a few times. I started freaking out. They were going to figure out I was an impostor. Then I realized that I had forgotten to add ‘.send()’—I did that and refreshed it and the page showed up, and the team was like, ‘Oh, cool.’ And then they all just went back to their desks.”

He gets quieter, recalling,

“I sat there for fifteen minutes, thinking, That’s it. I’ve got it. I’m not going to get fired.”

Thornton’s love-hate relationship with the tech industry attracted him to academia, where he hoped to critique Silicon Valley as a sociologist. Instead, he went to work on the Internal Tools team at Twitter, a job he loved: “We built things used internally, so we had the freedom to be idiosyncratic and creative. The team approached mundane stuff like the on-call rotation in a silly, fun way. You see those tools every day, but they helped people with routine problems and made them happier.”

Thornton retains the cultural interests that attracted him to academia in the first place. He willingly converses on the topic of “code as a literary artifact” and contends that Javascript, with its potential for semantic play, is for lit lovers. Talking about his work, Thornton eventually admits, “I don’t hate computers per se. I hate the idea that the computer is this magnificent, elevated machine that will change everything. It’s just a regular tool. It allows you to communicate and do creative things, and I love the things themselves but not the tool.”

This fixation on enabling creativity through technology led Thornton to Medium, where he focuses heavily on UX engineering: “I really care about ugliness. I still appreciate the design struggle, since I have some experience with it, but I also appreciate engineering problems.”

Photo by Misty Xicum

Thornton constantly imagines doing something other than working as a developer—”What if you just had a different job every day?”—but he thrives on the collaboration integral to building an organization like Medium: “I’m very socially motivated, and my front-end developer friends will tell me in no uncertain terms if my rounded corners are messed up or something looks terrible in a particular browser. It’s kind of great. I really just want to code and work with my friends.”

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