misty xicum

Nick Santos Brings Paper to Life

Engineer at Medium, textual algebra expert and Jacobian jokester

Nick Santos, an engineer at Medium, will gladly tell you a math joke off the cuff. First, however, he generally wants to know a few things: “How dirty can it be?” and “Do you know calculus?” I give him full raunch range and stumblingly admit to having taken AP Calculus in high school. He presses on:

Perfect. So there are three functions hanging out on a street corner. Diverging functions, really badass motherfuckers: 2x, x², and e^x. They’re really up to no good. 2x says to x², ‘Oh shit, man, look down the street, differential operator is walking right towards us. If we don’t get out of here, he’s going to differentiate us down to a constant.’ e^x is like, ‘Dudes, slow down. I’m e^x, and he’s on our turf. I’ll take care of this.’ So e^x walks right up to differential operator and says, ‘I don’t think you know what’s up here. Let me introduce myself. I’m e^x. What the fuck are you doing on my turf?’ Differential operator looks him up and down and says, ‘Hey, e^x, let me introduce myself. I’m the differential operator with respect to y.’

Santos, it is abundantly clear, has a ready store of such jokes. “At one point,” he says, “I was going to write a book of math jokes with a friend. We have a bunch, but some of them are really dorky and involve a lot of college-level math. There’s this one joke, a joke about the Jacobian, that I told like five times, and no one ever got it until I was at a dinner with a bunch of roboticists. The whole table got the joke. It was so thrilling.”

Santos, an ex-Googler who resides in New York City, takes a long view of computer science: “A lot of what computer science is about to me is coming up with rigorous definitions of things that exist. I tend to believe that there are no new ideas. Nothing that happens on a computer is a new idea. Anything you can possibly build is going to be an iteration or a pastiche of what came before.”

Interestingly, Santos has made a career of engineering products that explicitly iterate upon things that existed before, in non-digital form. He spent several years at Google working on Notebook, Spreadsheets, and Forms. Notebook, now defunct, was a place where users could record information acquired from Google searches for research and archival purposes. Iterations of paper-based systems, these products evolved as Google realized that users wanted access to such tools anywhere they could get online.

“Some people,” Santos reflects of his work on Spreadsheets, “really like prototyping things. I’m not that person. I’m the engineering guy who comes in after everyone knows what we want to build and says, ‘Now we need to polish this, now we need to scale it.’ That’s the part that I enjoy—getting a product to a robust stage.” He laughs, “Feel free to write that I think Medium still needs a lot of work.”

While at Google, Santos also invested some time in improving that company’s text editor, which Medium adopted. He is fascinated by “the algebra of dealing with text”:

“It’s a very narrow audience, that group of people who are not only excited about how text is represented but also excited about how web browsers work. I’m one of those people.”
Photo by Misty Xicum

With Medium, Santos is applying this pet interest to the online publishing industry. He has always believed there was a better way for most people to share writing than on blogs: “Blogging is kind of terrible. To be a blogger, you have to do all of these things that I don’t really want to do. I don’t want to design a website or choose a WordPress theme or recruit guest bloggers. There’s something valuable, which Medium is exploring, about making decisions for the writer and having all of the writing in one place, connected.”

Santos, who admits that his perspective skews “pointy-headed,” has a disarming habit of pausing in the middle of conversation to ask questions such as, “I don’t know if you’ve ever done any computational linguistics?” His vision for Medium, however, is based on the belief that “everyone is smart about something. I’d like to see us build a community that has norms around making sure users are comfortable and know how they can contribute meaningfully.”

He continues with a not-so-pointy-headed explanation, “There’s this great line in Ratatouille, and it’s a theme that the film keeps coming back to: ‘Anyone can cook.’ And Peter O’Toole’s character, the critic, says, ‘No no no, what you mean is not that anyone can cook, but that a good cook can come from anywhere.’ And that, in many ways, is how I feel about Medium.”