James Gibson on Being a Denver Developer

Denver Developer James “The Nodester” Gibson discusses moving to Colorado, the perils of online community-building, and a growing Cannabis tech industry.

Denver (and the surrounding area) is full of wonderful people doing amazing things. Our Inspect series highlights and explores those people that make our Denver Developers group such a great resource for the tech community in Colorado. Find all the articles here.

In this article, I sit down with Denver Developer James Gibson over lunch in the middle of a Fall work day. Although I’d never met him in person, James’ large beard and burly plaid shirt made him an easy target as he leaned against the front door of Mod Market, waiting for me to arrive via the 16th St. Mall Ride.

After exchanging pleasantries while in line, we sat down in a quiet corner in the back and chatted in between bites…

Prior to publishing this interview, I reached out to James to get an update on his work and projects. The interview has had updated information added.

Where are you from?

I grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland, and went to college out there. Then I lived near D.C. for a year, and decided that wasn’t for me.

Doing tech stuff?

Yeah, I was doing software engineering. I was working on a DOD contract. After I moved out here, I kept that job, working remote for a year-and-a-half. Then I switched to Apto.

What made you want to move here? Did you know people out here, or visit often?

When I moved out here, I only knew one person. I had visited Denver once for a weekend, but that kind of sold me on the area. So a few weeks later, I flew out to find a rental. I’ve been in the same house since I’ve moved here. I kind of got in before the rent really started skyrocketing.

I heard you have talked to the students at Galvanize; what do you talk to them about?

I’ve given multiple talks or guest lectures around town, and I usually talk about API best practices. But every now and then, they schedule me a little early in the cohort, when they’ve just started learning Node. So then, it’s a little early to be talking about best practices on the backend before they even know how it works. When that has happened, I just go in and answer questions.

Students and teachers talking at Galvanize, Denver

Do you know that before you show up?

It depends. Usually they tell me it’s going to happen. But I got to the Boulder campus once and got up to speak, “Look, she just asked me to come up and talk, but didn’t tell me where in the curriculum you were; so let’s just do this. I’m just going to wing it here.”

Then they spent an hour-and-a-half, just question after question… asking how things are on teams, how hiring works, my hobbies, and they were looking through my GitHub profile.

How are those classes organized?

They do them in cohorts. In Colorado, cohorts attend the Boulder, Platte, or Golden Triangle locations for Web Development. They also have separate cohorts for Data Science.

My fiancée worked as a full-stack web development resident there, helping students in a cohort. She actually went through the program herself. It’s a about six months of hell (laughs).

As a student?

Yeah. One day they’re teaching them how to fetch data from a front-end (making an XHR), and the next they would be teaching them how to work in a team and how to keep track of bugs … It’s definitely aiming to make them ready for the work-force.

That’s interesting! I’ve encountered many colleagues (past and present) that are awesome coders, but they’ve never worked in a SCRUM team. Things like Git, User Stories, and all those tools are completely new to them.

Yeah. That’s very pervasive in the Salesforce community. Apto sat on Salesforce while I was there. I had never touched Salesforce until I started there, but I understood a lot of the nuances of Salesforce pretty quickly.

It was interesting to start interacting with contractors and realize they don’t know things like version control.

They were like, “Why do we need to learn this?”… “Because it’s going to make you a better developer, is why. (laughs) You don’t get a choice, you’re learning it.”

Those “meta” conversations about why it’s valuable can be so time-consuming. I think given enough communication, everyone would agree that those things are valuable, but having to have that conversation repeatedly eats up a lot of time.

Yeah, it’s very widespread. The team is what makes the product. You need the team members to be on the same page.

Get Budding, via Unsplash

So, what are you doing now?

I am Director of Engineering at Flowhub. I was brought in as the Platform Architect, but about a month in, they moved me to Director of Engineering and now I’m responsible for two departments, three main products, general office IT, and working on taking over the market. This is actually my first management position.

Was that a big promotion at that point?

The team at the time thought I was there as the API guy.

Through a lot of mentorship and 1:1’s with my new team I garnered a base level of trust. It became less of “Why is this guy here now?” and more of “Hey, this guy might be able to help us.”

When I moved into management I was managing 4 devs, so it was mostly no different then lead roles I had held before. However, today, I am managing both the engineering department as well as our product team (about 11 people in total).

Flowhub’s main product-line is for Cannabis POS systems. What are your thoughts on the Cannabis industry?

The industry has grown quickly over the last few years, but the software offerings around it are just hitting the maturation stages. Politicians are starting to see the money they can ‘make’ if they back it, while the people pushing to end the War on Drugs just want responsible use/consumption to be the norm.

Are you positioning Flowhub to be the leader in POS systems for the Cannabis industry?

We are! We believe that by fostering a healthy relationship between regulators and cannabis producers, we will become a force multiplier in the market. Because this market is such a young ecosystem, many people do not know what to expect. One of the main software providers in this space was actually down for a few weeks earlier this year, they announced that they had been hacked, that event sent shockwaves through the space for sure.

In the wake of that event we have doubled down on our commitment towards security, usability, and increasing our presence in the market by releasing new products. I have set the bar high for our team, for example our API team has the specific aspiration to set the quality standard for the industry.

What companies do you look to for inspiration when it comes to setting goals like that? I’d guess that there’s analogous struggles from other industries you could borrow from…

Amazon for sure, what they did with AWS is insane. As a result of a directive that stated departments couldn’t ask for tasks to be done, they would have to build a service that exposed the data/function of each department.

Also, my CEO has laid out lofty goals in terms of where our company needs to be in 6 months, a year, 2 years, 5 years, etc… It is my responsibility to make sure our tech supports his vision.

One of the things I am doing with our team is automating everything possible. If there is no need for human eyes to review, then there is software that can figure it out and we can move along towards our real goal.

Are there things that make POS systems in the Cannabis industry different than any other POS system?

YES! You wouldn’t think so but oh, there really is.
Here is an example: Oregon requires shops to adhere to the NIST standards for labels, while Colorado does not.

And another: Oregon passed a law for consumer protection, dispensaries are no longer allowed to keep a customers name unless the customer consented to do so. Thankfully our system was flexible enough, we were able to square away the new changes…but they only gave us a month’s warning.

That and some of the data we work with is actually HIPPA data, so we take extra steps to secure and protect it.

Do you guys prepare for new markets (or states) to open up before their announced?

Yeah, we have two people focused on distilling down the laws in all states that are coming online. Those documents are then used by our Product Owners to plan out how we will implement features to respond to any new regulation we don’t yet support.

We are intending to stay ahead of them but occasionally regulators will send us scrambling.

Do the rules change often for the states where it’s legal?

Yeah. Nevada recently changed the law to say sales could start six months sooner, because Nevada needed the cash. That kind of stuff impacts our road map for sure.

When Arkansas legalized, our sales team was flooded with people doing research on the software solutions even though they couldn’t sell yet.

Has there been any noticeable changes since the new administration took office? Jeff Sessions has talked about bringing back a more hard-lined approach to drug offenses.

Leading up to the election, the funding in the Cannabis space started getting nervous.

But we have been keeping an eye on the administration for sure. We have a slack channel dedicated towards staying ahead of Cannabis news.

One of the great sighs of relief was when Hickenlooper invited Sessions to CO for a tour. Sessions walked away more or less going “Huh, maybe they can make this work”.

You’ve spent some time on the east coast. How does Denver stack up, in terms of meeting people in this industry?

I knew one person when I came out here, and now I’ve grown a pretty solid network. One of the reasons I dislike the D.C. area is that there are too many assholes. Here, you have to go out of your way to find them (laughs). I can count the number I’ve met out here on one hand.

Whereas on the east coast, you can find a line of people who are just rude, at any time of the morning, at a Starbucks. It’s like, 7:30 in the morning, “Who pissed in your coffee? You haven’t even bought it yet!”

It’s definitely a culture shift and it’s great because people are just nicer here. I think that’s one of the things that has really worked in Denver Devs’ favor. A lot of the people on there are just like, “How can I help?” There’s not a lot of that traditional trolling you might see on the internet. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together.

A lot of trolling on there is pretty good-natured, too.

Yeah, and there’s often a lot of meta conversations. If something happens in #topic-gigs, there’s usually a group of people who show up in #topic-community to discuss “How are we going to handle this? Do we want all of these recruiters in here? What do we do?”

I’m not sure if you knew this, but there are now seven admins in Denver Devs, so Dan isn’t the only one. He’s definitely the face, and he’s done a great job; but he was getting a little overwhelmed, so we decided to spread it out a little bit. I think it’s really good, because we all try and stay out of the way.

You wouldn’t know that there’s any admins in there most of the time.

Exactly. Every now and then, we have to jump in and say something to someone specifically. Like the #topic-gigs example, it looked like someone had just dumped a Word doc in there. We started a conversation with them, “Hey, you’re not in trouble or anything, but you’re gonna have better luck if you put some time into this.”

So, it’s a collaboration. We’re not going to sit there and just “roll out the rule.” It’s more, “Let’s show you how it should work, and try and get you there.”

Contact James Gibson via:
GitHub: james-gibson
Twitter: @thenodester
Denver-Devs: james.the.nodester

That’s James! He’s just one example of the varied and talented developers in our community. Want more? Feel free to reach out to him at the information listed above.

Denver (and the surrounding area) is full of wonderful people doing amazing things. Our Inspect series highlights and explores those people that make our Denver Developers group such a great resource for the tech community in Colorado. Find all the articles here.

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