EMPEX Speaker: Bobby Grayson

Over a boozy bottomless brunch in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, Bobby and I talked about his upcoming talk at the May 20th conference: “Seussical Halting, Indeterminate Faulting.” We talked about how Bobby came to his love of computer science, how and why he found Elixir, and his enthusiam for the simple grilled cheese sandwich. Joining us was Rachel who married Bobby after meeting him in Puerto Rico. We were also joined by EMPEX co-organizer, Lisa Denkinger.


Troy Denkinger: You originally pitched your talk as a lightning talk for our event last Halloween. How has this turned into a longer talk?

Bobby Grayson: My first CEO knew I had a math background, even though I’m a college dropout. We were building a data science team. One day he walked over to the engineering team and said, “Who wants to do stuff for the data nerds. I bet you do, Bobby.” So he just kind of threw this into my lap. I was going to be the engineer for this team. That was my first exposure to mathematicians. People with Masters Degrees, and PhDs. I was by far the dumb guy. And it was awesome.

One of the mathematicians, Dan, had a love of quirky weird math stuff. He showed me this paper one day by Jeffrey K. Pullam called “Scooping the Loop Snooper.” It was just so silly.

That was right when I wanted to start doing open source programming. I wanted to be one of these people that you see. I wanted to be “that guy” very badly. I was going to take conscious steps to do this, because that’s how you do a thing. And this paper is fun and silly and I think maybe meetup groups would be into this. And it’s short, it’ll give me a chance. A paper like that is approachable and fun for the nerds. It was my introduction to functional programming.

I don’t have the classic computer science background. I had to go back and read these papers. I don’t think a CS degree doesn’t matter. You come to a certain point where there are large problems people have thought about. A lot. I feel the JavaScript world is reliving the mistakes made in the 80s and 90s. And there are very detailed papers about these mistakes written in the past that we have forgotten.

As I started to think about these bigger problems and learn more about computer science, that’s when my talk got longer so I could go into the halting problem in detail.

TD: Looking at your background, I see high school and Epicodus. What’s your origin story?

BG: The only thing I’ve ever been really good at is logic. I grew up in a very, very small town in northwest Ohio called Gibsonburg. Ohio has a program where you can get high school credits for taking community college classes and the state will pay for it, if you don’t fail. So, I did that.

And in high school I didn’t really do a thing. I had an underground putt-putt club. We hid the clubs in the ceiling. I wrote a Python script to figure out when the different rooms would be empty, and it turned out there were exactly nine vacant rooms throughout the nine periods, so the empty room would become the golf hole. So many people were skipping class to play, you had to have a doctor’s note to go to the bathroom. That was the one impact I had on my high school.

After graduating high school by taking college classes, I came to the point of figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. My brother took me under his wing; he had a business degree and was doing well. I thought “that sounds like how you do that, let’s try that plan.” I quickly found out I despised any class that wasn’t economics.

Then I go from business to pure math, but it was community college and some of the professors were amazing but some were horrible. I’m just not good at structure — I fucked that up. After going in and out, I went back and this time it was physics. Then my mom got sick, and I was like “nursing!” But I stopped after a nursing stint.

My brother then introduced me to a friend of his who was an insurance agent with is own agency. Well, I do know I can generally talk to people even though I’m an introvert. So, I’m good at the numbers and I think I can do okay at this. I worked as an insurance agent to pay my way through the rest of college.

TD: Wow, okay, so how did you end up as a computer programmer?

BG: When I was 13, my [other] brother, Pete, bought me a book on Python and a book on C. He was an Ohio State engineering student at the time. He said “This one is so you understand it, and this one is so you can have fun with it.” The fun one was was the Python book, as you might imagine. I’d always played around, and I had these business clients bitching about stuff and I was was like, “dude, you basically want to view a CSV on a web page.” I can do that. I did some not complicated web development and got paid. I was selling insurance and could do that too. I got to the point where I was three years into college and right before my 21st birthday I dropped out of college. I could do web development, and I did okay selling insurance. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I hated academia.

I got out and thought I was kind of an okay programmer. I started trying to get jobs around Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit. And I started researching bootcamps aggressively. I’d gotten into Rails and had been doing it awhile. I knew the stuff, but the real challenge was getting into the industry. So, I found the cheapest bootcamp available, which was Epicodus. The coolest thing about that bootcamp is that it’s all about giving people who may not have had a chance an opportunity. I still talk nothing but good things about them. It was a rigorous 40 hours per week for four months. It made sense to me, and I went with it. I was at home at Christmas after the bootcamp and I got in touch with a startup and got my first junior Rails gig.

TD: Tell me about your introduction to Elixir. Are you using it at Wombat?

BG: For the past two years I’ve been almost a full-time Elixir developer. There was a time I was living in Puerto Rico where it was more 60/40. At that time I was also heavily getting into Elixir School, I was contracting, and doing some small projects. I don’t remember when I first heard of Elixir. All I remember is I know I respect José Valim, and I kind of just followed him. I was in late high school. When you follow someone that long, you have a clear respect for their opinion. When that guy goes, “I made a programming language,” I have to take that seriously.

That’s how I ended up in Elixir land. The reason I moved to Puerto Rico was a Hacker News post I saw about some Elixir contract work in need of a developer. I had done some consulting in Columbus and I thought I could live in Puerto Rico and write Elixir. Three weeks later, I moved there without having visited before. I met my new boss and then I got married. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

TD: Anyone who follows you on Twitter will know you have an obsession with grilled cheese sandwiches. Why?

BG: I’m a picky eater. When I was a kid that’s what my grandma would make me. I was never a hardcore grilled cheese person, but there are two things that have led to this grilled cheese renaissance in my life. First, there’s a guy on Twitter, @katzenmuenster, who is the “Self Appointed Chairman of the International Muenster Congress “— he’s silly in cheese. I eat a lot of cheese. I identify with cheese. When I visit my family, they know to have a pound of hickory smoked cheddar from a specific Amish neighborhood. I love cheese.

Also, I met Rachel. She’s not someone who cooks many things — though she bakes like a beast — but she doesn’t cook. But she makes the closest grilled cheese to my grandmother’s. I associate it with comfort.

TD: And what is your preferred grilled cheese recipe? Mayo on the outside?

BG: God, no. Butter both sides of the bread. Costco American cheese, two slices, the correct number. Nothing else. Golden brown. One flip, like a burger.

[An involved discussion on proper grilled cheese ensues around the half-empty bloody Marys and mimosas.]

There’s going to be someone on Medium saying, “they make grilled cheese wrong, and i’m going to write a think-piece about it.”

TD: You have been a standup comic. Have you worked professionally?

BG: When I moved down to Puerto Rico, one of the guys I met did comedy. We’d go out drinking and tell stories. One night he was like, “you realize you’re doing a bit.” He told me I have the cadence and know when it’s funny. I thought, “huh,” — and I started doing it because it was fun. I don’t do gigs since moving to Nashville. When I was in Cincinnati I did shows four or five days a week around the city. In Puerto Rico I had a weekly paid gig. And I would do any open mic that would let me do it.

Standup is a great way to drink for cheap or free. And it’s super fun to hang out with comedians. That’s my favorite thing about it, hanging out with funny people in a back room is a good activity.

TD: I think we’ve covered a lot of your extracurricular interests, but I have to ask you about sailing? How did you get into that?

BG: I’m obsessed with the notion of leaving land. I wanted to buy a sailboat in Puerto Rico, but the market is tough. There was never one that was right for me — I’m not a rich man. Right now I’m trying to procure a sailboat in Los Angeles or San Diego and have that be our weekend away place. The thing for me is that I value when you know you are okay only because of yourself. That’s how I was raised. Sailing is this job where you are completely responsible for yourself. The sea does not give a shit if you die. You have these responsibilities, and if you don’t do them, well….

I thrive on that. I’m a lazy person. I think most developers are. To get me to do something, you have to just throw me out to sea. I know myself well enough — by doing that I push myself. I’m amazed where I’m at.

Thanks to Bobby Grayson for taking the time to talk with me, and don’t forget to get your tickets to the Empire City Elixir Conference being held on May 20th, 2017 in Manhattan. See you there.