Meet the uncompromising Github superstar. Modest yet very confident, Ryan says he was ‘raised by a computer’ and his genius reflects just that. He won’t bite but he won’t suffer fools gladly – in an industry fuelled by hype his calm approach is very welcome
I first met Ryan a little over a year ago. In Dublin. I did not realise at the time it was an unusual meeting and that Ryan does not like travel overmuch. “I’ll go to where I have to be,” he says but travel is not a pleasure for him. Instead, Ryan likes to do much of his travelling in his head.
Ryan does not think like other people. He is very direct, almost confrontationally so, which smacks more of his patterns of thinking than any desire to fight or cause dissent. Ryan also thinks that he is right most of the time, and loath for me to admit this, especially to a man, he probably is. The reason I can say this is that Ryan thinks about stuff that is important to him, like programming or technology and he is ruthless in his opinions.
Such as Ryan thinks Blockchain is one of the most overrated and abused technologies in the world – except for micropayments. Otherwise, Ryan is so Meh about the technology. This is a super crazy as he is one of the leading developers in the blockchain space – or more accurately now the block-graph space. He cuts through the blockchain hype like a warm knife through butter. He just doesn’t do fake news, and especially not fake blockchain use news.
“If a technology could do all that blockchain projects promised the world, then it would be like sci-fi.” This said from a man who devours books, especially fiction, especially science fiction. Within a single month, his normal consumption of books runs to about 300. He reads in his spare time, while eating or on a break, perhaps before and often in the car (audible books that is). I don’t think Ryan’s brain ever sleeps.
He is married with two small children, a son almost 3 and a young daughter of almost 11 months. Ryan is a very hands-on father – doing crèche runs and also taking over if his wife is up during the night.
It turns out it is also impossible for me to be rude to Ryan. Actually, it might be possible for me to be rude, but he would not be offended by anything I say. I don’t actually test this to the limit but it is comforting to think I will not upset him or offend him by asking tricky questions. He thinks in very clear patterns and if someone wants to be rude, it’s just so Meh to him. This I really like for I have spent years learning that what other people think of me is none of my business and yet Ryan seems to know this instinctively.
Ryan has a deep love for numbers (he was initially an accounting assistant) coupled with an unerring certainty about ‘stuff’ including what he does. He believes he is much better than many of his contemporaries and I believe him too. This is not a boast but a sure statement of ability. It is almost childlike in his certainty.
I want to understand this man and how he has come to be one of the superstars of Github, despite his total disdain for the ubiquitous application of blockchain on everything. Actually, perhaps that is his prime quality – this is clearly a man not afraid to call out the lack of the emperor’s new clothes. Or to put it more colloquially he is not afraid to call out BS.
The interview opens with my clarification of basics – age, marital status, geographic location, number of children etc. Ryan is not sure of his age – a numerical blip – but confirms by checking that he is indeed 27. There are very few 27-year-olds who do not know their own age, or who care less about it.
Ryan has much more with which to occupy his mind.
A largely self-taught technologist, Ryan says he “was raised by a computer.” He had no real love of hardware but from an early age, software fascinated him. He taught himself to code ‘stuff’ that other teenagers might never consider. He has created his own programming language, written compilers, and editors. Whereas most teenagers stray into app development and never come out.
Part of what drives Ryan is that all coding is a trade-off between different factors.
“There are few languages that I actually like. At every turn, the developers had to make choices and in hindsight, I don’t agree with most of them. Rust is possibly the closest to a solid language currently available.”
Ryan is a self-confessed perfectionist.
“Scaling is huge in my opinion. Often companies will outsource or in-house develop code. The devs do a good job, product is launched and the company does well. As it grows, the company will typically realise that it needs to rewrite the code from scratch and again typically it should have gathered sufficient funds to do that so it’s no big deal.
“But when I code I look to the future and scalability is huge for me. It might be okay to throw out original code but if you write it correctly the first time around – then you won’t have to.”
In school, Ryan acquired a position as an assistant accountant for the state in California. He enjoyed it and believed that he might stay in that industry. As part of the state’s requirements, he was required to attend a local community college which he did, but he only stayed for just over a year.
“It was okay,” he says. “But I was not interested enough to stay. And then I discovered two things.”
The first was the frustrating realisation that state-run departments adhered to very strict rules. So, without a degree or formal qualifications no matter what changes Ryan affected it would not improve his salary or prospects.
The second was that through his software he could make a change. One such example was the calculation of interest payments across the county on loans held by the state. There was a full-time person employed to manually make these calculations. It took him six months to do the previous year and then he would start again and recalculate everything.
“I wrote some software to automate this, he got promoted but I was told I could not get any progression without a college degree. So, that basically finished my accounting career.”
Ryan calls it tinkering – what he does with software. He has the ability to look at a project and determine what is needed – not what the client thinks they need. He often prefers to be given a project and execute on it. His natural understanding allows him to see into the future both in terms of current functionality and future issues.
“Programming is not like other jobs. Programmers are not interchangeable. It’s not like having a Cable Installation Technician – different technicians can work on different days and yet all be very effective. But a programmer is a very unique being. Every programmer has his or her unique way of approaching a problem. One good programmer can be worth 20 indifferent ones.
“I am a good programmer,” he says without any false modesty
I ask him about this confidence, especially given his lack of formal IT education. His answer is very reasonable. “Most programmers learn at college and apply their knowledge as a learned fact.
“Whereas I am confident that there is nothing I cannot learn and so every day I fix new problems in new, faster and most elegant fashions.”
Ryan also points out that most programmers do not fix as they go along. If a problem or snag arises, most programmers will use a hammer to bluntly hit the snag until it fits. Part of Ryan’s unique approach is that he will go back and relook at a problem and solve it effectively rather than hammering it into submission.
He heads up the dev shop Launch Badge, where the tag line is particularly appropriate – it’s not rocket science but it’s pretty close. The brief website outlines the company’s competencies and the claims also ring true: It’s not the attention to detail, the drive for performant and maintainable code, sane processes, or the broad language expertise that makes us the best…oh, wait…yes it is.
Going back to the thorny question of blockchain, Ryan is unrepentant. “Most blockchain is horrible, Most of the use cases do not work – instead they take longer and cost more. Who wants that? And for the most part, the vision of decentralised applications is just that – a vision with little basis in reality.
“I mean – how often do you really need to know for sure about a trusted time stamp – except perhaps for micropayments – most other use cases are horrible.”
His exception is block graph, or rather Hedera Hashgraph, where he and his team have been active developers along with a number of other development teams.
However, for true mass adoption – particularly in the area of micropayments – it will need government adoption according to Ryan.
“There are a number of reasons why even crypto as a digital currency is flawed and these are well documented. We know that wallets are hard to set and manage – in time everyone will migrate to an exchange where ordinary KYC such as passports or driver licenses will prevail. Then we need a reason to adopt and that is where governments will eventually play a big part. If the US, British or German governments, for example, decided to launch their own cryptocurrency then the citizens will have to follow. Bingo, game over.”
I ask if Ryan has any hobbies – other than open source programming, raising a young family and reading in excess of 300 books a month and he pauses. That tinkering that he talks about – that is as much as a hobby as devouring books. “Programming is not just one thing – it is many. That is why I love to tinker – it can be a million unrelated things from perfecting a language to creating a game. It is the ultimate hobby.”
Finally, I decide to really test my rudeness quota. When we met last year Ryan spoke about his dense lower body. He never works out but his legs are like steel. If you hit him on the leg – which I did not do last year – you might end up hurting yourself and Ryan would feel nothing. I ask if his children are the same. Ryan tells me his son is exactly the same but he cannot be certain about his 11-month-old daughter. His father was the same too, he tells me. I am not sure why but I have a feeling it is somehow connected with his instinctive approach to projects. His dauntless passion and his unerring faith in his ability. If as a child he could use his legs as the ultimate protection then why not his brain. This could be somehow part of his invulnerability of code.