Week in Geek 11.7.14

Week in Geek – a roundup of science, technology and pop culture news with commentary each Friday

New ideas afloat at LeanDog

leandog logo

Proliferation of technology and consequently the systems that run it is nothing new. The ubiquity of software applications is such that we tend not to think too much about how they operate and who does all the work to make them run. But the truth is, there’s a legion of programmers, coders and developers out there making sure our technological lives enjoy smooth sailing, and they’re not all clustered in places like Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Seattle.

One of them – LeanDog – calls downtown Cleveland its home port, the renovated stern of a 120-year-old boat docked near the national historic landmark USS Cod. The unique offices of this tech firm are home to craftspeople with a passion not only for creating quality software, but also for coaching and educating others in their trade.

The front of the LeanDog boat, with Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum across the water to the left.
The front of the LeanDog boat, with Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum across the water to the left.

On the first Thursday of each month, LeanDog hosts a meetup open to the public and geared towards those working in technology as a way to network, share ideas and learn about new innovations in their field. They’re also part of a greater Cleveland-area meetup scene which holds events pretty often, so there’s plenty of opportunities for both those already working in the industry as well as people who might just be starting out to socialize with others who share their passion and pick up some tricks of the trade in this constantly evolving field. Meetups typically see 10-20 visitors, with higher numbers if there is an expert speaker. The meetups sometimes feature coding exercises for attendees as well.

On Nov. 15, LeanDog is hosting all all day Code Retreat for example, focusing on software craftsmanship with network practice, tests, pairings and other exercises.

Entrance to the LeanDog boat. Inside they enjoy a terrific view of the Cleveland skyline including the beautifully-lit Terminal Tower. But it was rainy and dark so i couldn't get a good photo of that. My bad.
Entrance to the LeanDog boat. Inside they enjoy a terrific view of the Cleveland skyline including the beautifully-lit Terminal Tower. But it was rainy and dark so i couldn’t get a good photo of that. My bad.

Nathan, one of LeanDog’s Ruby developers, greeted me in the company’s studio space, a subtly nautical-themed room where the craftspeople do the bulk of their work. The wonderful workspace is comfortably appointed with blue and green chairs  backed with mesh reminiscent of a ship’s rigging, decorative portholes in the wall frames on which painted octopus tentacles wound around, and dominated by a giant ship’s wheel. He was excited about working there as a web app developer, which he said was a very cool place to work and a great business to be in.

As another guest pointed out, so much in the industry changes so fast, with whole new frameworks releasing sometimes as often as every two weeks. So these kinds of events are great to help keep up to date.

One of those people just getting started, who visited the Nov. 6 meetup was Derek, who got into application development on his own and came to the event to see what it was all about. By the time things were wrapping up, he’d spoken with several people and got their business cards, laying the groundwork for his own network in the field.

Joel Byler, an Agile software developer at LeanDog, took point for the evening, welcoming me and thanking me for coming to check it out. He encouraged me to make myself at home and have some pizza that LeanDog provides free for attendees, and who was i to refuse his hospitality? Before the start of the evening’s focused discussion, Joel showed me how they livestream the event on Boxcast – another Cleveland-based company that allows anyone to stream live HD video. The video from the Nov. 6 meetup is online for anyone interested in seeing what the night’s focus was all about. Joel also showed me around the studio a little bit and explained the idea of LeanDog’s “information radiators,” which are all the various points that act as hubs for projects, ideas and so forth. These can be as simple as whiteboards with sticky notes attached, to a live queue of coding recipes, maintained by an in-house app, that lets the team know if anything requires attention by highlighting the item in red (if everything is running smoothly, all the items are green).

Attendees of the LeanDog meetup in the training room listen to the speaker of the night.
Attendees of the LeanDog meetup in the training room listen to the speaker of the night.

Before things got underway in LeanDog’s training room, the group of attendees trickled in, most of them setting up slim, sticker-adorned laptops as reflex actions. They way they fell into easy conversation with each other – whether they knew each other already or not – reminded me fondly of my own experiences at the comic shop. People who are shy or reserved are friendly, chatty and comfortable in their element. They talked about not only programming and technology as you might expect, but also the Browns, their wives and kids, the last rock concert they went to. You know, just like regular people. One guy related how he’d modified his satellite dish into a television antenna, while another told how they’d used some quick-thinking and a 3D printer during the boat’s christening a few weeks earlier, when Mayor Frank Jackson came to help celebrate. When the mouse controlling a moving monitor stopped working, someone took it apart and 3D printed a sort of holster for the thing, jury-rigging a way to control the monitor using the guts of the broken mouse. How’s that for innovative quick thinking?

Here’s a video of the boat christening event put together by Bill Synk from the USS Cod submarine:

If i’m honest, i barely understood what everyone was chatting about during the 6-7 p.m. social hour. They shared stories of programming, research backgrounds and the like, and i immediately realized “oh, that’s what it’s like for other people when i’m talking to friends about comic books!” It also struck me though, that this is what sets people apart in any situation – these are the people who go the extra length to network, learn new things, meet new people and keep up to speed on what’s happening in their industry. They go to meetups, summits and symposiums, and ask each other what tech they’re using and how.  And people like these folks sure do a lot to make the world go ’round. Their clients are pretty much everyone and they do their best to stay on top of their game.

Focused discussion

Josh Schramm led the discussion, which covered AWS OpsWorks, an application management service. He prefaced his talk by letting the crowd know he’s primarily a Ruby on Rails developer and how OpsWorks saved his world because it was a different sort of work than what he primarily does, but allows him to include that sort of service in his repertoire. From what i understood, Ruby on Rails is a web application framework, which is a slice of the entire application, and OpsWorks is what governs that entire application.

Josh works at the IT consulting firm Level Seven, and framed his presentation both as an overview of OpsWorks for those unfamiliar, as well as a brainstorming session of sorts in order to collaborate with the other guests on ways to improve his use of it. This sort of dual-purpose presentation is what stood out to me as the best part of meetups like this. For an industry which experiences such frequent growth and change, even those on the forefront can benefit from the input of their peers, and again showcased how folks like this are real go-getters.

In case you missed the link to the Boxcast earlier, Josh also shared his slideshow presentation which i’ve also included below if you are curious about OpsWorks. As a layperson, much of what he talked about was over my head. But to the credit of Josh’s speaking and presentation skills, it wasn’t so far above that i was completely lost. He actually made it sound quite accessible, something he told me afterwards was his goal. Originally, he thought the crowd would be primarily developers who were already familiar with the sort of tasks OpsWorks is designed to tackle, but made some adjustments to account for the different levels of people who came as well as those who couldn’t make it and would watch the livestream.

Josh’s slideshow was crisp and clear, and his talking points were understandable, witty and humorous. The way he broke down OpsWorks into four structures (stacks, layers, apps and instances) and explained each one with screenshots of the UI went over well with the group, and he was very astute in his responses to the various questions lobbed his way throughout the talk. During the wrap-up he gave thoughtful bulletpoints of OpsWorks good and bad aspects, and during the talk my mind kept wandering to Derek, who i imagined was probably soaking up all he could. It seems like OpsWorks offers a great jumping-on point for developers because of how it integrates several parts of application management under one umbrella, and also because Josh explained how his firm’s established clients experienced improvements after migrating them to OpsWorks. Newer clients, those setup with OpsWorks from the start, were running smoothly as well, so i surmise that it makes some clunky parts of the job easier to manage.

At the end of the night, i spoke further with Joel, who again thanked me for coming and encouraged me to visit their other meetups, which i definitely intend to do. i’m still just getting started in the crazy world of technology journalism, and if this event was an indication, there’s a huge, exciting universe of this stuff all around that i am looking forward to discovering more of. Joel was also very cool to take my information and pass it along to LeanDog President Jon Stahl, who is out of town right now. He thought Jon might be amenable to giving me a proper tour of the boat and speaking more about LeanDog, which for me would be totally awesome. So, thanks for everything Joel! It was a real pleasure and honor to visit, learn more about LeanDog and have an introduction to this fascinating world you inhabit.

Thanks also to Josh for his presentation, and to all the other guests who took their time to share a few words with me. Special thanks to Derek for being a self-starter who showed up to make some connections and i am happy it paid off for him. If anyone else out there is a programmer, developer, coder or otherwise, or thinks they’d like to be, i definitely encourage you to check out meetups like this and others in the area (or whatever area you live in – i’m sure this is not something happening only in Cleveland). There’s avenues out there for you and every other person hoping to move forward with their dreams and aspirations, you just need to take that first step.

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Thanks for reading the second Week in Geek addition to The Long Shot. Of course, there were many more exciting things that happened in the world of science, technology and pop culture this week…but this was the one that most caught my attention. If you have any news you’d like to share, drop me a line and let me know – i try to keep up with stuff but i can’t read everything! In fact, Josh Schramm himself (speaker at this event) dropped a little tidbit that i plan to follow up on which lies more on the pop culture spectrum of the Week in Geek, and it’s another Cleveland-centric thing which makes it doubly cool.

Follow @longshotist on Twitter for frequent shares of related articles and (hopefully) humorous nonsequiters.

Week in Geek will be back next Friday, Nov. 14 and i’d love to see you here! Week in Geek will also be appearing alongside other great blogs at The News-Herald Blogs starting very soon (as soon as the digital content manager returns from vacation).

Thanks for reading!


  1. Uber techie this week! Nice to see there is this type of scene budding in Cleveland. Congrats on the NH blog list too. Keep up the awesome work! Don’t forget about Eberron though. You are my only link to that realm.

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