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Featured on Apr 14, 2011

Charlie Robbins

"New York is simultaneously the best and worst of everything. Being successful here is finding all of the best parts."


So I don't know if you've ever seen "Wall Street," but early on there is a scene where Charlie Sheen's character is sitting at a computer terminal early in the morning. The camera pauses on a date, which is significant because it is Gordon Gecko's birthday: May 6th, 1985. Later that day, right about the time that he's walking into Gecko's office with a box of Cuban Cigars I was born at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan.

And I've been in love with my home city ever since. A love and passion that can only be compared with my sentiments toward computers and technology. I've got all the typical battle scars: learned to program when I was six, Internet junkie since a 14.4 modem was considered fast, way too much computer science education, big companies, financial institutions, and now startups.

I really look at everything I've done up till now as preparation. The 10,000 hours you have to put into your art before you've mastered it. Now I'm Technology Director at General Assembly and building a Cloud Platform-as-a-Service for node.js applications called Nodejitsu. When I'm not programming or evangelizing node.js as the future of the web, I make hot sauce and grow hot peppers and try to find beauty and inspiration in everyday life.

  • Title: Technology Director, General Assembly Founder and CEO, Nodejitsu
  • Age: 25
  • Location: Manhattan
  • Contact: @indexzero, github

What are your favorite spots in NYC?

If I had to choose I think my favorite places are: the main branch of the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library and Madison Square Park. At the NYPL you can checkout out books that are literally over a hundred years old. When I was in high school I had to do a report on the California Gold Rush. I went to the main branch, and checked out a miner's diary from the 1800's; you couldn't ask for a better primary source. The Morgan Library was the personal study of J. Pierpont Morgan. The books in the collection are amazing. My Dad took me on the tour when I was younger. The most memorable quote from the tour guide was: "There are eight Guetenberg bibles in the world; three of them are in this room." Lastly, Madison Square Park speaks for itself; and not just because Shake Shack is there. The park is immaculately maintained, with art installations cycling throughout the year. Plus, there's WiFI; on a nice day in New York I couldn't think of a better place to be inspired when you're working.

Last year, you were a visiting researcher at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History working on a Microsoft surface installation. Can you tell us more about that?

I did research at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in conjunction with my Masters degree at Columbia University. I was working under Steve Feiner until I took a leave of absence to focus on Nodejitsu full-time. The instalation was part of an exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On The Origin of Species. It was built on the Microsoft Surface, taking advantage of the Computer Vision system to recognize leaves and display contextual and evolutionary history of each of the leaf specimens we had fabricated from laser cut plastic. The research goals were to observe how widely accepted multi-touch user interface paradigms had become (through popular consumer devices like the iPhone), and how well those paradigms translated to table-top user interfaces like the Surface. We had thousands of people come use the installation and generated some really interesting data.

Are you a Malcolm Gladwell fan? What other books do you read for inspiration?

I definitely agree with Gladwell's idea that you need to put in 10,000 hours of work into a craft before you can claim mastery. It's one of the reasons I look at everything I've done up till now as preparation for what's next. I'm actually ashamed to admit that I don't really read books anymore. I want to, but I'm frankly consumed by reading news, blogs, and straight-up source code. I probably go through 200 - 300 headlines a day, of which I read about 50 - 100 stories. On top of that, I'm probably reading (or re-reading) a couple thousand lines of code every day, including weekends. I really do, as a colleague of mine likes to say, RTFC (or "read the f$%^!@# code"). I had a math tutor in engineering school who got his PhD in Mathematics from Harvard when he was 19 and he used to say "if you want to be good at something, you have to do it everyday".

You worked at Microsoft for several years before becoming a full-time hacking ninja. What were some of the more important lessons you learned in a corporate job?

I was deep in the Microsoft stack from when I was recruited by them out of McGill until I started Nodejitsu. I think that every developer has a project that they are slightly embarrassed to be a part of. For me that was WPF and Silverlight; the "next generation" UI technology widely used by .NET developers today. I was an intern on the WPF team in 2006, and continued working with it later as a full-time engineer at Microsoft and various large financial institutions on Wall Street. Although I later recognized the error of my ways after falling in love with Javascript and node.js, my time spent in the enterprise sector really influenced me. It taught me the intricacies of building a successful engineering organization and the importance of having a strong focus on delivery, product design and iteration.

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