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The programmer's programmer

Here I sit down with +Joel Spolsky who cofounded Stack Overflow (an extremely popular community for programmers) and Fog Creek Software, which makes tools for programmers and, now, which is a great new collaboration service (I'm using it to plan out my life). This is an interesting conversation and we get a look at Trello. Please share this or RT if you like it.

The rest of this is republished, with permission, from Rackspace's Building43:


Joel Spolsky is the programmer’s programmer. He started Fog Creek Software, Stack Exchange and has been a famous blogger for over 10 years. I sat down with him at his New York office to talk about the early days of blogging, how small teams are having a big impact in the world, a new product that Fog Creek just released, and a host of other topics.

“We’re the old school bloggers from the past,” explains Spolsky. “When I started blogging, I didn’t want to say I was a blogger, because I didn’t think I was doing the official blog thing, which was to link to something that someone else has [written]…and say, ‘Here’s an interesting thing, and then here’s my perspective on that.’ I didn’t want to do that.”

Instead, Spolsky used what was essentially the one tool available at the time,, and created his Joel on Software blog to publish a series of essays on subjects where he thought he could add value—describing how a certain part of the software development process works, how you should design software, how you should build software companies, and others.

Blogging has, of course, exploded over the last 10 years, and it’s one of many ways that small teams can have a big impact—a theme I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Technology allows someone to publish to millions of people instantly. Developers can swipe their credit card and have access to hundreds of servers in the cloud. Small teams of people are empowered now like never before, and, in many ways, small teams seem to work better and more efficiently than larger ones.

Spolsky has a theory regarding why smaller teams work so well, at least in regards to software development teams. “None of [our teams] is bigger than eight, and that’s a gigantic team that we have of eight people…What I know for a fact is it’s all about communications between people. If you have two people, there’s one communication path. If you have three people, there are three communication paths. You went from one person that needs to talk to one person to three people that need to communicate among one another…You get to four people, and there are six [lines of communication], I believe. It grows like crazy, and once you get to teams of eight or nine people, they don’t even know each other practically; there’s just way too much communication and coordination that needs to happen. It’s just not possible for everybody to listen to everybody.”

Even small teams have to work to stay organized and focused on the right tasks, however, and Fog Creek Software’s latest app, Trello, helps them do just that.

“The basic idea of Trello,” explains Spolsky, “is it’s a list of lists…It’s for teams keeping track of what everyone is working on, but you can use it for any kind of list of lists…You can add lists whenever you want and throw things in there. You can rearrange lists freely. Everything is very, very flexible.”

With Trello, you create boards associated with certain projects, for example. On those boards are cards with items that need to be accomplished to complete the project. Click on the card and you can list even more specific tasks associated with each item, assign team members to each task and establish due dates. You also create lists on the boards that represent stages of the project, so whenever tasks are completed, you click on the card and move it to the appropriate stage until the entire project is finished.

“The basic idea is that we started with something reasonably simple that’s still very useful…and now we’re building an API.” Spolsky hopes that developers will start to build cool plug-ins for the app like permissions, workflow, a way for people to anonymously submit new things to boards, or change the background color, allowing Trello to continue to improve over time.

More info:

Fog Creek Software Web Site:
Trello web site:
Trello blog:
Fog Creek Software profile on CrunchBase:
Trello profile on Twitter:
Tom Raftery's profile photoRob Townley's profile photoMichael Persaud's profile photoPeter Harris's profile photo
The blog and the way you describe what an office environment should look like was very inspiring to me, even though I am not at all in the IT sector! But the architecture astronaut can be a reference everywhere.
Great interview +Joel Spolsky - and a beautiful looking product - one question though, what is the business model?

My concern is that my wife works in a school. If I introduce it to her for her work, I know they'd get fantastic value from it but if a payment structure is subsequently put in place, they may have to stop using it, which would be a shame.
+Tom Raftery That same question was asked during a startup competition (Disrupt) that Trello did well in. You can watch the video here (

The answer you are looking for is at 8:15...What I got out of it is that he is not 100% sure of the business model behind it at the moment. He is looking more for getting the popularity up before figuring that out which many companies and startups do. Mr. Spolsky does say that he expects a small percentage to get a lot more out of it than a traditional user and he will look for ways to monetize that. Based on this, I wouldn't worry about your wife having to quit using it for monetary purposes
"The programmer's programmer" is a good term for you, I don't know any programmer who doesn't love a guy has excellent ideas, the skill and the will to implement them, and business savvy. You are the archetype for the current day entrepreneur engineer.
RE getting into the zone - I use white noise. Something about drowning out my surrounding, even when I'm already alone, helps me focus when I need to. Also I agree with music being a distraction.
Behold, the latest TFS service pack - "The Security service crashes when you have two paths that are different only by the letter "I" on a Turkish database."
every young aspiring programmer should watch this!
So interesting to listen to Joel talk about the environment programmers need.
Library quiet .... definitely a nervous state for a programmer
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