Brett Terpstra, as I’ve said on Twitter recently, is one of the more impressive people I’ve been lucky enough to work with. I first met him while we were both writing on TUAW together, and since then he’s gone full time over to the Blogsmith team (which is the CMS that most of AOL’s blogs, including TUAW and Joystiq, all run on). He’s quite an interesting guy and a prolific indie developer of his own, and a few weeks ago at WWDC, I asked him to do a quick interview with me over email. Here’s the result of that:

Hey Brett! Thanks for chatting with me. How did you get started coding?

I learned Basic on a PC Jr. through trial and error. I spent as much time coding those little programs as I did playing King’s Quest, and I’ve always viewed the challenge and problem-solving surrounding code to be just like solving a game like that, at least for me. I moved on to other languages and other platforms over time, but I still get the same thrill from solving coding puzzles as I did when I was 6.

One of the things I really appreciate about you and your work is that you’re the kind of person who hears an idea or comes up with an idea, and then charges on to make it happen no matter how impossible it seems. I’ve met a few people like this: You mention to them how great it would be if you could send an email to a toaster, and the next day they come back with a web form and a custom-made protocol to order toast via email (with an extra option to buy bread beforehand if you haven’t done that). Do you see this skill in yourself? Do you think that’s something that’s trained or is it intrinsic to who you are?

It’s very much intrinsic to who I am. I have an obsessive personality that thrives on problem solving, so when presented with a problem I tend to focus on it. Once I developed enough of a base toolset to start solving the kind of problems I was running into, it became possible to learn whatever I needed to in order to accomplish a new goal.

My skill set lacks focus; I learn what I need to know to do what I want to do, but am generally a failure at having in-depth knowledge in any area. Jack of all trades.

So if you’re faced with a problem you don’t understand, what’s the first thing you do? Obviously I think this is an enviable skill to have — I wonder if you can codify a bit this drive to make these crazy ideas possible.

The first thing I do is look for someone who’s already solved it. I hate reinventing the wheel. If I can find a solution and it covers the bases, I just dissect it to learn what I can from someone else’s effort. If I can’t find a good, pre-existing solution, though, I stop and try to generalize the problem. If I can backtrack to find a higher-level issue that I or someone else might face in other circumstances but whose solution would cover all of the bases, that’s where I start.

Then I try to envision a way to make the solution as transparent as possible. If I get it right, it should be as if the “problem” never existed, just a smooth surface where there was a hole or a bump before. Then I figure out what tools would be best suited to the task, and teach myself what I need to know in order to use them without making too much of a mess. I still make messes pretty often, though.

Speaking of making messes, you have a lot of animals around your house. Which animals do you have these days, and what appeals to you so much about them?

I like animals better than people, most of the time. Granted, people don’t (usually) poop in my living room and barf up hairballs in my shower, but I still have some antisocial tendencies that just make me feel more at home with furry, speechless creatures. My wife and I have a German Shepherd (Chance), a Pit Bull (Emma), an African Grey parrot (Jasmine), two littermate cats (Yeti and Jezebel) and one Siamese stray (Steve), a 75 gallon fish tank (a Pleco named “The Dude,” and a rotating collection of freshwater fish, one of which is usually named “Socks” because I think that’s funny) and at least one foster at any given time (we run a Pit Bull rescue). If it weren’t for my wife being so wonderful with animals, I’d probably have fewer of them around, but I love them all.

Another thing I like about you is that you (like me, I think) are ruthlessly cynical at times, and often extremely skeptical, but when you find something or someone that you’re really impressed by, you’re able to flip that cynical part off and just fanboy out. You’ve seen and played with a lot of cool hardware and software — what’s one or two of the best things you’ve ever seen?

An app called Found left a strong impression on me a year ago. It was mostly because the task was monumental: building a replacement for Spotlight in OS X. Just the drive and planning in the undertaking impressed me enough that I’ve been an excited beta tester ever since.

Beyond that, there are too many apps that I love to even begin listing them all. Third-party hardware that excites me the way apps do is rare. I love my Drobo, but not the way I love my favorite apps. There’s something about the excitement of some developers that’s contagious. It’s hard to be cynical when you see someone take a great idea and make it a reality.

Lastly, run through the apps you have available — just a little bit about what they’re for and why you made them. And then I’m just wondering what you’re working on next, and what we can look forward to.

The only app I currently have for sale is Marked, the Markdown previewer/exporter with a lot of extra tools for writers. After that, nvALT is popular, and I have an app in progress called Gather (you can find it on brettterpstra.com). My next big project is a secret, but it’s going to hopefully fill a void for many Marked users and expand the audience significantly.

I also have Marky the Markdownifier, a side project I’ve been working with on and off for a couple of years. It basically combines Readability with a Markdownifier, turning any web page into Markdown for reading, clipping or saving. There’s also Promptdown, a web app for turning Markdown text into a teleprompter for screencasting. Then there are dozens of Services, snippets and tools that I’ve built, mostly found on my Downloads page. I keep busy.

He does. Since this interview, Brett has put together this excellent catalog of all his work recently, so browse through that if you want to see some of the great things this guy has put together.

He’s also planning to start a new podcast, and he kindly asked me to be the first guest. We actually talk more about some of the subjects mentioned here, as well as a few other things, so keep an eye out for that.



Posted on Monday, July 9th, 2012 at 12:25 pm. Filed under general.
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