Some might consider Leah Culver one of Silicon Valley’s “rock stars”, especially in the web development community. In an industry where developers are bountiful, that’s no small feat. She’s best known for co-founding and developing Pownce (pronounced “pounce”), which was a popular microblogging service, a kind of “Twitter on steroids”. She’s also a big voice for the open source community, and has contributed to it as an author and maintainer. It’s an impressive resume for anyone in web development, male or female.
Yes, there’s the looks thing. A Google search for “Leah Culver” brings up a plethora of images of the attractive twenty something. One in particular, compares her with actress Kristen Bell (which is quite uncanny, actually). Sporting a tattoo of colorful flowers on her chest, a bright personality, and being a geek (at a time when they are fashionable, which this author does not object to) in the Silicon Valley no doubt adds to her appeal.
I met with Leah in San Francisco’s SOMA district, close to Six Apart headquarters for an interview.
Once Upon a Time, there was no Pownce
Leah was born in raised on the not-so-mean streets of Bloomington, MN where she would move on to graduate from the University of Minnesota. We start here.
Ed: So where did you get your start with computers?
LEAH: Well my family always had a computer for typing up papers and that sort of thing. I really got into programming in college; I took a programming course, and I ended up being better at programming than most other classes I took, humorously enough //smiles//. So I decided to continue programming and got a degree in computer science.
Ed: So there wasn’t an interest before college?
LEAH: Before college? In programming? No. But I did kind of own the family computer. Anytime somebody needed something, wanted something fixed, or had a question about how to do something they’d say: “Oh, go ask Leah, she knows how to use the computer!”
Ed: So, when you went to school, did you know that was it, or did you start with something else?
LEAH: I started with art, actually. My mother is a graphic designer and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was always pretty good at art so I was like: “You know, I’ll get a major in art, and maybe I’ll design web pages, because I can use a computer!” I took a programming class my first year in school and it was for Macromedia Director using Shockwave files, and I loved it: I made a game, and got really into it.
Ed: Was that your first program?
Ed: So then you graduated from school and moved on to bigger things. How did you get to Pownce? How did that happen?
LEAH: So I moved out here [the SF Bay Area] right after school. I decided I didn’t want to live in Minnesota anymore because I hate cold weather. Minnesota’s a great place, it’s just so cold. I thought that there was a lot of jobs in the Silicon Valley; maybe I can find a programming job there…
…an alumni at my school posted something on a job board who now worked at a startup in San Jose. So, I went out to work for them doing Java and web programming. I left that job after a little while and worked at a company called Instructables which is a how-to website; they’re pretty cool. I was a big user, and I worked on their website for them. I started going to events in the Bay Area and meeting a lot of people. Out of that came Pownce; as I met some of my co-founders [Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka] and I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to do anymore Java apps //laughs//! I wanted my own site and wanted to learn what that was all about.
Ed: And then it was bought out by Six Apart.
LEAH: Yeah, about two years later.
Ed: Did you have any regrets about Pownce? Was there something you felt that you could have done better?
LEAH: Oh yeah! It’s just a constant process, right? With Pownce, even though I had the courage to start the project, once the project was released and rolling and we had users, it was really hard for me mentally to change things on the site. I think I had this reluctance to try anything new because I didn’t want to break the site and I didn’t want all this bad stuff to happen. The thing I wish I did more was to be more aggressive with the changes I made on the site.
One of the companies I admire most (for that), actually, is Facebook. Some people think of it as a disregard to their users, but they’re actually doing their users a favor every time they change their site, you know? They’re always innovating and adding things like chat or re-doing photo galleries… these little things that they’re pushing out all the time (with a) focus is on chatting, status, and talking with your friends; finding out what’s going on. They’re staying relevant by being willing to change everything on the site and I think that’s great.
Ed: People know that you’re one of the biggest voices for open source software, but why use open source?
LEAH: Well, open source is great! Now there’s a lot of open source being made and consumed. Developers are able to collaborate with a lot more people if you make it open source; when you work at a company you only have that option to work with your co-workers on their proprietary code. When it’s something that’s open source, you can have input from anyone, anywhere in the world and it’s… fantastic. I think what scared businesses about open source originally was that their programmers were being paid to program this. You’re paid to write this. How do you take something that you’re paid to do and do it for free?
What I hope happens in the future for open source, while realizing that a good product is built off of really well written code, we need to recognize that’s only one part of it. The bigger part is building something that people want to use and learning how to make money off of that as a business… shifting the focus from software as code to software as a really beautifully designed thing.
For example, anybody can build a flashlight: You stick two batteries together and stick a little light bulb on top; but we still go and buy flashlights. Why do we buy something that we can make for free? It’s because somebody else does it better than we do, and it’s packaged nicely, and/or it’s presented well. It’s moving software away from code and moving it more into a good product for people to use.
Ed: Do you see open source moving to mobile platforms a little more?
LEAH: I think a fantastic gain for developers everywhere would be if open source does for mobile platforms what the web did for desktop computers. There’s people that argue, that it’s the mobile web so you need a good mobile web browser; so maybe it’s the next big mobile web browser that’s going to make that a viable option developing open source for mobile.
Ed: But that’s so challenging with companies like Apple and Palm restricting application development. The only real open source choice these days is Android.
LEAH: Android has kind of the Linux (an open source operating system) problem though, right? You can do anything with it, but none of it is done very well //laughs//. As I see it, there’s not as much control over producing good design, I don’t know how web got that. So, yeah, that’s a problem that open source struggles with in general: open source is great at writing code, but it’s really hard to get good design to go with any open source project.
On Not Having A Y-Chromosome
Ed: So you’re a woman in tech. What is it like working in an industry where it’s (largely a majority of men)?
LEAH: Uh, well it’s not quite that bad. //laughs// It’s really funny: I’ve wanted to shy away from giving talks specifically for women because I think that one of things that women need to do in technology is to say: “Hey, it’s okay, I’m in this weird position, but I’m going to do the things that guys do to advance my career.” The thing that I see happens which really hurts women in their careers, is (that) they’re not willing to do the stuff that guys are willing to do, like go to the meet-ups after work, talk with people, blog about code, comment on other people’s blogs about code. There are plenty of women doing this, but I think that’s an area that needs a lot of work.
Ed: So it’s the networking aspect of it…
LEAH: It’s the networking aspect, and it’s not just networking amongst themselves. It’s getting out and being apart of events and being visible. If you have one woman show up at a meet-up, all of a sudden it’s not a room full of dudes.
Ed: But you don’t notice anything different when you walk into a room?
LEAH: I think that depends. If it’s people I work with every day, it gets to be normal. It also depends on the crowd; if people have heard my name before, than it’s totally different than if they haven’t. If you recognize someone’s name from a project online, you’re like, “Oh hey!” and it’s a lot less awkward. I don’t think it’s a cause of gender, it’s a cause of needing to do a better job, both men and women, in getting over that uncomfortable, awkward, first stuff.
Things That Have Leah’s Attention
Ed: Moving on, what technologies are grabbing your attention right now; what’s hot?
LEAH: What’s hot, hot stuff? I love Hulu! I’m a big fan in terms of product and television, which is usually not an area I’m really interested in, but I got back into television via Hulu! //laughs//
Ed: Was there a particular show?
LEAH: Omigosh, Legend of the Seeker! //laughs// It’s so nerdy, but every episode is on Hulu, and it’s not just the most recent ones; you can watch every episode and I love it. I’d consume all my TV content that way and (I’d be) perfectly happy watching their little ads in exchange for getting TV when I want it. I think that’s really exciting, and that’s coming really soon; TV is going to beat music for easiest to consume media. I hope.
(As for) other interesting stuff, I’ve been working a lot with Comet (a web development technique) technologies.
Ed: Kind of like AJAX (another web development technique) but not…
LEAH: Yeah, it’s like the reverse of AJAX? It is AJAX, and it isn’t, depending on the technique you use, but yeah, keeping a web page open and getting messages back from the server and displaying it.
Ed: It’s having the web more real-time than it is right now.
LEAH: Yeah, basically. (For example), at Django (a web application framework) Dash this year, which is a programming competition for Django sites, I worked on something called Leafy Chat, which was an IRC (a pioneering form of real time chat) client, but as a website. There’s a lot of great sites that do real-time chat, like Meebo and GTalk, and Facebook chat… it’s fantastic. I think we’re going to see more and more of those type of applications. It’s just the concern of how you make those kind of applications and still make them function like websites.
Ed: Are there any projects you wanted to highlight? Anything that you’re doing right now or will be doing we should keep a look out for?
LEAH: Oh, I’m doing cool stuff for Six Apart! I can’t talk about it yet, but it’ll be out this fall sometime. They’re actually going to open source a bunch of code; I’m sure they’re pretty set on doing it.
They’re also doing some interesting stuff with community and blogging, getting social more involved with blogging.
I think blogging is great. Nobody… even in the age of social media …really gave up their blogs, People are saying “Ah I’m gonna quit my blog!” But then they don’t. //laughs// (Instead), they are starting new blogs all the time, so I think there’s still is a case for blogging, but bringing that social aspect into blogging is really exciting, being able to see who’s reading my blog. It’s not just comments anymore it’s who reads my blogpost but doesn’t comment? That sort of stuff is super interesting to me.
I’m (also) working on Leafy Chat and real time applications. I also have a site called Baconfile, which is an Amazon S3 file browser that I work on every once in awhile. It’s my pet project, the thing I work on when I get bored and have a free weekend.
Ed: So what inspires you?
LEAH: Oh… what inspires me? I love when someone out of the blue comes up with some crazy concept and then is able to explain it in a really simple way.
Microformats is really interesting, and Webhooks. Things like that where it’s a couple of people who have this crazy idea, they talk about it, and get going.
This is a hard question; you’re putting me on the spot… //smiles//
Ed: Didn’t mean to put you on the spot….
LEAH: I have a great admiration for people who are willing to not only come up with an idea that’s technically interesting, but build a website and really try and create something unique. And I’m not talking about like, necessarily, a Twitter client.
Ed: …like the 50 million different Twitter clients out there…
LEAH: Yeah! Those are great, there’s nothing wrong with people doing that. Some of them are fantastic, but I’d really like to see someone who comes out with a website where you’re like “Whoa! Where did that come from? What is this? What is this concept? How does it work? How do I do this?” Hacking websites and working with APIs (an interface for working with other services) is great, but it always shocks me when someone comes out with something out of the blue that’s completely different. I think that’s cool.
Ed: That’s few and far between… there’s a reason it doesn’t happen all the time…
LEAH: I think it doesn’t happen because it’s hard to see outside of what currently exists and predict what people want to be doing online that isn’t happening right at this moment. There’s a confidence leap that you have to take.
Ed: Well the learning experience, some great things come out of it, whether you succeed or fail.
LEAH: Yeah! When it works it’s fantastic. Things like Scribd and their iPaper stuff.
(Things like) those video sites a couple years ago; all of sudden, Youtube was like “Oh we’re going to put your videos online” which blew people’s minds. Technical stuff like that is just amazing. Stuff that you weren’t able to do before all of a sudden appears like magic. Google Docs, collaborative editing online; I think that’s pretty interesting too!
Leah’s Downtime, a.k.a. Coding Time
Ed: So we know you love to code, but is there something other than coding you like to do?
LEAH: Yeah, people ask me that all the time and I can never come up with a good answer… //laughs// …for what I do outside of coding.
Ed: Well, you browse the web.
LEAH: I browse the web, I watch Legend of the Seeker //laughs//, which actually isn’t on for awhile yet. I started watching Entourage… ah, what else? I wish I could say I had some sort of interesting hobby.
Ed: Well coding is an interesting hobby!
LEAH: I say coding in my free time… well I used to say… it’s kind of inappropriate… I program and then I drink. One of those two is going to be my hobby at the moment!
…the other one’s my job. I do a lot of open source in my free time, meet with a lot of people and talk about code and new ideas. I go to meetups, and that sort of thing. I also go jogging too, occasionally. I guess that’s a hobby.
Ed: So, being one of the Silicon Valley’s prominent figures, and one of it’s more attractive ones …is there anyone special in Leah’s life at the moment? You don’t have to answer it as I can edit this out.
At this point Leah blushes a bit. And I didn’t edit this out.
LEAH: Oh that’s embarrassing! I don’t actually like talking about my personal life online. I just think like, I’ll get married someday and then I’ll wrote a blogpost about it, //laughs// and then people will know.
Ed: …and then you’re going to Twitter about it; a girl I interviewed actually twittered while she was walking down the aisle.
LEAH: Omigosh! No way! No! I mean I love the internet and I love putting things online, but I’m surprisingly a “live in the moment” kind of person. I don’t actually own a digital camera. At all.
LEAH: I mean, I have my iPhone.
Ed: Well, then you own one.
LEAH: Yeah, I guess that counts. But when I had a camera that was separate from my phone, I would never carry it with me. I got pretty lazy about it, because you’re trying to record the moment, but you’re not necessarily in it. I’m actually more private than a lot of people know.
Hot or Not
Ed: So to wrap it up, I’m going to throw some topics out there and you’re going to say “Hot” or “Not”.
Ed: Palm Pre
LEAH: Hot! You gotta name one that’s like you know (not hot) …c’mon.
Ed: Closed source
LEAH: Closed source… not as hot.
Ed: RSS (feeds)
LEAH: Not! Shocking! Feeds are very different from APIs right now but I think they’re going to become one. I think we’re going to have less syndication formats instead of more; So… JSON (a method of describing data) syndication format…
Ed: I’m actually not familiar with JSON syndication.
LEAH: I have never heard of it either… //laughs// …but I think communicating what is going on via JSON (will be hot). We (currently) think of feeds like traditional blog feeds, but I think of feeds as content: anything that’s either a current look at a site or an API into a site that has a more latest item. Lot of things are JSON, like Twitter, so I think that’s hot.
Ed: Software Engineers
LEAH: In terms of the classical terminology… not. //laughs//
Ed: Ok then, Web developers.
LEAH: Yeah, web developers are always hot.
Ed: The Republican Party
LEAH: //laughs// They’re actually not doing too bad right now. I’ll give them a pass.
Ed: Dining out.
LEAH: Dining out… actually, not. I’ve been dining in a lot and saving a lot of money. So for anyone being frugal with the economy the way it is, dining out is not hot.
Ed: Kevin Rose
LEAH: Kevin Rose is a good friend of mine so I’ll give him a hot. //laughs// He’s a great guy.
Ed: Last guy, Mark Zuckerberg
LEAH: Oh, hot for sure. And I’m not talking about physically! //laughs//
Ed: No, we’re talking about that! That can be for another discussion….
LEAH: Yeah, that’s definitely a different sort of discussion.
We’ll leave it at that.
Leah is currently a developer at Six Apart. You can find out about Leah on her personal blog.
…and you can follow her on twitter @leahculver.