Kasima Tharnpipitchai ’94 (@kasima) is a software developer at GitHub. Previously, he worked as a consultant for over 10 years, with some time spent doing startups and improv on the side. He was recently part of a team that won Cultivated Wit's Comedy Hack Day. Xinyi Zhou ’10 chatted with Kasima about his time at in the Magnet, consulting and his decision to join GitHub.
What do you remember from your time at Blair? Classes, clubs?
I remember four early sciences. You had to take them in two years. I did a lot of theatre. I did theatre all my entire four years at Blair. I remember the VAX. That sits squarely in my head. It was a big server, connected to the internet. This was back in ‘92, before I learned about the World Wide Web. I remember Mr. Bunday's physics class. Oh, I remember R&E (Research & Experimentation). Is that something they still have?
Yeah I took R&E. That was really fun. For our Senior Engineering Project, we built a cane. Ms. Sandoval had a relative who had a disability in which he would fall and not be able to get up. So we engineered this cane which was surprisingly fun, and a lot of people seemed to like it ... There were four other people, really good friends and we had a really good time. We drove around to NIST and interviewed engineers -- what's funny is that we were building this mechanical item and the stuff that we needed to know was two years into college. But we were thrown right into it. I think one of the engineers at NIST gave us a book on engineering statics and was like, this is what you really need to know. We didn't really have the ability to comprehend it. It was funny because in college it was like, oh, this was it. This was what he was talking about.
What was your first year at Maryland? Engineering?
I actually started at Maryland as an engineer as well. I went through, I think like three years of engineering in college.
And then what?
I converted to computer science. I missed computer science. I was doing dual degree for a while. But the workload got to be too much so I decided to drop engineering for a while and the dean was super super nice. And I never got to come back to it.
So you mentioned the VAX -- since we have some younger readers, could you give an idea of what technology was around you?
Oh yeah we could email each other [on the VAX], which was silly. The VAX was a very serious machine just to have as a high school computer program and it was also serious that we were able to connect to it and connect out of it. So we were able to send emails. I think there was one student who left Blair and went to another school, and we were able to email him, which was mindblowing. It was like oh my god. You can send him this electronic message. It's crazy! And you would log in, you had homework to do on it. But the thing we used it for most was to chat with each other at night. So you could dial in with a modem. I think there were eight lines you could dial into. Then you could connect to the VAX which was an interface with a shell. And you would see who was on and you would chat. It was proto IM. We had never seen anything like it before, except for bulletin boards. We certainly didn't use the full capacity of that VAX. We didn't understand the actual value of that thing: it was just this box they had, in a room that was apparently very serious. But yeah it was a standalone UNIX machine pre-internet.
So how did you decide to major in computer science in college? And did you also major in theater?
I did a minor in theater. I think computer science was… I mean I did computer science all the way through the Magnet programs from like probably 2nd grade.
Oh. 2nd grade?
Yeah there was the gifted and talented program in Montgomery County. They had Apple IIs and Apple IIGS. So we were doing computer stuff. And did you go to Takoma Park?
So it really started in earnest at Takoma Park we learned how to program. I mean something that I always felt was my passion was computers. So I got through computer classes at Blair, got to Maryland, decided I wanted to be an electrical engineering (EE) major because I thought I wanted to do physical things. Turns I just missed computer science (CS). So I added that on as a major. But the load of that, plus I was basically doing a theater minor and performing shows and in a performance troupe and an a cappella group -- that load was way too much to do EE and CS. I decided to finish CS because it was something I felt was manageable and it was something I missed at that time. But I think it was almost default. I couldn't imagine not having computer science or programming in my life.
But you moved to Chicago to do improv after college?
Yeah I did improv after my first year out. I got a job in Maryland, at a University of Maryland spinoff, with an old professor and a graduate student. It was a really small company. So I did that first. It started falling apart; I think they got bought and there was the wake of the whole dot com bust. So I didn't want to be there and I was interested in theater. So when the bust happened, I decided that it was a good opportunity for me to take a good hard look at pursuing improv. I moved to Chicago for a year and a half. That was interesting and difficult and I ended up learning a lot at that time about the business of improv. But I also decided I needed to step away from that as well, and maybe pursue something else.
So you moved back into software after that?
I was doing software at the time, doing consulting. It was what allowed me to do improv while in Chicago. And after that, I continued to consult. I moved back to Maryland and a friend from Blair contacted me about taking on a consulting job with him and we got excited to work on start up and we did that for a couple years. We had no idea what we were doing. It was a really, really difficult time. [laughs] But looking back, you learn all the things that you don't know and that was really valuable. That was a couple years of continuing to consult, but also trying to work on a business or project of our own.
What was the start up you were working on?
The product that we tried to put together was… it's so funny to talk about. It was an early social network that could be whitelabeled. So you could put together a social network for a specific community of people, and build a platform for that social network. That's where we started, and then we started pushing it to social capital work, specifically to organize non-profits and social causes. So it would be social networks around say, World Wildlife Fund, where there would be a lot of structures for encouraging donations. It would have games, or publicize when you donated or when you got people to donate. Where we ended up was, we were finalists in a Yale 50K competition, in which you submit your idea for 50,000 dollars in funding. I think we got to the finals and didn't make it, and by that time we were out of money and fed up with working with each other.
Very different from anything I've ever done.
It was very different than anything I'd ever done at the time too. There's something funny about the narrative of what a startup looks like, and what it means to be on the ground and to work for it. The problems when you're in it are surprising. There's this golden story about how someone comes up with an idea, they program it, and it's a success. The real story is how hard it is to work with a person, all the little decisions you have to make, and all those little decisions and the sheer amount of work are this idea that isn't the idea that you had. But when the story is told, it's like Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg wanted to connect all these people, and boom! There's the idea, and then Facebook. But there's all these little decisions and all this struggle for years before you get to something that even begins to look like a Facebook. The idea is almost nothing. The implementation really is what counts. There's a lot of learning behind that. And there's so much more people story in it than what people talk about. The epitomy is: entrepreneur has a great idea, and he alone champions this idea and profits. But there's so much rallying people -- keeping organizations alive is tough.
You were with 2nd Rate Geniuses before GitHub?
That was my consulting firm with my partner Alex Southgate. I had known him for a while and he was consulting as well. We started taking projects together, and then we decided to incorporate and start a consulting firm. That started in 2009 or 2010. Before that we were independent but we were bringing each other on our projects, back and forth.
So why did you guys decide to join GitHub?
We were approached by GitHub to do consulting work for them, and at the end we were at the same story where we were offered a job, but this time the equation was, we would be offered less money but more freedom. They said basically you could work anywhere, all the time. And that's not something we've actually had before. Our work was like, we would be off-site to work on our project for two months, but in that 10 months we were tied at our client's location, generally in or around San Francisco. So when GitHub came to us, it was like A, they offered us more freedom, B, they were GitHub, kind of a big name, very respected company in our field. We had used GitHub forever, we loved the product. So they were GitHub, there was a lot of excitement around joining this team of very accomplished people. And C, we had finally had found a project we enjoyed and believed in. We were excited to see what it was like not to consult anymore, to really sink your teeth into a project and care about it for a long time, and not have that heartbreak. So when they approached us about joining them, I would say a year and a couple months ago we decided to cross that threshold. It was hard; it was a hard decision to make, it happened at a time we were trying to build our own thing as well. So we had to walk away from continuing to build that. But it seemed like an opportunity that was hard to pass up.