Carin Meier is a ballerina-turned-developer who hails from Ohio. I met her at JRuby Conf 2011, where she gave a fantastic presentation on Semantic Web and JRuby. She is a comitter to the 4clojure project and a Ruby devotee who loves to explore new development communities in the Cincinnati area, where she works at EdgeCase with the likes of Jim Weirich and Joe O’Brien. Carin’s got a lot to say about the power of shared data and the value of JRuby–check it out!
You started your career as a professional ballet dancer. How did you make the switch to computer science?
I really enjoyed my time dancing with ballet companies, but I always knew that I wanted to go to college as well. I chose to study Physics because it was challenging, appealed to my curiosity, and, quite frankly, the math just made my brain feel good. It also helped that I had a really inspiring female Physics teacher in high school. I remember distinctly one of my first Physics labs, in which we set up a ramp with a ball on top and calculated the distance to place dish to catch it. I made the calculations and when the ball actually dropped in the cup, I was hooked. This Math and Science stuff was very cool. Later in college, I worked on computer simulations with Mathematica and discovered that I really liked working with with software. So when I graduated, I took a job with a consulting firm and starting doing software development full-time.
What were your first experiences with software development like?
My first experience in the professional world was doing a HR conversion project for a large company. It was very different from the scientific modeling projects that I had done in school. The thing that I enjoyed about it was the immediate impact and value of the work that I was doing. Working with business owners and helping them solve problems was very gratifying. I also enjoyed collaborating with other developers in a team environment. Picking up all the new software development tools was not very difficult for me. Learning the domain and how to apply the right technology, was to me, the more challenging and important learning.
You mentioned that you have had the rare experience of working in two very different environments (as a dancer and as a programmer)—one where women are the majority, and one where they are the minority. Can you tell us more about this and what you’ve learned from both experiences?
I see a lot of similarities. Men in ballet are definitely in the minority. Ballet, in our culture’s view, is more for girls and not boys. As a result, there are not many men in professional ballet companies. It would be much easier to have dance company of all women. However, dance performances are so much richer and more expressive when they have both men and women performing. Having both makes the performance better, the audience happier, and the company stronger. There are the same sorts of cultural stereotypes with girls in math and science. But, in my opinion, the benefits of having a diverse software development team are similar. It allows a more comprehensive and expressive application of technology that, in the end gives you a better product, happier customer, and a stronger company. I am very hopeful that as technology and software become a more integrated part of our children’s lives that we will increase the diversity in our software communities too. I think role models are important too. I have a 5 year old daughter and was quite pleased when she announced that she wanted to be a computer programmer, like Mom, when she grows up. On the lighter side, one of the best perks of being a woman attending a technical conference rather than a ballet performance is - no lines for the women’s restroom.
You’ve worked for Fortune 500 companies and startups, as well as running your own consultancy. How do these environments compare? Which do you prefer?
Each environment has it owns advantages and disadvantages in my view. At the large enterprise level, there are some really interesting technical problems to solve having to do with scaling and data wrangling that you don’t usually encounter at the smaller company level. However, at the small company level, there seems to be more freedom in choosing and shaping the technology, as well as working directly with the customer. I, of course, loved the freedom of running my own business, but at the end of the day realized it was quite lonely for me and I preferred working in a team. Working with EdgeCase has been the best blend of all worlds for me.
How did you discover Ruby and what do you like about it? What has your experience with the Ruby community been like? What is the Cincinnati Ruby community like?
I discovered Ruby through our local community Cincinnati Ruby Brigade, which totally rocks. I was immediately impressed with both the people and the language. After working with Java, the dynamic power of Ruby and it’s ability to create clean and concise code really got my attention. I was equally impressed with the Ruby community. I have found it a very warm and welcoming environment. There is always someone more than willing to help you learn and overcome any problems. The open source community is full of incredibly smart and vibrant developers making really cool things. Oh, I and really like the Ruby whimsical streak too.
In your opinion, what is the value of JRuby? How do you use JRuby?
JRuby combines all the dynamic power and expressiveness of Ruby with enterprise ready platform of the JVM and gives you access to the rich world of Java libraries. That is a huge win. At our EdgeCase and Gaslight Software office, JRuby is being used on several projects. One current example is a project that is using JRuby access PDF libraries that are not available in Ruby. Another project is using JRuby’s ability to deploy as a war file to enable their product to be plug and play for any enterprise.
You gave a great presentation on Semantic Web at JRuby Conf 2011. Can you talk a little bit about why you’re passionate about this subject?
I have always had a deep respect for data. But, data alone is not as powerful as data shared. Semantic web gives us the ability to share and link data to other data in a standard way across the internet. This may sound like a simple thing, but look what sharing and linking documents to other documents through HTTP has done to our world. We have already seen great advances in search engines, analytics and data integration from Semantic Web technologies. But, I really think it is just the tip of the iceberg and I am very excited to see what the next few years bring as we shift our focus to an open data world view.