Get to know the people of Cloud City. In this regular (and sometimes irregular) series, we sit down with our designers, engineers, and other team members to talk about development, consulting, and life in general.
Today, we sat down with Martin Emde, Cloud City’s principal engineer, to talk about unblocking creative flow, getting his hands dirty, and his roundabout route to programming.
Currently reading: Circe by Madeline Miller
Currently binging: Toasted marshmallows at the fire pit
Currently streaming: The Ezra Klein Show
Let’s start with your role at Cloud City. Tell us about your approach to consulting.
I think the best way to separate someone who is good from someone who is very good is their ability to make progress in the face of roadblocks. At Cloud City, we don’t allow ourselves to be blocked; there’s always some way around every issue, and we’re skilled at finding it.
Consulting is an interesting field. Many people see consultants as “temporary workers” who are here to fill a gap, implying that they’re not particularly good at one job because they have so many shoes to fill.
While it may be true sometimes, it’s a flawed assumption: I’ve worked with some incredible consultants, both before and especially at Cloud City. A great consultant can quickly slot into other systems because they’ve seen so many systems.
Sometimes consultants are seen as “others,” supplemental people meant to solve a problem with a barely acceptable level of contribution. Cloud City is different. I’ve had the opportunity to work at long-term clients of our consultancy where every previous Cloud City consultant is praised highly and the work they did is still core to the company.
Our consultants don’t get seen as “others” on an engagement because we contribute wholeheartedly. When we come in, we have the benefit of a wide range of experience and resources to analyze the problem and provide as much value as possible. I aim to solve problems in a way that sets our clients up for success even after we have left.
Did you always want to be a software engineer?
Not consciously! I just had fun doing it. When I was young, I liked to write programs that solved problems or did silly little things. I loved to make games — even collaborating with friends across the country on a multiplayer game that could be compared to Zork (also known as a MUD for the OG nerds out there.)
I was lucky to have a dad who worked at HP, so we always had workstations and programming manuals scattered around the house when I was growing up. I ended up reading the entire C programming language reference guide and learning to use Vim as a young teen. Even though I actually hated programming in school, I felt destined to write programs — even if I was the only one who ever used them.
Hold up … how does a programmer hate programming in school?
It felt kind of … “beneath” me (I was an arrogant kid just out of high school when I thought this!). The stuff I was working on for fun at home was so much more interesting than the rote programs I had to make in college. Writing trivial programs at school felt tedious compared to managing live communication sockets in a game loop for all the players on our MUD. Programming seemed like fun, but doing it professionally ruined it for me.
So I moved into graphic design. I made real things with my hands. I worked at a sign shop and bent neon and steel into the designs I made on the computer. I could design a sign and then actually hold the physical product, put it on a truck, a wall, or on a giant post 30 feet in the air. It felt great to be able to point at something and say: “I made that!”
You don’t often get that with programming.
After that graphic design experience, by sheer luck I fell into Ruby on Rails very early on. I found (to my surprise) that I enjoyed programming professionally again. It broke down a lot of my preconceived notions. Programming in Ruby felt more like playing. What a difference a language can make, and now here I am!
Tell us more about making things with your hands. What do you “create” outside of work?
I recently moved and I love working on my house. In a way, it’s very similar to engineering.
Most of what I do at work is invisible. It exists and it’s vital, but if it’s working well, it shouldn’t be noticed at all.
It’s the same with a house. The infrastructure (like plumbing and wiring) should work so well that it’s also invisible.
I treat my home the way I treat my work. I like to make the everyday annoyances invisible. For example, I’ve automated the “deployment” (ha!) of the bathroom lights, so you never walk into a dark bathroom. The vent fan kicks on when you take a shower, and the air is invisibly kept fresh by constant low-volume ventilation. I love it because I appreciate the benefits of it every day and I feel grateful! I’m like a wizard, except with the magic of electricity.
In addition to wizard-wiring your lights, do you have any other hobbies?
I like to offset the impact of sitting or standing at a computer all day. I love to hike, camp, and spend time outdoors. I get a nice hit of satisfaction by picking weeds, removing non-native invasive species, and leaving the landscape a little more beautiful than I found it.
We recently bought a fire pit (a Solo Stove, which is so awesome) and I love being able to roast hot dogs and marshmallows and take it easy on the hammocks we’ve hung from the trees in our yard. Creating those serene moments with the family gives you this internal feeling of peace. Invisible, but just as valuable.