The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Probing the Hive Mind: An Interview with Dan Benjamin

A couple of months back, I was giving Dan Benjamin a hard time on Twitter, claiming that someone replaced his avatar with a caricature of Cabel Sasser (of Panic fame). Dan replied, with a link to the source his avatar, which was supplied by the gang responsible for Happy Webbies.

Although I was merely giving Dan a hard time — you have to admit that his happy webby looks a lot like Cabel's Twitter avatar — this made me stop and think for a second. "Dan Benjamin has a happy webby!?" Seeing as I follow Dan on Twitter, I have obviously heard of him before. But I realized I did not hold him in the same regard as other notables in the web design world, such as Jason Santa Maria, Veerle Pieters or Jon Hicks. Why?

Here is a guy who built the content management systems for A List Apart and Cork'd. He's the CTO of Rails Machine and respected enough in the Rails community that he's speaking at RailsConf for the second year in a row.

After reviewing all I know of Dan, I realized this simple fact – Dan's work is mostly unseen, living in the back-end of any website he works on. All those other folks are unbelievably good at making pretty things that the user can see. Dan's work might also be pretty, but in a different way. This realization got me to wondering if there are others like me — casual web design fans for whom this is mostly a hobby — who unconsciously place more importance on the visual over the structure of this ‘web’ we love so much.

So I decided to rectify this unbalance by learning more about Dan Benjamin and his work. And where better to go than straight to the source? Here's what I found.

The Interview

Let's start with your own blog, Hivelogic. You have mentioned in your 2007 redesign that it runs on your own Rails app – impressive back-end work. How much of the front end work was completed by yourself?

Save for a few brief experiments, Hivelogic has always been published with software I've written. Writing your own software is a great way to learn new frameworks and languages. It also teaches you the importance of a good user interface and workflow, and it helps you predict what clients might want out of a system they'll be using every single day.

As for the front-end design, traditionally, and at present, I've done the designs myself. There have been three exceptions to this, where designer friends of mine created a design for me. They were Jason Santa Maria, Dan Cederholm, and Meagan Fisher. And as much as I realize that these designers did amazing work for me, far superior to anything I can conjure up, the Hivelogic aesthetic just never feels "right" to me unless it's running on a design I've done myself, despite my preference for simplicity, and content-focused starkness.

You can see a retrospective of past and present Hivelogic designs in a Flickr set dedicated to the subject.

Cool. I think that people who follow the world of web design, but are not necessarily employed in that field, are very familiar with designers who take the popular CMS's available and create a beautiful design of their own making. That you've done the opposite and built your own CMS is pretty impressive.

And you list some pretty impressive names who've done a design for you. This is part of why I was interested in interviewing you. I wanted to hear your thoughts on this particular topic – designers vs. coders. It seems like the designers always get the majority of the attention. In a recent article titled "Findability, Orphan of the Web Design Industry" on A List Apart, Aarron Walter illustrated the differences between designers and coders(Development) in his analogy of the web design family:

Although Development was a little nerdy and shy, everyone admired his brilliance—from which he created an artificially intelligent search algorithm in just two lines of code. Super-hip Design was the cutest of them all. He seemed to win top accolades all by himself whether his siblings joined him on a project or not.

Is this illustration frustrating at all for someone like yourself? And would you agree with the underlying sentiment?

I think that accurately represents the general point of view, even if it's false. And it's one of the things I'll be addressing in some upcoming posts, as well as my talk at Railsconf - how can Developers stand out, even if it's among their own kind in their own world.

So much of what developers do is behind the scenes and invisible. And worse, it's expected that what they do will "just work." Good design is held in high regard by users, and great design is usually rewarded. But good code, efficient, thoughtful, effective code just flies under the radar. Things like github can help bring attention to developers and their work, which is just one small part part of the site's usefulness, but it's harder for great developers to reach beyond their own community.

Good usability, though, that's something else entirely, and that's why I love thinking about and working on usability. Usability is the crossroads where design and development meet, and even today, with people preaching about usability everywhere you go, it's too often overlooked and undervalued. Believe me, people notice when the usability is wrong. Sites can totally fail because of bad usability.

Good point. And I definitely agree. Usability should be the main, underlying goal of any website. And even further, developers of applications of any type, web or desktop, or even operating systems, need to keep that goal always in focus.

But when it comes to the web, most people seem to choose one side or the other, development or design. I've seen several people state that there are very few in the industry who would be considered great at both. Shaun Inman is a name that seems to get that label. Where would you consider yourself in that scale?

I'm one of the people who have said that there are few if any people who are great at both design and code. I think it comes down not to skill or ability, but rather to expertise. It's possible to deeply understand code, databases, Photoshop, CSS, and even be able to write very well, but it's the skill you practice on a daily basis, what you spend the bulk of your time doing, that you build up expertise in.

So while there might be people who have the potential to be good (or even great) at both design and development, it's rare that you find somebody who has enough time to be simultaneously great at both in parallel. I've seen people shift specialities, getting great at something additional as they focus on it more, building or refreshing their expertise in the area, but generally, my experience has taught me that the people who are greatest at something tend to specialize in it. Again, that doesn't mean they might not also be great at something else, but people who specialize are often the ones at the top of their field.

I certainly wouldn't mind if, say, the neurosurgeon operating on my brain also enjoyed practicing law, but I'd want him to have been focusing on the neurosurgery thing more recently, if you follow me there. Maybe that's not a fair comparison, but you get my meaning.

So, where am I on that scale? I think I have a good eye for design, and good design sensibilities. But I don't live in the world of design. I know what I like, and what works, and I can implement some of that, but I'm not on the same level of people like Jeffrey Zeldman, Dan Cederholm, Shaun Inman, or the less famous but highly talented designers out there, doing design work every single day.

You tend to be the best at what you do every day.

Fair enough, and a humble response. And I think most people would say that you are probably one of the best at what you do. This makes a good segue to the next question.

With the increased popularity of the internet over the last 10–15 years, as it has become another facet of mainstream media, there is now a new channel for people to achieve fame (intentionally or unintentionally). Let's call them 'Web Superstars' just for fun. Looking at the web design industry, you can see this playing out — there are those who are at the top — some of the names you've listed above. And there are others who look up to those people and who essentially look at them as role models.

Without a doubt, especially in the design community. I've worked with many incredibly talented yet relatively unknown designers who are quite literally star-struck by the more famous designers, and I can understand that. Those "famous" designers have put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get where there are, and I think hard work like that deserves respect. Putting the time in and persevering.

Have you ever thought of yourself in this light? Are you a Web Superstar?

Am I a Web Superstar? I've been blogging since late 1999 and I've worked with some incredibly talented people on some great projects, so I can understand how people might confuse me with a superstar, but I would only call myself very lucky.

Going back to your work now. Your About page on Hivelogic lists some of the work you've done - publishing tools for Cork'd, A List Apart and others. And, as mentioned at the beginning, you've built your own CMS for Hivelogic itself.

For people looking in from the outside, the work involved might seem to be very similar. How much difference is there between the work you do for different clients? Do you basically have a foundational framework that simply gets tweaked for each one or do you start from the ground up each time?

Most publishing systems tend to have a lot of things in common, such as the management of date-based content like articles and posts vs. assets, static pages, images, and the like. You'll usually want user accounts, role-based permissions, WYSIWYG editors, archive pages, comment systems with anti-spam features, etc. So in that way -- basic feature sets a user would just expect to find in a system worth its salt -- there are many things in common.

The difference is in the way that those things come together regarding how people visiting the site will interact with it, as well as the workflow and administrative dashboard that staff members will use to manage content. The way a university staff or engineering firm manages content and how their site actually works for visitors is significantly different than the way a site like Hivelogic works, and that's different still from something like A List Apart. Sure, each one needs to manage and display some content, but how people want to use those systems is incredibly different. I tend to spend a lot of time focusing on usability, and while there might be shared components in the systems I've built, everything is being geared toward specific audience or client needs, so in that sense, it's not uncommon to build a big piece from the ground-up.

I think good developers are always challenging themselves to find better ways to do things. I feel like I'd be missing a chance to engage more fully in that exercise if I wasn't always trying to think of new or better ways of building software. And at the same time, Ruby on Rails, my development platform of choice, is evolving as well. New plugins come out every day. So it's always interesting to see how you can see what's new and leverage that to make products that are even more direct, more simple, and more elegant.

Interesting. It seem obvious that you play much more than just the developer role in your work. I would assume that a lot of what you do for a client would involve 'information architect' duties, as well as a few others.

Speaking of Ruby on Rails, I'm interested to hear your thoughts on some of the criticism that the framework has received. For people not involved in this aspect of web development, it seems like RoR has a lot of detractors, especially with issues like what Twitter has seen recently. Not that they have had serious reliability issues, but I think your average Twitter user would describe the application as flaky at times.

Let's say you were sitting on the bus and overheard two young computer science students debating the merits of RoR vs some other framework - how would you respond?

I probably wouldn't get involved. These days, I don't believe there's a right or wrong answer when it comes to selecting the framework to use to build an application. No one framework is better than another across the board, and I don't think an application is destined to succeed or fail based the framework you're using. They all have advantages and disadvantages. My preference is Rails because I like the elegant simplicity of Ruby and the way that David and the Core Team have leveraged it for the Rails framework. But I know people who prefer PHP, and others who like Python, and they like the frameworks based on that language.

It's more a matter of personal preference. Find something you like and run with it.

Let's move on to a really important topic now - beverages. I've got a few questions about Cork'd.

The 'About Cork'd' page lists you and Dan Cederholm listed as the founders. How involved are you both still involved with the day to day operations of this site?

Neither of us are involved with Cork'd anymore. We helped transition the site when it was acquired, and Dan C. did some initial design work, but that was it. We’re as hopeful and exited as everybody else to see what Gary has up his sleeve for the website.

I read this following quote from Dan C. in an interview on ThinkVitamin in August of 2006:

Because it's so targeted I think that's why it's attractive to all these wine people, so there's that, we could create a 'Cork'd Deluxe', where signing up, having a fee that offers extra features beyond what the free Cork'd does, that's a possibility. Secretly, or not so secretly I guess, we've been thinking about other sites, I won't go into detail right now, but there are other beverages beside wine, so we'll see what happens.

Perhaps I've missed some news since then, but I think there are similar markets that could use this type of community. I'm sure ale/mead/beer fans would flock to a service like this. And I would think the entire nerd/geek community would do the same with a site centring around coffee.

Are there any plans for something new in this regard?

Building Cork'd with Dan C. was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to working on something else with him one day, but right now, both of us are too busy to take on anything new right now. But the space is wide open, for sure.

That reminds me of something I noticed on the Cork'd About page. In the section where you both are mentioned, there is this reference to Tundro:

Cork'd is a product of Tundro, a development agency building web applications for people like you.

But the link to does not work. Is this simply a project that never came to fruition? Or is there more to the story?

Tundro was the company we formed to build Cork'd. At the time we imagined we might one day create more applications. This is what the site used to look like:

The Tundro company, name, logo, and website weren't part of the Cork'd deal, and I've retained ownership of them for possible use down the road.

Dan Cederholm used the awesome beer icon he'd developed for a potential new site for one of his projects, Foamee.

Thanks for clearing that up. As for, that sort of what I was hinting at a couple of questions back. I would love to see Dan's ioubeer and ioucoffee idea turn into something like Cork'd. He's already got a great start with Twitter. And the logo's are sweet. Seems like his always are – I loved his hivelogic icon.

He's got a crazy talent for coming up with amazing logos and icons. It's kind of wild to watch him work.

Now we can't have a geek interview without asking this – do you drink coffee? If yes, how do you take it?

I do enjoy a cup of coffee from time to time, but I'm not a habitual coffee drinker. Caffeine tends to make me more jumpy than alert, so I watch the intake. I drink far more green tea (loose leaf, water at 180°, etc.) than coffee. My favorite cup of coffee comes from Stumptown in Portland, Oregon.

Let's talk about another big project of yours - The Talk Show. So you get to work with John Gruber. You've made a few comments on the show about his ‘quirks’. And some tweets as well. If you had to sum it up, how would you describe working with John?

John is a great writer, and has a great eye for detail. He's also very devoted to his work and his family. And he is very, very smart. And as is often the case with bright people, he's somewhat eccentric. These eccentricities often come out in the form idiosyncrasies, like his obsessive attention to detail, his fixation on fonts and anti-aliasing, the hostility and rage against humanity, that kind of thing. It's impossible to schedule anything, such as the recording of a Talk Show episode with him, while he's focusing on writing, which is pretty much all of the time. Personally, I think the coffee just makes it worse.

So what ever prompted you both to work together and come up with the Talk Show?

We had so much fun when John was a guest on the Hivelogic podcast, and the response was so overwhelming, that we decided to make a regular thing out of it.

You definitely seem knowledgeable about podcasting. Your post on podcasting equipment was especially helpful for people starting out in this arena.

Do you think that this is an area that can now be considered an essential part of a business, especially people involved in web-centric fields? Or is it more of a fad that will never be looked at seriously, by media or big businesses?

I think that just as blogs are now a requirement for most businesses with a public face, podcasts and video blogs will one day be just as important. It might take a few years, but it'll get there.

Well just take a look at What Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV has done with his family business using his video blog and social networking.

We're also starting to see more and more companies becoming aware of the importance of social networking. Southwest Airlines, for example, is on Twitter. So are a handful of other companies. And they respond to you!

All those mediums appear to be initiating change in the way people think and interact with those offering more traditional services. It will be interesting to see how corporate America continues to react to these changes.

One last question about the Talk Show. Dan Benjamin and John Gruber. Which one of you is the sidekick?

John Gruber is my nemesis, so I've never really thought of us in terms of sidekick and superhero.

Nice. Maybe superhero and villain. We can call you Profanity-Filter Man, saving young Talk Show listeners from the fiery f-bombs of Gruber. Well … never mind.

I've got to give you both some thanks here though. On behalf of myself, and others like me, fans of Lost who would rather wait to watch each season in it's entirety on DVD – thank you for the great job you guys did with giving away zero spoilers. I really enjoyed your discussion about the show in episode 16. But I was cringing through all 68 minutes thinking I was going to hear something about season 4 that would give a really important plot line away. Nice work keeping us in the dark while still have an engaging conversation.

Now that we've covered a lot of your professional doings, I'd like to ask you about your spirituality. You mention on the Hivelogic About page that you are a practicing buddhist. How did you come to embrace this particular religion?

I've been practicing a style of Buddhist meditation, called Vipassana or Mindfulness meditation, for a number of years. This style is practiced by Theravada Buddhists as well as many non-Buddhists, and is often used outside of Buddhist circles for things like stress reduction, relaxation, and even in hospitals and therapy centres to help people with chronic pain.

I had studied Buddhism before, and it seemed like a cool philosophy, but before the integration of a regular meditation practice, I hadn't really delved too deeply into it. But after several years of daily meditation practice, I learned more and more about Buddhism, and it really made sense to me. The philosophies that it's based on, the idea that we're responsible for our own actions, that there's an opportunity for a deep peace in daily life, that one's life and activities can be understood when looked at with a very scientific eye, and that these things are all part of a bigger path was very intriguing to me.

I eventually reached a point where I was living my life as a Buddhist — not as a monastic, obviously — but it had become something that had become deeply integrated into my life, and that I found brought me, and subsequently people around me, a lot of joy. I was a much happier, much more calm, much more centered person.

Here are a few links:

Does this aspect of your life ever cause you to reflect negatively on your profession? What I mean is, does the part of Dan Benjamin that seeks spiritual nourishment conflict with what you do or the amount of time you may spend in front of a computer?

I think it's my practice that allows me to spend the bulk of the day in front of a computer.

Ha. Fair enough.

I'm being serious - the practice of mindfulness and concentration is tremendously valuable in dealing with stress, and very helpful in establishing focus. I work faster and more effectively now than I ever have.

Wouldn't that allow you to spend less time on the computer?

This is more what I'm getting at — as a Christian, I feel that relationships should be the primary focus in my life. My relationship with God, with my wife, my children and lastly neighbours, friends and family. Sometimes I feel that the time I spend on the computer distracts me from more important things.

The question — although poorly articulated — was intended to reflect that sort of idea and inquire if you ever have the same struggle.

Vipassana meditation is a kind of training for the mind. The same way athletes train and practice so they will excel on the field of play, meditation is practice for the real world, for real life. On the meditation cushion, we practice mindfulness of the present moment. I try and take that concept with me into my work day as well, trying to keep an awareness of the present moment. So in that way, although it isn't easy, it's possible to bring a clarity and focus into your workday.

In one of my favorite books on Meditation, Mindfulness in Plain English, the author (Bhante G) explains how you can take even the regular aspects of work and daily life and integrate your practice into them. It's a challenge, but engaging this way can really change how you feel about your work and how you connect with it.

As far as how I feel about spending a big chunk of my day in front of a computer screen, I am OK with it. I work from home where it's easier to get into the Creativity Zone. I get to see my wife and baby boy throughout the day, and although I do work a lot and have a number of projects ongoing, I get to structure my day in a relatively flexible way.

Thinking back, I've spent quite a bit of time in pretty difficult jobs, behind the stinking broiler at Burger King, pushing carts in the heat of the Florida summer and stocking shelves in a grocery store, working in a tiny, frenzied kitchen in an Italian restaurant, cleaning bathrooms in movie theaters, and working in plenty of mundane, unrewarding, punishing and abusive corporate jobs. By comparison, I'm pretty lucky.

So you appear to have a lot going on in your life. Listener's of the Talk Show know that you have a very young son. You have your own business and site to maintain with Hivelogic and you are the CTO of Rails Machine. Throw in some podcasting and a healthy dose of Twitter and it would seem you are a very busy guy.

Well I have a clear separation of work and non-work. Keeping those two things separate are key. And I value my family above all else. This value makes really helps me decide what to do and when.

One last question. What does an average day in the life of Dan Benjamin look like?

It's a bit different these days now that we have a baby, and as his schedule changes, so does mine. But generally speaking, it looks something like this:

Time Activity
6:15-6:30am Wake up (no alarm is used, I just wake up naturally at this time)
6:45 - 7:30 Meditation
7:30 - 8:30 Time with baby
8:30 - 9:00 Breakfast with family
9:00 - 1/1:30 Work*
1/1:30 - 2:00 Lunch
2:00 - 6-ish Work*
6-ish Pre-dinner family time until baby goes to bed
6? Jog
7? Dinner
8 - 11? Family time, reading, television (if a show we follow is on), etc.

I should note that I find most days incredibly rewarding.

* Work includes checking email, responding to work issues, readers, initial catchup with news in the morning, etc. I don't allot specific time for those things, they just happen naturally as part of the schedule. I also take some breaks throughout the day, and because I work from home, I get to see my wife and the baby.

During the course of two months, Dan graciously answered all my questions in an articulate, professional fashion. I'm grateful for his time in providing this insight into his work and life, and I have a better appreciation for those who work in the web industry more behind the scenes.

As a user, it's important to remember that there is a lot that goes on with an application that you never see. The web is no different. People like Dan are focused on making the web a great experience. We should all appreciate that.

Here's to a happy webby that's well deserved!

If you enjoy this sort of thing, here are a few others: