Brainiac Corner with Tumblr's Database Engineering Team

Posted by VividCortex on Apr 29, 2013 7:36:00 AM

At the Brainiac Corner, we meet with some of the sharpest minds in the system, database, devops, and IT world. If you’d like to share your thoughts on pirates, ninjas, the future of system administration, or any other relevant topic, please don’t hesitate to contact us.


A few days ago we sat down with Tom Christ, Evan Elias, and Bob Patterson, Jr., all database engineers at microblogging megastar Tumblr. Here’s what we asked, and here’s what they answered:

How did you get from stork to brainiac (i.e. what do you do today, and how did you get there)?

Evan: I’ve been coding since I was five or six, starting out on my dad’s Commodore 64. I went to school for computer science, and ended up working in higher ed IT for a few years. That was nice and relaxed, but not the best environment for learning consumer-facing web development. So I switched gears, got a job at Six Apart, and have been doing blogging/social software since then.

Working at Tumblr has had a huge impact on my learning about scalability and databases. I’ve been working with MySQL for ten years now, but only really seriously for about two-and-a-half years, since joining Tumblr. When I started here, everything was on fire—we had like two engineers. The best way—if the most painful way—to learn a whole lot really quickly is to have no other option.

Bob: I started coding when I was seven. During school I spent a lot of time learning and picking up stuff as I went along, and then I worked for Interactive One (Community Connect), which was one of the first social network companies— and I was doing systems stuff, and then I was working on the app and systems, and then just the app. From there I went to Buddy Media, and then a really small startup where I had to rewrite a lot of stuff. Then I came here. I’ve kind of learned another piece of the puzzle at every place as I’ve gone along.

What’s in your group’s technology stack?

Evan: What the three of us work with directly the most is certainly MySQL, and then a lot of PHP, and a lot of Ruby. We don’t really use Ruby for our application, but all of our automation is Ruby. The main app, though, is PHP. I think we’re all extremely comfortable with PHP. It’s certainly not my favorite language, by any stretch, but I know it well enough that it might be the one I’m strongest in.

Tom: Yeah, I’ve written all of the PHP, and a lot of SQL, obviously, also Linux sysadmin, and some Bash.

Evan: We use a lot of Memcached here, and we’re using Redis more and more. It’s exciting that our team is finally starting to get our hands in that, trying to make it more stable. Ideally we’ll be more of a general storage team than MySQL in particular. I love MySQL, but it’s nice to branch out a little bit too. Different tools for different tasks.

And now for the most important question: Who would win in a fight between ninjas and pirates, and why?

Tom: I don’t buy into the whimsical ninjas and pirates technology meme, so I’m going to abstain from this one.

Bob: I’d say ninjas, because I figure pirates are going to be drunk the whole day.

Evan: I think they’re both a bunch of sneaky bastards, but I feel like ninjas have a little more class and seriousness of purpose. They have a lot of discipline. Anyone can go off and be a pirate, but becoming a ninja takes years of training.

What’s a more accurate state of the world: #monitoringsucks or #monitoringlove?

(mildly awkward silence)

VividCortex: Do you know those hashtags? They’re two memes that have a sort of following on Twitter.

Tom: I don’t do the Twitter. I didn’t get a smartphone or a laptop ‘til last month.

Bob: Well, in Virginia it’s still a third-world country when it comes to telecom, right? Don’t you still use dialup?

VividCortex: It’s true. We use carrier pigeons for AWS administration.

In six words or fewer, what’s the biggest challenge your organization faces?

Bob: Monitoring the staff’s use of data.

Evan: The data. So much f∗cking data.

Tom: That’s a t-shirt, right there.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Evan: Make software or tools that you yourself want to use—whether it’s tooling that makes your life easier, or a consumer-facing website that you enjoy using, or preferably both at once.

Bob: Yeah. The more interested you are in something, the better it’s going to be.

Tom: Also, label your cable. It’s important. My first day working in a data center, they had me pruning dead cables. And not all the indicator lights on the switches were working. So I saw one that I thought was dead and I took it out…but then I thought, ‘I don’t feel so good about this.’ So I plugged it back in, but I put it into the wrong port and caused a broadcast storm.

Okay, last question. What’s your vision for system administration in five years?

Tom: Robots.

Evan: Automation everywhere. I mean, you’ll still need humans; we don’t want to automate ourselves out of jobs. Someone has to turn the machines on. And you don’t want to make them smart enough to make themselves smarter, because then you get the Terminator.

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