Fireside Chats: @maccaw dropped in to talk

We caught up with the author, hacker and programmer

We were lucky enough to have a small audience with Alex Maccaw at Makeshift HQ, to talk Javascript, what he’s doing with his current project, and a little background on how he got to where he is today.

How did he start writing?

Alex never went to university, but it didn’t slow him down. He did want to study computer science, but his maths wasn’t up to scratch, so instead he dived straight into what he enjoyed most - experimenting with Javascript.

He was all really interested in Javascript MVC frameworks, and wanted to write a book on them, so he pitched it to O’Reilly - the publishing group and conference organiser founded by Tim O’Reilly. They took him up on it when he was just 19!

‘No one knows how young you are on the other end of a computer’.

He had very little to no technology writing experience, but he was able to volunteer a couple of draft chapters to the publisher to seal the deal, before starting in earnest on the book. In his own words, ‘Tech writing is easier than something like fiction for example, where you could write anything, the requirements are clear for tech writing. You know exactly what you’re trying to get across and there is a formula for that.’ He realised it didn’t matter where he was when writing the book, so he decided to go on an around-the-world trip!

By now, having published the book on Javascript (written while travelling the world) to great success, O’Reilly suggested he try writing a book on Coffeescript. He obliged with a shorter work, but decided to make it open-source first. When O’Reilly saw that he’d already put it out, they still wanted to print it - so everyone was happy!

Does he still want to keep writing books?

Alex recently wrote a blog post on ‘everything you need to know about CSS transitions’, and he wants to write a longer work on animations and transitions; ‘we’re just scratching the surface… this stuff is so important for interactions’.

On this subject he’s been having some fun with JQuery as it has some nice queuing implementations built in, which can be combined with CSS transitions, which are ideal for doing animations in web apps.

How are things going with

He’s been having a lot of fun with it, and is now able to work on it as his main gig as it’s making money. They had a rocky road working out how much to charge at first, they saw that other people were charging a lot, so decided to follow that trend - 

‘We started by charging $1000 a month, which was the same as the competition, but nobody signed up!’

He counts companies like Hired as their main competitors, which tend towards a subscription model, but charge a premium. Alex says the monthly pricing model makes the most sense.

‘Most other companies are 90% sales, and we’re not so it means we can be much more competitive on pricing.’

People are using things like Stack Overflow and, where it can be hard to expose the talented engineers. 

What does he think about this?

They are going to open the platform up, so good designers can sign themselves up.

What advice would he give to companies trying to hire good developers?

Alex thinks one thing companies tend to overlook is detailing the team the new hire would be working with, how does that team work together. They are too wrapped up in listing requirements.

Alex travelled around the world a lot, could he have founded while doing that instead of writing the book?

Not really. While apparently Vietnam has better internet than a lot of internet (that’s depressing), the internet in Africa is non-existent, and in the Phillippines you get about two hours of electricity a day (cue gasps from the assembled audience)

He did try to work on something remotely; an image moderation tool that meant brands could use the API for their own products and campaigns, and and an assortment of mechanical turks would do the actual moderation.

Cadbury’s signed up for this with a drawing competition where you had to create pictures with chocolate bars.

‘The danger here is of course, lots of guys will tend to draw dicks’

All was going swimmingly until a bug in Alex’s code was missed. Working with spotty internet in countries with only a few hours of electricity every day, let alone high-speed internet, Alex wasn’t able to diagnose the problem and instead blamed his mechanical turks instead!

He had a sort-of system for policing the ‘turks’: He would ask three turks the same question about the problem. If they came back with the same answer, he would assume it’s true. He would then ask three more for confirmation (how many did he have?), and would eventually fire the one that always disagreed with everyone else. Oh, the tyranny of the majority!

He’s just returned from San Fran, what’s big over there right now?

Secret, obviously. Other than that, there’s nothing really big that we won’t have heard of over here, apart from the person behind a language that Alex really likes is working on a new language (but I’m not sure I can say any more than that).

Alex talked about why he really likes San Francsico, saying that they have a very healthy attitude to startups and tech over there. It’s relatively easy to meet people and make friends and work on projects. It’s also apparently not that unusual to be in the queue getting coffee and be stood behind someone like Jack Dorsey. It’s quite a small place, and everyone mixes. 

When asked about the people throwing stones at the Google bus, and the towering costs of living for existing residents, he reasoned that it’s always been a pretty expensive place to live, and that was never likely to change.

What’s his day-to-day look like?

Before we knew it, it was time to finish. Alex told us that he’s spending most of his time working on This means improving the customer on-boarding by introducing a wizard to pull you through startup, refreshing the database every 3 weeks (although he’d like to do it every week) and generally iterating on the experience of using it.

Tell us who’d you like us to speak to for our next fireside chat here or here.