Better Know a WebDev: Will Kahn-Greene aka willkg

James Socol

Welcome back to the third epic installment of Better Know a WebDev!

We started with our illustrious director, Mike Morgan, and then someone volunteered that the chronicler, yours truly, should be up next. But now we’re just going to randomly hop around through our entire web dev family. And there’s a lot of us!

Up this week, put your internet hands together for Will Kahn-Greene!

WillKG

What do you do at Mozilla?

I’m a software engineer in the webdev group that works on the software that runs support.mozilla.org. That entails working directly on kitsune—the software that runs support.mozilla.org—and its dependencies. I also spend some time working on making development life easier.

Any fun side projects you’re working on?

I have too many side projects, so I sort of bounce between them month-to-month. I’m the current maintainer of Pyblosxom—a file-based weblog system. I’m a cofounder of MediaGoblin and help maintain project infrastructure. I run Python Miro Community. I also work on Miro and Miro Community, though in a diminished capacity since I left PCF to work at Mozilla.

How did you get started in web development?

Long story short, I started writing web pages and CGI programs in C, then Perl, in undergrad. I learned enough to become an “authority” and taught a class on web-design and authoring in Microsoft Online Institute. The version of MOLI that I used was a web-based chat system. I thought it was pretty lacking, so I did my senior undergrad thesis studying web-based instruction and building a better system. From there, I did a bunch of consulting on large web-sites using IIS/ASP then Java EJBs/JSP/Servlets. After consulting, I switched sides (producer → consumer of web apps) and worked for a company writing a scraper for financial data.

How did you get involved with Mozilla?

In undergrad, we had Mosaic installed on the computers in the lab and I used that until I switched to Netscape. I used that for a few versions, then got really excited when Mozilla formed and started doing M releases. I’ve been using a Mozilla browser ever since.

I worked for Participatory Culture Foundation on the Miro media player, but while there worked on a variety of side projects including Firefox extensions, scripts that augmented the PCF Bugzilla instance, Universal Subtitles, and also I wrote the code that showed enclosure information in the feed preview page for Firefox 3 (or 3.5—I forget when it landed).

When a Mozilla recruiter asked if I’d be interested in working for Mozilla as an employee, I jumped at the chance.

What’s a funny fail story or mistake you can share?

Seems like everyone’s done the “rm -rf /” thing. Me, too. Though it was less funny and more of that “oh, what have I done!” sinking feeling of despair.

The fail story I often tell people who seem apprehensive about computers and doing things with them happened when I was in undergrad. I had been programming since like 4th grade in a bunch of environments and knew my way around PC computers, Windows… but I hadn’t had much experience with Macs. In college, we had a Mac lab. So I trot into the Mac lab to work on my first homework assignment for CS 1 and I sit down and I look at the Mac and it had no visible on/off switch. I looked on the sides and the back. Nothing—no switches or anything on/off-related. I looked for instructions nearby. Nothing. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t figure out how to turn the computer on that I left and got a 0 on that homework. Turns out that the “on” key was on the keyboard in the upper right hand corner and had a triangle on it. For this particular Mac, there was no “off” switch. I never would have guessed that. The moral of the story being that computers are mysterious and a total pain in the ass even for people who have lots of experience with them.

What’s coming up that you’re excited about?

I started at Mozilla in September 2011, so I’ve only been here a short while and it’s hard not to be excited about everything. Seems like every day I hang out with the Mozilla folks, I learn something new and about the existence of ten things I wasn’t previously aware of.

A less hand-wavey answer might go along these lines: I’m excited about the momentum towards open web apps and reducing the barriers to web development. Literacy with web development is a powerful thing. Being able to run apps everywhere is also a powerful thing.