Ben Collins-Sussman

I'm a programmer and musician; I live in Chicago with my wife, kids, and cats.

My friends tease me that I "collect hobbies", but everything I do seems to have three common themes:

Software Engineering

I've been working as a professional programmer since the early 90's.

  • My work with the longest-term impact is probably Subversion, an extremely popular tool to help programmers collaborate. (Winner of a 2005 JOLT Award.) I was a co-designer and co-founder of that project, and though I'm now retired from it, I managed to co-author the main manual for the software; the complete book is online.
  • I joined Google in 2005, ported Subversion to their scalable Bigtable technology, then helped launch Project Hosting on Google Code, which now hosts hundreds of thousands of open-source projects.
  • In slowly going bald, I grew pointy hair at some point and transitioned into engineering management. I managed Google Code for a while, and now manage a team of ~20 engineers on a display advertising product called the Google Affiliate Network.
  • People are way harder than computers. My buddy Fitz and I have spent the last 5+ years giving conference talks on the social challenges of software development. You can see many of our talks here on youtube, or you can read our O'Reilly book on the subject: Team Geek: A Software Developer's Guide to Working Well with Others

Music

I love to play and compose music. I've been playing piano since age 6, and was trained as a improvisational fakebook reader. In college I was obsessed with organizing barbershop quartets, and in my 30's I seriously took up playing bluegrass banjo. I like to play in a local jam session now and then.

I also have a long-standing career as a composer for Chicago theaters. With my collaborator Andre Pluess, we've won multiple awards for composition, sound design, and new musical theater works over the last 15 years.

Our most successful original musical was probably Winesburg, Ohio, an adapation of Sherwood Anderson's novel. It premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, then played at a new-works festival in NYC, then at the Arden Theater (Philadelphia) and at KC Repertory (Kansas City). It won a both a Jeff Award (Chicago) and an Ovation Award (LA).

Our latest musical was in summer 2012, and played at Lookinggglass Theatre: called Eastland, it received three Jeff nominations.

Photography

Ever since my kids were born, my teenage love of photography was re-kindled. I started shooting on a 35mm SLR in junior high school, learning to develop B&W in my basement darkroom. Now that I have a digital SLR, I've had to learn Adobe products in my basement instead! My main photographic interest is portraiture.

If you're just getting into photography and wondering which camera to buy (or what the controls on your camera mean), please take a gander at my Intro to Photography Page, which is particularly aimed at newbies with a technical bent.

  • I shoot with a Canon 5D mkII, and mainly use Canon's 24-70 f/2.8L II lens. I also sometimes use a Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens for portraits or use a Canon 50mm f/1.2 L when I want to be more minimal.
  • There's a saying that the "best camera is the one you have with you". Smartphone cameras don't cut it for me, so while I don't always have the SLR with me, I always keep a small micro-4/3rds camera in my bag -- an Olympus E-P3 PEN with either an effective 34mm f/2.8 pancake lens (makes it coat-pocketable!) or an effective 28-84mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom. The quality isn't as good as an SLR, but it's significantly better than a point-n-shoot.
  • You can read about my photography adventures in the photography category on my blog.
  • I post a lot of photos to my Google Plus account and to my Flickr stream.
  • I should really put up a portfolio of my favorites, but haven't found time to do it yet.

A tip: Google Plus seems to be a haven for photographers networking and discovering each other. I highly recommend you jump in there and build a huge 'photographer circle'.

Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction is a computer-based storytelling medium. It started with Infocom games in the 80's, but has since evolved into something wondrous over the last 30 years, with an extremely active indie-developer community.

If you're totally new to this world, read my Intro to Interactive Fiction page.

  • As a writer, I've co-authored two successful games: Rover's Day Out, which won the big Interactive Fiction Competition of 2009, and Hoosegow, which won the Jay is Games One-Room Escape competition.
  • As a programmer, I've been trying to write a good Android application to play these games on your phone or tablet. It's an open-source project called Twisty, but we still have a long way to go. You can download it from Android Market, but it's still pretty primitive. We'd love volunteers to help us finish it!

Amateur Radio

In 2009, I got sucked into the 'maker movement'. It seems that my generation skipped over electronics and started right with home computers. So I went a bit crazy learning how to solder circuits, but then got bored building blinky lights. I then stumbled into amateur radio, and suddenly had a totally new outlet for electronics hacking! Instead of building random gadgets, you build equipment that actually lets you chat over thousands of miles.

You're probably wondering why -- in this age of internet and smartphones -- one would put up a wire in the backyard to talk to people over morse code. My reply is simple: why is fishing such a popular sport, when we all live next to supermarkets? The point is to be close to the metal, down in the dirt, appreciating the basics, making stuff with your own hands. And the reward is social: you get to talk to other geeks about it over the airwaves!

I love carrying tiny radio stations (with erector-set antennas) onto airplanes when I go on business trips. When I get a free moment, I find a local hilltop, set up the station on picnic bench, and start chatting with other hams around the country. It's like a secret society of geekdom.

You can read about my latest ham radio adventures on my blog, and see more info on my QRZ.com profile (sort of like Facebook for radio hams).

I have a strong interest in low-power gadgets ("QRP") it's called. (It's fun to make cross-ocean contacts using only a 9V battery!) I'm also a member of the Chicago FM Club, a local ham club that has a repeater network spanning the whole Chicago area.

Roleplaying Games

Yes, D&D, that kind of thing. I don't have much time for it anymore, but I've run weekly campaigns, participated in them too. I'm involved in an indie group -- NASCRAG -- that writes their own competitive scenarios and runs them as a tournament at GENCON each year. I also participate in a yearly weekend game called Rileycon.

As a rule, I enjoy RPGs on the computer -- but only if they're social, i.e. I'm actually playing with my friends (like World of Warcraft). Games where I'm the only human around (like Elder Scrolls) tend to bore me. I need the social element.

I'm a board game geek as well, playing all the geeky board games you think I would.