PPH Ninja Interview: “My phone will buzz at 3am if a system problem is detected!”

Working behind the scenes at PPH for the last 13 years, Tom Fotherby is responsible for our web development and Infrastructure, he loves coffee, coding and containerisation!

Hi Tom! Tell us a bit about yourself. How would your friends describe you?

I’m reserved. The kind of person that has to be dragged onto the dance floor. I dislike being the centre of attention. I’m terrible at making up my mind. I love to see other people happy. I’ve no idea how my friends would describe me but they would probably say I eat a lot and never get cold!

What do you do at PeoplePerHour and what are you responsible for?

If a page doesn’t load, then that’s my fault – I’m responsible for keeping our applications available 24 hours a day, and keeping them fast. My phone will buzz at 3am if a system problem is detected by our monitoring systems. Mostly, what this involves is keeping informed about new technology and ensuring we always swap out bits of our system which can be improved by something faster or more reliable.

What are the main challenges within your role at PeoplePerHour?

The pace of technological change is not a constant but increasing exponentially. One of the important aspects of my job is to choose the right technology for the task but backing the right horse is hard when a new horse comes out every week.

What motivates you within your work?

Being a coder, each day I seek to get into an elusive Zen-like state of mind often called “The Zone” where everything else fades into the background and the only thing that is left is the current puzzle that manifests as a vivid virtual map held in the minds eye. The sense of satisfaction when the code starts working is what allows me to enjoy my craft. However, the fun of coding is a empty experience unless what I create, gets shipped. i.e. What I do has to matter. Coding for the sake of it isn’t enough (for me).

How did you get into web development / DevOps?

When I was about 10 I used to play a simple little game where a helicopter would go line by line across the screen, slowly descending into some sky-scrapers unless you bombed them down before you crashed into them.  When I was 16 I got my first computer and I taught myself programming to try to re-create the game. I’ve been lost in the code mines ever since.

How long have you been working for PeoplePerHour?

Since Nov/2008. The site had only 1 thousand freelancers signed up when I joined – it now has over 6 million.

What was your first day like at PeoplePerHour?

When I arrived at the PPH loft, the first thing I had to do was build my own computer from a pile of parts in the corner. I got to choose what Operating System I wanted, which for me was extremely liberating since my previous company had strict rules about what software I could run. I choose Linux of course! It was my first taste of start-up culture. I sat next to the CEO, Xenios! There was no sense of rank, everyone just did what was needed. I had never felt so at home in a office. Xenios took me to Harrods for lunch – they do the best sausage rolls!

What is a typical day like for you?

It’s Coffee and Code all the way baby!  Everything else is a distraction – that’s not to say I don’t sometimes welcome distractions.

How does working for PeoplePerHour compare to previous jobs?

At PPH, I feel directly responsible for what I do, but also for what we all do. There is a culture where you can speak out whenever you want. At previous jobs I felt like a cog in a big machine, with a role to play and where other roles were off-limits.

What are a few of your favourite development tools and why?

I’m a fan of Free Software, “Free” as in Freedom. I think it’s incredibly important that software can be scrutinised to see how it works, shared amongst each other and improved by the community. For this reason, I don’t tend to use the “best tools money can buy”, I prefer to use the tools with the biggest developer community behind them. I use the Ubuntu Operating system and software licensed with permissive terms.

Every now and again, something comes out that causes a unmistakable shift in an industry. Being there when it happens is fun. For the software industry, I arrived a little too late for the shift caused by Virtualisation which was already in full swing before I had really gotten my chops. But my timing is perfect for the current shift which is being caused by “Containerisation” via a tool called “docker“. I’m mad about Docker. With a Virtual Machine your software is utilising idealised hardware, with containers you are developing against a idealised operating system. A container raises the abstraction level of how you build software, which is a good thing. PPH was early with Docker, something that I’m proud of.

Are there any skills that you would like to improve on?

In the tech industry you have to keep updated all the time. I scan about 150 news articles per day. Specifically at the moment I’m learning a new language called Go – it’s up and coming and so worth the investment in time.

What are your top 3 tips for freelancers who are new to PeoplePerHour?

  1. Put lots of time into creating a good profile.
  2. Understand that the first few Jobs are a hurdle that you need to jump to build confidence and a good feedback rating.
  3. Persevere – Rome wasn’t built in a day.

What are your top 3 tips for web development for small businesses?

  1. Figure out what makes you different from the competition and focus on that. For everything else, spend as little time as possible on it.
  2. When you need something, if there is a 3rd-party hosted solution available then use it instead of building your own. I’ve rarely regretted the decision.
  3. If you are evaluating different software products, choose the most popular one – it’ll often be the easiest to maintain.

Just for fun – what web browser do you use?

I use Google Chrome with as few extensions as possible but I can’t live without the “Evernote” extension to store interesting pages that I might want to come back to. My heart is with Mozilla Firefox and will switch back to it when it catches up in the speed race.

If you were an animal, which one would you be and why?

I’d be a King Fisher – How much fun would it be to fly? How much fun would it be to dive into the water with such accuracy like they do? I wouldn’t eat frogs though – I have a serious phobia of frogs.

Current favourite app?

Feedly – a news reader app. I never read a newspaper – I have Feedly instead.

Tea or Coffee?

Coffee is part of the PPH culture – we had a coffee machine in “PPH Orange” in the London office.

What are you currently reading?

The Unmumsy Mum by Sarah Turner – so very very funny, if you have a baby.