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What’s on your desk? - Episode 7: Brian Anderson, Software Engineer

Written by Brian Anderson, Software Engineer


I recently started working as a developer for Vox Media. I work remotely from the lovely city of Ames, Iowa – which in case you didn’t know, is the birthplace of the The Atanasoff–Berry computer, the first electronic digital computing device. (Don’t worry that was a TIL for me too). I’ve lived here for 7 years now, after moving from Silicon Valley in 2006. At that time my wife and I just had our first child and we were ready for a slower life and to experience tornadoes up close.

I spend most of my day sitting at my desk, and supporting the editorial team with quick fixes to Chorus. If you sent a nasty, hilarious, or hilariously-nasty email about our platform, chances are it gets assigned to me. The rage is slowly building…


Let’s start with the most important thing on my desk — coffee. I am pretty particular about it. The beans are locally roasted by Burgies Coffee, I grind and brew 32 ounces of it in a Chemex coffeemaker every morning. After 4 years of this, I’ve converted my wife into a coffee snob too! The funny thing is I used to make fun of elite coffee drinkers while pouring loads of creamer in my coffee then a few years ago, I worked with a guy who brought in the most marvelous coffee. A few weeks later I was hooked, and I just HAD to purchase my own setup.


Back to what is on my desk, I work on a 13“ MacBookAir (2013). The Air has a silly fast SSD, which reduces sleep/wake time and load time compared to regular hard drives. I also like the flexibility of grabbing the light-weight Air and heading down to a local coffee shop to get a fresh perspective (and fresh coffee). The battery lasts 10 hours, which is freakishly long—probably longer than my brain can focus on writing software.

A couple of years back I switched to using an Apple Magic Trackpad full time. The multitouch gestures come very natural to me.

I constantly have Chrome, Safari, Textmate and a handful of terminal windows open, and that’s not easy on the 13” screen of the Macbook Air. To supplement that, I have a simple Dell UltraSharp U2412 24” monitor.

I have a small light behind the monitor, to reduce the strain on my eyes from staring at the display all day. I bought a small desk lamp ready to house my programmable LIFX Kickstarter-backed LED I am desperately waiting for. Eight months of delay seems to be normal for ambitious Kickstart projects, or so I tell myself. I plan on using the LIFX to light my office with the colors on the most recent animated gif in our Campfire room, soothes the eyes and the humor bone.

I try to drink enough water to balance out all the coffee I drink; so I put an empty cup on my desk. The desk itself is an old Ikea desk paired with an old Staples office chair. Neither are all that great. The older my body gets, the more I contemplate getting something nicer. Possible building a custom standing desk from old schoolhouse doors, or recycled barn lumber. Sometimes I sit on a yoga ball because people say it would help my flabby core – I haven’t seen any improvement.


On the way to get coffee, I often end up waiting for the train.

I usually listen to dance, house, or electronic music while I am working. I like music that I am not tempted to sing along to and provides upbeat, driving tracks. Soundcloud consistently has the best remixes and mash-up music. At least once a day, I listen to one of the monthly Funky House London mixes.

To get those happy songs into my ear-holes I am currently using a pair of Bose On-Ear headphones. They seem to provide a nice mix of noise isolation (from my 5 & 7 year old boys) and breathability for my overly-sweaty ears. Personal confession: sometimes I find myself sitting for an hour, or more, with the headphones on without music playing, which is really embarrassing. I think this is because I’ve played through an hour long mix and I don’t realize that the track stopped. (Or possibly, I paused the music to watch some random youtube video).


I have a boring iPhone, that I use to tweet, take pictures, and listen to podcasts. Excluding conversations with my mom, I’ve used about 3.52 voice-minutes this year. I am ready for something new. My apple fanboyism is fading, so maybe this is the year to get an Android device. Though I can’t get over the laggy-UI and those horrible pentile displays.

Somewhere in my house is my retina iPad 3, though I suspect my kids have taken it over for Minecrafting. To help manage the various cords for my devices I have a Blue Lounge Sumo preventing things from sliding behind my desk.

I’ve tried so, so, hard to be a digital-only note taker, but nothing beats the ability to scribble, doodle and take notes on paper. I’ve taken a good amount of notes over the last four years, as I returned to school for a Computer Science degree from Iowa State. It is hard to beat the speed and flexibility of paper. I’ve even dabbled with those ridiculous digitizing pens – they are a joke.

I use a Pilot Birdy Mini ballpoint pen and Field Notes Night Sky Edition. Field Notes lets you feel hip, old-timey, and small-business friendly all in one tiny doodle-inducing useful package. I have a bad habit of cruising Jet Pens, looking eye-catching writing tools. I don’t remember how I got into this horrible habit of mindlessly browsing Jetpens, but I am powerless to their monthly newsletter and always end up ordering tiny Japanese pens. Without a doubt, my favorite pen of all time is the Zebra Sarasa Push Clip Gel Ink Pen - 0.4 mm. You can spend a lot more money on a pen, but nothing else places ink more consistently on the paper than this workhorse.

I have a collection of classic computer science textbooks that I am slowly (very very slowly) trying to make my way through. Fundamental Algorithms, by Donald Knuth, is a wonderful text that details the art of creating beautiful algorithms. I believe writing software is an art form where the developer is a craftsman sculpting the ideal solution. The other book is the Dragon book on compilers has come highly recommended. Sadly, I haven’t cracked it open yet. I can’t tell if I actually enjoy reading these types of books or if I just enjoy thinking about reading the books. Maybe I’ll write a follow up post in a couple years and let you know I’ve finish either of these.

Also, I have a fun little radiometer that spins when it is in the sunlight. I am a huge sucker for gadgets, I think it is from trolling the electronic surplus stores that peppered the silicon valley in the late 80’s. Middle School science fairs were a lot of fun where I grew up, it was the golden era of hobbyist-built computers and pvc-plastic based robotic arms. All the dads, with their killer mustaches, giant glasses and plaid shirts competed to out-nerd their children’s classmates’ dads. I guess my son’s science fairs projects will be GMO gene-sequence soy and rhubarb hybrids: rhuhoy!

I work in one of our spare bedrooms, and get to look out my window and admire the wonderful Iowa flora. Sometimes I get to see fox, deer, rabbits, drunk Iowa State students (or professors) and neighborhood children running around back there.

And before you ask: you should also own two grills! It is amazing how resourceful they can be. For instance you can have one rust out, leak gas and be overrun with field mice and still prepare a nice dinner for your family on the other.