Section Engineer Interview Series - Gary Ritzer

We chatted with Section Engineer Gary Ritzer to learn more about the career path that led him to Section, some of the languages that he likes (and does not like) working with, how laughing helps him stay focused and having fun, and his adventures in homebrewing.

Gary Ritzer, Software Engineer

What were you into as a kid?

I was just kind of a nerdy kid. I liked to take things apart and see how they worked, how they were put together. Usually I was able to put things back together that I’d taken apart, but not always. Electronics, technical things, everything… a TV set, radios. I remember one time I took apart a TV set while it was plugged in. I didn’t get that far with it. I knew I shouldn’t be doing it. I wasn’t one of those kids that stuck a fork into an electric outlet, but I didn’t really know what it meant. I learned very quickly though which parts of the TV you don’t want to touch.

Do you still tinker with stuff like that?

I find that as an adult and a homeowner, there’s enough things that break, which I have to take apart and put back together. It’s a useful thing now, but I don’t do it just for fun anymore.

It’s easy to see how that led you into software engineering.

My first computer I bought and then took it apart. I upgraded all kinds of stuff and I built a bunch of PCs, like a lot of people did back then. I needed to understand how the computer worked and basically, whenever I approach a new thing, I just keep doing that. I always end up going down that route.

Tell me about your career path in software engineering.

It’s varied quite a bit over the years. My first software job was working on income tax software. I worked for a bank in New Jersey and they had their income tax software, which was written in C and it was archaic, but it was one of those things. That was a pretty self-contained app.

My next job involved doing a lot of database things. Basically, we pulled a huge data feed from mainframe systems (they were still big back then) and we would build usable interfaces and reports off that, which you could run on your computer. It was still pretty boring, but the thing that was nice about it was learning how to use SQL databases and things like that.

I always like to learn new things. Nowadays, those databases tend to run on big hardware so you can write really bad queries and they are still pretty efficient, at least they won’t take too long. Back then, you had to write them right as computers were nowhere near as powerful as they are today.

Tell me a little about what you do at Section.

I do lots of things at Section. I start on one thing, work on it for a little while, then have to put it down and work on something else. There’s lots of context switching. I’m used to it to a certain degree but not to the extent that we do it at Section. It’s also my first DevOps job. Before, I was mostly just Dev and other people dealt with the Ops part. Plus, we have the support element rolled in here. Lots of context switching, which can sometimes take away a little from productivity, but at the same time, it keeps it interesting… Startup life. It’s my third startup. You think I’d be used to it.

What’s one of the things that keeps you motivated?

New things, new technologies that come out. When I read about new programming languages, I tend to want to dig into them and get familiar with them at least, if not learn them and write actual programs. The latest one is Rust. I haven’t done much with it yet, but I have all kinds of things I want to do with it. It’s a language up my alley. Most of my career, I’ve spent doing C++. Rust is similar to that. I’d like to get more fluent in it, but I haven’t really had time yet.

Odell IPA

What have some of the steeper learning curves been at Section in terms of languages and the leading edge technologies we work on here?

Well, I just don’t like JavaScript. I have a mental block with it. Some of the worst code I’ve written is in JavaScript just because it doesn’t make sense to me yet. I like static, strongly typed languages, and it’s really not that. It lets you write bad stuff. It seems to work, but except it doesn’t always work. I’m pretty vocal about that with members of my team, letting them know I don’t really like JavaScript. Everyone knows and laughs about it.

What languages do you like?

Go is a good language. I like C++, but I haven’t used it in a while. Python is OK, but it doesn’t have the strong typing that I would like. Rust seems to have all the goodies of everything, which is one of the reasons I want to learn more about it.

I really don’t know. This is one thing I struggle with the most. I have lots of accomplishments I’m proud of, but if I was going to rank them, I don’t know how to begin to do that…

I guess one that comes to mind – The last dog that I had, Duke (he’s dead now), he always looked up to me as one of the greatest things in his world. I always felt that was one of my greatest accomplishments: that I was able to be the human that he thought I was. I have a dog now, Squidy, but I don’t know if she looks at me in the same way. She more or less does her own thing, and I feed her. That’s it.

Duke Squidy

There have been lots of opportunities in my career where I ended up on projects that seemed to be impossible, at least other people couldn’t solve them, and I was able to.

Here at Section, it’s funny I was talking about JavaScript… eventually I’ll get confident with it where I’m not beating myself up about it.

What do you like most about working at Section?

I think it’s the people. Across the board, we have some really awesome people that work here. I enjoy showing up for work every day, granted it’s over a Zoom connection. Still, I like that. I also really like remote working. Also, the cool stuff we get to work on. The platform is pretty cool and we are doing a lot of cool things with it. It’s nice to be on the cutting edge, no pun intended.

What single piece of advice would you give fellow engineers?

This is one of the things I tell people all the time: you’ve got to find a way to have fun doing what you’re doing. Make things enjoyable, find ways to laugh. I’m laughing all the time. It keeps me sane and makes things more enjoyable for me and hopefully the people I work with. It’s important to laugh once in a while and not have to be so serious.

Sometimes in this job, you get really bogged down in hard-to-figure-out problems and one of the ways I’ve been able to get unstuck when I have those things is to just get up, walk away and find something to laugh about. I’ll do something that’s funny or enjoyable to take a little of the cloud off it, then I can come back and attack the problem again and be successful.

If you’re not laughing and having fun doing what you’re doing, even when things aren’t great, you may be in the wrong line of work.

What do you see as the most game changing technologies today or on the horizon?

You’ve got to like the edge stuff. I can’t even wrap my mind around all the possibilities we could do with it, and we’re just scratching the surface right now. We’re in the right place to do it at Section with a platform that can enable this stuff. I think we’re all in the right spot. This is a great place to be.

What are you reading or listening to or tinkering with on the side? Any or all of the above?

Besides trying to understand Rust, I have a house that I’m trying to renovate, which I’m doing myself, so I spend a lot of time doing that. Mainly fixing things instead of improving things. There are a lot of improvements I need to do. I enjoy that. I like doing things with my hands, but I just wish it didn’t hurt so much afterwards. You get a weekend and you can work one day, but the next, you’re sore and have to sit on the couch.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

Everyone here at Section knows, but most people I know in general don’t know that I make beer. I just made two batches. I don’t think either of them are great as they’re old kits, but they’re OK. I don’t know if I’d give them out. I have them in my kegerator and I’ll work my way through them. These kits were on sale a couple of years ago and I thought I’d try them. Two years went by and I didn’t make them. I did put fresh yeast in them, but they’re not as good as I’d like.

I do experiment as well as use kits. I have made things just from recipes - go to the store and get the ingredients. That’s where some of my best brews have come from. You can’t reproduce it. I don’t write it down.

What are the favorite styles of beer to make?

Definitely an IPA. I love IPAs. I’ve been thinking about changing it up. Stouts are good.

The typical batch I do is 5 gallons. What I’d like to do is make a bunch of smaller ones, maybe half that and make more of them at the same time. Try variations on the same recipe and find out what I like.

But, I’m happy I made two batches of beer during the pandemic. That feels pretty big for me.

What’s your go-to beer that you buy from a store?

Odell’s IPA hands down. It’s always good. It’s what I drink most of the time.

odell ipa

If you could choose any figure in history dead or alive to interview, who would it be, and what would be the single most important question you would ask?

I really like music, so the person I’d pick for this is John Lennon. His life was cut short and there’s a lot of iffy history about his early times and I’d really like to know why he got into music. I know he grew up in a troubled household, but I don’t know why he got into music. He could have been any number of things, why would he pick music? How would he know he was going to be so great at it?

Favorite movie or binge-worthy TV show?

I like things that are funny so I can laugh. Silicon Valley is one of my favorite shows of all time. It’s over now. It’s hilarious. The first couple of seasons were the best, but every season was real good. I was disappointed, I watched Space Force last week, a new Netflix thing; it wasn’t really that good.

Odell IPA

Favorite vacation spot?

I’ve never been much of a vacation taker. I’ve been to more cool places for work than on vacation. For me, for a vacation, it’s just nice to give my brain a rest and go somewhere where it’s quiet and not think about work stuff. I need to let that go every once in a while.

I’ve done a lot of staycations. In years past, I used to drive out to the East coast to see my family - my brothers and my mother. I haven’t done that in a couple of years. I need to do it this year. Just things that are not work. I’m not someone who likes to go and sit on a beach because I don’t tan, I just burn.

Favorite part of the day?

The morning. I’m usually up between 5-6am every day, a little later on weekends. I get up and am excited to get going on the day. I drink coffee or tea. When I eventually sit down to work, it’s my most productive time. Especially with Section. There’s only a few people in the US I work with on a daily basis. In the afternoon, the Aussies come on, and we generally have more meetings, there’s more discussions and less work. However, I usually get done as much in the first 3-4 hours of the day at Section as I would normally do all day at other places that I’ve worked.

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