Introducing Seth Baughman

Seth Baughman joined Fretless in May, 2016. In October, I interviewed him for this blog. Now in February, 2017, I’m finally publishing that interview.
Seth Baughman

Seth Baughman

Hey look! It’s Seth! Hi, Seth!


I’m not sure you ever exactly interviewed for this job, so now I’m going to make you do one after you already have it.

Excellent. All interviews should be this way.

That would make the hiring process a lot easier. I know your family lives in Kentucky. I can’t remember if you’re from there originally. So, like, are ya?

No, they moved there after I went to college. I’m originally from Zionsville. That’s why I’ve managed to avoid the southern twang that my youngest sister is afflicted with.

You were an undergrad chemistry major, right? Was that organic chem, or not until grad school?

Chemistry in general for undergrad. Then in grad school I specialized more in organic chemistry—particularly bio-synthetic chemistry, using bacteria and enzymes to catalyze difficult reactions.

Is there a practical example you can give me that there’s some chance I’ll understand?
I won’t understand the chemistry, but maybe the application.

I can give it a shot!

Which industries are interested in that work?

Mostly pharmaceuticals. A lot of molecules that are effective medicines can be pretty complex, and synthesizing them on a large scale in the correct enantiomeric configurations can be extremely difficult. So modifying and using bacteria and enzymes to do the hard stuff for you can be quite helpful.

Don’t I know it! [Editor’s note: Nope.] Did you go straight to grad school, or did you go to work first?

There were about three years between undergrad and grad school where I tried a bunch of potential “careers.” I moved to Florida, pursued professional wakeboarding, did a stint as a UPS driver, QA for a pharmaceutical company, then R&D designing blood glucose meters.

That’s an interesting sequence. You could design glucose meters, throw on your UPS uniform, and deliver them by wakeboard. Admittedly, that limits where you can deliver.

Saving lives one boat dock at a time.


Seth making a UPS delivery, probably

That’s pretty xtreeeem. So what made you want to go back to school? Did you like the R&D job and want to do chemistry work that’s more interesting?

It became apparent pretty quickly that to do anything fun in the chemistry world you needed an advanced degree. Most bachelor-degree level jobs are actually pretty mundane, but with FDA regulations they have to have someone with an actual degree fill those roles. A reasonable precaution, to be sure. Just not great for job satisfaction.

So you pretty much had no choice if you wanted to stay in that field. Did you do grad school full-time?

Yes. About a third of the time was teaching undergrad labs and classes, then two-thirds doing my own classes and research.

Did you finish?

No, I realized about two years in that I couldn’t really see myself enjoying that career long-term either. There were some people in school with me that really loved chemistry, and I knew I wasn’t one of them.

I think it hit me when I had spent months synthesizing a molecule called Epothilone B, and the end result of all that work was a tiny smudge of oil on the inside of a 50ml beaker. I realized I enjoy doing things with shorter development cycles and more tangible results.

I can understand that. So you worked as a mechanical engineer next?

Yes, developing biomass furnaces.

So how does one make that transition? I guess it didn’t necessarily require an engineering degree.

They brought me on because they already had some actual mechanical engineers on the project, and they needed my biochem knowledge. I learned the rest as we went along.

How long did you do that?

A little over a year, I think. It’s a little fuzzy, because I was working two jobs and didn’t have time for anything else—like remembering things.

What was the other job?

I started working part time at the Apple Store in Indianapolis due to the recommendation of my roommate. That was a magical place in 2007. Everybody had iPods, the iPhone had just come out, Steve Jobs and crew were innovating like crazy. And it wasn’t wall-to-wall packed yet. It was just really fun to be there.

So I take it you left the engineering job because you’d just rather work for Apple?

Well, the 2008 recession hit. The product we were working on at the engineering place was experimental, so I could tell it was going to be put on hiatus. It didn’t make sense for the company to keep pouring money into it when they were just trying to stay afloat.

They were going to have to make some cuts, and I already had another job that I liked, so I just volunteered to leave and Apple took me full-time. It worked out well for everybody.

Cool. And you ended up staying at Apple for quite a while.

Yes, much longer than I expected, especially considering my previous record anywhere had been a shade under two years.

I had four jobs (in succession, not at the same time) my first year after college. I stayed at the fourth one for nearly seven years.

I think it’s important to try a variety until you learn what really motivates you.

Agreed. I think everyone would be served well by having a job they absolutely hate, at least briefly. What did you learn about yourself in that process? What does motivate you?

I learned that my primary drive is constant improvement. I knew nothing about Apple products when I got hired there. I had owned an iPhone for less than a week. I studied everything I could get my hands on and worked my way up to leading the technical support team within two years.

Then, what kept me there for the next five years was learning how to motivate and manage people. Like many technically-inclined people, that was not my forte. It took a long time and a lot of effort to feel like I was finally getting the hang of it.

That’s great. What attracted you to programming? Or what made you decide to start digging into it?

It’s something I’ve always been interested in. I think it became obvious to me that I needed to pursue it once I realized that it hit all of my ideal criteria: constant challenge, fast iterations, tangible results, and smart/fun people to work with.

You just started, and you’ve already had to work with at least three programming languages, at least as many frameworks, and some really specific APIs. There’s not much time to get bored in this biz.

Also, I think it’s an incredibly important pursuit considering the point we are at in human history. Through technology, we’re actually on the verge of reaching a point where all basic human needs can be provided through automated processes. So anything we can do to hasten that seems like a good idea.

Just in time for climate change to kill us all! Sorry, I’m a “glass 9/10 empty” kinda guy.

Well, we can always find a different planet, right?

That’s the hope! What do you think? Can humanity get a permanent Mars colony going in our lifetimes?

I expect my body to be primarily robotic parts within the next 30, so my lifetime will be indefinite. So yes.

Do you enjoy science fiction?

It would be an understatement to say “yes.”

OK, good. You’re not fired.

Excellent! I didn’t get fired during the post-hiring interview!

Well, it ain’t over yet! What’s your favorite (or at least _a_ favorite) work of science fiction in any medium?

It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov is my all-time favorite, probably because it caters to my belief in being able to solve universe-wide problems through mathematical calculation.

We haven’t even talked coding bootcamps! You now have quite a bit of experience with those.

Yes! On both sides of the table.

What’s your take on the model in general?

It’s an interesting question. I have a lot of years of traditional education, and looking back I can definitely see the advantages of being well-rounded. But it’s really hard to beat a bootcamp environment for learning something at maximum speed. Personally, I enjoy the pace of it and how quickly you see results in your work.

It took me awhile to appreciate my college education, but I got a lot out of my non-major classes.

Agreed. I almost think the first three years of a college program should just be general education, and then deep dive into your actual profession full-time for the last year. At least in the technology arena. Everything changes so fast that stuff you learn freshman year could be completely useless by graduation.

Really, I think the bootcamp model is great for the industry we’re in. Learning how to learn programming languages and frameworks is incredibly valuable. I feel like I haven’t left, to be honest.

It does feel that way, doesn’t it? I can’t believe how different all your projects have been from one another so far. Teaching an Angular 1.x course, writing CKEDITOR plugins in JS, working on a Rails app doing almost nothing but responsive design with SCSS, and now Angular 2 and TypeScript. And you just started. [Since then, Seth has started making native iOS and Android apps with Ionic and is preparing to develop curriculum for a React bootcamp.]

Based on conversations with my classmates [from The Iron Yard], I’m sure a lot of that is due to where I work. But I specifically wanted to continue learning at maximum possible rate, so I’m incredibly happy with it.

I don’t think you’d be getting that experience many other places.

Yeah, that’s what drew me here. I feel really grateful for the opportunity. And I’m not just saying that because you sign the paychecks.

And I wasn’t meaning to be like, “Yep, Fretless is the single best place to work!” I mean, it is, but I wasn’t saying that.

Preaching to the choir, Davey.

Thanks for letting me subject you to this!

No prob!

SoBe Liz Blizz

Seth in his early twenties (dramatization)

I didn’t even ask about the bodybuilding. I did learn about your wakeboarding career though.

Yeah, I think immediately after college I shied away from using my brain for a while. I did a lot of skateboarding/wakeboarding/snowboarding.

Did you slam a lot of Mountain Dew and/or Red Bull? Or that weird milk-looking stuff with the gecko on the bottle? And did you call it “slamming” when you did?


SoBe, I think. That’s the gecko milk.

Yes! I totally forgot about that stuff.

I just assume you were that lizard on the bottle. Did you have long hair? Were you Bodhi from Point Break, always spouting pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo?

I’m trying to find a picture of it. Best I can come up with is a picture of the mullet I had right after I cut the top part shorter.

That sounds pretty awesome.
Davey Strus

Davey Strus

Partner at Fretless
I sling code, teach others to code, and sing the blues.
Davey Strus

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