Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Life & Tats of Al3x Payne

I wanted to talk to Alex Payne.

Alex co-founded Simple (formerly BankSimple), the Portland-based startup that’s changing the face of banking at a time when people really want banking to change! Customers... Simple currently has 80,000+ people on a wait list to use the service -- how's that for backlog! Alex was an engineer at Twitter, who started there so early that he arrived before it was Twitter (and before it incorporated). But what did I want to talk to Alex about? His dropping out of college…a little, his departure from high school, which he almost didn't even finish, a little, his tattoos…oh yeh! His well written blog appears at:

Let me say this (in case my kids read this): Daddy doesn't necessarily want you to get a tattoo and I don't have any. That said, Alex's tattoos are so thoughtful and interesting and his insanely eloquent telling of the back-story so intriguing, that I decided that I'd do a post about them because they open a portal into this intensely intelligent and fascinating man who is one of the most engaging dinner companions I know.

Over dinner one night at Portland, Oregon's wonderful Le Pigeon (man do I love that place), Ryan Snyder, a very wine-savvy Simple exec, told me that I was asking Alex about the wrong tattoo. The right tattoo according to Ryan, was Ada. It turns out that Ada was Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, famous 18th century poet. So why would Alex have a poet's daughter on his arm (see photo below)? Alex explained that Ada may also have been the world's first computer programmer. Here's what Alex told me one recent rainy November day just after Simple's launch.

Ada Lovelace (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852) was a friend of Charles Babbage, the man who probably originated the concept of a programmable computer. While Babbage had formalized a computational engine, he hadn't considered functionality beyond mathematics, nor had he considered how humans would interact with or speak to the machine. Alex is especially interested in the concept of human interaction with the machine. He particularly likes that Ada was thinking about the human factors "ok we have this computer, so how are we coming up with the language to interact with it? The machine alone wasn't enough," Alex told me.

Ada was Alex's fourth tattoo and he'd been thinking about inking Ada onto his arm for 4 or 5 years before Alex and Ada became one. There are, according to Alex, two extant realistic images of Ada (others seems to derive from those two). He chose the image with greater contrast because he felt it would give the artist a meatier source to tackle. He was right.

Choosing An Artist
Alex's choice of tattoo artist hadn't required much deliberation for his previous body art, but this one was different. "Many tattoos are so simple that any decent, experienced artist can handle them," said Alex, "so you default to whomever is convenient." He agonized over to whom he'd entrust Ada's likeness. "Now so many artists put their portfolios online so that you can see if you generally like how they approach their subject matter." However, tattoo artists fall into the "sailor tattoo" camp, which many people still like and those tattoos "have a very retro value," but that wasn't what Alex was chasing. "I wanted more of a portraitist and that's hard to find. While browsing through artists in Portland, I found a woman whose work drew heavily from old fairy tales and woodblock prints, with an emphasis on English and French art from the mid-1700s to the early-1900s." That artist, Melanie Nead, owns Icon Tattoo in Portland and while her online portfolio is extraordinary, now that she owns Icon, she's largely no longer doing the art herself. Alex's tattoo of Ada is the first photo of Ms. Nead's 50+ photo portfolio on the site -- the rest of the portfolio is also worth a look!

Repo Man, a movie I love, speaks of the "Universal Lattice of Coincidence" and that term came to mind when Alex told me that after he explained to Melanie the person he wanted tattooed on his arm, they realized that Melanie was in fact the perfect artist for the job -- she had written her thesis on Ada's father, Lord Byron.

Math, Poetry, Programming and Art
When I pressed Alex on his fascination with the linkage between math, poetry, programming and art, he told me: "I'm not that strong when it comes to math" -- could've fooled me! Here's where he went next:

"Programs would be more reliable if they were more like math than like language but then you discount the human involvement. The humans are writing and they need tools for expression, not just for logical rigor.
Trust the machine to do the correct thing and trust people to do the right thing."

At this point, I need to pause. Alex's comments quoted above typify his speech pattern -- his speech is unselfconscious but, honestly, this guy speaks in finely crafted prose. I know that Alex almost dropped out of high school and did drop out of college so I had to ask him how an engineer whose formal education had been stunted ended up being so darn eloquent. It turns out that his parents have PhDs in English and Alex grew up hanging out with his mom at the English Lit department at American University in Washington, DC. This is not to downplay his father's involvement, which he was quick to also note.

But back to his tattoos...
At the moment, Alex sports three other tats, the first of which inked for his 18th birthday, depicts the Japanese character indicating the process of moving from past life to future life. While it wasn't his most well executed or fully considered tattoo, he draws from it that "at any given point in time, the things I value most are transient, no matter how deeply valued at the moment."

His second tattoo, at the back of his neck, is the number 3. His twitter handle is @al3x and he's been known online as Al3x since middle school: "friends and family will occasionally type that rather than typing Alex because they're used to seeing it." In fact, when he attends conferences, people "may not know me by my first and last name, but they may recognize me from my twitter handle instead." This tattoo was more deliberate as Alex obsessively quested for the perfect "3" -- "I really like typography and when I finally found the perfect 3 I wanted to keep it permanently. Typography is about effective communication and typefaces have evolved over time to solve different communications problems. For instance, solving for mass market mailings or reading on low res screens. Typography is visual engineering." See what I mean -- he speaks better than most people write!

What he's doing at Simple has an emphasis on brand and design and he's really interested in those elements of the business. He spoke to me of his tremendous respect for the front end guys on his team and he believes that his fascination with typography has enabled him to communicate with them more easily.

His final tattoo is lambda. There are dozens of science and math disciplines that claim the lambda and use it in different contexts but Alex chose it "because of lambda calculus, which underpins key concepts in programming languages and enables us to put together logical statements as programs."

Alex has been a prolific programmer for years, starting with a job at age 12. He couldn't get a work permit and his employer's violation of child labor laws was intentional -- to hide their criminality, when clients came on site, Alex was asked to make himself scarce. That employer was among the first web-based collaboration solutions providers, handling conferencing and chat rooms.

Al3x Unemployable
When the twitter founders became regulars on TV and radio, his mom finally realized the importance of what he was doing. Previously, she'd been disappointed that he had dropped out and was "terrified that I didn't have an education and would be unemployable. I kept explaining to her that the programming world is a meritocracy - if you release open source code and go to conferences, people will see your work and want to hire you."


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