Kitson P. Kelly avatar

A recovering 7 foot tall cactus

A Year in Deno Land

I started working full time on Deno on the 21st of September 2020 and wanted to share some of my thoughts on doing so.

My privilege

It was a bit of a leap of faith to go work on Deno fulltime. I was very comfortable working at ThoughtWorks in Australia. The only reason to make the jump, really, was to see what could happen, working on a passion project full time. Lots of people will throw out there "follow your dreams", but in reality, for a lot of people that is total BS.

Why? Because it is totally a position of privilege that I was able to do it. Early in my career I wasn't conscious of my privilege, but being a white-male from middle class of America is a whole lot of privilege, and made a lot possible for me, effectively served up to me on a silver platter. I was just lucky enough to be able to successfully ride the bow-wave.

The birth of my son in August 2018, and being able to take 7 weeks off work to look after him, was another bit of privilege that allowed me to work on my passion project of Deno that I had discovered as soon as Ry released the prototype in May of that year.

Sitting in Melbourne, in the midst of another hard lock-down due to COVID-19, working on Deno always make me reflect on my privilege of how lucky I am to have a wonderful family, being financially secure, doing work I enjoy in a very flexible way that allows me to help look after our 3yo. I must be in the 1% of 1% of people that are that lucky.


My one frustration/regret/challenge with Deno and the commercial company Deno Land Inc. is that in company we have a significant lack of diversity in certain ways. We have decent multi cultural diversity. There is only one American who lives in America. The other American, me, hasn't lived in the US since 2006. We have Dutch, Polish, Japanese, Indian, Canadian and German folks. We have a spectrum of ages, with I believe me being the oldest at 48 with the youngest not being old enough to drink if they were in the US. We have at least two of us that identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

All that being said, we are all males and of the ethnic majority of the country we reside in. Deno though has been a self organizing community. Ry and Bert had a previous work relationship and convinced Ben to join us, outside of that, the remaining 7 of us (soon to be 8) have come from the Deno community itself. That is great, that people with a passion are joining a company to work on their passion, but communities are communities, and unconscious bias easily works its way in.

The good thing is that it is something we have talked about as a company, and also how to help diversity in the community we are caretakers of. There are no clear answers. A lack of gender diversity and ethnic minorities in the community that is the source of what is still a relatively small commercial company makes it hard to have diversity across lots of dimensions. I have voiced it internally though, having more than 10 people and only one gender is a problem. We have to consider something proactive to break the echo chamber we have fallen into.

Working remotely

I was lucky that I had worked previously for a 100% remote company, SitePen, for two years. While a lot of us find ourselves working remotely for the first time due to COVID-19, I had the experience. There are great things about it, and there are some really yucky things about it.

The great is that it is a lot easier to get work-life balance right. I have never had a big delta in the motivation/challenge between local and remote work. Local does seem to get you dragged into endless meetings, though that is more likely a challenge of scale for larger organizations than really a local/remote thing.

The biggest drawback for me is the isolation. My nearest co-worker is Tokyo. I am isolated from everyone else time zone as well as spatially. When I worked for SitePen, we ended up with a few of us in London, which did mean it was easy once a week to meet up, let alone having a handful of people at least in the same timezone. Coupled with extended lock-downs in Melbourne, life is just super isolated right now. It is hard to divest how much of it is the isolation of lock-downs versus isolation of remote working at the moment.

The company

I am really glad Ry and Bert decided to take on some investment and form a commercial company. When the company was announced, there was a lot of noise about the commercial nature of things. There is a big dichotomy in open source software. Large enterprises have embraced it, with most wanting their cake and eating it too, secure well maintained software that doesn't cost them anything to use. The selfishness of large enterprises means they will only spend money when "forced" to, and the open source community doesn't do a good job of forcing enterprises to pay their fair share.

At the end of the day, unless you are paying software engineers to work on open source software, you are left with taking advantage of people's privilege and kindness to contribute to the project. That does not result in a sustainable model. People need to get paid for their time.

I generally see four traditional models in this space:

  • The rounding-error model, where a large commercial enterprise can pay people a day job that is either full-time or part-time to maintain an open source project. Usually the commercial organization then has an outsize influence on the direction of the open source project, or the open-source project is used as a calling card for how "generous" the company is but under-invests in the open source project.
  • The pan-handling model, where an open source project spends a good amount of its time trying to convince individuals and commercial organizations to subsidize the development of an open source project, hopefully without too many strings attached.
  • The freemium model, where the commercial organization leverages an open-source project to build a commercial product, where the "good" features go into the commercial project. This often compromises greatly the open source project and features.
  • The consulting model, where an organization tries to use the profits from consulting around the open source project as an investment vehicle in the open source project. This I thought was the most sustainable model and thought that is where Ry and Bert might end up, but they didn't...

The cloud/SAAS/PAAS/serverless etc. have opened up another venue that wasn't really there before, and Ry and Bert decided to try to build a business on that, where the open source product is the open source product, un-compromised by freemium features, while along side it is a complimentary commercial project that provides a pay-by-usage revenue stream. Deno Deploy shares a lot of code with the Deno CLI, but it isn't the Deno CLI, and it won't ever be the Deno CLI. It is a serverless web platform at the edge. (gotta love buzz words) Deploy is totally separate from the CLI, though they compliment each other (and trust me, there are some features in Deno CLI that would have never been there if it were Deploy needing to leverage them).

Trying to build a sustainable open-source project is hard. Deno Land might not have it right, but we gotta try to find ways to do so, because people need to be compensated for their effort, if people want secure well maintained software.

What I have learned

I have done more coding the past year than I have ever done in my life. Every other role I have done, coding was only ever a minority part of my role. Most of my career was consulting and then senior leadership, and most of my hard core coding was a side project or even just a hobby.

Having most of my work day be coding is strange for me. I think my experiences in other roles higher up the foodchain have made me a better software engineer though, understanding the wider context of what producing code impacts.

Like a lot of my previous jobs, some of the best parts are the people you get to work with.

I like working with Ry. I often find it frustrating, as he comes up with some crazy bat-shit ideas, or throws out ideas I am diametrically opposed to, but time and time again, those often get iterated upon and molded until we all have something better than what we started with. I really appreciate that ability to iterate in him. I like Bert. I like his style, I like his way of thinking. He clearly has domains of experience that I don't have, where I learn a lot from, and I almost always feel more energized and excited after talking to him 1-2-1.

Ben is awesome, he knows a hell of a lot more than I do about programming, and he never talks down to me when I put forward some infantile code that he reviews. Luca has great energy, and is very bright, we don't always agree, but again, his ability to iterate on a problem usually ends up in a better place. Bartek is awesome, while appears to be somewhat contrarian at times, he also loves to collaborate and iterate on a problem. Yoshia-san is a quiet giant, he has great contributions. We tend to work on different things, but everything I see him do is quality and well considered. Like Yoshia, Will and I don't cross work paths much, but we tend to share similar viewpoints on work culture which I really appreciate. Satya is relatively new and I have had some good experiences working on some things together and look forward to doing more with him. David and I have known of each other for a few years now. Hearing him speak at the first TSConf in Seattle made me pay attention to him and now that he is working on Deno with us, it is awesome. We are just starting our work relationship, but he comes in the door with a lot of respect from me. We have another joining soon, which will be another set of adventures I am sure!

I have learned a lot from my co-workers in the past year (yet to mention the wider Deno community as a whole), and for me that is one of the biggest gauges of "success" in my mind.

The product

Most of the past year has been a focus on developer experience, and trying to make the developer experience with the CLI even better, and touching on trying to solve problems with Deploy in the context of dog fooding Deploy and helping work out the kinks.

It has been an interesting focus, and I have enjoyed it. We have been able to really make progress in making the development experience in Deno a lot better, building a language server right into the Deno binary itself. There is still more to do, and I guess that is one of the biggest lessons I learned, my desire to make things better outstrips my ability to make things better. People finding issues or gaps, or being confused or frustrated by a feature really sort of gets to you on a fundamental level.

The "nice" thing about my focus on Deploy, is that I am the one trying to identify the gaps for others on the team to try to address. I am the source of their angst. I have done a lot of fun stuff with Deploy. I am really becoming a fan of the power of Web Assembly.

JavaScript, TypeScript and Rust

My language journey has been Turbo Pascal, Delphi, PHP, JavaScript, TypeScript and now Rust. While Turbo Pascal and Delphi were memory allocated, they weren't the C-esque type of memory allocation and so while I understood it, having spent the last 20 years in garbage collected languages, Rust was a steep learning curve for me. I suspect even those coming from C, Rust is a steep learning curve, because of its memory management model shift, but now that I am on the other side of it, and at least I feel "productive" with Rust, I think it allows me to evaluate it.

I have been doing TypeScript since 2014, heavily since 2015, and JavaScript heavily since 2008. I would say I "love" all three languages, and all three languages have their sweet spot.

Rust only reinforces my love of static typing though. Even being proficient at a language, static types not only save you from run-it-and-pray behavior, they are the easiest way to discover and consume APIs. rust-analyzer has made me so productive in Rust, that I don't think I ever want to use another language without an intelligent IDE. It was one of the compelling reasons we invested in the Deno language server. If you take static typing out of a language/system, then you are really flying blind. Well not only are you flying blind, everyone who consumes your code is flying blind too. They have to read your code to figure out what you intended to do.

Yeah, I write JavaScript sometimes still, but I always write it with JSDoc type annotations. I just can't stand that in my IDE that it is trying its best to guess at what I am trying to do. I like the safety of type safety. TypeScript has improved since 2014 though to such a great deal I find myself writing TypeScript by default, because it is still easier to do the type annotations inline when needed, but so much less needed than before.

What is a lot easier in TypeScript/JavaScript than Rust is scaffolding out a new API. Because of the strictness of Rust, it is really hard to "stub" stuff out, where as you can often still run your code in TypeScript/JavaScript without crossing every T and dotting every I. This makes prototyping in TypeScript/JavaScript a lot easier. If you know what you are building, Rust is great. I really love Rust enums and iterators, plus also the patterns of traits like From and Display are super-powers that make you code super clean and super consumable. Every time I drop back into TypeScript/JavaScript, I miss the power of match and .into() and if let and returns from blocks to do variable assignment.

Final thoughts

I don't think anyone knows what the future holds. I think most people would say their 2019 selves would barely recognize their 2021 selves and that certainly holds true for me, but for me in a work dimension as well. I am so lucky to be privileged though to be able to work on something that I really am emotionally invested in. In other roles, I have grown to love what we built, but Deno is something I loved and got the opportunity to build.

Where will I and Deno be in a year, or two years, or three? Who knows. We are trying to build a platform where scripting in TypeScript and JavaScript is fun and productive. Hopefully we will succeed and make a difference. If we do, awesome, if we don't, I think I will have few if any regrets.