Out In The Open: These Hackers Want To Give You Coding Superpowers

Posted: 1/21/2014

As seen on WIRED.com

By: Klint Finley 

Chris Granger is a computer programmer who thinks programming kinda sucks. It's too complicated and too esoteric and too sprawling. But he hopes that his latest invention can change all that.

Built alongside friend and colleague Robert Attorri, his creation is called Light Table, and he believes it can not only improve programming for seasoned engineers like himself, but put the power of coding into the hands of so many others. "We consider programming a modern-day superpower. You can create something out of nothing, cure cancer, build billion-dollar companies," he says. "We're looking at how we can give that super power to everyone else."

The problem with coding, he says, is that you can't see the results of your work until after you're done. In that sense, programming is unlike almost every other craft. "When a chef adds an ingredient, he can smell it, he can taste it," Granger says. "When an artist makes a stroke on a canvas, he can see it. But programming isn't that way."

Programmers may spend hours or days working on code before they can make sure it actually works. "We have to play computer in our heads," he says. "We write each line, imagine what it will do. You have to act like a computer. The problem with that is that we're pretty crappy computers." But Light Table seeks to bridge that gap.

Light Table is an open source programming tool that lets programmers see the results of their code as their write it. It's not an entirely new idea. In the mid-1960s, an educational tool called Logo gave programming students immediate feedback. More recently, languages like the kid friendly Scratch and artist friendly Processing have offered a kind of visual feedback, giving coders more insight into their programs as they're written.

But applying those ideas to professional software - complex applications with thousands or even millions of lines of code - is another matter. Light Table tackles such software by not only by displaying the results of the code you're working on right now, but by showing how it relates to other parts of your software and how data flow from one chunk of code to another. It also weaves documentation throughout the code, while offering new ways to organize and visualize the code in any application.

But Granger and his team want to extend this beyond what we typically think of as programming. Millions of data analysts, scientific researchers, and other workers spend their days wrangling data in applications like Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, and SPSS. They don't think of themselves as programmers, but they face many of the same challenges as people like Granger: they spend hour after hour putting something together, and they can't tell if it works until after they're done. "Excel is a form of programming," he says. "Excel is really the most common programming language."

Light Table grew out of an idea for a new kind of medical software. In 2012, Granger and Attorri, an old high school friend, started a company together. Granger was fresh off a stint at Microsoft, where he worked on the company's popular Visual Studio programming tool, and Attorri, a biologist by training, had just dropped out of grad school. They applied to the Y Combinator startup incubator, pitching an app meant to make life easier for medical researchers, but just weeks later, IBM announced a similar project based on its Watson supercomputer, and that was the end of their pitch.

Then Granger went to visit his grandparents. They didn't have internet access, and that gave him time to think and code without the usual online interruptions. He kept thinking about the new breed of user interface he and Attorri had hoped to land on the world of medical research, and at one point, he realized this same interface could be applied to a code editor. So he spent a week hacking out a prototype.

When Granger returned from vacation, he showed the prototype to Attori, who suggested he post a demo to the web. Within a week, the site received over a million pageviews. "It dawned on us that these principles of computing that we were talking about were better suited to this code editor," Attori says. "Then anyone could build this sort of software."

Many who saw the demo suggested the team launch a Kickstarter to raise money for the project, and eventually, they did. "I really didn't expect our Kickstarter to succeed," says Granger. "But I thought if a few people backed it, we could take those numbers to investors and say: ‘Look, people are interested enough in this that they put up money up front for it.'" But they asked for $200,000, and they ended up with $316,720. Soon, they reapplied to Y Combinator, and this time, they got in.

According to Granger, thousands of developers are already using Light Table on a daily basis. But since it's "free as in beer" as well as open source, it's not generating any revenue. That's where the company's "Project Aurora" comes in. The team is tight-lipped about what this is exactly, but Granger's nod to Excel is a big hint at where the company is going. "We're trying to make everyone as competent as a programmer without having to necessarily know programming," Attori says.

In other words, they want to create a form programming that doesn't suck - at all.