“Turbo Pascal was like a calling in high school”, remembers ISR alumnus Jason Robbins. “I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life: build tools like that so more people could write better software. I’m still working on it.”
While in high school, Robbins began his career working at the Rockwell Science Center in Thousand Oaks (currently part of Teledyne) where he focused on visual programming tools for factory automation. He then earned a B.S. in Computer Science at UCLA in 1992, and stayed on as a staff programmer on a research project for intelligent user interfaces. Robbins began his graduate career at UC Irvine in 1993, and returned to Rockwell during the summers throughout many of his graduate school years. “Rockwell was very supportive of me, I think they hired me on about ten separate occasions. I really learned what corporate research was like while there.” When deciding on graduate schools, Robbins had narrowed it down to a few schools that were strong in software engineering tools. “Clark Turner, a Ph.D. student at the time (now a Professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and an ISR alumnus), made a positive impression on me when I came to UCI to look around.” But there was also a sign: “They had a large research project going on at the time called the Arcadia Project; the name ‘Arcadia’ sounded like ‘arcade’, and to me, as a child of the 70’s, that was home,” laughed Robbins.
Once at UCI, Robbins got right to work. “We just had a great bunch of students coming in at that time. We all became good friends, and pushed each other to do our best. Both Neno Medvidovic (now a Professor at USC, and an ISR faculty member) and I published a ton of papers, more than we probably would have without that friendly competition.” Robbins’ work skewed toward tools with practical impact and innovative user interface (UI) features. “I looked at years of great work by other researchers that never made it past the prototype stage, and I thought there was huge value there that just needed to be more usable to have real world impact.” Robbins also learned some of the entrepreneurial spirit that was taking root at UCI at the time. “ISR Director Richard Taylor was teaching us how to distill down our ideas and make them into compelling proposals. He was teaching us the business of research, but it was also the first Internet bubble, so it really set an example.”
Robbins chose Prof. David Redmiles as his advisor. “David was part of a new generation of faculty to join the ICS department that set the stage for the department to grow into a school.” Prof. Redmiles’ research interests aligned well with Robbins’. “David’s advisor, Prof. Gerhard Fischer from the University of Colorado at Boulder, came to give a talk about design environments, and I thought it was a perfect match for me: intelligent user interfaces and a wealth of research results that deserved wider usage.” Robbins began work on a series of design environment prototypes, both at Rockwell and UCI, including a tool for UCI’s C2 architectural style, and ultimately the open source ArgoUML tool.
“My thesis was half theory and half system-building,” recalls Robbins. “I really enjoyed learning theories of usability, CSCW, and cognitive issues of decision making.” But most of his time was spent developing ArgoUML and publishing as part of UCI’s research team. Robbins made ArgoUML open source to get more impact and external evaluation, though releasing open source code was not common at the time. “I remember meeting with the campus lawyers and getting some puzzled looks,” mused Robbins. The experience of discussing ArgoUML with outside contributors proved positive, and initiated his thinking about how to manage open source projects and communities.
Robbins attended the first O’Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) where he met Brian Behlendorf, who had just founded CollabNet. Behlendorf, who had worked with ISR alumnus Roy Fielding to start the Apache Software Foundation, hired Robbins to work at CollabNet upon graduation in 1999. “Life at a start-up had a totally different feel than Rockwell,” said Robbins. “My very first day on the job, I was in a conference call making promises about delivering a product to our biggest customer, and I didn’t even have a desk or computer yet.” Robbins got to do a little bit of everything in the early days of CollabNet, “Engineering, User Experience Design (UX), sales support, end-user support, operations, I even helped wire up the old office. It was a lot of adrenaline-fueled all-nighters in the first two years.” His titles at CollabNet included Principal Engineer and Senior Product Manager. As the company grew, the original jack-of-all-trades roles were replaced with dedicated people in each role.
By 2003, the adrenaline had run out. “I had lunch with David Redmiles, and we talked about why people get into academia and he asked me if I had given it a full shot, and the truth is that I hadn’t.” Robbins returned to UCI as a lecturer and taught software tools and methods and senior project courses, where he tried to give his students tools to take with them into their first jobs. “Honestly, I thought teaching would be a part-time job, but it turned out to be very intense.” Robbins revisited his prior research on cognitive issues of decision-making and writing and saw how much value there was in the simple idea of using templates. “Templates were not researchy enough for my dissertation, but when it actually came time to help my students succeed at ambitious projects, templates for project documents were a hit, … like a homerun. It felt like cheating compared to the old way, which meant I was onto something.”
Robbins released the templates he produced for the courses as the ReadySET open source project. In late 2004, he reworked them into the ReadySET Pro product, and learned how to run a small online business. ReadySET Pro sold over a thousand copies all over the world. “I sold copies to users in Uganda and Andorra... I thought Andorra was a planet in Star Trek!” One of the lessons Robbins learned was the cost and effectiveness of traditional advertising vs. the new pay-per-click model offered by Google. “It wasn’t even close. Inspired, I chatted with Greg Stein (of CollabNet, Subversion, and WebDAV fame) who was at Google, and then I got out my CS theory books to prep for an interview there.”
Robbins’ first project at Google in 2005 was PicasaWeb, but he soon got involved in starting Google Code (code.google.com). “I tried to take what I knew about software engineering tool usability, what I had learned from supporting CollabNet users and my students, and the Google style of clean UI design, and put that all together into a free OSS hosting service with broad appeal.” According to Robbins, Google Code has done very well, hosting tens of thousands of active projects, and inspiring a rejuvenated project hosting product space. Google itself has gone from OSS consumer to a huge producer of open source including many highly strategic products (Chrome, Android, Google Web Toolkit, Closure, parts of AppEngine), and over one thousand smaller Google-sponsored projects. Robbins, a Senior Software Engineering at Google, is currently focusing on open source tools for the Chrome team.