Brian Sheehan
As a Technical Writer and Blogger, Brian enjoys the challenge of bringing concepts to life via the written word. He is a big fan of project management, technology, and cheeseburgers.
November 28, 2012 · 10 min read

Meet the Team: Software & Operations Engineer Holger Just

Holger Just, in addition to Felix Schafer, is one of the two newest members of the Planio team. Holger brings with him a unique background based on his twin passions for operations and development. In addition to a specialized knowledge of Ruby, Ruby on Rails, and Redmine, Holger is a contributor to the Chef systems integration framework. Holger will play a key role in improving the infrastructure of the Planio platform and also help us to develop & integrate additional services.

Name: Holger Just

Role: Software & Operations Engineer

Responsibilities: Administering the Planio servers and improving the Planio infrastructure & platform.

Let's have a chat with Holger so that we can learn more...

Brian: Greetings Holger! First I want to say welcome to the team, it's a pleasure to have you on-board and I look forward to working with you. :)

Holger: It's a pleasure to be with Planio and I'm excited about all the new challenges waiting to be tackled. From the start I have felt very welcomed by a team of really nice people. So thanks for having me. :)

Brian: Holger, we kick-off our interviews with the same question, which I'll toss out to you now... what is your Planio story? How did you join the team?

Holger: To start from the very beginning, as long as I can remember, I was interested in technology and computers. The first actual computer I got was a 386 my Dad brought home from work soon after the reunification. I started to play with it and soon discovered BASIC which could be used to program games and (more or less) useful tools.

Later in high school (German Gymnasium), I took all the computer courses I could and finally was responsible for keeping the school network running after we single-handedly pulled a network cable into each room of the school during one Summer holiday. I guess that's when I finally got the hang of administering computers and keeping stuff running.

Brian: That's a great story, Holger, and you also triggered some good memories of BASIC for me. It was 8th grade and I was 13 years old... the memory is fuzzy, but I recall spending a laborious hour typing in code that, at the end of it all, created a small flashing PacMan that gobbled its way across the screen. I think I realized that I was not destined to be a Developer, but it definitely got me hooked on computers. :)

Holger: Yeah, I too remember all those hours typing game code from some magazine into the computers. Eventually our local library got a copy station for shareware games that you could get for a couple of Deutsche Mark. I fondly remember spending days and weeks hacking on Gorillas to improve the explosions. Man, those were the times..

So after school, and civil services, I went to the Hasso-Plattner-Institut (HPI) in Potsdam because of the more practical approach to informatics. During the time I started there, the stated goal was to bridge the classic engineering disciplines with informatics and to teach the students what they would require for a long and successful career in Software Engineering.

As I couldn't keep my hands off administration, I took a job to maintain the servers of one of the professors at HPI and started an engagement in our Fachschaftsrat (an organization that enables students to take part in university politics).

It was there that I first met Jan (Planio's CEO), who was maintaining the students' server at the time. As he was about to finish his studies, he searched for a successor and I took the job.

During my master studies I started working at a company which used Redmine internally and I developed a Love-Hate relationship with Ruby—the programming language Redmine is developed in—while trying to beat it into submission. Finally, the love for Ruby outweighed the hate and I got more and more involved with the Redmine community. I also became involved with ChiliProject, at which time I met Felix (who, in the end, wound up working with us).

After this past Summer I decided to look for some new challenges. Having known Jan for quite some time, I was confident taking his offer to work for Planio. And here I am, drooling in my new post-university life.

Brian: What was it about Ruby that finally won you over?

Holger: Initially, I vocally hated it. I was deeply into Python during that time and really missed its simple, yet powerful, object model. I didn't understand blocks and thoroughly missed multi-inheritance.

Being forced to use Ruby to maintain the company's Redmine, I started to dig deeper and got accustomed to the way Ruby and Ruby on Rails are meant to be used. In the end, it is actually cleaner and more intuitive to write than any other language I've tried before. I just needed some time to "unlearn" things I've seen before in other languages.

Right now Ruby is my standard language when starting a new tool, although I'm "exposed" to Shell scripts, Python, Perl and C almost daily. Diversity is good, right? It keeps things interesting.

Brian: It sounds like you are drawn to both programming and operations. In your early days, did you contemplate becoming a Programmer? Or were you always drawn to the hardware and networking side?

Holger: Actually, I'm drawn in-between both sides. I love to program and structure my thoughts & ideas into code in order to get something working. In the end, building networks or building software systems is not that different.

In fact, this is exactly what I'm doing now at Planio... writing code to make systems work. It's just that my code is often a bit higher on the meta-ladder. So, often my code is used to make other code work and, sometimes, it even creates code.

In the end, I think I'm a Programmer who happens to be interested in how the whole stack works... which happens to make me rather good at system administration.

Brian: What is your favorite aspect of being a Software & Operations Engineer?

Holger: I guess it's a combination of tearing things apart and getting a deep understanding of how the things I deal with work. In addition, I also like the satisfaction you get when building things and they finally come together and work seamlessly and beautiful.

It is said that the best operations people are those you don't mention at all, because they make things stable and make them work seamlessly. And, well... I like to make things work.

Brian: Thanks for sharing those thoughts, I think it will help many other readers who may be contemplating a career in Operations and/or Programming.

Holger: I think curiosity is the most important trait for IT people. We deal with an incredible amount of complexity and layers upon layers of abstractions and combinations. If you can't—or don't want—to understand how things work, you will not be successful in IT. You will only scratch the surface and will never be able to build elegant systems which adequately solve the problem at hand (instead of some other problem which just looks familiar).

Brian: Earlier you touched on the unique aspects of the development and operations work that you do for Planio. Could you elaborate a bit more on this?

Holger: In IT circles there is the traditional separation between development and operations. Occasionally, especially in large organizations, there is often some kind of war between those two sectors with operations people being the kings and queens of the server room... watching with a flaming eye over their estates, while developers feel underappreciated and restricted by seemingly arbitrary policies, trying to fend off any change requests as obviously outrageous. The two parties don't communicate and simply blame each other for any occurring problems.

In recent years, several people started to be rather vocal about tearing down that wall and bringing developers and operations people together, uniting them in the goal to provide IT services to the end users.

As Planio is a rather small team, we don't have that strong divide. However, we can still gain from the recent tool advancements resulting from the mixup. Things like extended logging, statistical evaluation, intelligent automatic error correction and configuration management systems enable teams to set up a complete server farm from bare metal boxes to fully-armed battle stations in just a couple of minutes. This is a huge step from the old days of individually hatching servers and relying on wild guesses to determine issue causes.

My main responsibilities at Planio will be improving the logging and monitoring of infrastructure so that I can provide the team with more insight into the platform and what is happening during the day. I'm also aiming to improve the day-to-day operations, allowing us to deploy new features more often and with greater confidence. Finally, I will work on improving the platform for end users by helping to develop and integrate additional services.

Brian: You mentioned organization size and I was wondering if you were perhaps drawn to the dynamics of a small team setting...?

Holger: Absolutely, the small team size at Planio was a very large factor in my decision to work here. During my studies I was a working student at SAP for almost a year—I worked on some early prototypes for their new HANA system and even my bachelor's thesis was in that area. However, I always felt like a tiny cog in a large machine, unable to actually influence decisions. I felt hindered by large inflexible processes and organizational structures.

Working in a startup-like environment at Planio, on the other hand, enables me to influence the direction we are moving. I can spend my time solving problems instead of navigating corporate processes.

Brian: So how have you found the adjustment from University to the commercial sector? It's a big change from the classroom to the boardroom, as they say.

Holger: Thankfully, we don't have much mandatory boardroom time at Planio so I'm still able to get my hands dirty at actual technology instead of only managing people.

In the end, it feels really good to be out of the University and solving real problems for real people instead of building one proof-of-concept after another, imagining challenges and working with fictional data just to produce a paper.

At Planio, I'm part of a team solving actual issues for real people which is a very satisfying thing to do. It also helps make the world a tiny bit less complicated.

Brian: So, Holger, one of your other areas of expertise is the Chef systems integration framework. I tried to get up-to-speed on the subject and Wikipedia mentions that a program reads like a recipe (complete with mixing bowls!). For all of us non-techies out there, can you tell me about Chef and its methodology?

Holger: Chef is a framework for configuration management written mostly in Ruby, the same language Planio uses at its core. Using Chef, we can specify the complete configuration of servers in a single coherent repository. It allows us to express things like:

"We take a bare server and then put a webserver and the Planio code on it. Then we take another server and put a database on it. Then we tell the first application server to connect to the database for getting its data. We also tell it to send e-mails to some external provider."

The tempo of all this sounds like a conversation you'd hear in a kitchen, which is why many of the tools surrounding Chef adopted these kitchen terms. We use Chef to orchestrate the whole kitchen, we write cookbooks containing recipes to set up our servers, the cookbooks are managed using a librarian, and are then checked for style and correctness using a food critic and a test kitchen.

Transforming Planio's server from being mostly managed by hand to a fully-automated platform based on Chef will be among the first of my larger tasks.

Brian: I think the end results will be quite beneficial and I know that all of us are looking forward to it. So Holger, let's change gears a bit... can you tell me about your dream vacation?

Holger: I really like to spend my vacations on, or around, water. Last year, a couple of friends and I went on a 1-week sailing cruise on the Baltic Sea which was awesome.

This trip was the final straw which led towards a deal I made with myself: to sail from Europe over the Atlantic Ocean towards the Caribbean. If this is successful, I might even leave the world behind my back and start a multi-year cruise to sail around the world.

Brian: This is quite interesting, Holger, and also very commendable! Have you always had an affinity for the water?

Holger: I've been fascinated by the water since I was a little child. We used to live near a lake when I grew up and I quickly learned to swim and fish there. As I grew older my ambitions also grew... and now our local lake isn't large enough anymore.

Brian: Can you tell us about the two things you cannot live without?

Holger: Well, the first would be The Internets which provide the greatest advancement humanity has made in a very long time. And it helps to get a constant stream of cute kitten pictures.

Brian: One cannot get enough cute kitten pictures. Here's a good candidate for today:

Holger: Yeah, thankfully there is a steady supply. I wouldn't know how to start my day without a healthy dose of kitten.

Brian: Hehe, very true! Sorry, please continue.

Holger: And then there is food, in a general sense that people need to eat, but more importantly because of the sensual pleasures a well-crafted meal provides. The satisfaction I get from a nice cut of meat, or even something as profane as potatoes with quark, is way too great to miss out on. If something like that didn't exist already, someone would definitely have to invent it.

Brian: I see that we have a lot in common with a love of food, Holger (as my 113 kg frame can attest!). :) How daring are you when it comes to food? Do you enjoy traditional German fare? Do you like to try different cuisines?

Holger: Of course I am delighted with the German classics. We do have some really nice stuff here, although our supposed love for sauerkraut is generally exaggerated. It plays only a minor role in modern German cuisine, although it is actually prominent in the traditional dishes. A good Eisbein is always a pleasure, both cooked Berlin style or grilled like they do in Bavaria.

I do enjoy different tastes and like to try new things while being skeptical of some others. After having moved to Berlin, I started to appreciate the Turkish, Greek and Arab cuisine (way above the regular Döner) in addition to the Italian food I've always loved. But I've never understood how somebody could enjoy raw fish in vinegary rice...

Brian: Sushi is definitely an acquired taste for many! Another question: what is your favorite hobby?

Holger: I really like to program and tinker with things, even when not at work. But sometimes it feels good to leave the digital world behind and celebrate the "offliness." Going on a weekend cruise on a small boat on one of the various lakes around Berlin provides a welcome change to an otherwise busy life. Although such a boat needs constant maintenance, hence more tinkering.

Brian: Sounds like a lot of fun. Any particular spot around Berlin that you enjoy?

Holger: I still like the lakes where I grew up. Around Potsdam (near Berlin) there are a large number of lakes connected by the slow-flowing Havel River. It is easy to make several daylong tours without having to stay at the same place for too long. But, in the end, nothing beats throwing an anchor near the bank and just enjoying the afternoon and the slight waves.

Brian: That sounds like a very relaxing and enjoyable hobby, Holger. I wish I was there in Germany with you enjoying those kinds of afternoons! A final question: can you describe yourself in three words?

Holger: The first two words would probably be "standard nerd" (of course, in the best possible interpretation of these words). The last word would probably be "confused" (which Felix stole from me first). Again, I think being confused is a good thing because it leads to curiosity and the drive to understand things. And, like I said above, I do like to know how the world around me works.

Brian: I don't think Felix will mind, as "confused" may be an adjective that all of us can share! :) I sense that a curiosity of the world, especially about how things work, is a primary theme and (I think) is particularly suited to a successful Software & Operations Engineer. I know that our community appreciates your dedication to learning about the inner workings of all things technical and, both directly and indirectly, all of us Planio users will benefit accordingly.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and opinions, Holger!

Holger: Thanks for your interest in me and my work. It feels like a warm fuzzy welcome and supports my decision to join you and the rest of the Planio team even more.

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