Interview with Aaron Quint: CTO-turned-Cookbook Author

I’ve long been fascinated by creative technologists who are doing uncommon things in uncommon places. We hear the same story over and over: person moves to San Francisco (or New York), joins big-name startup, does great work. But some of the most interesting stories involve our peers who find themselves off the beaten path — people who live in less well-known places, or doing different kinds of work, or engaging in uncommon hobbies during their off hours.

One of those people is Aaron Quint. Formerly the CTO of Paperless Post, Aaron recently left his job and moved upstate to the Hudson Valley. In less than two years, he’s transitioned from being the CTO of a name-brand startup to being a consultant, conference organizer, and — wait for it — cookbook author.

Aaron Quint

Aaron Quint, formerly the CTO of Paperless Post, is now a consultant, conference organizer, and cookbook author.

I’ve gotten to know Aaron through our mutual involvement in a local design/tech organization (more on that later). The more I learned about his background, the more intrigued I became. Almost everyone who lives in the Hudson Valley has an interesting story, but I’ve never heard of a programmer hanging up his keyboard in exchange for a chef’s hat.

Recently, Aaron and I sat down to discuss his time at Paperless Post, his transition from city-dweller to upstater, the relationship between software and cooking, and his latest project: a pizza cookbook.

Tell us about your time as CTO of Paperless Post.

Six years ago, I was a web consultant in New York City doing full-stack work for companies. They’d approach me and say: “We have this idea, build us this startup, or build us this application,” which was a very lucrative position to be in in 2009. I really enjoyed doing it because I’d get to do this entire thing from scratch.

James and Alexa, the cofounders of Paperless Post — they’re brother and sister — approached me and said, “We have this really rough beta, and we want to get it into people’s hands. Can you help us figure it out and lay out a plan for us to ship it?”

We shipped the first version right before the holiday season of 2009. From there, it was really clear that I was getting more and more involved — I’d be spending two days a week with them, then three days, then four, and we decided I should work there full-time.

I joined as CTO in spring 2010. There were 11 people working there then, and now the company’s at 137 people or something like that. It’s different.

I was doing that for a long time. About a year and a half ago I realized that it was getting a little stressful. That also happened to coincide with the birth of my son — he was born in September 2013 — just as so much stuff was happening at the same time for the company. That month we did our biannual performance reviews for the whole team, and I’d have to do it for the entire dev team; that turned out to be 34 one-on-one performance reviews within a week.

It became really clear to me that that wasn’t sustainable. We rearranged the team so I didn’t have to directly manage so many people, but I started to realize I needed more time. I was working so much, so we decided to move up to the Hudson Valley and make a change.

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Spread throughout the hundred-mile corridor north of New York City, the Hudson Valley is a conglomeration of numerous towns and small cities along the Hudson River. Each settlement has its own character and rich history, united by culture and geography.

As a lifelong resident of the Hudson Valley, I’ve always had a hard time articulating what makes this place unique. It’s a fertile agricultural region, but its proximity to New York and position at the crossroads of early American history gives it a cosmopolitan cultural bent.

The food and music scene here have been writ large across the country; the Woodstock festival was a Hudson Valley event, and the Culinary Institute of America stocks Michelin-rated restaurants worldwide with chefs who have come to revere the region’s rich bounty of food and wine.

The Hudson River

The Hudson River near the Bear Mountain Bridge. Image by EJP Photo and found here. Licensed via Creative Commons.

There’s a running joke in the region that the Hudson Valley is full of people who have graduated from New York City. A lot of people here are former New Yorkers who were looking for a change — more space, more time, more breathing room — and the culture reflects that.

As work becomes increasingly remote, digital industry is combining with the Hudson Valley’s existing creative ethos to spark a renewed culture of tech and design in the region. Ten years from now, I won’t be surprised if the Hudson Valley is a byword for a startup culture with a particular ethos and feel.

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How did you discover the Hudson Valley?

That’s a good question. We knew about the Hudson Valley and Ulster County because my wife and I had been coming up to the area for weekends away. I was working with a bunch of designers at that point, and one of the guys recommended we go up to this place [a local bed-and-breakfast], which is super design-y and awesome and beautiful. We kept coming back to this place; I proposed to my wife there. And we said to ourselves: “This whole area is so beautiful. We should think about this.” That’s how we started looking at places.

We zeroed in on Ulster County because it seemed like the best balance between being cheap enough that we could afford something nice, and being close enough to things so we weren’t super remote.

We looked at maybe 11 places — 8 of them in the same day. Some were rural, some were in different nearby towns, but we ended up choosing the first one we visited. The house itself became our mission — we had to have that house. The idea of being in Uptown Kingston really bridged that gap for me [between urban and rural life]. I had this vision that I was going to move up here and buy this huge plot of land and have no one around me and set up a smokehouse and do all sorts of crazy projects on the land, and then I realized: I kind of like people. I like seeing people and hanging out with people, and I realized that I’m an extrovert and need other people for energy, and so I love the idea of living in a town where we can walk to places. There are some weeks that I literally don’t get into a car — I can just walk to the butcher, walk to the grocery store.

You’re in one of the really old houses, right? Colonial era?

Dutch Colonial Era, yeah. Our house is the Van Keuren house — it has a name — and the foundation was built in the 1680s. The house itself was around 1700. The house burned down in the burning of Kingston in October 1777, and it was rebuilt a few years later in the 1780s; that’s the structure that’s standing today.

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Ninety-one miles up the Hudson River from New York City sits the city of Kingston, capital of Ulster County and one of the more prominent settlements in the Mid-Hudson region. Inhabited since the 1650s, it was burned by the British in 1777 during the Revolutionary War (the major general leading the British forces referred to the city as “a nursery for almost every villain in the country”). It holds the distinction of having the only intersection in the United States where each of the four corners is still occupied by a colonial-era structure.

As with many towns and cities along the Hudson River, Kingston’s vibe is somewhere between colonial and hipster. Artisanal cocktail bars and farm-to-table restaurants occupy 17th-century buildings. Tech companies have windows overlooking historic sites. The city is a stone’s throw from Woodstock, and it’s not uncommon to find oneself at a show standing next to a recognizable face from the 1960s music scene.

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Do you enjoy living in the Hudson Valley, and Kingston in particular?

I love it. I knew that I would like it, but I really like it.

Kingston specifically has such a unique vibe. It’s very very relaxed, but not in the same way as, like, California. Some of the places I lived in California were relaxed, but not really — people were kind of uptight. Here, it’s actually relaxed. People are doing cool things and feeling good about it, and you can feel that. Because of that, everyone gets to know each other and it’s just awesome.

Are you still connected at all with the New York City tech scene?

Yeah, I still know a lot of people there, though a lot of my best friends from New York tech have dispersed.

In 2009 there was this boom — that was the beginning of the second wave of interest post-bubble, and there was so much going on. That’s when the New York Tech Meetup really took off. While I was at Paperless I was so head-down on the project, but occasionally I would emerge and notice how much stuff was going on. It’s still nothing like San Francisco, but there are way more people in tech than ever before.

When I was on the West Coast, it got to the point where it was so annoying. You couldn’t talk to anyone without talking about startups: what startup they were in, what startup they just left, what startup they were planning on going to next. I hated that, to be honest — that’s another reason why I’m excited to be up here.

That’s one of the reasons I always loved the New York scene. You could go to a party at a friend’s house and be the only person in tech there. Other people would be in publishing, or music, or art, or design; it was a much more diverse group of people. It wasn’t so homogenous and bubbly and echo-chambery. I hope New York doesn’t lose that.

A lot of people start their tech careers in New York or San Francisco, and then move to a less well-known place successfully. Do you think it’s possible to start in one of those smaller places and still have a successful career?

That’s a good question. These days, totally. The internet and Twitter and stuff have made all that possible. I’ve seen it happen.

It’s certainly a lot harder, and you’d probably have to work harder at it.

I’m thinking of this guy, John Nunemaker, a GitHub engineer. He and his friend ran a tiny-ish shop in Indiana. He made a name for himself by writing open-source software and writing a lot about it. He wrote about everything he learned and people started to take notice, and Github bought their company and hired them. He’s a great example of that.

It’s totally possible. Like anything, it would take a huge amount of effort the self-promote, I’m sure.

But it can be done.

Yeah, totally.

Maybe there’s a way to build cooler communities here, where people can promote as a group rather than as individuals. That’s part of the goal with the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup and what we’re trying to do here.

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Founded in 2014, the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup was designed to connect creatives and technologists throughout the region. Because everyone is so dispersed, it’s harder to meet new people or see who’s doing interesting work than in a place like New York City.

In the time since it started, the meetup has grown to over 700 members and has become the premier tech organization in the region. It’s attracted substantial interest from local economic development organizations, and has been hugely successful in building a sense of creative community. Before joining HV Tech, I assumed there were just a few dozen people doing solid digital work nearby — it was an isolating, lonely feeling. Now I know that this is a community that spans hundreds of people across numerous disciplines.

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In the time since it started, HV Tech has gone from a few dozen members to over 700. We’ve got some decently big names there, too.

For sure. It’s a very loose group — it’s not super focused, and everyone isn’t doing the same thing. It’s cool to have people approaching the same world in different ways, bringing their own background and ideas to it. That enriches the community.

HV Tech is definitely the widest age group I’ve ever seen at a tech meetup. We’ve got high school students, and we’ve got people who have lived in Woodstock for 60 years.

I brought a friend to Dev O’Clock [the HV Tech programming meetup] a few months ago, right after he’d started learning how to code. He was intimidated about going to a developer group, but he was encouraged to see the diversity of people and experience there. There were people who’d started learning to code the day before, and there was a guy who’d been coding in FORTRAN and COBOL since the 60s.

I think there’s something special about that, but we didn’t create it. We’ve tried to facilitate and build upon it, but it already existed.

Even beyond the tech community, there’s this idea of openness and a willingness to share here.

Even in New York people do that a little bit, but there are always those allegiances. People are aligned with their company or their programming language, and to break them out of that is really hard. In the Hudson Valley, though, we’re so sparse here that you could never do, like, a Ruby meetup. We’re forced to cross-pollinate, and that makes people more willing to share and talk about things.

We all have stuff to teach each other, and even if one person is more experienced than another, there’s always a level at which we can communicate. It’s awesome that people are willing to do that.

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In October of this year, the HV Tech Meetup held its first event aimed specifically at the outside world — a conference called CatskillsConf, held in the backwoods of upstate New York. The event, which Aaron co-organized, was partially meant as an proclamation to the rest of the world that the Hudson Valley tech scene is open for business.

The conference attracted more than 100 people from around the world. It was decidedly analog in outlook, with a schedule designed to keep attendees focused on nature and provide a reprieve from the world of screens. Activities included things like blacksmithing, foraging lessons, a birds-of-prey show, and a butchery demonstration.

The Ashokan Center

The site of CatskillsConf, during the conference. Photo by Morgan Roderick found here. Licensed via Creative Commons.

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What’s your most non-tech-related hobby?

I have a lot of hobbies, but most of them revolve around food. I got passionate about food about 10 years ago when I moved back to New York after college, and since then it’s exploded into absorbing most of my life.

I find talking about food and thinking about and writing about food way more fun than writing code and building applications these days. There’s an immediacy to food. You make this thing — it’s good. You can share it with your friends regardless of their technical know-how or their desire to be on the internet. Two people in real life can share this thing and get enjoyment out of it, and that’s something that’s really hard to achieve as a programmer.

There’s a joy aspect to food that I’ve been chasing and continually investing in to the point where it’s definitely absorbing most of my life at this point.

Is most of your non-computer time spent doing something food-oriented? (Besides being a parent, of course.)

Yeah, I’d say so. These days, I spend maybe 20% of my time programming, and the rest is divided between food and taking care of my son.

I moved up here to have the space to do all these projects. When we had the idea to move here, we were living in this tiny Park Slope apartment — like 450 square feet or something like that — and I sat down and made a long list of all the projects I was going to do when we had more time and more space. I’ve actually gotten a fair amount of them done or started.

Food was the big one. Now, I cook around six nights a week. It’s hard to go out with a two-year-old anyway, so it makes it a no-brainer to cook as much as possible.

How did you get into pizza?

I always loved pizza, growing up in Brooklyn. My partner in The Pizza Book, Mike Bernstein, handed me this recipe and told me: “You should try this. It’s doable, it’ll be really good.” I was skeptical at first because, for a long time, dough was something I’d failed at. I hate failing, so figuring out how to master pizza dough was a big thing for me. Mike’s recipe turned out great and I just kept working on it, kept making it a little better and tweaking it, and between the two of us we’ve now made thousands of pizzas. I’m much better at it now that I was six years ago.

Making Pizza

“All that is because I have the programmer mind. I need to figure it out — there’s something behind it. I can’t just leave it and let it be magic.”

You have a very engineering orientation towards cooking. I’ve heard you talk about the dough as being the platform on which—

Yeah, the framework.

Exactly. Do you bring your programming mentality to cooking?

For sure. It’s partly just how I think about things. As a programmer, I think about things in a scientific way. Not only is there a correct way to do things, but that way is defined by these variables, and you can tweak the variables to make it come out the way you want.

Pizza Dough

Pizza dough is cool because it involves all these different variables, many of which are completely out of your control, but you can learn to respond to them in a creative and meaningful way.

For example, temperature is this huge thing — if it’s cold in your house, things work differently than if it’s warm in your house. The back of your fridge might be colder than the front of your fridge. The temperature of the water that you make the dough in — all these things add up to the thing that is the pizza.

It’s really cool for me. Mike isn’t so much this way — he dove into it and wanted to get it good enough, and then he moved on to other things that built off of that initial thing. For me, I zeroed in on the dough. I wanted to learn everything there is about bread-making and dough. I haven’t yet — it’s definitely a lifelong pursuit _ but I know way more about the science and details than I did before.

All that is because I have the programmer mind. I need to figure it out — there’s something behind it. I can’t just leave it and let it be magic.

I have seven different bread books that I’ve read cover-to-cover, and I’ve realized that bread is literally nature. People have been making bread for millennia now, since way before there was any science behind it. And now we’ve extracted the science behind it, and it’s fascinating, but it’s still not a perfect science because there are so many variables there.

The way people interact with yeast these days, with those little active-dry yeast packets, clearly that’s a scientific innovation, but even with advances like that… when you make a sourdough bread, it’s literally flour and water. That’s it. Those are the only ingredients. There are a billion variations, but at the same time it’s a science — there’s a reason why this goes this way and that goes that way, but it’s a weirdly soft science. Yes, all these things are linked, but there are so many variables that are completely out of your control, so you just have to go with it and learn how to adapt. I can’t think of many things that are exactly like that.

So, to answer your question: Yes. I dove really deep into this.

For anyone who hasn’t tried cooking yet, how do you recommend they get started?

For me, it was entirely about the cookbooks.

I was a really bad cook for a while. I made a lot of stupid cooking mistakes my wife will never let me live down. I thought I could just watch cooking TV and improvise off of that, because I was so brilliant. “Take this thing, throw it in the pan with this other thing.”

You really need to learn the fundamentals. From there, you can improvise. Fundamentals for me cam entirely from reading great cookbooks. Finding a recipe that’s good and making it 20 times straight from the recipe. And then saying, “Okay, I might tweak this thing.” And then you’ll have a repertoire of recipes and you can combine, mix and match, find new cookbooks on new cuisines.

There’s so much knowledge contained in a cookbook. People learn from the internet and from YouTube now, but to me that’ll never replace a cookbook. It’s filled with knowledge from one person who’s said: “Here’s exactly how you do this thing. Just follow me and you’ll be fine.” How can you go wrong that way?

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Speaking of cookbooks, Aaron and his pizza partner Mike have accumulated their combined knowledge into The Pizza Book, which they are currently promoting on Kickstarter. As of this writing, they’ve already blown past their funding goal with two weeks to go. You can check out the project here.

The Pizza Book

The Pizza Book in hardcover.

Pizza Montage

Every pizza-related Kickstarter video should have a pizza montage.

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Thanks to Aaron Quint for taking the time to share his story. You can follow him on Twitter here. Check out his latest project, The Pizza Book, on Kickstarter.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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