Inside Geocaching HQ Podcast (Episode 12): Sean Boots

[music]

Chris Ronan: Hi everybody. Welcome to Inside Geocaching HQ. I’m Chris Ronan. My username is Rock Chalk. I am one of the 80 or so people who works at Geocaching HQ in Seattle. Thank you for downloading our podcast. This is our first episode of 2018. Hope your year’s off to a good start. Hope you were able to attend one of the Australia Day Geocaching events a few weeks ago. There’s a lot more neat stuff coming up on the Geocaching calendar as the year rolls on. And as the year continues, we would really like to hear from you about what we should cover on the podcast. What questions do you have, what topics would you like us to dive into? Please email us, the address is podcast@geocaching.com. That is podcast@geocaching com.

CR: You can pause this right now. You can go to your computer or open up your smartphone. You can send me an email podcast@geocaching.com. I’ll wait while you pause and while you send your email. And then when you’re done, come back and we will continue. Whatever your question, I will do my best to find the right person to answer it. Okay, in this episode, we will hear from one of the longest tenured employees at Geocaching HQ. Sean Boots started here way back in 2004. You are certainly aware of his work, whether you realize it or not. He has done quite a few things in 14 years here that impact how we search for geocaches and how we play the game. He’s a very interesting person, I think you’ll enjoy hearing his story. So, here is me talking with Sean Boots.

[music]

CR: Okay. So let’s just start with, what’s your title and what’s a… Just in a nutshell, what you do at HQ every day.

Sean Boots: Cool. I am the manager for the web development team, basically, that does not constitute mobile. It doesn’t constitute IT. It’s a series… A bunch of like 15 people I think is what we have now, and it’s the front end developers, it’s the middle and back end developers of the company.

CR: So it’s the people that work on the website as opposed to working on the mobile apps, is that generally speaking?

SB: Yes. Mostly it’s the web all inclusive, but also the API and all of the services under the cover. We kind of provide the business logic for the web and the mobile applications, but we also do we web stuff themselves. We also do some internal tools and we’re responsible for pager duty, and we’re the ones who, when things go wrong on the website, it’s us and IT who come to the rescue.

CR: You’ve been… So this is 14 years, is that right?

SB: I’m coming up on 14 years, August. Yeah, it’s been 14 years. It’s amazing. And we’ve gone through so many different iterations, I think this is my fourth building. We started in a little dinky building downtown Seattle. It was before Amazon had sort of taken over that whole area. There was a Whole foods, it was like a hole in the ground. And it actually was being built in front of us as we were in that building. And there was seven of us, I think, when I started. We ended up staying in that building for a couple of years. And I think there’s only like two people, other than me, three people total that are still actively working here. It’s changed a lot since then. Yeah. We moved to downtown and then we moved to this area and there are two different buildings in this area, so we’ve been there ever since.

CR: And to give some perspective, seven people then and now it’s around 75 or 80. It’s grown by about 10 times. That’s pretty amazing.

SB: It’s crazy. Yeah. I mean I have… It’s interesting because when I first started, I was very green. I was hired to basically supplement work that Jeremy was doing. I was the first developer other than him. Well, they had had a couple other people do that job, and then they had already left. And from my perspective, I was being hired to supplement Jeremy.

CR: And Jeremy being, for people that don’t know, Jeremy Irish.

SB: Yeah. Sorry. Jeremy Irish.

CR: One of the co-founders of the company.

SB: Yes. The Ray Kroc of Geocaching.

[laughter]

CR: I wonder if anybody’s ever called him that.

SB: Well, I have.

CR: Have you?

SB: I’ve done it for years. [chuckle]

CR: I could see Michael Keaton playing Jeremy in a movie.

SB: I think that’d be awesome.

CR: The founders.

SB: Yeah. They look just like each other.

[laughter]

CR: Who would play Bryan? I don’t know who would?

SB: That’s a good question.

CR: We’ll have to think that one through.

SB: Probably Robert Downey Jr.

CR: Al Pacino. Like a young Al Pacino. Oh, and I like that.

SB: Al Pacino might be a little old at this point.

CR: That’s true. Obviously, that’s why I say… I was thinking like Al Pacino in the Godfather could play Brian but…

[chuckle]

SB: Yeah. That’s it.

CR: But no, I like the Downey Jr idea. Okay, you’re doing that work, supplementing some of Jeremy’s work. Going back to then 2004, what were you doing at that time and how did Geocaching kind of come into your life? How did this opportunity come to you originally?

SB: When I joined, I think I was in the 200,000th of users or something like that. My account is… And I started right as I created my account, basically. And that we weren’t talking about millions of people, we were talking hundreds of thousands. And it was just kinda starting to blow up, and I was really green. It was my first coding job. I had worked for my father for 10 years as a warehouse manager prior to that, and I was a self taught coder who was looking to… I just wanted to get into that industry and so I tried really… I made a bunch of websites.

SB: And this is also the web is just getting started and so just trying to find contracting gigs with whoever I could find. My father’s company had a customer, I would ask them if they needed a website and then I would do it. When I finally decided that I was a good enough programmer, I decided I was going to spread my wings and I was gonna try to get a job somewhere else and I put my resume on monster.com just to sit there, I had no intention of like promoting it or actively doing anything about it, I just wanted to see what would happen if I did it. And so I put all these gigs that I’d done and I had this skill that I have now and I swear it was like within a week I get a email from Jeremy. And he’s like, “Hey it looks like you have a skill set that’s similar to what we’re looking for, can I call you?” I’m like, “Yeah, absolutely that would be kind of cool.”

[laughter]

SB: I mean he’s like, “Yes,” so he calls me literally after I sent the email back, he calls me.

CR: And did you know about Geocaching at all?

SB: I had not, no I had never heard of it. So that was actually my… That moment was my introduction to Geocaching and it was really… That was like, “Hey, this thing exists and there’s an actual job waiting that I could possibly… ” It was kind of interesting. So of course I… He asked me a few questions like wanted to know what my skillset was and it was basically like he and I did the same kind of thing and so it was like a good fit. So he invited me to come in for an interview and then of course I did the whole due diligence let me go and Geocache, and figure out what this is about. I’m gonna find my first cache and I’m gonna be prepared and so then I was able to go into the interview and we kinda just like had a couple of ad-hoc conversations about like, “So you do this technology and this technology?” and I’m like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “Okay, cool. So I hear you’re in a band.”

[laughter]

SB: Alright like just do I like you, kinda talk. And so…

CR: Right, right. Okay so you talk to Jeremy he kind of explains what he’s looking for and…

SB: Right. So he offered me the job after that conversation. Alright, this is a good fit and so went home… He calls me, “we got a position for you” and so then it was kind of like, “How do I tell my dad that I’m leaving?”

CR: Right, ’cause you’d been there what? For like 10 years you said.

SB: Yeah, 10 years.

CR: Wow.

SB: And I know and in hindsight he was like, “Why are you still here?

[laughter]

SB: “Will you just go get a job please.”

CR: So I opened up the internet Wayback machine.

SB: Oh yeah, oh this is awesome.

CR: And a look at… And maybe I’ll post this on the podcast page but if I don’t people can go and look at the Internet Wayback machine and just put in Geocaching.com and look in 2004 and so this is what the website would have looked like when you first showed up here.

SB: This is exactly what it looked like. Yeah there’s no denying, this is exactly what it looked like yeah.

CR: So what comes to your mind when you see this now?

SB: My first thought is that, “Well, we’ve come a long way.” And that despite I still have misgivings about where we are, I still wanna keep moving us forward and getting better and making us look prettier and be in a better place. But sometimes you forget like where you came from a little bit, so this is kind of exciting to see that and we’re way…

[laughter]

SB: It’s way better now yeah. So it also reminds me that I actually didn’t work on the Geocaching website in my early part of my career. Actually, the first thing I did was put a Geocaching search functionality into REI kiosks, which for me was really exciting to work with a big partner and do something kind of neat in a visible arena. And so that was really fun and exciting a good first project, but ultimately my job was to figure out with Jeremy a solution for virtual caches and location-less caches which were causing like enormous problems on the website. People were placing really terrible virtual caches and exploiting that concept and we weren’t getting very good quality and reviewers were ready to revolt.

SB: The location lists concept was a great idea, but it was implemented incorrectly because it treated basically, like geocache type locations, were basically being created in the logs. And then there was no way to log the logs and so it was a mismatch despite it being a really cool idea. And so Jeremy and I… Well it wasn’t just Jeremy and I but like the whole group at the time Nate and Bryan and all the people, you know Elias, all these… All of us were talking about what could we do? What’s a good idea, how can we fix this whole problem and ultimately the idea of Waymarking came about, which was to take these location-less caches and created their own website, so categories would become the cache and then the logs would actually be on the same level as caches and then we would actually be able to log the logs at that point. So you’d be able to log the waymarks. But anyways for many years probably five years, that was my core responsibility was to build the Waymarking site from scratch and to add features and keep it maintained and try to get it into a better bigger place.

SB: I mean Nate and I, Nate was kind of like the the product manager for that project and I was the sole developer, and we sort of hashed ideas out together and we pushed features as fast as we could. The community of location-less owners was the root of the beginnings for that site. We asked them all to create categories and we gave them this new site and they all seeded this website with all their location-less caches. Anyhow so the Waymarking was my primary job and at some point we sort of as a company made a decision that we really wanted to focus deeper on the core offering. So Geocaching was our bread-and-butter, it was the piece, it was… The place where community was continuing to develop at a great pace. Waymarking was still doing well, but not nearly at the same level as the Geocaching. And so, we sort of made a decision that we needed to put all our resources on Geocaching. And so, that’s when I started being tasked with doing things for the Geocaching site instead of the Waymarking site.

SB: And for a long time, we tried to build things in the engineering department that would work with both. Like you build one thing for Geocaching and then Waymarking could kind of piggy back off of it. But at some point, we ended up building this monolithic website that we were… It’s basically a solution of code that is… We jokingly call it Tucson. It’s just all of the Geocaching website, all of the Waymarking website, all of everything that we ever did was just put into this big place, and it got to be unwieldy and it became hard to move in any kind of pace, and we decided eventually that we should start splitting those things out into their own projects. And so, Waymarking eventually was pulled out and Geocaching was left, and that ended up being where most of the effort was going. And ever since then, we’ve been progressively getting more professional and just improving all of the performance of that site and the look of it and all that kinda thing.

CR: So as the years have progressed and you have worked your way through various positions, what are some of the things… You talked about Waymarking, some of the other stuff that… Some of the highlights for you over the time that you’ve been here?

SB: We’ve done some major… I mean, that’s been really, really great and terrible things that have happened throughout those years. I think the big… I mean, Waymarking, I would argue, is a highlight for me. I still, I’m actually proud of the work that was done with that. I actually think it’s still a viable idea, and I think it has possibility. So from my perspective, that is still a source of pride. We’ve built full search functionality under the covers. We have separated our accounts and our payment into services. We’re currently making large strides with the maps. We’ve had already made large strides with the maps compared to what had been in the beginning. Where I go is a huge experiment. That actually was the thing… That was like secret project when I was first hired. Like it’s the killer idea. We’re gonna do awesome stuff with this. And to this date, I think that that idea is an amazingly good idea, and I think it’s probably something that we’re not done with, but it’s something that we have to really think about it.

SB: And another moment of huge success for us was, when we embraced the mobile world. The iPhone came out. I kinda have a story about that, ’cause there was a guy that worked as our front desk person. He was very, very eager to get the new iPhone when it came out, when the announcement came out. It’s gonna cost $600 for phone, which seemed like insanity. And I remember myself talking with one of our developers about there’s no way I’ll pay this much for a phone. There’s just no way. I just don’t see it. Like I’ve got my Sony Walkman phone. That’s all I need.

[laughter]

SB: I mean, come one. I just plug a headset in and I got my music here. It’s pretty awesome. But anyhow, I think obviously, the iPod had already been out. But when the iPhone came out, it was like a… Obviously, life-changing… Grand change of how society works, and many of us were just kind of like rolling our eyes at it thinking it was like, “Ah. Here we go. Another thing.” But this guy, and also Jeremy, I give Jeremy… He was on it, too. But they saw it immediately and basically, immediately pivoted the company towards like, “We gotta get going on this, because pocket PCs are not cutting the master for this. We’re gonna start building a mobile app, we’re gonna start hiring API developers, we’re gonna start doing this.” And so, Jeremy, I’ve gotta give him a lot of credit. And I wasn’t in any kind of senior manager position at the time, so I honestly don’t know if it was all Jeremy or if it was… I don’t how, who is responsible for those decisions at the time, but I always attributed it to Jeremy just because like having a foresight to get on that quickly and moved out forward. That was really a good thing.

CR: You’ve mentioned API a couple of times, and for people that might… I don’t think I understood it very well at all before I came to work here just as a geocacher, I heard the term but I wasn’t a software guy, so I didn’t… So for people that might not know what API is, could you just give a brief summary, so people might have a little bit better understanding that might not know what it is.

SB: Sure. So API is… The name is Application Programming Interface. It’s basically a way to connect an application like a website or an app to underlying functionality. We would basically build this underlying business logic. How the game is played, you basically… We present this to our mobile device, and then from outside of their… In the world that that device will call the API and that’s how it has access to our data. Our website does the same thing. Internally, it’ll actually call the APIs and get the data that way. And so, the mobile and the web are sharing the same code and the same data underlying. And it actually is really nice, because when you code one thing in one place and the rules apply to both places. We also have a partner program which allows… It’s currently kind of on hold, but we have partners that we work with that are able to access our data similarly to our own devices and websites through this interface. We provide them with methods, like log a geocache, or get the geocache data, or search for the geocaches, or whatever. But whatever we can provide for them.

SB: They would be able to program their apps such that they can call into our interface, our data and use the data that… So they can have an app experience that either enhances the Geocaching. Like something that GSAK might be doing or actually, is a similar experience, like what Cachly does. So both of those are using our APIs to run their businesses or whatever. Some people, and I will mention names, like CGO, tend to use… They are not actually using our API, they’re actually scrapping our website. And a website can behave like an API, in that you can access it in a similar way and you can actually… You basically parse the data that’s on each page and try to pull it down and aggregate it in your own way. And then you can represent that data a certain way. And so, that’s considered usually, to be a kind of a rogue activity, but it’s also a way that you can access data with less security measures and… So it’s sort of a frowned upon thing. But some people do it and it’s hard to get around people doing that but it’s a big job to actually do that because the data and the underlying website constantly changes. And so you’re gonna have to play kind of a Whac-A-Mole game. With the API you’re sort of ensured that the signatures, which are the… It’s hard to explain.

SB: But the structure of the calls that you’re gonna make always remain that way. And if they change, you will get notified that we’re making that change so you would… There’s sort of a contract aspect to it, where we get to decide what this contract is, you’re going to agree to call in that form and then we can move. And you have an allotted amount of calls that you can make or you can’t go too crazy or we’ll throttle you. The idea is that we create this place where we can partner with people and then they would give us… They will work with us to try to create a premium prop value that is consistent across the boards. So the Geocaching experience for somebody who uses Cachly and somebody who uses our app, and somebody who uses GSAK, is very similar, that’s what the hope is. It isn’t always work like that in practice but that’s the goal, is to make it more close to that. When somebody like a CGO does it through scrapping the website, it’s a little bit harder to understand how they’re using it. A lot of times they end up giving away features that are for free and so things that people, premium members are paying for us to provide these services for them.

SB: It’s basically, you’re providing that… You’re making CGO be able to exist too because they’re riding on the backs of the premium members. So it’s a little bit frustrating to have that kind of a situation happen and we would love to have somebody like CGO actually use our API, so that we would be a partner as opposed to… It’s a more of a parasitical, sort of a… Not necessarily symbiotic relationship. So there’s… We don’t know how to solve that problem and we understand that a lot of our community uses CGO, so it isn’t necessarily in our interest to just shut them down but it does constantly undermine our program with other well meaning partners.

CR: So outside of your work stuff, I noticed that last year was your best year for Geocaching. You found…what did I write down here, 134 caches last year. So what got into you last year? I gotta know.

SB: Well, I will say it’s a little embarrassing that I haven’t found more caches than I actually have but that’s part of the answer is that I was moved into this job and I felt like I needed to take it seriously and so I should learn the product a little better than I had. I also was inspired by a program that we have internally, it’s called the Geo Guide program. Kind of set up a series of achievements, and goals, and incentives, and rewards to help us to have a reason to go do stuff. And so there’s things like streaks, which I got a 60 geocache streak last year which I was pretty proud of before I finally… I don’t know what it was that stopped me, but I think it was that… I was starting to run out of places around my neighborhood and I was finding myself in like supermarket parking lots at 10:30 in the night.

[laughter]

SB: I’m like, “I don’t know if this is really what I’m gonna be doing for the next six months or whatever.”

CR: Geocaching has a fantastic community, people all over the world and I know you’ve interacted with people all over the world, right? Over the course of your many years here, is that something that you’ve enjoyed, getting to meet people from different countries and getting to see how the game is played in different places?

SB: Oh for sure. I mean I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel several different places, I’ve gone to Austria, there was a caching festival there. It was amazing, it was beautiful area. I got to go to Munich, I was able to see Salzburg and so just that… Geocaching in those areas was just really, really crazy. It’s just so fun to see how it manifests elsewhere. This thing that we dreamt about when we were first starting this out and to see it just like it’s a pox.

[laughter]

SB: A positive pox that it goes out and spreads across the globe and then all of a sudden to actually see it. It’s so exciting to just… I don’t know, so it was really great. And so… Also I should mention that the treatment that a Geocaching employee gets when you go to a mega event it’s like… [chuckle] I sort of have a very tiny amount of experience with what the surface feeling of what it’s like to be a rock star. I’ve been in a band and we had a modicum of success but going to a Geocaching mega event as a Geocaching HQ employee is… For me, it felt more like being a rock star than being a rock star. You get put in front of 500 people to speak. It’s like, “I didn’t play for crowds like that, ever.” Here I am, put on the spot. They wanna hear what I have to say about this game that I don’t even play nearly like the way that they do. But because my experience is what it is, there’s something that people are interested in there. And I just feel honored I guess, that they treat us that kinda way.

CR: Well, I’m so glad you brought up being a rock star because that was my last question for you. I’ve gotta ask, I’ve gotta ask about the Sean Boots music career. ‘Cause it’s kinda legend around here. But we don’t hear the story as often as we should.

SB: When I was a kid, I was… My parents got me to playing piano and I got to be pretty interested in that. And I got into song writing and through my college years, I wrote a whole bunch of songs, and played with some kind of goofy cover bands, and had a little bit fun with it. But as I graduated, I ended up joining a band and we call ourselves, “The Amateur Lovers,” which is kinda hilarious because there’s now a genre on the internet that Amateur Lovers is, and you probably don’t wanna look it up. But we had no… There was no internet when we started this band. So that name was purely by accident.

CR: It’s an awesome name though.

[laughter]

SB: I know. And the funny thing is, we didn’t even start by… We were actually, “The Young Lovers,” was our original name. And we got sued by a band in Massachusetts called, “Young Love,” and they gave us a Seize and Desist letter. And so we’re like, “Ah, what are we gonna do? What are we gonna call ourselves?” And so then there’s… We had a song that was actually called, “Amateur Lover,” and so I’m like, “Well, Amateur Lover song, is like… There used to be a band that had an album called, “Living in a Box,” and they had a song called, “Living in a Box,” and their band name was, “Living in the Box.” And so was like, “Are we really gonna do this?”

[laughter]

SB: “Like we’re gonna be, The Living In The Box,” our album’s, “Amateur Lovers song, Amateur Lovers… ” Answer, No. So we took the name, we became, “Amateur Lovers.” We changed the name of the song to something called, “Grand Debut.” And then we didn’t name our album after that. But anyways, we had a little bit of a run where we played in the Seattle post-grunge scene, we played around town all the shows, we had good fortune to… We got to hook up with a couple of really talented engineer friends that got us some free time at London Bridge studio and they helped us to make a record. And they got that record put into front of some people of importance that had abilities to make things happen, and one of which was Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam. And we ended up signing with his label. And then subsequently, signing with a couple of labels in Australia and in Japan. So we had a world wide distribution of our record, one record. And we were the kind of my heyday was to be basically they send us to Australia on a tour with Ben Folds Five, which at the time was my favourite band.

CR: That would be so cool.

SB: It was the most dreamy, crazy, yeah, it was crazy. And they were… So they brought us along, we played four shows, we made a video, an all boys scout warehouse. MTV came and filmed the making of the video. I solved the Rubik’s Cube on camera, which made me really proud of myself, ’cause I didn’t think I was gonna pull it off. But…

CR: [chuckle] Oh my gosh.

SB: That was cool. But of course they didn’t use any of the footage. They only used footage of us telling the world how great Pearl Jam was. I was like, “Pearl Jam, has a new record. Let’s check out what Amateur Lovers has to say about that.” “Oh, it’s great.”

CR: I’m sure that helped Pearl Jam out a lot.

SB: Yeah, it totally did.

[laughter]

SB: But more than it helped us out. [chuckle] But…

CR: So it was just the one album?

SB: One album. There’s a video, you can find that’s an embarrassing like dated looking one. It’s called, “Rubik’s Cube.” It’s on YouTube.

CR: We’re definitely putting that on the podcast page.

SB: Oh gosh.

CR: It’ll have to be there.

SB: To be honest, I’m proud of it. I actually think the lyrics are great. I love the message in it. It’s pretty, pretty dated though. It’s literally 20 years old. I have long hair, I look kinda dorky and everybody makes fun of me at the end ’cause I get all tough guy and when I close it’s bad. It’s an era bygone, I had a clean cut-off. I quit the band when we lost our record deal and there’s a story when I was… We were touring our last tour in California. I kinda had seen the writing on the wall, and I knew that I needed to think about what was gonna be the next chapter. And so for me, it was to… It was about basically, I had a feeling that coding was kinda gonna be my thing. ‘Cause I had done that as a kid and I liked it. So I was like, “I’m gonna figure this out, I’mma learn how to do it.” And so I’m sitting in the tour van reading a visual basic, “How to,” instruction manual for pretty much the entire tour. That was how I kept myself busy and the guys in the band are like, “Why are you reading that book?” Like, “What does this mean? Are you like one foot out the door or whatever?” And I didn’t think I was at the time, but it turns out that I actually was.

SB: And so, there’s sort of like a segue right there, of me having my two worlds sort of collide and it was a clean break. I never really… I never went back. And so I haven’t done anything musical ever since, other than a couple… Actually it’s probably something to note is that some of that songs, some of the background music in some of our Geocaching videos, is actually me having done the music for that. I don’t know if you ever saw… If anybody, you can go look it up. The cachers of steel video, that underlying music is actually me, in my studio at home. It’s just instrumental music, but all the geocachers, like doing geocaching workouts, that was my thing. And then there was a, “How to,” Geocaching video also that I had done the music for… I kinda worked with Reid, our videographer. She would occasionally give me some gigs, I guess you can say, so that was a cool way to take my personal interest and kinda merge it with my work interest, it was really fun. It’s a lot of work though, I don’t know how much I’ll be doing that in the future. But it was cool to do, back in those days.

CR: Well that’s really cool. This has been really interesting. Thank you.

SB: Cool, I had a really good time, I didn’t realize I’d have so much to say. Yeah, thanks for having me.

CR: So there you have it. Sean Boots, one of the long time Geocaching HQ staffers, hope you enjoyed that. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, let us know what you would like to hear about on the podcast, by emailing us podcast@geocaching.com is the address, that’s podcast@geocaching.com or if you see me or one of my co-workers at a Geocaching event, please share your podcast ideas with us there. Thanks again for listening, from all of us at Geocaching HQ, happy caching.

Delanie
Delanie is a Community Coordinator at Geocaching HQ. In her free time, she is most likely to be knitting, pining after Mt. Rainier, or trying to revive her over-watered succulents.