Uses This

1218 interviews since 2009

A picture of Finn Ellis

Finn Ellis

Automation engineer (Slack)

in developer, game

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hello! I'm Finn. My pronouns are they/them. I'm an automation engineer on the desktop team at Slack, which means that rather than working on the app, I make it easier for other people to work on the app. Lately that's mostly been graphical test automation, which I'm either about to talk about at Node Summit or recently did, depending on when this interview gets published. When I'm at home, I like playing and making video games. I've submitted entries to the last two Ludum Dare jams, and I've published a couple of games that you can play in your browser on

Some non-computery things about me: I have seventeen piercings and one tattoo. I'm a high school dropout, and I earned my degree in linguistics at thirty-one. I sing alto or tenor, depending on the piece. I used to be a Magic: the Gathering tournament judge (L2, US:NW). I collect stuffed animals but only in the sense that I occasionally buy one and adamantly refuse to ever get rid of any. I play a mean cribbage game.

What hardware do you use?

For work, I use a 15" MacBook Pro, which is the first Mac I've had since they looked like toasters. When I'm physically at my desk I plug it into an LG 27MU88 monitor, which I'm a fan of, because one cable gets me laptop power and all my peripherals in addition to the extra screen. I use a Kinesis Freestyle 2 split keyboard on the recommendation of a colleague who assessed the ergonomics of my desk setup. She also had me using a trackball for a couple of months, after which point I felt like I'd given it a fair shake and still hated it, so I'm back on the stock magic mouse, which is fine so far. For someone who's basically lived on a computer since adolescence, I've been pretty lucky about RSI, and I'm trying to keep it that way.

My computer at home is a second generation ThinkPad X1 Yoga. It was my new-job gift to myself last year and it's a treat: quick, light, fits in a purse, I can fold it into a tablet (the keyboard recesses!), and I use the touchscreen way more than I expected to, to the point that the MacBook's screen is also covered in fingerprints because I forget I can't do that. With the stylus it's fun for drawing, too, although the tablet-mode-friendly software options aren't great. Lenovo's spyware shenanigans are bullshit but I admit that I still love ThinkPads, mostly because they make a fine keyboard and I type like a bat out of hell.

In my pocket there's a Google Pixel 2 XL. I went with the Pixel because I like getting system updates in a timely manner, and the XL because it's a gaming and social media machine that I grudgingly make calls on. Plus it takes nice photos in good light, and usable photos in low light. There's a Popsocket on it, which I use mostly as a fulcrum to spin my phone on tables when I'm fidgety, but it's handy on public transit too.

I've almost never owned dedicated gaming hardware, including consoles, but I did pick up a Nintendo Switch a couple months ago. It feels silly to expound on why it's great when so much of last year's gaming press did that, but suffice it to say that the ease of switching modes between console and handheld or controller setups is very real and very good. Plus the game selection is a much better fit for my tastes than any other major console.

Quick shoutout here to USB-C - I use literally the same charging cable for everything I just named. (It's the Macbook's brick with a nine-foot Amazon Basics cable.) We nerds like to joke about standards proliferation, but man, when one actually sticks for a minute it's really convenient.

And what software?

I'm surprisingly ambivalent about work-oriented software, so long as it gets the job done. I don't even have strong opinions about operating systems. When I started this job, I asked my team, "Hey, what do you all use to edit code?" and they said VS Code, so I use VS Code. (I do use the vim keybindings, though.) I use VMWare Fusion for similar reasons. Chrome has been my default browser for a long time, originally because it was the one with separate user profiles, and these days because it already has all my stuff in it.

I spend a lot of time in Notes or Notepad (depending on OS), because any task or idea I don't remember to write down is gone and I don't care about fancy features in a scratchpad. This is actually the only reason I have an iCloud account; I realized that my Notes files were the one important thing I wouldn't be able to get back if my work laptop got stolen. (Well, that and the SDCC-exclusive Adventure Zone stickers.)

Oh, er, Slack, obviously. I'd dabbled with it before I worked there, for small projects or social groups, but it's been eye-opening to use it in the environment it was designed for, with the people who designed it.

For making games I use Pico-8, a low-fi virtual console with a great community. I like it because the narrow constraints force me to scale down to manageable ideas, and there's so little boilerplate that you can pretty much just write down what you want it to do and you're done. Basically, it's the fun parts of games programming without the dull parts, at the cost of only being able to do so much. I'd like to learn a modern engine just for the wider range of possibilities, but I keep getting intimidated by the learning curve for something I'm only doing for fun in the first place.

Some highlights from my phone, apart from the obligatory Twitbook: Tusky (a Mastodon client); Spotify and Pocket Casts for entertainment; NextBus, Lyft, and Weather Underground for when I'm going out; Caviar for when I'm not; and Wikipedia because I'm 100% the killjoy who will look up when that movie came out instead of letting you keep arguing about it. I haven't done as much mobile gaming since I got the Switch, but I've gotten back into Pokémon GO because they added social features, and Solitairica because ... well, because it's still phenomenal. Simon Tatham's Portable Puzzle Collection is an early install for me on almost every new device I get; it's a big bundle of FOSS puzzle games that run on almost anything. I could write a whole article just about games on my phone so I'll cut myself off here, but ask me on Twitter if you want more recommendations!

On the Switch I'm deep in a Stardew Valley game right now, and slowly working my way through Celeste and Night in the Woods. I recently finished Golf Story and Yono and the Celestial Elephants, neither of which I'd heard of before buying the console, and I loved both. Some day I'll probably get around to playing the award-winning AAA Switch titles too (unless we get a new Animal Crossing game first, then all bets are off).

What would be your dream setup?

I'm embarrassingly unqualified to answer this. Until very recently I'd never had the kind of money where I could buy new hardware of any kind, and I'm not into browsing things I can't have, so I'm basically totally ignorant of the possibilities. If you gave me a blank check and said "Buy yourself new computer things," my first step would be turning around to my friends and asking "Hey who builds good gaming machines?" and then paying someone else to do the thinky part. I would be pickier about choosing a desk and a chair! I guess I could get a bunch of monitors? That's a thing nerds do, right? Probably a Wacom for drawing unless someone else has started making really good tablets since I last checked. And, like, an actual TV I could connect the Switch to. Maybe a nice keyboard. Er, I mean, piano keyboard, but, you know, the other thing too.

Long story short, I don't know. Check back in a year and I'll tell you what it turned out to be. Just don't be surprised if I'm still happily playing Switch games on the couch. I have modest tastes in technology.

Uses This is supported by ZSA, makers of the Moonlander, ErgoDox EZ and Planck EZ keyboards. They also publish an awesome newsletter.