Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Elsa Moluf finds energy in thoughts and physique as developer and aggressive weightlifter

Elsa Moluf has been a software developer at Substantial for more than three years. (Photo courtesy of Elsa Moluf)

Elsa Moluf didn’t take the most traditional route into tech.

With a degree in Chinese Studies, she decided to go through the software development training program Ada Developers Academy. She became an intern at Substantial, a Seattle studio that designs and builds digital products for clients (such as the “Exploding Kittens” mobile game). Moluf was hired on as a developer and now she’s GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.

In her personal life, Moluf is a competitive strength athlete. She competes in Olympic-style weightlifting and recently added powerlifting, the combination of which results in what’s called supertotal training.

We asked Moluf whether it was tougher to lift a heavy task at work or a heavy amount of weight in her hobby.

“It’s definitely harder to lift hefty things by yourself!” Moluf said. “At work everyone is willing to help, whether you’re on their team or working on something solo. You can prepare for the hefty problems by spiking on ideas and getting others to test out your proposed solutions.”

In her hobby Moluf can spend months preparing for just a few minutes of heavy lifts.

“You get a huge amount of satisfaction from making a new personal record, but then you set your sights even higher and eventually it will take years of preparation to lift more than you have before,” she said. “So one carryover from work is taking satisfaction from the output of the process rather than the anticipated final result.”

Moluf said she’s always happy to chat about human emotions or the fundamental nature of our universe, and her answers throughout our questionnaire exhibit a philosophical approach to tech.

“I can’t help but put everything in an increasingly larger context (our known universe being the largest context, currently),” she said. “As fascinating as technology is, it’s ultimately a means to an end, with the end being a hopefully improved human condition. Humanity faces a lot of poorly mitigated existential risks from things like nuclear weapons, global warming, biotech, and AI. On the one hand technology has produced these risks but it could also help solve them, at a minimum by mobilizing people to fight existential risks at their proportional magnitude. There’s plenty of issues to solve along the way.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Elsa Moluf:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I try to find purpose. At work the goal is to design and build things together that matter. As a developer sometimes that means writing code, but other times it means figuring out what questions to ask or evaluating the effectiveness of processes. Regardless, I’m thankful I have the agency to help create meaningful technology. And then I do weightlifting because I’m fascinated by the challenge of coordinating my mind and body to produce maximal force. My other previous activities of Muay Thai kickboxing and rugby embody this, too, but weightlifting is kind of infinitely challenging because you can always work towards lifting one more kilogram.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Technology problems are actually people problems. What we create is a reflection of us and our environments. If it’s not working well it’s because somewhere down the line we are not working well. The fix is probably talking rather than more tech.

Where do you find your inspiration? My software inspiration comes from my colleagues. I get to work with really smart people who happily dive into the unknown and come out the other side with elegant solutions. Even though they’re humble about it they amaze me every day. My weightlifting inspiration comes from Instagram because a lot of elite lifters post clips from their training and competitions there. The sport is all about technique so I get to immerse myself in good examples. And I find personal inspiration by watching movies. They’ve got all the narrative and thematic inspiration of a book combined with all the visual inspiration of hundreds of thousands of paintings.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Vaccines, probably. Or water sanitation. I might be able to live without them but it’s hard to say.

(Photo courtesy of Elsa Moluf)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? On any given day my workspace is either my desk at the Substantial office or my living room. The great thing about a remote-friendly office is that both spaces can work for me. We build things in the context of constant collaboration, and sometimes collaboration is a bit more efficient in person. I can move my desk around to join whatever team I’m working with and we can huddle and whiteboard as needed. But we may also have team members who work remotely full-time so everything we do can also be done in a distributed way. The freedom to just grab your neighbor whenever is helpful, but can also be distracting if everyone around you is working intensely on something totally unrelated. It’s nice to have the flexibility of a non-commute and quiet environment sometimes while not having to sacrifice team productivity.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) For any given thing ask yourself, in the context of your eventual death, how much does this matter? It sounds dramatic but stick with me. We tend to think questions of this gravity don’t have a place in the everyday, but our lives are comprised of the hours and minutes we spend doing everyday things. We do many things precisely because they accumulate over time and do matter in the grand scheme. And there are plenty of things we get sucked into or put up with that we don’t always have the energy to rethink if there’s a better way. I find that considering my mortality more often actually gives me energy to assess these things that I might otherwise permit to waste my time.

Mac, Windows or Linux? I use them all. I work on a Mac but deploy code on Linux and play games on Windows. We can get along, it’s OK.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Janeway. I grew up with her as captain so anyone else seems wrong.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? We’re already time machines! Space and time are interrelated, and since we’re practically crawling through space we are absolutely flying through time. Just only forward in time. No sense in going back.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Not. Launching a startup is not really my scene. Convince me otherwise.

I once waited in line for … Frankie & Jo’s seasonal ice cream flavors. More than once. I’m not even vegan, it’s just the best ice cream.

Your role models: Somehow anyone and no one all at once. I’ve always struggled with the notion of role models. It seems to elevate imperfect people and hold them to impossible standards. Even though it’s meant to be inspirational it creates this unnecessary illusion of separateness between them and ourselves. Others have acted in certain ways and so can we. Our actions will always be a mixed bag despite our best intentions. Some actions are worth celebrating and some not so much. So no single person will be a role model in every way, nor should they be.

Greatest game in history: “Duck Duck Gray Duck.” Fight me.

Best gadget ever: Project Alias by Bjørn Karmann, a DIY parasite comprised of both hardware and software to control smart assistants and protect your privacy.

First computer: Game Boy Color.

Current phone: The cheapest Fi option at any given time. I don’t need much and it still does too much.

Favorite app: Skritter, to practice learning and writing Chinese characters. I like to get a few minutes of studying in while riding public transit.

Favorite cause: Getting underrepresented people into tech. Ada Developers Academy changed my life and collectively it can help change the tech industry. I encourage anyone in tech interested in volunteering their time to consider Ada. There are lots of different ways to volunteer that fit a range of skills and time commitments. As a graduate I’ve decided to serve as a mentor to current students. It’s work that’s both socially impactful and incredibly fulfilling. A real win-win. Can’t recommend enough.

Most important technology of 2019: AI.

Most important technology of 2021: AI shackles.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: I know you can, but should you?

Twitter: @ElsaTKO

LinkedIn: Elsa Moluf

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