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Startup Stories: Ellen Chisa, Founder In Residence at boldstart ventures

boldstart ventures Founder In Residence, Ellen Chisa, joined us to chat about creating a new programming language and investing in technology companies.

by hao-nguyen on December 6, 2021

Ellen Chisa is the co-founder and CEO of programming language Dark, and the Founder In Residence at boldstart ventures.

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Hey Ellen, thanks so much for being with us today, it’s great to be chatting with you again. It’s been over a year since we last talked for Balance the Grind! For those who may not know, can you tell us a little about your new role at Boldstart?

Absolutely. Right now I’m Founder in Residence at Boldstart Ventures. Boldstart was an investor in Dark, my company that we talked about before (and I’m sure we’ll get into again!)

I have a lot of flexibility in my role. I can invest in interesting enterprise technology and developer tooling companies. I also support companies we’ve already invested in on product strategy and developer community work. Lastly, I can think about new ideas and spaces. It’s a huge range and gives me lots of space to explore!

Last time we talked about Dark, your company, which built a programming language. I don’t know anything about coding so pardon my ignorance, but how do you create a programming language? Does this happen often in the programming world?

Sure! At a high level, computers fundamentally respond to a set of instructions that are either one or zero – basically if a transistor is on or off. Programming languages are ways of creating nicer ergonomics for people to be able to talk to the computer in that way.

You build a programming language out of another programming language. Lower level languages allow you more control over exactly what happens, whereas higher level languages usually allow you to write applications more quickly. The code a human writes is then translated into what the computer understands.

Creating a language can be a good project if you’re looking to get more into the theory behind why existing languages work the way they are, or to learn. Languages that get adopted widely happen more rarely. In those cases they tend to have specific benefits over what already exists, and are often built by communities or within large organizations.

For instance, Rust and Go are two more recent languages, where Rust for instance is known for performance, and Go is known for having good tooling and being easier to pick up.

What were some of your biggest challenges and lessons that you’ve learnt from them while building Dark?

There were definitely a few! On the devtools specific side, I learned how important it is to be able to stay in Flow State while coding, and how much tools impact that. It’s easy to make something “too easy” – where it doesn’t feel challenging or interesting, and it’s also easy to make it “too hard” where users give up.

I wrote an entire talk on this for Gitpod’s DevX Conf. This shapes how I think about other developer tools today.

On the technical side, I think I learned a lot about when it’s important to make infrastructural shifts. The original versions of Dark used something called a structured editor. This was hard for most of our users to learn, but it was a huge investment to rewrite the entire editor foundation. In retrospect I would have done it sooner.

Something more applicable to everyone is that it always comes back to the people. Getting great communication is key for teams. While I don’t believe in purely flat organization, I do believe people should approach each conversation believing every participant has something to add.

You’re obviously super passionate about programming, how do you juggle coding with running a company? Do you ever have moments where you just want to ignore the business side of things and focus on the code?

Yes! The technology always draws me back in, and it’s most important to be cognizant of it. I think the larger the team grows, the more important it is to not be working in the core codebase or messing up the full time engineering team.

With Dark it worked particularly well because I could write code in Dark – it gave me a better sense of the product, a lot of the time I was doing so to support existing users on their projects, or making new examples and documentation for them.

It also works while being a Founder in Residence today – while I spend a lot of time helping people think through things at a high level, I also have time to explore new tools.

One last question before we let you go, what are some really exciting trends or companies that you’re seeing emerge in your space?

Oh wow, that’s always hard. One thing I really care about is people having more information about their data while they’re looking at code. Lambdragon and natto.dev are two that have been interesting from that regard (and both have some attributes in common with Dark). I’ve also been looking a lot at API related infrastructure, where I’ve been focused on companies in the GraphQL space, like GraphCDN.

Thanks so much Ellen, it’s always a pleasure chatting with you. I look forward to catching up more in the future!

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