Ben Collins-Sussman

I'm a programmer and musician; I live in Chicago with my wife, kids, and cats.

My friends tease me that I "collect hobbies", but everything I do seems to have three common themes:

Software Engineering

I've been working as a professional programmer since the early 90's.

  • My work with the longest-term impact is probably Subversion, an extremely popular tool to help programmers collaborate. (Winner of a 2005 JOLT Award.) I was a co-designer and co-founder of that project, and though I'm now retired from it, I managed to co-author the main manual for the software; the complete book is online.
  • I joined Google in 2005, ported Subversion to their scalable Bigtable technology, then helped launch Project Hosting on Google Code, which now hosts hundreds of thousands of open-source projects.
  • In slowly going bald, I grew pointy hair at some point and transitioned into engineering management. I managed Google Code for a while, then managed a team of ~20 engineers on a display advertising product called the Google Affiliate Network, then transitioned to managing a team working on the Doubleclick For Publishers platform (DFP). You know all the ads you see on every website across the internet? Yeah, we basically help those websites serve those ads and make a living from them. We keep the internet "free" as in beer.
  • In August 2014 I officially took over as site-lead for the Google Chicago engineering office, which means I'm also responsible for the overall growth and health of all ~100 engineers working here. And yes, we're hiring!
  • People are way harder than computers. My buddy Fitz and I have spent the last 8+ years giving conference talks on the social challenges of software development. You can see many of our talks here on youtube, or you can read our O'Reilly book on the subject: Team Geek: A Software Developer's Guide to Working Well with Others


I love to play and compose music. I've been playing piano since age 6, and was trained as a improvisational fakebook reader. In college I was obsessed with organizing barbershop quartets, and in my 30's I seriously took up playing bluegrass banjo. I like to play in a local jam session now and then.

I also have a long-standing career as a composer for Chicago theaters. With my collaborator Andre Pluess, we've won multiple awards for composition, sound design, and new musical theater works over the last 15 years.

Our most successful original musical was probably Winesburg, Ohio, an adapation of Sherwood Anderson's novel. It premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, then played at a new-works festival in NYC, then at the Arden Theater (Philadelphia) and at KC Repertory (Kansas City). It won a both a Jeff Award (Chicago) and an Ovation Award (LA).

Our latest musical was in summer 2012, and played at Lookinggglass Theatre: called Eastland, it received three Jeff nominations. In 2013 is was selected to perform as part of a new musical showcase in New York, and we're hoping more regional theaters pick it up the way they did with Winesburg.


Ever since my kids were born, my teenage love of photography was re-kindled. I started shooting on a 35mm SLR in junior high school, learning to develop B&W in my basement darkroom. Now that I have a digital SLR, I've had to learn Adobe products in my basement instead! My main photographic interest is portraiture.

If you're just getting into photography and wondering which camera to buy (or what the controls on your camera mean), please take a gander at my Intro to Photography Page, which is particularly aimed at newbies with a technical bent.

  • After many years of using Canon DSLRs, I finally switched to a full-frame mirrorless camera (the Sony A7 mark II), with the Zeiss 24-70 f/4 lens. It's basically identical quality to my old DSLR setup, but nearly half the size and weight. I also use a also use a Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens for portraits and a 15mm lens for wide-angle tricks.
  • There's a saying that the "best camera is the one you have with you". Smartphone cameras don't usually cut it for me, so when I don't have the Sony A7 with me, I keep a small micro-4/3rds camera in my bag -- an Olympus E-PM2 PEN with an effective 40mm f/1.7 pancake lens (makes it coat-pocketable!)
  • You can read about my photography adventures in the photography category on my blog.
  • I post a lot of photos to my Google Plus account and to my Flickr stream.
  • I should really put up a portfolio of my favorites, but haven't found time to do it yet.

A tip: Google Plus seems to be a haven for photographers networking and discovering each other. I highly recommend you jump in there and build a huge 'photographer circle'.

Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction is a computer-based storytelling medium. It started with Infocom games in the 80's, but has since evolved into something wondrous over the last 30 years, with an extremely active indie-developer community.

If you're totally new to this world, read my Intro to Interactive Fiction page.

  • As a writer, I've co-authored two successful games: Rover's Day Out, which won the big Interactive Fiction Competition of 2009, and Hoosegow, which won the Jay is Games One-Room Escape competition.
  • As a programmer, I've been trying to write a good Android application to play these games on your phone or tablet. It's an open-source project called Twisty, but we still have a long way to go. You can download it from Android Market, but it's still pretty primitive. We'd love volunteers to help us finish it!

Amateur Radio

In 2009, I got sucked into the 'maker movement'. It seems that my generation skipped over electronics and started right with home computers. So I went a bit crazy learning how to solder circuits, but then got bored building blinky lights. I then stumbled into amateur radio, and suddenly had a totally new outlet for electronics hacking! Instead of building random gadgets, you build equipment that actually lets you chat over thousands of miles.

You're probably wondering why -- in this age of internet and smartphones -- one would put up a wire in the backyard to talk to people over morse code. My reply is simple: why is fishing such a popular sport, when we all live next to supermarkets? The point is to be close to the metal, down in the dirt, appreciating the basics, making stuff with your own hands. And the reward is social: you get to talk to other geeks about it over the airwaves!

I love carrying tiny radio stations (with erector-set antennas) onto airplanes when I go on business trips. When I get a free moment, I find a local hilltop, set up the station on picnic bench, and start chatting with other hams around the country. It's like a secret society of geekdom.

You can read about my latest ham radio adventures on my blog, and see more info on my profile (sort of like Facebook for radio hams).

I have a strong interest in low-power gadgets ("QRP") it's called. (It's fun to make cross-ocean contacts using only a 9V battery!) I'm also a member of the Chicago FM Club, a local ham club that has a repeater network spanning the whole Chicago area.

Roleplaying Games

Yes, D&D, that kind of thing. I don't have much time for it anymore, but I've run weekly campaigns, participated in them too. I'm involved in an indie group -- NASCRAG -- that writes their own competitive scenarios and runs them as a tournament at GENCON each year. I also participate in a yearly weekend game called Rileycon.

As a rule, I enjoy RPGs on the computer -- but only if they're social, i.e. I'm actually playing with my friends (like World of Warcraft). Games where I'm the only human around (like Elder Scrolls) tend to bore me. I need the social element.

I'm a board game geek as well, playing all the geeky board games you think I would.


My interest in photographic portraiture led me down road where I began wondering whether I could sketch portraits as well. In late 2013 I discovered Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a truly amazing book. I worked through all the exercises and kept practicing my sketches from there. I've mainly been focused on learning to sketch and shade portraits in graphite (working off of photographs I've taken), but I've also begun to explore the use of colored pencil. Colored pencils mix very much like oil paints, but without all the mess!

You can see my beginner-level sketches and progress on social media, or take a look at this gallery of my work on