Joe Burns: A Unique American Success Story

I was born to 5th generation immigrants in Suburban Philadelphia. My father was a hard-scrabble Frozen Food salesman, working grueling hours to ensure that Hot Pockets ended up in the freezers of all major American grocers throughout the Eastern Seaboard. My mother, a speech therapist, fought to realize the dream of all women of her generation: to have it all. Along with my brother and sister, we lived in a middle class housing development in the suburbs with a series of cats (Milky, Celie, and Olivia, all deceased).

The three of us attended the local Catholic school before moving to the private Catholic high schools nearby (but not the really good ones.) My desire to be surrounded by middle class Catholics not yet satisfied, I attended Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, where I was culturally enriched by meeting middle class Catholics from all parts of the Northeast.

Following college, I moved to New York City and decided to build on the most stable foundation I could find: improv comedy. Spending thousands of dollars over several years, I had the good fortune to not be successful enough in amatuer comedy to risk making it a career. As fate would have it, a degree in Computer Science proved to be a reliable Plan B.

With some dumb luck and hard work, I've built and exited a startup, gotten married, started a family, moved to Chicago, and, most importantly, watched the Philadelphia Eagles win a Super Bowl.

Joe Burns

But Seriously...

I didn't begin a career in technology with the intent to be a 'builder', become an engineering leader, or take on responsibility for an entire company. I was 24 and a comedy nerd, and through some dumb luck found myself responsible for a funny t-shirt site doing $8M in revenue. With the good fortune to be paired with excellent owners and general manager, that dumb luck became a real foundation as I realized the perhaps unwise degree of responsibility I had been entrusted with. Time after time, I was the one expected to "figure it out", whether that was Apache Server configurations, AWS technology, ImageMagick, Black Friday traffic, hiring a team, implementing engineering processes, and eventually, scaling, acquisiton, and scaling more.

I've also been lucky to have co-workers and engineering teams that challenged me on my weaknesses and accelerated our company's successes. Leadership means having the (sometimes unearned) confidence to make decisions, the openness to let smarter people around you change your mind, the humility to admit when you're wrong. I've been wrong a lot, but in doing so increased the odds ever so slightly that I'll be right the next time around.

About this Site

This site is built with Next.js and Tailwind CSS. I didn't know either when I made the first git commit, but in pairing with AI such as ChatGPT and GitHub Copilot, I've been able to build this site. The biggest lesson? AI is an incredible partner, but dangerous to rely on. More than once, I found myself chasing down ghosts in AI answers when the real solution was to step back, read the docs, and learn how to evaluate what the AI was telling me. Once I realized there was no replacing a solid foundation of knowledge, I was able to make progress and consequently learn more and have a lot of fun.

The source code is available upon request if you're into that kind of thing.