Hello, I’m Brian Hughes
LII supporters are very generous people, and we like to make sure that they get credit for their generosity. Of course, we use computers for that—in fact, a complex of computers that run several different, highly secure software systems. Meet the man who glues them together.
In 1999, Brian Hughes was the first full-time programmer to join the founding team of Peter Martin and Tom Bruce. Around 2002, Brian wrote the first, very simple donor-tracking program. These days, with added concerns about security and identity theft, those systems are handled by systems built (and operated by) trustworthy vendors such as Verisign, Elavon and Salesforce—but the LII still needs to integrate them, and that’s where Brian comes in. Although he works on other projects for the LII, such as transforming our up-to-the-minute data feed from the Supreme Court into the pages you read on the site, Brian finds working with donor information much more satisfying. “It’s been something that I’m completely responsible for,” he says.
Brian’s father was a programmer for Sylvania, DEC, and MIT, before working for the Peace Corps and USAID, bringing the Hughes family along, first to France, then to Morocco, finally to Niger. In those countries, young Brian went to French-speaking schools, and learned Moroccan Arabic. When the Hughes family returned to Massachusetts, Brian spent a year in public school before going to Harvard, where he studied linguistics. His parents and two of his three sisters also attended Harvard, while the third sister became a lawyer.
Brian didn’t start out as a programmer. “Library work appealed to me and it’s where I worked for a long time,” he says. “I was always a library assistant, not a professional—I didn’t want the aggravation of being a professional.” (His wife, Cathy Conroy, is a library professional, so Brian hears all about the aggravation that job can bring.) Then, as now, Brian was strongly oriented toward customer service and to helping people find and understand information.
After college, Brian’s first job was at the Northeastern Law School Library. “I worked at the circulation desk,” he says. “I helped the students find books the professor wanted them to Shepardize” (For the non-lawyers among you, to “Shepardize” is to use the Shepard’s Citation Service–now a part of Lexis Nexis– to check legal citations to ensure the law cited remains current and accurate.
Brian then returned to Harvard, first in their geology library, then as an international law library assistant in the law library. Finally, he joined a computer support team. “I liked that job,” he recalls. “E-mail started near the end of my time there. I got a computer and fooled around with programming. I even wrote a program. You know what happens when you lean your finger on a key, right? You get 7,000 periods ……………………….. on your screen.” Brian wrote a program to set the repeat at a reasonable rate.
With his growing computer skills, he maintained a database for personnel records. “I enjoyed that job,” Brian says. Since the background of much of LII website consists of complicated databases, one might see that as a sign of Brian’s future career.
Around that time, LII co-founder and current director Tom Bruce was consulting for Harvard Law Library director Terry Martin. They created LEDA, an institutional repository for archiving and distributing legal scholarship—and hired Brian to write the code for it. “Then Tom said—come to the LII,” Brian recalls.
Now, of course, people graduate from college with a degree in computer science. Brian, however, is self-taught. “I’ve always been learning as I go,” he says. For the computer geeks among you, Brian mostly uses Perl, PHP, Python, and MySQL. “They’re good for working on big wads of text,” Brian explains—for example, the U.S. Code or the Supreme Court decisions.
Brian Hughes speaks or reads several languages, including French and Arabic, and he’s teaching himself Latin. Is this why he’s so good at learning programming languages?
“They call it a programming language, and programming books invoke human language. I think they’re nuts,” Brian says. “Computer languages are just a set of instructions.” In human language, he explains, “I don’t have to say things exactly right, and we still understand each other. We mentally correct as we read, but computers don’t do that.” Computers are literal, Brian explains. Leave out a comma, and the program breaks. Then you have to find that spot and add the comma. As with proofreading a written document (like this one), Brian notes, “it takes immense concentration NOT to see what should be there.” Brian’s work includes hunting for misplaced commas or equals signs, along with reading complex documentation for the various products that he glues together to create the systems that process your gifts.
Brian works from his home in Andover, Massachusetts—the first LII staff member to work remotely, and now the only one. The Harold Parker State Forest is in his back yard, which is perfect for Brian. “I’ve always liked the outdoor stuff,” he says. “When I came back from Niger and was in high school, it was a cheerful time—I was with my age group and speaking American. I had a bike, got books, and rode around identifying things. I can still remember identifying my first titmouse.”
LII Director Tom Bruce says, “Brian is a constant source of astonishment. I mean, this is a guy who labels his spice jars with the scientific names of the plants. But the thing that always makes my jaw drop is his music collection, especially modern stuff. He’s got Scriabin and Stravinsky, John Adams and John Harbison, and I’d bet money that there’s some Esa-Pekka Salonen on the shelf too.”
Now Brian’s back yard is full of birdfeeders. While programming the donor systems, Brian can listen to Esa-Pekka Salonen and watch the titmice forage for seeds.