Friday 1 May 2015

Podcast Interview with Alistair Jones, Neo Technology

Here's another great conversation with a great friend and colleague of mine, Alistair Jones. Alistair has been an Engineer at Neo4j for a number of years now, and has evolved to be one of our most well-known Visualisation experts. He gave a wonderful talk about that a few years ago at the NOSQL Xchange in London (I still love the Fireworks!!!), and has been instrumental in the development of the Neo4j Browser over the years. He's also the author of a great graph drawing tool, Arrows - which I use all the time...

So we had a great talk, live, face to face, and here it is:

Here's the transcription of our conversation:
RVB: Hello everyone. This is Rik - Rik van Bruggen - from Neo Technology, and here I am again recording a podcast session for our Neo4j Graph Database podcast. Today is a live session which is always great. It's unusual these days with Skype and everything. but today I'm here in the same room as Alistair - Alistair Jones - from Neo. 
AJ: Hello Rik. 
RVB: Hey. Good to be here, Alistair. So today I'm going to ask Alistair to introduce himself, right? Because maybe not everyone knows you yet. 
AJ: I should say welcome to London, Rik. Good to have you here. I'm Alistair Jones, I work as an engineer at Neo Technology, and I guess I'm one of the sort of old-timers now. I've been around for coming up to four years at Neo, and I work on the-- I'm an engineer working on product. 
RVB: Very cool. So tell us a little bit about the stuff that you're working on. I know you're one of the big guys behind the visualization elements of the browser. Tell us a little bit more about that. 
AJ: Yeah, sure. One of the big things about graphs is that they're inherently visual. It's really easy to draw a picture of them, and drawing a picture is a really clear way to get across the message of what they're about, also to see how you're data's structured. And you can learn a lot from just looking at a picture of a graph. So visualization is clearly an important area. I've been interested in this from the beginning, from the first day I joined Neo. Being quite a visual person, I could see that we needed to do more in this area, and really get into the visualization side of things. And really, the stuff that I've done-- I had to come in at the Neo4j 2.0 Version which came out a year and a half ago. I was just very interested in it, and it started back-- it made it into the product about a year and a half ago, but it started back for like the first month I was at Neo, and I really wanted to-- I was giving a talk at a conference and I wanted to draw a picture, I looked at the tools that were out there to draw a picture just to go on some slides. Most people use PowerPoint or some kind of drawing package, and I want to do something better, and that got me into making my own tool. 
RVB: Is that how you got into the Arrows project, right? That's what you host on your website, the Arrows tool, right? 
AJ: Yeah, exactly. That's what came out of it, out of that exercise, was a tool just to help you draw a picture of a graph. I have these little Arrows tool on my personal website and it was really for making these PowerPoint stark-style pictures better than what PowerPoint can do. 
RVB: I can tell you, I use it all the time. It's really [chuckles] great. I love it. How did you get into graphs, Alistair, and then what do you really love about graphs? Can you tell us a little bit more about that? 
AJ: Yeah. I actually got into graphs properly on joining Neo. I knew a lot of the people who I work with still are here at Neo from previous jobs, and said-- they were hugely excited about this, I kind of followed what was going on, and then it was like, "Well, Alistair, you should come and do some of this stuff here. You've got the right kind of things to work in this space." And then, I came from a software direction, but with my background in consulting and helping lots of different businesses do stuff with databases in general, I could see what a good fit it was. So, yeah, especially all those applications where-- I struggled for a long time with building application on top of relation databases, a lot of the modeling complexity and the technical challenges of getting things to perform in that world. Then I could easily see where the value comes from in the graph world and having that-- reducing the impedance mismatch between writing software and object-oriented language, and then persisting it to the database as a graph makes an enormous difference. 
RVB: It's something that we've heard a couple of times already on the podcast - the modeling advantages and all those things. It's great to sort of hear it from you from a practitioner's point of view, as well. We want to keep these conversations quite short, so to wrap it up a little bit, where do you think it's going? What are the big things on the horizon you think in the graph database space? 
AJ: I think it's about adoption. I think about people seeing it becoming even more popular. People just going straight for graph first as the way - the natural way - to model their data. You're making your application, something simple, something very ambitious, and you go, "Well, obviously, we'll go to look at this in a graph way first." And I think that will just accelerate everything that's going in the space, the whole community around this is really a big help. 
RVB: Any exciting new things you see on the visualization horizon? 
AJ: Yeah, I think so. [chuckles] I don't really want to burn myself-- 
RVB: Course not, no. 
AJ: --with saying lots of exciting things to come up. I think in terms of what we're doing, and also in terms of what our partners are doing around visualization as well, is very interesting. There's a whole product space out there, and some really interesting research, and new things coming online all the time. 
RVB: Absolutely. We've had a Jean Villedieu from Linkurious on the podcast already and I'm sure we'll talk to other people as well. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast - really appreciate it. It was great talking to you as always, and I look forward to working with you in the future. 
AJ: Cheers.
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All the best


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