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Have you ever wondered how Christmas works? I was forced to completely rethink my own ideas about the magic of Christmas after a conversation I recently had with Casey, the Chief Technical Officer of Santa’s Workshop.

My Conversation with a North-Pole Programmer

The plan was to meet over Hangout, but I got the time wrong. It’s easy to mix up meetings between time zones and Santa’s Workshop is literally in every single one of them. After solving that problem (apparently the whole workshop sets their clocks to the time of a small island in the Pacific called Kiritimati), we were finally able to chat.

Immediately after our discussion began, two things became clear: Casey was legit and Santa’s Workshop is nothing like what you think it is.

Udacity: Hi Casey, it’s great to meet you. Sorry about the mix up.

Casey: Not a problem. I forget how confusing time zones can be. That’s why we adopted the just-use-one convention.

I did some research into Kiritimati. Its nickname is “Christmas Island.” Very cute.

Not cute. Practical. The nickname is a coincidence. We use that time zone because Kiritimati is just west of the International Date Line so they’re the first place in the world to celebrate Christmas.

At the time of the interview I was hesitant to spend any of my limited time with Casey discussing anything unrelated to the workings of the shop. But Casey’s responses to my questions on time zones revealed an approach to problem solving which I wasn’t anticipating.

Why does that matter?

It just makes sense for us. We had to choose one, and since the time doesn’t really matter to us 364 days of the year, we optimized for Christmas Eve clock-reading. Believe me, when you look at the clock on Christmas Eve and see 23:59, you want to know the show’s about to start without having to do time zone math.

At this point I pause and reflect on my situation. I’m talking to an elf. She’s wearing a sweater, but there isn’t a hint of red or green on it. I survey the scene for signs of cheer but nothing is what I expect. The room has glass walls through which I see a bustling office decorated more with whiteboards and computer monitors than tinsel and mistletoe. Casey sits with good posture and speaks quickly, but slight bags under her eyes and a can of red bull reveal the job requirements of an elf in December. Her eyes perk up as I ask the next question.

I’ve got to say: I was expecting more decorations and toys. What’s up with all the computers and whiteboards?

That’s one of the two things I really wanted to talk about. I think there’s this image of an elf that most people have of some squeaky voiced guy with a green hat and a silly wooden hammer making toys at an impossibly-slow rate. And Santa’s Workshop? I guess its supposed to be all this singing and dancing or something. Singing and dancing is great, but that’s not why people become elves.

Why do people become elves?

Because some people are driven to build! For them, becoming an elf may be the right move. These days the we spend more time building… and debugging… complex systems than we do making toys. But we’ve never stopped building.

Wait. Elves can code? How did that happen?

How did it happen? I’d think you would know the answer to that. We learned to code the same way anyone learns anything. We practiced. Nothing about programming is inherently all that hard, it just takes some persistence and commitment.

Earlier you said your team builds “systems?” What do you actually build?

At this point, Casey pauses. For about thirty seconds she looks away from her monitor. There’s excitement in her eyes when they return to the camera.

You know, let me ask you something. What do you know about how Christmas works overall?

I think I know the basics. Santa keeps track of the kids. The kids send in letters to ask for presents. Then on Christmas the good kids get what they wanted. Is that still true?

More or less, yes. But have you ever thought about how all of that actually happens?

It’s the magic of Christmas, right?

Casey actually laughs out loud when I say this. It takes her a few seconds to collect herself.

I’m flattered that you call it magic. But it’s not. Well, sorta. I mean, yes, it’s magic in the sense that it is incredible that all of those things actually happen. But no, there aren’t any magic wands or spells or anything. 

So how does the magic work?

We build the magic! For example, you just told me how every year, kids around the world send their letters to the North Pole. Well, we’re a small team working here. How could less than a hundred elves even begin to read the tens of millions of letters written in different languages all on our own? Even if we had omnilingual elves reading a hundred letters an hour, that would be a full year of work right there! It’s just not practical.

Instead, our amazing data team has built a system which automatically scans each letter and converts it to text. Now, we’re not the first team to build Optical Character Recognition, but as far as I know this is the first which can handle the… penmanship issues that we have to deal with. It’s a pretty amazing system.

That’s incredible. But why not just have kids send emails to Santa?

Some do! But, well, you know how earlier even you actually thought the North Pole ran on magic? I mean, you could ask “why accept letters at all? Why not have every kid submit an array of toy : value pairs over HTTP?” Sure, it could work. But then where’s the magic? Our challenge is to build systems like these that let us continue running a scalable Christmas without losing that magic.

At this point the interview was cut short. Casey was late for something important and left abruptly. We’ll continue the conversation next week and will post the transcript as soon as it happens. Let us know if there’s anything we should ask!