I'm Hilary Mason, And This Is How I Work

Hilary Mason is not only brilliant and highly productive — she's also incredibly inspiring. As Chief Scientist at bitly, the URL-shortening and bookmarking service, her engineering and research skills have played a vital role in the company's success. Hilary is also the co-founder of HackNY, a non-profit that helps engineering students navigate the startup world. On top of that, she's the creator of dataists, member of NYCResistor and Mayor Bloomberg's Technology and Innovation Advisory Council, and an advisor to organisations like knod.es and DataKind. Hilary took time out of her hectic schedule to share how she works, from the gadgets she can't live without to the shortcuts that add minutes to her day.

Name: Hilary Mason

Occupation: Chief Scientist, bitly

Location: New York City

Current mobile device: iPhone 4S and an HTC phone on Ting for tethering and hacking

Current computer: 11" MacBook Air for travel and e-mail on the couch; 27" iMac with 16GB of RAM in the office

I work: Curiously

What apps/software/tools can't you live without?

Email! But more on that later. Part of my work involves writing and speaking. [I use] Writely, a lovely OS X app that presents you with a beautiful black screen and green text. I find that helps quell the distractions when I'm composing. I have to admit I still use PowerPoint for presentations, but only because I know how to make it do what I want it to do.

I also do maths. The maths is mostly analogue, on paper or whiteboard. I sketch most of my ideas out that way. I'm often the only one showing up to a meeting with a Moleskine notebook and pencil instead of an iPad or laptop. I love theMuji .5mm mechanical pencils and the Pilot Hi-Tec-C .44mm pens.

Finally, I write code. For development, I'm a lifetime Vim user, and I currently use a mix of Vim in a terminal and MacVim (a beautiful port) locally. If you're on OS X, get iTerm2. Make it full screen and the background transparent. It's drool-worthy!

I mostly code in Python and have been really impressed with the interactive data modelling tools in iPython lately. Once you try the iPython notebook you won't go back.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without?

My Kindle! It's not just an "ebook reader", it's a portable library. I've always been a voracious reader and I love that I no longer have any risk of running out of reading material.

What's your best time-saving trick/life hack?

One of my most rewarding hacks has been exporting the .ics feed of my friends' birthdays from Facebook, then crossing that with my address book to write a script that automatically generates an email on someone's birthday. I use different messages based on the kind of relationship we have, and it's been by far one of the best tools I've found for being a better friend.

What's your ideal workspace setup like?

My ideal workspace is actually quiet and bright, with a whiteboard and a big enough desk to have a keyboard and paper notebook side-by-side. I like to have two screens, one where I can keep the work I'm concentrating on at the moment, and another for things I like to be peripherally aware of, like my calendar and chat rooms.

I couldn't function without virtual desktops (or 'Spaces' in the Mac universe). I have one for email and calendar, one for code, a third for presentations and documents, and the last as a blank scratch space where I can quickly play with a new idea without anything else getting in the way.

Bitly's office is a big, beautiful, open space, which is bright but NOT quiet, so I use music when necessary to block out other sounds — usually something loud and rhythmic that Pandora has selected for me. Recommendations are welcome!

What's your go-to email app?

I generally use the Gmail interface, but I write a ton of scripts that interface with it via IMAP on the backend. I gave a talk about it [a couple of years ago] (video above). I'm generally very interested in projects around the idea of reducing cognitive drudgery, and email is a huge source of wasted intellect.

What's your favourite to-do list manager?

I keep a list on paper in my notebook, and I actually draw little boxes next to each item and check them off as they are completed. I put longer-term or delayed tasks into OmniFocus, which syncs between all of my computers and my phone. It's simple, but I'm very forgetful, so it helps me keep everything I need to pay attention to in mind.

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?

I bake killer chocolate chip cookies and I'm really good at old school strategy games (Civilization, in particular).

Do you have a secret cookie recipe?

My favourite recipe of all time is the Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe prepared by my mother. I did a project to pull a few thousand chocolate chip cookie recipes off the web and figure out the Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe and it turns out it converges very closely to that recipe. One of my favourite tricks is just to use dark brown sugar instead of light brown, and make sure the oven is fully pre-heated before you put the cookies in. Mmmm.

What's the best advice you've ever received? It doesn't have to be productivity-related.

It's actually travel-related: Pack half as much stuff and twice as much money as you think you'll need. I've made it most of the way around the world travelling lightly on that advice, and come home with a few amazing souvenirs.

Any other interesting tidbits you'd like to share with readers/fans?

I'm a huge fan of Miss Manners, which might seem a bit far afield for a computer scientist. If you mentally re-title her work to "Algorithms for Complex Human Interactions," you'll learn a lot.

We've asked a handful of heroes, experts, brilliant, and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Every Wednesday we'll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips, and tricks that keep them going. Have someone you'd kill to see featured, or questions you think we should ask? Email Tessa.


    Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late, ah, I use the side door - that way Lumbergh can't see me, heh heh - and, uh, after that I just sorta space out for about an hour.

    Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I'm working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I'd say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.

    I'm Les and this is how I work.

      Apparently you've been missing work a lot lately, Les.

    She wrote a script that automatically generates emails for her friends birthdays? Wow - nothing like getting the same form email every year from such a good "friend".

      Hi ,

      Happy Birthday! Boy, have I been thinking about you a lot today! I was reminiscing about the time we went to that - what a blast! Remember how I came home with a sore by sitting on 's ? It's still sore! Anyway, I look forward to seeing you at .

      Wishing you cuddles!

        Sigh - the non-stripped version was better:

        Hi friend.firstName,

        Happy getAgeWithSuffix() Birthday! Boy, have I been thinking about you a lot today! I was reminiscing about the time we went to that getRandomSharedEvent(friend) - what a blast! Remember how I came home with a sore getRandomBodyPart() by sitting on getSharedFriend(friend)'s getRandomBodyPart()? It's still sore! Anyway, I look forward to seeing you at getEventWithFriendAfter(today, friend).

        Wishing you random() cuddles!

    When I'm coding (Perl or Ruby) I usually have something like LaserDance in the background - techno and repetitious. If I'm writing, it's more likely to be Tangerine Dream.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now