The Maestro of the Keyboards with Jesse Vincent

Episode Summary

This week Corey is joined by Jesse Vincent, Co-founder and CTO of Keyboardio, and the master of the keyboards. Jesse and his company are revolutionizing mechanical keyboards, and have made it their mission to make them more than noisy office nuances. Jesse and Keyboardio take their place at the forefront of the emergence of a new mechanical keyboard revolution. Jesse and Corey discuss both of their pasts with keyboards and how it shaped the way Jesse thinks about, builds, and continues to innovate how to think about them. Jesse’s past has helped to reinforce the things he does, and equally important, does not like about mechanical keyboards. From making choices on the kind of wood, to the general mess of supply chains in 2020, to legal battles in China! Tune in for the rest!

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Jesse 
Jesse Vincent is the cofounder and CTO of Keyboardio, where he designs and manufactures high-quality ergonomic mechanical keyboards. In previous lives, he served as the COO of VaccinateCA, volunteered as the project lead for the Perl programming language, created both the leading open source issue tracking system RT: Request tracker and K-9 Mail for Android.


Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. As you folks are well aware by now, this show is at least ostensibly about the business of cloud. And that’s intentionally overbroad. You can fly a boat through it, which means it’s at least wider than the Suez Canal.

And that’s all well and good, but what do all of these cloud services have in common? That’s right, we interact with them via typing on keyboards. My guest today is Jesse Vincent, who is the founder of Keyboardio and creator of the Model 01 heirloom-grade keyboard, which is sitting on my desk that sometimes I use, sometimes it haunts me. Jesse, thank you for joining me.

Jesse: Hey, thanks so much for having me, Corey.

Corey: So, mechanical keyboards are one of those divisive things that, back in the before times when we were all sitting in offices, it was an express form of passive aggression, where, “I don’t like the people around me, and I’m going to show it to them with things that can’t really complain about. So, what is the loudest keyboard I can get?” Style stuff. And some folks love them, some folks can’t stand them. And most folks to be perfectly blunt, do not seem to care.

Jesse: So, it’s not actually about them being loud, or it doesn’t have to be. Mechanical keyboards can be dead silent; they can be as quiet as anything else. There’s absolutely a subculture that is into things that are as loud as they possibly can be; you know, sounds like there’s a cannon going off on somebody’s desk. But you can also get absolutely silent mechanical switches that are more dampened than your average keyboard. For many, many people, it’s about comfort, it is about the key feel.

A keyboard is supposed to have a certain feeling and these flat rectangles that feel like you’re typing on glass, they don’t have that feeling and they’re not good for your fingers. And it’s been fascinating over the past five or six years to watch this explosion in interest in good keyboards again.

Corey: I learned to first use a computer back on an old IBM 286 in the ’80s. And this obviously had a Model M—or damn close to it—style buckling spring keyboard. It was loud and I’m nostalgic about the whole thing. True story I’ve never told on this podcast before; I was a difficult child when I was five years old, and I was annoyed because my parents went out of the house and my brother was getting more attention than I was. I poured a bucket of water into the keyboard.

And to this day, I’m surprised my father didn’t murder me after that. And we wound up after having a completely sealing rubber gasket on top of this thing. Because this was the ’80s; keyboards were not one of those, “Oh, I’m going to run down to the store and pick up another one for $20.” This was at least a $200 whoops-a-doozy. And let’s just say that it didn’t endear me to my parents that week.

Jesse: That’s funny because that keyboard is one that actually probably would have dried out just fine. Not like the Microsoft Naturals that I used to carry in the mid-’90s. Those white slightly curved ones. That was my introduction to ergonomic keyboards and they had a fatal flaw as many mid-’90s Microsoft products did. In this case, they melted in the rain; the circuit traces inside were literally wiped away by water. If a cup of water got in that keyboard, it was gone.

Corey: Everyone has a story involving keyboard and liquids at some point, or they are the most careful people that are absolutely not my people whatsoever because everyone I hang out with is inherently careless. And over time I used other keyboards as I went through my life and never had strong opinions on them, and then I got to play with a mechanical keyboard had brought all that time rushing back to me of, “Oh, yeah.” And my immediate thought is, “Oh, this is great. I wonder if I could pour water into it? No, no.”

And I started getting back into playing with them and got what I thought was the peak model keyboard from Das Keyboards which, there was the black keyboard with no writing on it at all. And I learned I don’t type nearly as well as I thought I did in those days. And okay. That thing sat around gathering dust and I started getting a couple more and a couple more, and it turns out if you keep acquiring mechanical keyboards, you can turn an interest into a problem but you can also power your way through to the other side and become a collector. And I started building my own for a while and I still have at least a dozen of them in various states of assembly here.

It was sort of a fun hobby that I got into, and for me at least it was, why do I want to build a keyboard myself? Is it, do I believe intrinsically that I can build a better keyboard than I can buy? Absolutely not. But everything else I do in my entire career as an engineer until that point had been about making the bytes on the screen go light up in different patterns. That was it.

This was something that I had built that I could touch with my hands and was still related to the thing that I did, and was somewhat more forgiving than other things that I could have gotten into, like you know, woodworking with table saws that don’t realize my arm it just lopped off.

Jesse: Oh, you can burn yourself pretty good with a soldering iron.

Corey: Oh, absolutely I can.

Jesse: But yeah, no, I got into this in a similar-sounding story. I had bad wrists throughout my career. I was a programmer and a programming 
manager and CEO. And my wrist hurts all the time, and I’d been through pretty much every ergonomic keyboard out there. If you seen the one where you stick your fingers into little wells, and each finger you can press back forth, left, right, and down, the ones that looked like they were basically a pair of flat capacitive surfaces from a company that later got bought by Apple and turned into the iPads touch technology, 
Microsoft keyboards, everything. And nothing quite felt right.

A cloud startup I had been working on cratered one summer. Long story short, the thing went under for kind of sad reasons and I swore I was going to take a year off to screw around and figure out what the next thing was going to be. And at some point, I noticed there were people on the internet building their own keyboards. This was not anything I had ever done before. When I started soldering, I did figure out that I must have soldered before because it smelled familiar, but this was supposed to be a one-month project to build myself a single keyboard.

And I saw that people on the internet were doing it, I figured, eh, how hard could it be? Just one of those things that Perl hackers are apt to say. Little did I know. It’s now, I want to say something like eight years later, and my one-month project to build one keyboard has failed thousands and thousands and thousands of times over as we’ve shipped thousands of keyboards to, oh God, it’s like 75 or 78 countries.

Corey: And it’s great. It’s well made. The Model 01 that I got was part of an early Kickstarter batch. My wife signed me up for it—because she knew I was into this sort of thing—as a birthday gift. And then roughly a year later, if memory serves, it showed up and that was fine.

Again, it’s Kickstarter is one of those, this might just be an aspirational gift. We don’t know. And—because, Kickstarter—but it was fun. And I use it. It’s great.

I like a lot of the programmability aspects of it. There are challenges. I’m not used to using ergonomic keyboards, and the columnar layout is offset to a point where I miss things all the time. And if you’re used to typing rapidly, in things like chats, or Twitter or whatnot, were rapid responses valuable, it’s frustrating trying to learn how a new keyboard layout works.

Jesse: Absolutely. So, we got some advice very early on from one of the research scientists who helped Microsoft with their design for their natural keyboards, and one of the things that he told us was, “You will probably only ever get one chance to make a keyboard; almost every company that makes a keyboard fails, and so you should take one of the sort of accepted designs and make a small improvement to help push the industry forward. You don’t want to go do something radical and have nobody like it.”

Corey: That’s very reasonable advice and also boring. Why bother?

Jesse: Well, we walked away from that with a very different take, which was, if we’re only going to get one chance of this, we’re going to do the thing we want to make.

Corey: Yeah.

Jesse: And so we did a bunch of stuff that we got told might be difficult to do or impossible. We designed our own keycaps from scratch. We milled the enclosure out of hardwood. When we started, we didn’t know where we were manufacturing, but we did specify that the wood was going to be Canadian maple because it grows like a weed, and as you know, not in danger of being made extinct. But when you’re manufacturing in southern China and you’re manufacturing with Canadian maple, that comes on a boat from North America.

Corey: There’s something to be said for the globalization supply chain as we see things shipped back and forth and back and forth, and it seems ridiculous but the economics are there it’s—

Jesse: Oh, my God. Now, this year.

Corey: Yeah [laugh], there’s that.

Jesse: Supply chains are… how obscenity-friendly is this podcast? [laugh].

Corey: Oh, we can censor anything that’s too far out. Knock yourself out.

Jesse: Because what I would ordinarily say is the supply chains are [BLEEP].

Corey: Yep, they are.

Jesse: Yeah. This time around, we gave customers the—for the Model 100, which is our new keyboard that the Kickstarter just finished up for—we gave customers the choice of that nice Canadian maple or walnut. We got our quotes in advance. You know, our supplier confirmed wood was no problem a few months in advance. And then the night before the campaign launched, our wood supplier got in touch and said, “So, there are no walnut planks that are wide enough to be had in all of southern China. There are some supply chain issues due to the global container shortage. We don’t know what we’re going to be able to do. Maybe you could accept it if we did butcher block style walnut and glued planks together.”

They made samples and then a week later, instead of FedExing us the samples, I got a set of photographs with a whole bunch of sad faces and crying face emojis saying, “Well, we tried. We know there’s no way that this would be acceptable to your customers.” We asked, “So, where’s this walnut supposed to be coming from that you can’t get it?” They’re like, “It’s been sitting on the docks at the origin since March. It’s being forested in Kentucky in the United States.”

Corey: The thing that surprised me the most about the original model on Kickstarter campaign was how much went wrong across the board. I kept reading your updates. It was interesting, at some point, it was like, okay, this is clearly a Ponzi scheme. That’s the name of the keyboard: ‘The Ponzi’, where there’s going to be increasingly outlandish excuses.

Jesse: I don’t think a Ponzi scheme would be the right aspersion to be casting.

Corey: There’s that more pedestrian scam-style thing. We could go with that.

Jesse: We have a lot of friends who’ve been in industry longer than us, and every time we brought one of the problems that our factory 
seemed to be having to them, they said, “Oh, yeah, that’s the thing that absolutely happens.”

Corey: Yeah, it was just you kept hitting every single one of these, and I was increasingly angry on your behalf, reading these things about, “Oh, yeah. Just one of your factory reps just blatantly ripped you off, and this was expected to be normal in some cases, and it’s like”—and you didn’t even once threatened to burn the factory now, which I thought was impressive.

Jesse: No, nobody threatened to burn the factory down, but one of the factories did have a fire.

Corey: Which we can neither confirm nor deny—I kid, I kid, I kid.

Jesse: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But so what our friends who had been in industry longer that said, it was like, “Jesse, but, you know, nobody has all 
the problems.” And eventually, we figured out what was going on, and it was that our factory’s director of overseas sales was a con artist grifter who had been scamming both sides. She’d been lying to us and lying to the factory, and making up stories to make her the only trusted person to each side, and she’d just been embezzling huge sums of money.

Corey: You hear these stories, but you never think it’s going to be something that happens to you. Was this your first outing with manufacturing a physical product?

Jesse: This was our first physical product.

Corey: But I’m curious about it; are you effectively following the trope of a software person who thinks, “Ah, I could do hardware? How hard 
could it be? I could ship code around the world seconds, so hardware will be just a little bit slower.” How close to that trope are you?

Jesse: So, when we went into the manufacturing side, we knew that we knew nothing, and we knew that it was fraught with peril. And we gave ourselves an awful lot of padding on timing, which we then blew through for all sorts of reasons. And we ran through a hardware incubator that helped us vet our plans, we were working with companies on the ground that helped startups work with factories. And honestly, if it hadn’t been for this one individual, yes we would have had problems, but it wouldn’t have been anything of the same scale. As far as we can tell, almost everything bad that happened had a grain of truth in it, it’s just that… you know, a competent grifter can spin a tiny thing into a giant thing.

And nobody in China suspected her, and nobody in China believed that this could possibly be happening because the penalties if she got caught were ten years in a Chinese prison for an amount of money that effectively would be a down payment on an apartment instead of the price of a full apartment or fully fleeing the country.

Corey: It seems like that would be enough of a deterrent, but apparently not.

Jesse: Apparently not. So, we ended up retaining counsel and talking to friends who had been working in southern China for 15 years for about who they might recommend for a lawyer. We ended up retaining a Chinese lawyer. Her name’s [Una 00:13:36]; she’s fantastic.

Corey: Referrals available upon request.

Jesse: Oh, yeah. No, absolutely. I’m happy to send her all kinds of business. She looked at the contract we had with the factory, she’s like, “This is a Western contract. This isn’t going to help you in the Chinese courts. What we need to do is we need to walk into the factory and negotiate a new agreement that is in Chinese, written by a Chinese lawyer, and get them to sign it.”

And part of that agreement was getting them to take full joint responsibility for everything. And she walked in with me to the factory. She dressed down: t-shirt and jeans. They initially thought she was my translator, and she made a point of saying, “Look, I’m Jesse’s counsel. I’m not your lawyer. I do not represent your interests.”

And three-party negotiations with the factory: the factory’s then former salesperson, and us. And she negotiated a new agreement. And I had a long list of all the things that we needed to have in our contract, like all the things that we really cared about. Get to the end of the day and she hands it to me and she’s like, “What do you think?” And I read it through and my first thought is that none of the ten points that we need in this agreement are there.

And then I realized that they are there, they’re just very subtle. And everybody signs it. The factory takes full joint responsibility for everything that was done by their now former salesperson. We go outside; we get into the cab, and she turns to me—and she’s not a native speaker of English, but she is fluent—and she’s like, how do you think that went, Jesse? I’m like, I think that went pretty well. And she’s like, “Yes. I get my job satisfaction out of adverse negotiation, and the factory effectively didn’t believe in lawyers.”

Corey: No, no. I’ve seen them. They exist. I married one of them.

Jesse: Oh, yeah. As it turned out, they also didn’t really believe in the court system and they didn’t believe in not pissing off judges. Nothing could help us recover the time we lost; we did end up recovering all of our tooling, we ended up recovering all of our product that they were holding, all with the assistance of the Chinese courts. It was astonishing because we went into this whole thing knowing that there was no chance that a Chinese court would find for a small Western startup with no business presence in China against a local factory, and I think our goal was that they would get a black mark on their corporate social credit report so that nobody else would do business with this factory that won’t give the customer back their tooling. And… it turns out that, no, the courts just helped us.

Corey: It’s nice when things work the way they’re supposed to, on some level.

Jesse: It is.

Corey: And then you solve your production problems, you shipped it out. I use it, I take it out periodically.

Jesse: We’d shipped every customer order well before this.

Corey: Oh, okay. This was after you had already done the initial pre-orders. This was as you were ongoing—

Jesse: Yeah, there were keycaps we owed people, which were—

Corey: Oh, okay.

Jesse: Effectively the free gift we promised aways in for being late on shipping.

Corey: That’s what that was for. It showed up one day and I wondered what the story behind that was. But yeah, it was—

Jesse: Yeah.

Corey: They’re great.

Jesse: Yeah. You know, and then there was a story in The Verge of, this Kickstarter alleges that—da, da, da, da, da. We’re like, “I understand that AOL’s lawyers make you say ‘alleges,’ but no, this really happened, and also, we really had shipped everything that we owed to customers long before all this went down.”

Corey: Yeah. This is something doesn’t happen in the software world, generally speaking. I don’t have to operate under the even remote possibility that my CI/CD system is lying to me about what it’s doing. I can generally believe things that show up in computers—you would think—but there are—

Jesse: You would think. I mean—

Corey: There a lot of [unintelligible 00:17:19] exceptions to that, but generally, you can believe it.

Jesse: In software, you sometimes we’ll work with contractors or contract agencies who will make commitments and then not follow through on those commitments, or not deliver the thing they promised. It does sometimes happen.

Corey: Indeed.

Jesse: Yeah, no, the thing I miss the most from software is that if there is a defect, the cost of shipping an update is nil and the speed at which you can ship an update is instantly.

Corey: You would think it would be nil, but then we look at AWS data transfer pricing and there’s a giant screaming caveat on that. It’s you think that moving bytes would cost nothing. Yeah.

Jesse: [unintelligible 00:17:53] compared to international shipping costs for physical goods, AWS transfer rates are incredibly competitive.

Corey: No, no, to get to that stage, you need to add an [unintelligible 00:18:02] NAT gateway with their data processing fee.

Jesse: [laugh].

Corey: But yeah, it’s a different universe. It’s a different problem, a different scale of speed, a different type of customer, too, on some levels. So, after you’ve gotten the Model 01’s issues sorted out, you launched a second keyboard. The ‘a-TREE-us’, if I’m pronouncing that correctly. Or ‘A-tree-us’.

Jesse: So Phil, who designed it, pronounces is ‘A-tree-us’, so we pronounce it A-tree-us. And so, this is a super minimalist keyboard designed to take with you everywhere, and it was something where Phil Hagelberg, who is a software developer of some repute for a bunch of things, he had designed this sort of initially for his own use and then had started selling kits. So, laser-cut plywood enclosures, hand-built circuit boards, you just stick a little development board in the middle of it, spend some time soldering, and you’re good to go. And he and I were internet buddies; he had apparently gotten his start from some of my early blog posts. And one day, he sent me a note asking if I would review his updated circuit board design because he was doing a revision.

I looked at his updated circuit board design and then offered to just make him a new circuit board design because it was going to be pretty straightforward to do something that’s going to be a little more reliable and a lot more cost-effective. We did that and we talked a little more, and I said, “Would you be interested in having us just make this thing in a factory and sell it with a warranty and send you a royalty?” And he said, but it’s GPL. You don’t have to send me a royalty.

Corey: I appreciate that I am not compelled to do it. However—yeah.

Jesse: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, “No. We would like to support people who create things and work with you on it.”

Corey: That’s important. We periodically have guest authors writing blog posts on Last Week in AWS. Every single one of them is paid for what 
they do, sometimes there for various reasons that they can’t or won’t accept it and we donate it to a charity of their choice, but we do not expect people to volunteer for a profit-bearing entity, in some respects.

Jesse: Yeah.

Corey: Now, open-source is a whole separate universe that I still maintain that is rapidly becoming a, “Would you like to volunteer for a trillion-dollar company in your weekend hours?” Usually not, but there’s always an argument.

Jesse: Oh, yeah. We have a bunch of open-source contributors to our open-source firmware and we contribute stuff back upstream to other projects, and it is a related but slightly different thing. So, Phil said yes; we said yes. And then we designed and made this thing. We launched an ultra-portable keyboard designed to take with you everywhere.

It came with a travel case that had a belt loop, and basically a spring-loaded holster for your keyboard if you want to nerd out like that. All of the Kickstarter video and all the photography sort of showed how nice it looked in a cafe. And we launched it, like, the week the first lockdowns hit, in the spring of 2019.

Corey: I have to say I skipped that one entirely. One of the things that I wound up doing—keyboard-wise—when I started this company four years ago and change, now was, I wound up getting a fairly large desk, and it’s 72 inches or something like that. And I want a big keyboard with a numpad—yeah, that’s right, big spender here—because I don’t need a tiny little keyboard. I find that the layer-shifting on anything that’s below a full-size keyboard is a little on the irritating side. And this goes beyond. It is—it requires significant—

Jesse: Oh, yeah. It’s—

Corey: Rewiring of your brain, on some level.

Jesse: And there are ergonomic reasons why some people find it to be better and more comfortable. There’s less reaching and twisting. But it is a very different typing experience and it’s absolutely not for everybody. Nothing we’ve made so far is intended to be a mass-market product. When we launched the Model 01, we were nervous that we would make something that was too popular because we knew that if we had to fulfill 50,000 of them, we’d just be screwed. We knew how little we knew.

But the Atreus, when we launched it on Kickstarter, we didn’t know if we were going to have to cancel the campaign because no one was going to want their travel keyboard at the beginning of a pandemic, but it did real well. I don’t remember the exact timing and numbers, but we hit the campaign goal, I want to say early on the first day, possibly within minutes, possibly within hours—it’s been a while now; I don’t remember exactly—ultimately, we sold, like, 2600 of them on Kickstarter and have done additional production runs. We have a distributor in Japan, and a distributor in the US, and a distributor in the UK, now. And we also sell them ourselves directly online, from

So, this is one of the other fascinating logistics things, is that we ship globally through Hong Kong. Which, before the pandemic was actually pretty pleasant. Inexpensive shipping globally has gotten kind of nuts because most discount carriers, the way they operated historically is, they would buy cargo space on commercial flights. Commercial international flights don’t happen so much.

Corey: Yes, suddenly, that becomes a harder thing to find.

Jesse: Early on, we had a couple of shipping providers that were in the super-slow, maybe up to two weeks to get your thing somewhere by air taking, I want to say we had things that didn’t get there for three months. They would get from Hong Kong to Singapore in three days; they would enter a warehouse, and then we had to start asking questions about, “Hey, it’s been eight weeks. What’s going on?” And they’re like, “Oh, it’s still in queue for a flight to Europe. There just aren’t any.”

Corey: It seems like that becomes a hard problem.

Jesse: It becomes a hard problem. It started to get a little better, and now it’s starting to get a little worse again. Carriers that used to be ultra-reliable are now sketchy. We have FedEx losing packages, which is just nuts. USPS shipments, we see things that are transiting from Hong 
Kong, landing at O’Hare, going through a sorting center in Chicago, and just vanishing for weeks at a time, in Chicago.

Corey: I don’t pretend to understand how this stuff works. It’s magic to me; like, it is magic, on some level, that I can order toilet paper on the internet, it gets delivered to my house for less money than it costs me to go to the store and buy it. It feels like there’s some serious negative externalities in there. But we don’t want to look too closely at those because we might feel bad about things.

Jesse: There’s all kinds of fascinating stuff for us. So, shipping stuff, especially by air, there are two different ways that the shipping weight can get calculated. It can either get calculated based on the weight on a scale, or it can get calculated using a formula based on the dimensions. And so bulky things are treated as weighing an awful lot. I’m told that Amazon’s logistics teams started doing this fascinating thing where ultra-dense, super-heavy shipments they pushed on to FedEx and UPS, whereas the ultra-light stuff that saved on jet fuel, they shoved onto their own planes.

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Corey: I want to follow up because it seems like, okay, pandemic shipping is a challenge; you clearly are doing well. You still have them in stock and are selling them as best I’m aware, correct?

Jesse: Yes.

Corey: Yeah. I may have to pick one up one of these days just so I can put it on the curiosity keyboard shelf and kick it around and see how it works. And then you recently concluded a third keyboard Kickstarter, in this case. And—

Jesse: Yeah.

Corey: —this is not your positioning; this is my positioning of what I’m picking up of, “Hey, remember that Model 01 keyboard we sold you that you love and we talked about and it’s amazing? Yeah, turns out that’s crap. Here’s the better version of it.” Correct that misapprehension, please. [laugh].

Jesse: Sure. So, it absolutely is not crap, but we’ve been out of stock in the Model 01 for a couple of years now. And we see them going used for as much or sometimes more than we used to charge for them new. It went out of stock because of the shenanigans with that first factory. And shortly before we launched the Atreus, we’d been planning to bring back an updated version of the Model 01; we’ve even gotten to the point of, like, designing the circuit boards and starting to update the tooling, the injection molding tooling, and then COVID, Atreus, life, everything.

And so it took us a little longer to get there. But there is a larger total addressable market for a keyboard like the Model 01 than the total number that we ever sold. There are certainly people who had Model 01s who want replacements, want extras, want another one on another desk. There are also plenty of people who wanted a Model 01 and never got one.

Corey: Here’s my question for you, with all three of these keyboards because they’re a different layout, let’s be clear. Some more so than others, but even the columnar layout is strange here. Once upon a time, I had a week in which I wasn’t doing much, and I figured, ah, I’ll Dvorak—which is a different keyboard layout—and it’s not that it’s hard; it’s that it’s rewiring a whole bunch of muscle memory. The problem I ran into was not that it was impossible to do, by any stretch, but because of what I was doing—in those days help desk and IT support—I was having to do things on other people’s computers, so it was a constant context switching back and forth between different layouts.

Jesse: Yeah.

Corey: Do you see that being a challenge with layouts like this, or is it more natural than that?

Jesse: So, what we found is that it is easier to switch between an ergonomic layout and a traditional layout, like a columnar layout, and what’s often called a row-stagger layout—which is what your normal keyboard looks like—than it is to switch between Dvorak and Qwerty on a traditional keyboard. Or the absolute bane of my existence is switching between a ThinkPad and a MacBook. They are super close; they are 
not the same.

Corey: Right. You can’t get an ergonomic keyboard layout inside of a laptop. I mean, looking at the four years of being gaslit by Apple, it’s clear you can barely get a keyboard into a MacBook for a while. It’s, “Oh, it’s a piece of crap, but you’re using it wro”—yeah. I’m not a fan of their entire approach to keyboards and care very than what Apple has to say about anything even slightly keyboard-related, but that’s just me being bitter.

Jesse: As far as I can tell, large chunks of Apple’s engineering organization felt the same way that you did. Their new ones are actually decent again.

Corey: Yes, that’s what I’ve heard. And I will get one at some point, but I also have a problem where, “Oh, yeah, you know that $3,000 laptop with a crappy keyboard, you can’t use for anything? Great. The solution is to give us 3000 more dollars, and then we’ll sell you one that’s good.” And it’s, I feel like I don’t want to reward the behavior.

Jesse: I hear you. I ditched Mac OS for a number of years. I live the dream: Linux on the desktop. And it didn’t hurt me a lot—printing worked fine, scanning worked fine, projectors were fine—but when I was reaching for things like Photoshop, and Lightroom, and my mechanical CAD software, it was the bad kind of funny.

Corey: I have to be careful, now for the first time in my life I’m not updating to new operating systems early on, just because of things like the audio stuff I have plugged into my nonsense and the media nonsense that I do. It used to be that great, my computer only really needs to be a web browser and a terminal and I’m good. And worst case, I can make do with just the web browser because there are embedded a terminal into a web page options out there. Yeah, now it turns out that actually have a production workflow. Who knew?

Jesse: Yep. That’s the point where I started thinking about having separate machines for different things. [laugh].

Corey: Yeah, I’m rapidly hitting that point. Yeah, I do want to get into having fun with keyboards, on some level, but it’s the constant changing of what you’re using. And then, of course, there’s the other side of it where, in normal years, I spent an awful lot of time traveling and as much fun as having a holster-mounted belt keyboard would be, in many cases, it does not align with the meetings that I tend to be in.

Jesse: Of course.

Corey: It’s, “Oh, great. You’re the CFO of a Fortune 500. Great, let me pair my mini keyboard that looks like something from the bowels of your engineering department’s reject pile.” Like, what is this? It’s one of those things that doesn’t send the right message in some cases. And let’s be honest; I’m good at losing things.

Jesse: This is a pretty mini keyboard, but I hear you.

Corey: Or I could lose it, along with my keys. It will be great.

Jesse: Yeah. There are a bunch of things I’ve wanted to do around reasonable keyboards for tablets.

Corey: Yes, please do.

Jesse: Yeah. We actually started looking at one point at a fruit company in Cupertino’s requirements around being able to do dock-connector 
connected keyboards for their tablets, and… it’s nuts. You can’t actually do ergonomic keyboards that way, it would have to be Bluetooth.

Corey: Yeah. When I travel on the road these days, or at least—well, ‘these days’ being two years ago—the only computer I’d take is an iPad. And that was great; it works super well for a lot of my use cases. There’s still something there, and even going forward, I’m going to be spending a lot more time at home. I have young kids now, and I want to be here to watch them grow up.

And my lifestyle and use cases have changed for the last year and a half. I’ve had an iMac. I’ve never had one of those before. It’s big screen real estate; things are great. And I’m looking to see whether it’s time to make a full-on keyboard evolution if I can just force myself over the learning curve, here. But here’s the question you might not be prepared to answer yet. What’s next? Do you have plans on the backburner for additional keyboards beyond what you’ve done?

Jesse: Oh, yeah. We have, like, three more designs that are effectively in the can. Not quite ready for production, but if this were a video podcast, I’d be pulling out and waving circuit boards at you. One of the things that we’ve been playing with is what is called in the trade a symmetric staggered keyboard where the right half is absolutely bog-standard normal layout like you’d expect, and the left side is a mirror of that. And so it is a much more gentle introduction to an ergonomic-style keyboard.

Corey: Okay, I can almost wrap my head around that.

Jesse: Because if you put your hands on your keyboard and you feel the angles that you have to move on your right side, you’ll see that your fingers move basically straight back and forth. On the left side, it’s very different unless you’re holding your hand at a crazy, crazy angle.

Corey: Yeah.

Jesse: And so it’s basically giving you that same comfort on the right side and also making the left side comfy. It’s not a weird butterfly-shaped keyboard; it is still a rectangle, but it is just that little bit better. We’re not the first people who have done this. Our first prototype of this thing was, like, 2006, something like that. But it was a one-off, like, “I wonder if I would like this.” And we were actually planning to do that one next after the Model 01 when the Atreus popped up, and that was a much faster, simpler, straighter-forward thing to bring to production.

Corey: The one thing I want from a keyboard—and I haven’t found one yet; maybe it exists, maybe I have to build it myself—but I want to do the standard mechanical keyboard—I don’t even particularly care about the layout because it all passes through a microcontroller on the device itself. Great. And those things are programmable as you’ve demonstrated; you’ve already done an awful lot of open-source work that winds up being easily used to control keyboards. And I love it, and it’s great, but I also want to embed a speaker—a small one—into the keyboard so I can configure it that every time I press a key, it doesn’t just make a clack, it also makes a noise. And I want to be able to—ideally—have it be different keys make different noises sometimes. And the reason being is that when we eventually go back to offices, I don’t want there to be any question about who is the most obnoxious typist in the office; I will—

Jesse: [laugh].

Corey: —win that competition. That is what I want from a keyboard. It’s called the I-Don’t-Want-Anyone-Within-Fifty-Feet-Of-Me keyboard. And I don’t quite know how to go about building that yet, but I have some ideas.

Jesse: So, there’s absolutely stuff out there. There is prior art out there.

Corey: Oh, wonderful.

Jesse: One of the other options for you is solenoids.

Corey: Oh, those are fun.

Jesse: So, a solenoid is—there is a steel bar, an electromagnet, and a tube of magnetic material so that you can go kachunk every time you 
press a key.

Corey: It feels functionally like a typewriter to my understanding.

Jesse: I mean, it can make it feel like a typewriter. The haptic engine in an iPhone or a Magic Trackpad is not exactly a solenoid but might give 
you the vaguest idea of what you’re talking about.

Corey: Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to be able to quite afford 104 iPhones to salvage all of their haptic engines so that I can then wind up hooking each one up to a different key but, you know, I am sure someone enterprising come up with it.

Jesse: Yeah. So, you only need a couple of solenoids and you trigger them slightly differently depending on which key is getting hit, and you’ll get your kachunk-kachunk-kachunk-kachunk-kachunk.

Corey: Yeah, like spacebar for example. Great. Or you can always play a game with it, too, like, the mystery key: whenever someone types in the hits the mystery key, the thing shrieks its head off and scares the heck out of them. Especially if you set it to keys that aren’t commonly used, but ever so frequently, make everyone in the office jumpy and nervous.

Jesse: This will be perfect for Zoom.

Corey: Oh, absolutely, it would. In fact, one thing I want to do soon if this pandemic continues much longer, is then to upgrade my audio setup here so I can have a second microphone pointed directly into my keyboard so that people who are listening at a meeting with me can hear me typing as we go. I might be a terrible colleague. One wonders.

Jesse: You might be a terrible colleague, but you might be a wonderful colleague. Who knows?

Corey: It all depends on the interests we have. I want to thank you for taking the time to walk me through the evolution of Keyboardio. If people want to learn more, or even perhaps buy one of these things, where can they do that?

Jesse: They can do that at

Corey: And hence the name. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about all this. I really appreciate it.

Jesse: Cool. Thanks so much for having me. I had fun.

Corey: I did, too. Jesse Vincent—obra on Twitter, and of course, the CTO of Keyboardio. I am Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice along with an angry comment, but before typing it, switch your keyboard to Dvorak.

Corey: If your AWS bill keeps rising and your blood pressure is doing the same, then you need The Duckbill Group. We help companies fix their AWS bill by making it smaller and less horrifying. The Duckbill Group works for you, not AWS. We tailor recommendations to your business and we get to the point. Visit to get started.

Announcer: This has been a HumblePod production. Stay humble.
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