2016-08-01 / Up Close

The Code of the Mountain Man

Boen Wang

Scott Woods is looking at El Capitan, a massive rock formation in Yosemite National Park that’s also the default background image of the latest version of Mac OS X.

“The thing you can’t tell from this picture is that it’s almost three quarters of a mile high,” says Woods, gesturing to his iMac. “When you’re standing there, it hangs over your head. It feels like the sky.”

Woods and his wife Ieva Perkons have climbed El Capitan, though it’s the nearby Yosemite rock formation of Half Dome that first got Woods into climbing. “Penn State offered a rock climbing class for one summer,” he says. On the second day the instructor showed the class a picture of Half Dome, explaining that it was possible to climb up the sheer face.

“I couldn’t believe it. My mind was just filled with questions, like, ‘How do you do that? Where do you sleep? How hard is it? How do you train for something like that?’ I was like, ‘I have to figure out how to climb Half Dome.’”

Woods is the president and founder of software development company West Arête (uh-REHT), named for a climbing term that refers to the sharp edge of a ridge. The office in the Allenway building on South Allen Street is about as far from the stereotypical tech company as you can get: brown carpeting, beige couch, and no beanbags in sight. Across the atrium is a barbershop, striped pole and all.

The atypical decor matches the company’s unusual ethos. West Arête is a member of 1% For The Planet, where 1 percent of all profits are donated to environmental organizations, and is certified as a B Corporation, a for-profit company that demonstrates commitment to social causes. The company also mandates annual one-month paid sabbaticals for all employees.

How do rock climbing and socially conscious software development converge? It began in Hopewell Junction, New York, where Woods’ IBM-employed dad taught him and his sister to use computers. His first passion, however, was music; he played piano since age 5.

“Out of all the places we went to in the country,
State College was the best place to start West Arête.”
—Scott Woods

He spent two years of high school in the south of France before coming to Penn State in 1992 as a dual computer science/music composition major. He met his wife in physics class, finished classes in 1997, and graduated in 2000 with a computer science degree. “The music degree was a lot harder,” he says. The two of them stuck around: He worked at Penn State, and she worked at Appalachian Outdoors.

In 2001, they quit their jobs and left State College. They didn’t plan on coming back. They went to Peru, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — up and down continents in search of mountains to climb. In 2005 they decided to settle down, to finally own more stuff than what fits in the back of a pickup truck.

“We could’ve settled anywhere,” says Woods. “We sold everything here, we said goodbye to all our friends, but out of all the places we went to in the country, State College, we decided, was the best place to go and start West Arête.”

While State College isn’t exactly known for its tech sector, Woods says not all developers want to live in a large metropolitan area. “The quantity of time you get to spend doing what you love doing is so much higher here than, I feel like, if you live in Denver or Washington D.C. or one of these other towns,” he says.

State College also benefits from Penn State’s constant stream of tech-minded students. Christina Platt, for example, is an electrical engineering undergraduate and apprentice at West Arête. “Last summer at an internship I worked on manufacturing automation,” she says. “It was technically challenging, but it really took a toll on me towards the end of the summer. I was looking at what I was doing: I was automating away people’s jobs. I kind of realized that, oh, that’s not really something I agree with.”

Since starting at West Arête in January, Platt and the team of developers have worked with the environmental nonprofit FracTracker Alliance to create an interactive map of land parcels leased to oil and gas companies in Allegheny County.

“This county is huge,” says Kirk Jalbert, manager of community-based research and engagement at FracTracker, from his Pittsburgh-based office. “There are half a million parcels, and trying to figure out which ones have been leased is just not possible.” Counties in Upstate New York have created similar maps, which relied on sending “an army of citizens to go down to the deeds
office and start looking things up,” but for Allegheny County, West Arête developed an automated process to collect public data.

Matt Kelso, data manager at FracTracker, says that “right out of the gate West Arête was committed to the project as actually having public benefit.” Amy Glasmeier, a former Penn State geography professor who’s now at MIT, expressed similar sentiments about West Arête’s understanding of projects with public benefit. In 2004, Glasmeier created the Living Wage Calculator, which uses public data about living expenses to calculate the minimum hourly wage that covers basic necessities.

An early version of the program developed by Glasmeier and her graduate students was, by Glasmeier’s own admission, a mess. When she hired Woods to reprogram it, “he didn’t criticize the people who programmed it. He never once said, ‘Jiminy cricket, these people are dweebs!’” As Glasmeier’s application gained attention over the years, Woods and Glasmeier continued to work together. “Scott’s approach to life, and through that his approach to work, is a very rare mode,” she says. “He won’t do something unless he can do it well, but he will do it well by doing it in the most sparkling way.”

Woods is now 41. On his 30th birthday, before he came back to State College and started a company and settled down and had two kids, he and his wife climbed Half Dome. It took 10 years of effort and training and traveling since his Penn State climbing course; it took four days to climb the sheer face, and four hours to hike down.

“When you have that first chocolate doughnut after you’ve been eating nothing but bagel bits and sausages for days, or you have that one turkey sandwich, or you have that one Sierra Nevada Porter, for us that’s the best beer and the best food you’ll ever have in your life,” says Woods. “Because there’s part of you that is just so happy to be alive, and there’s another part of you that’s so happy you did this thing, and another part of you that’s so happy that it’s done, and you get all that mashed together.”

They sat in El Capitan Meadow. They saw the rock formation that now lurks behind their web browsers. They knew that at that moment there were people like them, in a life-or-death struggle with gravity. Their struggle, for now, was over. They ate the best food they ever had as the sun set, and then set off to prepare for the next climb. •SCM

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