Hey Dave, so let's start where all our lives began. Where were you born and did you have a childhood full of computers and other nerdy stuff?
I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska and grew up in the midwest. My family bought our first computer, an Apple //e, from my COBOL programmer uncle in 1990. It had word processing and all that but I used it to play Carmen Sandiego. In 1993 after moving to Pasadena, Texas (outside Houston), my step-dad bought our first PC. It was a pre-pentium 33MHz machine that ran Windows 3.1. I watched my step-dad stay up night after night hacking away at that computer. He was learning how to program, work in AutoCAD, and do complex 3D renderings that he would use in his job as an estimator in industrial sector. I didn't realize it at the time but that was a huge inspiration for me.
When I turned 15 years old in 1995, I got a 75MHz Pentium because my DOOM habit was monopolizing the family computer. I was in some bands but I wasn't very sporty, so I spent a lot of time tinkering on the PC. I eventually convinced them to let me get my own phone line and I dialed my 28.8k baud modem into AOL. That's about the time I began building web pages. My first one was about farts and the rest, as they say, is history.
Haha, cool. So like so many of us, you taught yourself how to build websites very early on. Do you also have a formal education?
For my first year of college I was a Computer Science major with a minor in Japanese. My goal was to make video games for Nintendo. However, after making C's and D's in Computer Science and straight A's in Japanese, I decided to play to my strengths. Eventually, I graduated in 2002 with a B.A. in Asian Cultures and Languages (Japanese). Looking back I can say three things about my education:
- If my school offered a degree in web design/development that's what I would have done. Back then "web designer" wasn't even a job title. I would have had to piece a program together from 6 different colleges within my University: Computer Science, Communications, Psychology, Library and Information Sciences, and Business.
- I learned a lot of foundational stuff in that first year of formal Computer Science, like how to read code, so it was somewhat worth it.
- Most of going to college isn't about the degree. It's a lot about how to make relationships and teaching yourself to learn. You can learn those outside of college, but higher education creates fertile ground for those kinds of skills.
So there ya have it. Yes, I majored in "anime".
Wow, that's pretty cool. So did you ever work in the "anime" world or did you start out as a web developer straight after college?
Right out of college, I worked a couple jobs, but ultimately traded it all for the opportunity to join the JET Programme, a program created of Japan's Ministry of Education. Every year the Japanese government imports ~10,000 or so English speakers to be ambassadors for cultural diversity and to teach at local schools (high school and junior high) in towns across Japan.
I spent three years teaching English at a junior high school in a small city called Sasayama, in Hyogo Prefecture. It was life changing to say the least. I slept on the floor, I ate rice balls for breakfast everyday, I had a mountain in the front of my small apartment and a rice patty in the back. I met a lot of great people, ate a lot of great food, drank a lot of drinks with the locals, and created a lot of great memories and friendships.
While in Japan, I maintained a few blogs and forums for some friends. Even though we were thousands of miles apart, Trent Walton and I would code websites over iChat whenever our timezones overlapped. In 2006, I came back to the states and slowly began my career in web design. Trent and I made a site for some dudes for ~$300. Then Reagan Ray and I did the design and development for a real estate company in Phoenix. Then about six months later, under Trent's leadership, we formed Paravel and have kept our heads above water ever since.
That's an impressive journey. Paravel is quite well know in the developer community. You recently were involved in the responsive redesign of the Microsoft.com homepage, which turned out great. How did this come about and how was working for such a big company?
Over the years Paravel has built a lot of websites for a lot of great clients. Among those, we had the privilege of working with Microsoft on a few smaller promotional projects: Lost World's Fairs, The Responsive 10k Apart, and the Build Windows conference website. Based off that relationship, when the Microsoft.com team decided they wanted a new responsive homepage, Paravel's name came up for the project. We were excited for the chance to integrate with the homepage team in Redmond, Washington and work on such a high traffic site.
Nishant Kothary tells the story of the new Microsoft.com really well, so read his post for the full story. On a personal note, and this may come as some surprise, but working with Microsoft goes down as one of the greatest projects ever. Excellent project management and an eager team of skilled engineers is about all you can ask for in this business and we had that in spades. It's also a neat feeling when you're working on website and you know Steve Ballmer will look at it. Together, with the team in Redmond, we worked hard and tested rigorously. When the time came for us to phase out of the daily standup calls, we at Paravel all got a little emotional about it.
This really sounds like a great client. And we both know that this isn't always the case. How does a typical day in your life look like? Can you walk me through it?
I'm woken up at day break thanks to either my dog or cat. From there I mope around, feed animals, make coffee, eat, get freshened up, and read an article or two from the Twitter stream. Everyone at Paravel works from home, so there's no rushing out the door to fight traffic. I just stroll down the hall. I like that part about my job, but maintaining a good work/life balance is a constant struggle. Checking out of work is difficult when its just down the hall barking at me with notifications.
The first couple hours of the morning tend to be dedicated to Basecamps, emails, Campfire stand-ups, Skype calls, reading "breaking" articles, and prioritizing my daily to-do list. Although, code-wise, I'm probably most productive in the morning, getting organized sets me up for better success in the afternoon. I also drink a metric ton of coffee each day, that aids in productivity. The afternoon is filled with programming and interacting with west coast clients.
Throughout the day, I listen to lots of music and podcasts as I navigate the forty apps I have open at any given moment. Trent once wrote a blog post on "Unitasking", I'm the complete opposite. I routinely attend a multitude of tasks and my desk is covered in garbage and to-do lists.
I also co-host two weekly podcasts, ShopTalk and ATX Web Show, so a few hours a week are dedicated towards those ventures. Up until about a month ago, I did all the mixing and production work on both podcasts, but have employed some much needed help to prevent burnout. Now both podcasts sound better. There's a lesson in there for generalists: Don't be a hero, hire people better than you.
I wrap up the day around 6pm and head down the hall to watch Star Trek with my wife and dog. That's pretty alright if you ask me.
Oh, I didn't know you all work at home and don't have an office. If it works for you, I think that's great. I was never able to work at home, but I imagine it's pretty cool but also even harder to take a break from work as it is anyway.
So how do you guys stay in touch and how does the collaboration work? You mentioned Campfire and Basecamp. Anything else? Do you meet each other on a regular schedule?
Our remote working strategy has been tweaked a bit over the years.
- Email for personal messages and (we don't call it this, but) "pre-sales" sort of interactions with clients. Once we're engaged with clients, we bring them into a Basecamp project.
- Basecamp is for all client communication. This is for two reasons, it's a better documented email chain that everyone can see and messages reference-able by a URL. This is handy if conversations overlap or you need documented proof of a client request.
- Campfire for internal discussion. It lets us discuss and rapidly iterate on designs, share URLs to private builds so we can all test interactions before handing code or demos over to the client. We used to use iChat, but if your computer went to sleep you had no history of the chat. Campfire allows us less-than-realtime communication. It's been wonderful.
Depending on our workload, Paravel gets together every other week or so for a "Team Day". On Team Days we usually plan the initial IA/UX for projects in their beginning stages. We sketch on graph paper, we prototype ideas in code, we argue, we invent new side projects, and we eat $60 worth of BBQ (or sometimes hamburgers). We usually wrap up and head home early because we've found that we tend to get side tracked by DoubleDare YouTube videos or 80s movie trivia... I think once we even watched The Money Pit. Team Days are great for tasks that require our collective brains, but in general, we're more effective at our home work stations.
Speaking of work stations. What does yours look like? Do you have separate computers for work and private stuff?
My work space is currently evolving. Right now, I occupy a spare room in my house with a generous desk with a filing cabinet stuffed below it. Underneath my desk is a rat king of wires.
I have two machines side-by-side, a Macbook Air connected to a 24" Cinema Display and a Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook with a 23" Dell Ultrasharp. Both of those are stashed behind their respective displays. My desk is littered with devices at any given moment, right now I'm running testing on an iPad Mini, an iPhone 4 and 5, and a Surface RT.
I tend to use all the devices at some point throughout the day. Though, I'm non-comittaly transitioning to tablets for after-work computing. I like that they don't have a dev environment setup on them, so I use them to read, blog, and play games.
For podcasting, I have a Sterling Audio ST51 (need a better mic) on a boom stand and The Soundboard (an app on the iPad Mini), they run through an Alesis MultiMix 4-channel mixer into my Macbook Air. I also have a Mac Mini for a dedicated broadcasting machine that is hardwired to the router in my living room.
I like your 24" Cinema Display. I often find myself having too much space on the 27" one and doing some work on the 13" Macbook Air only.
Nearly every developer I know has some side projects. I know you have too, the A11Y project for example. Can you tell me a little bit about it? What is it and how did it come about?
I have lots of projects in various states, some have more focus than others. Currently at the top of the list is the A11Y project.
The A11Y Project exists to help developers learn more about making websites accessible. Web accessibililty is hard. Typically information is buried in long form posts or comments and finding the latest best practices is always a struggle. I feel that the majority of information can and should be condensed down to something more readable. The A11Y Project is also open source, that means anyone can contribute or update posts. The goal is that it becomes a constantly updated warehouse of best practices. Progress has slowed down a bit, but we've got lots of posts in the hopper just have to find time for the site.
Noah Stokes recently raised the question or let's say the concern that responsive design has no soul. Buzzword: Flat Design. What's your opinion on that?
In my opinion, the flat design trend isn't being driven by RWD so much as it is being driven by devices and operating systems. For example, high-definition "Retina" screens are the main reason why I'd personally choose a monochrome icon font over a gigantic 1x+2x full fidelity sprite sheet. Background images also bear a similar burden since Google has started ranking based on page performance.
Beyond the technical advantages, I tend to align aesthetically with flatter designs. I enjoy simple sites with strong type, good imagery, and a touch of personality either through good copywriting or a touch of animation. My favorite site on the web right now is probably The Verge; flat and not responsive. So there's that.
Looking into the future, what do you wish for regarding the web as a whole or web development technologies in specific?
For the web, I wish for less trolling. It's a problem and our industry should lead by example by not supporting, retweeting, or employing these offensive, aggressive, and non-apologetic people.
For web development technologies, I think we're in a diaspora of ideas, techniques, and tools. I hope things will homogenize a bit but only to the point where it doesn't stifle innovation.
Okay, last one. Is there any question you'd like to answer but that I didn't ask?
Can't think of one! Thanks for having me for this interview. It was fun.
Thanks Dave! :)