"I think websites have gone almost as far as they can. I think as we further develop sensor networked environments, embedded interfaces, mobile and wearable computing, websites will exist as a component of a larger experience that is taking place off screen as well."
Please give us a brief bio of yourself.
At The Barbarian Group, I oversee all Pepsi technology as Technical Lead. I am also an Adjunct Professor for the Integrated Digital Media program at Polytechnic Institute of NYU, and former Eyebeam Resident.
I have my undergraduate degree in Fine Art and Russian Language from UC Davis and a Masters in Interaction Design from the Interactive Telecommunications program at NYU. I have taught loads of workshops, shown work and given talks locally and internationally at Internet Week, Maker Faire, New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME), and Eyebeam.
What do you do for inspiration?
I like to draw inspiration by considering different points of view on life. I read different kinds of philosophy, from nihilism to Christian texts. The fact that life can be perceived and carried out by any one of myriad ways is very inspiring to me. It shows that there are always several ways to solve the same problem.
I also love going to huge hardware stores and looking at all the building materials. Libraries, airports, laundromats, music, certain fashion designers (i.e. Hussein Chalayan), even gardening are all sources of inspiration.
Recently, I’ve been experimenting with ways to create circuit boards out of organic materials. Seeing what kind of work other artists and engineers are creating is also essential for not getting buried too deep in your own mind. There are a million different points of view out there and they are all interesting in one way or another.
How do you relax or unwind?
Honestly, my favorite way to relax is with a glass or two of wine. I also garden quite a bit. Seeing something complex grow from a tiny seed is very exciting. Especially if you get to eat it afterwards. I also love sleeping outside in my hammock.
If you weren't working on the internet what would you be doing?
I’d be working as a print designer. As much as I love the Internet and most things digital, nothing replaces the tactile experience of choosing papers, setting type and calibrating colors. I studied quite a bit of print design while I was in undergrad, and it was only by circumstance that I became a web developer.
What's your favourite part of your job? What's the hardest part of your job? What do you do when you get stuck?
My favorite part of my job is having the opportunity to learn new things, constantly. I think it’s inherent to a developer’s personality, but having a job where my main task is to solve problems is pretty fun.
I also get to teach a series of workshops at The Barbarian Group called TechShop, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of teaching technology to people who might not be very technical, but are very curious. The hardest part of my job is not letting myself get stuck in one way of problem solving. Sometimes you have to take a break and stretch your mind out to do some lateral thinking.
However, it’s really hard for me to walk away from something when I’m deep down in the problem, feeling frustrated and stubborn. When I finally get stuck, I just walk away from it and try to think about something entirely different. Distance brings perspective and sometimes the solution.
What's the longest you've ever stayed up working on a project?
I once stayed up three days straight to make a deadline. That was when I was in my 20s, not at The Barbarian Group. I don’t think I could do it now. It was brutal – I was starting to see shadows out the corners of my eyes and hear voices, haha.
If there are any pivotal experiences/decisions you could point to that helped shape your career, what would they be?
There is one in particular I often think about, from when I was first starting out, fresh out of college. I had actually graduated as a design student and aspired to be a creative director some day. I applied to a lot of places, trying to get my foot in the door anywhere decent.
The one that brought me in first was a start-up in San Francisco that needed someone to design animated gifs and write some HTML. Not very exciting, but it blew my mind that someone wanted to pay me $25/hr for anything. While at that job, Frog Design somehow found my portfolio and reached out to me for a job interview.
I thought, Frog Design? Who’s that? No way, I’m making $25/hr! *ignore*. Well, my ignorance led to me getting set on the path of developer, and I don’t have any regrets. And of course, I found out not too soon after who Frog Design was.
What software could you not live without?
At the risk of being obvious - a web browser. Specifically Chrome. After that, I’d say my terminal window, chat and a text editor.
What area of web design lacks the most?
In terms of visual design – typography for sure. You just can’t craft type on the web, and it’s frustrating at times.
What did your very first site look like? Is it still online?
My first website split the screen up into four quadrants. Each quadrant contained a large number that on rollover showed a navigation that led you to different parts of my portfolio.
I was a huge fan of Peter Saville and Factory Records in general, and the influence was obvious. I have the site stored somewhere on one of my external drives at home.
Are there things you do OUTSIDE of work to ensure that you are in the right mindset to be creative and/or successful in whatever you are doing?
Staying busy with outside projects that let me experiment with creative applications of technology is both fun and also broadens my skillset, which all around helps me as a developer.
To support this, I keep an ongoing arts practice on the side. For example, I was an Eyebeam Resident in Fall 2012 and while there developed a project called Subnod.es (http://www.subnod.es).
It’s a piece of software I wrote packaged with some scripts that turns your Raspberry Pi into a both a mesh point and a wireless access point. I created another project on top of that called Hot Probs (http://www.hotprobs.com), which is a portable, anonymous chat room that anyone within a 50’ range of the access point can join.
I actually have another upcoming mesh networked installation which will be on display as part of the LittleNets project for Eyebeam’s Off-the-Grid show for all of September, for anyone who is in NYC. http://www.eyebeam.org/projects/littlenets
The web is getting out of the web. Do you find that thinking in digital solutions alone hinders you? Do you feel the urge to solve the problem using all mediums necessary?
I think websites have gone almost as far as they can. I think as we further develop sensor networked environments, embedded interfaces, mobile and wearable computing, websites will exist as a component of a larger experience that is taking place off screen as well.
What are your views on design/graphic school. Do you think someone can get into the field without educational experience in a school environment?
Absolutely! The school environment is most valuable for receiving support and constructive feedback, but if you have the passion and motivation, you don’t necessarily need school to learn how to visually communicate (or to learn many other things, for that matter).
Even while in school, it’s up to you to do the work, to study the designers you admire, to do all the reading and thinking and doing that goes along with developing your visual practice.
School helps keep you in line, which is invaluable in itself, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary. It also helps connect you to a network of people, which can assist your career. So I wouldn’t say school is an absolute waste, either. Just use your time wisely and turn out awesome work. That’s what will get you a job at the end of the day - great work.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the latest web trends?
I rely on my friends and colleagues to keep me up to date on what is not only trending, but actually worth knowing about. I do also check out http://code.tutsplus.com/, which is one of my favorite web development resource sites on the net.
There must be a project that you have always dreamed of doing, what is it?
There is, but it isn’t web related. I have been studying slime molds lately, and there is an excellent book of published research on how to build simple logic gates with slime molds. I want to build a living circuit board that grows over time and triggers various outputs along the way. Like a living, growing sound and vision installation.
What are you excited about learning next and is there a long term challenge you are considering tackling?
I want to learn more about hardware design and how hardware interfaces with software. I really like to know how a system works in its totality. I am just so curious to know what actually happens when a piece of software is executed on hardware.
I love that we are able to actuate physical material through a written instruction set that gets converted to electricity. I think that’s incredibly exciting.
Any parting shots or pearls of wisdom?
Just to keep reading, making, learning, participating as much as possible. It takes a lot of work to be good at something and to meet your own internal expectations. And also, look for inspiration in every corner of life. When you have a problem to solve, practice going from pinpoint focused thinking to thinking as broadly as possible. Just try to not let your mind become mired in a rut.