We got our first computer, an IBM-clone PC XT, when I was 10 or 11 years old. It was amazing. Like any kid I was particularly interested in games, especially King’s Quest and the other Sierra titles. So it was super exciting when I came across a book at the library that promised to let you program your own game in BASIC. I still remember the cover, which showed a full-colour illustration of a rocket ship blasting off from the moon.
I took out the book and painstakingly copied dozens, perhaps hundreds of lines of BASIC code out of the book and into an editor. When I was finally done and ran the program I fully expected a colourful, graphical extravaganza, just like the illustration on the cover. I was dismayed to get a text prompt instead: “Enter the angle at which to fire the rocket: “, “Enter the velocity: “, etc.
In spite of this disappointment the magic stuck with me and I still find the open-ended, creative nature of software development fascinating.
Given your own experiences, is there any advice you would give to students and those starting off in the field today?
When I speak to people who are starting out in the industry I tend to find they often share two problems. First, they aren’t sure what area to focus on. Second, they don’t know which tools and languages are actually being used by experienced practitioners in the field.
To solve the second problem, talk to some people with experience who you can verify are keeping up in their fields. There are a lot of developers (and development shops) that stagnate and are still using, for example, ASP. You need to find people who’ve kept up and are producing great work and then really grill them on what they’re doing so you can find out what’s worth learning.
How did you get started at factor[e]?
I moved in next door to the person who was the sole owner of the company at that time, Tyler Cowie. That was about 7 or 8 years ago. I was a freelance developer back then, after the failure of another company I’d started a few years earlier. We quickly became friends and I started doing contract work for factor[e], which had just one full-time programmer (Sean Roberts, who is now Senior Software Architect at the firm).
We had a lot of beer-fuelled strategy conversations, conducted over the fence between our backyards, and worked out a plan to have me join the company. I did, and a couple of years later became partner.
What makes factor[e] different than other studios?
My partner Tyler’s background is the arts. He is an accomplished sculptor and painter and taught art before he started the company. My background has always been technology. Together, we ground the company in two disciplines: design and technology. Our unique strength is in marrying these two disciplines and ensuring we have leading-edge expertise in both.
What’s the most important part of creating an amazing user experience?
A lot’s been written about this so rather than describing what I think is the “most important” part, I’ll relate what I think is an important part that is often not done well, which is the text that appears in interfaces.
Writing good software involves two types of writing. Obviously there’s the code. The other part is all of the text that the user reads, such as instructions. I often come across convoluted instructions in web applications that confuse and overly complicate the experience.
I try to avoid that by writing clear and simple text in an active voice and I frequently revise the wording. You can be a great programmer but a poor writer of the English language; in which case, don’t neglect having someone proofread the text that appears in your software.
There’s dozens of young web design and development companies in Hamilton, many of which are just a few years old. What advice would you give to up and coming firms looking to expand and take on bigger clients and projects?
I have two pieces of advice. The first comes from Dale Mugford’s amazing keynote speech at a DemoCamp last year. He related the saying, “Smooth seas never made a skillful sailor”. I refer back to that line often. It reassures me that it is normal for things to be difficult and that even when they are truly, horribly difficult, I’m learning something from the experience. So my first piece of advice is to take this line to heart, because growing a business is not easy.
Secondly, people growing a business should not feel as though they need to go it alone. Don’t be too proud to ask for help. Get an advisor, talk to your peers, call the Innovation Factory and set up a meeting. As entrepreneurs it is easy to start thinking you’ve got all the answers and that you’re going to be the next Steve Jobs. Maybe you are, but most of us never will be, so talk to the people who can guide you, challenge your assumptions, and set you on the right path.
What will you be talking about at DemoCamp this Tuesday night?
Our dream of making Hamilton a successful technology city cannot succeed without active and informed political leadership. As technologists, designers, entrepreneurs and so on we’ve worked hard to create a vibrant technology sector in Hamilton and this hard work has led to many achievements. But there is also an important role for our city’s political leaders. I plan to discuss that role – and how well I think they’re filling it! – on Tuesday.
Come see Adrian’s talk and a line-up of great demos at DemoCampHamilton15 this Tuesday February 4th from 6:30pm – 9:00pm in The Arnie pub at Mohawk College!