…they’ll have had no scarcity of RAM, and Level just sat there, in memory. Then no event is called.
– excerpted from a conversation just now. About Level. The app I’ve been working on for the last year.
That was a fun conversation. For the first time, I was referring to Level as a thing in the world, taking action. That was the moment a pile of ambition, hope, planning and ridiculous effort converted itself into something that was a real force in people’s lives.
Having a product in users’ hands is energizing like few other things can be. Knowing your product’s rough edges, and how frustrating they must be to users, is a drumbeat compelling constant improvement and polish. There’s just so much to do.
This is the part I love.
A year ago, I was recruited to Level as employee number three and the first mobile hire. It began with coffee and a pitch: Generation Y got fucked economically. Let’s build tools to help them dig out of the hole.
While there was nothing so crass as Steve Jobs’ famed sugar water vs. change the world crack, walking back to my beloved Hipmunk left me feeling a little heavy. Just as I’d found product and people I adored working with, there’s was this irresistible challenge whizzing by.
Because boy am I fucked on money.
Not in some sort of retired NFL player kind of way. But late-teens Danilo made some financial agreements that late-20′s Danilo might have considered with a different eye. And career switching during the financial crisis was fun but expensive. So that’s been a multi-year project to dig out of.
Point is, shit’s personal.
And that’s a good thing because going a year without the warm embrace of ship is quite a dry spell. Motivation is everything.
Turns out automating and explaining a budget is hard because humans are unique right down to their budgeting patterns and resultant mental models. It wasn’t enough to build for whoever was already in the room. Honest-to-god research was conducted. Like, with cameras. Interview scripts.
I went to town prototyping for these. Freed of the constraints of a real, shipping app, I built Level in the spirit of a paper diorama. Look at it from just the right angle and it seems pretty real.
Then they’d go in there with research volunteers, who’d play with the prototype.
We’d learn all about how all of our assumptions had inconvenient little holes in them.
And so ship, so sweet, so needed – was far beyond the horizon.
The brightness on that long-ass journey through the dark has been the people. At every point along the way, the most pleasant and talented of people have come along to help build this crazy spaceship.
They’re all so bright. The advisors, we’ll sometimes get them all in a room and I swear the combined neuroelectrical energy should be bending space-time. Deep resumes in everything from marketing to telecommunications. Serious people. But so warm, so worth sharing a meal with and discussing anything but work.
I was three. The two before me – I can embarrass myself with enthusiasm for their constant examples of character and ability. Then there are two co-founders who appear to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the global financial system, and just the right kind of subversiveness to want to do something fun with that knowledge.
So already this is feeling like a jackpot. But then every hire is just… solid gold. Taking initiative, bringing needed perspective and skill.
An anecdote on this shit: Few weeks ago, iPhone 5C comes out. Our design director gets one, falls in love with it – it’s gotta be on the on the site. At this point we’re a few days from submission to Apple. I don’t know about anyone else but I didn’t care if it was goatse on the website – the whirlwind of preparation for a 1.0 submission to the venerable App Review queue had begun.
When sanity returned, I rubbed my eyes and saw the website. The 5C was there, looking tiggety-tight!
So everyone’s just really good at the thing they’re doing. And they’re eager to do it, to help the mission. That’s exciting.
By now you want to know why we’re on this tangent where I’m giving a sloppy kiss to the people I work with. First, because I like them. But mostly, because that’s what made things bearable in the desert, so very far from ship. Good people will make the journey more fun. Riding bicycles or gossiping about Homeland or raiding food trucks for lunch, these are more fun than marching toward ship alone.
Then a funny thing happened. Ship was… around the corner. The pile of work we’d been pushing around on our plates was starting to stand up and fly unassisted for longer and longer periods of time. Complete more of its processes without duct tape or intervention.
That’s a lasting trope for a reason. There is a moment of glee unique to the creative process. Seeing your thoughts suddenly crystalize in a new medium is thrilling. There’s new energy in the air when the product starts to firm up.
I don’t know what it’s like in other creative disciplines but software will fight you down. Software does not want to exist. You can’t anticipate everything, you can’t have everything in your head at once. Things you think will be simple take days or weeks. Making a change here reveals a bug there – but wait, it turns out you were unknowingly relying on that bug for some other damn thing to work properly.
So, wah, computers are hard. But you break out the duct tape and get everything as tight as possible for the most users possible. There’s a bit of self-castigation for poor forethought. On you go.
Suddenly it was less than a week to ship day.
Which was dizzying. A year’s worth of work about to be dropped into the world. What the hell is going to happen with that? What if this impostor syndrome business is little more than accurate self-reflection and the application will explode under real-world use? What if no one cares about looking at their money through the lenses we chose? What if the servers go down? What if, what if, what if…
It was all a bit more than I could really take. I lost myself in one of my favorite fantasy lands: Star Trek.
The way the App Store works is, you submit your application to Apple, they take a few days to review it, then you’re allowed to put it in the store. Any launch plan includes a week or two for advanced submission. Once submitted, the iOS folk can’t do anything more via their normal tools to help the launch. The best you can do is start working on your next features or bug fixes, but they’ll be weeks away.
But I’ve never been one for the rules so instead of doing nothing fun I started to write a new app from scratch, to provide realtime monitoring of the service infrastructure. The monitor was designed in the unmistakable style of Star Trek’s LCARS computer interfaces. It was a satisfying way to kill a few days.
I don’t know who the hell is going to read 1200 words on making some money app but if you’re going to give me that much attention, you’ve earned a payoff. So I’ll give you one.
I am the luckiest motherfucker alive.
Five years ago this week I loaded an iPhone app onto a device for the first time. I’d never had a programming job. I lived in the middle of Florida. The only thing I knew for sure was that I needed to do this with my life. It was the only thing that had ever made sense.
That following summer I quit my job. Everyone I knew thought I was completely crazy. The financial crisis was shitting all over everything. Who would leave a safe job?
I think I was crazy, looking back on it. There’s no way I should have pulled it off.
But the only thing that mattered was changing my life so I could make this stuff for people. Building useful tools that went with them everywhere. What could be a more exciting opportunity than that?
So, making an app that was, for a moment, more popular than Facebook? Having Al Gore tweet about it? Getting to do it in my favorite city on the planet?
And there’s Curry Up Now nearby?
As rolls of the dice go, that’s pretty good, yeah. This is beyond anything I would have guessed when I began.