Read as Dave Howell talks about his career as an IOS App Maker. Find him at www.avatron.com and on the Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I’m the founder and CEO of a mobile app development company called Avatron Software. We’re the home of some popular productivity and utility apps like Air Sharing and Air Display.
Our apps are focused around interesting connections between mobile devices and desktop or laptop computers. Air Display lets you use a tablet like the iPad as a wireless computer monitor for a Mac or Windows computer. Air Sharing is a document viewer that lets you transfer documents easily between devices and computers, and affords easy viewing of a variety of document types. We have apps that run on a variety of platforms, including iOS, Android, Mac OS X, and Windows.
How would you describe what you do?
I guide the company, working with a talented team of engineers, testers, and others to design, implement, and support mobile apps. I’m responsible for our strategy, making sure we choose projects that not only have strong market potential but also that we’re uniquely suited for.
What does your work entail?
First, there’s the administrivia. Most of what Avatron does involves coding, testing, and fixing, punctuated with occasional spates of panic. We have a great team doing those things; I have my nose in pretty much everything else. Our office manager, our part-time CFO, and I are the support infrastructure that keeps everything running smoothly so that the coding, testing, fixing, and panicking can happen in an orderly way. Among the three of us, we administer payroll, benefits (medical, dental, and vision insurance, retirement plan, stock options plan, and so on), marketing, advertising, accounting, financial reporting, office and offsite events, taxes, contract negotiations, recruiting, commercial real estate, public relations, and all that other non-product stuff.
But I also work closely with the engineers, quality assurance team, and technical support staff. I fulfill roles of project management (managing our development schedule and dependencies) and product management (designing our product suites and feature sets). Eventually we will grow to a size that warrants full-time professionals in those roles, but for now, I am spread fairly thin among a lot of different roles.
What’s a typical work week like?
There’s always a number of things going on. There’s generally at least one long-term development project that needs to be kept on track. Sometimes the trajectory of that project may need to be tweaked a little in response to changes from Apple or Google, or to turbulence in the competitive landscape. And there are usually a few products with short-term maintenance goals. For example, we may have some new feature that we want to add to an app, with bits of work required from different engineers on different platforms. And occasionally Apple will surprise us with some new incompatibility or some exciting new opportunity that throws some of us into a scurry of frenetic activity.
Accordingly, the engineers at Avatron all have some long-term project to work on, interrupted now and then by small emergencies and side projects. But in general, most of the engineers can focus for hours at a stretch on going deep on a project. We have structured our office space with private offices, rather than the stereotypical crazy open space with a steady collaborative din, so that people can concentrate.
As CEO, I am responsible for the company and all of our products. So as new problems or opportunities arise, I respond. I try not to disturb the concentration of our team, but I do consult with people in their areas of expertise. For example, if I hear that some great new cloud storage service is about to launch, I talk with the engineer who wrote the Air Sharing network code to see how feasible it is to adopt service’s SDK as one of the many remote file services accessible within the Air Sharing app. Or if a new Mac OS X update seems to completely break the power management of virtual video drivers, I work closely with the QA team to try to isolate the problem and then with the engineering team to explore potential fixes.
Unlike most of the company, I am rarely able to focus on any one issue for hours at a time. My day is broken up into short chunks, with a few minutes for this and maybe a half hour on that. When I do need to concentrate and spend some time on something, I try to do it at home at night, after the kids are asleep.
How did you get started?
I started programming in the seventies, using BASIC on a university minicomputer. I loved it immediately. I studied computer engineering in college, as well as music. The month the Macintosh came out in January 1984, I got one and started writing music software from my dorm room. I also connected the Mac to a Roland D-50 synthesizer and a TR-707 drum machine, and wrote songs and played around with composition tools. It was great fun. My first app was a patch editor for the D-50, called “D-50 Design.”
I showed D-50 Design to the folks at a music software company called Passport Designs in Half Moon Bay, California. They were impressed enough to give me a job porting their MIDI sequencer app, Master Tracks Pro, to the Apple IIgs. We quickly discovered that the Apple IIgs wasn’t really well suited to doing, well, much of anything, so they had me lead the Mac development instead.
What do you like about what you do?
I love the mobile app market. It’s amazingly dynamic. Every couple of months there’s some completely new development, either out of Cupertino or from other app developers.
I love the technology. If you had told me in 1984 that in less than thirty years there would be a tiny little Mac you could hold in your hand that has a thousand times as much RAM and 100,000 times as much storage, plus a full-color screen and a wireless network connection that could play movie-resolution video, I would have plotzed.
I love that Apple has removed the friction between creating an app and getting it into the hands of customers. You no longer have to print disks, stuff boxes, negotiate with distributors and retailers, mail shipments, or any of that. You just build an app, submit it to a web site, and wait for it to go live.
What do you dislike?
Most of my frustrations in this business can be attributed to the sometimes unpredictable caprice and arbitrariness of Apple’s review process. I know they have accomplished something truly remarkable and am incredibly grateful that they have built this opportunity for us, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when they do crazy things. To be fair, Air Dictate’s demise notwithstanding, it’s much much better now than it was a couple of years ago.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
1. People buy our apps in the app store.
2. Their credit cards are charged by Apple.
3. Once a month, Apple transfers funds into our bank account.
4. We pay our employees. (Including me.)
I worked without pay while we were just getting started at Avatron, but since shipping our first app, we have been consistently profitable. So now, I have a normal salary just like the rest of our employees.
How much money do App Makers make?
None. App Makers make apps; money makers make money!
Sorry, bad joke. Really, the range is astounding. Some app developers make about enough to pay their $99 annual developer account fee. Others get acquired for a billion dollars.
App developer salaries are at the high end of the range of other software engineers.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
My first programming job, in 1988, paid $30K/year. I had seven job offers out of college, but took the lowest paying one. The others were all big corporate positions at companies like IBM, Texas Instruments Defense Systems, and Bell Labs. But the only one that I felt uniquely suited for was the music software position. At the time I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. But now I am really glad that I listened to my heart instead of my wallet.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
No education or schooling are needed. There are plenty of good programmers who never attended college. None of Avatron’s first three engineers went to college. One of them didn’t even finish high school.
However, I’d recommend college to anybody coming out of high school. It’s a fantastic experience. You learn a lot about getting along with people, about time management, and especially about yourself. Go to college. You’ll broaden your academic foundation and you’ll learn new things more efficiently. It will kick-start your career. And there are some companies that simply won’t hire software engineers without a college degree.
On the other hand, if you taught yourself Objective-C or Java and can crank out an app or two, that might be a great way to put yourself through school. It would be better than a work-study position in the university cafeteria.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Recruiting. It’s really really hard to do well. And the consequence of a bad hire is a real drain on everybody’s morale and productivity. Hiring well is something we’re always working to improve.
What is most rewarding?
Every time we finish an app and set it loose, it’s the most incredible feeling to watch it get reviewed, watch it’s sales, watch it creep up the rankings charts. It’s exhilarating. We generally do a press release and let bloggers, journalists, and reviewers know about the app, and then just sit back and watch.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
To get started, write some apps just for fun. An app 100% written by you is much more effective than a great resume or a high college GPA. An interviewer can pore through the code with you, discuss the architectural decisions and tradeoffs you made, and critique the user experience and graphic design.
If you know you want to do mobile apps and you haven’t started school yet, find a college with courses on Objective-C, app design, and so on. Those schools will have other budding app developers around that you can bounce ideas off of and maybe even start your own company with.
How much time off do you get/take?
I believe in taking time off, to stay balanced and healthy. I take at least a couple of weeks every year. My family travels when we can. We’re based in Portland Oregon, which is well situated for three-day weekend trips. We’re about an hour or two from Mount Hood, the Oregon coast, wine country, kayaking, ski resorts, and lots more. But it’s rainy here so we like to go somewhere sunny and warm in the winter.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Some people, particularly folks I worked with before, think I’m writing code at Avatron. My coding skills are pretty rusty though. Like playing a musical instrument, programming requires practice. And things change quickly so you have to keep learning, all the time. In some ways, the measure of a good app developer is his or her dedication to improving the craft.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
We have a backlog of great app ideas that will take us years to implement. They all build on the frameworks and modules we’ve built for our existing apps. I’m as excited about some of them as I was about Air Sharing and Air Display. I think that over the years, Avatron will become a powerhouse of mobile productivity. And as the depth and breadth of our suite of apps expands, we will attract ever stronger engineering talent.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
This is a great time to be in software development. The mobile app world is so exciting right now. Apple is coming up with fantastic rapid-fire advances in hardware, in software, and in the app markets, enabling us to build great new products and features. And Google is nipping at Apple’s heels and keeping them on their toes, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. So Apple can’t rest on its laurels; its pace of innovation is increasing, if anything.