What is your current professional role and how did you get here?
Until this past summer, I was head of mobile outreach at Mapbox, a startup building mapping and location tools for app and website developers. Before that, I was the mobile engineering lead, where I built the mobile team up from nothing beginning in 2010. I left Mapbox in July to take some time to figure out what’s next for me after 20 years in full-time, professional software development. As part of that, I recently joined the Board of Directors for App Camp.
What was the first app you worked on and what did it do?
In the iOS world, the first app I worked on was actually Starbucks 1.0 in 2009. I had been doing Mac development for a number of years and teamed up with a startup here in Portland called Small Society, which had set its sights on building some of the first big-brand iOS apps during the early days of the App Store. I worked with a small team of 3-4 developers on the app and built out food menu filtering logic, P2P drink order sharing over Bluetooth/GameKit, and in a bit of foreshadowing, some of the mapping UI for store locations.
What went well? What could have gone better?
One big lesson that we all learned from that app, and one that many iOS developers learned early on, was that iOS apps are best suited for targeted actions and tasks. We had packed a lot into that app, most of which no one ever used, and in future iterations it was slimmed down considerably to focus on making point of sale and loyalty rewards easier.
Another thing that was, by extension, equally complex was the Core Data model for the app. It became very unwieldy and any sort of Core Data schema inevitably will require migrations between versions. A lot of pain went into some of those migrations.
One thing that went really well, and that we spent a ton of time on, was customizing the early iPhoneOS 2.0 for the branding requirements, which was not easy in those days. iOS has come a long way in terms of visual customizability.
At App Camp, we emphasize that it’s important to have interests outside of tech and to take breaks from looking at screens. What are some of your interests outside of tech? What do you do when you need to take a break from work?
I wholeheartedly agree about balance in life outside of screen time. And I realize that I am extraordinarily fortunate to be able to take the time that I am taking right now to do just that. But even when working, some of my interests include hiking, snowshoeing, travel/conference/wildlife photography, spending time with my crazy dog, playing the drums, baking pies, and working on (and using!) my 1985 Volkswagen camper van.
Why do you support the goals of App Camp?
At the general level, I absolutely want to see the gender imbalance in tech corrected. There is such a diversity in life and the population that we don’t see in the tech world as much, and planning, decisions, designs, engineering, and just the overall quality of life would be greatly improved by having those voices better represented in the mix.
The things that I love the most about App Camp are hitting that sweet spot in age where young people can come together and see peers who are interested in the same things that they are, to get reinforcement that these things can be “cool”. And App Camp happens at an age when you can make decisions which affect your lifelong trajectory if you are discouraged away from these things or, ideally, encouraged towards them.
At a personal level, I volunteered the first summer of App Camp to do photography since the founder, Jean MacDonald, was a friend. I wanted the organization to have high-quality photos for future use in promotional materials. My wife at the time, Michelle Petruzzi, also volunteered as an ad-hoc organizer, something that Jean looks back on as pivotal to App Camp’s early success and which eventually turned into a full-time position for Michelle as head of App Camp operations. In early, 2016, Michelle passed away suddenly from pancreatic cancer at the age of 36, and since then, I’ve been even more committed to helping App Camp through both informal activities as well as serving on the Board.
What do you recommend to those who want to support more diversity in tech?
First of all, naturally I believe that App Camp is one of the best ways to do this. But that’s a bit of a long game. Something you can do right now, especially if you are someone from one or more groups which are well-represented in tech, is to both mentor and give back to the other groups, but also just to listen. Many of the groups that App Camp is trying to help—girls, transgender individuals, teens and pre-teens—have the speaking done for them, taking their voice away by having others paint the picture of who they are. They need their own voices to be heard, in defining who they are, what they can do, and what they want to do.
How can technology be a force for good?
It’s easy to get discouraged about technology right now, in our current political climate, with privacy news, and with the constant chasing of dollar signs in terms of which ideas get focus and attention. I think one of the biggest things that we can do, and something that I’ve been trying to learn more about and focus on, is understanding the real-world needs of technology. Technology is a broad term—it’s not just computers, but a pulley is technology, the lock on a door is technology, a campfire is technology of a sort. It’s the application of bending the physical or virtual world to our wills and accomplishing some broader task with it. When we lose sight of computers as technology, and get lost in them and their plays on our addictive impulses, it’s hard to make it a force for good. As technologists in the computer realm, we need to talk to people with real problems and then figure out how to apply our skills and the available technologies—and new ones that we can create—to try to solve these real problems.
You can find Justin on Twitter.
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