2008: Work

Like I said, I’ve been meaning to post a summary of my last 18 months. Perhaps easier if I split it into two: work, and personal. So, work: I started freelancing in the middle of 2007, and I’ve done a whole bunch of interesting jobs since then (see my CV for full details).

First some background: when I left Leo Burnett in 2001, I’d been going stir-crazy. My job had been sidelined, I had very few real responsibilities, my love affair with the web was losing its shine, and most importantly I’d been commuting to London for three years, seeing very little of my family including my then six-month-old daughter Lola. I’d earned enough that I could afford to take a step back, work from home for smaller clients (in particular charities and public sector bodies – some kind of penance for my time at Burnett’s pushing junk food to kids), and spend more time (and indeed money) on personal projects like FAD.

But by 2007 I was going stir-crazy again. Working from home can be marvellous: the freedom and flexibility it give one are liberating, and I really loved being able to drop my kids off at school in the morning, pick them up again in the afternoon, and fit my work into the spaces around them. But I gradually started to miss the camaraderie of office work; even the commute, with its regimenting of the daily schedule, was quite appealing to me. The kids were growing up and didn’t need me around quite so much (though Lola does miss me terribly now I’m working in London, and that tugs at my heartstrings), and Gill would have been quite happy to get me out from under her feet from time-to-time. To top it all, my work with Mark had become a bit of a hodgepodge: I was spending most of my time writing proposals, planning time-lines, drawing up company policy, and costing new jobs, and hardly any of it coding. More and more I began to realise that code, especially code which hooks design up to interactivity, is what I love best. I often find it hard to get started on a new coding problem, especially when I have the thousand-and-one distractions of helping to run a business clamouring for headspace, but once I get started it’s like a drug.

I sent out my CV, looking for ActionScript jobs, and pretty soon they started rolling in. My first placement, with Saatchi and Saatchi, was a bit of a disaster – their interactive division was undergoing a bit of a crisis, I was far too keen to prove myself, and as a result I ended up taking the blame for their project’s failings – but I learned a lot from it (and I hope they did too). My subsequent placements were all much, much better.

First I spent several weeks at Souk, working on a micro-site for the Cayman Islands (I later went back for another placement there). This was what I had been missing: a lively office full of very fun people, who really appreciated me for my skills and made me feel a valued part of a team. And, my, but they knew how to drink!

After that I was placed at Disqo, the interactive division of post-production company Golden Sq. Again, a wonderful team, and a very different environment. Video post-production is such a complex, multi-disciplinary skill that it seemed as if every single person working there was a genius. I was working with a team of designers but, unlike designers in many companies, these guys seriously knew their technical stuff. Likewise, the server guys in their IT department possessed social and creative skills which made them real renaissance men and women. The work they set me was, on first appearances, impossible: I was to make a series of video-quality 3D banner ads featuring blobs of metal which were 100% interactive, responding to user input like balls of mercury being pushed around a table-top. Somehow we made the impossible possible and, with the cunning use of some layered filters and a good bit of ActionScript physics, we managed to forge metal on computer screens. This was great! It took me back to my earliest days as a web developer, working with Marcus Vinton and Alun Howell at O&M: those guys would set us an ambitious TV-style brief which seemed just impossible given the web browser technology of 1996; but using the power of Netscape 1.1, some animated GIFs, and a lot of pizza and late nights, we midwifed their ideas into reality. I’d long-since assumed the web had matured too far for me to ever find that sort of Wild-West excitement again, but the guys at Disqo helped me rediscover it. I would say that, of all my working experiences over the last 20+ years, my two stints at Golden Sq have been my most enjoyable, and I would jump at the chance to work with them again.

Following on from this, I worked for a very short stint at Linney design in Mansfield. Linney’s are an enormous traditional print company, established for over 100 years, who have spawned smaller interactive, graphic-design and direct marketing subdivisions. Despite their low public profile, they do a huge amount: many of the top brands and public bodies use them to produce posters and marketing materials. The atmosphere at Linney’s was a million miles away from Disqo: very formal, very old school, everyone kept themselves pretty much to themselves, and every other web-page called up in your locked-down browser would be preceded by a warning saying “It looks like you are accessing web mail. Your Internet usage is being logged, and breaches of company Internet policy will be punished by disciplinary action”. Still, the work was fun: I had to build a closed conference-screen system for the Post Office, which read a number of RSS and other XML feeds to produce a rolling display featuring conference maps and timetables; news, weather and traffic feeds from the BBC; conference announcements; and an SMS-to-screen messaging system. It was really enjoyable to make, in no small part because this was my first proper job using ActionScript 3, and I found the new language incredibly easy to work with, and so intuitive after the strange quirks and inconsistencies of AS2: it reminded me of the switch I made from ASP (bad) to PHP (much better). The downside of Linney’s was the commute: I was determined not to drive there (unlike every other person in the office), but this meant two bus journeys, two train journeys, and a walk: I had to leave my house at 5.30am and would arrive home around 10pm in order to do a simple 9-5 day. I don’t mind this kind of commute for a short while (I love reading on trains and buses) but if I’d have worked there any longer then it would have been the death of me.

All of these projects had been fairly short term – a few days here, a couple of weeks there. This suited me perfectly – I love change, and the experience of the new – but in early 2008 I something more long-term. It was also probably the first project I could properly call a Rich Internet Application, and the first built in pure ActionScript, i.e. using the Flex SDK in Eclipse rather than the graphical Flash IDE. My employer was smartassess, and their product an application suite called realsmart: an educational software tool which allows teachers to set tasks, and pupils to complete them, using an online interface. I can imagine some balking at the idea, and complaining that it places a digital wall between teacher and pupil, but in fact the reverse is true: realsmart makes learning more communal, frees up teachers’ time so they can do more teaching and less admin, and gathers all of a class’s work in one easy-to-access (and impossible to lose) place. If you doubt any of this, check out the (inspirational) teachers’ testimonials on the smartassess website. Although realsmart was already a mature piece of software when I arrived (built largely by one developer, Tim Cooper – who taught me a lot about application development), new features were being added all the time, old ones improved, and code refactored. I learnt a huge amount about agile software development, and team working (for the past 7 years I’d almost always been the only ActionScripter working on any job).

Also while at smartassess I developed an online conference scheduling planner for the SSAT (Specialist Schools and Academies Trust), working with the excellent designer (and all-round great bloke) Ricky Elderkin.

I had a great time at smartassess, and would probably be there still were it not for the fact that I got the call-up from the BBC (thanks to Jan for alterting me to the fact that they were looking for Flex developers). In June 2008 I joined the BBC’s Embedded Media Player team, producing the Flash playout widget, used across the BBC iPlayer site, BBC News and Sport, and many other BBC sites (e.g. Mark Kermode’s rather wonderful film blog). Subsequently I worked on the new cross-platform BBC iPlayer Desktop software, built using Adobe AIR. I’ll save my iPlayer experiences for another blog post, suffice to say it’s been exiting…