music and art
Growing up, people thought of me as a musician. It was my identity. Visual art was strong too, but secondary. Slowly the visual become more primary. Then computers opened up an endlessly-expanding world of visual exploration and self-expression. Today when people ask what I do, to the tech savvy I say, "I design and develop user interfaces for web applications." And if they want to know more, they know the questions to ask. For everyone else my cover story is, "I'm a programmer." Or, "I'm a graphic designer." Or, "I create websites." All true.
I started classical piano lessons at six, and it came naturally, then competed in judged, national auditions through high school. My high school choir and traveling ensemble was my first tribe. Resonant souls existed! I was president, singer, accompanist, and found ways to spend most of my time there. I played piccolo in orchestra and marching band. (A piccolo, by the way, even assembled, fits in any backpack and can be heard above the loudest brass and percussion.) Tried musical theater and played keyboards in the pit for summer stock. Later at Duke I was an officer in the chorale, sang, and accompanied. Throughout everything there was drawing, painting, and mosaics.
programming and analysis
As a freshman at Duke, I took pre-med “weeder” courses since this kept options open. Someone suggested I have an excellent corpus callosum since the hemispheres of my brain communicate well. But I didn't know how to integrate my seemingly separate loves of art and science. I waited until mid-junior year to declare a major, choosing Biomedical Engineering because it was cool and inter-disciplinary, combining electrical and materials engineering with computer science and pre-med anatomy, biology, and chemistry. Plus I wanted to understand, really understand the mechanics of physical reality. Art felt subjective, science felt objective. Was it true?
Duke Medical Center
Sophomore year I landed a life-changing, work-study job with the Duke Med Center Image Processing Research Lab. We were imaging individual atoms to determine how muscle contracts. I loved the job and people beyond anything I'd imagined possible, and I worked straight through summer breaks. By graduation I had practical experience in programming and systems admin, creating plotter graphics and 3D models, all with high-stakes, real-world deadlines. They offered me a permanent job but I needed to explore.
Ernst & Young
After Duke I scored a visa to work in London for six months, sharing a great flat with five others near Marble Arch, creating technical documents for the engineering firm Matthew Hall. Then moved to San Francisco and a system admin position with Ernst & Young, my first taste of a polished financial world. The company offices gleamed on the 30th floor of the BofA tower at 101 Cal., while I had the whole data center on the 29th to myself, with floor to ceiling views of downtown SF. Heaven. I studied constantly, and learned to support a multi-office user base and live production systems.
Digital Equipment Corp
How can one not live in New York City? At least for a while? With years of DEC experience I easily landed an amazing job with them, with an office on the corner of Broadway and Wall Streets by Trinity Church. I tried life on the Upper East Side, but moved to Greenwich Village fast. DEC subcontracted me out to clients like Citibank and Morgan Stanley. I learned to gather requirements and write functional and technical specs, find technical solutions without support, code turn-key applications, to test, implement, and create help systems, and to manage projects and people. I kept thinking that graduate school would look good on my résumé, but my "career" had a strong momentum and didn't need the credential or specificity.
The southern California branch of DEC wined and dined me and eventually wooed me to move to Los Angeles. After NY winters, I gladly jumped to a warm climate. In LA I encountered the (very different from finance) world of aerospace. At Rockwell I created ad-hoc programs for the engineers, and at McDonnell Douglas learned more about leading programming teams and how to create train-the-trainer programs. This was my first experience working with teams of contractors. Fascinating creatures.
Increasingly I missed having a clear, artistic component in my work. I enjoyed the creativity and variety of the projects, and the psychology and finesse required to collaborate with teams of creative people. But something was missing. User interface design work kept finding its way to me. Hmmm. It did seem a good fit.
Jet Propulsion Lab
So I submitted my résumé to a contractor friend's recruiter, and interviewed for a contract job at the Jet Propulsion Lab. I was sort of a DEC guru by then, by Fate it seemed, and they hired me to solve their UI problems. I had to get a Secret Clearance (me?), and so began my first job with primarily a UI focus.
Digital Equipment Corp
After the contract at JPL ended, DEC, in an unprecedented action, rehired me, and as a contractor, to help design and develop a UI-intensive application to link hospitals, sharing patient information, test results, and physician's orders.
While Los Angeles is a slice of Americana I'm glad to have sampled, I missed the Bay Area. Having lived in New York and LA after leaving SF, I was finally able to appreciate the hilly microclimates, the diversity of people, and all the charms experienced by walking through a city, not driving through it. I moved back to SF and took a contract at Pacific Bell in the East Bay, working for the same managers who inspired Scott Adams, sitting a few cubicles away, to write the Dilbert cartoon strip. Yes, I experienced it first-hand. At this time I began to design and code for Windows 3.1, and decided I wanted nothing further to do with it.
Salomon Brothers, Wells Fargo, First Boston, American Management Systems, and others
During this period I took many diverse contracts, often at reduced rates, to get more graphic design experience. These were mainly financial clients. I did several coding contracts (HP, Pacific Bell, UBH) which helped me keep current with evolving technology, and was my first experience wrapping legacy systems in a unified UI. Following this was a much-needed sabbatical where I worked for an established landscaper, designing and helping to execute gardens and hardscapes with complex lighting and irrigation systems. I had wanted to get away from tech for a while, but couldn't resist drafting designs on the computer.
A recruiter contacted me in 1999 about a full-time position with Maxager Technology, a startup just over the Golden Gate bridge in Marin County. I wasn't interested in a full-time position, but she promised they would be the smartest people I'd ever worked with. After multiple phone screenings I had a lunch interview that included complex logic puzzles and C coding challenges. The people I met at Maxager were energetic, passionate, and sometimes brilliant.
I accepted a position as "Product Architect," thinking that such a quick commitment was a bit like getting married on the first date. It turned out to be one of my best career experiences. They were considering a redesign and port of their applications to the web, my first encounter with the ever-changing morass of browser versions and inconsistencies.
We proposed ways to productize business value propositions, writing functional specifications detailing the business logic and functional design of new or modified features. Requirements gathering involved interviewing employees and vendors, researching existing products and solutions, and performing 3rd party tool assessments.
The position required me to communicate with people across different knowledge domains and with very different styles and vocabularies. I shared project management responsibilities including tactical and strategic planning, maintaining feature requests and determining feature selections for product releases, often creating exec-level presentations to explain it all. (One thing I learned about presentations: Lead with your conclusions, then offer the supporting cases. Otherwise, everyone is impatient to skip to the end.)
Several years later the dot-com bust reduced the company from hundreds to a handful. It was hard to leave that creative space. I took some time off to reflect and strategize.
Primal Solutions, Ubicom, Portal Player, Maxager Technology, AT&T Wireless
At Microsoft I proposed web application designs for their educational portal, designed and coded web-based reports, and created SharePoint-based designs for team collaboration. One memorable task involved researching and proposing a product strategy for an internal document routing and approval workflow, weighing legacy system utilization against 3rd party tools and custom development. My experience at Microsoft was very positive, but I was reminded why I enjoy working at smaller companies =).
Needing to live somewhere other than a big city, I moved to Vashon Island, a ferry-only accessible island about 30 minutes from downtown Seattle, kept rural by lack of mainland bridges. Finally silence except for seals barking on the beach of Puget Sound, and eagles flying overhead.
I led the UI design for Mellon Financial, a contract to wrap legacy systems with a unified UI. Because the programmers had limited and often one-time access to the legacy systems, this was my only experience implementing a system designed one screen at a time, without seeing or knowing the existence of many of the key screens until the redesign effort was well underway. I implementing an XHTML architecture so that design changes could be made without requiring backend coding changes which were often impossible after the access window to the legacy system closed.
Woody Creek Pictures
Woody Creek Pictures hired me to create a website for their successful film, The Heart of the Game. The film industry requires highly-creative websites, and I enjoyed the freedom to explore beyond the corporate aesthetic. The web designer for The Lord of the Rings films (also by Miramax) contacted Woody Creek unprompted to compliment them on the site design, and Roger Ebert said the movie was "armed with a highly successful website."
For this repositioning startup, I developed many working prototypes for web-based application UIs, with the goal to create designs simple enough for novice users yet able to show expert-mode features in-place for power users. New functionality and designs provided desktop-like functionality in the browser via a thick client.
Woody Creek Pictures
I designed a website for the creative production house Woody Creek Pictures led by the director Ward Serrill. Also created a multi-media travel blog Waylyn's Journey for Ward (aka "Waylyn") while he traveled in Asia for four months. He sent me raw text, images, and video from the road which I edited, styled, and posted. A fun creative collaboration!
Profit Velocity Solutions
I moved back to my hometown of Wilmington, NC, in 2007 due to family illness. Currently I'm working for Profit Velocity Solutions as lead UI designer and developer for applications, and as lead graphic designer for identity and collateral. New designs and refactored code utilize HTML5 to replace Java applets in the browser.
Many blessings! Jake