Web designInterview

Adam Howard on making apps for the music industry

Adam Howard on making apps for the music industry

We talk to developer Adam Howard about his work for clients like EMI and Coca Cola, and artists like Haim and Tinie Tempah.

One of the 10 nominees for Young Developer of the Year in the 2014 net Awards, Adam Howard is part of the We Make Awesome Sh.it collective and had done work for artists including Tinie Tempah, Boards of Canada, Nightmares on Wax, Tom Odell, Haim... and that's just over the last year.

Pitching to big clients like EMI, Coca Cola or Ministry of Sound takes more than coding chops: Howard tells us about how he found the confidence to convince people that he's the man for the job.

What are your main areas of expertise?

As a coder, I use Ruby, JavaScript, and Objective C, but I've learnt that writing code is only one half of the game. What I'm about is having an idea, finding out how to do it, and making it happen.

Give us a summary of your career so far.

When I was in school, I used to fix computers for people. I'd go round your grandparents' house, fix their printer, and show them how to send 'E-Mails'. I had to post lots of flyers, but it was still better than a paper round.

I went to uni, and landed a year-long placement at one of my favourite startups. Audioboo is a service that allows anyone to have a voice. It had about 100,000 users including celebrities and journalists, and was used quite a lot during the Egyptian uprising. When I came back to uni I worked with 3 Sided Cube, an app agency that was young, dynamic, and had been making waves. I built their realtime internal services, helped with their First Aid app for the Red Cross, and learnt to love 80s music.

Howard is part of the We Make Awesome Sh.it collective

Leaving uni, I was prepared to pack my bags for a job in Amsterdam, but instead was made an offer I couldn't refuse: to come on an adventure called "We Make Awesome Sh.it". It was a risk, but it paid off. I've been right in the deep end, straight out of uni. Imagine an awkward short kid kicking off a meeting at EMI, pitching ideas to 30 of Coca Cola's regional CMOs or negotiating pricing with Ministry of Sound. I've had to be more than a coder; I come up with ideas, I pitch, I organise, I build. People in big companies need to be confident that I'm the guy to deliver what they need.

What have you been working on over the last year?

The start of the year was pretty exciting because my GitHub bot was picked up by publications like WIRED, causing an interesting discussion in the open source community. The bot searched out open source projects, and automatically optimised their assets to give them faster download speeds and load times.

I was then invited to Cannes for the Midem Hack Day. I made four hack projects in 48 hours, and was left with enough time to meet inspiring people and build friendships in the music industry.

While chowing down on a pasta bake, Jon Ginn (also nominated for a net award) and I decided that there was an absence of developer events in the Bournemouth area, so we set up a regular hack day, HACKBMTH. I just counted, we ran five of them last year. It gives me the best buzz, because I can see how it helps people. I see experts helping beginners, friendships being formed, and people having fun making stuff outside their day job.

Howard helped build this Vine keyboard at HACKBMTH 2

At HACKBMTH 2, our designer, Rob, recorded himself singing various notes into Vine, and we built a Vine keyboard. Lots of people had fun with it, and we even discovered that Skrillex had given it a play.

At this point, I was doing a lot of web work, and I really felt like it was time to go native and build an iOS app. I've always enjoyed Objective C, but had never committed myself to putting an app of my own in the store. In 2013, I changed that with an app for NOW music. NOW Running is an app that analyses your music library and builds you a playlist of songs that have the right energy level to run to. When you start running, it starts playing, and shows you a map as well as stats like speed, distance, pace, and calories burned.

After that, I did various small projects and spent some time helping the Ghost team to build their awesome new blogging engine. I audited the codebase, added features, and made core improvements allowing it to be more maintainable and upgradable. My favourite feature I've worked on for Ghost is still under development, so watch this space!

Going back to client work, I made a website for Virgin's 40th birthday  that played you a mixtape of songs that were big when you were a teenager. People loved the nostalgia factor, and the fact that the skin changed to a record, cassette, CD or MP3 player based on your age.

Finally, the big project I spent time on at the end of the year was an iOS app for Tinie Tempah. Quite simply, the app listens out for any of Tinie's music (a bit like Shazam), and plays a video of his mouth rapping in perfect time.

Throughout the year, I also worked on various web projects for people like the Olivier Awards, Global Poverty Project, Modestep, Boards of Canada, Nightmares on Wax, Tom Odell, HAIM, Rio Ferdinand and Above & Beyond.

What were the high points of your career so far?

Lots of things have made this year great, but if I had to pick, I'd say that getting a private gig from Tinie Tempah takes the biscuit. We sat with him on grey London afternoon as one-by-one he spat all of his songs into a camera. The app would never have been great if Tinie wasn't enjoying himself, so we were relieved that he was really excited about the app and seemed to enjoy revisiting some of his material that's less in the spotlight.

What are you excited about right now?

This iOS app for Tinie Tempah brings a slice of silliness to the rap world

It's got to be the Tinie app. I'm super pumped that we've finally been able to release it. It's my favourite thing I've ever done, and it's great to see people I know, celebrities, and random fans having so much fun holding it up to their mouths and pretending they're Tinie.

From a technical standpoint, I'm really proud because I hand-rolled the audio fingerprinting C code and it actually works! On a more personal level, it's really special to me as it's the first time I've worked face-to-face with an artist.

Tell us about an important lesson you've learned in your career.

Maybe this sounds silly, but a big thing for me was realising that there are normal people behind everything. If you have a meeting with a big company, you're just meeting some people. They're just normal, nice people - no need to stress about it.

That guy you look up to, who talks at conferences as if he has something you don't? He doesn't. He's just a person - no need to put him on a pedestal, you can do that.

If you slag off a project, there's a person behind that. A person who thought it was a good idea and spent time on it - a little consideration just goes a long way. At the heart of everything's a person, and realising that has helped me to conquer fears and be a better person.

Who's your 'unsung hero'?

I feel that big conferences get a lot of recognition, when it's the smaller, free meetups and events that are most valuable to the community.

People like Arran and Charlotte from Event Handler, Angie Maguire (Music/Tech Meetup, Ladies Who Code), and Andrew Nesbitt (LNUG, Nodecopter) who all run meetups that get people with a similar interest together. Add to that the people who go into schools and teach code clubs to get youngsters excited about dev. Those people are the glue in our community as far as I'm concerned.

Vote in the net Awards!

Celebrating the best in web design and development, the 15th net Awards is open for public voting until 24 March. With a record breaking number of nominations this year, it's set to be the biggest and best yet. Have your say by casting your votes here.

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