DesignInterview

Noah Stokes projects with meaning

Bold founder Noah Stokes chats to Jim Thacker about getting out of the city and finding projects with meaning, redesigning Delicious – and why working for Apple was no Garden of Eden

This article first appeared in issue 235 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

.net: You started out at Apple, where you must be one of the few self-confessed fanboys not to have enjoyed working for the firm. What were you doing there, and why did it turn out not to be a dream job?
NS:
I worked on the PowerBook team hunting down issues with new software or hardware. It wasn’t glamorous, but like you said, I was a fanboy, so I jumped at the opportunity. The most exciting product to get released while I was there was the iPod Mini, so it wasn’t exactly all awesome all the time, but more importantly Apple wasn’t what I would call ‘family-friendly’. The winter holidays were usually booked for work as MacWorld was always upcoming in January. I found myself not spending as much time as I wanted with my family, so when my contract expired, I didn’t pursue an extension.

.net: After that you moved to Palm, which again you didn’t enjoy, to put it mildly. Is it overstating things to say that you wouldn’t have become a developer if you hadn’t wanted to get out of Palm so much?
NS:
I love this question because I’ve never thought of it that way before. But yes, it’s safe to say that I probably would not have gotten into web at all if it weren’t for Palm. I hated that job so much! Innovation was dead there. I was doing similar work, but instead of on PowerBooks, it was on Treos. I had zero satisfaction in my work. I felt useless and it carried over into my personal life. I spent so much time browsing sites like Stylegala, and CSS Zen Garden when I should have been working. I was apathetic, and that’s a bad place to be, professionally speaking. The web was bubbling with excitement as CSS-based layouts and standards were being pushed. I wanted to be a part of something where I could be passionate, and web seemed to be just the thing.

"FRVNT is our baby. It’s an app for sharing prayers with friends and loved ones. We’re on a mad rush to launch the new version before the year’s end. This time we’re bringing it to iOS and we think that’s going to be huge."

.net: I assume you’re largely self-taught (or learned on the job). Do self-taught designers/developers differ from those with formal training in the style of work they produce, or the way they approach jobs?
NS:
I’m going to answer this on the development side. My business partner, Garrett St John, is formally taught with a computer science degree. While we can conceptually problem solve with code in similar ways, his understanding of structures and patterns far surpasses mine. As a self-taught coder, you may find yourself guessing, “Is this the right way?” or “Is there a more efficient method I can be using?” when the formally trained guys have been taught best practice and are confident in those decisions. I rely heavily on Garrett when we get into the trenches.

.net: What were you doing between leaving Palm and founding Bold?
NS:
I was working for a company called Media Net Link, a local web shop that worked on a projects for mid-sized businesses. They gave me my first break after Palm, and I’m forever indebted to them. I cut my teeth on a range of platforms and languages; got paid to learn: an opportunity no one should pass up.

"We had the chance to work with the fantastic team at Obvious on a project they’re backing called Beyond Meat: amazing fake chicken that tastes like the real deal. They had some killer product shots that we were able to centre the design around."

.net: Why did you decide to strike out on your own?
NS:
While working at Media Net Link I was doing projects on the side [and] realised I could do this on my own full-time. Not only would it be financially rewarding, but it would scratch that itch I had to do things my way. It was a big leap in that I had a wife and a son, with another on the way, and making sure I had them covered with health insurance and those other intangibles full-time positions offer was important. Looking back, since my first day, I’ve never been without work. I don’t consider myself a natural entrepreneur, I’m rather conservative when it comes to risk, but I do tend to think I can do things better, which pushes me to take on more.

.net: For readers who aren’t aware of Bold, tell us a bit about who you are and the work you do.
NS:
Bold is a design and development studio. We’re a four-man team, myself included. We design and develop solutions for the web and mobile devices. We believe in quality work and customer service. We just celebrated two years as a company this October.

Our team consists of two frontend designers and developers, Charlie Pratt and I, and two backend developers Sam Hernandez and Garrett St. John. Our team dynamic and breadth of skills is really ....

"We were brought in to help our friends at Overcommitted with their latest app, Recall. This was a fun, adaptive project that we were able to provide development services on."

.net: You’ve just worked on a redesign of Delicious. It was huge five years ago and is now … er, less so. What’s your take on where things went wrong?
NS:
Yes, we did. What an amazing opportunity that was. I haven’t seen it go live yet, but hope to see it out there soon. I used to love Delicious! Their Popular page was the first page I’d read in the morning. I’m not sure when Yahoo acquired them, but I think they got lost when they didn’t move with the ebb and flow of the web. Discovery was becoming a huge thing, and Delicious had a huge repository of content but was more focused on personal bookmarks than social discovery. AVOS has since purchased Delicious from Yahoo and we worked with Chad Hurley there on the new designs. I think their new vision for it could easily bring it back to its glory days.

.net: You’ve talked about the importance of collaboration. What are the benefits of working, rather than just competing, with others?
NS:
I love teaming up with other studios. From a business perspective, I love getting new insights into their workflows, everything from how they engage the client to how they handle the final deliverables. From a creative perspective, I love that it allows us to focus on one area of the project and really crush it.

.net: You’ve said that Bold turns down one in 10 jobs. What are those ones in 10?
NS:
The number one reason we turn down work is that the client isn’t a fit. We have a series of filters we use to help us determine if a client is a good fit for us, and if we are a good fit for them. A bad client relationship can bring down team morale and usually always ends poorly.

.net: Your old portfolio site was made as a joke, but was a huge viral hit. How important is it to have an identifiable public persona, even if tongue-in-cheek?
NS:
That ‘break’ for me was huge. It was shortly before I went out on my own and it helped me get my name out there and line up a good chunk of work. There are plenty of people that could design and develop circles around me. I think my personality that came through in that old portfolio site, and still does in some of the work that we do at Bold; helps to keep our name elevated.

"At 6,000 members and growing, the Cornerstone Fellowship church needed to bolster its website with current media, events and ministry information. We worked with the team to build a live-stream portion of the site, entirely dynamically driven. We built it in ExpressionEngine and the client loves to update it because it’s so easy to use!"

.net: You blogged recently about being tired of work that doesn’t ‘matter’ in the greater scheme of things. How did you come to feel that way?
NS:
That was after the 2011 Brooklyn Beta conference. We heard from speakers like Joel Rose and Todd Park who shared real problems facing the education and healthcare industries in our country. And then we go home to work on some Twitter or Facebook clone. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that useless stuff. I wanted to help solve real problems for real people. I still do.

.net: Have things changed this year?
NS:
Yes, this year we’ve had the chance to team up with the Seventh-Day Adventist organisation as well as Reading is Fundamental. Both are non-profits doing amazing work in their respective industries. It’s refreshing to to use our talents for a greater good, to help these organisations improve their online presence or whatever it may be so that they can continue the work they do helping others.

.net: You’ve also just relocated from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo. What prompted the move?
NS:
In short, family. Life in the Bay Area was hectic. Everyone was chasing the next best thing. On top of that, it was this surreal place to be where companies are bought and sold for billions, but they have zero revenue and contribute nothing to society. I didn’t want my three boys raised in that environment. We moved to a small town on the central coast where people are more interested in each other than they are in the next hot startup. It’s been refreshing.

.net: You’re developing new ways of working remotely. Tell us about the tools you use.
NS:
Since we are all remote, it’s important to try to keep team camaraderie going and at the same time to be efficient in our own workspaces. We utilise a few tools to help make this happen. We use Skype 8 and Campfire for nearly all of our communications. Campfire has a ‘Water Cooler’ room where we can talk about anything and everything – like what the worst album cover is in this week’s new releases on Rdio. When a conversation calls for more than Campfire, we open up Skype and do a video chat.

We use Dropbox to manage our entire file system. We share a folder between the four of us, containing Active, Past and Quoted projects. At any given time, we all have access to any project we’re currently working on, or that we’ve done in the past.

The last tool we use is Git. All of our projects are managed with Git. This allows team members to create branches where they can work on features without interfering with the work anyone else might be doing. It’s a crucial part of our development flow.

"One of our recent favourites: we developed the first version of Gunway, a social network for gun owners. When the team pivoted towards a more Pinterest-style network, we added code, created a new interface and relaunched two months later. Traffic has surged: we’ve helped them hit a sweet spot."

.net: In interviews, you’ve talked about Caterina Fake’s concept, ‘fear of missing out’, and how it’s essentially irrational. What advice would you give to web professionals who find it hard to unplug?
NS:
To unplug effectively, you need to have the right perspective. You need to know that there are people out there that are better than you at what you do. You need to know the world would move on without batting an eye if you stopped Dribbbling, tweeting, Facebooking and so on. To unplug successfully (where you no longer crave that scene) is to realise who you are and what you do. And then go do those things – to the best of your ability. If you do that, people will notice. People will talk. All the attention you seek socially will come to you.

.net: And now that you’re at one with nature, tell us: just how hard is it to bury a goat?
NS:
Oh man. It is hard to bury a goat. Have you ever had to bury a goat? It’s like a four-to-five foot deep hole that you have to dig. You can’t just type git --dig --hole --4 and have your computer do it for you; you need to get a real tool, a shovel, and dig. With your arms. And the entire time, this dead goat is just looking at you. Not really looking, because it’s dead, but you know, it’s still kinda dead-looking at you and you’re digging, sweating, thinking, if I stop now, will this goat fit into here? Because the last thing you want is the dead goat too close to the surface and have some scavenger like a raccoon come and dig it up. Because you know what that means, right? You’d have to dig the hole all over again.
 

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