What it’s Like to be an App Developer

Invariably when someone finds out I make apps for a living and work out of my home, the question comes up: “So what’s it like?” It didn’t used to be that way. Before Apple bestowed its blessing upon the abbreviated term, I didn’t make apps, I developed computer software. If I wanted to hang a lofty title on it, I was a Software Engineer. But no matter how I said it or who I said it to, it used to be that as soon as I told someone what I did for a living their eyes would start shifting about, looking for something (anything!) to provide them with an excuse for a quick exit. The very phrase “computer programmer”  meant they were dealing with a being capable of bringing forth mind-crushing boredom with the utterance of a single pun. It meant they were standing face to face with a… Nerd!

But those There’s an app for that! commercials changed everything. That and the countless media profiles of app developers who made millions in the App Store gold rush. Even though the question is asked out of genuine interest these days, that shifty-eye-looking-for-any-excuse-to-leave thing quickly makes its return as soon as the asker realizes my answer does not involve a dump truck full of money unloading in the backyard pool because that’s the only place that will hold it all.

So with a lack of anything interesting to write for the blog this week, I’m going to bore you to the point of despair  try to give you some insight on what it’s like at the worldwide headquarters of Binary Formations. Last chance to hit the back button on your browser…

Get Up and Get Going

Imagine an alarm clock that chooses what time it goes off in the morning. You never know when it will wake you, only than it will be earlier than you want. It doesn’t have a snooze button and if you don’t get out of bed it will jump on your stomach like it’s a trampoline while repeatedly asking if it can watch cartoons. My alarm clock is my three-year-old son, Adam, and he has relegated the idea of sleeping in to the realm of fantasy. The upshot, if there is such a thing, is that I keep normal business hours.

Ask anyone who works from home about the biggest advantage over going into an office and they will almost always tell you it’s the commute. To get to work I walk down the hallway, hang a right and I’m at the door to my office. Just far enough to make it feel like I’m going somewhere without actually having to stick so much as a toe outside of my house. I’m not going to lie to you or sugarcoat it. My commute is awesome. My deepest apologies if you are stuck in traffic going to and from work each day. Keep reading, it’s not all roses.

It’s when I swing open the office door that I encounter my first obstacle to blissful productivity. Take a close look at this annotated photo of my office:

My Office

As you can see from the photo, in order to make it to my chair in front of the computer I must first pass through the Gauntlet of Distraction. This virtually infinite stretch of faux hardwood (fardwood?) flooring is lined on either side by Fun Things capable of making loud, obnoxious noises known as musical instruments. I like very much to make such noises and so it requires near monastic levels of discipline to make it through the Gauntlet of Distraction and arrive at my office chair  in time to get any work done for the day. Even after successfully completing my journey, the Fun Things beckon relentlessly throughout the day. I’m ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I give in. We all have our weaknesses.

Stay at Home Fashion

Have you ever had one of those days where you stay in your pajamas until well past noon before you even begin to contemplate the idea of taking a shower? Me too, my friend. Every single day and it’s awesome. No bland, “business casual”, khaki-pantsed uniforms. No having to shave each morning. No worrying about ironing my clothes. A bathrobe will do just fine, thank you very much. Or not.

Every now and then I delude myself with the idea that I’m going start to getting dressed as soon as I get up in order to retain a sense of normalcy. This concept rarely lasts until the next morning. After two days, at most, I’m back to my normal abnormal ways.

The part that’s not all roses is coming soon. Promise.

App Store Addiction

Over a decade ago I opened my first online stock trading account. I checked my portfolio so often throughout the day you would have thought I was a day trader, even though my holdings were rather meager. I eventually sold everything off because it turned out that I was terrible at picking stocks (I dumped my Apple shares right as the iPod was taking off because I thought they were focusing too much on what would surely turn out to be a fad that would last a year or two at most). I was happy I was no longer throwing money away and I was also glad to be rid of my addiction to checking my portfolio every hour of the day.

Well that addiction has come roaring back and it has a new name: the App Store (or Mac App Store, as it may be). What’s my app’s overall ranking? How’s it doing in its category? Are there any new reviews? How’s my competition doing? Did Apple put us in a feature again? These questions are always rattling around in my App Store-addicted head. Sometimes I find myself clicking on the Mac App Store icon just minutes after the last time I checked. It’s utterly insane. Seriously, it’s not right. I wonder if there’s a twelve-step program for this.

Fear and Paranoia

Sometimes I let a little bit of fear work its way in and I realize how fragile this situation might be. We have one product, Home Inventory, that brings in most of the money. One single app pays the mortgage and keeps our family fed. Any day a competitor could come along and take our market share from us. Or maybe we take the product in the wrong direction, let a really bad bug slip through, or get a terrible review and sales dry up. Then it’s bye-bye dream job and hello rush-hour traffic and angry boss.

For all I know someone is working on that dream-killer at this very moment. I’ll admit, it’s a big fear of mine and one I can’t afford to be consumed by. But it’s healthy to indulge in from time to time. Fear and the uninvited party guest it brings along with it, paranoia, can be serious motivators. Over the past few months, especially, I have learned to channel these into what I hope will turn out  to be some pretty good ideas that we’ll be bringing out over the course of this year.

The Actual Work Part

One of the best things about running a very small company is that I don’t really have a job description. Or rather, everything is my job description. We don’t have the luxury of having a marketing department or sales department. There is no in-house web designer or graphic artist. With the exception of an accountant we go see when its time to file our tax return, my wife and I pretty much do everything ourselves. While it can get a little nutty trying to juggle so many different tasks, it keeps things interesting and means that each day is completely different.

Take the day I’m writing this post as an example. I spent the morning working on some code for a new application we will debut later this year. This afternoon I plan on reading some documentation on a new technology we will be using, creating some templates for a marketing project my wife is working on, and fixing some bugs that were found during testing of the forthcoming Home Inventory update.

Customer Support

If you’re a smalltime app developer and don’t want your customers to hate you, customer service has to become a way of life. The very first thing I do when I sit down in front of the computer each morning is answer any support emails that may have come in overnight. I continue to answer emails throughout the day and it’s often the last thing I do before I go to bed at night.

I place a high value on responsive customer service, which means that I check my email regularly on weekends and during holidays and vacations. I’ll admit that it can be frustrating and intrusive at times, but I like hearing from our customers. It’s the only way to really find out what you’re doing right and where you’re messing it all up.

Goofing Off

When you have no boss, there is no one to yell at you or fire you for goofing off during the work day. This is where it is very important to love what you do. Fortunately, I really do enjoy my job and on those rare days that I just don’t feel like working, I have a secret weapon: we don’t have cable TV in our home. We don’t have satellite either. That’s right, all we have is over the air television and we get only a handful of channels. About half of them are PBS stations and I am firmly against watching anything educational or informative while goofing off. As compelling as the complete, five-part documentary on the history of the hammer may be for some, I would much rather stay in my office and work than nip downstairs for a little TV.

If you don’t love your job and have the complete-extended-ultra-uber-deluxe channel package all in HD with a DVR, I highly recommend not working from home. Or maybe you should. It’s one way to get rid of that job you don’t love.

Social Interaction

As a natural born computer programmer, I’m genetically predisposed toward awkward social interaction. This can be overcome, somewhat, by being around other people on a regular basis. When you do something often enough, eventually you get better at it. Musicians call this practice.

When you’re working from home, there is no practice. It doesn’t take long before basic conversational conventions, such as small talk, chit chat, and paying attention to what the other person is saying, are completely lost. Conversation devolves into thinking with your mouth open. Throw wide your jaw and whatever you’re thinking at the moment immediately transforms into its audible form and rushes to escape through the big hole that just opened in your face. This inevitably leads to saying awkward and questionably appropriate things at times where actual conversation and a bit of decorum are called for. It can be funny, though.

Eventually I expect my language skills will devolve completely due to lack of use. If, in the future, you send a support request and get back a bunch of gibberish, now you’ll know why — either that or my son is playing on my computer again.

On the plus side, I no longer have to deal with that annoying co-worker that’s always wandering into my office to chit-chat when I have work to do. Of course back when I worked in an office, that annoying co-worker was often me.

Signing Off

One thing you have to be careful of when you work from home is that work is always there. It can stalk you during your free time and, when you least expect it, pounce on you! The next thing you know it’s past midnight and you’re still working. It’s okay to let this happen every now and again, but if you don’t exert tight control over it, you can easily reach a point where work and the rest of your life are indistinguishable.

I know. I’ve been there. The funny thing is, it was at my last ‘real’ job before I went off on my own to do what I’m doing now. Working sixty-plus hour weeks, every single week, for years on end was a miserable existence and management had come to take it for granted that I would do it. Eventually I realized it was stupid to put so much effort into someone else’s dream and I stopped.

Now that I’m living my own dream, you’d think I would be working twelve hour days again, right? Hell no. I love what I do for a living, but I love spending time with my family even more. I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t occasionally sneak in a little work late at night or on a lazy Sunday afternoon, but it doesn’t happen often. One thing that helps keep the work/life balance actually in balance is eating dinner as a family at a regular time. Each and every day at 5:30 I head downstairs to either cook dinner or take care of Adam while my wife cooks. It’s quittin’ time and the work day is done. Time for my wife and I to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

  1. KenHKenH02-13-2012

    Brilliant! Really made me laugh. Empathise totally.