Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

'Start Me Up' Interview

I was recently interviewed by Start Me Up about my work as a freelance app developer. You can read the full article on their website but I’ve also put their questions and my answers below:

What do you do for work?

I’m a freelance app developer for my own company, Dodo Apps.

In which country are you based?

The UK.

How long have you been doing what you’re doing?

Around 8 years.

How did you make the transition from full-time education to working in your sector?

My degree was in Politics and Philosophy so it shouldn’t have been a straightforward transition into the development industry. However, a few months after graduating, I found an advert for a job on Gumtree, interviewed in London, and then was given the job the day after.

Describe your career progression to date. How did you make progress after getting your foot in the door?

My first job in the industry was as a Junior Developer for a digital agency in London and I worked on website code (HTML, PHP, and JavaScript). Within a few months, I was promoted to Senior Developer and then Development Manager in charge of the entire department due to a combination of constant learning (I read a ton of coding and management books) and people leaving the company. A year or so later, I moved to basically the same job at a different agency but I didn’t enjoy it - too many meetings, not enough actual work!

It was around that time (early-2009) that the App Store was gaining traction and I was starting to tinker with iOS development in my spare time. I made the decision to quit my job and go freelance and I’ve been doing it ever since. The actual step of going freelance was as simple as buying 2 books on app development (which were leaving presents from my previous job) and updating my website where I was already doing a bit of web development freelance on the side. My “big break” happened a few weeks later when Channel 4 asked me to appear on the Gadget Show and build an app for them - I agreed (despite having no clue what I was doing) and that helped me get more hits to my website and pick up some big clients like Sainsburys.

Since leaving full-time education, have you pursued any professional qualifications? Do you need to in order to succeed in your sector?

I’m often keen to go out and get some more qualifications but I don’t need them. My degree is in Politics and Philosophy but I’ve never lost a client because I wasn’t qualified - a good portfolio to show you have the skills is worth more than any qualification.

Describe a typical day in your job.

I work from home, so my day tends to vary massively depending on my mood so I’ll describe the ideal I shoot for.

My wife has to head off to work at around 7am, so we typically get up just after 6am. As soon as she’s gone and I’ve finished clearing up breakfast, I’ll head into my home office and try and get a few development tasks done for my current client before checking email. I’ll typically break at around 9-10am to check email and update my todo list for the day and then I’ll continue on coding until lunchtime.

I like to get out of the house every day and so I’ll usually go for a walk after lunch and then do any non-development tasks that need doing; I tend to be tired in the afternoons so I get easier stuff done like replying to emails, doing my accounts etc - it’s not a good idea to do coding when you’re tired! My wife will get home around 5pm so I typically stop work at 4pm and play on the Xbox for a bit before she gets back.

When I had an online game that I managed (WallaBee), I used to work pretty much every evening and at weekends as most of my players were based in the US. Since I sold that business, I strictly do work from 7am-4pm on weekdays and I rarely check or reply to email outside of those hours. It has been a huge improvement to have that work/life balance back and means I typically get more done in my working hours as I’m refreshed.

What qualities are needed to succeed in your sector?

There are two key things in my opinion; creativity and good time keeping. Developers need to be incredibly logical, but I find that you’ll do better the more creative you are, as you’ll typically find solutions to problems more quickly (and the majority of development work is problem solving). Good time keeping is essential, especially as a freelancer, as you need to be able to accurately say how long something will take so you can get paid fairly but also so you don’t end up with more work than you can actually do.

Do you have any experience interviewing candidates for roles? What do you look for when employing people?

As a Development Manager, I interviewed around 150 people (70 of them for one job). I only look for one thing in an interview; potential. Development is a rapidly evolving business and so the way that things are done can change quickly; I always wanted to hire people who could adapt and that wanted to learn rather than those that looked good on paper but then were stuck doing something a certain way. In 3 years, I don’t think I ever hired someone with a degree in Computer Science for that reason.

What qualifications do people in your sector typically have?

Most people will have a degree in Computer Science (or similar) but I think this is pointless. Most institutions will be teaching something that is already several years old and buy the time you come to get a job the technology will be outdated. I personally prefer to hire interesting people that have a lot of extra-curricular activity on their CV than someone with a degree. The best thing I did at university was to join lots of societies and start learning coding to build their websites; that gave me a portfolio I could get an actual job with.

In terms of app development, more and more people are self-learning and so you don’t need a degree at all, especially if you are going to freelance.

How rigid is the hierarchy in your sector? Is it possible to accelerate your career with hard work and initiative?

Absolutely - my own progression from Junior Developer to Development Manager (in the space of a year) was nothing to do with time at the company or ticking boxes, it was purely based on demonstrating I could do the job.

One of my favourite anecdotes is something I started doing after my promotion to Senior Developer. The kitchen in our office was on the top floor next to the Sales Team and so whenever I’d go and get a cup of tea I’d chat to them and ask how their deals were going. One guy was showing me all his stats and pipeline deals and then stopped and said “wait, you’re not my boss!” - I smiled and said “not yet”.

The point was that after a short period of time, I was able to appear more like a manager and this ended up with me getting a management job relatively quickly. Another important factor was that I used to spend a lot of time reading books about management whilst commuting. This helped as, once I had a team to manage, I already had a lot of systems to put in place to demonstrate I could do the job.

Does your sector allow a healthy lifestyle, with time for family, exercise and relaxation?

It really depends on the company you work for. As a freelancer, I have an awful lot of time as I choose when I work (and if I decide I want the day off, I just do it). When I worked for a company, there was no reason you couldn’t do all of these things but I had a fairly long commute which limited my free time.

Does your job involve travel? If so, list some of the places you’ve visited.

It can do although I prefer not to do too much; I rarely meet my clients in person as I find that working in their office or travelling for meetings is a waste of my time. Most of my current clients are based in the US which is great as then I only have to do the occasional Skype call - my favourites are the ones that I just speak with via email.

That said, I have travelled to Norway, Sweden, and Spain in order to meet with clients or do presentations at conferences. There is a lot of potential for travel in the industry especially to the US.

How do you regard earning potential in your sector, relative to other sectors that require similar levels of expertise? Are people in your industry underpaid, overpaid, or fairly paid?

I think most people in my industry are overpaid. It’s very easy to drag a project out for a very very long time and get paid a large daily rate, especially when working for a large client. I had a lucrative contract with a big brand that was being paid at £500 per day and after 3 days of nothing but meetings I quit. They hired someone else and after 8 months they released an app that was utterly terrible and would take a developer around 1 week to build. Nice work if you can get it, but it’s not for me, which is why I won’t take on a project longer than 2 months.

Describe the outlook for your sector? Is it growing or struggling?

There’s actually two sides to it, depending on if you are working for a client or building your own apps. If you are doing client work, business is booming; everybody wants an app at the moment and so there are plenty of contracts available. However, if you want to build your own apps, it’s incredibly difficult to get recognised and very hard to charge the right price so you can recoup your development costs. It can be a real struggle.

Have you had a mentor? If so, explain how you’ve benefited.

Nope.

List any books that have influenced your career.

I started off doing app development thanks to the Apress series of development books - they were excellent at the time but I feel you’d be better off using online tutorials nowadays. Getting Things Done was a big influence for me in time management and my fairly ruthless approach to dealing with clients can be traced back to The Prince by Machiavelli, one of my favourite philosophy books.

List any online articles or videos that have influenced your career.

I don’t think I have any, apart from my own blog which seems a bit egotistical even for me.

What are your “go to” websites for news and information on your sector?

I follow a lot of websites via RSS. I’d say my top ones are Daring Fireball, 9to5Mac, MacRumors, and MacStories. I tend to get a general feel for the sector via Twitter, either in the few other developers that I follow or from people messaging me about interesting stuff.

One piece of advice for someone seeking to break into your sector?

Ignore everyone and do what excites you. There is no point in getting into an industry if you’re not passionate about it - if you are adaptable and willing to learn, you’ll succeed. Also, don’t use a recruiter (they’re awful) - apply for a position directly and demonstrate a lot of knowledge about the business.

Thoughts on ringtones » « The Divide #11 - 3D Printing