Westword: Tell us a little about your history in app design/programming. Matt Johnson: I've been writing software for the last 12 years. Most of my work has been custom software for corporations, using Microsoft products. Nothing terribly exciting, but it was fun and challenging work to help businesses run more smoothly and efficiently. Then Apple created the iPhone, and I fell in love with programming all over again. So I took a chance and made the switch from PC to Mac and started creating apps for the iPhone.
WW: Why did you decide to start working as an app developer, and when did you know it was what you wanted to do? MJ: I knew I wanted to become an app developer the second I got my first iPhone. There was something about the interface that sang to me. I had been toying with the idea of moving to mobile devices for a few years, but the platforms were immature and the jobs were scarce. But when I got my iPhone, I knew it was a game changer.
Mind you, at that time, the app store didn't exist, and Apple had no plans to provide an SDK (software development kit). Originally, Apple's plan for apps on the iPhone was to have everything run as a web app in their mobile Safari browser. It turns out I wasn't the only developer who was clamoring to create native apps for the device. Scores of developers demanded an SDK. Apple finally saw the light and released their SDK and opened the App Store.
WW: How would you recommend someone get started in your field? MJ: One, If you want to be an app developer "when you grow up," you should focus your studies on programming, mathematics, and a little physics. The most successful apps are games, and knowing your physics will help a lot. It would also be good to take some graphic design classes. The "look" of an app can make it or break it.
Two, read blogs about the industry and stay current on what's going on. Find local Meet Up groups on topics related to the industry. Mobile Monday Meet Up group is a good one, and the Denver Boulder iPhone user's group is another good one.
Three, get the tools and SDKs to create apps and start learning them. They are free, and there is a wealth of resources out there to get you up and running. It's really just a matter of dedicating the time and having fun with it.
Four, download successful apps and play with them. What makes them good? Read the reviews on the app store and see what people are saying about them. Try to emulate them, but don't rip them off. Nobody likes a blatant rip off.
Five, find companies in the area that are creating apps you admire. Ask the app developers to coffee. Most everyone will take an hour out of their day to talk to someone who is interested in learning more about their field. See if any of these companies are a good fit for an internship.
On top of all that, you should enjoy being in front of a computer for at least 8 hours a day. This job can require a lot of hours, especially when you're first getting started.
WW: Can you describe an average day, perhaps both during crunch time and during "off" time? MJ: Off time as an app developer I would say is pretty standard: Email, Facebook, Twitter...Email, Facebook, Twitter, Solitaire. I'm half serious, but if you work for yourself like me, then you really can spend this time doing whatever you want. Really, what you should be doing is "sharpening your saw." This means refining and progressing your skill set. Downtime also is spent dreaming up new ideas for your existing apps, and then prioritizing and planning those new features.
During crunch time, you're typically doing any or all of the following: Designing, writing, testing, or re-writing code. Discussing functionality to come up with the best way to implement it. Fixing bugs. Banging your head on the keyboard because nothing is working. Getting some air and taking a walk to clear your head. Assessing the status of the project.
WW: What's the best part about your job? MJ: Telling people what my job is! Most people perk up with a "Cool!" when I say I create iPhone apps. I can thank Apple for that. They have succeeded in making apps sexy. But seriously, the best part of the job is the excitement of the industry. Four years ago the word "app" really didn't mean much. Now there is an app for just about anything you can think of -- if there isn't one, then give me a call!
WW: What's the worst part? MJ: For me, Apple's governance over app store submissions. When I submit an app, it typically takes Apple 8 to 10 days to look at it. If there is anything they want me to change, I have to make the changes and resubmit, which could take another 8-10 days for them to look at it again. That's a lot of time waiting to get an app out there. Also, if I find something wrong with an app that is already on the App Store, it might take 10 days to get an update approved to fix the problem. That's just too long for users to wait.
WW: How about the biggest misconception? MJ: I think there is a perception that, if you have an idea for an app, then you can just make it, put it out there, and watch the money come rolling in. The reality is that ideas are just that -- ideas. Breathing life into an idea is a lot of hard work. There are a million details that go into an app, which means it takes a million decisions to transform an idea into a published app. Then, once an app is on the store, it's a real challenge to get it known and make a lot of money. There are stories out there like iFart, where the developer sold 100,000 apps in 15 days, but those days are over. That was when the App Store was young, and had only a couple thousand apps. The App Store now has over 200,000 apps, making it a very competitive market.
WW: Anything you're particularly proud or embarrassed of? MJ: I'm proud of the apps that I have created thus far -- Mind Your Money, Group Trivia, and Happy Cakes Bakeshop. They represent my first year as an official app developer.