Nope, that’s not the Seattle skyline in the background of that picture. For this week’s Geek of the Week, we’re expanding our horizons to Portland, the home of Avatron and its CEO Dave Howell. The former Apple engineering manager founded the company in 2008 with a team of veteran Mac software developers. Its products include the Air Display app for wirelessly extending a computer desktop to devices including the iPhone and iPad.
Continue reading for Dave’s answers to our questionnaire. And thanks to Aaron Hockley of Hockley Photography for taking the photos for this week’s feature.
Name: Dave Howell
Job, hobby and/or other geeky pursuit: Founder and CEO of Avatron Software
Coolest thing about what you do: I was an independent developer doing contract work for years. But at Avatron, I work with some incredibly talented people. Directing their efforts is like wearing an exoskeleton: it affords superhuman powers. Managing a software team at Apple was like that too, but at Avatron we don’t have a secret management team who won’t tell us what we’re doing.
What does it mean to you to be a geek? In my world, Geekdom is defined by absolute dedication to something. To anything. You can be a Renaissance Fair geek, a jazz geek, a DSP algorithms geek, or a quilting geek. But you have to really care about your topic, and not be ashamed about your passion.
My own Inner Geek is focused both on creating apps and on music. With apps, I’m passionate about designing elegant workflows and polishing the edge cases. With music, I’m really into jazz harmonies and early music.
Geekiest thing(s) you’ve ever done, built, or worn: In college, some friends and I and formed The Dweeb Society, an officially recognized Case Western Reserve University student organization. We did it as a joke, to get a page in the CWRU yearbook. We adopted nerd names like Squeaky Wentworth and Atwood Kent-Thurmon IV, and took some pictures. But then it turned out that it was kind of fun so we did some other things together, like recording “It’s Hip to Be Square” in a karaoke booth in Florida, during spring break. I guess that was all more nerdy than geeky though.
Probably the geekiest thing I’ve done was to write a QuickTime codec that displayed a gray-scale movie as a series of Magic Eye 3D renderings. The gray-scale source had to be constructed such that white was close; black was far away. If you put the result on loop, stared through it, and contorted your vision just so, you could see the 3D version. Not the most useful project I ever embarked on, but the math was sort of fun.
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life: I like to work on a laptop outside of an office environment some times, in my yard or in a coffee shop. But an 11″ MacBook Air has a ludicrously small screen. So I use our Air Display app to turn an iPad into a second monitor. It makes me a lot more productive in those mobile environments. That’s the main reason we wrote Air Display; our whole team has multiple monitors set up, generally a 30″ Cinema and a big newer monitor. Once you get used to that, it’s hard to go back to overlapping all of your windows on a laptop screen.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Oh Mac, definitely. I’ve been programming on a Mac since 1983, when we had a Lisa in the computer lab. I bought my first 128K Mac early in 1984 and have only used Windows for the occasional cross-platform project, and for a brief misguided stint in 1995 porting a 3D game from DOS to the Sony PlayStation.
Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? Bart Simpson, dude.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine. See, if you had a Time Machine you could do anything. The Cloak of Invisibility is for pervs and the Transporter is a disgusting abomination. Seriously, a transporter annihilates your body and you’re supposed to trust its manufacturer to rebuild you correctly? Count me out. How do you call tech support if the machine gets a few key neural connections wrong and recreates you as a vegetable or a gibbering buffoon?
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would …blow it on a company sushi bar and jazz club and then fail to meet some term-sheet covenant and get diluted down to nothing. That’s why I bootstrapped Avatron rather than taking financing.
I once waited in line for … the original Star Wars movie. Several times. Frankly I just didn’t get it the first couple of times. But I was only thirteen.
Your geek role models: Woz, man. As far as I can tell, Steve Wozniak’s geekdom is pure, unfettered by the allure of capitalism. Or even common sense.
Seriously, I don’t really do role models. I don’t have one and don’t want to be one. We’re all human, and we all have our shortcomings. I prefer to aspire to the specific strengths of a variety of people. Herbie Hancock’s limitless creativity and stylistic flexibility. Steve Jobs’s obsessive passion for design. Thelonious Monk’s crazy melodic invention and unpredictable phrasings. Actually, most of the people I admire the most are depicted on Apple’s old Think Different posters.
Greatest Game In History: Beach Volleyball. Sorry, it’s not a computer game. But it’s a sport that by definition is played on a beach, which can’t be a bad thing.
Best Gadget Ever: I want it to be the iRobot’s Roomba. This autonomic vacuum cleaning robot is SO CLOSE to being the ultimate gadget. If only it weren’t quite so stupid about cleaning the same place again and again. But still, it’s a revolutionary invention.
First computer: I learned to program in RSTS BASIC on the PDP 11/40 at University of Toledo when I was about twelve. I started out with a summer programming course. When the course was over I still wanted to play games and write code, but I only had a very limited account that got cleaned out overnight. So I wrote a little app that simulated the login screen. When a real college student would type in his or her user name and password, my app would save it to a file, and then act like it was logging in and crash.
The first computer I owned was a Commodore 64.
Current phone: iPhone, of course! What kind of crazy question is that? Are there others?
Favorite app: Of course I love our apps: Air Display, Air Sharing, and Print Sharing. I also spend a fair amount of time with Words with Friends, Twitter, and the Mail app.
Favorite hangout: Jazz clubs, especially when they’re hosting a jam session.
Favorite cause: The only non-profit I’ve been active in was the Jazz Society of Santa Cruz, which I co-founded in May 2000. But that was less of a cause and more of an excuse to sit in as the house pianist for our weekly jam session.
Now my wife is on the board of Planned Parenthood, so they’re my new favorite cause.
Most important technology of 2011: iOS. Everything that excites me about technology right now is either in iOS, running on iOS, or copied from iOS.
Most important technology of 2015: In 2015 the exciting advancements will still be related to iOS. By then, Avatron will have launched some really great new apps that afford even more productive mobile work. We’re close to releasing the first of these, which will be related to remote access to a home or office computer, and have a rich line-up in the pipeline.
Words of advice for your fellow geeks: If you’re just getting started, do what you love. It’s so much more important than choosing a job that pays well, looks secure, or has a prescribed growth path. “Follow your heart and the money will follow” is trite but true. When I graduated from college I had seven job offers. The best paid one, at AT&T Bell Labs, even offered to put me through grad school at full salary before I started working. But I took the job that paid the least because it captured my imagination and was the best match for my talents and passion. That may have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.
Does someone you know deserves to be Geek of the Week? Send nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.