Josh Parmenter is an iOS developer for Vectorform, specializing in mobile and iOS platform, but unlike your typical CS grad, he took a path less traveled to programming.
Parmenter studied Music at UC Berkeley and the University of Washington. He went on to work as a research artist in the UW’s Computer Music and Composition Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media. He continues to compose music and to him, those two worlds are far more intertwined than we might think.
Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading to learn why Parmenter believes music composition and composing code complement each other perfectly.
What do you do, and why do you do it? By day, I am the iOS technical lead for Vectorform in Seattle. In the two-plus years I have been at Vectorform, I have developed games to help teach executives how to better plan for the environmental concerns of the future, utilized tablets as a replacement (and expansion) of traditional teaching and learning materials, and built a social network for little league baseball players. We aren’t the kind of shop that is going to make one product and just repackage it endlessly. Our clients provide work that requires creative design and engineering, and we have a talented team of problem solvers who work on these problems.
That’s where my previous career (and current night job) has been invaluable. Before coming to Vectorform, I was primarily a composer, performer and researcher based at the University of Washington, working in avant-garde interactive electronic music. The whole point of that work was to take what we have now as technology, and figure out how to experiment and create something new and lasting with it. I still compose and perform new works while also finding ways to work new hardware and software into what I do.
Both the work I did at the University, and the work I do now, is work I want to be able to pass on as knowledge that can be built on. I want to be student, practitioner and teacher.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Developers (and designers, etc.) need to be prepared for how much learning this career path continually throws at you. Operating systems, development environments, languages and hardware are all constantly changing, and the people who will be most successful developing for all of this are the ones who love to learn and are constantly searching for new knowledge. In my 20s, I wanted to grow up to be a professor. My dream was that I would eventually get to a point where half my time at the university would be sitting in on classes for subjects I knew nothing about. Now that I am outside the university system, I realize this is not something you have to be in the university to do. It is more about being a person who wants to keep learning, and along with that, teaching that knowledge to those around so that you can all build something new. I think almost anyone can learn to code, but the desire to move with the changes in technology, and the challenge of learning as new things come along, is essential to working well in this field.
Where do you find your inspiration? In both my music work and in programming, I still get the most inspiration from vocal music written before the 1600s, and from writing music in that style as mental exercise. When I am stuck on a problem, I start to write motets or work through counterpoint problems. The process is very organic, and the style encourages you to find new answers in what you have already created. The end result is often much more than the sum of its parts. The practice of creating something in this style is often enough to jog me and get me going again on the technical problems I am trying to solve.”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I want to answer this in a little bit of a different way. I would have to say that as a society, we really can’t continue to grow and exist in the way that we do without paper. Books, print and written notes can be terribly resilient (you can go read the actual Declaration of Independence at the National Archives…think about all the technologies that came together to allow this information to be saved for hundreds of years). I’m terribly concerned about how our modern knowledge and research is stored, relying so heavily on electronic media that could be destroyed with a bad solar flare, or hindered due to a black out. We don’t see our hard drives as the fragile things that they are, yet we rely on these devices for so much.
In the electronic form that I am now typing these words, how will these thoughts be referenced in 2315? Think of the challenge of just running a program from Mac OS 8 at this point, and the technology used to create those programs is less than 20 years old! We have a vast amount of knowledge and progress that could be lost to future generations, and we aren’t really solving this problem. The current solution is a band-aid. Adding more layers of hard drives (in servers or the cloud) that will eventually fail as well.
As a composer, as part of a tradition where scores from 800 years ago (and more) are still referenced, this came into stark reality for me when my cutting edge, state of the art programs that ran in Mac OS 9 would never successfully see the light of day in Mac OS X. Those pieces are basically dead. Beethoven wouldn’t have settled for that. So, how do I keep using computers and technology to make things that are new and experimental, yet ensure they will have a life in the future for others to learn and build off of?
This idea then expands to pretty much everything we do today with computers. From programs to scientific research, how are we going to make sure it survives for centuries? We have come so far with paper, but we still need to discover what will replace it as the next great technology that will pass on our knowledge for hundreds of years.
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Our office space comprises two suites, mostly built out with reclaimed wood from a local high school gym. My standing desk is an old gymnasium floor, and the other desks have been assembled from reclaimed bleachers. It brings a huge amount of character to our space, and still impresses me that people I work with put it all together. We have space to spread out if we need to on the desks, and most of us work off of laptops. We can clear space quickly if we need it. We also have a ping-pong table that sees a lot of competition, and a kegerator that was built by one of the designers in the office. From the custom furniture, to the overall layout, the space was designed for a highly collaborative workspace — an essential part to our projects’ success.
At home I have a small studio with a surround sound playback system, some guitars, amps and my cello. The desk there is also large, with enough space to spread out scores while I’m working on them.
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Play and create. I play with my kids. I play with my wife. We cook together. I play music. I create new music. I create tools to help me create music no one has ever heard before. I perform that music. I perform music others have created. And I try to be part of all those communities. Nothing balances out everyday work like a group of people that you like play and create with. And when you work with people that you like play and create with, it is even better. I’m very lucky in this area; at Vectorform I work with a wonderful group of colleagues who accomplish amazing things, especially considering how compact we are as a team. And we also find ways to connect and share what happens to us day in and day out, at work and outside of it.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? Primarily Mac. And Linux. And Windows. I prefer having a BASH shell that is integrated with the system, but all of these systems are great for programming and artistic creation.
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Picard, because he hangs out with Gandalf.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Cloak of Invisibility. Of course, that would mean that if he who must not be named found the Elder Wand and Resurrection Stone, that he would probably set his sights on me…so I’d definitely not broadcast that I have this cloak. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t handle Voldemort.
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would… Design a backend and client application to help tackle the problems of hunger and homelessness. These aren’t sexy problems to tackle, but that kind of money could be put towards developing a system that municipalities could then leverage to help eliminate food waste and empty housing. When there are so many people in need, it seems like this is a solution that could benefit from what we have learned about with crowd sourcing. A few initiatives like this have made the news lately, and I’d love to see one actually get the money it needs to take off.
OR, I would use my knowledge of digital signal processing to build a noise-reduction filter that identifies and phase-cancels out anything by Kenny G when you are wearing headphones.
I once waited in line for… Pretty much just concert tickets. With everything else, even if it sells out, there will usually be more later. So why waste the time in line?”
Your role models: Max Matthews, the father of computer music, is someone I highly admire. While working for Bell Labs in the 50s, he was given permission to do research into making music with the mainframes he was working on, and was allowed to use the computers at the lab to do this work. He was able to bring composers and musicians in after hours to work on these goals, and as a result, created the earliest computer languages for programming sound and music. Many of the computer music languages out there today (including the one I have helped develop, SuperCollider) belong to the family of languages Max built.
Greatest Game In History: Chess.
Best Gadget Ever: The original Lemur was a big advance in control interfaces for music, and I think the interface and touch controls really informed how musicians have wound up using tablets for music creation.
First Computer: Commodore 64 (a hand me down when the 128 came out!)
Current Phone: iPhone 5s
Favorite App: There are only a couple applications that I tend to recommend to people, but one that I am almost evangelical about is Note Ability Pro for music notation. It is developed by Keith Hamel up in Vancouver, and it probably the best notation program I have ever used. Plus, I can algorithmically create a GUIDO markup notation in the SuperCollider programming language. These files open right up in NoteAbility, and I can get to work making things look the way I want them to. To compose the kind of music I do, I would generally have to trick the mainstream music notation programs to do what I need, but NoteAbility comes at the problem very differently, and gives me results that are the closest I can get to what I would otherwise have to do on paper.
Favorite Cause: Hunger and poverty issues.
Most Important Technology of 2015: With the announcement from Microsoft of HoloLens, I think this is going to be a huge year for virtual reality.
Most Important Technology of 2017: Aqueducts. The United States (and really, the world) needs to start figuring out how to get water around. You can’t create water in virtual reality that will quench your thirst.
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: One thing I used to tell my composition students is that to be a great composer, you have to know as much as you can about everything. Biology, architecture, poetry, physics… everything. And I think this applies to anyone who is doing work that will come into close contact with large audiences. So don’t stop learning about new things. They will change how you think and problem solve. And you get the added bonus of being able to experience all the wonder and beauty that we have created , discovered and are still exploring.
Your Site: realizedsound.net
Your Twitter: @joshpar
LinkedIN: Josh Parmenter