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Five Questions With A Developer: Steve Streza

Aside from our love of writing down our thoughts for the masses to read and enjoy, there is one thing the team here at CE: The Magazine can say we unanimously enjoy — and possibly couldn’t survive without — the read-it-later app Pocket. In the latest installment of our interview series “Five Minutes With…” we had the opportunity to chat with the Lead Platform Developer for Pocket, Steve Streza, the man leading one of the best development teams around today. We asked Steve a few questions about growing up with technology, what drove him to become a software developer, and where he sees himself ten years from now.

When did you first become interested in technology?

I grew up with technology. My parents got a computer and an AOL connection when Internet access was only beginning to enter the mainstream for the home when I was about five years old, and one for my bedroom around eight or nine. I was fascinated by this box sitting on my desk that you could bend to your will by typing some keys and clicking buttons. An old app for the Mac, ResEdit, let you poke inside the internals of an app and change text and images and even how the app functioned. My mom likes to describe my youth as being a button-presser; I broke a number of remote controls and telephones as a kid because I was always playing with them (and, not being so dexterous, dropping them). I also had a Sega Genesis, Game Boys, and a PlayStation which got a lot of use. I grew up with tech from a very early age, and it stuck with me from the beginning.

Growing up, I was more focused on self-education through technology than I was through formal school-driven education. I usually was able to understand ideas conceptually very quickly, but had a hard time committing the details to memory. Often times I’d get bored and move on to the next topics, leading to poor test scores and missed homework. I’m sure this was partially caused by having access to the world’s knowledge via the Internet, but the school system wasn’t (and still isn’t) set up to handle different students’ paces and information access like that. My self-education set me up to learn the concepts of how the computer works and how to write software for it.

Why did you decide to become a software developer?

After years of tinkering with computers and playing lots of video and computer games, I began to consider writing my own games. In the late 90s, I found an app called GameMaker for the Mac, which let you make choose-your-own-adventure type games with some basic graphics and some scripting. I used this for a few years to make some truly awful computer games, and it was clear I didn’t have the art skills to actually make real games by myself. I began using REALbasic to develop Mac apps. Around this time in the early 2000s, the Mac was making its comeback, Apple’s Cocoa framework in Mac OS X was gaining traction, and Apple was promoting it as a way for one-person indie developers to build really high-quality apps.

The impact on society apps could have was clear to me. For the first time in human history, a single person could create a product that could be distributed via the Internet to millions of people, at effectively no per-unit manufacturing cost. It was obvious the opportunity that lied in software had never existed before, and that opportunity was only going to grow as hardware and Internet access got cheaper, more intuitive, and more accessible. I started focusing on developing apps both in school, at home, and in college.

On top of all that, computers were still pretty difficult to use 10 years ago, compared to what we have today. It came second nature to someone who grew up with them, but I watched many adults ask me for help on how to use them and fix them for years. It was very motivating to be a kid knowing there was a piece of technology that I could master that couldn’t be adequately controlled by adults.

What in technology is most exciting to you right now?

The concept of the ‘Internet of Things‘ is fascinating to me. Even just a few years ago, people owned one or maybe two devices connected to the Internet — the PC. Today, we have a PC, a phone, a tablet, a video game console. In just the next couple years we’ll see connected home appliances like refrigerators, microwaves, laundry machines, lamps, TVs, and other devices — many of these devices already exist but haven’t really been adopted yet. Extending further, it’s conceivable that we’ll see products beyond electronics connected to the network. Stuff like door locks, cabinets, food and office supplies being connected will happen, and probably in the next 10 years.

Having things on the network by itself is interesting, but becomes way more useful when you combine all of these things and get them talking to each other. If your refrigerator can identify the milk carton inside it, it can add it to a shopping cart app on your phone automatically when you run out, or when the milk is set to expire. If you remove the milk after it’s expired, the refrigerator can alert you. The milk itself can have a tag that carries all of this metadata, meaning your phone, your refrigerator, and the milk itself are all talking to each other to improve your life. Extending this further, if someone breaks into your house, your door lock could send you a push notification, your iMac’s camera might turn on and record the thieves, and everything that gets stolen can be tracked as it’s taken out. Without this tech, you’d probably never catch the person responsible or get everything back. With this synthesis of objects working together, you’ve got video of the criminal and an itemized list of all the stolen goods. The possibilities are immense and deeply interesting.

The Internet of Things concept is over a decade old, but it’s starting to finally happen. Hobby hackers are buying Arduinos and similar boards that can connect to a Wi-Fi network, which can be used to build proof-of-concepts for turning things into Internet-connected things. RFID readers and chips are now cheap enough to embed in all kinds of things, and wireless tech is becoming very cheap to integrate. There will be headaches along the way, like the need for more hardened wireless communications and solving privacy issues, but this is coming and it’s going to be very cool.

Which devices and apps are your daily drivers?

I use a 15″ Retina MacBook Pro and an iPhone 5 on a daily basis. I also carry an iPad mini and a PlayStation Vita. Most of my professional work involves development and design, which means I’m using apps like Xcode, Photoshop CS6, Sublime Text 2, and xScope for that kind of work. I used to use more productivity apps on the Mac, but have it mostly pared down to Alfred without much customization. I have many communications tools, including Tweetbot, Wedge or Kiwi for App.net, HipChat, Messages, and Textual for IRC. And I use Spotify for music.

On mobile, my needs are mostly communication, reading, and controlling other devices. For communication, I use Twitterrific, Felix, and Colloquy. When using my phone as a remote control for media, I use Plex (connected to a Mac mini hooked up to my TV) and Apple’s Remote app for the Apple TV. When controlling servers and computers, I use Prompt for SSH and Screens for VNC. For reading, I basically send everything I find to Pocket and read it there.

Ten years from now, do you see yourself working in the same field?

I think so. There are very few fields where one person or a small group of people can have such a huge impact on people. One area I can see is in the area of music, where an artist can publish music on the Internet and gain a massive following. I’d played musical instruments since I was a kid, and have been playing with electronic music tools like Apple’s Logic, Ableton’s Live, and instruments like MIDI keyboards and the Ableton Push. But that feels like it might be more suited to me doing it as a hobby, not as a career. I love software development and the way it can be amplified to improve the lives of millions of people. I’ve been doing it for most of my life.

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